Archives for May 2016

Psalm 57:1–7; Leviticus 24:10–25:17; Mark 8:1–13

Psalm 57:1–7: David was the hero of the poets who wrote the Psalms.  They wrote in his voice with what they were sure he would have sung when he was in various crises during his storied adventures. This psalm is written in David’s voice “when he fled from Saul into the cave.” (1) As we recall, this is the same cave where David comes upon the sleeping Saul and has the opportunity to murder his foe, but does not.

The poet reflects David’s location as a place of protection as the psalm opens with words that connote his breathless escape into the cave: “Grant me grace, God, grant me grace,/ for in You I have taken shelter,/ and in Your wings’ shadow do I shelter/ until disasters pass.” (2) I’m struck by the metaphor of taking refuge in the shadow of God’s outstretched wings. We are metaphorical birds, but well protected by God “until disasters pass.”

This psalm of supplication—”I call out to the God most high” (3a)—reflects an assurance that God will answer in this time of dire need: “He will send from the heavens and rescue me.” (4a) But what God sends is surprising: “God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4b) In other words, God will not send armies of rescuing angels or some sort of natural disaster that will allow David to escape, but sends his kindness. Reflect on this for a moment: God’s rescue is his kindness, his comforting embrace that we all seek when we feel abandoned. When we realize we are loved by God, we are able endure almost anything.

God’s kindness begets courage, as it does here for David, to face any foe, as the poem tells us in this marvelous passage: “I lie down among lions/ that pant for human beings.” (5a) Our poet makes sure we understand exactly what the lion metaphor means. It is the enemy: “Their fangs are spear and arrows,/ their tongue a sharpened sword.” (5b) As always, we are reminded that whenever we face an enemy, it is not just physical danger, but the words of deceit and conspiracy as well.

Picking up on the metaphor of God’s outstretched wings, David asks not for revenge, but for God to reveal his surpassing might and glory: “Loom over the heavens, O God./ Over all the earth Your glory.” (6) His enemies will continue to plat and connive against him—”a net they set for my steps,/ they pushed down my neck,” (7a). But David knows it is they, not he, who will perish because unlike him, their evil acts bring them to their doom: “they dug before me a pit—they themselves fell into it.” (7b) It may take a long tome for our enemies to receive their just desserts, but God’s kindness will always triumph in the end.

Leviticus 24:10–25:17: Our authors interrupt their manual of rules to provide us a reminder of the utter seriousness of the demands to follow the rules that have been set out. A”man whose mother was an Israelite and whose father was an Egyptian” (25:10)who “blasphemes the Name in a curse.” (11) Although they name the man’s mother, our authors are careful to not name the sinner—obviously a blasphemer does not deserve being remembered in history.

Brought before Moses, this blasphemer’s case becomes a teachable moment for all. Punishment will be swift and final as Moses commands, “take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him.” (14) Two verses later the penalty for cursing God is reenforced: “One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens.” (16) I wonder if this blasphemy is what lies at the root of Jesus announcement of the unforgivable sin: cursing the Holy Spirit.

This incident also provides the opportunity for the authors to describe one of the cornerstones of Judeo-Christian justice: that the punishment is appropriate to the crime: nothing more; nothing less: “Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered.” (19, 20) This is harsh justice, and we have greatly modified it to take the form of fines and/or imprisonment. But justice that is proportionate must lay at the foundation of any civilization, just as it did here for Israel.

Then of course we no longer execute blasphemers. Indeed, our post-Christian culture celebrates them.

Chapter 25 turns back to less dramatic but equally important matters. In the same way that each week includes a sabbath for human rest, so too the years for agricultural rest: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land.” (25:3) To make sure we understand, the authors repeat their point: “it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.” (5) Of course we now know that letting the land rest, usually expressed as crop rotation, is a sound practice. But as we see here in the establishment of the week of years, it is hardly a new concept.

And every 50 years is the Year of Jubilee, where we encounter the famous line inscribed on the Liberty Bell: “you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (10) But in this case, the proclamation announces the rules of the Jubilee: “you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family.” (11). The year of Jubilee is basically an agrarian reset, where everyone essentially starts over. It’s a remarkable concept that may have worked in that ancient time, although there are few references to it in Israel’s own history. And of course in our complex technological society Jubilee is only a dream.

Mark 8:1–13: Having fed 5000 a few chapters back, Jesus finds himself in the same situation, only this dedicated crowd has been far more patient as Jesus observes, “I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat.” (2). Mark reminds us not only of Jesus’ compassion but also that his compassion is not “airy-fairy,” but thoroughly based in practicality as well: “If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.” (3)

Even though the disciples witnessed the previous feeding of the crowd, they are still skeptical: “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (4) Why do they ask this? Had they rationalized away Jesus’ previous miraculous feeding? I think that’s probably exactly what they did, even though Jesus proceeds to repeat exactly the same miraculous feeding a second time.

It’s a reminder to me that even when we witness a miracle such as someone’s cancer going unexpectedly into remission, we’re likely to discount it, as we always prefer the material or scientific explanation to the miraculous one. We leave no room for miracles in our lives. And our culture that uses science to its own ends only reenforces that sense there cannot be miracles.

As usual, Mark’s juxtaposition of stories in no coincidence. Immediately after feeding 4000 folks despite the disciples’ doubts, the Pharisees come to Jesus “and began to argue with him, asking him for a sign from heaven, to test him.” (11) Once again, Mark tells us that Jesus sighs, this time “in his spirit,” realizing that even the smart guys in the room just do not get it. He tells them, doubtless with some irritation,“Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” (12)  Jesus did not come to earth to be a magician—and Mark is telling his audience—and us—by this juxtaposition that the real “sign” to which Pharisees, disciples and ourselves need to be looking “sign” is Jesus compassion for people who are both physically and spiritually hungry. “Come to me,” he says elsewhere, “and I will give you rest.” Jesus himself is the sign we are seeking.