Archives for May 2016

Psalm 66:16–20; Numbers 7:72–8:4; Mark 12:13–17

Psalm 66:16–20: Our psalmist turns to personal testimony regarding his encounter with God: “Come listen and let me recount,/ all you who fear God,/ what he did for me.” (16) This is the first time I recall seeing such a direct statement regarding witnessing to others. To me, it means we are to tell other people of God’s actions in our own lives. God’s activity is too great to keep it to ourselves.

Our poet’s testimony is simple but affecting: “To Him with my mouth I called out,/ exaltation upon my tongue.” (17) It is a spoken prayer that occurs during worship [“exaltation upon my tongue.”] And he prays following confession, knowing that prayer with an unclean heart does not encourage God to listen to us: “Had I seen mischief in my heart,/ the Master would not have listened.” (18) To me this verse suggests that in worship each week, if we are going to have public prayers, we must first have engaged in public confession. Every time we worship. Not just during Lent.

But with his clean heart, our poet asserts happily, “God indeed has listened,/ has hearkened to the sound of my prayer.” (19) And through my personal trials of April and early May, I know with the psalmist that God has heard my prayer—and the prayers of others praying for me. It is with a joyful heart that I can sing with the psalmist, “Blessed is God,/ Who has not turned away my prayer nor His kindness from me.” (20)

Numbers 7:72–8:4: Patiently waiting in line for the past ten days, “On the eleventh day Pagiel son of Ochran, the leader of the Asherites” (72) finally gets to deliver the offering of his tribe. It is the same as the preceding ten tribes. As is our anchor man, “Ahira son of Enan, the leader of the Naphtalites,” (78) who, on the twelfth day brings completes the tribal offerings at the tabernacle.

Having sat through twelve days of identical offerings, our authors—being the accountants they are—summarize the “dedication offering for the altar, at the time when it was anointed, from the leaders of Israel,” (84)

  • 12 silver plates;
  • 12 silver basins;
  • 12 golden dishes full of incense;
  • burnt offering consisting of 12 bulls, 12 rams, 12 male one-tear old lambs (including grain);
  • 12 male goats for the sin offering;
  • well-being offering consisting of 24 bulls, 60 rams, 60 male goats, 60 male lambs a year old.

The dedicatory offering and sacrifices complete, our authors shift the POV to Moses, reminding us that  “When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord,  he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the covenant[c] from between the two cherubim.” (89). In other words they are reassuring their readers that the twelve days of complicated sacrifices were indeed authorized by God and spoken through God’s mouthpiece, Moses.

We return to the furnishings of the tabernacle, as Moses, having received instructions from God, passes them along to Aaron. First, are “the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” (8:2) Whence the Menorah that remains a central part of Jewish worship today.

The authors also remind us of the construction of the lampstand, made “out of hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.” (8:4)  Moses had many talents but I doubt making lampstands was one of them. However, our priestly author/ accountants are tight-fisted when it comes to giving credit to anyone outside the Moses-Aaron-Levite axis. Frankly, I much prefer the story way back in Exodus 37, where full credit is given to Bezalel in a much more believable scenario than the one here in Numbers.

Mark 12:13–17: The temple leadership knows that because of Jesus’ popularity, they cannot simply come and arrest him for high crimes and misdemeanors. So the conspire with “some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said.” (13). They come to Jesus and in possibly one of the most insincere and treacly statements in the gospels, they sidle up to Jesus and with total artifice, they fawningly state, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” (14) They doubtless assumed that since Jesus, having just arrived at sophisticated Jerusalem from the Galilean outback and therefore they assumed him to be a country bumpkin, would be awed by their blatant obsequity.

They spring their trick question on him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?  Should we pay them, or should we not?” (15a) Jesus sees right through their ruse, telling them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” (15b) He famously asks them,“Whose head is this, and whose title?” (16) He then proceeds to give the answer that even those outside the church know quite well: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (17) Or more famously, as the King James version puts it, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

We can only imagine the consternation of his interrogators. Mark tells us, “they were utterly amazed at him.” (17b) But I doubt this is awe-struck amazement; it is angry amazement at Jesus’ cleverness in once again escaping being trapped by his words. Earlier it was charges of blasphemy which the temple leadership failed to hang on him. This time, the Pharisees and Herodians (obviously political animals) that fail to hang the charge of sedition on him.

Jesus is not about to be trapped by his words. The conspirators will have to turn to more desperate measures to rid themselves of this very wise and very clever rabbi.

Psalm 66:8–15; Numbers 7:36–71; Mark 11:27–12:12

Psalm 66:8–15: Grateful to God in worship—”Bless, O peoples, our God/ and make heard the sound of His praise” (8)—our poet reminds us that the God whom we worship is resolutely faithful to us, even in the worst of times: “Who has kept us in life,/ and let not our foot stumble.” (9)

Life is not easy, and the psalmist believes that his rials and hardships arose because God allows us to be tested. But also that this test is for our own good, and having passed the test, we emerge from the trial refined—a better person: “For You tested us, God,/ You refined us as silver refined.” (10) In fact some situations are quite arduous: “You trapped us in a net,/ placed heavy cords round our loins.” (11) God’s test includes oppression of all Israel by other nations: “You let people ride over us.” (12a)

I confess that I cannot cotton to the idea of God sitting back and choosing specific means to put us to the test. Did God plan for me to have cancer and thereby make me a “better person?” Rather, with the psalmist, I far prefer the idea of God allowing us to be tested that resonates. This concept of allowing testing is of course the entire point of Job. This fallen world is filled with great evil, and I believe that even the innocent are put to the test by virtue of simply being alive.

The key point is that having been tested, whether instigated by God or not, God is our rescuer: “We came into fire and water—/ and You brought us out to great ease.” (12b) And having been rescued we respond in worship. Just as our psalmist—who suddenly switches voices to first person singular—worships at the temple in Jerusalem and makes good on the vows he made when he prayed for rescue earlier: “I shall come to Your house with burnt offerings/ I shall pay to You my vows/ that my lips have uttered,/ that my mouth spoke in my straits.” (13, 14) He then describes the sacrifices he made quite specifically: “Fat burnt-offerings I shall offer up to You/ with the incense of rams./ I shall sacrifice cattle and goats.” (15)

How often we forget to offer our deep gratitude to God after we have been rescued from a trial or testing. I would do well to remember how God has once again rescued me from my disease by responding to him in prayer and worship.

Numbers 7:36–71: In this verse, which read more like a catalog than Scripture we meet the six more representatives of the remaining eight tribes of Israel, each of whom is given a day of worship and sacrifice at the newly-dedicated tabernacle.

Our authors are definitely double-entry bookkeepers and make sure that each and every tribe offers exactly the same objects and animals:

  • one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, (37, 43, 49, 55, 61, 67)
  • one silver basin weighing seventy shekels;
  • one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense;
  • one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering;
  • one male goat for a sin offering;
  • and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old.

Notice that a complete sacrificial offering covers the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the sacrifice of well-being.

This precise inventory is repeated and listed for each tribe: Simeonites, Gadites, Ephramites, Manassites, Benjaminites, Asheites.

Why list the same items over and over? Obviously, there’s the issue of treating each tribe equally.

But also, I think it’s because we are talking about an act of worship on the part of each tribe, and this chapter takes on a significant quality of serious liturgy by virtue of its repetition. In the insane hurryedness of 21st century America, we believe that repetition serves no useful purpose and must be avoided. This sense of efficiency and moving right along  is certainly what has come to define worship at Saint Matthew. This chapter reminds us to slow down and savor all that God has done for us. True worship must not be a hurried, efficient affair, but one of lingering in the sweet presence of God.

Mark 11:27–12:12: It’s Tuesday morning and Jesus has returned to the temple, where he’s confronted by the senior leadership—chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—at the temple, who are obviously upset to have their tight little empire threatened by this Galilean outsider. Resolute bureaucrats that they are, they demand an explanation, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” (28) Jesus fires back with his own question, and if they “answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.” (29). His question is of course a trap: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (30).

The leaders quickly realize that if they answer “heaven,” Jesus can rightfully accuse them of disbelief. If they answer “human,” the people will revolt, since “they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet.” (32) So, the question remains unanswered, but the leaders had to know, based on the example of John the Baptist, that something beyond the human realm was going on here. And that is also Mark’s point in relating this incident. Something far beyond what we can imagine is going on here. The temple status quo is being torn asunder.

Jesus, surrounded by the crowd and by the temple leadership, begins to tell a rather pointed parable. Unlike many of them, there’s no hidden meaning here—least of all to the temple authorities. The wicked tenants are indeed the temple authorities, who have rejected the prophets before Jesus: “And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” (12:4,5) One suspects that Jesus’ reference to “the one they killed” is John the Baptist.

And then, in the crowning touch, the man sends his son, which is a clear reference to Jesus himself, whom they also kill. So, on top of Jesus’ effrontery in refusing to answer their “authority question,” now he’s not only insulting them in front of the entire crowd, he’s engaging in outright blasphemy by claiming to be the son of God and quoting the prophecy about the rejected cornerstone on top of it.  The leaders would have torn him from limb to limb right then and there if they had the chance, but as usual, “they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.” (12:12) 

But Mark leaves no doubt that this confrontation is the final straw. The plot against Jesus swings into full motion.

 

Psalm 66:1–7; Numbers 7:1–35; Mark 11:12–26

Psalm 66:1–7: This joyful psalm of thanksgiving opens with the imperative, “Shout out to God, all the earth,” (1) reminding us that we are not required to be all prim and proper before God. If I really stopped for moment and reflected on what miracles God has brought to my own life—a benign enchondroma, for instance—I should stand outside and shout with the psalmist and begin singing woth the psalmist, “Hymn His name’s glory./ Make His praise glory.” (2)

And after singing his praises, my worship would continue and “Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your deeds./ Before Your great strength Your enemies quail.’” (3) In this case, it is cancer that quails. But this psalm evokes far more than personal worship. Indeed, “All the earth bows down to You,/ and they hymn to You, hymn Your name.” (4)

The psalmist invites us to see the evidence of God’s power for ourselves: “Come and see the acts of God,/ awesome in works over humankind.” (5) In other words, no matter how mighty and wonderful we think the accomplishments of human beings may be—and they are awesome indeed—God’s works are still mightier. We may be able to create exciting new technologies, and seeming medical miracles, but it is God and God alone that can rescue a human soul.

Our poet recalls both the crossing of Israel out of Egypt—”He turned the sea to dry land, ” (6a) and the crossing of the Jordan forty years later as Israel finally enters Canaan as another occasion for worship: “the torrent they crossed on foot./ There we rejoiced in him.” (6b) With the psalmist we acknowledge that it is God who rules over all the affairs not just of Israel, but of all humankind: “He rules in His might forever.” (7a) And God is much more than a benevolent uncle who makes nice things happen. Our God is aware of all that we do, and before undertaking a sinful act we would do well to remember that: “His eyes probe the nations./ Let the wayward not rise up.” (7b)

Numbers 7:1–35: As usual, the authors of Numbers feel obligated to cover ground that the authors of Leviticus have already trod. Here, we again read that the tabernacle has been completed and is ready for dedication by “the leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings.” (2) The offerings that the leaders bring with them are indeed impressive: “six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the leaders, and for each one an ox; they presented them before the tabernacle.” (3)

Using the usual editorial device, “the Lord said to Moses” (4), the authors demonstrate that the offerings have a very useful purpose, starting with the wagons and oxen themselves, which are handed over to the Levites. “Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites,” (7) who are tasked with dealing with the tent canvas of the tabernacle, and the other “four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites,” (8) who are tasked with moving the bulky structural elements—tentpoles, etc.—of the tabernacle. On the other hand, the Kohathites received neither oxen nor wagon since in the relentless logic of our authors, “they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.” (9)

Now we learn of the precise offerings that each tribal leader presents on behalf of his tribe. Each tribe is given a day of sacrifice worship at the tabernacle. Once again, as our authors would prefer, it is a very orderly affair. The offerings are noteworthy in their value, being mostly silver plates and bowls, in addition to the usual animal sacrifices:

  • The one who presented his offering the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah (12)
  • On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, presented an offering; (18)
  • On the third day Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the Zebulunites: (24)
  • On the fourth day Elizur son of Shedeur, the leader of the Reubenites: (30)

I have a feeling that tomorrow’s reading will describe the offerings of the remaining eight tribes..

Again we ask, why this detailed inventory of what each leader brought? I think that again, the authors know that God is in the details and that as the psalmist above has told us, His eyes probe the nations. In their long descriptions, the authors of Numbers keep reminding us again and again that no detail is too small for God.

Mark 11:12–26: Jesus appears to wake up in a grumpy mood. He heads from his overnight lodgings in Bethan back toward Jerusalem. Thinking he’ll have figs for breakfast, he “he came to [the fig tree, but] he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Mark subtly reminds us that Jesus was no farmer and he angrily curses the fig tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” (14).

Bearing in mind that Jesus is both hungry and angry, Mark tells us, “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (15) Reading this action in context, I feel we have a pretty good glimpse of the 100% human Jesus. His hunger and anger is genuine.

The priests and scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (18) In a clear move to remain elusive to those who would try to capture him at night in Jerusalem after the crowds have gone home, Jesus and disciples head back to Bethany for the night.

They pass the now withered fig tree, as Peter exclaims,“Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (21) Jesus uses this as a teachable moment about the quality of faith: “believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (23) And even more powerfully, is Jesus’ promise, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (24) Personally, I’m distressed by this saying. Can we really will the laws of physics to be broken? And if we can’t, is it really because of our inadequate faith? Obviously, no other human will have Jesus’ faith because no other human 100% divine. At the risk of being heretical, for me there has to be some hyperbole here. Yes, our faith needs to be strong enough to move mountains, but I’m going to take that statement as metaphorical rather than literal.

The more important Jesus saying is,“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (25) Here, the clear message is that we cannot really be in prayer if we are holding grudges or resentments against another person. Jesus is saying here that forgiveness must precede prayer. But again, this is a very difficult thing to do. At least for me.

 

 

Psalm 65:10–14; Numbers 6; Mark 11:1–11

Psalm 65:10–14: The concluding verses of this psalm are a paean to how God brings forth bounty in the land, beginning with rain and water—the source of all life: “You pay mind to the earth and soak it./ You greatly enrich it./ God’s stream is filled with water.” (10)

We can hear the water as is cascades down the hill and irrigates the farmer’s fields: “Quench the thirst of its furrows, smooth out its hillocks,/ melt it with showers, its growth You will bless.” (11) We can almost taste God’s fruitful blessings as “You crown Your bountiful year, /and Your pathways drip ripeness.” (12)

This beautiful language takes on an even more gorgeous aspect as our poet celebrates God’s bounty with a metaphor of attire which clothes the fields: “The wilderness meadows do drip,/ and with joy the hills are girded.” (13) And in a beautiful conclusion, the poet’s camera pulls back slowly to reveal “the pastures are clothed with flocks/ and the valleys mantled with grain.” (14a) And in one of the most affecting closing lines in the Psalms, God’s good creation worships its creator: “They shout for joy, they even sing.” (14b)

And if the fields and flocks can sing at the glory of God’s creation, so should we. Even when we seem overwhelmed by care we need only look to the hills and valleys to understand how richly we are blessed.

Numbers 6: We meet the Nazirites, who are men and women choosing to”separate themselves to the Lord.” (2) We can see the roots of religious life here as the people—who are definitely not priests—choose to lead an ascetic life, foregoing any product, including wine, that comes from grapes. But their most distinctive aspect is their “vow [that] no razor shall come upon the head; until the time is completed for which they separate themselves to the Lord, they shall be holy; they shall let the locks of the head grow long.” (5)

They are to separate themselves from their family and “they shall not go near a corpse. Even if their father or mother, brother or sister, should die, they may not defile themselves.” (6, 7) We certainly see the roots here of some of the more ascetic religious brotherhoods of non-ordained men and women down through history in the sense of being separated from the world. However, it appears that one can cease being a Nazirite when one so chooses: as they “separate themselves to the Lord for their days as nazirites,” (12) suggesting those “days” can come to an end.

Our text does not reveal what the Nazirites actually do on a day-to-day basis, although the authors do into great detail about the service of Nazirite consecration before the entrance to the tabernacle (and we presume the temple after it was built). But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that a nazitrite spent his or her time in contemplation and prayer, probably apart out in the wilderness. In other words, a nazarite was about being before God rather than doing before God.I wonder of the various sects of Jesus’ time, e.g., the Essenes, based their practices on those of the Nazirites.

What is the lesson here for us? That some (not I) are called to separate themselves form the world and to concentrate solely on reflection, prayer, and service to God. Unfortunately, the Protestant church seems to have lost (or never had) communities that set themselves apart as our Catholic friends have. Perhaps it’s because we are far more concerned with doing —accomplishing clear goals—rather than simply being.

As we wander through the metaphorical desert of some of the more obscure aspects of Numbers, we suddenly come upon the Priestly benediction, which is spoken to this day in churches around the world—including ours:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Amen.

Mark 11:1–11: Mark’s telling of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem is as terse as ever. However, Mark’s telling of the business of Jesus sending two disciples to take the colt is much clearer than in the other gospels. Here, he makes it abundantly clear that the colt was being borrowed, not taken since Jesus told them, ” to say ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” (3) Since by the time Jesus arrived at the gates of Jerusalem he was a celebrity surrounded by large crowds, the colt’s owner understood that the colt was going to be part of the celebration and he probably felt honored to lend it. The question for me is, would I have been as generous as the colt’s owner?

In the words that the crowd chants, Mark leaves little doubt that by the time Jesus has arrived at Jerusalem the surrounding mob truly believes that he is indeed the long-awaited davidic Messiah:
   “Hosanna!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (9, 10)

And I’m sure that the crowd expected a rousing speech once Jesus arrived at the temple to claim his messiahship. But in one of the great anti-climaxes in the bible, Jesus simply goes to the temple and “and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (11)

The real question here is, what does the cryptic phrase, “he had looked around at everything” really mean? Did Jesus suddenly realize that the shouts of Hosanna still ringing in his ears would be transformed into shouts of execration in a mere five days? Did he realize just how entrenched the religious authorities were and that his message would be drowned out and he would be crucified? What was Jesus thinking? What did Mark know about Jesus’ thoughts that he isn’t telling us? Or is Mark as disappointed and puzzled as the rest of us when Jesus simply decamps back to Bethany without uttering a word?

Psalm 65:1–9; Numbers 5; Mark 10:46–52

Psalm 65:1–9: We’ve observed many times that speech and singing are the central element of the Psalms, many of which end with the psalmist singing praises to God. This psalm of praise catches our attention because it asserts, “To You silence is praise, God, in Zion,/ and to You a vow will be paid.” (2). In short, I can praise God without speaking of singing, which is what I feel I am doing here at my keyboard almost every morning. Reading and reflection are themselves praise.

And of course that other terribly significant means of praise: prayer, whether spoken or silent, which lies at the center of today’s reading: “O, Listener to prayer,/ unto [God] all flesh shall come.” (3) We pray for many reasons, but above all it is because God is our Listener. And we don’t come to God just because it feels good, but also because, “My deeds of mischief are too much for me./ Our crimes but You atone.” (4) Atonement for wrongdoing comes exclusively through our confession to God.

The psalmist realizes that in the end, it is God who not only listens but comes to us. And for us Christians, we realize it is Jesus who comes to us: “Happy whom You choose to draw close,/ he will dwell in Your courts.” (5a) And having been drawn close to God through silent or spoken prayer, we see evidence of God’s power and mighty acts around us: “With awesome acts justly You answer us,/ our rescuing God,/ refuge of all the earth’s ends/ and the far flung sea.” (6)

I certainly have felt God’s rescuing power over the past month. Evidence of his power—his awesome acts— dwells not only around me as the psalmist has it here, but within me in the form of God’s magnificent healing power.

God, who is Creator, endlessly continues his creative acts: “Who sets the mountains firm in Hid power/ —He is girded in might—” (7) And not just natural creation, but as our psalmist points out, within the affairs of humankind as well: “Who quiets the roar of the seas,/ the roar of their waves and the tumult of nations.” (8) Our poet tells us that some point every person will come to appreciate God’s majestic power, especially as expressed in nature, especially sunrise and sunset: “And those who dwell at earth’s ends will fear Your signs./ The portals of morning and evening You gladden.” (9)

I for one am glad that I do not have to search for evidence for God. I know he is here and that he is acting.

Numbers 5: Giving nothing to the authors of Leviticus, the authors of Numbers recapitulate and expound on the key elements of the Decalogue. First on their list is that unclean persons—”everyone who is leprous,or has a discharge, and everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse” (2)—be they male or female is put outside the camp. It may seem cruel on the face of it, but no question that it’s a central element of maintaining community hygiene.

The rule of law is another key to maintaining order within the community—just as it is today. “When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt.” (6) Notice that crimes against others also breaks faith with God. In other words our acts here on earth have consequences with our relationship not only with others in the community, but with God himself.

And to restore that bond requires full restitution against the person wronged plus 20%. [One cynically wonders if the extra 20% went to the lawyers…]. And if restitution cannot be made to the person harmed, “the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest.” (8) In short, we must always make confession [see the Psalm above] to God and yes, restitution.

By far the majority of content in this chapter regards an unfaithful or adulterous wife. The definition of “unfaithful” includes adultery where “a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself” (13) If her husband becomes jealous—even if the wife is innocent— the husband brings the wife to the priest. There, a bizarre ritual takes place involving disheveling the hair of the woman and forcing her to drink bitter muddy water. If the woman has indeed “defiled herself,” the water will bring a curse cause severe diarrhea, “her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people.” (27) But if she is innocent, “she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.” (28)

For me this primitive rite is cruel and demeaning but no more so than the depressing last verse of this chapter. Even if the husband is in a fit of jealous rage, it is the woman who suffers: “The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.” (31) As far as I am concerned this practice is a sign of a primitive God and a primitive tribe. And I see no way to reconcile it to the words of Jesus, which trumps the law—especially in places like this.

Mark 10:46–52: Unlike the other gospel writers, especially John, Mark is not given to explaining Jesus’ acts as symbols or metaphors or how it connects to OT prophecy as Matthew does. He sticks to the straight reportorial facts. Yet, the deeper meaning of Jesus’ acts lies just a few inches under the story. The healing of blind Bartimaeus is one these.

Jesus and his disciples, accompanied by the usual crowd, are leaving Jericho and encounter “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.” (46) [I’m struck that Mark names the man about to be healed. We rarely find out the names of the people whose lives have been changed by Jesus’ healing interventions.] Bartimaeus’s other senses, his hearing I presume, alerts him to Jesus’ presence, and he cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (48). That title, ‘Son of David,’ is Mark’s way of telling us that Bartimaeus, and others, recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

Jesus relents and tells those around him, “Call him here.” Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and bounds across the road, heedless of his blindness, and comes right up to Jesus. Whereupon Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (51) Bartimaeus understandably and logically replies, “My teacher, let me see again.” (51) and Jesus restores his sight, noting that “your faith has made you well.” (52)

Notice that Jesus does not heal uninvited and he asks that we articulate what it is we want. Like Bartimaeus, our faith is expressed in the specifics: Batimaeus wishes to see again—just as we need to see again. In the past several weeks, I have wished to know whether my cancer returned, and my faith has been rewarded.

The lesson for me here is that Jesus really wants to know what we want, which means we need to know what we want. That is why wishy-washy statements of vague spirituality are absurd.  Faith is about specifics. Knowing who we are and what we need is an essential component in a meaningful relationship with Jesus. Until we name it for ourselves, our faith is too abstract. Faith must be grounded in reality.

Psalm 64; Numbers 4:15–49; Mark 10:32–45

Psalm 64:  This is an explicit psalm about the damage wreaked by evil and slanderous speech. The opening line appears to be a fairly routine psalm of supplication as our poet, writing in David’s voice, asks, “Hear, God, my voice in my plea,/ From fear of the enemy guard my life.” (2) But it’s not asking for God’s protection on the battlefield. Rather, “Conceal me from the counsel of evil men,/ from the hubbub of the wrongdoers.” (3) We imagine, as I believe the poet wishes us to, David asking God to protect him from the intrigue and conniving politics of Saul’s court.

But it’s not physical protection that he’s seeking. It’s protection from evil speech by evil men, which the poet limns as powerful weapons of war:
Who whetted their tongue like a sword,
     pulled back their arrow—a bitter word—
      to shoot in concealment the innocent,
     in a flash shot him down without fear.” (4,5)

If we ever needed a current description of the destructive power of words—from the hateful speech of Donald Trump to a Hilary Clinton prevaricating about her actions to a group of 12-year old girls bullying a peer on Facebook—it is right here.

The tragedy of course is that there’s nothing innocent or unintended in evil speech. Just as we see Trump appear to enjoy himself in his putdowns of entire classes of people, our poet makes it clear that evil speech and attendant conspiracy is a source of joy to the speaker: “They encourage themselves with evil words./ They recount how traps should be laid./ They say, Who will see them?” (6) Worse, they believe that they will be be held to account for their conniving as they boast, “Let them search out foul deeds! We have hidden them form the utmost search,/ in a man’s inward self,/ and deep is the heart.” (7)

Alas, they’re right, in the affairs of men they will probably be able to get away with it.

But there is someone else who is listening, and “God will shoot an arrow at them./ In a flash they will be struck down.” (8) With grand irony, their weapon will become the source of their demise: “And their tongue will cause them to stumble,/ all who see them will nod in derision.” (9) And we can only hope with the psalmist that when God finally shoots his arrow at them, “All me will fear/ and tell of God’s act,/ and His deed they will grasp.” (10) We can only wait and hope as we trust in God to respond.

Numbers 4:15–49: The Kohathites have been given the dangerous task of carrying the tabernacle’s holy objects because “they must not touch the holy things, or they will die.” (15) In fact, God gives Moses special instructions because “this is how you must deal with them [the Kohathites] in order that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things.” (19a) Turns out that it’s all about careful organization and division of labor, as God tells Moses, “assign each to a particular task or burden.” (19b)

We have to stop and ask: why such a severe penalty for a non-priest to even look upon holy things. Death penalty? Really? I can only surmise that the priests writing this account have experienced some sort of vandalism. Indeed, if they’re sitting in Babylon writing this account, they may have had the dreadful experience of seeing the very temple of Solomon destroyed. So they wish to make it explicit that aspects and furnishings of worship are completely set apart—i.e., holy.

I have a strong feeling of deja vu as our authors revisit the duties of the Gershonites and the Meraites. We learn that men between the ages of thirty and fifty are the ones who are enrolled for labor and therefore qualified to work on the tabernacle. Aaron’s son Ithmar is the job superintendent for both the Gershonites and the Meraites.

Yet another census of the Levites, this time of the qualified workers, ages 30 to 50, i.e., the prime of their lives.
Kothaites: 2750
Gershonites: 2630
Meraites: 3200 [one wonders cynically that there were more of these guys because of accidents and resulting deaths caused by looking at holy objects.]

The total number of qualified Levites is 8550. Time to get to work!

Mark 10:32–45: Jesus and the disciples are headed up to Jerusalem as Mark tells us, “they were amazed.” (32) As usual, the pronouns drive me crazy. Who is “they?” The disciples? The other people walking on the road? My thinking is that it is the crowds that followed Jesus relentlessly everywhere. They must be thinking that Jesus is going to make a grand entrance into the belly of the beast: the temple and its officials, scribes and Pharisees. And on Palm Sunday, that’s pretty much what happens.

But Jesus pulls the disciples asides and in one of the ironies of Jesus’ life, tells them, See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;  they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (33,34).  Of course this is exactly what happens.

Here, I have to interject my doubt. Inasmuch as the gospels were written some three generations after the actual events, is this a simply retrospective memory of past events positioned as a yet-to-come prophecy? It probably doesn’t matter because Mark’s editorial point is that being a Jesus follower can lead to dire consequences, not to political power.

But Jesus’ prophecy remains unheeded as we see the Zebedee brothers, James and John, request special places of honor at their leader’s side once he’s enthroned at Jerusalem. Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup or the same baptism as he. They respond enthusiastically, Yes! Of course, since we know how the story turns out, they have no idea what the implications of their request really are. Jesus also enigmatically states that “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (40) Of course he’s referring to his father in heaven, but no one is ready to understand that—nor do I pretend to understand it today.

The Zebedee ambition also sews dissension in the disciple ranks and “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (41).  In what I think is one of the most beautiful of his teaching moments, Jesus explains that they are following Gentile practices—which would surely ring as anathema in the Jewish fishermen’s ears: “those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” (42) In this statement, Jesus puts his finger on the precise quality of tyrants down through history: they lord it over others.

The true leader, on the other hand, is first a servant of those whom he or she leads: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (43, 44) It is by serving the led that the leader engenders undying loyalty. We have seen this in company commanders whose troops will willingly follow him into battle. But if he simply says, “go fight while I remain here at headquarters,” his troops will rightfully balk. There is a big difference between servant leadership and management delegation. And Jesus understood—and practiced—this long before there were leadership “coaches.”

In fact, it is this quality of Jesus’ servant leadership that is the foundation of what it means to be truly faithful to him. We see qualities of this “leader humility” in Pope Francis, and there’s no question that it is at the root of the enthusiastic loyalty he engenders.

Psalm 63; Numbers 3:40–4:14; Mark 10:13–31

Psalm 63: The psalmist ascribes this as “A David psalm, when he was in the wilderness of Judea,” Probably a reference to the time when David was on the run from a pursuing Saul. The poet appropriately opens with a metaphor of parched thirst in the throat of David, who is desperately seeking God:
God, my God, for You I search.
    My throat thirsts for You,
    my flesh yearns for You
    in a land waste and parched, with no water.” (2, 3)

These verses remind us of the centrality of water as essential to human existence—just as God is living water that quenches our parched souls. Water in the desert certainly evokes John the Baptist as well as Jesus—the living water—being baptized moments before, like David, he heads into the wilderness. For it is in the wilderness that water takes on its greatest value.

The verses that follow are retrospective—images of David reflecting on his solid relationship with God, whose presence now only seems to shimmer far off in the undulating heat waves of the desert. He once was much closer to God’s presence, “in the sanctum I beheld You,/ seeing Your strength and glory.” (3) But even now, in the desert, hungry, and thirsty, our poet’s David knows that “Your kindness is better than life./ My lips praise You.” (4) Despite his intolerable circumstances, he worships God, which may become his last human act, “Thus I bless You while I live/ in Your name I lift up my palms.” (5)

The question for us is, if we found ourselves hungry and thirsty in the middle of spiritual desert would our faith be so strong that worshipping God could be our last living act?

More retrospection and memories: “Yes, I recalled You on my couch./ In the night-watches I dwelled upon You.” (7). David looks to the past, remembering that despite his present dire circumstances, God has done much for him already: “For You were a help to me,/ and in Your wings’ shadow I uttered glad song.” (8) And as a result, “My being belongs to You,/ for Your right hand has sustained me.” (9)

This is a psalm for all of us and it resonates for me particularly as I reflect the emotional anxiety and physical trials of the past month, I see how God has acted with awesome generosity with me. With David I can do naught but “rejoice in God,/ all who swear by Him will revel.” (12)

Numbers 3:40–4:14: We Christians believe that the death of Jesus was an act of “substitutionary atonement” for us sinners who were the ones who deserved to die for our sins. We see the roots of substitutionary atonement here as God announces to Moses that he will accept the Levites will be stand-ins for all first-born Israelites and livestock, which by virtue of his being Creator, are rightfully his: “Accept the Levites as substitutes for all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for their livestock; and the Levites shall be mine.” (3:45)

One of the reasons for the census now becomes apparent. We are informed that there are 22,273 first born males a month or older in all of Israel. But we have just learned that there are only 22,000 Levites. How will this apparent substitutionary imbalance be resolved? This is where I am convinced that the authors of Numbers invented double-entry bookkeeping. The extra 273 first born males each will cost 5 shekels. In other words, money serves as an adequate substitute for the first-born—Levite imbalance. So it is Aaron and his sons who wind up with 1,365 shekels (5 x 273). I also see where the money-changers in the temple could pretty legitimately trace their roots.

I’ve been wondering why the Kohathites were not included in the earlier allocation of Levitical tabernacle duties. Turns out that “service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things.” (4:4) [This may sound cynical, but I’m left with the impression that the author or authors of Numbers could trace their roots back to the Kohathite clan.]

When Israel is about to set off to a new location, “Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain, and cover the ark of the covenant with it.” (4:5) This leaves the Kohathites with specific duties involving fine leather, blue clothes and specific packing instructions as to what to do with the bread of the Presence, the lampstands, all related utensils, and even the altar itself. Blue cloth covers everything and it is all carefully packed away.

We’ve mentioned before that Numbers devotes insane attention to detail and this passage about how the Kohathites pack up the most holy objects in the tabernacle and make them ready for transport. For the authors of Numbers it is God who is in the details…And that’s something we would do well to remember: there is no act too trivial, no detail too small but that God is there watching…

Mark 10:13–31: One of the joys of Mark is that he gives us glimpses of every aspect of Jesus’ personality. Here we see Jesus at his most tender when he encourages people to bring their children to him:“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (14) Never one to waste a teachable moment, Jesus reminds us adults, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (15) In other words, we enter the kingdom without pride and without an agenda.

As usual for Mark, juxtaposition is everything. Jesus has just told us we must enter the kingdom as innocent children, and along comes the rich man [aka the ‘rich young ruler’ in other gospels.] The rich man tells Jesus that he has led an exemplary life. Jesus is thrilled to hear this and “loved him,” believing I’m sure that this man would become his disciple. If only… Jesus tells him “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (21) And in one of the great missed opportunities in the gospels, the man, who will not change his priorities, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (22) Jesus keeps giving us the answers we don’t want to hear…

We, who have so much, are all that rich man. Even though I give lip service to having Jesus as my priority, it is really not so as Mark describes those priorities here. Although I will admit that as I have grown older, possessions have become more of a burden than a pleasure. Nevertheless, whether it’s wealth or something else, I have been unwilling to turn my priorities upside down and inside out as Jesus asks here.

For Jesus’ disciples, this was an astounding assertion. In that Jewish society there was the belief of a simple and direct correlation between wealth and salvation: God blessed the good. After all, that’s pretty much what the law says, [except of course for that Job problem]. This exchange with the rich man and then with his disciples is a definite clue that for Jesus, the Kingdom of God had little to do with physical and social reality—despite the wishes of those theologians questing after the “historical Jesus,” who would like the Kingdom to be far more tangible and revolutionary than some odd place where social, cultural, and spiritual priorities are reversed from the ones visible in the world.

 

Psalm 62; Numbers 3:1–39; Mark 10:1–12

Psalm 62: Following the news yesterday that the tumor in my rib was benign, the opening verses of this psalm resonate strongly this morning:
     Only in God is my being quiet.
     From Him my rescue.
     Only He is my rock and my rescue,
     My stronghold—I shall not stumble. (2,3)

Our poet raises his fist at enemies that would harm him, asking “How long will you demolish a man—/commit murder, each one of you—like a leaning wall,/ a shaky fence?” (4) The wall and fence metaphor is perfect. Enemies appear strong and malevolent on the outside, but it is only an appearance. They are like a wall without a foundation or a fence about to fall over. In the face of God’s true strength, their seeming power is only a sham, soon headed to destruction.

The poet continues to paint the strong contrast between scheming enemies and God’s rescue. As usual, it is hypocritical speech that is their vehicle for working evil: “They took pleasure in lies./ With their mouths they blessed/ and inwardly cursed.” (5) Exactly the same behavior that Jesus calls out in his many encounters with the Pharisees and scribes. He could do this because the affirmation of this psalm was his reality, as our poet returns to the theme of the respite that only God can bring:
Only in God be quiet, my being
     for from Him is my hope.
     Only He is my rock and my rescue,
     my fortress—I shall not stumble. (6,7)

It is this unshakable assurance from which our poet invites others to enjoy this same stronghold of God’s rest: “Trust in Him at all times, O people./ Pour out your hearts before Him./ God is our shelter.” (9)

The final verses of this psalm are an ecclesiastical warning not to trust in the empty words of those who would deceive us. After all human life is but a fleeting whisper: “Only breath—humankind,/ the sons of man are a lie./ On the scales all together/ they weigh less than a breath.” (10)

And in realizing our ephemerality, respond accordingly: “Do not trust in oppression/ and of theft have no illusions.” (11a) There may be seeming rewards for malfeasance but they are ephemeral: “Though it bear fruit of wealth,/ set your heart not upon it.” (11b)  As our poet remarks: “Strength is but God’s/ and Yours, Master, is kindness.” Why would we trust the words and works of humankind?

Numbers 3:1–39: It’s obvious that the author or authors of Numbers are not the same as the group that wrote Levitius. they reprise material we’ve seen before beginning by listing Aaron’s sons and then noting that “Nadab and Abihu died before theLord when they offered unholy fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children.” (4a). On the other hand, the good sons, “Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.” (4b)

The verses that follow describe the formal charter of the tribe of Levi as priests, assisting Aaron: “ They shall perform duties for him and for the whole congregation in front of the tent of meeting, doing service at the tabernacle.” (7) Moreover, they the exclusive source of priests, as God commands Moses to “give the Levites to Aaron and his descendants; they are unreservedly given to him from among the Israelites.” (9) What’s interesting here, is that the Levites serve as the substitute for all first born among all Israel: “I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites.” (11) I’m presuming here that it is this idea of first born substitution which comes into play when God sacrifices his first born son, jesus, to atone for the sins of all humankind.

This being the book of Numbers, a census of the Levites follows. The qualification to be counted in the Levite tribe is quite different than the other tribes where only men over twenty were counted: “You shall enroll every male from a month old and upward.” (15) Even with this expanded definition, Levites comparitively few in number, totaling only 22,00. (39)

There are three tribes in the house of Levi, each consisting of several clans: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. There’s a very precise division of duties among these three tribes.

The Gershonites camped behind the tabernacle on the west, and were the property committee, responsible for “the tent with its covering,” and all the other physical aspects of the tabernacle fabric.

The Kohathites camped on the south side of the tabernacle, and were responsible for “the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen—all the service pertaining to these.” (31)

The Merai clans camped on the tabernacle’s north side. They were responsible for the tabernacle structure: “the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories—all the service pertaining to these,” (36)

Finally, it is Aaron, his sons and their families that have the high privilege of camping on the east side of the tabernacle.

Mark 10:1–12: We come to what in the 20th century became one of the hard sayings of Jesus when the Pharisees, once again trying to trick Jesus, ask,Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (3a) Jesus shoots right back,  “What did Moses command you?” (3b)  They respond that the Law allows the husband to write a certificate of divorce against the woman—but apparently there’s no reciprocity here for the wife. Jesus points out that because of man’s “hardness of heart,” divorce is allowed. But divorce, indeed if we read carefully, even single adulthood and other forms of human intertwining and consummation (and celibacy?) violate the perfection of God’s good creation: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” (6) and because there are two sexes, they are creatively designed by God to unify into a single being of two parts—just as two strands of DNA become a unified whole: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” And then the famous phrase: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (9) That is God’s clear intention. But I don’t think Jesus is saying that it will not occur in a fallen world.

He goes on to say that divorce followed by remarriage is a form of adultery because the person who divorces and remarries is acting in his own best interest, not the interests of both humans who were once a single intertwined flesh.

The way I read this passage is that marriage is the consummation of God’s perfect creation and anything less violates that perfect union. But I also see that Jesus does not expressly forbid divorce. Rather, it is an inferior form, reflecting humankind’s fallenness. I don’t think it would be a stretch to expand Jesus’s reasoning to the current brouhaha over same sex marriage and the perversity of transgenderism. More than even divorce, these practices are signs of a fallen humanity and a full frontal societal rejection of God’s intended creation. Are these individuals to be punished? I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. Rather, they become a living reflection of our human hardness of heart. Not just of the persons involved, but of all of us…

 

Psalm 61; Numbers 2; Mark 9:38–50

Psalm 61: At first read this appears to be be a psalm of supplication—”Hear, God, my song,/ listen close to my prayer” (2)—I see it as a psalm of joyful assurance. Our psalmist knows—no doubting or disappointment here— that when “From the end of the earth I call You./ When my heart faints, You lead me to a a rock high above me.” (3)

This assurance arises because God has been there for him in the past as he recalls with faint military imagery, “For You have been a shelter to me, / a tower of strength in the face of the foe.” (4). God has protected him not only in battle but in every confrontation with enemies of every type.

This feeling is very much mine this morning as I continue to recover from surgery and await word on whether or not my cancer has returned. Foes are not just other people; in my case it is a disease in my own body. Yet, I know with absolute assurance that God is at my side and that I can dwell with God as under the shelter of an impregnable rock.

Our psalmist finds such rest in God so wonderful that he would prefer to remain in God’s shelter forever: “Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,/ let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding place.” (5) Alter informs us that in this context , “tent’ refers to the Temple at Jerusalem and I presume “Your wings’ hiding place refers to the Ark of the Covenant, topped by two winged cherubim.

But as we all must do, our psalmist knows this is only a desire and that he must depart back into the real world, but in the serene knowledge that “You, God, have heard my vows,/ You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name.” (6) Following something of a non sequitur  to “add to the days of the King” (7) and that the king “ever abide in the presence of God,” (8) our poet concludes, as almost every psalm of supplication does, on a note of worship in singing: “So let me hymn Your name forever/ as I pay my vows day after day.” (9)

And so, too, for me. Worship is always the joyful conclusion to every trial.

Numbers 2: Whoever wrote Numbers seems to have recognized that Aaron has received relative short shrift in terms of hearing God. Now, “the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron,” (1). However, the topic is hardly theological or priestly instructions. Instead it is extremely detailed instructions about which side of the tabernacle, which lies at the geographic center of the Israelite assembly, each of the twelve tribes—here called “ancestral houses”‚— shall reside: East, south, west, north, together with the designated leader and population count for each house.

Compass      Tribe        Leader    Number
East              Judah       Nahshon  74,600
East             Issachar    Nethanel  54,400
East             Zebulon     Eliab         57,400
TOTAL  East                                  186,400
South            Reuben     Elizur          46,500
South            Simeon      Shelumiel  59,300
South            Gad            Eliasaph    45,650
TOTAL  South                                    151,450
West              Ephraim   Elihama     40,500
West              Manasseh  Gamaliel   32,200
West              Benjamin   Abidan      35,400
TOTAL  West                                    108,100
North             Dan             Ahiezer     62,700
North             Asher          Pagiel       41,500
North             Napthali     Ahira       53,400
TOTAL  North                                    157,600

The all-important tribe of Levi “shall set out in the center of the camps” (17). But no leader or body count is included. I presume that’s because the Levites are priests, not warriors.

At our far remove from these events we wonder why the naming and counting? The reason for the names has to be tribal memory. Since Israel did not believe in an afterlife, ancestral roots were at the very core of each person’s identity. So, here, at least the tribal leader is memorialized. The precision of the population numbers certainly lends an authentic historicity to this book, whose author wants to make sure that the beginning of Israel was a very real event in space and time. These details help accomplish that.

Mark 9:38–50: Even though many of Jesus’ sayings are inscrutable, one cannot accuse him of total ambiguity. He inhabits a very black and whit world, summarized in his response to the disciples’ complaint that some unauthorized person was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. To preserve the sanctity of their inner circle and they assumed, Jesus’ reputation, the disciples report that “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (38) But Jesus retorts that by naming the name of Jesus, even a negatively motivated person or even one who is mocking Jesus will eventually come around: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” (39) I think this is a basic psychologically reality, which we see acted out negatively in our time by hostages who come over to the hostage-takers side via the so-called “Stockholm syndrome.” But we also see former disbelievers come around to understanding, accepting and loving Jesus. Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was at work in this man the disciples castigated.

Jesus cannot make his point any clearer than this: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (4). I think this statement also tells us a lot about the community to which Mark is writing. There is definitely dissension in the ranks and some (I suspect Jewish Christians) feel others are behaving improperly, using Jesus’ name in places they shouldn’t and performing deeds that call their theological purity into question. Of course we do this all the time in church when it comes to judging “proper behavior” and how Jesus’ name and power is used.

Mark then presents us with a selection of Jesus sayings that emphasize the stark black and white commitment of calling oneself a Jesus follower: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (43) followed by similar sayings regarding feet and eyes. What strikes me here is that Jesus is not putting “marketing spin” on the benefits of being a Jesus follower and entering the Kingdom of God. It is hard and yes, dangerous work. This is no question of making one’s life “better,” rather it is stark choice: enter the Kingdom and work or enjoy hell, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (48)

There is also a warning of persecution to come, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” (49) and Jesus’ soliloquy ends with a plea that surely Mark wanted desperately to deliver to his community: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (50).  In other words, stop fighting among yourselves and be prepared to fight together against the forces of darkness. Words we in the church would do well to heed today as we live in an increasingly post-Christian culture.

Psalm 57:8–12; Leviticus 25:18–55; Mark 8:14–21

Psalm 57:8–12: Today’s reading opens with a phrase that is especially appropriate as I head off to surgery to remove the lesion from my chest and to wait for the biopsy to see if cancer has returned: “My heart is firm, O God,/ my heart is firm.” (8a). There is little need for exegesis here. I feel that it is the God Who is Here that makes my own heart firm as I head off into the dark cave of thoracic surgery.

David’s knowledge, indeed his confidence, that God has given him a firm heart invokes worship: “Let me sing and hymn.” (8b) This is not just an intellectual concept of worship, it is suffused in ecstatic action as he picks up his fabled instrument: “Awake O lyre, awake, O lute and lyre./ I would waken the dawn.” (9) I write these lines this morning at 5:20 a.m. before the sun rises, but I share David’s joy that the sun will rise over God’s good creation and that no matter what comes, God remains firmly in charge of all creation.

David is no longer in the cave hiding form Saul; his ecstatic worship has carried him to where he can play and sing for all: “Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Master./ Let me hymn You among the nations.” (10) Even though David may be in great peril, he sings his powerful and unforgettable song that evokes everything that is good in God’s creation: “For Your kindness is great to the heavens,/ and to the skies Your steadfast truth.” (11)

No matter how dark the cave we may find ourselves in, there is the beautiful open sky of God’s glory just outside: “Loom over the heavens, O God./ Over all the earth Your glory.” (12) And in that reality I find enormous peace.

Leviticus 25:18–55: This long chapter covers the social contracts that allow a civilized society to live together the rule of law “so that you may live on the land securely.” (18)  Of course this is a theocracy, so it is God who is the legislator. The rules begin with stewardship of the land across the seventh year when no crops are to be planted. God promises a rich harvest in the sixth year “so that it will yield a crop for three years.” (22). What is most interesting to me though is that God makes it clear that he is the owner and “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (23) this seems a clear message that the earth is not ours to pillage and rape. This is the same as being renters of a house and wrecking it. Our responsibility is to be stewards of the earth, carefully tending the natural resources, which are in fact owned by God the Creator. One wonders what a different world we might be living in had we and our ancestors taken God’s commandment here to heart.

There is a clear distinction between city and country. Real estate rules for city dwellers are clear. There’s a one year warranty, and if that right of redemption is not exercised within that first year, “a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations.” (30) and it’s exempted from the great 50-year Jubilee give-back.  However, these rules do not apply to “houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country.” (31) which certainly has to do with not throwing productive farmers out on the street.

The family is the core unit of Jewish civilization and “if any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you,  you shall support them.” (35) No government welfare programs here. However, one may not charge interest for this support nor “provide them food at a profit.” (38)

No Israelite may hold another Israelite in slavery even if they are deeply in debt: Rather, “They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers.” (40) Whence the concept of indentured servanthood. Even then, they are bound only until the year of Jubilee at which time, they “shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.” (41) Only aliens may become slaves. Sadly, these verses doubtless were used to justify slavery of Africans since they were not of the same race—and doubtless helped create much of the ugly racism that persists to this day.

There are also rules for poor Israelites to sell themselves into slavery to prosperous resident aliens. However, they retain the right to redemption, and another Israelite can redeem them and “if they prosper they may redeem themselves.” (49) A complex mathematical formula based on the years served and years to the Jubilee is used to compute the price. As usual, no detail seems to trivial for our authors to have included. This is another one of those places where we realize these rules had nothing to do with a band of Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert but had everything to do with Jews being held in captivity in Babylon and the years afterward. Which is why Moses had nothing to do with the authorship of these books, but those priests in Babylon sure did….

Mark 8:14–21: Following the feeding of the 4000, Jesus and the disciples once again set out in a boat. But “the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.” (14) Jesus rather enigmatically tells them,“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” (15) They think Jesus is reprimanding them for failing to bring enough bread for the journey.

But Jesus has something altogether different in mind. He is warning them that they have been influenced by the questioning doubts of the Pharisees rather than having paid attention to the two great bread miracles he has just performed. His frustration is evident as he asks, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (17) His frustration edges toward anger in the next verse: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (18) He upbraids them like little children, asking them how many baskets of leftover bread they collected after the feeding of the 5000 and again after the feeding of the 4000. We can see their sheepish faces as they provide Jesus the correct answers.

Jesus realizes that his very own disciples still don’t get what he is about.  They think he’s just another religious teacher whose charisma probably stirred up the crowd to have them produce bread they already had with them. Jesus must be shaking his head when “he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (21)

Of course Mark is speaking to all of us. Like the disciples, we approach Jesus in human terms firmly in our own framework of understanding. That’s the yeast of the Pharisees, the yeast of blinkered religiosity, when Jesus is so far greater than our human concept of what “religion” is about. Jesus transcends “religion.” But like the disciples, we persist in keeping Jesus firmly ensconced in a religious box rather than taking him at his word for the freedom he brings us.