Archives for April 2018

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

Originally published 4/15/2016. Revised and updated 4/16/2016.

Psalm 50:7–15: After the lengthy poetic introduction we reflected on previously, God finally speaks. His words are formal as if he is a judge speaking from the bench. They are directed to his chosen people and quickly establishes his godly bona fides with an irrefutable and dramatic statement in the third line of the verse:
Hear, O my people, that I may speak,
Israel, that I witness to you.
God your God I am.” (7)

While God certainly doesn’t disapprove of the sacrifices that Israel has been offering all these years, he seems to discount them as he sets the stage for something bigger although he is not about to prevent their continuation:
Not for your sacrifices shall I reprove you,
your burnt-offerings always before me.
I shall not take from your house [the temple, I presume] a bull,
not goats from your pens.
” (9)

God seems to be saying basically, “Yes, your sacrifices are just fine but don’t do them because you think I need the meat.” God then points out that he has far vaster resources than a few bulls and goats. After all, he’s saying, I’m the Creator:
Mine are all the beasts of the forest.
the herds on a thousand mountains,
I know every bird of the mountains,
creatures of the field are with Me
. (10, 11)

In fact, he continues, he does not actually need those sacrifices at all:
Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls,
would I drink the blood of goats?
 (13)

God is making the point that the sacrifices are for humankind to atone for sin and to give thanksgiving. God does not need any of this for him to be God. He’s got all of creation to prove that. So, it is we who
Sacrifice to God a thanksgiving,
and pay to the High One your vows
.” (14) A

And when we are in trouble we reach out to God in our distress:
And call Me on the day of distress—
I will free you and you shall revere me
.” (15).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m struck by two aspects of this highly detailed passage.

First, is the sheer variety of animal life–in the air, on the ground, in the sea–that constitutes God’s creation.  OF course, in our modern era we know many more phyla and species than are listed here, but the completeness of this list that tells how many species were know at the time is striking.  It also tells us that the land was fecund and not just the middle eastern desert of our imaginations. Which was one of the things that stuck me when I visited Israel. It is a far richer, more productive place that I had thought.

Second, I’m astounded by the careful division of everything into the two categories: clean and unclean.  The writers here seem almost obsessed with the issue of purity.  And I’m aware of the explanations that clean animals were healthier for human consumption. But at its base, the issue is more theological than nutritional.  The classification is completely binary: clean or unclean.  No middle ground; no fine gradations; no gray areas.  Which is exactly our relationship with God.  We are not “sort of redeemed.”  God’s act through Jesus Christ changes our lives from lost to found, from darkness to light.  It is we ourselves who bring ambiguity to God’s binary act of grace.

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

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

The scribes have asserted, “He has an unclean spirit,” (30) but Jesus is not finished. He goes on to describe what is famously known as the unforgivable sin:  “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (29)

What I had never noticed before about this somewhat puzzling claim of the “unforgivable sin” is that Jesus is speaking of himself. To accuse him, who is fully possessed of the Holy Spirit that is the driving force of his powers, of having “an unclean spirit” is to accuse the Holy Spirit herself of being unclean, which is truly blasphemous.  The Holy Spirit is sufficiently well-known and understood in the Hebrew Scripture that the religious people who made the accusation know exactly what Jesus is saying.  He has turned the tables and is accusing his accusers of blasphemy.

To me the “unforgivable sin” simply means that if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. But those who accuse others of not having the Spirit are not only deluded but out of relationship with God. And without that relationship, there can be no forgiveness.

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

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

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

Originally published 4/15/2016. Revised and updated 4/14/2018:

Psalm 50:1–6: This prophetic psalm opens with an unusual sequence of God’s names, “El, the God Lord,” which is essentially “God, God Lord,” as opposed to the more typical “Lord God.” This psalm will record God’s speech to the entire world as our psalmist reminds us that God spoke the entire creation into existence:
He spoke and called to the earth
from the sun’s rising-place to its setting.
 (1b)

While God’s glory indeed covers the entire earth from east [“rising-place”] to west “[“setting], God’s central location is —no surprise here—Jerusalem:
From Zion, the zenith of beauty
God shone forth.
 (2)

Before God speaks we witness an impressive theophany of fire, lightning, and thunder:
Let our God come and not be silent.
Before Him fire consumes,
and round Him—great storming.
 (3)

God is making his appearance not just to speak but to judge:
Let Him call to the heavens above
and to the earth to judge His people:
 (4)

Here, the “people” is Israel, as God’s first words are an invitation that includes a clear reference to the temple rites of sacrifice [of which we are currently reading in great detail in Leviticus]:
Gather to me Me My faithful,
who with sacrifice seal My pact.
 (5)

The next verse confirms that when he speaks the quality that will be on full display is the God’s judgement:
And let the heavens tell His justice,
for God, He is judge.
” (6)

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

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

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

But…God is still God and requires his mandates to be followed precisely. Filled with wine or enthusiasm or both, “Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them.” (10:1) Their act, which was probably well-meaning as they were caught up in all the excitement exceeds the instructions God had given to Moses, or perhaps they were taking a liturgical shortcut: “And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (10:2)

Moses tells Aaron that it was God who was in charge, not his well-meaning sons. In perhaps the most freighted and certainly the saddest sentence in this book, “And Aaron was silent.” (10:3) We can only imagine Aaron’s thoughts and feelings at this moment: grief, anger, probably a desire to run out of the tabernacle and weep. And certainly to hate God for what he did.

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

.

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

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

What do we take away from this episode? Certainly that when God gives instruction they are to be followed precisely. But perhaps the greatest lesson here is that we must be careful in keeping what is holy, holy. To set a clear boundary “between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach the Israelites all the statutes that the LORD spoke to them by the hand of Moses.” (10: 10,11).

This theological lesson is clear, but it was scant comfort to Eleazar and to Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, who then err by burning, rather than eating, the offense offering in the holy place (10:18)  Their fear of being struck dead like their brothers seems reasonable.  Aaron tells Moses that given the tragic events of the day, none of them could be expected to eat amidst their grief.  And Moses concedes that Aaron is right.

This is one of those places where we see the power of God juxtaposed against human feeling, that brings such poignancy to the story.  Moses may be God’s representative on earth, but Aaron is the representative humanity in all of us.

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

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

In an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel, (this is the establishment of the New Covenant, after all) Jesus appoints each man with three distinct aspects of the commission, i.e., a very clear mission [what today we would call a ‘mission statement.’] consisting of three duties:
1. “to be with him;” (14)
2. “to be sent out to proclaim the message” (i.e., the ‘Good News’ that Mark speaks of in the very first line of his gospel); (14)
3. “to have authority to cast out demons.” (15)

Notice that while they can cast out demons, they cannot be healers. At this point Jesus reserves that power for himself. The first two parts of the mission statement make complete sense to our modern brains. But why the casting out demons bit? I think it was reflective of the times and to make it clear that Jesus was not just a magician with healing powers. More importantly, I think, it comes back to that Markan theme: authority.  This is the first instance of Jesus passing along his authority to his followers.

One also wonders: were demons easier to cast out than healing people?  Or would a whole bunch of disciples wandering around healing people undermine Jesus’ mission un earth and create exactly the political revolution he sought so earnestly to avoid. He has doubtless learned some lessons from John the Baptist’s ministry, his enthusiastic followers and the fact that John ended up in prison.

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

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

Mark names Judas Iscariot last and adding the information this early in his gospel that it is Judas “who betrayed him.” (19) The naming of names is crucial because that is the essence of our identity.  Not only before other people, but before God.  Names are God-given, albeit through our parents. And names are an important distinctive that sets us apart from the rest of creation.

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

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

Originally published 4/13/2016. Revised and updated 4/13/2018:

Psalm 49:13–21: Our psalmist continues his reflection on the brevity—and ultimate futility— of life and observes that the only encomiums following their deaths are the ones they wrote themselves:
This way of theirs is foolishness.
and after, in words alone, they show favor. (14)

Continuing in his dark mood, our poet asserts that the unobservant, even stupid people head off to death without ever having realized the purpose of life: “Like sheep to Sheol they head—/ death shepherds them—” (15a) A puzzling line follows: “and the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.” (15b) Does this mean that the righteous (“upright”) people who have preceded these ‘sheep’ in Sheol somehow rule over them? Things become a bit clearer with the poet’s assertion that they wear out their image in Sheol,/ a habitation for them.” (15c), which I take to mean that those who were formerly well-known [‘their image’], rich, and powerful on earth are now nothing special following their death. Which seems intuitively true.

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

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

Our poet goes on to observe that the rich man is a hypocrite, whose motives are strictly self-centered even as he appears to be giving God the credit for his wealth and power:
For his own self he blesses [God] when alive
and acclaims You for giving him bounty
. (19)

Goodness knows we have seen many powerful men—especially politicians— give God credit or profess their religiosity when deep down we know they are making it all up. Which is one reason I cringe whenever I hear a politician say, ‘God bless America.’

But even the powerful will die in stupidity, never having understood that God holds him in his hand like a crumpled piece of paper; that all things are fundamentally meaningless:
He will come to the state of his fathers—
forevermore will not see the light.
” (20)

Our psalmist concludes on the same gloomy note about the ultimate futility of life. We are all doomed, even the rich and powerful are like mere animals heade to the slaughter:
Man will not grasp things in splendor.
He is likened to the beasts that are doomed.
 (21)

This psalm is a dark reflection on the futility of life and how we go about our quotidian lives in basic ignorance, believing things that are not true; believing we are more important than we actually are. These verses again prove that the Psalms is an amazing collection of emotions and philosophies—including the cynical ones.

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

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

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

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

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stretch to compare this anointing of blood and oil followed by remaining inside the Tabernacle to Jesus shedding his own sacrificial blood and Jesus’ three days inside the tomb to Arron’s time inside the Tabernacle burial.  The New Covenant began as the old: with the shedding of blood and burial.  And only then Jesus’ atonement of our sins with one huge difference: once and for all.

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

Mark 3:1–12: Mark continues to weave together the tenets of Jesus’ radical theology with his acts of healing. There’s a setup at the synagogue at Capernaum. The Pharisees “watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (2). Jesus asks the man with the withered hand to come forward so everyone could witness what was about to happen. As he does so, Jesus, knowing their thoughts, poses the question of Sabbath healing in the starkest terms possible: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (4).The Pharisees don’t answer because to have answered would have been an admission that Jesus was right and they were wrong?  It seems their pride could not allow that. What seems to have happened is that their pricked consciences collided with their pride and will express itself as unbridled hatred?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Originally published 4/12/2016. Revised and updated 4/12/2018:

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

There is no false modesty here and he will even accompany his sayings with music:
My mouth speaks wisdom,
my heart’s utterance, understanding.

I take up with the lyre my theme.” (4, 5)

His first words are directed at the well off, who have misplaced trust in their wealth, thinking it will be of benefit, especially when it comes to pleasing God:
Who trust in their wealth
and boast of their great riches—
yet they surely will redeem no man,
will not give to God his ransom
. (7,8)

In fact they do not possess that which is required for salvation:
To redeem their lives is too dear,
and one comes to an end forever.
” (9)

This last line is consistent with the Jewish belief that there was no afterlife or heaven, as he asks rhetorically,
Will he yet live forever?
Will he not see the pit?
 (10)

In a verse that seems lifted directly out of Ecclesiastes, he reflects on death being the great equalizer, reminding us that we can’t take it with us:
For he sees the wise die,
both the fool and the stupid man perish,

and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11)

Just to make sure we get his point, he states that no matter how great our reputation or fame may have been in life, we are all equal for all eternity when we are dead:
Their grave is their home forever,
their dwelling for all generations.
though their names had been called upon earth.
 (12)

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

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

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

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

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

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

We can also trace the act of anointing with oil back to this ceremony as “Moses poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” (8:12) Happily, however, we do not follow the rite of a sacrificial bull as a sin offering, which Moses uses as a cleansing agent for the altar.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Originally published 4/11/2016 with additions from 4/11/2014. Revised and updated 4/11/2018:

Psalm 48: We celebrated the king in the previous psalms; this psalm celebrates God residing in Zion, aka Jerusalem:
Great is the Lord and highly praised,
in our God’s town, His holy mountain. 
(2)

Alter notes that he uses “town” rather than “city,” because compared to other great cities of the time, Jerusalem is a relative backwater.  There is indeed today a “Mount Zion” within the city walls of Jerusalem, and our poet sings its praises—not least because that is where God lives:
Lovely in heights, all the earth’s joy,
Mount Zion, far end of Zaphon,
the great king’s city.
God in its bastions
is famed as a fortress. 
(3, 4)

It appears this psalm is celebrating a military victory over God’s enemies, who,
have seen and been so astounded,
were panicked, dismayed.
Shuddering seized them there,
pangs like a woman in labor.
 (6,7)

Even though Jerusalem lies some 35 miles from the Mediterranean coast, it appears a naval enemy was defeated by natural events [although Alter notes that scholars have been unable to link this psalm to a specific military event]:
With the east wind
You smashed the ships of Tarshish
. (8)

The key point here is that God has come to the aid of Zion’s inhabitants to prevail over their enemy:
As we heard, so we see
in the town of the Lord of armies, in the town of our God
.” (9)

The remainder of the psalm continues the celebration, which extends outward to Jerusalem’s suburbs:
Let Mount Zion rejoice,
let Judea’s townlets exult
because of Your judgements.
 (12)

We are encouraged to assess Jerusalem’s impregnability in an image that evokes the famous 7-day walk around Jericho:
Go around  Zion, encircle it.
Count its towers.
Set your mind to its ramparts, scale its bastions
to recount to the last generation
. (13, 14)

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

Leviticus 6:14–7:21: A phrase we see repeated many times in this section of Leviticus is “This is the teaching…” followed by specific instructions of the type of offering to be made and precisely how it is to be made.  This is a reminder that there is much more to the Old Covenant than just the Decalogue.  It’s worth remembering that “Torah” means “teaching,” and nowhere is there more teaching, instruction, and regulations than in this book which has suspended the narrative altogether.  Perhaps this book is better titled, “Rules and Regulations of the Old Covenant.”

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

First, “the ritual of the grain offering: [which] The sons of Aaron shall offer it before the Lord, in front of the altar.” (6:14) Happily, the sons get to eat what is left over. It is followed by “the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Lord on the day when he is anointed.” (6:20) But, “Every grain offering of a priest shall be wholly burned; it shall not be eaten.” (6:23)

Then, the more grisly sin offering, which the “priest who offers it as a sin offering shall eat of it; it shall be eaten in a holy place, in the court of the tent of meeting.” (6:26) More practical instruction follows: “when any of its blood is spattered on a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in a holy place.” (6:27) Either an earthen or bronze vessel may be used for the washing process. The earthen vessel is disposed of but the bronze one is thoroughly cleaned for reuse.

There were many types of sacrifices, ranging from grain offerings to entire bulls.  And there were many types of sin to be atoned.  Chapter 7 opens with “the teaching of the guilt offering,” (7:1) which is carefully differentiated from “the offense offering like the sin offering, a single teaching do they have.” (7:7).  Which in turn is distinct from “this is the teaching of the communion sacrifice that is brought 12 forward to the LORD.” (7:11,12).  And, oh by the way, the communion sacrifice is about thanksgiving, not atonement. (7:15).

There’s also a nice example of recycling, “the priest who offers anyone’s burnt offering shall keep the skin of the burnt offering that he has offered.” (7:8) Although it’s not clear to me what the priest is supposed to do with burnt skin.

Finally, “the ritual of the sacrifice of the offering of well-being that one may offer to the Lord.” (7:11)  which is accompanied by cakes of leavened (yes, leavened) bread. Both the cakes and any flesh offered as thanksgiving “shall be eaten on the day it is offered; you shall not leave any of it until morning.” (7:15) But woe betide the priest or individual who eats leftovers: “If any of the flesh of your sacrifice of well-being is eaten on the third day, it shall not be acceptable,” (7:18). All of which makes good sense from the standpoint of avoiding food poisoning in the desert where refrigeration had not yet been invented.

In fact, the punishment for disobedience on this eating of food too late or while in an unclean state is quite harsh: “those who eat flesh from the Lord’s sacrifice of well-being while in a state of uncleanness shall be cut off from their kin.” (7:20) From our 21st century perspective, these instructions about sacrifice are not bizarre or arbitrary at all. Rather, they seem designed so that everyone involved practices good hygiene.

Mark 2:1–12: By the time Jesus returns home [presumably to Simon’s house] to Capernaum his fame has spread across Galilee and “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.” (2) But the friends of a paralytic man are not discouraged by Jesus’ apparent inaccessibility. They bring the paralytic up to the roof of the house, remove some roofing tiles and lower the paralytic man down right in front of Jesus. I’ve always loved this story about the men who removed the roof in order to lower their friend down on a pallet because they were not deterred by obstacles, took the initiative and obviously had serious engineering skills.

This famous healing would be all sweetness and light—a touching story of friendship— had Jesus simply told the man that he was healed. But Mark is not one to waste a teachable moment and he writes that Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” (5).  This statement offends the scribes, who whisper among themselves that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy.However, Mark is careful to point out that the scribes did not speak up, doubtless grasping that the hoi polloi gathered around Jesus would not take kindly to those who criticized Jesus—especially a charge as serious as blasphemy.

Mark tells us that Jesus did not (or pretends not to) hear them, but rather he “perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves.” (8) Jesus poses the philosophical question to them, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’?” (9) and promptly tells the paralytic to get up and walk, which of course he does.

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

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

Originally published 4/9/2016 with portions published 4/9/2014. Revised and updated 4/10/2018:

Psalm 47: Alter informs us that this psalm forms a central part of the liturgy for the Jewish New Year. Its first half is worship which celebrates God’s kingship. There is neither reticence nor reverent quiet here as the congregation joyfully acclaims:
All peoples, clap hands,
shout out to God with a sound of glad song.
For the Lord is most high and fearsome,
a great king over all the earth.
”  (2, 3)

God is not restricted to being king of over Israel, but in one of the many reminders on the Psalms of God’s universality, he is king “over all the earth.”

This is no effeminate God, but one who is mighty, strong, and conquers militarily and loves Israel above all all other nations:

He crushes people beneath us
and nations beneath our feet.
He chooses us for his estate,
pride of Jacob whom He loves. (4, 5)

But this psalm is also about the rest of us, for we know that through Jesus Christ God has chosen us as well. And like Israel in this psalm, our response can only be glad worship of the God who reigns over all the earth:
Hymn to God, hymn,
hymn to our king, O hymn.
For king of all earth is God,
hymn joyous song.
God reigns over the nations,
and sits on His holy throne.”(7-9)

Notice that worship focuses solely on God. It is not about us nor does it exist to make us feel better. Which means in the end it’s not about worship forms such as “traditional” or “contemporary” or what kind of music or preaching we prefer. Our psalmist does not critique the worship experience as we are wont to do. Rather, it is focused solely in one direction and one direction only: Our response is worship simply because of the reality of God’s kingship over every being on earth.

Leviticus 5:1–6:13: If we read Leviticus carefully we begin to see that it weaves sin and penance into a tightly woven structure. This chapter lays out different types of offenses and the requisite sacrifice of atonement. Here we encounter a fairly comprehensive inventory of sins:
• Failure to testify when one has seen a sin by another. (5:1)
• Touching unclean things such as carcasses. (5:2)
• Touching human uncleanness (and we can certainly imagine what that is…) (5:3)
• “Utter aloud a rash oath for a bad or a good purpose,” (5:44) which pretty much takes swearing off the table.

Even unwitting sins require sacrifice: “if a person offends and does any one of all the commands of the LORD that should not be done and does not know and is guilty, he shall bear his punishment.”  (5:18) We talk about our culture as being “post-Christian.”  Perhaps we should also call it “post-sin.”  “Sin” seems so antiquated in our therapeutic age where victimhood seems to have largely replaced guilt, never mind atonement for guilt.

The first step in restoring one to a state of righteousness is confession—exactly what it is for us as well: “You shall confess the sin that you have committed.” (5:5) As Christians, confession remains our first requirement when we realize we have sinned. But in his epistle, John adds the comforting words, “[God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (i John 1:9)

But Leviticus requires much more thaOur Levitical authors then go on to describe the precise sacrificial procedures: “n mere confession. It requires sacrifice: As your penalty for the sin that you have committed, a female from the flock, a sheep or a goat, as a sin offering.” (5: 6). Notice, by the way, that unlike sacrifices for good will, the sacrifices of atonement involve a female sheep or goat.

One of the really great things in that our authors have recognized economic reality and make provision for it. Not everyone will have the means to sacrifice a relatively expensive sheep or goat, so “if you cannot afford a sheep, you shall bring to the Lord, as your penalty for the sin that you have committed, two turtledoves or two pigeons.” (5:7)  And then, “if you cannot afford two turtledoves or two pigeons, you shall bring as your offering for the sin that you have committed one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour for a sin offering.” (5: 11) In other words, the act of sacrifice was proportionate to one’s wealth. It is details like these that demonstrate that God meets us where we are regardless of our economic circumstances. Too bad that reality was corrupted by the time of the Pharisees—and today a —by the assumption that wealth correlated to righteousness.

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

We think of these detailed Levitical rules as being almost absurdly constraining.  Yet it’s clear that those same rules, which form the basis of our own laws, are exactly how order was maintained among that “stiff-necked” people wandering in the wilderness.  Without them, chaos would have ensued.  Does a decreasing awareness of sin and its consequences lead to a breakdown of order in our own society?

Mark 1:35–45: Even though we’re still in Mark’s first chapter, no one is sitting still—least of all, Jesus—as Mark continues to show us various aspects of his character. Teaching and healing at Capernaum, is immediately followed by describing Jesus;’ practice of finding a deserted place in order to pray. And he didn’t bother to tell anyone. We can sense Simon’s annoyance when, after hunting and finally finding Jesus, he grumps,“Everyone is searching for you.” (37).

There’s a layered meaning of the disciples’ exclamation, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Yes, the disciples were looking for him in the dark (another double meaning!)  But we are all searching for Jesus (in the dark).  Which we who are reading or hearing this Gospel are doing: we are searching for the real Jesus. Even those who deny they are searching are still searching for the meaning and purpose that only Jesus can bring.

Ever the master of surprise Jesus unexpectedly announces that instead of returning to Capernaum, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do.” (38)  Mark is also subtly telling us not only is Jesus his own man who relies more on his father than other people, but that he is unpredictable and will keep doing the unexpected. More importantly, in this simple declaration Mark gives us Jesus’ mission statement: to proclaim the good news wherever he can.

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

The leper famously disobeys Jesus’ order not to tell anyone about being healed but, “went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word.” (45) We often wonder why Jesus would say this, but I think Mark gives us a very simple explanation that it was simply logistics since “Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.” (45)  I even think there’s a bit of reverse psychology operating here: Jesus is perfectly happy to have word spread. After all, he just said that “I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do. (38)

Psalm 46; Leviticus 4; Mark 1:21–34

Originally published 4/8/2016 with portions published 4/8/2014. Revised and updated 4/9/2018:

Psalm 46: This celebratory psalm gives God the credit for victory and protection of Israel, recognizing that “God is a shelter and a strength for us,/ a help in straits readily found.” (2) In a verse that everyone of us can hold onto when times are chaotic (which they always are), our poet proclaims God’s sheltering protection:
Therefore we fear not when the earth breaks apart,
when mountains collapse in the heart of the seas.
” (3)

It’s easy now—just as it was probably easy then—to believe that everything in the world around us is flying apart metaphorically, if not literally:
Its waters roar and roil,
mountains heave in its surge.
 (4)

But be it natural disaster such as the earthquake and floods implied here; or be it war, revolution, or terrorism God is nearby:
God is in its midst, it will not collapse.
God helps it as morning breaks.
Nations roar and kingdoms collapse,” (6,7)

Nevertheless, God still reigns as, “he sends forth His voice and earth melts.” (7)

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

In this psalm, God speaks. He tells us what we must remember that when times seem darkest we need do only one thing: ‘Let go, and know that I am God.” (11)

The eternal question for each person and each nation is, can we ever relinquish our need to attempt to control events? It is this lust for control over others that creates conflict and war. Earthquakes and floods may be natural occurrences, but it is because humankind has forgotten God that we find ourselves in desperate straits as a world, a nation, a culture and as individuals.

We have forgotten that  “The Lord of armies is with us,/ a fortress for is.” (12) believing as we do, that we are the little-g gods greater than God and do not require assistance. But it only requires scanning the headlines to realize how false and misguided this quest for control really is.

Leviticus 4:God is now giving Moses detailed instructions of sacrifices required for different categories of people “when anyone sins unintentionally in any of the Lord’s commandments about things not to be done, and does any one of them: (2)

There are specific sacrificial instructions for different categories of people, “if the anointed priest should offend” (3); for “When a chieftain offends and does one of all the commands of the LORD his God that should not be done” (22); when the people as a group sin: “the whole congregation of Israel errs unintentionally” (13); and for “a single person from the common people should offend errantly in doing one of the LORD’s commands that should not be done, and bear guilt,” (27) These categories provide insight into how the Israelites were organized: priesthood, tribal chieftains and the hoi polloi. 

I think what’s most remarkable here is that these sacrificial acts of justification were required even when the sin was unintentional, i.e., not the result of an evil thought or deed. It seems almost quaint in today’s “anything goes” culture is that the sin occurs and “the matter escapes the notice of the assembly.” (13) Today, the entire idea of sin—whether intentional or unintentional— is fading from the scene, even from churches, and is being replaced by requiring “tolerance” of any act, no matter how sinful, as well as the new moral code of “I can do anything I wish as long as I don’t hurt other people.”

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

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

Mark 1:21–34: Mark’s stylistic terseness creates a sense of action—much like quick cuts in a movie heighten the sense of energy and tension. And Mark’s Jesus is extremely action-oriented. If “immediately” and “follow” are the themes of Jesus establishing his ministry, then here in the synagogue where Jesus commences his public ministry is the theme of how Jesus conducts his ministry: Authority.  “…he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) and “What is this? A new teaching—with authority!” (27).

Capernaum is about as far as you can get from Jerusalem and still be in Israel.  Yet, this is where Jesus began his ministry: in the Israeli outback.  Retrospectively, his strategy is clear: Begin in an obscure place and let the word filter out on its own.  No need to start giving speeches in Jerusalem.  And, unlike the many other prophets and Zealots wandering the countryside at the time, Jesus uses action together with Scripture to establish his authority.  This is far far more than simply the provocative speeches of other would be revolutionaries and rabble rousers.  Jerusalem remains asleep to the idea that a Messiah will soon be in their midst and they do not know what is coming.

Having just caused four disciples to follow him, he enters “the synagogue and taught.” (21) And the results are amazing to the locals at Capernaum: “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” (22) But Jesus’ teaching is just the introduction to more astounding events: “a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” (23, 24).  

Jesus’ very first miracle act in Mark is exorcising the demon rather than physical healing. I think Mark is telling us that Jesus is just as concerned with our mental and emotional well-being as our physical state—something we fail at today in a health care system focused on physical healing but which too often abandons the mentally ill to their fate. And, alas, we have the school shootings to prove this hypothesis.

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

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

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

 

 

Psalm 45:10–18; Leviticus 2,3; Mark 1:9–20

Originally published 4/7/2016 with portions published 4/7/2014. Revised and updated 4/7/2018:

Psalm 45:10–18: Well, well, well. This turns out to be a psalm celebrating a royal wedding as our poet turns and addresses the princess, whom we assume is the bride of the king celebrated in the first half of the psalm. The poet offers harsh, yet doubtless correct, advice:
Listen, princess, and look, incline your ear,
and forget your people, and your father’s house.
 (11)

As has been the case down through the years, this marriage was doubtless arranged as the physical expression of an alliance between two kingdoms. Even though the marriage is arranged, the poet suggests that she be as alluring as possible to her bridegroom:
And let the king yearn for your beauty,
for he is your master,/ and bow down to him.
 (12)

She may be a princess, but in this patriarchal society he is still her ruler, which is how a patriarchal society has operated down to the present day, especially in the Middle east.

Neverthless, she brings some advantages with her besides her beauty: a dowry:
Daughter of Tyre, with tribute
the people’s wealthy will court your favor.
 (13)

So, beauty and wealth will certainly help ingratiate her with her new family and courtiers. The poet then turns his attention to her wedding attire and her attendants, evoking the beauty and laughter of the bridesmaids as well:
All the princess’s treasure is pearls, filigree of gold her raiment
In embroidered stuff she is led to the king,
maidens in train, her companions.
They are led in rejoicing and gladness,
they enter the palace,
brought to you, king.
” (15, 16)

But our poet understands the princess’s sadness at being taken away from her family—and especially her father whom she loved dearly. Our poet attempts to assuage this sadness by reminding here she will be a mother:
In your father’s stead your sons will be.
You will set them as princes in all the land.
” (17)

The psalm concludes with a little personal PR as the poet reminds us that it is he who has sung this sweet and loving song of a bridegroom and bride:
Let me make your name heard in all generations.
Therefore do peoples acclaim you forevermore. (18)

So, is there theology here? I suppose some might endeavor to position this poem as an allegory for Christ as king and the church as his bride, But I think that’s stretching it too far—and certainly nothing the poet ever envisioned. For me, this psalm is a respite from the despair of the preceding psals and the editors who arranged the order of the psalms were wise in offering this poetic celebration immediately following the anguish of Psalm 44.

Leviticus 2,3: We begin our trek through the Levitical catalog of the vast panoply of various offerings and sacrifices. [And I’m grateful to the Moravians for flying through the book at a fairly high altitude.]

Not every offering is a slaughtered and incinerated animal. The grain offering which is made of “choice flour” may be brought as grain, as a loaf of bread: “When you present a grain offering baked in the oven, it shall be of choice flour: unleavened cakes mixed with oil, or unleavened wafers spread with oil.” (2:4) or even a pancake: “If your offering is grain prepared on a griddle, it shall be of choice flour mixed with oil, unleavened.” (2:5). Who knew these foods were so ancient!

There are two important aspects of a grain offering. First, is like the bread eaten at the Passover festival, it is unleavened: “No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven, for you must not turn any leaven or honey into smoke as an offering by fire to the Lord.” (2:11) And second, “You shall not omit from your grain offerings the salt of the covenant with your God; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (13).

So when Jesus talks about being the “salt of the earth” in the Sermon on the Mount, there is not only a sense of seasoning, but among his audience that is well aware of the sacrificial requirements of the Temple, a requirement of sacrifice as well. I’m sure that everyone who heard him thought of this passage that describes how a grain offering requires salt. It is the salt that makes the bread edible, and that is our role in the world as Christians: to bring the flavor of sweet bread to others.

Leviticus 3 describes an offering of “well-being.” I assume that this is an offering given in gratitude for the blessings God has bestowed on the person making the offering. This sacrifice requires slaughtering the unblemished animal “at the entrance of the tent of meeting.” At which point, “Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.” (3:2) Sheep—male or female—and goats are the animals used in this sacrifice, as detailed instructions are given for what body parts are burned on the altar, which appears to be the fat. As the authors note, “All fat is the Lord’s.” (3:16).  Moreover, the Israelites are enjoined to remember this rule: “It shall be a perpetual statute throughout your generations, in all your settlements: you must not eat any fat or any blood.” (3:17) Sacrificial blood belongs to God as well, which is why Jesus’ blood was shed on our behalf: it was God’s most direct and sacrificial act.

Also, it’s pretty good health advice not to eat fat or blood. Clearly, rib-eye steaks were not on the menu here.

Mark 1:9–20: Where the other Gospel writes give long descriptions of the events that precede Jesus’ ministry, Mark is the paragon of scriptural terseness. In a mere eleven verses Mark describes Jesus baptism, including the descent of the Holy Spirit and God’s vocal approval; the wilderness temptation, the beginning of the ministry in Galilee, and the calling of four disciples (Simon, Andrew, James, John).  But amid all this economy of language, Mark takes the time to repeat what I think is a crucial theme of his Gospel: “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (18) and again, “Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (20). There is no hesitation, no wasted time in reflection and meditation.

Two words: “immediately” and “followed.” We don’t get the backstory, but Mark emphasizes that we follow, we don’t go “side-by-side;” we don’t “accompany” Jesus; we don’t “join his team.” We do one thing only: we follow.  There is true hierarchy here: Jesus is the leader; we are the followers. Our society obsessed with egalitarianism and equality and equity is uncomfortable with the idea of real leadership, which is what Jesus is all about.

Same goes for the temptation in the desert: just the barest facts and the sense of everything happening with great urgency. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” (12, 13) Mark never tells us; he only implies that Jesus avoided succumbing to Satan’s temptations.

Mark creates a very clear delineation between the end of John’s ministry—he’s arrested— and the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. As far as Mark is concerned there is no overlap. John was only the opening act. He’s using this first chapter to establish Jesus’ bona fides and wants to get on with the main program.

So, too, disciples are collected equally quickly: “he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen.” (16) And just a bit farther up the road, “he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.” (19)  Mark tells us nothing at this point about the disciple’s personalities. There is only one thing that matters: it is what the four—Simon, Andrew, James, and John— do immediately and without hesitation—and what we are all to do: follow Jesus without hesitation.

 

Psalm 45:1–10; Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17; Mark 1:1–8

Originally published 4/6/2016. Revised and updated 4/6/2018:

Psalm 45:1–9: Alter informs us that this is the only Psalm designated “as a psalm of love.” It is also the only psalm where the poet gives us a literary selfie, referring to himself with an entire verse of introduction:
My heart is astir with a goodly word.
I speak what I’ve made to the king.
My tongue is the pen of a rapid scribe.
” (2)

This verse informs us that he was a poet in the royal court. And as we read on, this psalm becomes a grand celebration of the king to whom the poet is speaking. He opens his paean with words of almost treacly flattery:
You are the loveliest of the sons of man,
grace flows form your lips.
” (3a)

And in a statement of questionable theology, he asserts that since the king is love;y and graceful, “Therefore has God blessed you forever.” (3b) However, we probably shouldn’t be too hard on our poet since poetic flattery doubtless got him this position as court poet in the first place.

The poem moves quickly to the essential quality of a  king in that region at that time: military prowess and the national military might that he heads:
Gird your sword on your thigh, O warrior,
your glory and your grandeur.
” (4).

But the king also represents God’s justice carried out on earth as our poet lists three essential qualities of a king:
And in your grandeur pass onward,
mount on a word of truth, humility, and justice.
” (5a)

I wonder which king the psalmist is referring to? Solomon seems a likely candidate, although I’m not sure he would have cottoned to this over-the-top obsequiousness that characterizes this section of the psalm. In any event, the king is the central symbol of national military might projected against Israel’s enemies:
and let your right hand shoot forth terrors,
your sharpened arrows—
peoples fall beneath you—
into the heart of the king’s enemies.
” (5b, 6)

There was by definition a special relationship between God and king, specifically that the king is God’s anointed agent mirroring God’s qualities on earth:
Your throne of God is forevermore.
A scepter of right, your kingship’s scepter.
You loved justice and hated evil.
Therefore did God anoint you with oil of joy over your fellows.
” (7,8)

I’m not sure why the Moravians ended the reading here, but this final verse tells us that all the kingly qualification matters are out of the way. The tone of the poem shifts to a more romantic image in anticipation of the theme of the latter half of this psalm:
Myrrh and aloes and cassia/ all your garments
From ivory palaces/ lutes have gladdened you.
” (9)

Exodus 40:24–Leviticus 1:17: It is the Moravian habit to ignore the boundary point between one book’s end the other’s beginning, and today is no exception. Especially since there is no break in the action.

The tabernacle is complete and erected. Each item of furnishing—lampstand, lamps, the golden altar with its fragrant incense, the altar of burnt offering, the basin—are carefully put into place as the authors remind us, after each item: “as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (40: 25, 27,29,32)  In short, the tabernacle is now ready to establish the connection between God and Israel via the priests: Aaron and his sons. The final tent walls are erected and at last, “Moses finished the work.

God approves and “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (34) But oddly enough after all that work. “Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” (35) The cloud—which is the physical manifestation of the glory of God—is a signaling device. “Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey.” (40:36) and likewise, “if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up.” (40:37) In any event, I think there is great significance here that God has come down from his remote perch on Mt. Sinai to dwell amongst the people. God has moved from distance abstraction to daily presence.

This remarkable book ends as the relationship between God and Israel has now been firmly and quite tangibly established: “For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.” (40:38)

Now that the tabernacle is complete, it becomes the meeting place between God and Moses as the book of Leviticus opens with God giving instructions to Moses regarding exactly what is to go on inside the tabernacle. As in Exodus, Moses is the designated intermediary between God and the people.

It’s worth noting, I think, that ehe authors of the Torah leave Israel with all eyes on God as they suspend the story of the journey in the wilderness with the interregnum that is the book of Leviticus, which is basically unencumbered by any narrative detail at all.  Now ensconced in the Tabernacle, God once again speaks to Moses, ” saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them…” (Lev 1:2)  And there follows the almost endless detail of precisely how the sacrifices are to be made.

As Leviticus opens, God gets right to issuing detailed instructions on the burnt offering sacrifices involving livestock: bulls, sheeps, goats. The immutable requirements are: it must be from the herd, not a random animal found wandering alone. It shall be “a male without blemish; you shall bring it to the entrance of the tent of meeting, for acceptance in your behalf before the Lord.” (Lev 1:3) Instructions regarding sprinkling of blood and butchering and what parts are burnt and what other parts are washed follow.

Birds—turtledoves and pigeons—also qualify as burnt offerings and the priests are given the rathe unpleasant duty [to me anyway] of twisting off its head. The body is then eviserated and its crop is thrown into the ash heap as the priest “shall tear it open by its wings without severing it.” (1:17)

Ugh.

This chapter ends on a tantalizing sensory note.  The sacrifices are “a fire offering, a fragrant odor to the LORD.” (1:17).  We know God sees and hears us, but here we are reminded that God possesses all the senses we do. And that what we do for God includes acts that God not only sees and hears, but that they also should be “a fragrant odor to the Lord.”

Mark 1:1–8: We arrive at the beginning of the second gospel. Mark’s style is quite different than Matthew’s. His prose is usually terse, almost staccato. If Matthew is a Victorian novel, Mark is a newspaper. Pretty much just the facts without much editorial elaboration. This terseness is one reason why Mark is seen by many scholars as the earliest of the gospels. Some scholars have opined that the gospel is the transcription of an interview by the historical Mark of a much older Peter.

If we continue with the newspaper metaphor, verse one is the headline: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” But Mark’s beginning is certainly not Matthew’s beginning as Mark omits genealogies and the nativity stories. For John, Jesus’ birth or his theological connection to God and the Word is irrelevant.  This book is about what Jesus did and said.  And for Mark, that is evidence enough.

He opens his gospel message by citing Isaiah’s famous verses,

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
    ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight,’ (2,3)

I think this verse operates at two levels. It establishes John the Baptist’s role, but I think more importantly, it establishes Mark’s role. He is also the messenger and he is going to tell us a story that will indeed prepare our way for a new life that will come from our hearing this story.

The first person to appear in this gospel is John the “baptizer.” Mark reels off John’s mission in a tightly distilled litany. First, his message: “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (4); Then his popularity: “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (5) Then his clothing: “camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist” and diet “he ate locusts and wild honey.” (6) These are the essentials. No more description is required.

Mark shows John the Baptist as fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. And a mere seven verses into the story, John is ready to remove himself from the stage because “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (7)   Unlike Matthew’s habit of citing the scriptural reference, Mark simply has John announce: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (8)

For Mark, the details that matter are the ones that will impact his ability to convey Jesus’ acts and Jesus’ message.  Everything else is simply setting the scene.

Psalm 44:18–27; Exodus 39:32–40:23; Matthew 28:1–20

Originally published 4/6/2016 with portions from 4/5/2014. Revised and updated 4/5/2018:

Psalm 44:18–27: Our psalmist turns from shaking Israel’s collective fist at God to a new strategy: reminding God that despite his apparent desertion—and implied betrayal— of them, they have nevertheless remained faithful and obedient despite this awful defeat:
All this befell us, yet we did not forget You,
and we did not betray Your pact.
Our heart has not failed,
nor have our footsteps strayed from Your path.
 (18, 19)

Having thus buttered up God, our poet flings a direct accusation of God’s having used his people malevolently, even to the point of death:
…though You thrust us down to the sea monster’s place
and with death’s darkness covered us over.
 (20).

There is an ironic plaintiveness in the poet’s cry as he asks rhetorically that God certainly would have been alert to their sinfulness had they abandoned God:
Had we forgotten the name of God
and spread out our palms to an alien god,
would not God have fathomed it?
” (21, 22a)

After all, the psalmist argues, even had they been hypocritical in pretending to love and honor God, “He knows the heart’s secrets.” (22b)

Finally, our poet comes right out and says exactly what he’s thinking. Their defeat is God’s fault. Ever faithful, they have fought for God, but God has abandoned them and that is why they have met disaster:
For Your sake we are killed all day long,
we are counted as sheep for slaughter.
” (23)

Surely, he pleads, this awareness of their plight will awaken a slumbering God. And in some of the most mournful, despairing verses in Psalms, the poet asks the question that rings down through the ages right to today:
Awake, why sleep, O Master!
Rouse up, neglect not forever
Why do You hide Your face,
forget our affliction, our oppression?
 (24, 25)

In a world where God seems absent, all seems hopeless in an image of total defeat that has sapped them even of the ability to stand:
For our neck is bowed to the dust,
our belly clings to the ground.
 (26)

Nevertheless, ever-hopeful, this agonized psalm ends with the final plea that it is God’s inherently generous beneficence that he will eventually come to their rescue:
Rise as a help to us
and redeem us for the sake of Your kindness.
 (27).

In the end, we can rely on one thing and one thing only: That God will hear us and will rescue us. But while waiting we can recall this psalm and like the men the psalmist describes, we can shake our fist at God at our desperate plight. We can even accuse God of abandoning us. But underneath it all, hope still flickers. As other psalms remind us, God is listening even in silence.

Exodus 39:32–40:23: The work on the tabernacle is complete and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (39:32) and “the Israelites had done everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (33) This provides the authors the opportunity to summarize in one long paragraph just how extensive and complex this project had been as they review the final inventory of “the tent and all its utensils, its hooks, its frames, its bars, its pillars, and its bases;” (33b) along with the “the ark of the covenant with its poles and the mercy seat” (35) and all the other furnishings.  And not to forget “the finely worked vestments for ministering in the holy place, the sacred vestments for the priest Aaron, and the vestments of his sons to serve as priests.” (41)

As has been their wont, these authors emphasize the human side of this project and repeat the observation that “The Israelites had done all of the work just as the Lord had commanded Moses.” (42) And for their efforts, “When Moses saw that they had done all the work just as the Lord had commanded, he blessed them.” (43) Can there be any better feeling than to have done as God has instructed us to do and to receive a blessing for having done it? However, we must always remember that is not the reason that we do it, but our reward for a job well done.

We don’t hear much these days about the theology of vocation, which I have always considered to be one of the high points of Lutheran theology.  But here it is: the people are not priests, they are workers, and they have crafted a work to the glory of God.  I have to believe this passage was read form time to time during the construction of the great cathedrals of Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries.

If I were writing subsection titles for this part of Exodus, the first part of this final chapter would be headed, “Some assembly required.”  God’s instructions to Moses are quite precise about where the furnishings and drapery of the Tabernacle are to be placed.  (It also reminds me of the little models of the Tabernacle we 5th graders made back in Sunday School at Lake Avenue Congregational Church in Pasadena so many years ago.)

Matthew 28:1-20  Matthew does not linger over post-Resurrection details, as our Gospel writer wraps up the most astounding event in history with his usual economy, almost terseness. Unlike the quiet garden and the empty tomb recounted in Luke, Matthew’s description of the resurrection is truly heaven come down to earth: And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. (2, 3)  WHile the women who had come to the tomb may have been frightened, it is the rough, masculine Roman soldiers who freak out: For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. 

Jesus does not reveal himself to the women; rather the angel sends them off to give the good news that he tells them: “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee.” (6, 7) 

Their faithful and joyful response is rewarded by Jesus appearing to them: “Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him.” (9) As in the other Gospels, it is the women who meet the resurrected Jesus first,

One event, which I think is exclusive to Matthew, is the recounting of how the priests and religious officials bribed the guards to spread the Big Lie, that the disciples had stolen Jesus’ body.  Which theory continues to surface even today.  (I remember a book in the 1970’s about this, and Wikipedia even includes an entry, “the stolen body hypothesis.)

Matthew, with his Jewish perspective writing to a Jewish community, ends the story of Jesus’ interaction with Judaism on this distinctly conspiratorial note with, “And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.” (15)  The tragedy of course, is that Matthew’s words have been at least partly catalytic in the church’s persecution of the Jews over history.  But that is not Matthew’ fault. It is ours.

Matthew’s story ends with Jesus’ famous commissioning.  (And doesn’t even mention the Ascension.)  He has made us witness to Jesus’ mission on earth and the story ends with a call to action—our action. And that is why I think he wrote his Gospel in the first place. Jesus’ time on earth is so much more than the “greatest story ever  told.”  It’s an instruction manual of how to carry out the Great Commission by remembering and then doing the things Jesus did. And Jesus’ final words are his (and God’s) Greatest Promise to us: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (20) May we never ever forget that sublime truth. Our faith is much more than contemplation or acceptance; in the end the Gospel depends on our willingness to share our faith with others.