Thursday, April 11, 2019

Lenten Vespers in the Week of Judica - The Fifth Week of Lent

Mark 14:53-72; 1 Kings 21:1-29

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
If you visit Israel, you will undoubtedly see the symbol of a hand having an eye in the middle of its palm. This hand symbol is called a Hamsa, and it is as prevalent today in Middle-Eastern culture as is the Star of David or the Islamic crescent moon. You will find jewelry depicting the Hamsa, doorknockers, billboards and graffiti, t-shirts, purses, and more. But, what does the Hamsa mean? Well, traditionally the Hamsa represents the Hand of God, that is to say, God’s active presence among His people. The Hamsa’s five fingers represent the five books of the Torah, the Word of God. However, over time, superstition has arisen concerning the Hamsa, particularly with the addition of the eye in its palm, and it has become a sort of amulet to ward off evil or a good luck charm. Particularly, the Hamsa is said to protect oneself from the “evil eye” of others and their covetous gaze upon what belongs to oneself and one’s family.
The Eighth, Ninth, and Tenth Commandments each address the matter of covetousness of God-given gifts that belong to others: The Eighth Commandment pertains to the good name and reputation of our neighbor; the Ninth Commandment pertains to the material possessions of our neighbor; and the Tenth Commandment pertains to the personal relations and family of our neighbor. Because of our fallen sinful nature, our every thought and desire is corrupted and selfish and self-serving. thus, we need the LORD’s Commandments to expose our guilt and convict us sin that we might despair of salvation by our own works and obedience. However, because we have been regenerated and renewed in Holy Baptism, we also have a new spirit who genuinely love the LORD and His Commandments and wants to keep and do them. This new man in us needs the LORD’s Commandments to guide him in the way he should go. In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther ingeniously meets both of these needs in his explanations. First he addresses the old Adam, commanding him what he must not do. Then he addresses the new man, directing him in the law of love in how he should think of and treat his neighbor in love.
The Eighth Commandment commands us so to love God, that we also love our neighbor whom God also loves, so that we not only do not seek to harm our neighbor’s name and reputation, but we actively seek to uphold, defend, and protect them. In Israel, the Hamsa is often invoked when someone offers a seeming compliment – “Your dress is beautiful,” for example. Such a compliment may mean that you have been viewed by an envious and possibly covetous eye. Rather than appealing to amulets and charms, which are of the devil, the LORD’s children are to view their neighbors with selfless, sacrificial love, the love of God, which seeks, never the harm, but only the good of others. Similarly, the Ninth and Tenth Commandments forbid the covetous desire to have the property and relations of our neighbor, the wicked desire that our neighbor should not have them, but we are to help our neighbor to keep and protect and enjoy the blessings he has received from our LORD. Superstitions like the Hamsa do not look in love to the good of neighbor or in love towards the LORD, but the Hamsa looks to the self, it’s wants and needs and self-preservation alone. This is the very opposite of the LORD’s Commands and is of the devil.
King Ahab looked on the possession of his neighbor Naboth with a covetous, envious, spiteful, and unloving eye. When Naboth rejected the King’s offers to buy his vineyard or to give him another in exchange, Jezebel the queen put a wicked plan into action in order to acquire the vineyard by deceit. She wrote false letters and sealed them with the King’s signet declaring a fast and for Naboth to be set at the head of the table. Then she arranged for two deceitful men to bring false testimony against Naboth saying that he cursed both God and King. They took Naboth outside the city and stoned him death with stones. Then Ahab went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard, which he covetously had acquired by deceit and murder. Ahab and Jezebel transgressed the Eighth Commandment, for they bore false testimony concerning Naboth, slandering him and destroying his reputation so that he was not only rejected by others but was murdered. They also transgressed the Ninth Commandment for they covetously desired to have Naboth’s vineyard and they deceitfully conspired and schemed in order to take his inheritance. Of course, this means that they also transgressed the First and Greatest Commandment: They did not love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and so they did not love their neighbor, even Naboth, as they loved themselves. The LORD sent the Prophet Elijah to Ahab to confront him with his sin, which he called idolatry, for that is what all sin ultimately is – fear, love, and trust, not in the LORD the creator of all things, but rather in the created things that He has made.
Similarly, false testimony was brought against Jesus. The chief priests and the elders of the people could raise no charge against Jesus that would merit His death, so they gathered worthless and deceitful men who would slander and tell lies about Jesus. In contrast, Peter, Jesus’ dear friend and Apostle, had an opportunity to defend Jesus’ name and reputation against such slander and false testimony, but in fear for his own safety and welfare, Peter denied even knowing Jesus, even invoking a curse upon himself in order to convince them of his sincerity.
Truly, with the examples of Naboth and Jesus, we can clearly see how the sin of covetousness is no small or insignificant thing. What we are want to consider white lies and gossip, or what we feign as admiration, even a complement, often is but a sugarcoated demonic hatred and desire to have, or to ruin and destroy, what belongs to another. Covetousness is a failure of love for the neighbor, and ultimately it is a failure of love for the LORD. When our eyes are scouring the gifts and possessions of others we display our dissatisfaction with what the LORD had provided us. From this, Lord, protect and defend us. And, by Your Holy Spirit, fill us with such love for you that we will truly love our neighbors and help them to keep and preserve your gifts to them.
In sum, the Commandments of the LORD are not a burden to the soul who loves Him. Indeed, the LORD has promised great blessing to those who keep His Commandments. However, we must keep them out of love for Him and thanksgiving for His grace and mercy shown to us. If you try to keep the LORD’s Commandments in order to justify yourself before Him, they will either plunge you into the deepest depths of despair, or they will catapult you to the heights of pride and self-righteousness, either of which lead only to hell and eternal damnation. May we ever sing with the Psalmist: “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts. I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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