Archives for April 2016

Psalm 51:7–12; Leviticus 13:47–14:18; Mark 4:30–41

Psalm 51:7–12: The poet, speaking in David”s voice, turns to the reality of his innate sinfulness: “Look, in transgression I was conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.” (7) I assume that some interpreters would take this verse as a description of original sin, but for me it is far more personal. The poet seems to be suggesting that his birth is the result of a lustful action, perhaps even rape, on the part of his father.

In light of his sinfulness, he seeks purification: “Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.” (9a). Priests in the temple dipped hyssop branches in the animal’s blood and sprinkled it on the altar. Here, hyssop is the natural symbol of purification. And in an image remarkable in the Middle East where snow is rare, he famously asks, “Wash me whiter than snow.” (9b).  Blood (hyssop) is juxtaposed against whiteness as purity (snow). Both Leviticus (chapter 17) and the author of Hebrews make it clear that purification comes only through the shedding of blood. Of course, for us that is Christ’s blood, which was shed once and for all.

He prays for God to bring something back into his life that has been missing for a long time: “Let me hear gladness and joy,/ let the nones that You crushed exult.” (10) In confession and forgiveness there is joy. As for the crushed bones, I don’t think he is talking about God literally breaking his bones, but rather that his realization of his sinfulness has brought him to a prostrate position before God, and now free of sin, he asks God to raise him up to exult in worship.

David recognizes that as a God of justice and truth, God cannot look directly upon him in his current sinful state. He asks God to “Avert Your face from my offenses.” (11a) But even though God’s face may be averted, there can be forgiveness: “and all my misdeeds wipe away.” (11b) There is first purification and expunging of sins. Then there is restoration: “A pure heart create for me, God,/ and a firm spirit renew within me.” (12) This verse and the one that follows are at the center of traditional Lutheran liturgical confession and renewal, which as a congregation we used to sing every Sunday. Alas, another vital element of worship that has been replaced by praise song banality.

Leviticus 13:47–14:18: The authors clearly understand concept of contamination and describe elaborate rules for dealing with clothing—both fabric and animal skin. Apparently there were skin diseases which caused garments to “show greenish or reddish in the garment, whether in warp or woof or in skin or in anything made of skin,” (13:49). Once again it is the priest who assesses the garment after it’s been stored for seven days. If he declares the garment unclean, “He shall burn the clothing, whether diseased in warp or woof, woolen or linen, or anything of skin, for it is a spreading leprous disease.” (52). On the other hand, if the washed garment and “the disease has abated after it is washed, he shall tear the spot out of the cloth, in warp or woof, or out of skin.” (56)  This certainly explains the origin of the torn clothes that lepers are supposed to wear. But if after another week the spot reappears elsewhere on the garment, it is consigned to fire.

While these details seem somewhat absurd in what is supposed to be holy scripture, there’s no question that these arcane rules and regulations prevent epidemics and preserved the overall health of the community.

The authors now turn to the ritual of purification of lepers and their houses. In the happy event that the “disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed.” (14:4) [I’m fascinated by the crimson yarn, whose color must certainly signify blood.] After a week of living outside the camp, the person who has been purified “he shall shave all his hair: of head, beard, eyebrows; he shall shave all his hair. Then he shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean.” (14:9) Wow. Even the eyebrows. Clearly the belief was that the hair harbored a communicable disease.

Once washed and clean, the healed person comes and offers a very precisely defined sacrifice: “On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, and a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil, and one log of oil.” (14:10) The lambs are sacrificed and the procedures associated with a guilt sacrifice are followed. At this point the previously leprous person is restored to the community. And we have to imagine there was a big party at this point.

Both today’s psalm and the Leviticus passage center around purification and restoration. Once we have been purified we are restored. In Leviticus, restoration is to the community. More significantly, in the Psalm, we are restored to a right relationship with God.

Mark 4:30–41: Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, which begins small and yet “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (32) If we imagine Jesus and his disciples as the seeds, the church which continues to grow more than two millennia later certainly underscores the truth of his parable.

Once again, Mark tells us that Jesus’ public speeches were strictly in parables, which he used to “speak the word to them.” Mark observes that the public was able to “hear it,” (33) But while the people heard, there’s the very strong sense here that they did not really comprehend. Nor did the disciples. But at least, “he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (34).  This also gives me the personal freedom to not fret when I don’t understand everything we read in the Bible.

So, why did Jesus speak only in parables? Was he trying to hide something? Or make it more difficult to enter the Kingdom? Mark really never tells us, and we are forced simply to accept this as Jesus’ preaching method.

Jesus is ready to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and catches a nap as they do so. Mark adds the intriguing detail, “Other boats were with him.” (36) as the crowd follows him relentlessly. The famous storm arises and unlike other gospels where this storm is described, Mark provides us a pretty good reason why these seasoned fishermen would be afraid: “the boat was already being swamped.” (37). The panicked disciples awaken Jesus and rather than simply asking for help make sure to accuse him of getting them into this dire situation and, “said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (38).

This accusation is one of those places that underscore the human authenticity of the gospels. If this were some fairy tale being written by the disciples, I’m pretty sure they would have left out the part about being panicked and then rebuking their leader so thoughtlessly. What Mark describes is, I think, exactly how any anxious group of people would react.

Jesus stills the storm and rebukes them: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (40) Which is exactly how we should be reminded when we panic and forget that God is with us. One of the gifts that Jesus brings to us is freedom from fear. All we need to do is just grasp that truth.

Notice that in Mark’s telling of this story there is no walking on water, no Peter following jesus and nearly drowning. Mark, as usual, is terse and straight to the point, which the disciples articulate as it begins to dawn on them that Jesus is much more than a healer and someone who casts out demons, while speaking publicly in riddles: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (41)

Mark is reminding us that something truly great and unprecedented is afoot here.

Psalm 51:1–7; Leviticus 13:9–46; Mark 4:21–29

Psalm 51:1–7: The superscription of what I think is the most moving penitential psalm in the Bible places it at a specific time and place: “Upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to [David] when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” (2) Even if, as Alter asserts, David did not actually write this psalm, it has become the “go to” confessional psalm for both Christians and Jews.

What’s intriguing to me, especially as we read of the complex sacrificial system detailed in Leviticus, is that David does not rush off to the temple to offer a sin sacrifice, but that he pleads directly to God in a spirit of humility and confession with an opening verse that tears at our heart: “Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,/ with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.” (3) He knows it is only God who can “Thoroughly wash my transgressions away/ and cleanse me from my offense.” (4) The idea of forgiveness by God as a cleansing is of course at the foundation of baptism.

But even though David pleas for forgiveness, he knows he will be haunted by the consequences of his sin for as long as he lives: “For my crimes I know,/ and my offense is before me always.” (5). So, too, for us. We can restore a right relationship with God through confession, but we must live with the result of our choices and actions.

The first step in confession is acknowledgement of sin, and for David, he knows “You alone have I offended,/ and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.” (6a). And he also knows, as should we, that whatever God does, whatever the outcome it may be it is because “You are just when You sentence,/ You are right when You judge.” (6b) In other words, even after we are made right before God through confession, we must accept the justice that is meted out because it is God’s sentence and God’s justice.

David tells God what God already knows: we are sinners by nature: “Look, in transgression was I conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.” (7) The verb ‘spawned’ is particularly striking because it so clearly communicates our intrinsically fallen nature before God.

Leviticus 13:9–46: Our technical manual has become a medical textbook. It’s clear that skin disease must have been common among the Israelites. Based on this chapter, it’s also clear that many manifestations ranging from sores covering then entire body for various itching diseases were lumped in to the general category of leprosy. And among other symptoms there is a disturbingly long section on male baldness. But at least, “If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean.” (40) except when there is a reddish-white swelling.

The priest is the chief medical officer and the one who conducts visual examinations to determine the state of the patient. It is always binary: either the patient has leprosy and is therefore unclean or he does not have leprosy and is therefore clean.  No detail goes unnoticed here, and disease progression is dealt with by having the patient return after a period of time. For example, if a man comes with a persistent itch, he returns in seven days to see if the itch has healed.

The authors know about communicable disease and quarantine. A man comes to the priest with an itch “and it appears no deeper than the skin and there is no black hair in it, the priest shall confine the person with the itching disease for seven days.” (31). But the harshest quarantine is inflicted on those determined to have a “leprous disease” by being essentially expelled from the community: “The person who has the leprous[l] disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” (45) and “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (46)  A harsh sentence on the individual but one which helps maintains the health of the community at large.

We meet the consequences of this rule again when Jesus encounters the ten lepers, whom he heals. But based on this chapter and its broad range of diseases considered to be leprosy, we have to assume there were numerous bands of disheveled men (and women?) wandering the countryside because they had been declared leprous. The community may have been preserved but it was done so at a very high cost to many.

Mark 4:21–29: Following Jesus’ rather unsettling explanation for the reason he speaks in parables, Mark records several parables. Jesus points out that we do not put lamps under bushel baskets or beds, but that are right out there, visible to all, on the lamp stand. He is simply pointing out that secrets will always be exposed at some point: “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (22) Once again, he advises, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (23) and then repeat himself,“Pay attention to what you hear.” (24a). In short, I’m not just telling you stuff so you can say “Great sermon, pastor!” Rather, I’m telling you this because you have work to do! So, pay attention to the real meaning of what I’m telling you.

We then encounter one of Jesus’ hard sayings: “ the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (24b, 25). Really? Does this mean the rich will get richer while the poor will get poorer?  That certainly seems to be how the world operates, but why would Jesus tell us that? Or is he saying something else?

I think his point here is that there is a direct correlation between our efforts and what we receive in return. As far as Kingdom work is concerned, we don’t just relax and show up for the occasional Easter or Christmas service. Because then, it all is spiritually meaningless. Grace ensures that we don’t work for salvation. But grace also frees us—and gives us the responsibility— to work for the Kingdom. In return, our lives grow richer. Just ask the people who work among the homeless at Trinity. I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you that they receive far more than they feel they give.

Jesus reenforces the point of reward for Kingdom work in his next parable. We scatter seeds, but we do not cause the seeds to grow: “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (27) The seed’s growth the work of the earth and what happens inside the seed. So, too, the work of the Holy Spirit is what happens inside someone. We do not cause spiritual growth in someone else, but we can prepare the “soil” and plant the “seed” for that person’s growth. That’s certainly a parental responsibility. At some point that spirit growth produces a person who eventually becomes ready to work in the kingdom. Just as the grain grows and it requires work to harvest it, Jesus is telling us that were are to come alongside that person and work with them as they grow and mature in Christ.

This is how a Christian community grows and flourishes: it’s the responsibility of everyone in the community to work together. We can’t just sit back and say that it’s the sole responsibility of a pastor or a staff to build community.  

Psalm 50:16–23; Leviticus 11:29–13:8; Mark 4:1–20

Psalm 50:16–23: God’s speech turns to address hypocrites: “And to the wicked, God said: / ‘Why do you recount my statutes/ and bear My Pact in your mouth,/ when you have despised chastisement/ and flung My words behind you?‘” (16, 17) God accuses hypocrites; those who mouth religiosity, proudly telling others how well the know and obey God’s law and the Covenant, but in reality toss off God’s words as unimportant, even worthless. It’s a great image: tossing God’s truths into the metaphorical garbage can behind us as we walk by—as if to rid ourselves of a pesky annoyance and go about our business ignoring God’s law.

God’s accusations continue to pile up. Hypocrites not only fling God’s words behind them, they eagerly take up with the wrong crowd: “If you see a thief, you run with him,/ and with adulterers is your lot.” (18) And no psalm of this sort would be complete without addressing the problem of wicked and hypocritical speech: “You let loose your tongue in evil,/ and your tongue clings fast to deceit.” (19)

God turns now to how wickedness ruins relationships. I have the feeling that the psalmist has somebody—his brother— quite specific in min. His sibling has apparently done him great wrong as he continues to write in God’s voice: “You sit, against your brother your speak,/ your mother’s son you slander.”  (20) The psalmist (speak as God) sees himself as forbearing even in the face of this great wrong. But now it is time for God’s judgement: “These you have done and I was silent./ You imagined I could indeed be like you./ I reprove you, make a case before your eyes.” (21)

The poet continues to employ the conceit of God addressing the wicked in general, as he threatens personal retribution: “Understand this, you who forget God,/ lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you.” (22) While his brother may be wicked, but the psalmist positions himself as a righteous God-follower, still cleverly using the voice of God to make his point: “He who sacrifices thanksgiving reveres Me/ and sets out in the proper way.” (23a) Finally, it is the righteous—our psalmist among them—who benefit: “I will show him God’s rescue.” (23b)

This is really a brilliant strategy on the part of the psalmist: write in the voice of God while making it clear that the issue between his brother and himself is quite personal. At the same time, though, what he has God say is absolutely true. Hypocrites and sinners will get their just desserts for ignoring God.

Leviticus 11:29–13:8: The seemingly endless list of unclean animals reveals just how extensively the menagerie of animal life had been identified and named these many centuries ago: “the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind, the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon.” (11:30, 31).

Uncleanness is transmitted to whatever it touches, “an article of wood or cloth or skin or sacking, any article that is used for any purpose.” (32) Only after letting the object be dipped in water and set aside until evening does it become clean. Again, these rules make a great deal of sense when viewed in the context of hygiene. Nevertheless, some of the rules are just weird: ” If any part of their carcass falls upon any seed set aside for sowing, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of their carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” (11:38)  One other thing is made abundantly clear:  “All creatures that swarm upon the earth are detestable.” (41)

We now come to rules about childbirth. Giving birth renders the woman unclean. If it’s a male child, it is circumcised after 8 days. But the woman herself remains unclean for 33 days. And in that patriarchal world, bearing a less desirable female child banishes the woman from the tabernacle for 66 days. Once those waiting periods are complete, the woman comes to the tabernacle and has the priest offer a sin sacrifice. As usual, if the woman is poor and “she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” (12:8)

The authors then turn to the problem of leprosy. First, there is a careful diagnostic examination as the priest becomes physician and examines the sore. The criterion used to determine whether or not it’s leprosy is simple: if “the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease.” (13:3) Rules of quarantine are established. The priest examines the wound every seven days, keeping the patient confined to make a definitive diagnosis. These rules are brilliant as a means of keeping disease from spreading. But unfortunately, they also eventually morph into the practice of casting lepers such as the ones Jesus encounters and heals out of the community.

Mark 4:1–20: Mark now moves to record the parables of Jesus, beginning with the sower. Jesus is preaching from the boat and a big crowd is gathered on the beach. Mark tantalizes us with his statement, “He began to teach them many things in parables.” (2) While many parables were recorded by the gospel writers, and we assume they were the most important ones, we are left feeling that there ar many sayings of Jesus that are lost to history.

I think Mark places the parable of the sower as the first one he records because it is all about the Good News that he describes in the opening line of his gospel: “The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1) But Jesus makes it quite clear that to receive and then process that good news imposes a requirement on us: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (9)  Jesus makes a clear distinction between hearing and listening. We may go to church for years and hear the good news every week, but until we hear with our hearts, which could be one definition of “listen,” the good news will have absolutely no impact on us. We will simply be the seeds that fell on the path that the birds consume.

Mark is extremely helpful in that having written down one parable, he takes the time to have Jesus explain why he talks in parables [One is tempted to say ‘riddles.’] He quotes Isaiah 6:9 almost verbatim:
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
    and may indeed listen, but not understand;
     so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (12)

Huh? Jesus seems to be saying that it’s a good thing that people will not understand what he’s saying, which hardly seems like a productive strategy for conveying good news to as many who will hear. The key lies in what jesus says before this: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” (11) Which is a pretty good summation of the Kingdom of God. It appears to be errant nonsense to those who reject Jesus’ message, but for those who “get it,” it is the center of life.  But in order to truly listen and understand, we must first become Jesus’ disciples. That is the only way into the Kingdom.

Psalm 50:7–15; Leviticus 11:1–28; Mark 3:20–35

Psalm 50:7–15: After the lengthy poetic introduction we reflected on yesterday, God speaks. His words are formal as if he is a judge speaking form the bench. They are directed to his chosen people and quickly establishes his godly bona fides: “Hear, O my people, that I may speak,/ Israel, that I witness to you.” (7a) And then the irrefutable and dramatic statement, “God your God I am.” (7b)

While he certainly doesn’t disapprove of the sacrifices that Israel has been offering all these years, he seems to discount them as he sets the stage for something bigger: “Not for your sacrifices shall I reprove you,/ your burnt-offerings always before me.” (8) He’s not really interested in them although he is not about to prevent their continuation: “I shall not take from your house [the temple, I presume] a bull,/ not goats from your pens.” (9) God seems to be saying basically, “Yes, your sacrifices are just fine but don’t do them because you think I need the meat.”

God then points out that he has far vaster resources than a few bulls and goats. After all, he’s saying, I’m the Creator: “Mine are all the beasts of the forest./ the herds on a thousand mountains,/ I know every bird of the mountains,/ creatures of the field are with Me.” (10, 11) In fact, God does not actually need those sacrifices at all: “Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls,/ would I drink the blood of goats?” (13)

God is making the point that the sacrifices are for humankind to atone for sin and to give thanksgiving. God does not need any of this for him to be God. He’s got all of creation to prove that. So, it is we who “Sacrifice to God a thanksgiving,/ and pay to the High One your vows.” (14) And when we are in trouble, “call Me on the day of distress—/ I will free you and you shall revere me.” (15).

The idea that we worship God because he needs worship is false. We come and worship because we need it. Jesus said this distinctly when he said, “Man was not made for the Sabbath; Sabbath was made for man.” We, not God, are the ones who require forgiveness for wrongdoing, and help in time of trouble.

Leviticus 11:1–28: Now that the construction and erection of the tabernacle is complete, and now that the sacrificial acts have been defined and performed with rather dramatic results, Leviticus returns to its primary role as instruction manual for Jewish practice. The instructions are comprehensive:

• “among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat.” (2) No cloven hoof animals, are acceptable. And the “pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.” (7)

• Finned and scaled fish are fine but forget everything else. [Wow. no scallops…]

• The a category I hope never to encounter in person:  “All winged insects that walk upon all fours are detestable to you.” (20). Although locusts, bald locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are OK. Ugh.

• Don’t carry dead animal carcasses around. If you do, “whoever carries any part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening.” (25)

• After reminding us once again that “Every animal that has divided hoofs but is not cleft-footed or does not chew the cud is unclean for you” (26), animals that “walk on their paws, among the animals that walk on all fours, are unclean for you.” (27) Which would include dogs, cats, lions, and tigers.

While it may seem strange to encounter these rather specific rules here in the Bible, we need to remember that this is here to preserve people from disease.  From a biological point of view, the rules make a lot of sense. [Well, with the possible exception of the business about four-legged insects.] Following these rules is how Israel survived in the desert and once in Canaan maintained their distinctiveness as a people.

Mark 3:20–35: Jesus has become a celebrity and the people keep mobbing him, “so that they could not even eat.” (20). But his family [Mary, Joseph(?), his brothers] are pretty horrified at what Jesus is doing: all that demon-scourging; those miracles. Perhaps worst of all, he’s offending those respectable Pharisees, paragons of virtue in the community. Frankly, they’re saying, Jesus is bringing shame on the entire family and it has to stop: “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”‘ (21)

An entire delegation of scribes form Jerusalem is called in to consult and conclude that “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” (22)  Jesus, inescapably logical, points out the inconsistency in their arguments: How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand…if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” (23, 26) Mark does not record the scribes’ reply. Probably because they had no argument to refute Jesus.

The scribes have asserted, “He has an unclean spirit,” (30) but Jesus is not finished. He goes on to describe what is famously known as the unforgivable sin:  “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (29) This statement is simply an extension of the Jesus’ logic above. To me this simply means that if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. But those who accuse others of not having the Spirit are not only deluded but out of relationship with God. And without that relationship, there can be no forgiveness.

Mark isn’t quite done with Jesus’ family yet. Mary and his brothers appear and the crowd points that out: “they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” (32) But Jesus famously appears to reject them with his rhetorical question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (33). Rather, Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (34b, 35)

I think this is simply Mark’s way of saying to his audience, that we are brothers and sisters in Jesus, and frankly, that relationship is far more important than even the flesh and blood one.His family disappears from the narrative until we encounter Mary again at the foot of the cross. Jesus’ statement marks the turning point in his ministry. He is now completely out on his own, untied from family obligations and even loyalty. And besides, they hadn’t been very nice, what with calling in that delegation from Jerusalem. But I really wish Mark had given us a clue as to how Jesus’ mother and brothers reacted.

Psalm 50:1–6; Leviticus 9:12–10:20; Mark 3:13–19

Psalm 50:1–6: This prophetic psalm opens with an unusual sequence of God’s names, “El, the God Lord,” which is essentially “God, God Lord,” as opposed to the more typical “Lord God.” This psalm will record God’s speech to the entire world, “He spoke and called to the earth/ from the sun’s rising-place to its setting.” (1b) While God’s glory indeed covers the entire earth from east [“rising-place”] to west “[“setting], God’s central location is —no surprise here—Jerusalem: “From Zion, the zenith of beauty/ God shone forth.” (2) Our psalmist, who refers to Jerusalem as the “zenith of beauty” is certainly based at the temple.

Before God speaks we witness an impressive theophany of fire, lightning, and thunder: “Let our God come and not be silent./ Before Him fire consumes, / and round Him—great storming.” (3) God is making his appearance not just to speak but to judge: “Let Him call to the heavens above/ and to the earth to judge His people:” (4)

Here, the “people” is Israel, as God’s first words are an invitation that includes a clear reference to the temple rites of sacrifice [of which we are currently reading in great detail in Leviticus]: “Gather to me Me My faithful,/ who with sacrifice seal My pact.” (5) The next verse confirms that when he speaks to the people the aspect of God that will be on display  is the God of judgement: “And let the heavens tell His justice,/ for God, He is judge.” (6)

One of the things I like about the psalms is that there is no hesitation on the part of the poets to put words in God’s mouth. I think this suggests a closer relationship with God than our (my) tendency to think of God only in the third person and that I dare not pretend to speak for him.

Leviticus 9:12–10:20: The inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood continues apace as Aaron carries out the sacrifices as instructed: “Then he slaughtered the burnt offering. Aaron’s sons brought him the blood, and he dashed it against all sides of the altar.” (9:12). The ordination completed, Aaron next “presented the people’s offering” (9:15), which is a sin offering. It’s crucial to note that Aaron is carrying out the sacrifices exactly as instructed, a point the authors make perfectly clear: “He presented the burnt offering, and sacrificed it according to regulation.” (9:16)

A sacrifice of well-being follows the sin offering—much as when we worship today we begin with a confession [or at least that’s what we used to do at Saint Matthew] before moving on to other parts of the liturgy. Once the sacrifices are complete, Moses and Aaron appear together “and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” (9:23). In a final theophanic stroke that concludes this opening rite, “Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.” (9:24) Which I think is exactly what I would do were I a witness there that day.

Filled with wine or enthusiasm or both, “Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them.” (10:1) Their act, which was probably well-meaning as they were caught up in the excitement lies beyond the pale of the instructions God had given to Moses. “And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (10:2) Moses tells Aaron that it was God who was in charge, not his well-meaning sons. In perhaps the most freighted sentence in this book, “And Aaron was silent.” (10:3) We can only imagine Aaron’s thoughts and feelings at this moment: grief, anger, probably a desire to run out of the tabernacle and weep.

For the first time in this book, God speaks to Aaron rather than Moses and gives a clear instruction: “Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever throughout your generations.” (10:9). The clear implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when the misadventure occurred. In any event, the authors were making the seriousness of approach God completely sober clear to their contemporary priesthood.

Moses then gives clear instructions to Aaron and his two remaining sons, Elezar and Ithamar that they are to consume the remaining grain and meat within the precincts of the tabernacle. Moses asks about the goat to be sacrifices and finds to his dismay, “it had already been burned!” (10:16) [Notice the exclamation mark.] Moreover, they have failed to eat the sin offering in the “sacred area.”

Moses chastises the already grief-stricken Aaron and his two sons.  Aaron pleads with Moses, saying that they had offered the sin offering, “and yet such things as these have befallen me!” (10:19a). [Another exclamation mark indicating the intense emotion of the moment.] Aaron asks “If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been agreeable to the Lord?” (10:19b) Moses replies that it would have been.

What do we take away from this episode? Certainly that when God gives instruction they are to be followed precisely. But perhaps the greatest lesson here is that we must be careful in keeping what is holy, holy. The question becomes, are we too casual in worship? Yes, we live in the era of grace, which Aaron and his sons clearly did not. But that does not give us an excuse to approach God with any thing but the utmost reverence. As both the psalm and this passage make clear, God judges us. Our actions have consequences.

Mark 3:13–19: Up to this point we have met only five of the disciples: Simon (soon to be Peter), Andrew, John, James and Levi (soon to be Matthew). But now Jesus—rather symbolically—ascends the mountain “and called to him those whom he wanted.” (13a). Jesus chooses the disciples just as he choses us. Upon being called, those whom he called “came to him.” (13b) That is, we respond to the invitation; we do not initiate it.

Jesus appoints twelve, and  in something I had not noticed before, it is Jesus himself who “named them apostles.” (14)

He gives them a very clear mission [what today we would call a ‘mission statement.’] consisting of three duties:
1. “to be with him;” (14)
2. “to be sent out to proclaim the message” (i.e., the ‘Good News’ that Mark speaks of in the very first line of his gospel); (14)
3. “to have authority to cast out demons.” (15)

Notice that while they can cast out demons, they cannot be healers. At this point Jesus reserves that power for himself. One wonders: were demons easier to cast out than healing people?  Or would a whole bunch of disciples wandering around healing people undermine Jesus’ mission un earth and create exactly the political revolution he sought earnestly to avoid. He doubtless learned some lessons from John the Baptist’s ministry, his enthusiastic followers and the fact that John ended up in prison.

While I’m ambivalent about the casting our demons business, there’s no question that as disciples we are all called to do the first two things Mark writes here as well: to be with Jesus and to proclaim the good news.

Mark then lists the roster of Apostles, noting the change in Simon’s name to Peter, or more informally, “Rocky.” He also calls John and James the “sons of Thunder,” Doubtless a reference to a physical or personality trait, possibly that they were big, strong men, or perhaps that they spoke loudly and boldly.

Mark names Judas Iscariot last and adding the information this early in his gospel that it is Judas “who betrayed him.” (19)

Once this task was accomplished, Mark tells us “Then he [Jesus] went home.” (19) In other words, when the task is complete, go home and rest. Ministry does not have to be 24/7. Jesus clearly understood the reasons for the Sabbath. As he pointed out to the Pharisees, the sabbath is made for humankind.

Psalm 49:13–21; Leviticus 8:18–9:11; Mark 3:1–12

Psalm 49:13–21: Our poet continues his reflection on the brevity—and ultimate futility— of life, observing that “This way of theirs is foolishness.” (14a) We see the herd of unobservant, even stupid people head off to death without ever having realized the purpose of life: “Like sheep to Sheol they head—/ death shepherds them—” (15a) A puzzling line follows: “and the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.” (15b) Does this mean that the righteous (“upright”) people who have preceded these ‘sheep’ in Sheol somehow rule over them? Things become a tiny bit clearer with the poet’s assertion that “they wear out their image in Sheol,/ a habitation for them.” (15c), which I take to mean that those who were formerly well-known [‘their image’], rich, and powerful on earth are now nothing special following their death. Which seems intuitively true.

As for the poet, however, he is a God follower and “God will ransom my life,/ from the grip of Sheol he will take me.” (16) In other words, he’s rescued from imminent death, even though he has already informed us that all—including him— will die and eventually end up in Sheol.

The upshot of this is that given the ultimately meaningless end of the rich and powerful, we should not fear them while they rule or lord it over us here on earth: “Do not fear when a man grows rich,/ when he enlarges his glory./ For in his death he will not take all.” (17, 18a)

Our poet goes on to observe that the rich man is a hypocrite, whose motives are strictly self-centered even as he appears to be giving God the credit for his wealth and power: “For his own self he blesses [God] when alive/ and acclaims You for giving him bounty.” (19) Goodness knows we have seen many powerful men—especially politicians— give God credit or profess their religiosity when deep down we know they are making it all up. Which is one reason I cringe whenever I hear a politician say, ‘God bless America.’

But even the powerful will die, never having understood that God holds him in his hand like a crumpled piece of paper; that all things are fundamentally meaningless: “He will come to the state of his fathers—/forevermore will not see the light.” (20) As our poet concludes on the same gloomy note of the ultimate futility of life. We are all doomed, even the rich and powerful: “Man will not grasp things in splendor./ He is likened to the beasts that are doomed.” (21)

Once again proving that the Psalms is an amazing collection of emotions and philosophies.

Leviticus 8:18–9:11: The elaborate ceremony of ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel continues with detailed, almost loving, descriptions of how each animal is eviscerated and burned on the altar. There are certainly bizarre qualities to the rite such as “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.” (8:23) Blood and bread are intermixed as Moses “took one cake of unleavened bread, one cake of bread with oil, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat and on the right thigh.” (8:26).

I’m struck in reading this that Jesus’ disciples in the upper room—or at least some of them—would have recalled this passage in Leviticus when Jesus symbolically interweaves blood and bread as he holds the cup aloft and tells them that “this is my blood.”

There is certainly a lot of eating involved in this ceremony as well as Moses commands, “Boil the flesh at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and eat it there with the bread that is in the basket of ordination offerings, as I was commanded, ‘Aaron and his sons shall eat it.‘” (8:31). But it makes some sense when we read that Aaron and his sons “shall remain at the entrance of the tent of meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge.” (8:35a) —and as usual, on pain of death: “so that you do not die.” (8:35b).

Which is what they do. Moses returns on the eighth day and tells Aaron to “Take a bull calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord.” (9:2) All of Israel is standing there as Aaron offers the sacrifice, which is his first official priestly act as he will now “make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded.” (9:7)

If nothing else, the elaborateness and precision with which instructions must be follow emphasize [to me, anyway] that God is not just an abstract philosophical concept that we’re far too comfortable with. Rather, God is very much attached to us, his creatures, at every physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual level. No detail is too unimportant and just as Aaron and his sons had to follow a precise ritual, ritual in coming to God is equally important—and thankfully far less bloody—in how we worship. There is no randomness here, nor should there be in our own worship.

Mark 3:1–12: Mark continues to weave the tenets of Jesus’ radical theology with his acts of healing. There’s a setup at the synagogue at Capernaum. The Pharisees “watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (2). Jesus asks the man with the withered hand to come forward so everyone could witness what was about to happen. As he does so, Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (4). But the Pharisees don’t answer because to have answered would have been to agree with Jesus.

It is in their silence that we witness Jesus’ emotional reaction: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” (5) Does Jesus look at me in anger and grieving when I ail to practice compassion—and especially when I use a theological excuse to justify that lack of compassion?

Then he heals the man as the Pharisees stalk out and “immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (6) Mark makes sure that we know that the conspiracy subplot begins early and that it begins way up in the remote reaches of Galilee, not in the center of power down in Jerusalem.

While the Pharisees despised Jesus, the people love him and he attracts “a great multitude from Galilee followed him.” (7) Even though there was no print or electronic communication, word of Jesus’ mighty acts spreads quickly as people “came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.” (8) Which is to say both Jewish and Gentile areas. Mark is hinting early on that Jesus is far more than a local Jewish rabbi.

Because of the crowds, Jesus must preach from a boat anchored at the shore. This scene reminds me of the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachsuetts, famously described by Melville in the opening scenes of Moby Dick, where the pulpit is shaped like the prow of a boat.

Jesus heals many and equally important to Mark, he casts out demons. Mark writes that “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” (11) Is Mark telling us that while the ‘principalities and powers’ under the earth know who Jesus is, the religious leaders refuse to believe? If so, that makes the contrast between belief and unbelief even starker.

 

Psalm 49:1–12; Leviticus 7:22–8:17; Mark 2:13–28

 Psalm 49:1–12: If the authors of Ecclesiastes or Proverbs wrote psalms [and perhaps one of them did], it would be this one. His message is for all who will listen to the wisdom he is about to utter: “Hear this, all peoples,/ hearken, all who dwell in the world./ You human creatures, you sons of man.” (2, 3a) His message is for everyone regardless of economic status: “together with the rich and needy.” (3b).

There is no false modesty here: “My mouth speaks wisdom,/ my heart’s utterance, understanding.” (4) He will even accompany his sayings with music: “I take up with the lyre my theme.” (5b) and tells us that we live in a fallen world: “Why should I fear in evil days,/ when crime comes round me at my heels?” (6)

His first words are directed at the well off, who have misplaced trust in their wealth, thinking it will be of benefit, especially when it comes to pleasing God: “Who trust in their wealth/ and boast of their great riches—/ yet they surely will redeem no man,/ will not give to God his ransom.” (7,8) In fact they do not posses what’s needed for salvation: “To redeem their lives is too dear,/ and one comes to an end forever.” (9) This last line is consistent with the Jewish belief that there was no afterlife or heaven, as he asks rhetorically, “Will he yet live forever?/ Will he not see the pit?” (10)

In a verse that seems lifted directly out of Ecclesiastes, he reflects on death as the great equalizer: “For he sees the wise die,/ both the fool and the stupid man perish,” (11a), reminding us that we can’t take it with us: “and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11b) Just to make sure we get the point, he states that no matter how great our reputation or fame may have been in life, “Their grave is their home forever,/ their dwelling for all generations./ though their names had been called upon earth.” (12)

It is verses like these that remind us that mankind has been reflecting on the seeming pointlessness of life for thousands of years. Each generation matures, thinking it has discovered some new truth, but as the author of Ecclesiastes points out, there is nothing new under the sun—including our insights and wisdom.

Leviticus 7:22–8:17: Clothed within the rites of sacrifice is hygienic advice: “The fat of an animal that died or was torn by wild animals may be put to any other use, but you must not eat it.” (7:24) And once again everyone is reminded, “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements.” (7:26) The penalty for disobedience is banishment: “Any one of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kin.” (7:27)

For their priestly efforts, Aaron and his sons receive the breast and thighs of the animals that are sacrificed as “as a perpetual due from the people of Israel.” (7:35) Which is also a not-so-gentle reminder to the people hearing these instructions hundreds of years later that what the priestly class takes as what is essentially a tax.  And it’s been justified by virtue of using the literary device of God speaking to and instructing Moses himself. Who can argue with that?

The authors conclude this section on offerings and sacrifices by listing the various rites about which they’ve given instruction : “This is the ritual of the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being, which the Lord commanded Moses on Mount Sinai.” (7:37) They are now ready to move onto describing (again) the rites of priestly ordination.  In this second turn of describing what priestly ordination, there is a more human touch than the drier instructions given a few chapters back. 

First, Moses announce to multitude assembled before the tabernacle:“This is what theLord has commanded to be done.” (8:5) and it is Moses who brings “Aaron and his sons forward, and washed them with water.” (8:6). Once again we see the direct connection to baptism.

Moses then dresses Aaron in his priestly vestments, including the  ephod with its famous Urim and Thummin. We see traces of this act of dressing in the rite of ordination today as the newly ordained pastor/ priest receives the stole (and in the Catholic church, the chasuble) that represents his office.

We can also trace the act of anointing with oil back to this ceremony as “Moses poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” (12) Happily, however, we do not follow the rite of a sacrificial bull as a sin offering, which Moses uses as a cleansing agent for the altar.

Notice that the sacrifice is a sin offering, not an offering of good will. This makes it clear that the primary priestly duty is one of atonement. It is reading about these priestly duties and rites here that helps me realize once again just how significant Jesus’ great act of once-for-all sacrifice has been.

Mark 2:13–28: Jesus chooses his fifth disciple, a certain “Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth,”(14) [whom we come to know as Matthew] with the simple words, “Follow me.” What’s interesting here is that Jesus joins Levi’s colleagues for a party, which offends the Pharisees. I assume that up to now, they had considered this Jesus guy to be one of them, so I think their question—“Why does he eat[f] with tax collectors and sinners?” (16)— is completely natural.

Jesus’ response to this question is the beginning of his estrangement form the religious establishment, which held itself to be better than the hoi polloi: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (17) Mark is also telling us that Jesus and his mission on earth is strikingly different from all who have come before. Even John the Baptist’s disciples are puzzled as they ask along with the Pharisees, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (18)

The question about the Sabbath is in the same vein. This time, the Pharisees have their turn and assert, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (24) This time Jesus uses Scripture—which the Pharisees surely knew cold—to point out that David ate the bread of the Presence on the sabbath because he and his men were hungry. Jesus concludes, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (27)

I think these words identify what is wrong with “religion” right up to the present time. The rites and rules of religious practice too easily become the end in themselves. We forget that these are the means to connect with God, and that Jesus is always  concerned first with our welfare as persons, not with our piety—or lack  thereof.

In the midst of this dialog, Jesus has reiterated the revolutionary nature of his ministry with the metaphor of the coat to be replaired, “No one sews a piece of new cloth on an old cloak;” (21)  and the more famous metaphor of new wine in old wineskins, where “the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (22) Mark is making sure that we “get it.” What is going on here is completely unprecedented, breaks all the long-established rules, and as we shall see, will change the world in unimaginable ways.

 

Psalm 48; Leviticus 6:14–7:21; Mark 2:1–12

Psalm 48: We celebrated the king in the previous psalms; this one celebrates God residing in Zion, aka Jerusalem: “Great is the Lord and highly praised,/ in our God’s town, His holy mountain.” (2) [Alter notes that he uses “town” rather than “city,” because compared to other great cities of the time, Jerusalem is a relative backwater.]

There is indeed today a “Mount Zion” within the city walls of Jerusalem, and our poet sings its praises: “Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy,/ Mount Zion, far end of Zaphon,/ the great king’s city.” (3) because that is where God lives: “God in its bastions/ is famed as a fortress.” (4)

It appears this psalm is celebrating a military victory where God’s enemies, who “have seen and been so astounded,/ were panicked, dismayed./ Shuddering seized them there,/ pangs like a woman in labor.” (6,7) Even though Jerusalem lies some 35 miles from the Mediterranean coast, a naval enemy was defeated by natural events [although Alter notes that scholars have been unable to link this psalm to a specific military event]: “With the east wind/ You smashed the ships of Tarshish.” (8) The key point here is that God has helped the inhabitants of Zion to prevail over their enemy: “As we heard, so we see/ in the town of the Lord of armies, in the town of our God.” (9)

The remainder of the psalm continues the celebration, which extends outward to Jerusalem’s suburbs: “Let Mount Zion rejoice,/ let Judea’s townlets exult/ because of Your judgements.” (12) The reader is encouraged to assess Jerusalem’s impregnability, in an image that evokes the famous walk around Jericho: “Go around  Zion, encircle it./ Count its towers./ Set your mind to its ramparts, scale its bastions/ to recount to the last generation.” (13, 14)

The beauty of the psalm is its physicality, for the walls of Jerusalem still stands and Mount Zion still lies within.  It’s a tangible reminder of God’s ever-abiding presence on earth, as the glorious last verse reminds us: “For this is God, our God, forevermore./ He will lead us forever.” (15)

Leviticus 6:14–7:21: Instructions regarding various offerings which we have already read are repeated here, albeit more briefly. The point here seems to be that while the earlier descriptions were effectively the instruction manual, we have a more human connection here because the authors frame it as Moses giving instruction to Aaron and his sons.  The practical”human angle” is reenforced as we also see specific instructions about what parts of each offering may be eaten and which may not.

First, “the ritual of the grain offering: [which] The sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, in front of the altar.” (6:14) Happily, the sons get to eat what is left over. It is followed by “the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Lord on the day when he is anointed.” (20)

Then, the more grisly sin offering, which the “priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting.” (26) More practical instruction: “when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place.” (27) Either an earthen or bronze vessel may be used for the washing process. The earthen vessel is disposed of but the bronze one is throughly cleaned for reuse.

In what have been a great relief to the priests trying to absorb all these precise rituals, they (and we) are told, “guilt offering is like the sin offering, there is the same ritual for them; the priest who makes atonement with it shall have it.” (7:7) In a nice example of recycling, “the priest who offers anyone’s burnt offering shall keep the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered.” (8) Although it’s not clear to me what the priest is supposed to do with burnt skin.

Finally, “the ritual of the sacrifice of the offering of well-being that one may offer to the Lord.” (11)  which is accompanied by cakes of leavened (yes, leavened) bread. Both the cakes and any flesh offered as thanksgiving “shall be eaten on the day it is offered; you shall not leave any of it until morning.” (15) But woe betide the priest or individual who eats leftovers: “If any of the flesh of your sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable,” (18). All of which makes good sense from the standpoint of avoiding food poisoning in the desert where refrigeration had not yet been invented.

In fact, the punishment for disobedience on this eating of food too late or while in an unclean state is quite harsh: “those who eat flesh from theLord’s sacrifice of well-being while in a state of uncleanness shall be cut off from their kin.” (20) From our 21st century perspective, these instructions about sacrifice are not bizarre or arbitrary at all. Rather, they seem designed so that everyone involved practices good hygiene.

Mark 2:1–12: By the time Jesus returns home [presumably to Simon’s house] to Capernaum his fame has spread across Galilee and “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (2) But the friends of a paralytic man are not discouraged by Jesus’ apparent inaccessibility. They bring the paralytic up to the roof of the house, remove some roofing tiles and lower the paralytic man down right in front of Jesus.

This famous healing would be all sweetness and light—a touching story of friendship— had Jesus simply told the man that he was healed. But Mark is not one to waste a teachable moment and he writes that Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (5).  This statement offends the scribes, who whisper among themselves that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy. Mark tells us that Jesus did not hear them, but rather “perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves.” (8) Jesus poses the philosophical question to them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (9) and promptly tells the paralytic to get up and walk, which of course he does.

Mark’s point here is that while the miracles seem to trump the phrase, “your sins are forgiven,” it is the forgiveness of sins—not the miracles— that is Jesus’ true purpose on earth. Yes, the miracles are impressive, and “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”’ (12) Miracles may be dramatic, but God’s forgiveness is orders of magnitude more important. Moreover, Mark is telling us, while all of us may not experience a miraculous healing, we all will experience God’s forgiveness through Jesus.  Which is why I feel the church today needs to focus on increasing our awareness of our sinful nature and the reality of Jesus’ forgiveness far more than on physical healing.

Psalm 47; Leviticus 5:1–6:13; Mark 1:35–45

Psalm 47: Alter informs us that this psalm forms a central part of the liturgy for the Jewish New Year. Its first half is worship which celebrates God’s kingship: “All peoples, clap hands, shout out to God with a sound of glad song.” (2) There is neither reticence nor reverent quiet here as the congregation joyfully acknowledges, “For the Lord is most high and fearsome,/ a great king over all the earth.”  (3) God is not restricted to being king of over Israel, but in one of the many reminders on the Psalms of God’s universality, he is king “over all the earth.”

This is no effeminate God, but one who conquers militarily: “He crushes people beneath us/ and nations beneath our feet.” (4) Moreover, God “chooses us for his estate,” (5a) and loves Israel above all all other nations: “...pride of Jacob whom He loves.” (5b)

But this psalm is also about us, for we know that through Jesus Christ God has chosen us and our response can only be glad worship:  “Hymn to God, hymn,/ hymn to our king, O hymn./For king of all earth is God,/ hymn joyous song.” (7,8) This song emphasizes again that while God particularly loves the people of Israel, he is the God of every human on the earth: “God reigns over the nations,/ and sits on His holy throne.” (9)

Notice that worship is not about us nor does it exist to make us feel better. Which means in the end it’s not about worship forms such as “traditional” or “contemporary.” It is focused solely in one direction and one direction only: Our response is to God simply because of the reality of God’s kingship over every being on earth.

Leviticus 5:1–6:13: If we read Leviticus carefully we begin to see that it weaves sin and penance into a tightly woven structure. Here we encounter a fairly comprehensive inventory of sins:
• Failure to testify when one has seen a sin by another. (5:1)
• Touching unclean things such as carcasses. (2)
• Touching human uncleanness (and we can certainly imagine what that is…) (3)
• “Utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose,” (4) which pretty much takes swearing off the table.

The first step in restoring one to a state of righteousness is, “You shall confess the sin that you have committed.” (5) As Christians, confession remains our first requirement when we realize we have sinned.

Our authors then go on to describe the precise sacrificial procedures: “as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering.” (6). Notice that unlike sacrifices for good will, the sacrifices of atonement involve a female sheep or goat.

One of the really great things in that our authors have recognized economic reality and make provision for it. Not everyone will have the means to sacrifice a relatively expensive sheep or goat, so “if you cannot afford a sheep, you shall bring to the Lord, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, two turtledoves or two pigeons.” (7)  And then, “if you cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering.” (11) In other words, the act of sacrifice was proportionate to one’s wealth. It is details like these that demonstrate that God meets us where we are regardless of our economic circumstances. Too bad that reality was corrupted by the time of the Pharisees—and today a —by the assumption that wealth correlated to righteousness.

Some sins involve taking property and restitution is required. These include “deceiving a neighbor in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbor, or have found something lost and lied about it.” (6: 2,3) And in those cases, “when you realize your guilt” then one is required to “restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found.”  (6:4) But restitution comes with a 20% tax—a brilliant disincentive to steal in the first place: “you shall repay the principal amount and shall add one-fifth to it.” (6:5) In addition, the expense of the required sin sacrifice is also required.

One of the things we need to realize about this lengthy compendium of sin and sacrifice is that it jumps around on various topics and often backs up to retrace rules already elaborated upon. Here, we shift suddenly to “the ritual of the burnt offering. The burnt offering itself shall remain on the hearth upon the altar all night until the morning, while the fire on the altar shall be kept burning.” (6:10). Although this seems like a total non sequitur, it helps us realize that where we would probably assign a separate chapter to each topic, our authors are pushing multiple issues forward at the same  time: sin, sacrifice, guilt, restitution, and priestly practice.

Mark 1:35–45: Even though we’re still in Mark’s first chapter, no one is sitting still—least of all, Jesus—as Mark continues to show us various aspects of his character. Teaching and healing at Capernaum, is immediately followed by describing Jesus;’ practice of finding a deserted place in order to pray. And he didn’t bother to tell anyone. We can sense Simon’s annoyance when, after hunting and finally finding Jesus, he grumps,“Everyone is searching for you.” (37). And of course there’s the double meaning of “Everyone is searching for you.” Which we who are reading or hearing this Gospel are doing: we are searching for the real Jesus. Mark is also subtly telling us not only is Jesus his own man who relies more on his father than other people, but that he is unpredictable and will keep doing the unexpected. Our efforts to put Jesus in a box will always prove futile.

Jesus—master of surprise—unexpectedly announces that instead of returning to Capernaum, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (38) In this simple declaration, Mark gives us Jesus’ mission statement: to proclaim the good news wherever he can.

The leper follows Jesus and realizes an important truth that is probably not yet obvious to Jesus four disciples, telling Jesus: “If you choose, you can make me clean.”  (40) This tells me that when healing occurs it is not we who have chosen, but Jesus. And not everyone who wishes so will be healed. In the leper’s case, “moved with pity,  Jesus  stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” (41)Mark is telling us that we cannot control Jesus; he makes his own decisions. Yet many of our so-called Christian behaviors such as praying to find a parking place are exactly that: our efforts to control Jesus and make him our personal errand boy. Jesus cannot be corralled to our own ends.

The leper famously disobeys Jesus’ order not to tell anyone about being healed but, “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” (45) We often wonder why Jesus would say this, but I think Mark gives us a very simple explanation that it was simply logistics since “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” (45)  I even think there’s a bit of reverse psychology operating here: Jesus is perfectly happy to have word spread. After all, he just said that “I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.

Psalm 46; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21–34

Psalm 46: This celebratory psalm gives God the credit for victory and protection of Israel, recognizing that “God is a shelter and a strength for us,/ a help in straits readily found.” (1) In a verse that everyone of us can hold onto when times are chaotic, our poet proclaims that because of God’s sheltering protection, “Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,/ when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.” (2)

It’s easy now—just as it was probably easy then—to believe that everything in the world around us is flying apart. That metaphorically, if not literally, “waters roar and roil,/ mountains heave in its surge.” (4) Be it natural disaster such as the earthquake and floods implied here; or be it war, revolution, or terrorism, “God is in its midst, it will not collapse./ God helps it as morning breaks.” (6)  All around us, “Nations roar and kingdoms collapse,” (7) but God still reigns as “he sends forth His voice and earth melts.” (7)

Although the psalm employs military imagery, celebrating how “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for us.” (8) God remains in charge of the affairs of humankind and of all creation, ultimately bringing cessation of hostilities everywhere: “Go, behold the acts of the Lord,/ Who made desolations on earth,/ caused wars to cease to the end of the earth.” (9, 10a). Finally, he brings an end of all war, “The bow He has broken and splintered the spear,/ and chariots burned in fire.” (10b)

God speaks what we must remember when times seem darkest we need do only one thing: ‘Let go, and know that I am God.” (11) The eternal question for each person and each nation is, can we ever relinquish our need to control events? It is this lust for control that creates conflict and war. Earthquakes and floods may be natural occurrences, but it is because humankind has forgotten God that we find ourselves in desperate straits as a world, a nation, a culture and as individuals. We have forgotten that  “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for is.” (12) believing instead we are the little-g gods and do not require assistance. But it only requires scanning the headlines to realize how false and misguided our quest for control really is.

Leviticus 4: It’s one thing to bring good will offerings such as grain as described in the previous chapters,, but there is also the deeper question of what to do when we have sinned, even if unintentionally. And the specific instructions are here for when “the anointed priest who sins, thus bringing guilt on the people” (3) as well as when the people as a group sin: “the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (13).

This chapter describes the actions required for individual sins as well: “When a ruler sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by commandments of the Lord his God ought not to be done and incurs guilt” (22) as well as “anyone of the ordinary people among you sins unintentionally in doing any one of the things that by the Lord’s commandments ought not to be done and incurs guilt.”  (27)

But I think what’s most remarkable here is that these sacrificial acts of justification were required even when the sin was unintentional, i.e., not the result of an evil thought or deed. It seems almost quaint in today’s “anything goes” culture is that the sin occurs and “the matter escapes the notice of the assembly.” (13) Today, the entire idea of sin—whether intentional or unintentional— is fading from the scene, even from churches, and is being replaced by requiring “tolerance” of any sinful act as well as the new morality of “I can do anything I wish as long as I don’t hurt other people.”

We can view the priest and ruler as a leader and when the leader sins, there are consequences for the “whole congregation,” i.e., society at large. We need only look at how entire nations are suffering today because of corrupt or incompetent leadership in order to see how what’s being described here in Leviticus is still totally relevant today.

Likewise, there are societal sins such as our collective rejection of sexual mores, which are having profound—and mostly negative—consequences, particularly on the most vulnerable among us such as the ongoing collapse of family structure among the poor. Yes, these sins may be unintentional but the entire point here is that they nevertheless have negative consequences. An aspect we too often fail to appreciate today.

Mark 1:21–34: Mark’s stylistic terseness creates a sense of action—much like quick cuts in a movie heighten the sense of energy and tension. And Mark’s Jesus is extremely action-oriented. Having just caused four disciples to follow him, he enters “the synagogue and taught.” (21) And the results are amazing to the locals at Capernaum: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) But Jesus’ teaching is just the introduction to more astounding events: “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (23, 24).  Jesus’ very first miracle act in Mark is exorcizing the demon rather than physical healing. With this priority, I think Mark is telling us that Jesus is just as concerned with our mental well-being as our physical—something we fail at today in a health care system focused on physical healing but which too often abandons the mentally ill to their fate.

What’s also remarkable to our 21st century eyes here is Mark’s rather matter-of-fact recounting the words of a demon-possessed man. In that day, demon possession was the explanation for what today we explain as mental illness. However, even though demon possession may have been an everyday occurence in Jesus’ day, it’s clear that curing mentally ill people was not: “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching—with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” (27, 28)

Following this event, Mark then describes more “conventional” miracles: healing the physically ill.  Jesus’ first physical healing in Mark is healing Simon’s mother-in-law. And soon, “at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.” (32-34)

In just a few verses Mark has given us a sense of the momentous impact that Jesus has brought to the sleepy fishing village of Capernaum. And it’s all about healing—spiritual, emotional, physical. To be sure, Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue was “astounding,” but it’s the healing on which Mark is training his intense narrative spotlight. We are only in the first chapter and Mark has us already out of breath. Which when I think about it, is exactly what the impact of Jesus should be having on our own lives.