The Mashal: Why are we so difficult when God is so good to us?
1. Good with pleasant blessings
2. Good with painful blessings
3. Good with the kind of goodness called “grace”
If you were a Jewish child and your rabbi was teaching your class and attention was wandering, he might pause and say, “Now I have for you a mashal!” And all the class would suddenly lean in, waiting. A mashal is a clever word-puzzle, meant to get you to think and to learn something big. Psalm 78 is a mashal. v.2, “I will open my mouth to share a mashal/a lesson, I will speak about puzzling problems from long ago.” The puzzle, the mashal being set before us is this: why are you so difficult when God is so good to you?
Now, some of us might not think of ourselves as being difficult. So perhaps a reminder: one characteristic that difficult people have in common—they do not appreciate how difficult they really are. It’s clear to everyone else, but not to them. And in this case, it’s clear to God.
Why are you so difficult when God is so good to you? That’s the mashal, the puzzle in this psalm. The Israelites are an example of this. So the psalm goes on and on, for a dozen verses, about how God saved them from their slavery in Egypt—remember that? They had been living in Egypt and life was good, LG. But a new administration came into power and things changed—governments are like that, aren’t they. The new pharaoh violently enslaved the Jewish people, and then it was not LG but LM, life was miserable. So God sent Moses and he led them out of slavery, and not only that, he gave them his Word, and not only that, he led them to the Promised Land, and not only that, blessed them in a thousand ways. God had been good to them. And the word “good” doesn’t begin to cover it.
But the Israelites were so difficult. Verse 8 says, …”(they were) stubborn…their hearts were not true to him (his Word), (their) spirits were not faithful to him.” They were being difficult– selective about which truths from God’s Word they would agree with, which they would not take seriously, and which they just plain disagreed with…and the implications of that for how they treated the leaders God gave them who spoke those truths to them. We might wonder, how could they be that way when God had been so good to them? Well, how can you and I be so difficult when God has been so good to us and led us out of slavery to sin and death and hell by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the dead? If being led out of physical slavery is a huge blessing, how much more being led out of slavery to sin, death, and hell. And into a life of promises, the promise that, every day, when you confess your sins to Christ and ask his forgiveness, he’ll say, “Yes!”, the promise that because of Christ God is for you and not against you, the promise of heaven at the last, a promise he made you at your baptism. To say God has been good to us, well, the word “good” doesn’t begin to cover it.
So why are we so difficult when God is so good to us?
Here’s my answer to why I am so difficult. “Sure, it was very good of Christ to die and rise for us. But that happened a long time ago, 2000 years ago.” Which is what the Israelites might have said about God delivering them from their slavery in Egypt. They might have said, “Sure, that was very good for Yahweh to deliver our people from slavery in Egypt—but that was a long time ago.” And they might even have added, “And anyway, what has Yahweh done for me lately?” Which is the kind of thing difficult people would say, isn’t it.
Well, what has God done for us lately? He provides everything for us every day. The psalmist takes one example, food. God provided daily food for the Israelites in the desert. Remember that—God provided a special kind of bread, sweet-tasting, called manna, as our psalm says, “God rained down manna for the people to eat, gave them the grain of heaven. Mere men ate the bread of angels.” (v.24-5) For meat, it was a delicacy known as “quail.”
And their reaction when God was providing daily blessings? They became difficult. They forgot that each meal was a gift from God. They “…became stubborn (8b)….they continued to sin against him” (v.17). They used the pleasure and energy of the food to be difficult, to be selective about which truths from God’s Word they would agree with, which they would not take seriously, and which they just plain disagreed with…and the implications of that for how they treated the leaders God gave them who spoke those truths to them. We might wonder, how could they be so ungrateful to God when he was so clearly providing their daily food? Well, how can that happen to you and me? For our daily food is just as much a gift from God as it was for the Israelites.
You see, it’s as if every morning God is, as it were, so excited. He sees you get out of bed and he can’t wait to see how you are going to use your night of sleep (which was his gift to you), your shower with hot water (which is his gift to you), your breakfast (which is his gift to you), your coffee (which it seems to me is his special gift to us), your ability to read, your ability to hear, your ability to think and reflect, your internet access, your 24 hours in that day…all kinds of blessings out of love for us. And what happens? We use the time and energy and pleasures of the day to do a lot of things…but being faithful in worship, staying for BC, having our daily devotion, preparing ourselves for the Lord’s Supper, being involved with our church, gets treated as something, “well, I’ll do it if I have time.” And God is pounding his head, as it were, saying, “I know you have much to do. Who do you suppose gave you the gift of school, a job, a businesss, a body that needs maintaining, a home, a garden, children, grandchildren? But don’t you understand? I gave you all kinds of blessings not so that they would get in the way of your hearing my Word, but so that you have even more reason to first and most is spend a little bit of time with me and my Word, as if it is your greatest treasure, and be willing to receive all of it, the easy parts and the not so easy parts and the parts your culture gives you the hardest time about, because I told my called workers to “..teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt. 28:19). And still, after all these years, you still haven’t gotten it right!”
That is the puzzle, the mashal: why are we so difficult when God is so good to us?
Mashals are meant to teach us something big. And this is big. Because the stakes are high. You get it wrong, you just bought yourself a whole passel of trouble. Keep getting it wrong and you bought yourself a ticket to hell…just ask the Pharisee in the story Jesus taught about the Pharisee and the tax collector.
The answer to the mashal is big, two big words: damnable sinner. Why am I so difficult when God is so good to me? Because I am a damnable sinner who is constantly ignoring the fact that I am totally dependent on God and his Word for everything, from my salvation to my next breath.
Get that mashal wrong, and Satan will be very happy. And that’s why God, who is so good to you and me, has to give us one more good blessing. Pain. Sometimes serious pain.
That’s what he did for the Israelites. “God’s anger rose against them; he put to death the sturdiest among them, cutting down the young men in Israel” (v.31) Death is always painful, but to go to the funeral of a young person is a special kind of pain. From the book of Judges we find out that God cause them pain by letting the government make life difficult for them and by sending economic recessions. God even took away their church for a while. He let the ark of the covenant be captured by the Philistines and the tabernacle destroyed, as our psalm says, “He sent the ark of his might into captivity, his splendor into the hands of the enemy” (v.61).
Why did he give them such pain? Because they let the truth that they were damnable sinners who were totally dependent on God and his Word leak out of their minds, drop by drop.
And our minds are just as leaky. So, to help plug up the leaks, our Lord gives us the gift of pain. Sometimes gives us intense pain, like a crisis or kidney stones. Sometimes gives us that dull, monotonous pain, like the daily grind of your job. Sometimes private pain, like the pain of having no one who really understands you. But all of it is meant to get our attention and give us a reason to stop and to ask ourselves, “How does God’s Word give me comfort and courage to deal with this? If I told my pastor what I am going through, what would he say?” And if you’re not sure, then it is a good idea to visit your pastor or call him up or email him and ask. (not texting, since pastor’s usually need more word-space and texting is not the best method for that)
That’s how it worked for the Israelites, “Whenever God slew them, they would seek him; they eagerly turned to him again. They remembered that God was their Rock, that God Most High was their Redeemer.”(v.35) See, our Lord means for the pain to have a happy goal. That, too, is a kind of mashal.
Because like all good mashals, these clever word-puzzles, this one has a second mashal cleverly hidden in it. The second mashal is: if we keep on being difficult, why does God keep on being good to us? And the answer to this one is just one word.
Before I get to that one word, I’m going to read the very end of his psalm, because this psalm has a surprise ending. After 60-some verses describing how good God has been to the Israelites and how difficult the Israelites have been, 60-some verses that cover several hundred years, you would expect at the end to hear something like, “Thus it came to pass that the Lord threw up his hands in disgust and walked away, never to return.”
But that’s not how the psalm ends. That’s not what happened. What happened was that after all the frustration and difficulty, God gave the Israelites his best gift ever. A place of worship, called the temple. A leader who would shepherd them physically and spiritually, whose name was David. And with that, the promise that one day the real “David”, the one who would really shepherd us physically and spiritually, would come. And we would no longer need to worship him in a temple, but in a church, because temples are used for sacrifices, and Christ would be the last sacrifice that would ever be needed, as he paid for the sins of the whole world on the cross and proved it by his resurrection. And then, instead of visibly shepherding us himself, he himself gives us pastors and teachers, called workers, to help shepherd us through his Word/Sacraments. And so the psalm ends this way: “He chose Mount Zion, which he loved. There he built his holy place…He chose his servant David. He took him from the sheep pens…He made him shepherd of Israel…”
So what is the answer to the second mashal, “If we keep on being difficult, why does God keep on being good to us”? The one word answer is “grace.” That’s what grace is. Grace is getting what you do not deserve. By faith in Christ/Word, getting a God who loves you every day and makes sure you have what you need, even though you do not deserve it. That’s grace. By faith in Christ/Word, getting a God who forgives you every day, even though you don’t deserve it. That’s grace. By faith in Christ/Word, getting a God who makes everything work for good for you every day, including the worst day of your life, including even the day you die, and making it not into just a good day, but the best day of your life, the day you get welcomed into heaven, even though you don’t deserve it. That’s grace. Getting what you do not deserve because Jesus got what you deserved, on the cross.
And until then, to make some progress, by the power of the Holy Spirit, in being a little less difficult and being a little more consistent in learning his Word as if it is your greatest treasure, and loving all its teachings–the easy ones, the not-so-easy ones, the ones our culture gives us a hard time about. Amen.