21st Sunday after Pentecost Year A

 Deuteronomy 34:1-12; Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17; I Thessalonians 2:1-8; Matthew 22:34-46.  

Moses was an awesome servant of God.  Later generations would revere him and the Commandments he delivered.

Deuteronomy 34:1-12.    

After many weeks the Lectionary readings have completed the selections from the books of Moses.  This final Torah reading relates the death of Moses and extols his unique place among humans.  The reading includes the following four topics.  

1) Moses was given a final view of the Promised Land.  Moses goes up Mount Nebo/Pisgah and gets a panorama of the promised land.  (The “view from Pisgah” became a proverb for such a panoramic vision.)  A few place names in the land are mentioned, but many others are omitted.  The land extends from Dan in the north to the Negeb in the south.  God is present with Moses on the height and assures him that this is the land that Abraham’s and Jacob’s descendants will get.  Moses can gaze upon it, but he cannot enter it.  Unspoken, but understood, is that there is too much negative history for Moses to enter the land.  (This mystery of Moses’ sin is treated [or veiled] in Numbers 20:2-13.) 

2) Moses died and was buried.  Having seen the promised land, Moses (“the servant of the Lord”) dies.  The text then says, literally, “And he buried him in the valley…”  The “he” who did the burying is apparently God.  Thus it should be no surprise that “no one knows his burial place to this day” (verse 6, NRSV).  Unlike Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Joshua, Moses had no tomb in the promised land, no memorial site within the lands of Israel, where he could be revered.  This was a symbolic way of saying that Moses was more directly related to God than to the humans he had delivered from oppression.    

3) Moses was mourned for a month.  The Israelites mourned for Moses thirty days.  These were the last month of the forty years of wandering in the wilderness.  The great sermon given in the book of Deuteronomy had been delivered during the eleventh month of the fortieth year (Deuteronomy 1:3), the 30 days of mourning took up the twelfth month, and Joshua led the people into the land in the first month of the forty-first year (Joshua 1-5, where the Passover was observed on the 14th of the first month, 5:10-12).  [Such was the time-scheme provided by the final editors who fitted the book of Deuteronomy into the complex mass of the Priestly Work, Genesis to Numbers.]

4) Moses was uniquely great.  The Torah ends with a great eulogy of Moses.  “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face.  He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt…and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel” (verses 10-12).  

Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17. 

There is only one psalm that is attributed to Moses, and it is the Psalm reading for this Sunday.  It is the voice of one who has lived long and suffered much with his community.  It verges on disillusionment and despair, but it IS a prayer and looks to God for what grace may accompany a long and tough pilgrimage.  

These quotes (from the entire psalm, not just the listed reading) are from the New Jerusalem Bible translation.  

Lord, you have been our refuge from age to age….

You bring human beings to the dust, 

by saying, ‘Return, children of Adam.’

A thousand years are to you

like a yesterday which has passed,

like a watch of the night….

 

All our days pass under your wrath,

our lives are over like a sigh.  

The span of our life is seventy years—

eighty for those who are strong—

but their whole extent is anxiety and trouble, 

they are over in a moment and we are gone… 

 

Teach us to count up the days that are ours,

and we shall come to the heart of wisdom…. 

 

Show your servants the deeds you do, 

let your children enjoy your splendour!

May the sweetness of the Lord be upon us, 

to confirm the work we have done!  

An aged Moses knew the struggles of human life but insisted on the one hope for grace and “splendor” that lies with the Lord of the ages!  

I Thessalonians 2:1-8. 

The Epistle reading continues Paul’s delighted review of how the great revival in Thessalonica had created a vital community of faith.  This revival was not a matter of publicity stunts and hyper marketing.  “For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but … we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts.  …we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals…” (verses 4-6, NRSV).  

Impressive criteria by which to judge a popular religious campaign!  

The ultimate proof of the sincerity and divine approval of the work of the evangelists was their special care—their parental care—for the newly won believers.  “…[W]e were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children” (verse 7; some translations give “nursing-mother” instead of “nurse”).  Later, a little past the Lectionary reading, the pastoral care is compared to the other parent.  “…[W]e dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (verses 11-12).  

From altar call to the nurtured life of the believer, the apostle and his fellow-workers minister to the new-born community of faith in tenderness and love.  

Matthew 22:34-46.   

The Gospel reading is the last of the questions put to Jesus as he taught in the Temple in his last days.  The question is about the greatest commandment.  This episode is told by Mark also (12:28-34), in the same context as Matthew has it.  However, Mark’s version is twice as long and has a much more friendly tone.  

In Mark, a scribe has been impressed with how Jesus has answered the other challenges and proceeds to put the question about the greatest commandment.  When Jesus answers the question by quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, the scribe agrees, repeats what Jesus said, and adds that the commandments to love God and the neighbor are “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  That is to say, the commandments to love God and neighbor are more important than all the temple ritual!  Jesus then replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:33-34, NRSV).  

Thus, Mark represents Jesus’ controversies in the temple as ending in a harmonious agreement about the most important things.  

In Matthew the mood is different.  There “a lawyer asked him a question to test him” (verse 35).  The hostility of the previous episodes is continued, and it will become even more severe in the next chapter (next week’s reading).  Jesus gives the classic answer to the question, straight out of the Jewish daily recitation, the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:5 is quoted) about loving God, and out of Leviticus about loving the neighbor (Leviticus 19:18).  

Here there is no further dialogue of the kind that Mark gives.  What did Matthew think the lawyer expected?  Or, where was the trap?  However that was, Matthew’s Jesus does have one additional comment, one very typical of Matthew’s interests.  “On these two commandments [total love of God, and love of neighbor as self], hang all the law and the prophets” (verse 40).  

In Matthew’s school of Christian teaching, one would learn the commandment to love God and the commandment to love the neighbor, and then one would learn how to carry them out.  That is to say, one would begin to learn the Sermon on the Mount, the new law for the assembly (church) of Jesus’ disciples.  

About the son of David...  After all the challenges from the Jewish authorities, Jesus himself initiates a final shot at the Pharisees (before the diatribe against them in the next chapter).  This is a knit-picking question about the Messiah (verses 41-46).  Is the Messiah really to be a son of David?  Why then does David call him “lord” in Psalm 110:1? 

Given what the psalm says, the Messiah must be more than son to David; he must be a heavenly Lord.  This proves that the Messiah is not to be a typical militant leader, one seeking to restore the power of the Davidic kingdom.  On the contrary, Jesus’ comment suggests that the Messiah, this rejected “cornerstone,” may turn up in some much more unlikely place—such as on a cross just outside of town. 

 

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