It's hard enough to face opposition from those who want to bring about our downfall. But it's even harder when that opposition includes ridicule and humiliation. We can face trials if we can see ourselves as the hero of our own story. But it's hard to file like a hero in the face of jeering and mocking. No wonder this psalmist's cries to God for help are so full of urgency.
The reaction of the disciples to Jesus telling them that one of them would betray him may surprise us. Rather than being indignant that he would think them capable of such betrayal, they are saddened, evidently suspecting that they are in fact capable of it. It's hard to believe that any except Judas actually considered offering help to those scheming to kill Jesus. Perhaps they had in mind the sort of thing that Peter ended up doing, denying Jesus to save themselves from arrest and probably execution. They were saddened, knowing themselves capable of that kind of faithlessness, and knowing that if Jesus said one of them would do that, he no doubt was correct.
We've all been taught not to be wasteful. But there's plenty of disagreement about what is wasteful and what isn't. It all comes down to what we consider more valuable. In this passage, some people considered the woman's use of expensive perfume to anoint Jesus wasteful, because the money could have been spent on helping poor people to get the food they needed to live on. Obviously, they didn't see much value in Jesus being anointed with expensive perfume. What they had trouble seeing, but the woman apparently did see, was how valuable Jesus was himself.
We don't know why God chose Abraham to bless and to make into a great nation. We don't know what Abraham thought of the extraordinary things God told him and asked him to do, or what kind of questions he asked himself as he thought about this life-changing decision. But we know that he did trust God and followed His leading, across hundreds of miles and into a land and people far from home.
Just as people in Abraham's hometown probably thought he was crazy to follow God the way he did, people who knew Joseph may have thought he was a fool to take Mary as his wife when she was already pregnant. If he had told them that God told him in a dream that Mary's son had been conceived by the Holy Spirit, they might have thought he really was losing his mind. But like Abraham, Joseph believed what God had said and trusted in God to keep His extraordinary promises.
Having new growth appear on an apparently dead stump is perhaps not all that noteworthy, as it simply shows that there is still life in the roots. What is more remarkable, that we see in this passage in Isaiah, is the coming of a ruler who is truly righteous. Some of the kings descended from David had been pretty good, but all were subject to the weaknesses and failings common to humankind. This new ruler rising from the stump of Jesse will reign in peace and righteousness such as people have only dreamed of.
One impression we may get from reading stories in the Bible may be that people seemed remarkably slow to recognize when God was at work in their midst. But we have the benefit of hindsight, having read the end of the story. And most of us find it much easier to see God at work in the stories in the Bible than in our own lives. Yet God is at work among us, and one indication of His presence is that we do learn to see with the eyes of faith and recognize His presence.
We never like waiting. But at least if we know how long we will be waiting, it helps. We can count down the minutes, the days, the months, the years. But when we don't know how long it will be, the waiting is harder. We hope for the waiting to be over soon, then we are disappointed when it takes much longer. Sometimes we begin to wonder if whatever it is we're waiting for will come at all.
Isaiah asked God how long it would be, and the answer was not the kind we like to hear. First there would be terrible destruction. It would even seem as though the destruction were the end of all hopes and there was nothing left to wait for, but at the end there still remains a glimmer of hope.
Most of us know the story of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, and even many unfamiliar with the New Testament have some idea what a “Damascus Road” conversion refers to. But many people are less familiar with Ananias, whom God sends to visit Saul three days later. God's command to Ananias, to go to see a man known for persecuting Christians, must have been difficult to accept. But Ananias shows his trust in God by his obedience.
At one time or another, most if not all of us have felt that we were "in the depths," whether from physical ailments or broken relationships or overwhelming responsibilities, or simply the confusion of trying to understand our place in the world. We don't know what depths the psalmist experienced, but we can guess that he previously experienced both those depths and the mercy of God bringing him out of them, because now he expresses faith and hope in God, and encourages us also to wait in patient hope for God to deliver.
Paul speaks of that same patient hope, not only for individuals undergoing suffering, but the entire creation. And the deliverance he speaks of is not merely the end of a time of suffering, but the end of all suffering. The glory of this future is one that inspires not only patience but "eager expectation."
Psalm 80:1-7; 14-19
There are people who think God cannot be real since there is so much suffering in the world. The writer of this psalm, however, recognizes God as the sovereign ruler who can save His people, although currently they are experiencing great suffering. We can only guess at the circumstances that produced this psalm of lament, and how much God's people actually recognized their own responsibility for their dire situation. But the outlook of the psalmist is clearly hopeful, knowing that God can and trusting that God will again bless His people and deliver them from their enemies.
For people facing upheaval of everything in life as they have known it, Jesus offers both hope and a warning. There is hope because he will return to set things right, and even before this happens, people may know that it is coming so they will take hope. Yet there is also a warning because the timing cannot be predicted, and it is unwise either to abandon one's responsibilities in anticipation of immediate divine intervention, or to live as though no divine intervention is to be expected at all.
We probably all know about Daniel in the lion's den, but Daniel's prophecies in the latter part of his book are far less familiar to us. They are filled with symbolism, and while some prophecy enthusiasts enjoy trying to map his prophecies to world events, others of us prefer Scripture passages that are more straightforward.
This passage in Daniel does not provide markers of when these things will take place. But it does make clear that after a time of great suffering, vindication and victory will come to God's people, and judgment to those who have opposed Him.
Like Daniel, Jesus speaks of a time of great suffering, but he goes into a lot more detail of the terrible things that will happen - not to alarm people, but to warn them. He warns against deception by people claiming to speak for God who do not, and he warns against giving in or giving up. He barely hints at the final victory that Daniel spoke of, but it is clear that throughout the time of suffering, God remains present and powerful and a protector of His people.
2 Corinthians 9:6-11
A farmer who only planted a few seeds in a large field would rightly be considered foolish, as he would get a very small harvest. Paul suggests that Christians are being just as foolish if they are not generous. When we give generously, God gives us more - not so that we can keep it for ourselves, but so that we can be even more generous.
This passage has traditionally been understood as Jesus commending the poor widow for being so generous that she gave all she had. Some contemporary interpretations, however, see Jesus' concern as having been less with what the widow gave, and more with men such as the scribes whom he had just condemned for “devouring widows' houses” and thus leaving a widow such as this with nothing but the tiny bit of money which she then donated.
We are generally not so exuberant in our praise of God as the psalmist. When we focus on it, we can find much to be thankful for, but for many of us, it does not seem to come so easily to our lips. Yes, we see God at work in the world, but we also see the hungry who have not yet been fed, the prisoners not yet set free, and many who would like to be lifted up but are still bowed down.
The psalmist lived in a world of just as much suffering as our world today, and he had clearly seen enough human leaders who could or would not deliver on their promises that he cautions against putting our trust in them. Even the best ones die without having fixed the world's problems. Yet from what he has seen of God's work in the world - work done primarily though other people who love and serve Him - that he has great confidence in God and urges us not only to trust in Him but also to praise Him wholeheartedly.
Previously in this chapter, the teachers of the Jewish law had been trying to trap Jesus with their questions. He had answered so skillfully that no one was willing to try any more questions on him. Now Jesus asks a question that they have no answer for. He goes on to show not only that their understanding and teaching of Scripture is faulty, but that their character is the big problem. They care more about status and recognition than about God or the people they are supposed to be an example for.
People are very good at forgetting things, sometimes even very important things. Today's passage includes the commandment that Jesus said was the greatest commandment of all. It also includes instructions that will help us not to forget these important things. We are to teach them to our children, and in so doing, we will learn better ourselves. We are to talk about them as we go through our daily lives, which will help us to see how loving God relates to our daily activities. And if we all do this, in the event that we do forget sometimes, someone else is likely to be there to remind us of what matters most.
Interpreters of this passage differ as to whether the scribe was sincere in his question to Jesus, or only seeking to trap him, as with questions asked previously. Regardless of the scribe's motivation, Jesus' answer challenges us and our priorities. Most of us would say that loving God is most important, and we know that God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But the way we spend our time and our money, and how we react when things don't go according to plan, reveal what we really care about most.
People ask questions for lots of reasons besides wanting to get information. Sometimes it is to find out how much people know, or to get them to realize what they don't know so they will want to learn more. But other times, as in today's passage, people ask questions not to increase understanding but to trick someone, to embarrass or to manipulate. Those who questioned Jesus thought they had found the perfect trap, but instead they were the ones who ended up looking foolish.
Having refused to give a direct answer when asked about his authority (at the end of the previous chapter), Jesus now proceeds to give an indirect but nevertheless very clear answer. For us, knowing what is in store for Jesus over the next few days, it is even easier to understand than it would have been for the crowds then. But the leaders understood quite well that he spoke the parable against them.
The first few verses of this psalm might leave us feeling that it's talking about some impossibly perfect class of people. Blameless? Do no wrong? Fully obey all God's precepts? But then the psalmist switches to the first person and we find that he's like us, wanting to be steadfast in obedience but not always measuring up. If we follow his example of deep desire to faithfully obey God, we will also learn the blessedness of following Him.
In our society it is often considered rude to answer a question with another question, perhaps seen as evidence of agressiveness, maybe trying to cover up for ignorance or embarrassment. But it was a traditional element of Jewish scholarly discussion, one very frequently used by Jesus. He did address the topic of the question, that of authority, but cleverly avoided giving one of the expected responses, which would only be used to accuse him of wrongdoing.
In the midst of messages of hope to the exiles of Israel, Isaiah proclaims God's promise to extend His blessing to other peoples also. There will be a day when both eunuchs and foreigners will worship alongside Jews in God's house of prayer.
Imagine that you are a pilgrim from far away, in Jerusalem for the Passover, and you are waiting in line at the Temple to change your money and buy an animal to sacrifice, and along comes a man who begins to overturn tables and puts a halt to the buying and selling. Are you upset at the disruption? Curious who this might be, who dares to oppose the powerful priesthood? The priests are going to be angry - what will this mean for you and your family?
While many of us in North America, especially in regions too cold for fig trees, have never seen a fig tree nor eaten a raw fig, it was very familiar to the Jews in Bible times. In the Old Testament, the fig tree was often used as a symbol of the nation of Israel, and destruction of a fig tree as a sign of judgment.
Mark 11:12-14, 20-26
This passage has been cited by some people as evidence that Jesus was not perfect, taking out his anger on a fig tree that did not have fruit when he wanted it. But Jesus was not angry at the fruitless fig tree, but rather at the nation of Israel, which did not bear spiritual fruit. This message of judgment, however, is joined with a promise of spiritual power for those who by faith are his followers.
We tend to either think too much of ourselves, that we are worth more attention and recognition than we really are, or try to counterbalance that tendency by thinking we have little or no value. Psalm 8 provide the correct perspective, that we are are indeed a very small part of God's vast and wondrous creation, yet God cares for us and gives us an important role to play and caring for the rest of creation.
We don't know how large the group with Jesus was as they arrived at Jerusalem. But we have probably all seen how any group acting with purpose tends to attract attention, and usually picks up people along the way, whether out of curiosity, enthusiasm, or just the desire to be part of whatever is happening. We can imagine how the group around Jesus increased as people heard the cries of "Hosanna" and joined the growing procession.
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
A hasty reading of this psalm might suggest that once people turn to God, all their problems are over. But David's statement that the righteous person may have many troubles suggests rather that as God delivers him from each one, more follow later - and God again delivers him. God delivers us from troubles and fears, not so that we can have an easier life, but so that we continue to trust and praise Him for His goodness.
The passage right before this one has one striking similarity to this one. Someone comes to Jesus to ask for something, and Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you?" But where James and John asked for positions of power and status, and Jesus had to reply that he could not grant their request, the man in this passage makes a much better request, which Jesus gladly grants. Bartimaeus simply wants to see, and once Jesus heals him, he displays his spiritual discernment as well by choosing to follow Jesus as he heads toward Jerusalem.
In ancient Israel - like everywhere in the world back then - people used the movements of the sun, moon, and stars to measure the passing of time. Today we rely primarily on clocks and calendars. But even we notice the sun rising later and setting earlier than it did a couple of months ago, and we know the days will continue to get shorter as the weather gets colder.
People today clamor for something new - the latest technology, new clothes, new movies and other entertainment - but eventually they recognize it is usually no more satisfying than whatever it replaced. People try new ways to fix the problems of society, but generation after generation, the same problems persist. A great deal has changed since the time when Ecclesiastes was written, but in many significant ways, the joys and challenges of human life are much the same as they have always been.
People without much knowledge of the Bible who hear this passage from Isaiah 53, without knowing where in the Bible it is found, tend to assume it comes from the New Testament, as the parallels between this passage, and the New Testament accounts of Jesus' suffering and death for the sins of all people, are so clear.
Mark 9:30-32; 10:32-45
We are not good at being realistic about our own capacity to faithfully follow Christ. Sometimes we are overly confident, like these disciples, that we can meet all the challenges of discipleship. Other times, mindful of past failures, we are convinced we will be overwhelmed by the trials that face us.
Our problem is usually that our focus is too much on ourselves rather than on Christ. If we learn to have the heart and mind of a servant, as he teaches in this passage, we will not only serve with humility, but by by thinking more about Christ and the needs of others than about ourselves, we will come to serve more faithfully even in times of great difficulty.