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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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