Exodus 25-27, Psalm 25, Matthew 26
A calculated sin
Exodus 25 – 27
As I traveled through Spain during my sabbatical, I visited countless churches. Most cathedrals had a treasury, where beautifully-woven antique vestments with colorful brocade, gold and silver crosses, chalices, patents and reliquaries were on display. By the end of my four months in Spain, I was “churched-out” from seeing much many sacred spaces and so much wealth amassed by churches.
At times, I was shocked by the elaborate use of gold, silver and fine stones that had been used to fashion articles for the Church. In Roncesvalles, Pamplona and other cities, there was often a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary that dated back to the 11th or 13th century that had been covered with silver and gold. Retablos beautifully painted in golf-leaf adorned churches and cathedrals throughout Spain.
How did Christianity go from a poor carpenter who possessed few possessions and traveled lightly throughout the towns and countryside of Galilee to churches, cathedrals, monasteries and convents that amassed artistic treasures and spent fortunes on housing the bones of saints and creating chalices and patents to hold wine and bread? Part of it dates back to our lessons in chapters 24-25 of Exodus today.
There is within the human spirit a noble desire to honor God with the best that we have to offer. In chapter 24, we experience another theophany as Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 elders of Israel climb the mountain to see God. Only Moses is invited by God to go up higher in order to receive two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments from God.
“Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain…” notes the author of Exodus. (Ex. 24:17) Clearly, this is a theophany witnessed by the people of Israel and not Moses alone. Moses entered the cloud and spent 40 days and 40 nights waiting with God. In a similar way, Jesus, who is portrayed as a second Moses by Matthew, spent 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. (Matt. 4:1-11) Clearly, there are parallels between these stories.
Now that God has bestowed something extremely precious upon Moses – the Ten Commandments etched in stone – the Israelites and he must properly house them. God instructs Moses to ask those Israelites who are willing to offer some of what was freely given to them by the Egyptians.
Gold, silver, bronze, blue, purple and crimson yarns, fine linens, goats’ hair, rams’ skin, fine leather, acacia wood, onyx stones and gems are given to create a breast-piece, a sanctuary, a tabernacle and furniture to house God’s gifts and honor God’s presence. Just as Peter had suggested building three houses on the Mount of Transfiguration to offer a sanctuary for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (Matt. 17:1-13), so, too, the Israelites sought to create a sanctuary to contain the glory of God.
Humans of every faith tradition have erected places where the Holy can be experienced and venerated, even though that which is Holy can never be confined to a single place. We long to give our best to the Holy, which is a noble desire. We must, however, strive to travel lightly through this world, not overspending on shrines and religious articles, while allowing the suffering of the poor to continue.
In his book Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the leading Jewish theologians of the last century, noted that Jews enshrine time rather than places. Can you name more than five important Jewish synagogues in the world? It is far easier to name ten famous Christian cathedrals or monasteries. Christians enshrine places, while Jews enshrine the Sabbath – a segment of time, notes Heschel.
Nonetheless, all traditions are tempted to use their finest materials to enshrine religious articles and to create edifices and places of worship to reflect the glory of a mystery that defies all human words and concepts. These precious things reflect God – a being greater than anything that we can imagine. Chapter 26 can be easily skimmed. Get the gist of things and move forward.
This psalm is rich in gifts. One of the participants participating in The Bible Challenge wrote,
I took note of your reference to “enemies” in Psalms and thought I’d share with you that when I read the Psalter straight through for the first time some years ago, I would sometimes envision “enemies” to mean the metaphorical enemies confronting me in life, whatever obstacles and challenges they might then have been. I don’t know if such a perspective were theologically correct … but I did find it helpful! Later however more than one person entered my life who might truly be deemed an “enemy” … So, there have also been times when I’ve wondered whether those Psalms were just God preparing me for the challenge of contending with personalities such as these — which, happily, had been beyond my experience until recently.
He is correct. The psalmist’s references to “enemies,” such as in “do not let my enemies exult over me.” (Ps. 24:2) can be interpreted in a metaphorical manner by us, and they can also speak to persons in our lives, which are malevolent or even exercise a power of evil. One person’s enemy might be an illness. Another’s enemy might be an overly demanding boss, the challenges of a bad economy, struggling to find employment, laboring to get a passing grade in a course that we could easily fail. It could also be a person who is suing you or someone harassing you. Only you know what your enemy might be.
The author of the psalms often feels in peril. This leads to a spiritual battle, whereupon he must muster what strength and perseverance that he can from God. “Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation,” he prays. (Ps. 25:5) In doing so, he puts words on our own lips that speak powerfully to us 2,500 years later.
From time to time in my ministry, a member of one of the churches that I have been privileged to serve, will inform me that he or she has been asked to lead a prayer at the meeting of an organization. “Where would I find a good prayer to offer,” he or she will ask. I point them to The Book of Common Prayer – our Anglican spiritual treasury. The Prayer Book offers us prayers that put words to our deepest longings as well as our daily concerns.
So, too, the Psalms put into words what is deep within our souls. “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions’ according to your steadfast love remember me.” (Ps. 25:7) “Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted. Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.” (Ps. 25:16-17) These words are timeless.
As we prayerfully read them, they bring to mind the state of our own soul. We become aware of things that we are carrying quietly within us. Thanks to the Psalms, they are brought to light, and we can connect our deepest longings, fears, concerns and hopes with the Creator of the Universe, who alone can restore our soul to harmony with the gentle forces of grace, hope and love.
The end is now drawing close. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus is keenly aware of what is in store for him. “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Matt. 26:2)
The chief priests and the elders gathered in the house of the high priest, Joseph Caiaphas. Prior to the Roman takeover of Palestine, the high priest was a hereditary role that a person held for life. The Romans, however, intervened and selected high priests, appointing at least 28 different persons to serve as high priest between 37 B.C. and 67 A.D. Caiaphas was high priest for a remarkably long stretch from 18-36 A.D. Clearly, he knew how to deal with the Romans, manipulate and appease them.
The Jewish historian Josephus estimated that over two and a half million Jews filled Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. Others say that Jerusalem could never have contained so many people. Today, there are only five million Jews in all of Israel. Either way, the streets of Jerusalem were tightly packed for Passover, and Caiaphas and the Jews feared that a riot could break out, if they arrested Jesus.
Jesus left and went to Bethany. Both Matthew and Mark’s Gospels indicate that Jesus stayed at the home of Simon the leper, while Luke calls him Simon the Pharisee and John omits his name altogether. Yet, all four evangelists recount the story. An unnamed woman then poured costly perfume upon Jesus’ head. In John and Mark’s Gospels, the disciples noted that this perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii, which was equivalent to a laborer’s wages for a year. Before Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes to feed the five thousand, Philip told Jesus that 200 denarii would hardly be enough to feed the multitude. Hence, this woman did something extraordinarily special for Jesus.
Rabbis traditionally have said, “God allows the poor to be with us always, that the opportunities for doing good may never fail.” There are some things in life, however, which can only be done once. This was such a moment. This unnamed woman, who in John’s Gospel was said to be Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, prepared Jesus for his burial. Whenever the story of Jesus’s death is recalled, she will be remembered for her love and kindness.
As long as we go through life trying to calculate how little we can give to the Church and to God, we have not even begun to experience what it means to be a Christian. To be a Christian means to live for others. It entails that we understand and act with the knowledge that all that we have comes from God, and everything belongs to God. Our job is to dispense wisely with all that we have to bless God’s people around us – our family, obviously, but also anyone in need.
The disciples were angry that the perfume used by this woman to prepare Jesus for burial could have been sold and used to care for the poor. In John’s Gospel, it is Judas alone who is angry with Jesus for this. Judas protested because Judas kept the disciples’ money box and was stealing from it. (John 12:6)
It may have been greed or it could have been because Judas was expecting a very different kind of Messiah or perhaps Judas was even trying to force Jesus’s hand to overthrow the Romans by having him arrested, but Judas struck a deal to betray Jesus to the Roman authorities. He sold Jesus out for 30 pieces of silver. The Greek word is arguria, which means shekel. It was a small sum – 30 arguria was equivalent to less than $50. Judas committed a calculated sin.
The disciples and Jesus gathered to share the Passover. During the meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it and then gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body.” (Matt. 26:26) He used a Jewish blessing for a sacred meal. Our celebration of the Eucharist comes from this moment. We are commanded by Jesus to commemorate the Last Supper until his coming again.
Christians have written books across the centuries trying to define the Eucharist. What matters is to know that we are never closer to God than in the moment when we extend the hands of a real believer to receive the Body and Blood of Christ into ourselves. We are what we eat, and we become more Christ-like each time we participate in this sacred meal with the faith of a true believer.
During the meal, Jesus predicted that one of the disciples would betray him. Each disciple said, “Surely not I, Lord,” but Judas said, “Surely, not I, Rabbi?” Indeed, Jesus was not Judas’s Lord and Savior, but merely a rabbi or teacher, who had failed to be the messianic revolutionary leader that Judas desired.
Like every group of people, the Jews dreamed of being their own masters. A group of extreme nationalists arose among them called the sicarii or dagger bearers, who were prepared to commit violence and carry out assassinations to retake Palestine. Judas may have belonged to this group.
While Judas slipped away from the dinner table, Peter protested that he would never betray Jesus. “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you,” said Peter. (Matt. 26:35) Soon after, Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. When the soldiers surrounded him, one of Jesus’s followers struck the ear of the slave of the high priest.
Jesus immediately ordered him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52) This is a powerful verse. The Prophet Muhammad has been compared to Jesus throughout history, but there are major differences. One of the most crucial differences is that Muhammad took up the sword and killed people in order to protect Islam. Jesus never chose violence to protect his followers, himself or the movement that he started.
Today, we in United States are far too ready to pick up the sword to protect ourselves and our nation against any threat. We are in danger of losing our respect as a Christian nation. We cannot wield a sword easily and maintain our claim to be Christian. While we are a highly pluralistic nation, those of us who are Christian must caution our country from its proclivity for killing others and selling weapons around the world. There is no precedent set by Jesus to justify this.
By the time this chapter ends, Jesus will be given the death sentence by the high priest, a man who had lost all sense of true religion. A mob mentality carried the day. Fear, the worst of all motivators, took over. Meanwhile, Peter, who wanted to stay close to Jesus, denied him three times. The cock crowed, and Peter, deeply ashamed, broke down sobbing.
Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation. (Ps. 25:5)
May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you. (Ps. 25:21)
Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. (Matt. 26:52)
Take, eat; this is my body. (Matt. 26:26)
Do not hesitate to skim some chapters, especially in the Old Testament. Exodus 27 is worth skimming. Your goal is to read through the entire Bible, not read every word of every chapter only to stop at Leviticus.
In what ways has the church overdone its focus on using expensive materials to honor God rather than carrying for the poor? What is more important for you spiritually to honor – a sacred place or a sacred time such as the Sabbath? Who are your enemies? What does the Eucharist mean for you? Under what circumstances, if any, can Christians commit violence? In what ways do we deny Jesus today?
Holy, Loving and All-Forgiving God, you are slow to anger and quick to invite us to return to you. Soften our hardened hearts, which are all too willing to allow violent means be used to protect our country and insure our security, even if it creates a constant cycle of killing and violence. Help us to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who put away the sword and commanded others to do the same. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania