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.

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