Around the time we started Luke, in celebration of the Christmas season, we also read through the nativity narrative in Matthew. Now we’re coming back to Matthew to finish what we started, and the third chapter here is basically everything Matthew has to say about John the Baptist’s ministry. We won’t see John the Baptist again until chapter 11, where we find him in prison, and again in chapter 14 for the events leading up to his execution at Herod’s hands. But today it’s the John’s Ministry Chapter, all the time JTB.
So, what verse does God’s Little Instruction Book have for us today? It’s none other than Proverbs 16:32, “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city.” And this is one verse where taking a bird’s-eye view of its context will not lend us any particular insight into its meaning. There do exist passages in Proverbs which are not simply successions of maxims and wise sayings, but chapter 16 is not one of them.
Christmas is over. And in Matthew’s account, Jesus may have already been born, but the Christmas story continues even after his birth. Today’s chapter covers the visit from the magi, Herod’s plan to kill the recently-born Messiah, and Joseph’s escape to Egypt with his family.
In the past two chapters, the author of Hebrews has been making the point that Jesus is better than angels. In this chapter, he makes the point that Jesus is better than Moses.
We’re in Big Psalm Territory now, and today’s forty-eight-verse song concerns God’s goodness to his rebellious children. I’m reminded of one day from my Modernist Literature class in college when we had been discussing religious themes in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. At the end of the class, the professor tangentially noted that the Old Testament often is uncomplimentary toward its “heroes,” reporting their faults and shortcomings rather than building them up as larger-than-life figures of greatness. You’ll find this phenomenon in the narratives of the Torah, but you’ll also find it in this psalm.
I can’t read the opening verses of this chapter without thinking of the MC Frontalot track “Indier Than Thou,” which precedes each of its verses with spoken lines quoted from Isaiah 65. “I have spread out My hands all the day unto a rebellious people,” intones a booming voice, “who say, ‘Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou!’” (2, 5). God is disgusted by his people’s hypocrisy, as they claim holiness as a sign of social status while ignoring both God and his law. In his song, Frontalot humorously casts himself as a religious devotee of “indieness” in the mode of the Israelites, seeking to garner indie cred through a mixture of obscurity and ignominy. As he puts it: “Should I ever garner triple-digit fans, you can tell me then there’s someone I ain’t indier than” ([*]).
If you haven’t read the oracles of judgment in Isaiah 13-23, you’re in luck: the twenty-fourth chapter functions as a summary of judgment against the whole earth. I do recommend reading Isaiah 13-23; it may contain unfamiliar history and uncomfortable punishment, but not every Bible passage has its significance and value right on the surface. That said, the very first verse of today’s chapter will catch us up to speed if necessary: “Behold, the Lord lays the earth waste, devastates it, distorts its surface and scatters its inhabitants” (24:1). God will visit his wrath on everybody and his brother.
I can’t read Isaiah 3 without thinking of Johnny Q. Public’s song “Women of Zion.” Isaiah 3 ends with a denunciation of the daughters of Zion’s arrogance, saying that God will strip them of their beauty and ornamentation. I’m pretty sure it influenced Peter’s exhortation to humility for women in 1 Peter 3:1-6, but it also inspired Johnny Q. Public to write a musical interpretation of the passage with ludicrously literal lyrics. Consider the chorus: “Bald women, should’ve been humble; Bald women, should’ve been smarter; Bald women: you’re bald because you’re bald.” Sheer genius.
The Sabbath receives mention in only two passages in Numbers. The first is narrative in nature, while the second is a commandment. And yes, that first passage is going to thrust our faces in the issue of the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath again, so let’s buckle up and get this thing moving.