October 23, 2017
Author: Scott Hoezee
Back to the beginning.
That might be a good way to understand this passage in Matthew 22. Because in a couple of ways, these verses hark back to how Matthew began Jesus’ story in this Gospel.
First there is the genealogy in Matthew 1. In that “family tree” of Jesus Matthew inserts something into the otherwise regular pattern of “So-and-so was the father of so-and-so, who was the father of so-and-so . . .” Matthew inserts what some have called “a holy irregularity” when at the very end of the genealogy he does not list Joseph as “the father of Jesus” but instead tells us that Joseph was “Mary’s husband.”
Tucked inside that little genealogical irregularity is an explosive theological truth: Matthew is telling us that although Jesus has a distinct lineage in the line of David, he was and is finally more than his ancestry could produce. Jesus may have been the grandson and the great-grandson and the great-great-great . . . –grandson of all those people but in the end he surpassed them all, too. He was more than David’s son. He was the Son of God, he was Yahweh in flesh, he was the Lord of all lords and the King of all kings.
Matthew told us this right off the bat. And now as the public ministry of Jesus comes in for its bumpy landing on the road to Golgotha, Jesus himself circles back to this. He asks the Pharisees a question as to the lineage of the Messiah. They claim the Messiah is David’s son, to which Jesus then replies that if he was only David’s son, then why would David himself have shown him the deference of calling him his very Lord?
We are told that no one could give a word of reply, but the reason for this silence was not because they did not know the answer. They just did not much like the answer. The answer is that the true Messiah is more than his ancestry could produce because the true Messiah was God himself. And as commentator Dale Bruner points out, if that is true, then that means that the answers Jesus had just given to the clever questions of the Pharisees and the Sadducees was no less than the Word of God himself and their opposition to that Word—and to the Word made flesh, while we’re at it—pointed to the fact that these folks were on the wrong side of history.
Jesus did not make many very overt claims to being divine or to being the Messiah. But for those with eyes to see and with ears to hear, he did so here.
Second, commentator Dale Bruner thinks that Matthew 22 contributes to a kind of frame around the ministry of Jesus as Matthew has presented it. Jesus’ ministry began when he faced three temptations from Satan in the wilderness. Now, as Jesus is only a day or two away from being arrested and killed, the ministry concludes with three other tests that come in the form of three questions.
They bookend Jesus’ public ministry.
The Pharisees first ask about paying taxes to Caesar, hoping to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman IRS in case Jesus comes out and says something treasonous. They strike out with that question, and so next the Sadducees come up with a clever question about marriage in heaven. Jesus neatly sidesteps also this trap. So then it’s the Pharisees’ turn again and so they ask him about the Law of God. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment?”
It’s an innocent-looking question but really it is a stealth attempt to make Jesus look like a theological liberal. If Jesus picked out any of the Bible’s commandments and elevated it to the status of #1, that would imply that he was treating everything else as second-class. If you are the father of five children and one of them asks you who your favorite kid is, a wise father says, “I love you all the same.” No good parent wants any child to feel like he or she plays second fiddle to the other siblings.
So also here: if they can trick Jesus into picking a favorite commandment, he’ll be guilty of downplaying other commandments. But since every commandment represents the very word of God, picking and choosing among them would be heretical.
By way of analogy: Imagine your congregation’s reaction if some Sunday you informed them that although you really enjoy Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Gospel of John just doesn’t do much for you! When it comes to God’s Word, we’re not supposed to play favorites. God’s Word is God’s Word. Period!
Jesus knows what is going on. An easy way to get off this hook would have been for Jesus to say, “Every Word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord is great. Each commandment is great.” That would have been an effective way out of this, a theological version of the “I love you all the same” answer a wise parent might give to the question of which child is the parent’s favorite. But instead Jesus begins to quote a Bible verse, and at first the Pharisees maybe thought they had him. They didn’t. Because Jesus says that love of God is the greatest of all commandments.
After all, if you don’t love God, you won’t be much inclined to keep any commandment. If, however, you do love God, then the rest follows naturally. And just to make the point, Jesus throws in the second commandment about neighbor- love. Between these two loves, Jesus manages to catch every single commandment you could ever name. Every commandment in the book has something to do with either God or neighbor.
But Jesus’ reply was actually more clever than even that. Because in Jewish circles the single most famous verse is the so-called Shema from Deuteronomy 6. “Shema” is the Hebrew word for “hear” or “listen” and it comes from that verse, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The Shema was traditionally recited by every Jewish child and adult at the start of each day and at the conclusion of each day. In other words, there was no single verse from the entire Torah that the average Jew knew better than this one.
So when Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ tricky question by quoting a portion of the Shema, he was throwing back in their faces something they took to be exceedingly basic, something that was second-nature to even the youngest Jewish child. It reminds you of the time Karl Barth is said to have been asked what he thought was the most profound of all theological truths. But instead of giving some jargon-laden, academic answer that used words like perichoresis, kenosis, or the insuperable transcendence of God’s prevenient grace as it comes through the vicarious supererogation of the Son, Barth simply said, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
That answer was charming and disarming. Barth said, “The greatest truth is the one you already know, the one all Christians know, the one a three-year old can sing about.” In Jesus’ case, he was slyly insulting the Pharisees, demonstrating to everyone there that the Pharisees were not really interested in seeing if Jesus could answer their question since even the youngest person there knew that answer already. This was not a difficult question. It was like asking Albert Einstein, “Do you know what 2+2 is?” This was basic, elementary.
And in this case Jesus makes it clear that just asking that question makes the ones posing the question look like the ignorant and foolish ones.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that some textual scholars of the Psalms have many doubts whether the various psalms attributed to David were really written by King David, including Psalm 110 that Jesus here quotes. Theologically, however, it’s probably not vital whether or not David wrote Psalm 110. In the tradition it was attributed to him and that was more than enough warrant for Jesus to make his point about the way in which the Messiah—a Son of David—was nonetheless superior to David (and/or to any other figure in the line of David or any other human leader in Israel ever).
An additional textual point: the original Hebrew of Psalm 110 does have “Yahweh” first and then adonai second in the line “The Lord (Yahweh) said to my Lord (adonai . . .). This would have been obscured in the Hebrew reading of Psalm 110 (devout Hebrews would not have spoken the word “Yahweh” but would have inserted the vocalization of adonai) but it is obscured a bit in the Greek as well where the text of Matthew 22 uses kyrios both times. But it is important to remember that this is the Great I Am of Israel elevating the Messiah to a place superior to David or anyone else on earth.
Matthew’s version of this encounter with the Pharisees shows Jesus subtly changing the original version of the Shema. The Shema of Deuteronomy 6 asks us to love God with all our heart, soul, and strength. Jesus alters it to heart, soul, and mind, and surely the Pharisees and everyone else there noticed the change. As Neal Plantinga once observed, if some night at bedtime your child prayed, “Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my brain to keep,” well, you’d notice!
It’s difficult to say why Jesus made this substitution. It may well tie in with a key theme of Matthew’s Gospel: namely, that knowledge is important. We have to UNDERSTAND that Jesus is the Messiah and even if he ends up looking different than the tradition had come to expect, he is the One. This is also why, all through Matthew, the disciples come off as more with it than they generally do in, say, Mark’s Gospel. Whereas Mark is content to leave the disciples in a befuddled state any number of times, Matthew’s versions of those same stories often throw in “Then the disciples understood that Jesus meant . . . .” So throwing in “mind” to the traditional Shema formula fits Matthew’s larger purpose.
But specifically here in Matthew 22, Jesus’ mention of “mind” was also was a none-too-subtle rebuke of the Pharisees. They were good at using their minds to do legalistic hair-splitting of all kinds. They had just now focused their mental faculties on coming up with clever questions with which to trip Jesus up. Maybe this was Jesus’ way of telling them that being tricky was not the reason God had given them brains in the first place! We are supposed to honor God in how we think and reason just as surely in how well we live in terms of other areas of morality. God, in short, has something to do with everything. Or at least God should.
Author: Doug Bratt
Few of us can read Deuteronomy 34 without getting at least a lump in our throat and tear in our eye. After all, Moses has dragged the Israelites, often kicking and screaming, out of Egypt, through the wilderness and to the doorstep of Canaan. Yet this Sunday’s Old Testament text reports that he never gets to put even one toe in that land of promise.
Verse 10 says, “the Lord knew [Moses] face to face.” Yet the site of Israel’s leader’s grave indicates that something is wrong between this peerless prophet and the Lord who knew him so intimately. Deuteronomy 3:25 says Moses begged the Lord to let him go over and see what he called “the good land beyond the Jordan.” Israel’s leader pleaded with God, in other words, to enter and die in the land of promise.
God, however, only lets Moses see the land he’ll never actually enter. So Israel’s greatest prophet doesn’t get to share in the fulfillment of God’s promise to which he had dedicated much of his adult life. That means that Moses doesn’t even get to do what some of his ancestors got to do. After all, even cheating Jacob got to live in Canaan for a while. What’s more, men like Abraham and Joseph at least got to enter the land of promise after they died.
Earlier, Moses complained of failing health: “I am now a hundred and twenty years old and I am no longer able to lead you” (Deuteronomy 31:2). Yet while he outlived about three generations of Israelites, Deuteronomy 34:7 insists that both his eyesight and health are still very good when he finally dies on Canaan’s doorstep.
There seem to be two main reasons for relatively healthy Moses’ death outside of the land of promise. First, as Moses repeatedly tells Israel in places like Deuteronomy 1:37, “because of” Israel, “the Lord became angry with” him as well. Though Moses too was often the victim of it, God appears to hold him at least partly responsible for the rebellions that filled Israel’s life in the wilderness. Moses has stood between Israel and God, speaking for Israel to God and for God to Israel. His life, then, in a sense, has been a place where Israel’s rebellion and God’s judgment have met.
Yet God also punishes Moses for his own sin. At the waters of Meribah, after all, he disobeyed the Lord by striking instead of speaking to the rock as God had commanded him. As a result, God told him, “You will not bring this community into the land I give them.” The Lord later echoes this by telling Moses, in Deuteronomy 32:50, “on the mountain you have climbed you will die . . . because . . . you broke faith with me in the presence of the Israelites at the waters of Meribah.”
The verb we translate there as “broke faith” is one the Bible’s original language uses to describe adultery. So it’s a reminder that Moses broke his covenant with God by being unfaithful to God by striking instead of speaking to Meribah’s rock. Moses’ sin suggests he assumed that it wasn’t enough just to speak to the rock at Meribah. Moses believed he also he to strike it twice. On other occasions, of course, God had commanded Moses to use his staff to accomplish various signs and wonders. But for Israel’s leader to do this at Meribah at least implies that he’d begun to assume that his staff itself had some kind of power.
At Meribah Moses had had the chance to show Israel just how holy God is by simply speaking to the rock and letting God send water gushing out of it. By striking it instead, Israel’s leader perhaps at least implied to Israel that he was somehow responsible for that water.
So after giving Israel a very moving blessing, Moses does, in fact, climb Mount Nebo. You can almost see him trudge up that mountain, heavy with disappointment, but likely excited to see what his ancestors had all long longed to see. At the summit God stretches out a sight that must have deeply moved Moses. God shows Israel’s leader “the whole land” of Canaan. From the top of Mount Nebo Moses finally gets to see the land flowing with milk and honey that God had promised his ancestors and him but he’ll never enter. So I sometimes wonder if his good eyes well up with tears of both gratitude to God and some sadness at not getting to receive for what he’d worked so long.
Of course, as biblical scholars point out, no height exists from which Moses could actually see all the territory that God had promised Israel. We sense, then, that God has already begun to lift up Israel’s leader from this world for him to even be able to see all of Canaan.
While Moses has faithlessly disobeyed the Lord, the Lord has not abandoned him. Israel’s leader remains “the servant of the Lord” even as death approaches. Moses has disobeyed. Yet he’s also served the Lord by speaking for the Lord to Israel and speaking for Israel to the Lord. What’s more, Israel’s leader has also led his people out of Egyptian slavery to the doorstep of Canaan.
Once this servant of the Lord glimpses that land of promise, God graciously gathers him into God’s eternal presence. Yet while our text tells us that God “buried” him on Nebo’s summit, it remains, perhaps deliberately, a very mysterious act. No one, after all, knows exactly where Moses’ grave is.
Israel had persistently and sometimes vehemently rebelled against Moses and his leadership. Yet our text indicates that her leader’s death unleashes a torrent of Israelite grief. So why does Israel so deeply grieve the man so many of them so often loathed?
The old, rebellious generation of Israelites basically died in Numbers 25. Those who grieve Moses’ death are part of a new generation of Israelites that’s at least temporarily committed to following God’s ways. So perhaps they mourn that Moses dies just like their disobedient parents and grandparents that he’d tried to lead did.
Israel, however, still needs a leader. After all, while the generation that includes Moses is dying, a new one is arising. When God told Moses that he’d never enter Canaan, God told him to commission, strengthen and encourage Joshua to lead Israel into Canaan. Joshua, our text reports, is full of the spirit of wisdom. So the Israelites listen to him and, perhaps surprisingly, do what the Lord commanded Moses.
But Numbers can’t let Moses go without offering a deeply moving eulogy. Moses was morally too frail to trust God enough to always do what God promised. Moses disobeyed the Lord by striking the rock at Meribah instead of simply speaking to it. Yet by God’s grace, Moses was an amazing servant of God anyway. Israel, insists our text, never knew anyone like him, before or since.
Yet Deuteronomy 34 doesn’t stress Israel’s leader’s knowledge of the Lord. Instead it emphasizes God’s knowledge of Moses. God, our text insists, knew him face to face. This, of course, was almost unprecedented. After all, while Isaiah only saw the Lord in a kind of vision, he could hardly handle even just that glimpse of God’s glory. John insisted that no one has ever seen God. Our text reports, however, that Moses spoke with God, as if face to face. He had such an intimate relationship with the Lord that their conversations were personal and warm.
By God’s great grace all of God’s adopted sons and daughters share something with Moses. After all, while God has no literal face, we’ve seen the Lord. In seeing Jesus Christ, whether in person or in the Scriptures, we have, according to John 14:9, “seen the Father.”
Moses glimpses the promise to which he’d dedicated his life. Yet while the Scriptures also give us a glimpse of our land of promise, Christians no longer die with only that glimpse. After all, when God’s people die, God immediately takes us into God’s eternal presence, in preparation for eternity in the new heaven and earth. That land will flow with something far, far better than milk and honey.
Have you ever thought about what you want someone to inscribe on your tombstone? Not your pizza, but your gravestone? After all, epitaphs, inscriptions on gravestones, can run from the humorous to cynical to serious.
A few are humorous. One of my favorites is Winston Churchill’s: “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.” W.C. Fields reportedly once said that he’d like his headstone to read: “Here lies W.C. Fields. On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”
A certain Margaret Daniels’ epitaph reads: “She always said her feet were killing her, but nobody believed her.” In Silver City, Nevada a tombstone reads: “Here lies Zeke. The second fastest draw in Cripple Creek.”
Still other headstones are ironic. George Washington owned slaves throughout his life. Yet his epitaph reads: “Looking into the portals of eternity teaches that the brotherhood of man is inspired by God’s Word; then all prejudice of race vanishes away.”
Jefferson Davis’, head of the Confederacy, epitaph reads: “At rest. An American Soldier and defender of the Constitution.” The headstone of the notorious gangster Al Capone reads: “My Jesus, Mercy.”
Even if you were to somehow manage to find Moses’ gravesite, you’d find no tombstone or epitaph. However, if Moses had had an epitaph, it might well have been a paraphrase of Deuteronomy 34:10: “A peerless prophet whom the Lord knew face to face.” We could do worse than to have such an epitaph on our grave.
Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17
Author: Stan Mast
Psalm 90 is a classic text for funerals, for ecclesiastical observances of New Year’s Eve, and for any other time we mark the passing of time and lament our tenuous place in it. So it is a fitting choice for this last Sunday of October just a month away from the end of Ordinary Time.
The first 12 verses seem like nothing more than a meditation on time along the lines of something we might read in wisdom literature. Indeed, verse 12 ends that section of the Psalm with the hope that we may “gain a heart of wisdom.” There isn’t much we can do about time. Like “an ever- rolling stream, it bears us all away.” The best we can hope for is a wise understanding of time. But the last 5 verses clearly identify this Psalm as a prayer, a fervent prayer that God will do something to change the times of our lives.
The superscription identifies Psalm 90 as “a prayer of Moses, the man of God,” but most modern scholars have serious questions about that authorship. I’m not sure why. Having just concluded a study of Moses’ life and particularly the last 40 years in the wilderness, I must say that this Psalm surely sounds like something Moses would write, perhaps near the end of his very long life. After observing the human drama for 120 years and especially after slogging through those last 40 years with Israel in the wilderness, during which they suffered under God’s wrath for their continual rebellion, Psalm 90 sounds like the very thing Moses would leave as his last word on God, humans, and time. Moses made it far past those eighty years allotted to the strongest of us, but about those additional 40 years, Moses could well have written, “All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan.” So, for purposes of brevity and clarity, I will assume that Moses wrote Psalm 90.
For a nomadic people wandering through that vast and howling wilderness, verses 1 and 2 are the perfect confession of faith. Israel may have been homeless and landless, but they had a “dwelling place.” Not a place, but a person. Adonai, not Yahweh. Indeed, that covenant name for God does not appear until the passionate prayer begins in verse 13. Is there any significance in that choice of words at the beginning of this meditation on the times of our lives? Adonai means master, Lord, with the connotation of power and authority. When life feels all too short and the wrath of God is all too real, we experience God more as Adonai than as Yahweh.
Perhaps that is reading too much into a couple of words, but it is certain that this Psalm about time begins with a confession about God that distinguishes God from us in a radical way. By the end of his life Moses has three generations of Israelites in his weary band of brothers and sisters: the older generation who had known slavery in Egypt and salvation in the Exodus, but who are now dying off; the middle generation, those 30 and 40 somethings who knew only the desert with its manna and pillar of fire; and the young ones, the toddlers and teens and young adults who would spend nearly all their days in the land flowing with milk and honey. They were on his mind when he wrote, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations.”
But Adonai is not merely old, older than any of us, “the Old Man Upstairs.” Before there was anything, before “the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” As is the case throughout the Bible, Psalm 90 makes absolutely no attempt to prove that God exists. God is the great Given, the Creator of all that is, existing before anything else did. That God is our dwelling place. What a comfort for a homeless people!
And what a threat! In what follows, this eternal God, who gives refuge to his helpless people, is also seen as the source of the transience and trouble of human life. Verse 3 is a troubling verse, especially if we read it in the later light of 1 Corinthians 15:26 which speaks of death as “the last enemy” and Hebrews 2:14 which says that it is the Devil who “holds the power of death.” So, how can Moses suggest that it is God who decrees death? “You turn men back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, O sons of men.’” Verse 5 mysteriously continues, “You sweep men away in the sleep of death….” If death is the enemy and the Devil holds the power of death, how can Moses say things like this? And is he right?
Obviously we are dealing here with the enduring mystery at the heart of the Bible, namely, the relationship between the sovereign rule of a loving God and the existence of sin, suffering, and death. This is the stone of stumbling for many an unbeliever and the source of much doubt for many believers. We can’t solve the mystery in a sermon on this text. But we can assert, with Moses, that God is ultimately in control of all things, even death. Death is the enemy used by the Devil to sow fear in human hearts, but God is finally in charge of all dark forces.
And Moses’ intention is not so much to raise that large theological issue as it is to assure us that our Lord is our dwelling place. In spite of the brevity of human life, we dwell in the God who is eternal. Using a variety of images, the Psalmist compares God’s eternal life with our ephemeral life. Our lives may seem long as we live them, but compared to God’s life, our lives are like a day, like a dream, like grass.
The Lectionary skips over verses 7-11, perhaps for the sake of brevity, but probably because they raise the unpleasant subject of God’s wrath. Maybe that’s a wise choice, as Psalm 90 is already gloomy enough in its words about the shortness of human life. On the other hand, these hard words about God’s anger with human sin are part of a major theme in the Bible. They give us a very different understanding of human trouble than we find anywhere in the natural world. It isn’t just that life is “poor, nasty, brutish, and short (Thomas Hobbes)” because that’s the way life is; “nature is red in tooth and claw.” No, human depravity and divine severity are an important part of the human tragedy.
Moses saw that depravity and severity again and again during the wilderness wandering of Israel. In spite of God’s repeated acts of deliverance, Israel rebelled repeatedly. The story of the wilderness is filled with words about God’s burning anger against his people and the suffering they endured because of that sin-fueled anger. How could Moses fail to mention that dynamic in his last words to God’s people? He is writing about reality. Unpleasant as it may be, it is life. “Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you (verse 11).” Understanding the wrath of God against human sin is part of “the heart of wisdom” that Moses prays for in verse 11.
The Lectionary skips this section, and you may be tempted to do the same. But if you don’t, how can you deal with this grim assessment of the trouble in human existence? Well, you might say that these words were written long before the coming of Christ, who completed God’s revelation of himself and accomplished the atonement that permanently propitiated the wrath of God against the sins of his people. This is not to say that the God of the Old Testament is different from the God of the New. It is only to say that revelation and redemption are progressive, and Moses is simply speaking of what had been revealed to him at this point in the story.
Or, instead of getting into all that theological complexity, you might simply point out that Psalm 90 does not end with these hard words about God’s role in the brevity of life and God’s response to the depravity of sin. Beginning in verse 13 Moses pleads with God, now Yahweh, to change the times of our lives. It’s not as though Moses didn’t know anything about a God of mercy, compassion, and unfailing love. Indeed, the only way he could endure life was to believe that Adonai was Yahweh, the God who took his people by the hand and led them to the Promised Land and beyond. If verses 3-12 deal with the tragedy of life and ask for the wisdom to deal with it, verses 13-17 ask God for a change in the times of our lives and, indeed, in himself.
Echoing the direct, even confrontational way Moses often spoke to God (see Exodus 33 for an example), Moses asks God to “relent” in the way he is treating his people. “Relent” is the same Hebrew word used is verse 3, where it is translated “return.” The word is shub and it means to turn (back). It is a favorite biblical word for repentance. Moses is not suggesting that God has done something wrong and needs to repent of it. Rather, he appeals to the covenant God, Yahweh, to turn from his anger and act in compassion toward his sinful people. We can’t do much to change the times of our lives, except pray that God will change them in his “unfailing love” for us. The Hebrew word there is the ever-present covenant word chesed.
In other words, after reflecting on how short and hard life can be under the God who is the
Adonai of time and eternity, Moses turns to God as Yahweh and asks him to re-balance, redeem the times of our lives. We may have the life span of morning grass, but God can “satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love.” We may have “trouble and sorrow,” but by God’s grace “we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.” “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble.”
How is such a re-balancing, reversal, redemption possible? Well, Israel has seen throughout its history that God acts in history, disrupting the natural order of things to accomplish his great purposes. Moses alludes to those historical actions in verse 16. “May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children.” The most splendid deed Yahweh ever did, of course, is the event that was Jesus Christ. In the fullness of time, God broke into history in the person of Jesus, so that God’s people could be saved from their sins and God’s wrath against those sins and, therefore, live forever. Through Jesus, God changed the times of our lives. Now he commands us to redeem the times of our lives.
Because of God’s merciful deeds in the ministry of Christ, all of the passionate prayers of verses 13-17 become precious promises. Even death has been conquered through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And all the futility of life’s ventures, ostensibly obliterated by our ignominious end, is reversed by the recreating grace of God. That’s why Paul’s great chapter on the resurrection of Christ and of his followers ends with a promise that answers the prayer of Psalm 90:17. “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain (I Cor. 15:58).” In Christ, the work of our hands and the times of our lives are established by the grace of God.
Earlier in my pastoral career, as I was learning how much I didn’t know about ministry, I fell in love with the whole idea of time management. I read everything I could get my hands on to learn how to manage my time more effectively. Much of it was helpful. But now in the last chapters of my ministry, I’m convinced that the old hymn writer was correct when he wrote, “Time, like an ever rolling stream, bears all its sons away; they fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.” How good to know that “our times are in his hands (Psalm 31:5)” and that “he” is Yahweh, the God of unfailing love.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-8
Author: Scott Hoezee
Was there ever a time in the history of the church when some did not accuse Christians and pastors of bad motives? Was there always the sneaking suspicion on the part of some that preachers are just slick hucksters, charlatans who use smooth talking and seductive rhetoric as a way to line their own pockets? Apparently it has always been so. As was noted in the previous sermon starter article on 1 Thessalonians, if this is the very first of Paul’s epistles, then we can see that the need to fend off accusations of manipulation and greed goes back to the very beginning and to the earliest days of the church.
We are always reading someone else’s mail when we delve into the epistles in the New Testament. As such, we have to infer a lot of things, read between a lot of lines because we have only one-half of a larger correspondence and our knowledge of the things that get alluded to and referred to is not first hand as would be the case had these letters really been written specifically to us. The Thessalonians knew why Paul was saying what he did in ways we can but dimly guess at.
Still, it’s pretty obvious what is behind Paul’s rhetoric here. He’s been dismissed by some as nothing but a smooth talker who used his rhetorical skills for personal gain. This whole “Jesus thing” was just a pretext for fraud. Promises of a better life in some far-off kingdom by and by was just a way to swindle little old ladies out of their pension money. Invest in heaven today by giving me your money and it will pay sweet dividends in the hereafter. Trust me. You’ll see . . .
Of course, addressing this would be a whole lot easier were it not for all those preachers—past and present and broadcasting on television to this day—who were guilty of exactly this kind of chicanery. From gluttonous friars and monks on the Canterbury trails to Elmer Gantry and so many other self-promoting, dishonest, women-seducing preachers on the sawdust revival trail to the Jim Bakers and Joel Osteens of today who promise “your best life now” even as their own lives are clearly doing very nicely on the economic front thank you very much . . . well, we cannot pretend the things of which Paul was accused already way back in Thessalonica never existed. They have. They do.
But not usually and certainly not always and most certainly not with Paul. Here in 1 Thessalonians 2, Paul takes pain to point out that as a matter of fact, he is not that smooth of a talker to begin with. His rhetoric was not only not slick, it even made no sense by worldly standards. The Gospel paradoxically points to a cross of all things as the source of hope. And far from being a message that was readily accepted by people, Paul’s words led to his “worst life now” as the Gospel was resisted, rejected, scorned. And the Gospel’s spokespersons got beat up, humiliated, jailed sometimes. If Paul was in this just for himself, then explain all those scars on his face, those scourge scars that made Paul’s back resemble ten miles of bad road. People who are in it for themselves don’t get their nose broken a half-dozen times, don’t get a tooth knocked out now and then. Nothing but God’s own truth compelled Paul and others to preach what they did. “You think we are trying to please people and curry favor with the authorities? If we were, we would be saying very, very different things than what in fact we do preach!”
What’s more, Paul and his colleagues did honest work with their hands when they stayed in cities like Thessalonica. Far from being money grubbers and far from wanting to appear to leach off the goodness of others, Paul worked hard to earn his own keep. Yes, as apostles called by God, they could have asked for help, for a little extra. They would have claimed it was worth everyone else’s time and money to let them devote themselves full time to Gospel ministry, to Bible study, to sermon preparation. But no, to keep things honest and above board, the apostles took Jesus’ advice and became the servant of others. They earned their own pay and pitched in to demonstrate they did not expect to be coddled or catered to like some VIP in the midst of the city.
As elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—though most notably in 2 Corinthians—Paul works overtime to put daylight between himself and any charges of his being a flatterer, a people pleaser, a leach, a money grubber, a charlatan. And the reason is clear: Paul wants people to know that he genuinely loves them. It is all about Christ-like love. That is the heartbeat of the Gospel, of course, but since you cannot truly love people whom you are manipulating for personal gain, these charges against Paul cut him to the quick. Paul was perfectly willing to be chalked up as a fool, a weirdo for Jesus, a lunatic, a freak. Criticize his character all you wanted if the reason was simply because the Gospel is such an other-worldly, upside-down, foolish-looking message. As Frederick Buechner once put it, you can sum up the trajectory of Paul’s life as simply “Paul set out to be a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ.”
But what Paul could not cotton to was any notion that he did not love the people in the congregations he helped to establish. Because that then would gut Paul of his core identity as someone who lived “in Christ.” That endangered Paul’s ability to be transparent to the Jesus whose grace blew away Paul’s lifetime of religious striving and whose ability to love Paul despite his horrid track record as a persecutor of the church changed Paul forever. You could say all kinds of things about Paul and he would not bat an eye. But suggest that it was all a deceptive ruse as Paul preyed on the innocent and the naïve for personal gain and . . . well, Paul could not let that stand for two seconds. The love of God is too important. Jesus is too important.
No doubt it remains a challenge for all of us preachers today—and perhaps for all Christians just generally—to remember that whatever else people think of us or of the Gospel, above all we must be known for our love. Above all we must want to let the love of Jesus exude from us at all times and toward all people with such obvious fervor that no one can miss it. What’s more, that has to matter more to us than anything else: our reputation, our status in society, our intellect, our looks, our bank accounts. The question we have to face is whether that is so. Or do we find ourselves getting more upset about a bevy of other slights than we do about whether or not people can feel Christ’s love coming through us? Do the people to whom and with whom we minister know clear as day that we love them—that we love each other—because this cuts so very close to the heart of what it means to follow Jesus in the first place?
For Paul, little if anything else was more important. His example remains both lyric and daunting to this very day.
From Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 129-30.
“’Those boys in Damascus,’ Jesus said [to Saul on the Damascus Road], ‘Don’t fight them, join them. I want you on my side’ and Paul never forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment . . . He was never the same again and neither, in a way, was the world. Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowled over himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth and road apples down the front of his shirt. Don’t fight them, join them. He wants you on his side. YOU, of all people. ME. Who in the world, who in the solar system, the galaxy, could ever have expected it? He knew it was a wild and crazy business—‘the folly of what we preach’ he said—but he preached it anyway. ‘A fool for Christ’s sake’ he called himself as well as weak in bodily presence, but he knew that ‘the folly of God was wiser than the wisdom of men and the weakness of God was stronger than men.’ There were times he go so carried away that his language went all out of whack. Infinitives split like atoms, syntax exploded, participles were left dangling. ‘By grace you have been saved,’ he wrote to the Ephesians, and grace was his key word.”