Commentary for Pentecost XXI, 25 October 2020

Texts for Pentecost XXI are Deuteronomy 34.1-12, Psalm 90, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, and Matthew 22:34-46

By Father Doug Woods

Deuteronomy 34.1-12. Transition. Here it is, without our really being aware of it. Moses has been the leader of Israel throughout the Exodus. But Moses is mortal, and as with all mortals, Moses is going to die.

 

I never know what to make of the reports of age in the Jewish Scriptures. What does “120 years” mean as a description of Moses’ age? I know that numbers are often exaggerated in, e.g., Anglo-Saxon poetry. When it says the king had an army of 1,000, sometimes we know that can’t be true; it was several hundred at best. Maybe “1,000” is just a way of saying “very large, given the circumstances”?

 

120 years, even nowadays, would be exceptional. In the whole world right now, are there as many as a dozen people who have reached the age of 110? I’m the last one in the world who would say 120 years is impossible for God, but I am asking, “Is it likely?” Maybe it’s just the author’s way of saying “very old”?

 

That being said, can we say that Moses has reached a ripe old age while leading Israel, and that his significance for them is huge? I don’t think I’ll be criticized for that. But there’s always the Covenant to think of. With Moses gone, how will Israel thrive? How will Israel enter the Promised Land?

 

It seems that God has been quietly grooming a successor: Joshua, son of Nun. We began to see Joshua way back in Exodus 17, and the next book of the Jewish Scriptures is NAMED "Joshua". Joshua was the one who showed promise. He has been Moses’ right hand in many ways. The mantle of leadership now falls onto his shoulders.

 

But there is this one sad fact (go back and read Numbers 20.1-13): because of his doubt (or was it impatience?), God is not going to allow Moses closure. He will not enter the Promised Land. He will see it from the top of Mt. Pisgah, but that’s it. There’s no record of how Moses felt about that. Was he angry? Was he sad? It doesn’t say—which makes it seem as if he accepted it with equanimity.

 

The text makes it clear, however, that the people recognized that Moses had played a foundational in their life—this is clear in verses 10-13—and they mourned his death for a whole month.

 

How will it be with Joshua at the helm? There’s hope: “Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.” v. 9

 

Psalm 90. In some Bibles, this psalm is labelled “A Prayer of Moses”.

 

The first section of the psalm projects a mood of trust, first of all about God. God is enduring and totally reliable. Second, about God’s command to “turn”: “3 You turn us back to dust, and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’” This is the inevitable: death. Death is a God-given reality. Life is temporary. We’re meant to cling to God, not life.

 

But “turn” is also a request the psalmist directs to God. This is an honest statement of need. “Have compassion on us.” “Show your favour.” Knowing the story of the Exodus, you can imagine Moses having prayed this prayer many times.

 

Thessalonians 2:1-8. You could almost see this as a love-letter to the church in Thessalonica. Paul spreads out for them all the things he’s done regarding them. He doesn’t yet call himself an apostle, but his description is a list of characteristics of apostles:

 

1) Courage. To be an apostle, to be sent with the Good News, was not easy. The church was still a small minority group. The message was welcome to many people, but not necessarily to those in power. They felt threatened by it and reacted sometimes with violence..

2) Integrity. Integrity means what’s on the inside is the same as what’s on the outside. “What you sees is what you gets.” A person who has integrity is authentic.

3) Parent-like. The apostle takes a parent-like interest in the people being evangelized—and that’s what gives this letter its love-letter-like quality. It’s like someone talking to children they love.

 

Matthew 22:34-46. This is the last of the conflict narratives. It’s the Pharisees who ask the challenge-question this time. The Pharisees had a very high view of the Law, and they held that it was an indivisible unit. There might be ten Commandments—or 613 once you got finished “unpacking” what the ten meant—but they cohere as one unit. To them, it’s inconceivable that any of them could be singled out as more important than the others.

 

“ … which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus answers their question by not answering their question. He reframes the whole thing: the greatest commandment is Love. What he gives them is an answer that every religious Jew would know: the "Shema", the Summary of the Law. It starts out as roughly, “Love God with every fibre of your being.” Our English translation of the next part of the answer is, “And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’” However, the original Greek says, “JUST LIKE IT, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” So it’s not a second law, not a second piece; it’s just like it, the SAME WHOLE LAW. The one law has two expressions: love God and love your neighbour.

 

Jesus has answered well. So well, in fact, that Jesus is now clearly in charge. So HE asks a question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” This question treads very close to the edge. It’s a question about the Messiah—Jesus. With this question, he begins to reveal HIMSELF. The Pharisees’ answer is, again, what any religious Jew would say: “The Son of David”—just what the crowds called Jesus on the day of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

 

But “Son of David” comes with baggage. For many Jews, Son of David meant ‘warrior king’ just like David. So Jesus throws them another question: “How can that be? David calls him ‘Lord’.” If David calls him Lord, then how can he be David’s son?

 

So whose son is the Messiah? In a sense, he’s David’s son because he’s of the lineage of David—well sort of. He’s Joseph’s adopted son, and Joseph is of David’s lineage. But there’s another answer. The Messiah is GOD’S son. Without saying so, Jesus is talking about himself, and he’s talking about two of the three persons of God: Father and Son. And he’s also talking about the two natures of the Son: human (son of David/Joseph) and divine (son of the Father).

 

Now Jesus has silenced the challengers. “By whose authority do you do these things?” The answer is “The Messiah does these things by divine authority,” and that’s where all of Jesus’ answers to the various challenge-questions has led. Here’s the punchline: “No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.”

 

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