Deuteronomy 25-27, Psalm 61, Luke 19
The Christian art of when to bless and when to curse
Deuteronomy 25 – 27
In almost 25 years of ordained ministry, I have rarely recycled sermons, newsletter articles or even Christmas and Easter letters. There is something about writing things fresh and being rooted in the present moment that seems important. With a Sunday lectionary that recycles every three years, however, one could literally write three years of sermons and keep reusing them.
We get that feeling while reading Deuteronomy as we often sense, “Haven’t I read heard this before?” One of the differences comes in Deuteronomy 27, where we read the “Twelve Curses.” Moses instructs the Israelites that after they have cross the Jordan they shall split in half. Six tribes must ascend Mount Gerizim and offer blessings. The other six tribes must ascend Mount Ebal and offer twelve curses.
Mount Ebal is one of the highest peaks in the West Bank. It rises to 3,084 feet above sea love and covers 6.5 square miles and is composed primarily of limestone. Mount Gerizim, the other mountain in the immediate vicinity of the West Bank city of Nablus, rises 2,849 feet above sea level. For over 2,500 years, Mount Gerizim, rather than Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, has been the spiritual center for the Samaritans, who built their Temple to Yahweh atop it. To this day, over 90 percent of the worldwide Samaritan population lives in close proximity to Mount Gerizim.
The Torah commanded the Israelites upon entering Canaan to celebrate the event with a ceremony of blessings and cursings respectively on Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. The Tanakh or Jewish Scriptures tell us that the blessings took place on Mount Ebal and the curses took place on Mount Gerizim. The Samaritan Pentateuch’s Book of Deuteronomy and a fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran hold that the blessings and the erection of an altar took place on Mount Gerizim, not Mount Ebal. Recent Dead Sea Scroll work supports the Samaritan telling of this story.
The Samaritan text says that the 12 curses were to be pronounced by a Levite priesthood and answered by the people with “Amen,” which literally means “so be it.” The list of blessings were not included. No rationale is given in either the traditional Jewish or the Samaritan account for why each of the 12 tribes were assigned to offer either blessings or curses.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reports today that Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., who launched the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church in the 1950s, is on the edge of death. Mr. Phelps and his church have become famous for picketing military funerals and political events with anti-gay signs. Phelps followers protest the funerals of American soldiers saying that the deaths are God’s response to America’s tolerance of homosexuality.
This Sunday, Rabbi Greg Marx will be our guest preacher. His congregation has received hate mail faxed to them from the Westboro Baptist Church. The reason for the hateful faxes is that Beth Or is Jewish. Persons like Phelps and his cult-like followers give Christianity a terrible name. Phelps and company chose the path of curses, rather than blessings. They seem unable to bless even what God deems good.
What mount will you climb in your religious journey with God? Each of us was put on earth to bless others and offer compassionate love. When we are no longer able to do that, we must question our relationships or our own attitude. There are those who merit our curses. The leaders of Russia, North Korea, Syria, Iran, Venezuela and the Sudan are among those who are tyrannizing people.
Part of each Christian’s discernment must be to know when to ascend Mount Ebal and when to ascend Mount Gerizim, when to bless and when to curse. When it doubt, it is better to bless. The world will breathe a sigh of relief when Fred Phelps passes. His passing will be a blessing those he has cursed.
Like its immediate predecessor, Psalm 61 is a lament. It was sung by the Israelites in time of trouble. If you look through the Hymnal 1982, you will find sections of the hymnal devoted to different Church Seasons such as Advent, Christmas and Epiphany as well as topical sections such as “The Church Triumphant,” “The Holy Spirit” and even “Holy Scripture.”
If the Psalter were divided into sections containing various themes to sing about it would be divided into thanksgivings, laments, enthronement psalms, royal psalms, wisdom psalms, prophetic judgments, vows, liturgies and benedictions. Some psalms are merely fragments, which are impossible to classify.
A lament was the most common type. Laments usually contained a word about the poet’s distress, an admonition of trust, an appeal to God for help, a declaration of the poet’s steadfast love for God, and a vow to offer thanks.
The psalms were written across a broad section of Israel’s history. Some scholars believe that they were written during every time period. The Psalter is therefore a diverse collection of religious literature, spanning many centuries, different governments and widely varying circumstances. About half of the psalms are attributed to King David, such as Psalm 61. Scholars at first doubted that any of the psalms were this old, but many scholars believe that some psalms even pre-date King David’s reign.
Psalm 61 is a lament, which was probably written by someone from Judea, who longed for the Temple in Jerusalem. Some scholars suspect that the author was a Levite priest, who lost his vocation once the Temple was destroyed in 587 B.C. The author writes,
Let me find refuge in your tent forever,
find refuge under the shelter of your wings. Selah. (Ps. 61:4)
The word “tent” is an ancient word signifying “tabernacle” or “temple.” The word “Selah,” which follows, is the equivalent of “Amen.” The Psalmist writes,
To the king’s life add length of days;
prolong his years for many generations.
May he abide in God’s presence for ever;
may true and constant love preserve him. (Ps. 61:6-7)
This prophetic prayer may hearken to the prophet Nathan’s declaration found in II Samuel 7:16, where Nathan says, “Your family and your kingdom will be established forever in my sight; your throne will endure for all time.” Just prior to saying this, the prophet spoke of how the Lord would establish “David’s house.” David, of course, would not build a “house” or Temple. That would await for David’s son Solomon to oversee, but David’s “house” or dynasty would be established and endure forever.
Luke again offers us something unique, which may come from the “Q” source. This is the story of Zacchaeus, which only Luke tells. It is one of the most beloved stories of Sunday school teachers and students. It is so easy and endearing to envision this short man, whose name means “pure” or “righteous” climbing a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus better. The story highlights how this little man is transformed overnight from an outcast into a disciple. That’s what an encounter with Jesus does.
Zacchaeus lived in Jericho, which was a customs station on a major trade route. Because Zacchaeus collaborated with the Roman oppressors as a tax collector, the people of Jericho viewed him as a “sinner.” (Luke 19:7) When Jesus walked through Jericho, Zacchaeus climbed a tree to gain a better view. Jesus spotted Zacchaeus in the tree and invited himself to the tax collector’s house for dinner.
Not only was Jesus dining with a “sinner,” who profited from working with the oppressive Roman regime, he invited himself to do so. Zacchaeus was overjoyed. He pledged to Jesus to do justice, saying, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” This was the retribution for theft prescribed by the Old Testament. The story of Zacchaeus highlights Luke’s theme that sinners who are penitent are more worthy than self-professing pious persons, and it mirrors the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. (Luke 18:9-14)
Jesus would have made a very firm “man manager” as the British say. He told stories about holding people accountable and ordered non fruit-producing trees to be cut down. Produce or else! At the same time, our Lord was infinitely compassionate upon those who were incapable of producing. In the Parable of the Talents, Luke changes the story subtly. Initially, we are told that a “man of noble birth went on a long journey abroad,” but first distributed his wealth to ten of his servants. (Luke 19:13) A few verses later, the number of servants being held accountable has been reduced to three.
When this same story is told in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt. 25:14-30), the term “talents” is used. Hence, it is known as “the Parable of the Talents.” A talent is a very large sum of money. Luke does not mention the amount distributed to each servant, but unlike Matthew, where each steward is entrusted with much, in Luke’s Gospel the amount was much smaller. Hence, Luke’s version has traditionally been called “the Parable of the Pounds.” Scholars note that Luke was writing for a less wealthy audience.
Jesus then makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem riding a donkey along the Palm Sunday route. Luke alone adds Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel was written around 90 A.D., possibly 20 years or more after Jerusalem was destroyed by Roman forces in 70 A.D. As Jesus approached Jerusalem, he wept over the city, saying, “If you, even you had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:41-44)
…and [Jesus] said, ‘It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer; but you have it made a den of robbers.’ (Luke 19:46)
Where do you reside – on the mount of blessings or the mount of curses? What do you lament over most in life? What could God do for you to help you move from lamenting to praising God’s goodness? What do you need to climb or overcome in order to see Jesus better? Who do you view as a sinner, who God may indeed accept and love? How are you investing God’s resources to build the kingdom of heaven? What city and its plight causes you to shed tears?
God of Love, help each one of us to be slow to curse and quick to bless. Help us to speak out against evil and malicious persons, but to focus most of our time and energy on blessing those who surround us each day. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania