Psalm 55:16–19; Leviticus 20:9–21:12; Mark 6:45–56

Psalm 55:16–19: In a recent film from Fuller Seminary of a conversation between Bono of U2 and Eugene Peterson of The Message, the singer observes, “The Psalms are not pretty; they are not nice, but they are honest.” These verses are an excellent example of disturbing honesty as our poet wishes death upon his enemies who earlier in this psalm have done him so much harm: “May death come upon them./ May they go down to Sheol alive./ For in their homes, in their midst, are evils.” (16) We recoil at these words until we realize that in Eugene Peterson’s phrase (from the same film) the Psalms “give us a way to cuss without cussing.” We can certainly feel the poet’s fiery anger and frustration in this verse. This is a certainly a prayer of “cussing without cussing.”

He compares his enemies’ evil acts against his own trust in God: “But I call to God,/ and the Lord rescues me.” (17) But this is not just an empty hypocritical phrase because he goes on to describe how God has heard him: “Evening and morning and noon/ I complain and moan,/ and He hears my voice.” (18) Here is an honest description of honest prayer. It is not a string of romantically prettified, ersatz religious cliches as we so often think of as being “prayer.” Instead it’s complaining and moaning—exactly as we have seen throughout this psalm. God can handle, even welcomes, our moaning and complaining because the psalmist understands that in God’s eyes moaning and complaining is so far superior to prayer cliches or worse, not praying at all. As he says, “God will hear my voice,” no matter our attitude or feelings.

In this prayer the psalmist acknowledges that God has not only heard, but acted in vitally important ways: “He has ransomed my life unharmed/ from my battle,/ for many were against me.” (19) No matter what enemies may be arrayed against us, no matter what our feelings are, the essential duty is to pray openly and honestly—even when we don’t feel like it or think God will disapprove.

Leviticus 20:9–21:12: In what is starting to feel like an unhealthy obsession on the part of the authors, we encounter a reprise of the many sexual sins, starting with adultery: and its capital punishment: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of  his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” (20:10) In our current “enlightened” era, perhaps the most disturbing prohibition and punishment is, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (13)

While there is little doubt that as far as the scriptures are concerned, homosexual acts are forbidden and punishable by death, so is adultery (10) and bestiality (15, 16).

So, how do we deal with these verses in our own culture? Can we toss out the entire book of Leviticus treating it solely as a cultural artifact that applied to a tribe of people several millennia ago? We certainly are no longer engaged in ritual animal sacrifice. Yet many of the topics it addresses have been cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian culture.  Do we ignore the prohibitions altogether or selectively enforce them? Today, adultery is met with a wink, homosexual increasingly tolerated, but incest remains deeply forbidden. Leviticus is especially puzzling here because adultery and homosexuality are punishable by death, while the punishment for acts of incest “merely” result in expulsion from the community.

I think a partial answer lies in the author, writing in God’s voice, says, “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.” (20:23). In other words these acts are forbidden because of the Covenant. Israel is God’s creation of a holy nation on the earth—in stark contrast to the other tribes and nations that follow these perverse practices. Leviticus is all about building and preserving a community that will prosper because God is at its center and God makes specific demands on his people.

Nevertheless, I believe we cannot simply ignore the prohibitions outlined here since they are essential to maintaining a coherent and ordered civilization. As I look around at today’s “anything goes” culture that focuses on the individual rather than the culture I think we are witnessing a great unraveling of structure and comity. There is a social cost to declaring many (not all) of the prohibitions of Leviticus an irrelevant artifact applicable only to a long-dead people.

Mark 6:45–56: Following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.” (45) Jesus separates himself from everyone and “went up on the mountain to pray.” (46) This seems to be one of the few times in jesus’ ministry where he successfully is able to get off by himself for prayer.

But Jesus, being Jesus, sees everything and “he saw that [the disciples] were straining at the oars against an adverse wind,” (48a). So in the morning he rather matter-of-factly decides to simply walk across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida without benefit of a boat, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Mark adds the fascinating detail that Jesus “intended to pass them by.” (48b)  Did Jesus really think he would merely walk on by, blithely ignoring the disciples, pretending they wouldn’t notice him?

Needless to say, the sight of Jesus walking on water freaks out the disciples: “when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. (49) Jesus, seeing their distress, “immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (50) The wind promptly stops and Jesus clambers into the boat and “they were utterly astounded.” (51)

So, what is Jesus doing here that he would be so insouciant that he would take a casual stroll on the lake? I think one reason that Mark hints at is that it’s a teachable moment. The disciples would understand once and for all that whatever miracles Jesus was to perform, they were from God and therefore not to be feared. All through the Bible we hear the words, “Fear not.” Unlike the small-g gods, our God is not out to get us to follow or obey him by striking fear into our hearts. Rather, he comes to us winsomely, seeking an honest, loving relationship with us.

I think the second reason for Jesus’ act is revealed in Mark’s comment at the end of this story, “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (52) That certainly suggests that they did not actually believe the feeding of the 5000 was a legitimate miracle. Perhaps, like many modern commentators, they believed the loaves and fishes that Jesus had presented to the crowd were simply a signal for the crowd to pull out the lunches they had brought along.

But the obvious miracle of water walking convinces the disciples who are “utterly astounded” that Jesus is far more and far greater than an interestingly charismatic rabbi and itinerant healer.

After the crossing, “they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.” (53) People immediately recognize who Jesus is and he is besieged by the sick from far and wide, whom he heals and “all who touched [his cloak] were healed.” (56) Mark doesn’t say so, but I believe the disciples were looking at Jesus with softened hearts and new eyes, slowly beginning to realize that Jesus may indeed be closely related to God himself.

Of course we are exactly like the disciples. We would prefer a dramatic event to convince us about Jesus’ bona fides. Contrast this with the sick whose faith is so strong that merely touching Jesus’ garments is sufficient to heal them. Sometimes, sophisticated theology is a stumbling block compared to simple faith.


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