Joshua 20:1-9 – Asylum

A painting of Hebron, one of the cities of refuge, 1839.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Now tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed Moses. Anyone who kills another person accidentally and unintentionally can run to one of these cities; they will be places of refuge from relatives seeking revenge for the person who was killed.

“Upon reaching one of these cities, the one who caused the death will appear before the elders at the city gate and present his case. They must allow him to enter the city and give him a place to live among them. If the relatives of the victim come to avenge the killing, the leaders must not release the slayer to them, for he killed the other person unintentionally and without previous hostility. But the slayer must stay in that city and be tried by the local assembly, which will render a judgment. And he must continue to live in that city until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the accident. After that, he is free to return to his own home in the town from which he fled.”

The following cities were designated as cities of refuge: Kedesh of Galilee, in the hill country of Naphtali; Shechem, in the hill country of Ephraim; and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), in the hill country of Judah. On the east side of the Jordan River, across from Jericho, the following cities were designated: Bezer, in the wilderness plain of the tribe of Reuben; Ramoth in Gilead, in the territory of the tribe of Gad; and Golan in Bashan, in the land of the tribe of Manasseh. These cities were set apart for all the Israelites as well as the foreigners living among them. Anyone who accidentally killed another person could take refuge in one of these cities. In this way, they could escape being killed in revenge prior to standing trial before the local assembly. (NLT)

God is concerned for justice. The Lord made sure that as soon as the Israelites got into the Promised Land that the divine rule of law would be established concerning cities of refuge. God did not take the stance of saying, “Well, these guys need to get settled in after all this military campaigning. I don’t want to overwhelm them with having to deal with this issue.” No, the Lord considered it imperative to have the cities set up. It was important enough to not put off or wait for Joshua to get around to it, even though it was on his to-do list.

The six cities of refuge in Israel.

God made it clear to Moses what was to happen in the case of involuntary manslaughter:

When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities.

This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. Therefore, I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. (Deuteronomy 19:1-7, NIV)

A city of refuge is a place of safety where someone who murdered another unintentionally could seek asylum. Safeguarding life is a premium value for God. If one person is accidentally killed, the last thing the Lord wanted was even more innocent blood to be shed out of vengeance.

Law and grace are meant to exist together for the benefit of the entire nation.

Six cities are named, three on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east side. No place in the land of Israel was more than one day’s journey from at least one of these cities, so God graciously provided ample opportunity for preserving the life of the one who killed without malicious forethought or intent.

Although sanctuary was given, there was a full investigation of the killing to ensure the innocence of the killer. If the killer was found to be guilty, then appropriate legal action was taken. If not, the person was only protected while within the bounds of the refuge city.

Therefore, it is important to approach God’s law and God’s grace not as an either/or but as a both/and. We are to show grace while obeying the law, and we are to maintain just laws when extending grace.

The crime should fit the punishment, and actions, even unintended ones, have consequences.

We need to continually work to uphold both law and grace together without forfeiting one for the other. Simplistic answers along with cut-and-dried approaches will not do when holding them together. Instead, issues of human life and death are to be given due diligence with examining the situation in all its complexity.

There is to be public respect for the sanctity of human life.

Showing such respect will come through both law and grace. By establishing cities of refuge, God was squelching generational feuds that go on and on and on. Justice will be done, yet it will be done with grace and not by family vendettas and blood feuds, like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.

God’s people are to live differently, with gracious respect for all life at the forefront of civil law.

Lord God, thank you for creating human life in your image and likeness, for the inherent worth you place on human existence. Help us to uphold the sanctity of life in our communities. Give us the strength to stand up to those forces that seek to destroy the lives of those most vulnerable. Today I commit myself never to be silent, never to be passive, never to be forgetful of respecting life. I commit myself to protecting and defending the sacredness of life according to your will, through Christ our Lord. Amen.

Matthew 23:13-28 – Whoa, Here Comes the Woes!

Pharisees by German painter Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, 1912

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’ You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? You also say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gift on the altar is bound by that oath.’ You blind men! Which is greater: the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred? Therefore, anyone who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. And anyone who swears by the temple swears by it and by the one who dwells in it. And anyone who swears by heaven swears by God’s throne and by the one who sits on it.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill, and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but, on the inside, you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness. (NIV)

I am not sure if today’s Gospel lesson was purposefully designed to fall on Halloween, or not. If it was, I guess the compilers of the Daily Lectionary wanted to scare the bejabbers out of us with Christ’s chilling pronouncement of woes upon hypocritical religious folk.

Christ’s scathing critique was directed against a distorted spirituality, a false Christianity, and a controlling religious leadership that stifled the true worship of God. The word “woe” literally means “disaster” “calamity” or “misery.” Jesus leveled seven of them squarely at the religiously committed who had an incongruent faith in which the outside did not match the inside.

“Woe unto You, Scribes and Pharisees” by French painter James Tissot (1836-1902)

Woe to the Door Slammers

Jesus wanted no slamming the door of God’s kingdom in the faces of ordinary people. The Lord has a zero-tolerance policy for keeping others on the margins and out of the reach of resources and people who could help them.

Several years ago, while working on my graduate thesis in American religious history, I read hundreds of sermons from antebellum southern preachers. Most of them had a uniform biblical defense of the institution of black chattel slavery. Many of the clergymen pastored large churches and led many white people to Christ. Yet, they slammed the door of God’s kingdom smack in the faces of African American slaves, and taught others to do the same.

We might unwittingly door-slam people when we say God’s grace is for all, and then turn around and use policies and procedures to exclude certain people. Typically, behind it all, is a commitment to old-fogy-ism instead of Holy Scripture. 

Woe to the Exporters of Hell

The religious insiders were mission-oriented and wanted to make disciples just like themselves, which unfortunately meant loading others down with a heavy burden of legalistic mumbo-jumbo. In doing so, they were exporting their brand of religion which weighed people down instead of uplifting them.

In contrast to this, Jesus was concerned to form followers in and around the biblical virtues of humility, sensitivity to sin, meekness, purity, mercy, and peace-making. 

Woe to the Misguided Oath-Takers

Oath-taking was an art form with the religious authorities. There was so much complexity with their rules regarding oaths that it was common to make lots of promises to God which were never kept. Chiefly because there was no real intention of keeping them from the get-go. So, Jesus called them on it and railed about their blindness of truth. 

The leaders had lost sight of what is important to God. They either could not or would not distinguish between important and unimportant matters. In Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addressed the issue of truth and oath-taking by saying, in essence, that if you’re going to play these games about promise-making and promise-keeping, then don’t swear or make promises at all. Just say “yes” or “no.” This was Christ’s way of saying that lies and liars come from Satan, not God. (Matthew 5:33-37)

Woe to Those Who Give to Get

It is good to give – not so good to give from selfish motives and as a means of avoiding other matters. The religious leaders neglected weightier issues of the law while focusing on their superb 10% giving skills. 

The way it worked was this: “Well, I do my part and give 10%, then I get to do whatever the heck I want with the other 90%.” Meanwhile, the things which God passionately cares about, like justice, mercy, and faith, took a back seat. Focusing on frivolous pennies instead of precious life is going to raise the ire of Jesus every time.

Life is supremely important to God. The Lord sees the single mom who struggles to make it; the lonely person who wonders if there is any worth to her existence; and the poor worker who is stuck in a job without a living wage. God cares about the needy persons around us:

This is what the Lord of Armies says: “Administer real justice and be compassionate and kind to each other. Do not oppress widows, orphans, foreigners, and poor people. And do not even think of doing evil to each other.” (Zechariah 7:9-10, GW)

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8, NIV)

Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. (Proverbs 31:8, NRSV)

Justice, mercy, and faithfulness all have to do with neighbor love. It is easy to love those who love us back. Yet, the one who loves another, the outsider, the person for whom no one else cares or loves is the one whom Jesus is looking for. We are to have a spiritual vision of living in the world for the sake of the world, without being of the world. Apart from this vision, there is blindness.

Woe to the Squeaky Clean

The teachers of the law had a compulsion for ritual cleanliness. For Jesus, it was an inner issue of the heart, and not about outward washings. For example, having a polished and immaculately clean church building means little if the parishioners within are full of greed and self-indulgence. Christian ministry ought to be centered in cleaning up the human heart, and not just making sure the outside looks good. 

The ancient leaders were obsessed with not making a mistake and becoming impure. In a strict legalistic system, making a mistake equals the unpardonable sin. However, in a system of grace, people are encouraged to freely pursue God, and if they fail, are allowed the grace to try something different or try again.

Woe to Perfect Hair

Okay, that is not quite what the text says, but it is darned close. At Passover, when multiple thousands of people came to Jerusalem, the Pharisees whitewashed all the tombstones to make sure no one would inadvertently step on a grave. Because if someone did, they became unclean and unable to celebrate Passover. 

Jesus said the perfect hair people were like those tombstones – all nice, clean, spiffy, and looking good on the outside, but on the inside full of death. 

Inordinate focus on the outside only prevents one from hearing the cries of people all around us and responding with justice. On the farm, we would say, if there is no manure in the barn, there is no life.

Conclusion

Jesus gave us some telltale signs of the hypocrite:

  • Fails to practice what they preach.
  • Keeps other people out of God’s kingdom.
  • Focuses on externals.
  • Majors on the minors.

The final word, however, is not hypocrisy but grace. At the end of his tirade, Jesus broke into a tear-filled, heart-rending love song for his wayward people. The set of woes from Jesus, then, are not just blast-the-bad-guys. Jesus has a very deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God.

Numbers 12:1-9 – Against Racism

American artist Alan Jones depiction of Moses’ wife Zipporah

While they were at Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses because he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” But the Lord heard them. (Now Moses was very humble—more humble than any other person on earth.)

So immediately the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam and said, “Go out to the Tabernacle, all three of you!” So, the three of them went to the Tabernacle. Then the Lord descended in the pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tabernacle. “Aaron and Miriam!” he called, and they stepped forward. And the Lord said to them, “Now listen to what I say:

“If there were prophets among you,
    I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions.
    I would speak to them in dreams.
But not with my servant Moses.
    Of all my house, he is the one I trust.
I speak to him face to face,
    clearly, and not in riddles!
    He sees the Lord as he is.
So why were you not afraid
    to criticize my servant Moses?”

The Lord was very angry with them, and he departed. (NLT)

There are three observations about today’s Old Testament lesson I want to point-out and lift-up, and they are crucial observations for us in our present world.

First, the older siblings of Moses, Miriam the eldest and Aaron the other brother, had a problem with their sister-in-law (whose name was Zipporah). She was a Cushite. Cush was an ancient country which encompassed present day northern Sudan and much of Ethiopia in Africa. In other words, Zipporah was black, and Miriam and Aaron were critical of their little brother for marrying her.

Second, although having a black sister-in-law was the real issue, Miriam and Aaron confronted Moses not about this, but went after him concerning his role as a prophet. In other words, the siblings engaged in the age-old practice of ostensibly presenting a concern which was not really the matter on their hearts.

Third, the omniscient God knew what was happening. God was fully cognizant of Miriam and Aaron’s cloak-and-dagger attack at Zipporah through her husband Moses. In other words, God was incensed with this coup attempt because it was unjust, unfair, ungodly, and frankly, racist. And so, the text states that God, with divine anger aroused, “immediately” addressed the situation.

Racism is insidious. It tends to get expressed most often through the methods used by Miriam and Aaron on the level of criticizing another somewhat related issue. So, I offer the following questions with as much humility from Moses I can muster:

Are we aware of our own inheritance of centuries and even millennia of dominance language which keeps other human beings docile and subservient to another’s authority?

Have we chosen to challenge points of order and procedure in the attempt to marginalize certain persons?

Are we detached from our own needs and, so, unable to listen well?

Is there secret fear in our hearts, believing that we must maintain our hegemony, or else, there will be chaos?

Is the end game using whatever tools available for others to become like us, as if we were the Borg who talk about how resisting us is futile?

Are we willing to do the hard work of pulling out our own roots of racial segregation and injustice?

Do we want cheap diversity or true solidarity?

Will we work toward creating a new liberated humanity, championing equity in all things for all people, instead of attempting to sanitize existing systems?

For far too long, too many have relied upon individualism and anti-structuralism and it has not served us well in addressing our contemporary problems. Individualism sees only individual racist words and actions and is blind to systemic issues. It views social problems as merely a reflection of broken relationships, and, so, again, makes it impossible to see the systemic and nature of our racialized society.

Anti-structuralism, that is, not addressing racism as an organizing structure, is the assumption that racism is only individual racial prejudice and hatred. Thus, the approach in dealing with racism is to always be on the lookout for “bad racists.” This avenue, however, diverts attention from upholding biblical justice, forming policies of liberation, and establishing equitable care and opportunity for the common good of all persons.

As an historian, I tend to view things through historical lenses and, so, I resonate deeply with the late twentieth-century essayist James Baldwin when he said, “White people are still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it.”

I want my history to be with Moses and freedom. I want God to show up and put racism to an end. I want to be part of the solution, and not the problem. I want justice and fairness to flow like a river that never runs dry.

Lord, Jesus Christ, you reached across ethnic boundaries between Samaritan, Roman and Jew. In your earthly ministry you offered fresh sight to the blind and freedom to captives. Gracious Savior, help us to break down walls and barriers in our community; enable us to see the reality of racism and bigotry; and free us to challenge and uproot it from ourselves, our faith communities, our society, and our world. Amen.

Psalm 99 – The Holy Helper

Welcome, friends! Just as we need a strong physical spine for good health, equally necessary is a healthy spiritual spine with good strong theology holding us up. Click the video below and let’s worship the Lord…

And, here is Psalm 99 put to song and performed by the Sons of Korah…

Psalm 99 by the Sons of Korah

May you be strengthened with all power according to God’s glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience. Amen.