Maybe a large part of the problem with christians in general is that when we approach the bible, what we call ‘the word of God’ or the ‘scripture’ (and rightfully so), we do so with the idea that it is a prescription. That is, we have a problem so let’s head to the Physicians Desk Reference and find the cure or something silly like that. Maybe we do not take enough time to consider genre.
That the Bible is made up of different genres was eye-opening for me the first time I heard a professor explain it. Well, of course, I knew there were letters and apocalypses and gospels and suchlike, but even though I knew that, my interpretive skills were not at a level where it mattered. All I was reading was the Bible. I was not reading a ‘letter from Paul to the Colossians’ or a ‘gospel written to the Gentiles in Rome.’ Genre, and thus context, mattered little and I suspect for many christians this holds true.
The standard practice of preachers linking God’s work so closely to church programs and priorities had a devastating effect on Christians who gave up on the church. For them, leaving the church meant leaving Jesus behind in the church. God was so closely linked to the building that it seemed he was the property of the congregation. The church acted as if it had God on salary, with him keeping regular office hours and even being on called whenever he might be needed.
“The claim on God and his activities, ironically, helps explain the empty pews in most of our churches.” (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 16)
Today’s readings are from Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22, and Psalm 106:1-18.
Moab needed an ally and their king, Balak son of Zippor, evidently thought that words mattered. Thus he summon Balaam.
This is a curious story. It echoes thoughts from Genesis 12 where God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who curse you and I will curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3). Balaam was setting himself up for something terrible as was Balak. Balak says to Balaam, through his emissaries, “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” This is terribly problematic because it must be somehow true.
So we will have a conflict here where God, who promised to bless and curse on behalf of Abraham, will be up against a man who also blesses and curses—in this case, on behalf of Balak to Moabite. Strange this conflict that must ensue. God spares Balaam the trouble, “You must not put a curse on these people because they are blessed.” (22:12) It kind of makes me wonder how there can be such a conflict.
Clearly Balaam was bargaining for more cash. Greed is a powerful ally (I’m fairly certain I heard this from a Jedi Knight.) And if it is greed versus God…well, clearly in this case Greed wins hands down.
NT Wright on Romans 6:
All this helps us, too, to understand the exhortation in chapter 6 to ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (6.11). This is calling for an act, not of guesswork, nor of fantasy or speculative imagination, but of mental deduction: you are in the Messiah; the Messiah has died and been raised; therefore, you have died and been raised; therefore sin has no right to hold sway over you. That mental framework, and that alone, is the basis for the appeal which follows instantly: ‘So don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its desires’ (6.12). All of this—and much more, actually, but at least all of this—stands now behind Paul’s deceptively brief instruction at the start of chapter 12: don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (After You Believe, 154-155)
To use a quaint christian metaphor: there can only be one king reigning in my body and it must not be sin. Yet all of this is couched in grace language: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14) I am not governed by sin, law, or anything else that engages in a coup; I belong to Christ.
Frankly, I think that all too often I simply forget that and get caught up in the moment. Not one single part of me belongs to sin and therefore I should not feel compelled to offer one single part of myself to sin—as if I have an obligation to sin.
We learned a ‘pattern of teaching’ and we are to obey from the heart. We have come to obey it. It takes practice to be obedient, it takes time. We are not masters over night. And we do not gain so much from indulgence as we might be led to believe. Freedom consists not in the offering of ourselves to sin, but in the bondage of Christ.
The so-called ‘temple incident’ is one that Christians often use to justify their ‘righteous indignation.’ But if we were truthful about this I would say that it has nothing to do with us at all. Frankly Jesus would probably come in to many of our own temples and turn over many of our tables too, and whip us, and drive us out, and remind us what the Scripture says—and how we have made a mockery of Scripture by doing the things we do.
What Jesus did—and, let’s be honest, this is somewhat embarrassing—is strange. I mean, he had been alive for at least thirty some years and had seen this many times over during those thirty years. Why now did it suddenly offend him? Why now did he get bent out of shape about what was going on in the temple? Did it really take him that long to get angry about it? Had he not seen it a thousand times before?
And if that were not enough, after he turns over all the money-changing tables and drives everyone out, he sets up his own shop: the blind and the lame came to him at the temple. The implication is clear: the temple is a place of healing and restoration and some had taken over the temple space for their own objectives. How can the church be a place of healing and restoration when the church has been ransacked by those whose only objective is to secure their money?
There is a lot going on in the temple that day: Jesus driving out the capitalists, Jesus preaching a sermon, Jesus healing people, and children shouting in the temple. I love that: children were shouting in the temple and Jesus didn’t rebuke them but justified them. It was the curmudgeons who did the rebuking.
This scene must have appeared strange to all who saw it and heard it and, in some way, participated in it.
Concerning verses 18-22 I have scratched in the margin of my Bible: the appearance of fruitfulness is not the same as fruitfulness.
Praise the LORD.
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his love endures forever.
Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
or fully declare his praise?
Blessed are they who maintain justice,
who constantly do what is right.
A little ways down in this Psalm it says this, “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (21-22).
Forgetting is not easy yet sometimes it is easier to forget God than it is to forget those who have wronged us—or at least the wrongs they did to us. I have a suspicion that this is a large part of what is wrong with the world today.
Maybe, too, we have to practice remembering. Maybe we need to daily remember all that God has done, his faithfulness. Then in lean times when he seems strangely absent we will not be so quick to forget and lapse into the ways of Egypt he redeemed us from. Maybe I should start today making a list of all his ways of faithfulness, start remembering all his mighty deeds.
Maybe if we thought more of God, remembered more of his deeds, we would think less and remember less of all that humans manage to accomplish—whether evil or good.