As we read through Biblical, it helps to remember that the written account is usually retrospective, looking back to recount earlier events with a contemporary interpretation. In Deuteronomy Moses is proclaiming the Law again to Israel at the end of its wilderness trek, as it prepares to enter the Promised Land. His instruction is tempered by his awareness of Israel’s spiritual vulnerability, which he has experienced throughout the travels.
Much later, when Israel collected these stories in the literary form we read, they knew that Moses was right: Israel’s spiritual weakness had shown itself in the idolatry of its bad kings. Moses’ warnings in Deuteronomy, then, signal the historical experience that they prophesy. As we read further throughout the OT, we will see his warnings come true.
Likewise, the gospels we read are historical, looking back decades at Jesus through the experience of the early church. The stories, themes, and teachings that the gospel writers remember and emphasize are those that had proven especially significant or useful to the church.
Our own readings of scripture look back as well. We read the Bible with the awareness of 2,000 years of Christian history, and from the perspective of our own personal history and life experience. May the Holy Spirit use these scriptures to illuminate our understanding of the events they record and the intervening history of God’s people.
Old Testament Readings: Deuteronomy 6-26
In Deuteronomy 6 we encounter the theological center of the Torah. Jesus called it “the greatest commandment”; Jews call it the Shema, its first word in Hebrew. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deut. 6:4) This verse echoes the first of the Ten Commandments (5:6-7), but it proceeds to describe the necessary response of God’s people to this truth: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:5). This statement formulates the essence of Israel’s covenant with God—“the Lord is our God, the Lord alone”—as well as the terms of covenantal loyalty—“you shall love the Lord your God” with the totality of your existence. As elsewhere, this passage roots the covenant in the saving action of God, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (6:12).
Remembering this history is essential to keeping the covenant. If Israel enters the Promised Land and forgets how it got there, it will ascribe the blessing to its own efforts, not to the Lord. Throughout Deuteronomy Moses enjoins the Israelites to remember God’s saving work on its behalf. Not only is Israel to teach these events to each generation, it is to explain the Law in terms of the story: “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand” (6:20-22). Remembering that its existence depends on the Lord obliges Israel to maintain the covenant by keeping its regulations.
Chapters 6-11, then, offer this great commandment and comment upon its implications. Israel has been chosen freely by God, and not because of its righteousness; Moses reminds them of their stubbornness and prior idolatry with the golden calf (ch.9). The land is God’s gift, an intrinsic part of the original promise all the way back to Abraham. Moses instructs the people to acknowledge their dependence on God’s bounty by obeying God’s Law, which Moses received from God at Mount Horeb (Sinai in Exodus) and which he restates for them in chapters 12-26.
As we read through Deuteronomy, it may be helpful to recognize the spiritual situation it addresses—one not so different from our life as twenty-first -century Americans. How does a nation blessed by God retain its sense of gratitude and obligation to God? What dangers exist for God’s people when they stop striving for the goal and start to enjoy their blessings? Are we, like them, in danger of forgetting the source of our blessings and hence the appropriate object of our true worship?
New Testament Readings: Luke 7-11
Most of the stories we read here have parallels in the Gospels of Mark and/or Matthew. Scholars have long recognized that these three gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—are synoptic, sharing the “same view.” They theorize that Matthew and Luke adopt the basic order of events that Mark provides and add their own material to this framework. Some of what Luke adds is unique, like Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the account of Jesus’ visit with Mary and Martha (10:38-42). Other stories and parables accord with Matthew, suggesting that Matthew and Luke shared a common written source of Jesus’ sayings that has not survived.
Our readings in Luke follow the same general pattern established in the earlier Gospel of Mark. Having started his ministry (ch.4) called followers to join him (ch.5), and chosen the twelve apostles (ch.6), Jesus now equips them to extend his ministry of proclaiming and enacting God’s rule. We can think of the events in chapters 7 and 8 as part of the apostles’ training: they observe Jesus’ teaching and healing toward that time that Jesus sends the Twelve out for the same ministry with his “power and authority” (9:1). There soon follows a larger sending of seventy-two disciples (10:1-20). Clearly this pattern of apprenticeship for mission is important for Luke, as it anticipates the church’s missionary work that he will report in the Acts of the Apostles.
As we did in reading Mark, let us pay attention to the spiritual power portrayed in these stories of Jesus’ proclamation and healing. Jesus heals a centurion’s slave and raises a widow’s son from death (7:1-17). He calms the outward storm on the lake and the inward storm of the demon-possessed Gerasene man (8:22-39). He heals a woman who has hemorrhaged for twelve years and raises a twelve-year old girl (8:40-56). These stories convey the power of God breaking into the world, setting right that which is broken and restoring wholeness for those who trust in God’s rule. Such power belongs to Jesus, as well as to his followers, the church called to live out this good news in our world.
More than the other gospel accounts, Luke’s version takes seriously the experience of women in faith. We saw this emphasis in the birth stories in chapters 1 and 2, told from the perspectives of Elizabeth and Mary. The concern continues in the commendable faith of the woman who anoints Jesus (7:36-50) and the friendship of Jesus with Mary and Martha (10:38-42). Indeed, we learn from Luke that Jesus and his entourage subsist on the generosity and service of faithful women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, “and many others, who provided for them out of their resources” (8:2-3). It will be these women who become the earliest witnesses to the resurrected Christ.
“When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). From this point forward the narrative leads us toward Jesus’ impending sacrifice. One can see the events and instruction as preparatory for Jesus’ followers, instructing them on the high cost and true nature of discipleship (cf. 9:57-62; 11:27-28). We will see Jesus’ impatience with religious figures who miss the point of God’s grace (11:37-54)—the inexhaustible resource of divine love that includes people of every tradition (cf. 10:25-36) and that offers us more than what we ask for (11:9-13).
Psalms: 5, 115, 6
The psalmist in Psalm 5 pleads to the Lord for protection against the wicked, whom he characterizes by their lies (vv. 6, 9). It takes seriously the destructiveness of falsehood (v.9) and trusts in God’s judgment on those who fail to speak truth—cautionary words for us who live in a “post-truth” world.
Psalm 115 is a communal prayer of praise to God, likely offered in corporate worship. It specifically contrasts the power and blessing of the Lord with the laughable impotence of idols (vv.6-8): “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them” (v.8). By this prayer in worship, God’s people both praised their Lord and reminded themselves of the futility of their rivals’ so-called gods.
Psalm 6 is an intense prayer for healing. The speaker shares with God the full sense of his suffering—spiritual as well as physical—and understands that the Lord alone has the power to change this situation into one by which God will be praised. The “enemies” (vv.8,10) doubt the Lord’s goodness or power to answer this prayer, but the psalmist concludes in faith that the Lord hears and will answer this plea.