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.

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.


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