Archives for June 2016

Psalm 73:13–20; Numbers 26:1–24; Luke 1:5–25

Psalm 73:13–20: Our psalmist looks around at the success of the wicked in despair as he feels having led a pure and God-centered life seems to have come to nothing: “But in vain have I kept my heart pure/ and in innocence washed my palms.” (13) A clean and sober life has yielded nothing but suffering: “For I was afflicted all day long,/ and my chastisement, each new morning.” (14)

Like so many who try to walk the narrow path of morality, he feels trapped: “If I said, Let me talk like them./ Look, Your sons’ band I would have betrayed.” (15) To try to become like the wicked and follow their practices leads only to inner moral torture: “When I thought to know these things,/ it was a torment in my eyes.” (16)

But then, as he reflects on God’s larger plan he begins to realize that although they seem successful now, the wicked will indeed come to a bad end: “Till I came to the sanctuaries of God, / [I] understood what would be their end.” (17)  He realizes that the smug satisfaction of the wealthy and wicked is in reality the smooth path to destruction: “Yes, You set them on slippery ground,/brought them down to destruction.” (18) The wicked will “come to ruin in a moment,/ swept away, taken in terrors!” (19)  Our poet’s revelation is complete when he realizes that God will see it that justice triumphs in the end. It is”Like a dream upon waking, O Master,/ upon rising You despised their image.” (20)

Of course I still wonder if what our poet comes to understand—that the wicked will eventually pay for their sins—is really true all the time. We certainly see the some wicked people eventually met their comeuppance, but it seems like others just come out smelling like a rose. On the other hand, we cannot see inside them to really know their thoughts and fears. One thinks of the wealthy Swiss banker who committed suicide last week. Outward appearances of success and wealth notwithstanding, he was certainly a tormented soul.

Numbers 26:1–24: Several plagues, battles, and sundry other life-threatening events have occurred since the last census of Israel, so God speaks both to Moses and Eleazar (who has taken Aaron’s place as high priest), “Take a census of the whole congregation of the Israelites, from twenty years old and upward, by their ancestral houses, everyone in Israel able to go to war.” (2) The purpose of this census is immediately apparent, especially since it will be “from twenty years old and upward:” it’s crucial to understand Israel’s military strength before it heads into the numerous battles that await it.

The list begins with the tribe of Reuben, including, “The descendants of Eliab: Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the same Dathan and Abiram, chosen from the congregation, who rebelled against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah.” (9)  Even more remarkably, “the sons of Korah did not die” (11). really? I was sure that following the failed coup d’etat, the earth had swallowed Korah’s entire family, which presumably would have included Korah’s sons. But here they are.

The accountants tell us that “the clans of the Reubenites; the number of those enrolled was 43,730.” (7) The count continues:
The descendants of Simeon by their clans” (12):  22,200
 The children of Gad by their clans” (15): 40,500
The sons of Judah:” (19): 76,500
The descendants of Issachar by their clans:” (25): 64,300.

Despite the plagues and battles, there is still a startlingly large number of Israelite men. We could estimate wives and children would easily triple the count. One suspects more census-taking tomorrow.

Luke 1:5–25: Unlike Mark, whose eponymous gospel opens with adult Jesus meeting adult John the Baptist, Luke winds the clock back to before John’s birth with the heartwarming, even humorous, story of John’s father and mother, Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Abraham and Sarah, they were old but had no children. [My view is that Luke is positioning them as parallels to Abraham and Sarah.]

In the first of many angelic visitations that Luke relates, Gabriel shows up and Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (12) The first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Do not be afraid, Zechariah” (13a), which seem to be the opening words of every angelic visitation. This is a good reminder that Christmas decorations notwithstanding, angels must have been big and intimidating creatures, clearly not of this world. The angel loses no time telling Zecharaiah that “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (13b).  Gabriel then lays down some very specific rules regarding the son, whom is is to name John. This John will be ascetic, but “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” (16)

Reminding us of Sarah, who laughed at the news she would have a son, Zechariah famously doubts Gabriel who promptly retaliates, “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.” (20) Lesson: when there’s an angelic visitation, it’s wise to take them at their word. As we shall see, Mary stands in stark contrast to Zechariah when Gabriel visits her.

A humorous scene follows where the speechless Zechariah uses hand motions to convince the others in the temple that “he had seen a vision in the sanctuary.” (22) Speech was always of the greatest importance in that paperless world, and it’s fun to reflect on exactly what motions Zechariah had to use to convince people he’s been visited by an angel. We should try that sometime when we’re playing charades…

Elizabeth, on the other hand, is no doubter. In sharp contrast to her husband, she gives thanks that she will no longer be an object of shame in her culture: “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” (25) Luke is certainly making it clear to his readers in this introductory story that acceptance of the gospel story he is about to relate is far superior to skepticism. In fact, skeptics should just remain mute.

Psalm 73:1–12; Numbers 24,25; Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4

Psalm 73:1–12: These verses are a detailed description of the qualities and even physical characteristics of the wicked. The opening verses express the psalmist’s relief at his close call of having nearly become one of the wicked himself: “As for me, my feet had almost strayed,/ my steps nearly tumbled” (2) The reason he almost fell in with them is simple: “for I envied the revelers,/ I saw the wicked’s well-being.” (3) Since human nature has not changed a whit since this psalm was written, he describes a 21st century affliction to a tee: we are obsessed with wealth and who has what. Why else would the media relentlessly publish lists of the wealthiest people in America in an unending variety of permutations. So too, our cultural obsession with celebrity. Their lives appear glamorous and worry-free compared to ours.

Our poet goes on to describe the specifics of our attraction to the wealthy in the detail that almost caused him to stumble:
For they are free of the fetters of death,
    and their body is healthy.
    Of the torment of man they have no part,
     and they know not human afflictions.” (4,5)

They appear to be above it all: paragons of “evolved humans” free of the ugliness and desperation of daily life experienced by the hoi polloi.

But then, as he moves his poetic camera in for a close-up, we see that what looks attractive from afar is really quite corrupt: “This haughtiness is their necklace,/ outrage, their garment bedecks them.” (6) —a perfect description of know-it-alls (politicians, especially) who see themselves as morally superior and in a perfect description of a current political candidate, full of outrage, which characterizes everything from Facebook feeds to political stump speeches. Then, the picture turns even uglier: “Fat bulges around their eyes,/ imaginings spill from the heart.” (7)

He describes their true character perfectly, “They mock and speak with malice,/ from on high they speak out oppression.”  (8) They appear to know everything: “They put their mouth up to the heavens/ and their tongue goes over the earth.” (9) The tragedy then, just as it is today with political candidates, is that the people are eager to hear—and believe—what the wicked say: “Thus the people turn back to them,/ and they lap up their words.” (10) Is there a more perfect description of the crowds surrounding Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders?

In our material world that rejects faith and believes the answers are found strictly within science and technology, those who claim there is no God—see themselves as the masters of the universe: “And they say,’ How could God know,/ and is there knowledge with the most high?” (11)

Alas, our poet sighs, “such are the wicked,/ the ever complacent ones pile up wealth.” (12) And thus, as we reflect on the infamous 1%, it is still is.

Numbers 24,25: Balaam still has his commission from King Balak to speak what God tells him to say. Tis time, our authors tell us, Balaam, “did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness.” (24:2) And what he sees as he looks out over the tents of Israel and speaks is the realization that Israel, as God’s chosen people, who will indeed conquer neighboring tribes and nations:
    “God who brings him out of Egypt,
        is like the horns of a wild ox for him;
     he shall devour the nations that are his foes
         and break their bones.
         He shall strike with his arrows.” (24:8)
King Balak is beside himself at this point: “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them these three times.” (24:10) and tells Balaam to go home. But before he does, Balaam offers one last oracle that predicts the demise of all of Israel’s potential enemies, concluding, “Alas, who shall live when God does this?” (24:23) And with those final words of impending destruction, “Balaam got up and went back to his place, and Balak also went his way.” (24:25)

What are we to make of the story of Balaam. I think it’s an amazingly creative means for our authors to validate Israel being led by God to conquer nations by an independent outside source. Balaam was not an Israelite, but he clearly followed God and stood firm in his commitment to speak only what God told him to say. In this, he is the first prophet. That Balaam speaks what God says also tells us that God works though others than just the Jews. The groundwork is laid right here for the Good News to be spread among the Gentiles more than a thousand years after Balaam’s four oracles.

Meanwhile down at the Israelite campground: “the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.” (25:2) Worse than that, “These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” (25:2) God is mightily displeased and commands Moses to kill all those “who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” (25:5) Not surprisingly plague commences

There is a particularly ugly scene where Phineas’ Aaron’s grandson, seeing an Israelite with a Midianite woman impales the two with a spear. Aaron is impressed by this action which stopped the plague among Israel, but not before 24,000 people dies. Aaron blesses Phineas, “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.” (25:13)

What strikes me as odd here is that both the man and the woman are named, apparently because they are from leading families. The Israelite is “Zimri son of Salu” and the Midianite woman is, “Cozbi daughter of Zur, who was the head of a clan, an ancestral house in Midian.” (25:15) God promptly commands Moses to ““Harass the Midianites, and defeat them.” (25:17)

This is one of those places where we have a difficult time believing that God—this same God of love—commands all this bloodshed. To be blunt, I’m inclined to treat these stories as mythical.

Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4: Mark’s shorter ending features a terse Great Commission—”Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” (16:8b)— and the longer ending restates it in more familiar terms, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (16:15)  But then in this version, Jesus goes on to add uncomfortable elaboration, beginning with a black and white statement, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. ” (16)

Things get weirder when Jesus elaborates, “these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (17, 18). These two verses have led, IMO, to all kinds of abuses such as snake-handling in churches to test who’s saved and who isn’t, as well as the rite of exorcism in the Catholic Church.  Happily, I’ve not heard of a church that encourages drinking poison, but who’s to say it hasn’t been tried. Of course the victims aren’t around to testify…

Frankly, I think the longer ending is a later add-on by an author or group dissatisfied with Mark’s original ending. I would be very wary of drawing substantial theological conclusions from it.

In their ever-mysterious division of the readings, the Moravians carry us right into the beautiful opening introduction to the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps they want us to savor the juxtaposition between the rather disorderly ending of Mark with the pristine opening verse of Luke: “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” (1:1) It appears Luke has been reading (or hearing) some other gospels or eyewitness accounts: “just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (2).

This motivates Luke to pick up his pen, “ I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,” (3) Luke’s purpose in writing is of course beneficial not only to Theophilus, but to all of us: “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (4) And here we have a hint that perhaps these other gospels or stories may be somewhat suspect. (Such as the longer ending of Mark!)

So, who is Theophilus? It’s a Greek name [“God-lover”] so we know this Gospel is written to a Gentile. We know from an autobiographical note in Acts that Luke is a Gentile, so this is a gospel written for Gentiles by a Gentile. Of course there are those who argue that Theophilus was not an actual person, but a literary construct, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. We are about to to embark on a telling of the Jesus story that in many ways is the most accessible of the gospels because Luke dives into details we don’t read elsewhere.

 

 

Psalm 72:12–20; Numbers 23; Mark 16:1–13

Psalm 72:12–20:  Our psalmist has used the first half of this psalm to celebrate the majesty and overarching power of King Solomon. In the second half, he comes down a level of abstraction and describes the reasons why the king deserves these encomia. Solomon may be great and mighty, but like God, he cares about the poor and oppressed and bringing justice to them: “For he saves the needy man pleading,/ and the lowly who has none to help him.” (12) In short, Solomon practices what God has been commanding along: that those in power are righteous and work tirelessly to bring justice to those who cannot get it on their own: the poor, the widows and the orphans.

To make sure we get the point, our psalmist recapitulates that the king’s key duties are to protect the poor from the rapacious schemes of the wealthy and powerful: “He pities the poor and needy,/ and the lives of the needy he rescues,/ from scheming and outrage redeems them,/ and their blood is dear in his sight.” (13, 14) Here we are some three millennia later and our current leaders speak of these noble truths, but do they take effective action? There’s no question that in the psalmist’s eyes Solomon acts rather than merely talking.

The reminder of the psalm is a wish that under the king’s effective leadership, the kingdom will prosper economically, which in this society is that it prospers agriculturally: “May there be an abundance of grain in the land,/ on the mountaintops.” (16a) And evoking the trees of Lebanon, “May his fruit rustle like Lebanon,/ and may they sprout from the town like grass on the land.” (16b)

This image of never-ceasing fecundity carries over to the king himself: “May his name be forever./ As long as the sun may his name bear seed./ May all nations be blessed through him, call him happy.” (17)

This is the end of the psalm. The final verses are a general benediction for the conclusion of this, the second book of Psalms—and a benediction that would be wonderful to hear at the end of worship: “Blessed is the Lord God, Israel’s God, performing wonders alone./ And blessed is His glory forever, and may His glory fill all the earth./ Amen and amen. (20)

Numbers 23: Following the word of God, Balaam tells king Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.” (1) Balaam, who seems to have the same direct access to God as Moses, goes and speaks to God, “I have arranged the seven altars, and have offered a bull and a ram on each altar.” (4) God replies, “Return to Balak, and this is what you must say.” (5).

Speaking the words God has put in his mouth, Balaam sings a song of blessing on Israel. The angry king shouts, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” (11) Balaam’s answer is succinct: “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?” (12)—something to which Balak has already assented.

Balak, thinking that a different location will change the outcome, takes Balaam to “the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah.” (14) Another seven altars are built; another seven bulls and rams are sacrificed. Balak asks Balaam, “What has the Lord said?” (17). This time (the “second oracle”) pronounces an even more distinct blessing on Israel:
     “Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
        and rousing itself like a lion!
       It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
        and drunk the blood of the slain.” (24)

An extremely frustrated Balak thinks the third time will be the charm and tells Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” (27) We’ll see about that.

Balaam sets the standard for the prophets yet to come to Israel: they speak what God has put in their mouth. I think our authors are using Balaam’s example here to remind Israel that like Balak, they cannot force the desired outcome. Since they are speaking for God and like Balaam must say what God has told them, prophets will not do or say what we want them to. Just as God will not necessarily respond or act in the way we want him to when we pray.

Mark 16:1–13: The women continue to be the central actors in the Mark’s recounting of the death and resurrection of Jesus: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (1). Mark has already told us they know where the tomb is, but it occurs to them that their mission may be hampered by the large stone they knew covered the tomb’s entrance: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (3). Happily, the discover the stone has already been rolled back.

There’s a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” (5) who utters the most startling and amazing statement in all of human history: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (6)

The young angel then tells them to tell Peter to meet the resurrected Jesus in Galilee. But what they have just witnessed and heard is far more terrifying than joyful, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (8a). Mark understands how human nature would react: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (8b).  Which I think is a more psychologically realistic picture than the happy reunions that we read about in the other gospels. Mark could easily have a PhD in psychology.

In fact, in Mark’s traditional ending, we don’t even get to see Jesus. We only see the empty tomb.  Mark’s “shorter ending” ends his narrative with the abruptness of his reportorial style: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Which is Mark’s rather cryptic take on the Great Commission. The Good News is the resurrected Jesus. Mark is saying, we don;t need the details of who he saw and what he said.

Obviously, this rather anticlimactic ending bothered somebody somewhere, for we now have “the longer ending of Mark,” which provides a some details. Again, the women—and the cause of much speculation about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene—are at the center of the story: “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.” (9) But even when Mary carries the news to the men, “when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” (11)

This theme of disbelief at the news is driven home further, as Mark gives his a brief take on the Road to Emmaus episode described in great detail in Luke: “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.” (12). But again, the news is greeted only with skepticism: “And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” (13)

It’s clear to me that Mark is writing to a community that was pretty skeptical about this whole Easter thing. I think he’s showing them (and us) that skepticism is perfectly alright: it the most natural reaction of all to an event that was—and remains—the most incredible story ever told. Faith, Mark is telling me, anyway, includes skepticism. If the disciples didn’t believe at first, then why should we believe at first? Faith is a process, not a static state.

 

Psalm 72:1–11; Numbers 22:7–41; Mark 15:33–47

Psalm 72:1–11: This magisterial psalm is dedicated to the most magisterial of Israel’s kings, Solomon. It opens with a wish for God to bless the king with the greatest of all kingly responsibilities: “God, grant Your judgements to the king/ and Your righteousness to the the king’s son.” (1) Like God himself, these are the king’s first duties: “May he judge Your people righteously/ and Your lowly ones justice.” (2)  As always, it is the lowly poor who are most deserving of fair judgement, because in reality it is they who doubtless receive it least.

Making it clear that this is Solomon’s greatest and most solemn duty, this plea for justice for the lowly is repeated with even greater intensity two verses later:
May he bring justice to the lowly of the people,
     may he rescue the sons of the needy
      and crush the oppressor.” (4)

Notice that the issue is not crushing the king’s personal enemies as we read in so many other psalms, but it is to “crush the oppressor,” the enemy of all the people. Of course the ugly irony is that too often in Israel’s checkered history that it was the king himself who became the oppressor.

Turning to the king himself, our poet wishes Solomon kingly longevity with no shortage of comparative hyperbole: “May they fear you as long as the sun/ and as long as the moon, generations untold.” (5) Then, there is the wish that this beneficence at the top spreads out and affects the entire nation just as greatly: “May the just man flourish in his days—/ and abundant peace till till the moon is no more.” (7)

The grandeur of this psalm is expressed through its similes and metaphors. The first is comparing the king to the beneficence of nature: “May he come down like rain on new-mown grass,/ like showers that moisten the earth.” (6).

This extravagant sweep for the king to become almost god-like is then expressed in geographic metaphor, first from east to west: “And may he hold sway from sea to sea” (8a) And then all the way northeast to the Euphrates and beyond: “from the River to the ends of the earth,” (8b). Then to the south, “Before him may the desert-folk kneel,/ and his enemies lick the dust.” (9)  Then to the west along the Mediterranean, including its islands: “May kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute.” (10a) Then swinging south again, “may kings of Sheba and Siba bow to him,/ offer vassal gifts.”  (10b) Then, to make sure no king or tribal leader was left out of this catalog of those showing obeisance to Solomon, our poet ends this section inclusively: “And may all kings bow to him,/ all nations serve him.” (11)

Numbers 22:7–41: The “elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam,” (7) who is the person they want to contract with to curse Israel. Balaam wise stalls them, inviting them to “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, just as theLord speaks to me.” (8) Aha! So Balaam appears to have a direct line to God. Such divination is forbidden within Israel, but our authors are telling us (1) it was widely used by other tribes and nations, and (2) rather than God disapproving of it; he participates in this sort of prophecy.

God is crystal clear to Balaam:“You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (12) Balaam tells the Moabite representatives to go home because “the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” (14) King Balak tries again, this time sending a more impressive entourage to Balaam. The seer still hesitates, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” (18) This time, God comes to Balaam, tells him to go back to King Balak, but to carefully follow God’s instructions. So Balaam eventually goes with Balak’s officials, heading back to Moab.

Then in what appears to be a puzzling change of mind of God’s part, “God’s anger was kindled [against Balaam] because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary.” (22). Balaam’s dokey sees the angel and turns off the road. Balaam apparently does not see the angel and strikes the donkey for his stubbornness. By the third time it sees the angel blocking its path, the donkey simply lays down in the middle of the road. Balaam angrily strikes the donkey again. Then “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (28)

In perhaps the most amazing part of this story, Balaam replies to the donkey as calmly if he and the donkey have had lots of previous conversations, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” (29) Finally, Balaam sees the angel, who asks him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” (32). The angel tells Balaam he could have easily killed him, but has shown mercy. Rather than returning home, the angel instructs Balaam to “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” (35)

For me, this bizarre story of a talking donkey is probably apocryphal, but it carries a crucially important message. God asks for obedience and this demand can come from any source at any time. At another level, Balaam and the donkey are a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel, which makes the symbolism of the stubborn donkey feel appropriate.

Mark 15:33–47: In what Mark intends as a portentous sign, the earth becomes dark at noon, symbolic of the life slipping away from Jesus. Three hours later, Jesus recites the opening line of Psalm 22 in Aramaic. Bystanders mistakenly think Jesus is calling for Elijah, which suggests to me that people didn’t understand what Jesus was saying in death as much as they misunderstood what he was saying in life. One final agonizing scream and Jesus dies. Simultaneously, Mark reports, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (38) For Mark this event signifies the end of the Old Covenant between God and the Jews. The Holy of Holies is exposed to the view every Jew, signifying, I think, that every Jew could now approach God through Jesus. The old temple order is no more. Except that the temple authorities certainly didn’t know that yet.

We must never forget that Mark is the master of juxtaposition and the very next sentence is the centurion’s statement,“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (39) which signifies to me that Jesus is now available to every Gentile as well as every Jew. In two sentences, Mark tells us the old order is no more and that a thread of history has begun: that Jesus is the center of the Jewish and Gentile universe.

Mark identifies two women standing off in the distance, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” (40) All the men, notably the disciples, seem to be absent. An observation that is reenforced by Mark’s statement that “there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  (41) Which forces me to ask, if Mark tells us that the women were present at this crucial moment, but the men apparently absent, why have women been subjugated in the church in the ensuing 2000 years? I guess we have the strongly-opinionated apostle Paul to thank for that.

Mark introduces us to “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, [who] went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (43) We will forever wonder that if Joseph of A was an ally of Jesus, who was willing to go “boldly” to Pilate, why does he only appear after Jesus’ death? Was he absent when the Sanhedrin tried Jesus? Or like the centurion, did he only really “get” who Jesus was at the moment Jesus died? For me, that makes Joseph representative of all of us. We tend to not get Jesus until it is virtually too late.

A small detail I’d not noticed before: “Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.” (44, 45) We presume this is the same centurion whose life has doubtless been transformed when he saw Jesus die. 

Another detail, “Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.” (46) This confirms for me that Jesus truly died naked and alone. Seemingly forsaken by everyone. But Joseph shows respect and mercy, bringing dignity to the dead body of Jesus at this dark, dark moment.

In a glimmer of a hint that something may be afoot, Mark notes that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” (47) The story that seems to  its participants to have concluded is indeed not over yet.

 

Psalm 71:18b–24; Numbers 21:10–22:6; Mark 15:21–32

Psalm 71:18b–24: Realizing that he will not be abandoned by God, our psalmist turns to praise, promising to witness God’s power to all now and in the future: “Till I tell of Your mighty arm to the next generation,/ to all those who will come, Your power.” (18b) He continues in the same worshipful vein looking upward to heaven: “and Your bounty, O God to the heights,/ as You have done great things.” (19a).

Then he asks the question we all must ask and answer, “O God, who is like You?” (19b) Either we accept God as God, or we substitute other things or other philosophies as our small-g gods. In today’s culture we see many saying that God is just one among many gods, and that whatever—or whoever— satisfies us spiritually is just fine. An ultimately empty path.

In his praise, the psalmist seems to ascribe the difficulties he has experienced to God: “As You surfeited me with great and dire distress,” (20a) Is the psalmist really saying that God “surfeited,” i.e., created, the difficulties he experienced or merely allowed them to happen? If we consult Job, God seems to allows, but does not create, the bad things that happen to us. But I question even that interpretation. I suggest that there is sufficient evil and fallenness in the world that bad things happen without God either creating or allowing them. Job notwithstanding, God is love, not manipulator.

Nevertheless, for the psalmist, his troubles lie in the past as he speaks with assurance that God has rescued him once again, “You will once more give me life,/ and from earth’s depths once more bring me up.” (20b) And not just bring him up, but “You will multiply my greatness/ and turn round and comfort me.”  (21) Notice that there is both psychological healing (“multiply my greatness”) but that God is ever the comforter when we have been pushed down. Would that I turn more frequently to God for comfort. As the psalmist knows, God is always there, offering exactly that.

The psalm’s coda is pure, grateful worship: “And so I shall acclaim You with the lute./—Your truth, my God./ Let me hymn with the lyre,/ Israel’s Holy One.”  (22) He will not only “sing glad song when I hymn to You,” but he will speak and witness, as well: “My tongue, too, all say long/ will murmur Your bounty.” (23) This should be our natural response as well when we reflect on how many times God has rescued us down through our years.

The psalm closes by noting that in the same way he asked at the opening verse, [“Let me never be shamed“], except it is now his enemies who will experience that shame: “For they are shamed, for they are disgraced,/ those who sought my harm.” (24) Once again, we do not take action to shame or hurt our enemies; they will bring that shame down upon themselves.

Numbers 21:10–22:6: I have often imagined that Israel’s desert wanderings were a lonely enterprise without much, if any, contact with other tribe and nations. But as we read today there was lots of interaction, much of it not very pretty.

Our authors are in travelogue mode as they describe the wanderings of the Israelites from Oboth to “lye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise. From there they set out, and camped in the Wadi Zered.” (21:11,12) The on to Arnon on the boundary of Moab. Our authors then cite another source, “the Book of the Wars,” to describe their further journeys to Beer—”that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” (16), where the Israelites pause to sing. Then ever onward: “Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that overlooks the wasteland.” (21: 19, 20)

Problems arise when Israel wishes to cross some other nation’s territory. As he had done with the king of Edom, Moses sends emissaries to the King Sihon of the Amorites seeking permission to cross, promising, “we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” (22)

But King Sihon not only refuses permission but decides to battle Israel in the wilderness of Jahaz. Israel is victorious in its first battle, and all of a sudden we have Israel settling in the former Amorite territory: “Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.” (21: 25) So is Israel still living in tents, able to pick up and move, or has a substantial portion of the people taken up permanent residence in the former Amorite territory? However, this conundrum does not seem to bother our authors.

Israel then defeats the wonderfully-named King Og of Basan and take possession of his territory.  After battling, victories, and land possession we once again find a transient Israel “camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.” (22:1) Word about this ravenous wandering mob that seems skilled in battle has spread and “Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel.” (22:3)

Moab’s King Balak, realizing a military defeat may be inevitable tries a new strategy: “He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor,” which is located far away on the Euphrates River, asking that king (apparently famous for his necromancy) “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (6)

We’ll see how this turns out tomorrow…

Mark 15:21–32: Mark devotes but eleven verses to Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark’s reportorial style describes the numerous facst about this execution dispassionately. First, the Romans “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” (21) With these two names we encounter a reference that lies outside the gospel narrative. Alexander and Rufus apparently become missionaries in the early church.

Mark does not give us the gory details of nails or spears involved in the process of crucifixion. All that comes in the other gospels. Here he simply states, “they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.” (24) I’m guessing the casting lots was normal routine for the Roman soldiers since all depictions to the contrary, I’m sure that to add humiliation to the crucifixion, the condemned hung naked on the cross, so there was no further need for clothing.

Mark records that Jesus was “crucified between two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” (27) but here in Mark there is no dialog among the three. Instead, he focuses on the mockery that Jesus endured, noting the sign, “King of the Jews” that was nailed into the cross. Everything that follows here is mockery and derision: “Those who passed by derided  him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (29, 30)

To make sure we get it about the Jewish religious leaders being primarily responsible for Jesus’ death, “the chief priests, along with the scribes, were were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (31, 32a)  Even in his terseness, Mark helps us see the smug satisfaction that doubtless was on their faces.

Mark’s main message here is the ultimately ironic mocking of the “king of the Jews.” In fact, even “Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.” (32b) Physical death occurs by crucifixion but mockery is the final degradation. And since I’m sure Jesus heard all this as he hung there dying, a type of psychological death by execration. As far as the humans in the story are concerned, Jesus can be brought no lower than this.

Psalm 71:9–18a; Numbers 20:1–21:9; Mark 15:1–20

Psalm 71:9–18a: Our psalmist pleads to God, “Do not fling me away in old age,/ as my strength fails, do not forsake me.” (9) Even though he is old in years, his woes have not retire with him. I can identify with this. Now that I’m in my 70th year, I still have the same role and responsibilities as when I was 40 or 50. But with the added burden of heath issues. Clearly, whoever called these the “golden years,” was not very old.

Even though he is old, his enemies have not relented. In fact they spy his increasing weakness, “For my enemies said of me,/ Who stalk me counseled together,/ saying ‘God has forsaken him.’” (10, 11a) And they wish to exploit his lonely vulnerability, “Pursue and catch him, for no one will save him.” (11b) Therefore, there is no human being to whom he can turn for help. Instead he asks, “God, do not keep far from me.” (12a)—and with great urgency: “My God, hasten to my help!” (12b)

Now our poet gets specific about what he wants God to do on his behalf: “May my accusers be shamed, may they perish—/ may they be clothed in shame and reproach,/ who seek my harm.” (13) And having said this, he feels his burden being lifted, “As for me, I shall always hope/ and add to all Your praise.” (14)

As always, we find the psalmist’s request for the shaming of his enemies to be antithetical to what Jesus has told us about our relationship to those who despise us and wish us harm. But here, in speaking his deepest thoughts and articulating his deepest wishes, I see a form of psychological release.  Our psalmist obviously does not intend to take action himself; he is leaving that up to God, knowing God will do what God will do. Does it mean we can pray for shame and reproach to come to our enemies? Obviously, we sometimes think those thoughts. The psalmist is merely expressing deeply held feelings—and we know by this example that we can express our darkest thoughts in prayer.

While waiting for God’s response our poet “shall come in the power of the Master, the Lord.” (16a) He has this confidence because “God, You have taught me since my youth,/ and till now I have told Your wonders.” (17) But even where there is confidence, there is also some uncertainty as he again begs, “And even in hoary old age,/ O God do not forsake me.” (18a) For me, this is a clear message that even though we have known God “since our youth,” and even though we have witnessed God’s actions before now, it is still quite OK to pray that God will listen and not forsake us. Because it is in voicing those words in prayer that we come to realize God has never forsaken us.

Numbers 20:1–21:9: Moses’ wife Miriam has died and the Israelites find themselves in desperate straits in the desert without water. Rather than asking Moses to pray to God to supply water, there is the usual complaining, “Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here?” (20:4) Moses prays to God, who issues rather precise instructions, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water.” (20:8)

Rather than following God’s instructions and speaking the command, Moses impatiently and famously strikes the rock twice with his staff and water pours forth. But if the Book of Numbers is anything, it is about following God’s rules. God is displeased at Moses’ effrontery, and the promise of entering Canaan is taken away from him: “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (20:12) The issue is not that Moses somehow abandoned God, but that he did not trust God and follow instructions to the letter. The message to all of us is that it’s one thing to have faith, but it’s another to gird that faith with trust that God will do as he promises.

Edom sits squarely between where the Israelites are and where Moses wants to lead them. He sends emissaries to the Edomite king, asking permission to use the “King’s Highway” through Edom. He promises they will not harm anyone or consume anything, “not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” (20:19). But the Edomite king refuses, “so Israel turned away from them.” (20:21)  and they head off in the direction of the Red Sea. Did God harden the Edomite king’s heart as a further rebuke to Moses? Our authors don’t indicate that, but the lesson is clear: When our plans do not align with God’s plans. When that happens, obstacles will arise.

For Moses’ impetuous action, Aaron is also punished and “shall not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah.” (20:24)  Which seems rather unfair to me…And further, Aaron’s time has come. So in view of all Israel, we have the poignant scene atop Mount Hor, where Moses takes the priestly vestments off Aaron and puts them on Aaron’s son, Eleazar. And it seems that Aaron dies immediately. What’s remarkable here is that this is a notable and peaceful transition of power. I think it’s because Moses, Aaron and Eleazar have followed God’s instructions precisely.

Aaron was deeply loved (probably much more so than Moses) and “all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron thirty days.” (20:29)

But now stuck in the desert, headed away form Canaan and unable to cross through Edom, things quickly return to their normal ugliness as “the people became impatient on the way.” (21:4) It is always the same complaint: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (21:5) God is in his “I’ll show them” mood, causing poisonous snakes inundate the camp and many die. The people move quickly to contrition: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (21:6). God tells moses to make a bronze serpent and hang it on a pole. A bitten person simply had to look up to the pole and live.

Many Christians have sees the serpent on the pole as a presaging of Jesus on the cross, where we need only look and be redeemed. But my own sense is that stretches the metaphor too far. The bronze serpent is symbolic of Jesus? Really?

Mark 15:1–20: Mark’s account of Jesus before Pilate is the author’s usual terseness. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (2). Notice that this is the secular side of Mark’s Big Question. Understandably, Pilate has no knowledge of the davidic Messiah, which is the question the religious leaders have already asked him. Being a Gentile, Pilate would view Jesus only in secular terms, i.e., is he here to take over the titular kingship of Israel, a position currently held by Herod.  Jesus, ambiguous as always, answers neither ‘yes,’ nor ‘no.’ His response, “If you say so,” can be interpreted several ways. Of course Mark doesn’t tell us what Pilate thought of Jesus’ answer. My own theory is that Pilate thought Jesus was delusional. An opinion doubtless confirmed when Jesus refuses to respond to “many charges they bring against you.” (4) Pilate is “amazed,” which I take as “incredulous.”

The story of the release of Barabbas follows. I confess to great personal difficulty with the entire Barabbas episode. Would Pilate really release a known insurrectionist with the ability to incite a riot, who was also a murderer, back into the mob? Pilate’s having enough trouble keeping the Jews in line as it is. Frankly, I think the story here is to make it clear that the Jews, preferring Barabbas to a rabbi who claims to be the Messiah, were solely responsible for Jesus’ death. Mark’s Pilate releases Barabbas because he wished to “satisfy the crowd,” (15), which I’ll take as “he wished to avoid a riot.” Nevertheless, I frankly doubt the historicity of this story.

To demonstrate Jesus’ total degradation, Mark describes how the soldiers drag Jesus into the palace courtyard and mock Jesus “in front of the whole cohort.” The Roman soldiers, already convinced that the Jews were a backward, unruly people, mock this Jewish would-be king with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, laughingly “saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (18) before they beat him and then drag him off to be crucified.

This episode of the soldiers mocking Jesus is Mark’s grand irony. For he—and his readers and we—know that Jesus really is a king, whom we believe will come again in kingly glory. But here, the mockery is a presaging of all the glory that is yet to come. And in just three days time, Jesus will prove all Jewish and worldly pretensions to be as empty and hollow as this mockery.