Psalm 69:13-21; Numbers 15:32-16:27; Mark 14:32-42

Psalm 69:13-21  Completing his inventory of how downtrodden and humiliated he was [“I was the talk of those who sit in the gate, the drunkards’ taunting song.” (12)] David gets down to business and begins praying: “O LORD, come in a favorable hour. God, as befits Your great kindness, answer me with Your steadfast rescue.” (13)  Referring directly to the lines at the beginning of the psalm, David prays for rescue and salvation in an extended watery metaphor: “Save me from the mire, that I not drown. Let me be saved from my foes and from the watery depths.  Let the waters’ current not sweep me away and let not the deep swallow me.” (14,15)

For me, this is the richest, most descriptive metaphor in the psalms about our desperate condition as we reach out our flailing arms, crying for God’s rescue.  Even in his desperation, David does not forget to ask, “Answer me, O Lord” (16) and to remember that above all, God loves him: “for Your kindness is good, in Your great compassion turn to me.”

But perhaps most strikingly, after this wonderful prayer, David returns to reflecting on his straits, which have become so bad they are affecting him emotionally, physically, and psychologically, “Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill;  I hope for consolation, and there is none,” (21) Is it because God has not answered?  We end today’s reading on the eery note, “and for my thirst they made me drink vinegar,” a foretaste of Christ’s agony on the cross.

But what do we take away here? Yes, we should pray to God very specifically to be rescued when we are drowning.  We know in our heart of hearts that God is kind and does in fact hear us.  But God may not answer us directly or as soon as we want.  What then?  Do we, like David, return to cataloging our woes? His is the most human of all reactions to a silent God.  I do not think I would respond any differently were I in David’s sandals.

Numbers 15:32-16:27 After endless rules and details about sin and sacrifice in Leviticus and the first half of Numbers, we see God’s response to disobedience in action.  First, there’s the “man gathering wood on the sabbath day.” (32)  The narrators don;t tell us if the guy had been warned not to do that, but we have to assume that everyone knew the rules.

The others saw this was a clear violation and brought him to Moses, wondering “what should be done with him.” (34).  It is the Lord Himself, speaking to Moses, who renders judgement: “The man is doomed to die. Let all the community pelt him with stones outside the camp.” (35) and the community carries out the punishment, although I suspect even Moses was surprised at the severity of the punishment.

The key here, I think, is that the man had literally and figuratively gone outside the community.  And it’s notable that it’s the community that carries out the sentence via stoning. As alien and harsh as the punishment seems, out there in the wilderness, community cohesiveness and obedience was essential to survival.  And the man’s example would not be soon forgotten.

Following the little intermezzo describing what has become today’s Jewish prayer shawl, the focus in chapter 16 shifts from the required obedience of the hoi polloi to the leadership. Korah and 249 of his buddies–all of them “community chieftains, persons called up to meeting, men of renown…assembled against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have too much! ” (1-3).  Basically this is an incipient coup d’etat that Moses had better deal with quickly.  Still angry about leaving Egypt (how quickly we become nostalgic even for things that were plain bad!) Korah et al believed that Moses and Aaron had too much power–“why should you raise yourselves up over the LORD’s assembly?” (4) and tehy should have some too.

So, there’s a test: each of the 250 is to bring his incense-filled firepan to the Tabernacle the next day.  God informs Moses that he had better step back since He was about to “put an end to them in an instant.” (21).  Moses begs for mercy, why “should one man offend and against all the community You rage?” (23). But God ignores Moses’ plea opens the earth and swallows the families and possessions of the 250; while the rebels themselves are consumed by fire.

Here we have the mirror image of the earlier wood-gathering incident.  This portion of the community has become corrupted–and God is making it clear that rebellious communities, especially its leadership are responsible for holding the community together, not ripping it apart.

 Mark 14:32-42  Mark’s usual economy of language conveys an urgent anxiety that the more descriptive gospels obscure somewhat: Jesus “began to be distressed and agitated.” (33)  I’m particularly struck by “agitated,” because it suggests that Jesus, supremely self-aware as always, is asking the disciples to stay awake lest he require calming and comforting by them.  Jesus’ physical, emotional and spiritual distress is amplified all the more by the single phrase, ” he threw himself on the ground.” (35)

In the Medieval and Renaissance paintings we usually see of Jesus in Gethsemane, they always seem to portray a beatific Jesus, hands reverently folded, kneeling calmly and looking up to heaven.  Yes, many paintings portray bloody sweat streaming down his forehead, but none of them show what I think Mark is describing here: a distraught Jesus, so stressed and fevered, almost writhing on the ground, feeling so overwhelmed that he feels he is drowning,  that he may be very close to physically passing out.  (Not unlike the state David describes in today’s psalm.)  He’s not just asking his disciples to “hang out” with him.  In his isolated agony, he’s in desperate need of their human company.

And in a foretaste of what happens later; they are not there to be at his fully human side when he needs them more than at any point in the whole time they’ve known him.  Needless to say, we are those disciples, too.  We don’t think about it this way, but I don;t think it’s unreasonable to say that we hurt Jesus when we are not there, when we abandon him.  As I so frequently do.

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