Genesis 13-15, Psalm 5, Matthew 5
Not every chapter of the Bible is equally important. Chapters 13 and 14 continue the story of Abram journeying through the desert and provide more detail about his sojourn. Both Lot and Abram now have considerable animal herds and wealth. Fights have broken out among their herdsmen. So, Abram suggests that the divide the land between themselves and go their separate ways.
Abram is now a very wealthy man. He is oversees 318 trained men of his own household, who he leads into battle in order to rescue Lot and his family from the local kings who banded together and attacked Sodom and Gomorrah, where Lot was living.
The key chapter, however, is chapter 15. This is where we read about how God established his covenant with Abram. It is one of the defining moments of the entire Bible. A covenant is an agreement involving God. It involves a party making an agreement directly with God or a man and a woman uniting in marriage or two people in commerce forming a partnership. Whoever makes a covenant makes an oath before God. Hence, the commitment involves invoking God’s name and asking for God’s blessing.
In the Hebrew language, covenants were “cut,” not “made.” A covenant was literally made by cutting animals in half. The body parts were separated. The parties entering into the covenant walked down the path between the severed body parts. After walking down the path, the two parties swore before God asking their Creator to cause them to suffer equally if they did not honor the covenant which they cut with the other party.
In chapter 15 this ancient ritual is invoked to signify an enduring bond between God and the Jewish people. It came about because God appeared to Abram in a vision and promised to be his “shield.” This is one of the Bible’s great enduring images for God.
Abram lamented that he was childless and that his heir would be one of his slaves. God assured Abram that despite his old age he would father children. God led Abram outside to look at the stars that filled the night sky. “’Look towards the heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’” (Gen. 15:5) Today, there are approximately 12,000,000 Jews living around the world, who trace their spiritual lineage to Abram. God’s promise was fulfilled.
God notes that Abram’s offspring shall live as aliens in a land where they will serve as slaves and be oppressed for 400 years. Then they will be delivered and given the Promise Land. God describes the boundaries of the kingdom that they shall inhabit. It is a promise that the Jews cling onto to this day. The Bible is not meant to be used as a written land-lease agreement. Rather, what matters is that God made a covenant with the Jewish people, and this same covenant has now passed to Christians who have accepted Jesus as their Savior and Messiah. We refer to this as the New Covenant.
In this psalm we have a king (King David) calling out to God, whom he openly acknowledges as “my King and my God.” The author notes, “For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you. The boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.” (Ps. 5:4-5)
The psalmist asks for God to “lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness…make your way straight before me.” (Ps. 5:8) Studies reveal that when we pray and reflect upon Scripture four times or more each week, it has a significant positive impact upon our moral behavior. Indeed, it has a far greater impact upon our moral behavior than merely attending church once a week. Both attending church and regularly engaging Scripture, however, are vital for helping us to lead strong Christian lives.
As we “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Word of God,” as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer encouraged Christians to do, God helps us to see and to walk in paths that are straight and righteous and not to be diverted into paths that will harm us and others. “For you blessed the righteous, O Lord; you cover them with favor as with a shield.” (Ps. 5:12)
The Hebrew word for “righteous,” means to “be in a right relationship. Our goal is to be in a right relationship with God and those around us. When we center our hearts in God through daily prayer and reflection on Scripture, we establish the vertical dimension of our spiritual lives. This helps us to have healthy relationships on a horizontal dimension with those around us. The cross is where the vertical and horizontal dimensions of our life intersect.
Chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. In many ways it is the Bible’s spiritual highpoint. Jesus offers his “Beatitudes” in chapter 5, which are verses that begin with the words, “Blessed are…” The entire chapter is somewhat counter-intuitive. The world teaches us to obtain all that we can get for ourselves, to strive to succeed and not to fail, to be strong and not weak, to be aggressive and even to use violence, if others threaten to harm us, and to avoid unjust punishment or persecution.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus, turns the logic of the world on its head. He calls for living a counter-intuitive life with God. The Hebrew word “markarios” or “blessed” can also be translated as “happy.” “Happy are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Happy are the meek, they for will inherit the earth.”
Aristotle noted that the “telos” or goal of life was to find happiness, but the happiness which he spoke about and which we seek is not a fleeting happiness such as being happy in a given moment, but rather a state of well-being and joy that endures consistently in our life. The key to discovering this is to live for the sake of God and others, especially those in need. This is counter-intuitive to the advertisements that we read in the newspaper, listen to on the radio or watch on television.
Joy or enduring happiness is discovered when we live outwardly focus on the needs of others. Throughout this chapter, we find some of the most famous verses of Scripture, which were so beautifully translated by the authors of the King James Bible, that many have passed into our daily vernacular. “You are salt of the earth…” “You are the light of the world…”
This chapter deserves to be read through carefully several times. You will profit greatly by reading it over and over again. Jesus notes carefully that he has not come to abolish the Jewish Law, but rather to fulfill it. (Matt. 5:17) He sets the bar high in terms of our moral behavior. “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 5:20)
His teaching is extremely practical such as when he notes, “So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go, first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matt. 5:23-24)
He notes that if we lust after another person, we have already committed adultery in our heart. Before committing an immoral act, we almost always envision an immoral act. If we can avoid envisioning what we know to be sinful, we will almost always avoid committing such acts that separate us from God and others.
As for divorce, the ancient Jews only permitted a man to divorce. A woman could never initiate a divorce. A man could divorce his wife on almost any grounds, including if she burnt toast for her husband’s breakfast. All that he had to do was to stamp his foot three times and say, “I divorce you. I divorce you. I divorce you,” and she had to pack her things and leave. The marriage was over.
Women were like chattel. When divorced, they lost their financial support and security. They often had to survive by becoming prostitutes. Hence, Jesus raises the bar substantially, not making divorce impossible, but setting much harder conditions under which circumstances it may be deemed a moral option. (Matt. 5:31-32) The Church, however, has carefully reviewed these issues and deemed that in some cases it is morally appropriate to divorce and remarriage in the Church is possible, after receiving counseling and insuring that all parties involved are being cared for.
Some of Jesus’ admonitions have to be received carefully. While serving the Church in Kenya, I heard of a young man who took Jesus’ admonition in Matt. 5:29-30 and self-mutilated himself. God never intends for us to maim our own body. Rather, Jesus is cautioning us to avoid sin, and live in a right relationship with God and with others. Likewise, verse 39 should never be used to justify domestic violence. “But I say to you, Do not resist the evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also…”
One of the keys and one of the challenges to living the Christian life is to learn how to discern the underlying meaning of Scripture and uncover from the ancient text the wisdom that is intended to guide our lives today.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matt. 5:43-45)
If you have a window that allows the morning sun to penetrate, this may be a wonderful place to sit and read the Bible each day. As the light of a new day enters your home or office, the Light of God will flow into your heart, mind and soul as you engage God’s Word.
What portion or verse of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel do you find to be most challenging? Is there a verse or a teaching in this chapter that you sense God is inviting you to heed more carefully? Is so, apply Jesus’ wisdom in this chapter to strengthen your own walk with God.
Gracious God, you have given us the ultimate resource of truth, hope and love in the Words of Holy Scripture. Help us this day to appropriate these words for our daily life so that by careful study and reflection we might be more of what you would have us be and less of what we have been in the past. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania