September 25, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
A while back I heard an old Jewish witticism in which someone asks his rabbi, “Why do rabbis always answer a question with another question?” to which the rabbi replied, “Why shouldn’t a rabbi answer a question with another question?”
So also in Matthew 21: Jesus side-steps the question of the Pharisees as to the source of his authority by asking them a related question about John the Baptist. Jesus and John were not only cousins but they were also similar in that each had appeared from out of nowhere and performed a ministry that meant a great deal to a lot of people. So Jesus says, “Let’s back up one step to my predecessor John: if you can tell me where his authority came from, then I’ll tell you where mine comes from.”
Jesus asks this knowing full well that the answer to both questions was the same. Neither John nor Jesus had any human authority. Neither had gone to seminary, neither had been licensed or ordained. If either John or Jesus had any true authority to claim, it had to be from God directly.
But that’s just where Jesus had them: it was a well-known fact that the chief priests had despised John the Baptist. John had, after all, called them names, placed them on a par with everyone else who came out into the desert to see him. Credentials, advanced theological degrees, and their Sanhedrin “Members Only” gold card cut no ice with John nor, John said, did it matter to God. If even the Pharisees wanted to be saved, they had to submit to John’s baptism of repentance the same as everyone else.
They didn’t of course, but a lot of other folks did because they believed John really was a God-sent prophet. So the chief priests were quite neatly stuck. If they said that God himself had authorized John, they would be revealed as opposing God in that they opposed John. Then again, if they said that John had no real authority from anyone, John’s admirers would get mad. Being cowards at heart, they didn’t want to have anyone upset with them and so say to Jesus, “We don’t know.” Since they didn’t live up to their end of this verbal bargain, Jesus then says, “Well, then I’m not going to tell you about my authority, either.”
On one level, it appears that Jesus is merely being cheeky. On a deeper level, though, Jesus is simply recognizing that there is very little sense in talking to people who are so closed-minded. They were not really seeking information. Their minds were made up about Jesus long before they asked their sly question.
Even at that, however, Jesus doesn’t drop the conversation. He goes on with a little parable. We have one father and two sons. When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, “Forget it, Pop! I’ve got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!” But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man’s conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way!” The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard.
“Which son would you rather have?” Jesus asks. “Who really did what his father wanted?” The answer is obvious, so the chief priests give it, but the meaning of it all was a little less clear, so Jesus spells it out for them. John the Baptist really had come from God and, as such, he really did tell people what God wanted them to do. The people who looked like lowlifes and spiritual losers–the folks who had, by all outward appearances, said “No” to God–they ended up coming around to God’s message after all. They admitted their sins, let John baptize them, and so did what God wanted in the end.
But there were others in Israel who had for so long been saying “Yes” to God outwardly yet ultimately didn’t follow through. They looked like fine and upstanding sons of God. They dressed right. Said all the right things. Made all the right promises. But when push came to shove (as surely it did when John the Baptist confronted everyone with his fiery message of repentance), these same folks turned away from God. Their former “Yes” was undercut by their having said “No” at what turned out to be the pivotal point in God’s plan of salvation.
Not all parables are allegories, of course, at least not in the sense that you can (or even should) try to line up each parabolic character with a real-life person. Sometimes you can even ruin a parable by over-interpreting it. In this case, however, the parable lends itself to an allegorical reading.
But I wonder if there isn’t a deeper meaning beyond just identifying who is who. After all, when precisely was it that the tax collectors and prostitutes and others said “No” to God? Wasn’t it more the case that they had never had a chance to answer God one way or the other precisely because the religious authorities never even addressed them? Because furthermore, although we can quite well understand that the Pharisees had said “Yes” to God, what exactly was it that they had agreed to do but then didn’t end up doing?
After all, from the outside looking in, it surely looked like the chief priests were following through on their “Yes” to God. Who followed the law better than they did? Who did more acts of piety and more stringently avoided sin than the Pharisees? How could Jesus compare them to the son who said “Yes” but then didn’t follow through? The entire existence of these folks looked like one giant effort at following through. Yet Jesus seems to indicate that when it came right down to it, they were missing something so fundamental that it was apropos to compare them to the duplicitous son who said all the right things but who finally failed to do what his father wanted.
How so? Because, I would suggest, they missed the core of God: grace. All throughout the Bible, including the New Testament, Israel is often compared to a vineyard. So in this parable, I suspect that when we hear the father asking his sons to work in the vineyard, it is the equivalent of asking people to do good work among the people of Israel, whoever they were. That’s where the chief priests failed. Think about it: why did it take an outsider like John the Baptist to issue a kingdom invitation to marginalized folks? John did it first, but then Jesus himself continued giving this invitation in his own ministry. Jesus was always hanging out with what the chief priests considered “the wrong crowd.” Indeed, the very fact that Jesus associated with “sinners” counted against Jesus’ being on God’s side.
But first John and then Jesus reached out to these lost, wayward, sorry souls and they did so because until then, no one else had reached out to them. What John essentially said and what Jesus went on to confirm is that it was precisely those people who constituted the vineyard in whose midst holy work was to be done. If you ignored those folks, wrote them off as hopeless and so not worth the Temple’s time, then it was the equivalent of telling God you would work in his vineyard but then never doing it. Because vineyard work is grace work; it is compassionate and merciful work. Vineyard work is not about focusing on yourself and other upstanding, good folks like you.
No, vineyard work was always supposed to be first and foremost about others, starting with the folks you feel the most tempted to overlook (if not outright condemn). The reason John and Jesus found so many people who were hungry for the message of salvation by grace is because no one else had been proclaiming that message. The Pharisees actually avoided these people. God, they thought, likes only certain types of folks, and so if a given person did not appear to be in that likeable category to begin with, then the duty of the devout was to steer well clear of such a greasy character. But John declared that God wanted exactly those fringe folks. We all get into the kingdom the same way: by the grace of baptism.
What’s more, if you really understand that your own salvation depends on that gift of grace, you are only too happy to share this good news with anyone who will listen. You won’t wait for other people to clean up their acts and become more buttoned-down like you before you share the good news. You won’t wait for anything before getting out into that vineyard of needy people so as to minister to them however you can.
When you say “Yes” to God the Father, Jesus claims, you are simultaneously saying “Yes” to the least, last, lost, and lonely people God holds dear. So if you say “Yes” to God but then focus only on your own piety or on other people who are already just as religious as you are, then you are essentially being like the son who said all the right things when Daddy asked but who turned right around and did nothing that the father really wanted.
Two notes on the text: First, The New American Standard Bible reverses the order in the Parable of the Two Sons. In the accepted Greek text (as reflected in most translations like the NIV and NRSV), the first son says “No” to his father but then does the work anyway and the second son says “Yes” but never goes to the vineyard. The NASB, however, based its translation on another Greek manuscript and so, based on that, reverses the order found in places like the NIV. The point of the parable is the same but if a preacher were not aware of the switch (and found him- or herself in a church that uses the NASB in their worship services), it could lead to confusion!
A second textual point ties in with a verb in verse 31 where Jesus indicated that the tax collectors and prostitutes were entering the kingdom of God “ahead of you,” referring to the religious leaders. Commentator Dale Bruner believes that this is an example of a form of argument called meiosis by which the upshot here is that these other people will enter the kingdom of God not just first but rather they would enter the kingdom instead of the religious leaders and others of their ilk. The Greek verb there is prosagousin. So does Jesus indicate that the leaders would never get into the kingdom or is there hope held out here that they would/could do so, albeit only after these others? Is this an extension of Matthew 20:16 of “The first shall be last and the last first”? Calvin Theological Seminary New Testament Professor Emeritus Dean Deppe comments on this as follows:
The common meaning of the verb in verse 31 is “to go ahead” of someone, not necessarily “to go instead of.” This is brought out in Matthew at 14:22 where the disciples go ahead of Jesus across the sea. He does join them later, walking on the sea. Or in 21:9 the crowds go ahead of Jesus into Jerusalem with him then following them. Or in 26:32 Jesus will go ahead of them into Galilee. They will join him later.
But the context of Mt. 21-23 does need to be held in mind. In Mt. 21-23 Matthew is demonstrating that God did not forsake his people, Israel, even though the Jewish leadership has not accepted Jesus’ claims. Instead the Jewish leaders forsook God by not receiving the servants that God sent. Psalm 118 is placed at the beginning, middle, and end of this section as proof from Scripture. Jesus shows that he is the rejected stone of Ps. 118:22-23 so that the expected Messiah needs to be seen as a suffering, rejected Son of David. So there is an “instead of” idea in the passage. But it is not that Gentiles replace Jews. It is those who believe in God’s messengers and produce fruit (both Jews and Gentiles) that replace unbelieving Israel.
So in summary, the verb in Matthew 21:31 does mean “to go before,” but for those who do not repent, accept Jesus’ ministry, and produce fruit, it becomes “go instead.” Still the invitation to be gathered like a hen gathers her chicks remains as well. God has not rejected his true people.
Some while back I read an article by a pastor who had grown frustrated with something his parishioners often said to him. When people got into a difficult stretch of life, sometimes they would drop out of church completely. The pastor would, of course, call on them to see why they had disappeared from the fellowship but so often the answer he would receive went something along the lines of, “Well, pastor, as soon as I get this mess all straightened out in my life, then I’ll come back to church.” But, this pastor wrote, that is a little like saying, “My stomach ulcer is real critical just now but I’m thinking it might calm down and as soon as it gets better, I’ll check into the hospital.”
That’s a backward way to think but I would suggest we turn this analogy in a slightly different direction: because if it is wrong to avoid church when we find ourselves in a bad situation, it is equally wrong to say that we aren’t going to minister to people outside the church until they have first pretty much been cured of whatever has been ailing them spiritually. But that changes the church from a hospital (where sick people should be able to come) into a Club Med where only the already healthy are welcome.
That was the problem Jesus was targeting in Matthew 21: Jesus came to remind everyone that as bearers of spiritual healing, the first task God’s people must do is to stay with the sick (and with even the chronically ill, with those who struggle repeatedly with sin and temptation). The problem was that the chief priests and others had long since made their religious inner circle into a kind of “Members Only” club–a place that did not tolerate the messiness of people who did not keep the rules as neatly as the Pharisees could do.
Author: Doug Bratt
As my colleague Scott Hoezee noted in his September 22, 2014 Sermon Starter on this text, a piece to which I’m deeply indebted for several of this piece’s ideas, at first glance this may seem like just another story of Israelite bellyaching to Moses about dragging them out of Egypt. It seems to reveal nothing new about Israel’s trip from slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the land of promise.
After all, as you might expect of people traveling through a wilderness without McDonalds or rest areas, Genesis 17’s Israelites are again thirsty. At Marah’s earlier campsite, they had at least found water, though God had to miraculously transform it to make it potable.
However, at our text’s mysterious place called Rephidim, Israel doesn’t even find bitter water. As a result, not surprisingly, the Israelites quarrel with Moses. In fact, our text tells us not once, but twice that they loudly blame him for their quandary.
Now, of course, Israel has already spent spend much time grumbling against Moses. This time, however, Moses recognizes that her complaints have taken a potentially deadly turn.
So he pleads for God’s advice because he senses that Israel is becoming so desperate that she may try to kill him. In almost the same breath, however, Moses also tries to put the angry Israelites’ thirst into some kind of perspective. “Why do you quarrel with me?” he turns from God toward them to ask in verse 2. “Why do you put the Lord to the test?”
Exodus 15:25 reports that God tested Israel at Marah. God promised that if she obediently listened to God’s voice, God would protect her from the diseases with which God had devastated Egypt.
Now, however, Israel puts the Lord to the test. At Massah and Meribah, after all, the Israelites again ignore God’s voice. What’s more, the Israelites don’t listen to Moses’ voice either. They blame the Lord, with Moses, for dragging them into the wilderness to kill them, their children and their livestock.
By persistently complaining to Moses and the Lord, Israel pointedly ignores God’s commands and decrees. By failing this test, Israel again shows that she deserves to have God strike her with the kinds of diseases with which God struck Egypt.
God, however, again proves to be patiently gracious. God doesn’t, after all, just refrain from punishing Israel. The Lord also gives her enhanced life and, on top of that, spares Moses’ endangered life.
The Lord tells Moses to take his staff and walk with some elders ahead of the rest of the people. Of course, Moses’ staffs are seldom ordinary. Earlier God had asked Moses, “what’s that in your hand” when Moses resisted his call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. God had also asked him to throw his staff to the ground. God had then turned that staff into a snake that Moses fled. God finally told Moses to pick up that snake which, when he did, God turned back into a staff again.
Moses’ staff is perhaps also, however, the one with which he struck the Nile. God used that rod to turn the great river to blood, killing all of its fish and turning it into a stinking stream of death.
At Massah and Meribah, however, Moses’ staff is an instrument not of punishment or death, but of life. God precedes Moses in order to stand by the rock of Horeb, what we know of as Mount Sinai. When Moses, in the presence of the witnessing elders, strikes that rock, the Lord sends life-giving water gushing out of it.
The name Moses gives this place is a reminder of Israelite sinfulness. He calls it “Massah and Meribah,” because the Israelites had quarreled and tested the Lord there. Yet it’s also the place God graciously provides water for his contentious people who doubt his presence with them.
We could apply much of what we said about last Sunday’s text to this one. But the biblical scholar Terrence Fretheim (Exodus: John Knox Press) helps us to see a new element in this story. It springs from just one little, perhaps barely noticeable, word in verse 6 of our text: “Horeb.”
The rock of Horeb on which the Lord stands and from which live-giving water flows refers is in an area at the foot of Mount Sinai. Horeb is, moreover, the place where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. It’s also the place to which God also promised Moses would return, with the liberated Israelites in tow. However, Horeb, or Mount Sinai as we more commonly know it, is also the place from which God will give God’s law, the Ten Commandments. So it’s the place from which God repeatedly reveals himself to his people.
Yet Horeb is also the place where the amnesic Israelites want to know if the Lord is among them. So to show them God’s among them, even in the dangerous wilderness, God again gives them life-giving water.
In the not too distant future, however, God will also show Israel that God’s with her by giving her his law at Horeb. So just as the water that gushes out of Horeb graciously gives the Israelites life, the law that will “flow from” Horeb will also be, in one sense, a source of life for them.
Now, of course, people would have to keep it perfectly in order to have eternal life by keeping that law. We’d have to obey every law every last second of our lives, by what we do, say and even think. God’s people know full well we don’t do that; we, in fact, can’t do that. You and I don’t earn eternal life by keeping the law because we break it constantly.
Yet most North Americans would say that you can’t get any kind of life by obeying the law. When, after all, is the last time anyone prayed, “O Lord, if you really love me, show me by sending me some rules to follow”?
No, most of us pray, in one form or another, “O Lord, if you love me, send me a nice spouse, well-adjusted kids and a good job. And, if you really love me, while you’re at it, send me a fine house, some enjoyable vacations and a hefty retirement income.”
When God’s adopted sons and daughters think of signs of God’s love, of sources of life, we usually think of Jesus Christ and material blessings. We seldom see God’s law as something that really helps us to live. Rules may keep us in line, but true blessings from God are good things and people.
Eventually Israel, at her best, comes to see God’s law as a great gift from the Lord. She comes to recognize that God’s law is a good guide as how to live life in ways that not only honor God, but also bless her.
Now, of course, as Hoezee also notes, sometimes we base our laws on the way people agree things should be. The law that is the speed limit on many highways is 55 or 60 miles per house. Many state laws also say that people under the age of 21 may not buy alcohol.
Sometimes, however, the law describes not the way things should be, but the way they are. When physicists talk about the First Law of Thermodynamics, for instance, they’re not talking about the way they’d like things to work, but the way they do work.
People don’t get to decide whether or not to approve such a law. A vote can’t change such a law. If you walk off the edge of a cliff, the law of gravity accurately dictates that you’ll fall, whether you like it or not.
God’s law is something like the law of gravity. It doesn’t describe the way God wants life to work, but the way God knows it works. So the Lord doesn’t give the Lord’s law because the Lord wants to be a buzzkill. God gives God’s law because God knows that following that law is best for us, it gives us life.
So, for instance, our culture tries to convince us that all religions are equally good. It doesn’t matter what we call our god, society tells us, as long as we respect each other’s religions and are devoted to our own.
God, however, calls people to worship God alone. Yet the Lord doesn’t call God’s people to worship only the Lord because the Lord wants people to be as intolerant as the Lord is. No, God calls you and me to worship God alone because God is the only living God.
God knows that true life comes not from practicing just any religion, but from worshiping the living God as God reveals himself to us in Jesus Christ. Life, after all, comes not just through material blessings like the water that flowed from the rock, but also from gratefully obeying God’s whole law.
Maybe this analogy will help us to see the law as a gift of life. What if I were to buy an expensive new car without ever consulting its owner’s manual? I might quickly destroy that car. After all, even if I figured out how to insert the key in its ignition, I might turn it so long I’d destroy the starter. I might make an “x” instead of an “h” out of the stick shift, reducing my transmission to smoking rubble.
Without consulting its owner’s manual, I might simply drive the car without adding any gasoline until I ran out along the side of the road. I might never add any oil, again reducing my car to a smoking heap of worthless metal.
You and I might prefer to operate a car in the way we choose. But we follow the instructions in a car’s owner’s manual because we understand that the people who put the car together know how best to operate it.
In a similar way, even God’s people naturally prefer to live the way we choose. Yet we follow God’s law as God reveals it to us in the Bible because he created us. The Lord knows what’s the best way for all of God’s creatures, including people, to live. God’s law reflects what’s best for us, what brings us true life.
Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16
Author: Stan Mast
When I read Psalm 78, I can’t help but think about my Sunday School experience years ago. Before we would go off to our separate age-appropriate classes, the whole motley crew of us would gather in the sanctuary for a time of singing. It was my favorite part of Sunday School. And I think it was the most important part, because the singing of our faith made it a part of our lives in an almost visceral way. No wonder believers with dementia can still sing the old songs when memories of almost everything else has faded into fog.
What does any of that have to do with Psalm 78? Well, it was intended to be instruction for the children of Israel. The word maskil in the superscription probably means “instruction,” and the first 4 verses are explicitly about teaching children. Further, the fact that it was composed or perhaps conducted by Asaph suggests that this Psalm was intended to be part of worship, and probably sung. Asaph is identified elsewhere in Scripture as a Levitical choir director. So, it is not a stretch to read Psalm 78 as a song of instruction designed to make the story of God’s ways with Israel a deep part of their children’s lives. When I read this Psalm, I find myself humming that old Sunday School song, “I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.”
Of course, Psalm 78 isn’t about things above and it isn’t directly about Jesus, though the story of Jesus is the fulfillment of the story told in Psalm 78. The story told by this Psalm is much older than the story of Jesus and his love, and this story is much harder to love given its frequent references to God’s fierce anger toward his people. Indeed, Psalm 78 may feel so ancient and angry that modern listeners won’t even listen to a sermon on it. That would be a shame because it is a major Psalm (the second longest in the Psalter) and its sung story is intensely relevant for our fractured, God forgetting culture.
You might help your people pay attention to Psalm 78 by painting a picture of the historical situation in which it was first sung. Some scholars plausibly see hints that it was composed at the time of the divided kingdom, perhaps after the Northern Kingdom had been taken away into exile. The references to Ephraim, the major tribe in the North, and to the fall of the shrine at Shiloh are among those hints.
The northern tribes had fallen because they had forgotten God and drifted off to the idols of their pagan neighbors. Judah was hanging on yet, but in danger of doing the same things her brothers and sisters had done up north. So, Psalm 78 was written for a nation divided and in danger of forgetting the God in whom they said they trusted. If you paint that picture vividly enough, your people might see a parallel to their own contemporary cultural situation.
The lectionary reading for today covers only a fragment of this epic historical Psalm. Verses 1-4 set the scene in Sunday School and verses 12-16 give an extremely brief summary of the main point of the story—God’s miraculous intervention in Israel’s life. The intervening verses continue the point about instructing the children (verses 5-7) and introduce the counter theme about the fathers who not only neglected such instruction, but also forgot about God entirely (verses 8-11). The rest of the Psalm consists of two major stanzas about Israel’s sin and God’s responses (verses 17-39 and verses 40-64). Then there is a concluding stanza about the election of Judah and the selection of David as king.
A sermon on the lectionary reading should emphasize three things. First, Psalm 78 is very direct about our responsibility to teach our children. The instructor here addresses parents, reminding them of what their parents had taught them and urging them to pass on to their children what they had learned. There must be an intergenerational connectivity in the church. Today there is much talk about the various generations that compose our culture—the greatest generation, the Baby Boomers, the Baby Busters, the Gen-Xers, the millennials, and generations yet to be named. It is assumed that these generations have their own stories, songs, passions, interests, and worries. Generation gaps are presumably everywhere. While not denying this cultural phenomenon, Psalm 78 calls us to stay connected by telling the story from generation to generation.
The teacher here uses a couple of interesting words to describe the content of his teaching. “I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter hidden things, things from of old….” “Parables” is the Hebrew mashal, which means comparisons. Think of Jesus’ parables in which he said, “The Kingdom of God is like….” In Psalm 78 there are two such comparisons. In urging Judah to stay faithful in the instruction of their children, the Psalmist gives two examples from Israel’s history of people who did not do that: “like their forefathers… whose spirits were not faithful to him (verse 8)” and “the men of Ephraim… [who] forgot what he had done (verse 9).” Those historical examples of faithlessness are parables for the faithful remnant.
But the casual observer might not see the parables in history; they would be hidden from those who are uninstructed. Thus, says the teacher, “I will utter hidden things, things from of old….” “Hidden things” is the Hebrew hidot, a word often used in wisdom literature. Only those instructed by the older generation will be wise enough to infer the lessons hidden in the history of their people. So, if we don’t want our children to miss the deep hidden lessons of the past, we must instruct them carefully.
Second, a sermon on Psalm 78 should clearly identify the message we must teach our children: “the praiseworthy deeds of Yahweh, his power, and the wonders he has done (verse 4).” Verse 12 uses a word that summarizes the message: “He did miracles in the sight of their fathers….” That is the heart of biblical religion, whether the Jewish foundation or the Christian completion. God has acted in mighty, often miraculous ways in human history for the sake of his frequently unfaithful covenant people.
The Christian faith is not primarily a philosophical system, a set of ideas that are true, though it certainly leads to that. Nor is it essentially an ethical code, a set of rules about right living, though it clearly teaches such a code. It is centrally the belief that God acts in human history for the salvation of his people. Note that the subject of all the verbs in verses 12-16 is God. Even when his people forget his covenant (verse 10), God does not. And his remembering always leads to his action.
Preaching on the mighty acts of God must be honest, as Psalm 78 is. Sometimes the God who loves us with an everlasting love gets very angry with the sins of his disobedient children. Psalm 78 has ferocious descriptions of what God did to the Israelites when they forgot and wandered away from him. There are consequences for disobedience. That’s part of the story that must be told, even if we would rather skip it as the Lectionary does today.
God cares about obedience. Indeed, that is the practical point of the instruction parents must give their children. Verse 7 concludes that proper instruction will lead to obedience. “Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.” Note carefully that this does not teach works righteousness. It is the Lord who saves by his mighty acts, by his miraculous intervention in our sinful lives. It is ours to trust him. And if we trust him, we will keep his commands. The source of our disobedience, indeed, the center of all sin, is forgetting the God who is part of our lives. When we remember and rely on him, obedience follows naturally. At least that is what we can hope for. It is certainly what God intends when he saves and even disciplines his sinful children.
Third, a sermon on Psalm 78 must emphasize and end with grace and, particularly, with Jesus. With all the warnings about God’s anger against sin and all the instructions to live by his commands, it might be easy to underemphasize grace. In spite of Israel’s repeated sin of forgetting their faithful covenant God and in spite of his anger (cf. verses 59-64), God always, eventually showed his amazing grace. “Yet he was merciful; he forgave their iniquities and did not destroy them. Time after time he restrained his anger and did not stir up his full wrath (verse 38).”
Thus, the long story of God and his people ends in Psalm 78 with the gift of David, “the shepherd of his people [who] shepherded them with integrity of heart; with skillful hands he led them.” With that happy ending we are pointed ahead to the Son of David, the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for his flock. As James Luther Mays puts it in his commentary on Psalm 78. “The last word is the triumph of grace. The people fail, but the failure of the people is not the failure of God. God prevails against faithlessness.” That’s the story we must tell our children. “I love to tell the story of Jesus and his love.”
In a recent issue of First Things, Aaron Kheriaty writes an article titled “Dying of Despair.” It is about the alarming rise of suicide among young people. As many as 17 % of high school students have contemplated suicide, said a recent study, and far too many have actually tried to kill themselves. There are many causes for this “epidemic of premature deaths,” says Kheriaty, but at the root of it all is despair. At the heart of these “deaths of despair” is a loss of meaning and hope. Contributing to this loss of meaning and hope are the breakdown of family and the decline in religious commitment.
As he comments on these societal changes, Kheriaty writes something that connects directly with the story at the heart of Psalm 78. “Sociologists have documented the close connection between the retreat from marriage and declining religious participation…. As a consequence of these changes many Americans have ‘lost the narratives of their lives.’” Psalm 78 is an ancient call to God’s people to preserve and pass on the narrative that gives meaning and hope to people in a fragmented and God forgetting culture. For the sake of our children and our culture, let’s keep telling the story of Jesus and his love, including the introduction to that story in Psalm 78.
Author: Scott Hoezee
I have heard a certain story several times, each time involving different people so I have no idea if it ever really happened to anyone or not. But one version of it that I heard was from the old “Tonight Show” starring Johnny Carson. The famous singer Frank Sinatra was a guest and in the middle of his interview, the comedian Don Rickles made an unexpected visit to the set. After much banter, Sinatra told an allegedly true story that years before Rickles had seen Sinatra at a New York City restaurant. So he went up to him and said, “Frank, listen, I’m on a date with a lady over there and I’d like to impress her. So in a while, could you stop by the table and say ‘Hello, Don, how are you doing?’” Sinatra said he agreed and after finishing his after-dinner espresso walked over to the table. “Hi, Don, good to see you.” At this Rickles looked up and said, “Can’t you see we’re trying to have dinner here, Frank, stop interrupting would ya!”
Humor aside, here is a vignette of pride. It’s great to impress people that we know someone famous but better still is to ratchet ourselves above even THAT person by being brusque with them. It is no accident that the images typically associated with pride have to do with height: the proud are said to look down their noses at others, are said to always be riding their high horse, are said to have a lofty opinion of themselves and a soaring ego. The proud need to be on the top of all heaps.
The great irony and beauty of the Christian faith is the gospel truth that the one Being in the universe who really is more exalted, more lofty, and more powerful than anyone is the same Being who, far from using his lofty position as a platform for pride, once upon a time stooped lower than low so as humbly to save us from our sinful pride.
Indeed, it appears that already in the earliest days of the Christian church, believers were captivated by the spectacle of God’s Son becoming a human being. Americans have long been inspired by Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories of the common man making it big. America, we say with great pride, is the place where you really can rise up from the poverty of a log cabin to become an Abraham Lincoln, where one guy with a computer idea can turn into Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.
But the earliest Christians knew that the greatest story ever told is not a rags-to-riches tale but the universe’s premiere riches-to-rags story. The evidence that this is among the oldest and dearest themes of Christianity can be seen in Philippians 2.
Paul begins in verse 1 with what could be construed as a kind of tongue-in-cheek shaming of the Philippians. Note these understatements: “If Jesus means anything to you, if his love for you strikes you as being important, if it should happen to be the case that you find the Holy Spirit living in your hearts, if you can find so much as an ounce of compassion somewhere inside you, why then why don’t y’all try to be unified in humility!”
But no sooner does Paul address this topic and he is reminded of what most scholars believe is one of the earliest songs that was ever sung in the Christian church. Instead of simply saying “Be like Jesus,” as he does in verse 5, Paul decides in verse 6 to start singing in the hope that his readers will join in on a song they probably already knew quite well.
In the end Paul hopes that this mutual chorus will movingly drive home for the Philippians the central spectacle of the Christian faith the way only music can. It is a subtle way for Paul to trap the Philippians in their own words. “You sing this all the time,” Paul says, “so isn’t it high time to start living such humility in your communal life together!?”
More than an effective rhetorical technique, however, the hymn Paul quotes in Philippians 2 has also proven to be a rich source for reflection on Jesus’ incarnation, even spawning its own branch of Christology known as “Kenosis.” Some Bible translations have in verse 7 “He made himself nothing.” But the original Greek there actually says, “He emptied himself.” Since the Greek verb for “to empty” is the word kenoo, a lot of theologians now refer to Jesus’ being born a human as his “kenosis.”
As Philippians 2 helps us to see, Jesus had to give up a lot in order to join us on this fallen planet. At minimum he had to give up the glories and splendors of heaven in favor of a world of indigestion, stubbed toes, dirty fingernails, and backaches. But he may also have needed to give up certain other perks and powers of divinity for a little while in order to be truly human. He had to restrain his power, restrict his location to just one place at a time (instead of being omnipresent), give in to his body by eating when he got hungry and laying down for a nap when he got tired.
“He made himself nothing,” the apostle Paul sings. He not only was no longer living in exalted heights, he even ended up dying the worst, most public of all deaths: crucifixion. And he did it all out of a humble love of astonishing proportions. “If you want to get the hang of the incarnation,” C.S. Lewis once wrote, “just imagine how you’d feel if you woke up one morning to discover you had turned into a garden slug.”
And it is in the face of all this that Paul says to the Philippians, “OK, got the picture? Good, now go and be like that!” Few challenges could be greater. Of course, the reason the challenge is so great is precisely because the Devil knows that pride is the dead opposite of God. So item #1 on his list of things to do every day is to tempt us with pride.
Pride is forever driving us to amass as much power for ourselves as we can and then flaunting it so that we can see in other people’s eyes flickers of respect, awe, maybe even fear. But not so for you, Paul sings out. Because we follow the universe’s most powerful being ever and yet this God does not use his superior power to inspire dread or fear. No, God inspires our love by willingly setting aside his power. Humility may well be the core Christian virtue around which most all other virtues cluster.
Because at base true humility is simple honesty. William Law used to talk about “the reasonableness of humility.” What he meant is that humility is simply a sane, sober, honest recognition that we’re all pretty much the same. We all have things we do well and things we do not do so well; we all have gifts in some areas but not in others. Humility is simply the rational recognition of these common-sense facts. Pride, on the other hand, is irrational–it’s insane to think you’re the center of the universe, crazy to believe that you could get along just fine without other people. It’s sick to think that everyone should pay attention to you in a way that you yourself never pay attention to others.
Humility makes you celebrate the fact that we all need each other. And when that is your basic attitude toward other people, you will be naturally inclined to lend them a hand in service if they need help or just to lend them your love during ordinary times when they’re doing their work. Because, you see, humility connects us to others even as pride isolates us.
Kennedy biographer Nigel Hamilton says that Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of the Kennedy clan, was such a proud and arrogant man that he would banish from his home any guest–including the friends of his children–whom he felt did not give him enough attention or confirmation of his views. The result, according to Hamilton, is that after a while only the obsequious and the boring and the shy were permitted in the Kennedy compound, thus depriving the family, including the future president, of the kinds of contacts that could have broadened their horizons and challenged their thinking.
Again, pride isolates whereas humility connects. Pride is interested in the self at the expense of others whereas humility is interested in others at the expense of self. Pride seeks glory for itself but rarely gets it as the truly proud collapse in on themselves, finally resulting in a little wad of ego. Humility is always extending itself toward God and others in a life of service that finally results not in a dense wad of ego but in a gloriously extended self, open toward others like a flower in full bloom and so, as with Jesus, is glorious for all to see.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest shock of the hymn in Philippians 2 is the idea that after his emptied-out life and death of service, the Son of God somehow managed to arrive at a higher point of exaltation than what he had enjoyed before he became human! But if you were God to begin with, how could you ever get higher or more exalted than that?! Philippians 2 says that it is possible because now not only is Jesus God but he is the acclaimed Lord of lords. Humility is finally so powerful that it can enhance the life of even God himself!! Humility, Paul is saying, can and has changed both God and the world.
The story is told among Jews of a rabbi who always signed his letters with the words, “From one who is truly humble.” One day someone asked how a humble person could ever say such a thing about himself. A friend of the rabbi’s replied that the rabbi had in fact become so humble that he no longer even realized it was a virtue–it had simply become his life. Describing himself as humble seemed to him as innocent as saying he had brown eyes.
“If Jesus means anything to you, if his Spirit is in you and his compassion occupies even the smallest corner of your heart, then make humility your life,” Paul writes. Let that central movement of God in salvation–the move away from power and toward humble service–become so much a part of your life as to be nearly a reflex.