Introducing the Readings for Mid-Summer 2014
Introducing the Psalms
The Psalms are the Bible's model prayers. About half of them are written by the famous king David, as well known as a musician and worshipper as he was as a warrior and giant-slayer. There's a psalm for almost every occasion we're likely to experience in life. In the Psalms, we find beautiful songs of praise, testimonies to God's goodness, pleas for help, and questions asked when things don't work out as they're supposed to. The Psalms are really meant to be prayed-sung even-rather than just read. I find that I get the most out of them when I adopt them as my own, praying them as my own prayers. I tend to pray them verbatim-doing so aloud and with gusto whenever possible seems to improve the experience immensely-but I know other people who use them as jumping off points into further prayer in their own words. You might even want to try occasionally reading a psalm aloud together with someone else. Take turns reading stanzas aloud. At the end of the psalm-or in the middle of longer psalms-you could jump off-book to pray further about the ways the psalm connects to your own current life circumstances.
If you're like me, praying two common types of psalms might initially make you a bit uncomfortable:
Extravagant claims of righteousness-occasionally, I find myself gulping when, aloud and with gusto, I end up praying something like, 'I have led a blameless life; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered' (Psalm 26:1). I wonder if the proverbial lightning will strike me down. Despite the fears of divine punishment, a few things have kept me praying these absurd boasts:
First of all, I've noticed that my praying of these psalms take on a tone of aspiration: it makes me want to be the kind of person who can pray those things without blushing. That seems like a pretty good result to me.
Secondly, I get the feeling that the psalmist doesn't mean that he has never made any mistakes. I think what he's saying is that he has never abandoned God. That's still a pretty gutsy thing to say, but it's not quite a claim to perfection. While the 'not faltering' thing still kind of trips me up, I think I can honestly say that ever since I met God I've taken my relationship with God seriously.
Thirdly, I have a growing suspicion that these extravagant claims to righteousness have less to do with my moral report card, as it were, and more to do with how God sees me. I noticed that sometimes in the same psalm the author will ask for God's forgiveness and will make one of these audacious claims to utter blamelessness. Once he's confessed and been forgiven, it's as if he never even took a mis-step. Perhaps these psalms are saying that, because of God's goodness, we can be certain that God likes us, sees the best in us, and wants the best for us. If that's the case-and I'm beginning to believe it is-then we can pray those crazy things with confidence and excitement.
Calls for violent retribution-some of the psalms seem like they're more suited to a Quentin Tarantino movie than to the Bible. While I sometimes still find myself a little squeamish at the sheer bloodthirstiness of some of these 'crush my enemy' psalms, I've been surprised to find them among the most helpful psalms to pray, for a few reasons:
They help me prepare for the difficulties of the day-if I start the day with one of these psalms, it reminds me that not everything is going to go my way. I can prepare myself, and ask for God's help in facing the difficulties that are sure to come;
It's a faithful and non-violent way to vent-it's extremely liberating to unabashedly express just how I feel about the people who treat me poorly and unfairly. But in the end, it's harmless. I'm expressing it to God, not letting it leak out in my interactions with people. I express my anger and my desire for revenge; then I leave it in God's hands to protect me and to vindicate me when appropriate. Once I've expressed my feelings and left action in God's hands, I can much more easily let it go;
I primarily focus the prayers on my true enemies-the New Testament author Paul tells us that our real enemies aren't other people, but destructive spiritual forces whose entire purpose is to do us harm (Ephesians 6:12). I have no problem praying that these enemies die a gruesome death.
Introducing Numbers and Deuteronomy
Numbers and Deuteronomy are two of the five books of Moses. Moses was God's agent in rescuing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and leading them to the new land God was going to give them. Numbers and Deuteronomy tell us the part of the story after the Israelites have escaped the Egyptians but before they enter the Promised Land.
As you might guess from the title, Numbers involves a lot of counting; the results of more than one census and the receipts from various offerings are listed for us in great detail. So, Numbers is the place to go if you want to know how many people were in the Gershonite clan, or how much the typical golden incense bowl weighed (ten shekels, by the way). Numbers also contains several collections of laws, mostly having to do with instituting national holidays and establishing patterns of worship. But it also tells the story of the Israelites wandering in the desert, after God has rescued them from slavery in Egypt but before they reach the Promised Land. That's the part of the book we'll focus on.
If I were to give a title to the narrative sections of Numbers it would be 'Second Thoughts.' Now that they've left Egypt behind, the Israelites begin to wonder if that was really the best idea. Is Moses really the right leader for us?', 'Can God really provide for us?', and 'Do we like God's plans?' are all questions that continually come up. Now that they have a new life of freedom, the Israelites discover that it's a little frightening; and they often look back wistfully at the comfortable predictability of their slavery.
It's easy for me to be critical of the Israelites. Their fantasies about the wonders of their previous lives as Egyptian slaves are often laughable, and their short memories regarding God's miraculous provision can be downright frustrating. So, it's easy to look down on them. And yet, if I step back for a moment, I recognize that I'm not all that different from them: I certainly have a tendency toward the-grass-is-greener thinking; I have a hard time waiting patiently; and it doesn't take much for me to begin complaining about how unfair life is. Paul, the author of many of the New Testament's letters, tells us that the story in Numbers was written down so that we could learn from the Israelites' example and avoid their mistakes. Seeing as the cost of their mistakes was that many of them died in the desert, never making it to the Promised Land, it seems like a lesson worth paying attention to.
So, if we're going to make the most of reading Numbers, it seems like it's going to take ridding ourselves of any feelings of superiority and instead asking a few humble questions:
How am I just like the Israelites in the desert?
What good things might I be missing because of that?
And what would it take for me to root those things out of my life?
During this phase of our reading schedules, we pick up the book of Numbers toward the end of the book and focus on the fascinating story of Balaam. Balaam is a non-Israelite prophet who nonetheless is able to communicate with the God of the Israelites. Despite his genuine ability to hear from God, he seems to be something of a religious charlatan, or at least a hired gun. In this story, some of the Israelites' enemies hire him to place a curse on the Israelites.
Deuteronomy is basically Moses' farewell address. He is quite an old man; he has outlived his entire generation, but now he is about to die himself. The Israelites are poised to enter the Promised Land, but God has let them know that it will be Joshua (Moses' protégé) who will lead them there, not Moses. Before he dies, Moses gives a long speech in which he reminds this new generation of the entire history of their parents' generation and gives his final advice on what they can learn from that history. We'll just read the introduction and conclusion of the speech; since much of the body of the speech is a rehearsal of things many of us just read from Exodus and Numbers.
After Deuteronomy, we'll move on to Joshua, which continues the story from Deuteronomy as Joshua takes up leadership after Moses' death. Joshua is the story of how the Israelites, after forty years of wandering around the desert, finally enter into the Promised Land. You'll notice that in our reading we skip from chapter ten to chapter twenty-three. Chapters eleven and twelve are a summary list of the kings Joshua defeats and the cities he conquers, and chapters thirteen through twenty-two list out in detail how the land is parceled out among the Israelites. We'll skip those parts (at least in our reading together) and just read the narrative portions.
From the fact that I mention a long list of kings defeated by Joshua, you might gather that the land God promises to the Israelites isn't vacant. In fact, it's rather heavily populated by this group called the Canaanites and other associated tribes (the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, among others). The Israelites have to fight for the land. They are commanded by God to drive many of these people out and to completely destroy others of them. God-endorsed war and killing on such a large scale is, to put it mildly, quite disturbing to our modern sensibilities. While it certainly doesn't remove all of my discomfort, it does help me to know that God's decision to destroy these people or take away their homes is not sudden or arbitrary. Apparently, God has had a long-standing relationship with these people in which they have taken a particularly hardened stance against him. God doesn't take away their land out of convenience, or simply because he likes the Israelites better. It's a conscious act of judgment, done after long consideration rather than in sudden anger (Genesis 15: 16). Like I said, I still find such complete judgment of an entire nation unsettling; but it's at least helpful to know that God had his reasons, that he gave advance warning of the consequences of rejecting him, and that he showed a lot of patience before moving forward.
It's also interesting to note that God's judgment of the Canaanites is not absolute. One of the feature stories of Joshua is the story of Rahab. She's a Canaanite prostitute who decides to take sides with the Israelites in their war against the Canaanites. Not only is she rescued from the destruction of her city, but she is adopted into the Israelites, and ends up being an ancestor of such Bible bigwigs as King David and Jesus. Rahab ends up being mentioned by one of the New Testament writers as one of our top examples of someone who lived by faith (Hebrews 11: 31). Rahab's story makes me wonder if, even at this point, God was more willing to show mercy to the Canaanites than the Canaanites were to receive that mercy.
When Joshua dies, there is no single leader to replace him as he replaced Moses. And in some ways, much of the time, it doesn't even seem like such a strong leader is necessary. It's a quiet period in the history of the Israelites. Each tribe, each clan, each family settles down to the simple domestic task of enjoying the new land in which they have found themselves. However, there's a danger in this peacefulness. One word that Moses and Joshua each repeated often was, 'Remember.' Again and again, they encouraged the Israelites to pass on to future generations the story of how God had rescued them from the Egyptians, provided for them in the desert, and led them into the Promised Land. Moses and Joshua continually reminded the Israelites that it wasn't by their own strength or effort, but by trusting in God's goodness and power, that the Israelites found themselves so abundantly provided for. In the period of quiet and plenty following Joshua, the people do indeed forget. They become complacent. And when they become complacent, they find themselves at the mercy of marauders and oppressors. The 'Judges' are people raised up by God to rescue the Israelites whenever they get into trouble. They're a fascinating group of people, and I think we'll find the stories quite enjoyable. We'll also have the chance to learn much about remembering, about mercy, about God's willingness to entrust even very flawed people with incredible gifts and responsibilities, and about just how much can be accomplished by people who trust in the goodness and power of a living God.
Our New Testament readings for this part of our schedule start in the middle of the book of Romans. Romans is a letter from Paul, one of the church's early leaders, to the church in Rome. Paul was the person primarily responsible for spreading Jesus' message beyond the Jewish populations in or near Judea. He was especially instrumental in starting churches in what are now Turkey and Greece.
Most of Paul's letters were written to churches he himself founded, but this letter to the Romans is instead a letter of introduction to a place where he's never been. Apparently, from his list of greetings at the end of the book, Paul has several friends who have over time made their way to Rome. But he himself has not been there and is somewhat unknown to most of the church. He is planning a visit, but before he arrives he feels the need to write this letter to lay out his beliefs about Jesus; apparently, some alarming misunderstandings of Paul's message have reached the Romans.
In Romans, Paul pays a lot of attention to addressing what was a pretty major area of concern for the early church: the place of Judaism in following Jesus. As increasing numbers of non-Jews (often called 'gentiles' in the Bible-gentile is an Anglicization of the Greek for 'the nations') became followers of Jesus, it brought up the question of what their relationship to Judaism was supposed to be. Did Gentiles need to become Jews to be followers of Jesus? If not, what relevance did the Old Testament have for these Gentile Jesus-followers? And if non-Jews could become followers of Jesus, what did that mean about God's previously unique relationship with the Jews? It was a surprisingly thorny issue because it involved issues of culture, deep theology about the goodness of God and the reliability of his promises, and very practical questions of everyday living. While the specific issue of non-Jews following Jesus is certainly less of a big deal nowadays, the big questions behind the issue-of culture, dealing with difference, how rules help us and hurt us, and the nature of God's promises-all still seem pretty relevant. During this particular part of the reading schedule, we pick up Paul's rather complicated argument about Jews and Gentiles in the middle. If you're just starting the reading schedule, you might need to give it a little time to get into the swing of the letter, or you could catch yourself up by looking back at the first five chapters.
As we read these passages, it's helpful to keep in mind that we are, in fact, reading someone else's letters. Paul didn't know that we'd be reading these letters. Because he has a specific audience in mind, Paul can make some pretty solid assumptions about things that they already know; so, there are many things Paul doesn't bother to say. Instead, he uses the letters to address specific occasions, questions, or concerns. Since we're only reading Paul's half of what were probably exchanges of correspondence, we need to do a little bit of inference to figure out the situation or question to which Paul is responding. It's sort of like overhearing one half of a phone conversation; it can sometimes be a little confusing or mysterious, but with a little work you can mostly get a pretty good idea of what the other people have said based on Paul's responses to them.
In applying the lessons of this letter to our lives, it's helpful to continually keep in mind that Paul is writing to specific groups of people with specific questions and concerns. It's not always possible or beneficial to apply Paul's instructions without some interpretation. Our culture and our concerns can be quite different from those of the ancient Romans. In the effort to figure out how I can make use of Paul's advice to someone else, I find a good sequence of questions is,
What problem or question is Paul addressing?
What is his answer to his audience?
What's the general principle behind his answer?
Are there circumstances in my life where that principle would apply?
What would it look like for me to take Paul's advice?
Particularly when Paul is saying something confusing, troubling, or even offensive to me-often because of cultural differences between Paul and me-I find it extremely helpful to toss around this list of questions with a friend, or a group of friends, to see if together we can find out what value Paul's advice has for us.
Acts is the story of what happens to and through Jesus' followers after his death. It's the sequel to the gospel of Luke, written-no big surprise-by Luke, a traveling companion and teammate of Paul, the writer of Romans. One interesting feature of Acts is that it may well have been originally intended for publication-it contains the acknowledgement of a patron, and it's written to be just about exactly the length of mass-produced scrolls
It's a gripping story, full of stirring speeches, dramatic action, plot twists, and amazing miracles. The book of Acts is written to explain how a small group of people in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire ended up starting a movement that spread throughout that entire empire and to Rome itself within a generation. Luke didn't experience it himself, but he probably wouldn't be surprised to discover that eventually the good news of Jesus spread throughout the entire world.
The book of Acts attributes this quick spread of Jesus' message to an entirely new experience in the history of humanity: the widespread pouring out of the Holy Spirit-the very essence of God-on people who hear that message. This arrival of the Holy Spirit gives people a whole new access to the presence and power of a living and active God. As we read Acts, it may be worth it for us to focus on the Holy Spirit. What is it like to be filled with the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do? How is life with the Holy Spirit different?
Introducing the Gospel of Matthew
Our gospel readings start in the middle of the Gospel of Matthew; we pick up the story as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem for what turns out to be the final week before his crucifixion. Matthew, also known as Levi, was one of Jesus' twelve apostles. Before becoming a follower of Jesus, Matthew was a collector of taxes for the Romans. It's hard for us to understand just how unpopular that would have made him: first of all, he was collecting taxes; secondly, it was taxes for an unpopular foreign government; and thirdly, tax collectors at the time were famously corrupt. Perhaps the closest thing we have nowadays is a mobster running a protection racket. So, Matthew goes from being completely outside of 'decent society,' to being one of the closest disciples of the new rabbi Jesus, to writing one of Jesus' biographies.
Matthew uses the earlier and shorter Gospel of Mark as a sort of outline for his story: the plot of the gospel of Matthew follows Mark very closely, and often they even have very similar wording for a story. But Matthew then supplements Mark's story with significant additions. Matthew includes a far greater amount of Jesus' teaching, and-interestingly for someone who would have spent much of his life on the outs with his fellow Jews-places a particular emphasis on Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies. Matthew, like Mark, places a lot of attention on the theme of the kingdom of God (although Matthew calls it 'the kingdom of heaven,' following the Jewish tradition of avoiding as much as possible using the word 'God'). Whereas Mark demonstrates the kingdom of God through Jesus' actions, Matthew illustrates the kingdom of heaven through Jesus' teaching, and particularly his parables.
Since Matthew places so much emphasis on Jesus' teaching and on the idea of the kingdom of heaven, perhaps a good way to get the most of reading Matthew would be to focus on two different sets of questions:
What kind of life does Jesus recommend in his teachings? Is this an attractive life? What would it take to follow these teachings?
What does Matthew mean by the kingdom of heaven? What picture of this kingdom does he develop over the course of his story? What would it be like to be a citizen of this kingdom?
Even in this conclusion to Matthew's story, there's still plenty for us to learn about Matthew's understanding of Jesus' kingdom.
Introducing the Gospel According to John
The book of John is the last of the four gospels. Authorship is traditionally credited to John, one of Jesus' twelve closest followers, known as the apostles (the 'sent ones'). He refers to himself in the gospel as 'the disciple Jesus loved.' This is probably both a mark of humility-n ot wanting to refer to himself by name-and of the deep affection that he felt from Jesus and for Jesus. The book is dated at 70 AD which means that it was written later in John's life, about 30 years after Jesus died and later than the other three gospels.
John's perspective on the life of Jesus is notably different from those of the other three gospels (called the 'synoptic'-Greek for 'seen together'-gospels). There are some differences in the timeline of events, for example the duration of Jesus' ministry, the overlapping of his ministry with John the Baptist, and the number of trips he made to Jerusalem. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, but in John, Jesus identifies himself for arrest. Only John contains the stories of turning water to wine at a wedding and the resurrection of Lazarus. John's gospel contains more monologue and dialogue from Jesus with fewer miracles. The miracles he performs in John are perceived less as demonstrations of power and more as signs of things to come; in other words, the symbolic meaning of the miracles is given more prominence in John's gospels than in the others.
The gospel of John's differences with the synoptic gospels raises several questions. Is John mistaken on some points? Can we reconcile the differences? I think of it in the same way that two different writers can write a biography of the same person, ending up with two different but complementary stories. For example, if Franklin Delano Roosevelt's wife Eleanor were to write a biography of FDR, she might focus on his family life during the World War II and the Great Depression. His activity as the 32nd president of the United States would certainly play a role in that, but perhaps not as much as if Harry Truman (his last vice president and 33rd president) was writing the biography. Truman would probably take a much more politically-oriented approach to FDR's life and leave out most of the details of his family.
John's close friendship with Jesus gives us a very special perspective of Jesus. More than the other gospels, we see a Jesus that loves deeply and encourages everyone to love each other as well. We also see that Jesus stresses the value of something called 'eternal life' and that it can be experienced right now. Jesus also communicates the true nature of his miracle-they are signs of good things to come and proof of his divine nature.
As you read John, take note of the unusual way in which he dialogues with. He speaks of being 'born again' in a way that is disturbing to Nicodemus. He calls himself the 'living bread' and he offers a Samaritan woman 'living water', both of which he says give eternal life. Why do you think Jesus seems to be intentionally confusing in his dialogue? What do you find appealing or troubling about Jesus' view of eternal life?