Psalm 53; Leviticus 15:25–16:25; Mark 6:1–6

Originally published 4/22/2016. Revised and updated 4/23/2016.

Psalm 53: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially a duplicate of Psalm 14 with only a few minor exceptions. That said, its message is completely relevant to us today.

There is little ambiguity here. There are those who are on God’s side and those who are not. Our psalmist focuses on the “not” crowd, reminding us that a scoundrel is a God-denier and as a result of living without God and by denying God’s existence they are incapable of doing good at all:
The scoundrel has said in his heart,
There is no God.

They do corrupt and loathsome misdeeds.
There is none who does good.
” (2)

In a verse that recalls the conditions of Noah’s time, God-fearers seem to have vanished from the face of the earth:
The Lord from the heavens looked down
on the sons of humankind
to see, is there someone discerning,
someone seeking God
.” (3)

At least God found Noah, but now the situation is even more dire. No righteous man is to be found:
All are tainted,
one and all befouled.
There is none who does good.
There is not even one.
” (4)

That’s certainly a verse that resonates today as people in the name of “tolerance,” “equality,” “inclusivity,” deny God and seek to seek to eject God and God-followers from the public square. They are saying, “Go ahead, worship your pretend God, but do it only in private.”

The psalmist reminds of the profound ignorance of the God-deniers as they neither comprehend their fallen state nor tolerate those who believe in God. Rather, they consume the righteous:
Do they not know,
the wrongdoers?
Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.
They did not call on God. 
(5)

In the historical context of the psalm, those God-deniers who attempted to conquer Israel were in turn conquered themselves. In the usual confusion of pronouns, the psalmist writes, “They did sorely fear
[but] There was no fear,
for God scattered the bones of your besieger.
” (6)

Here, “they” appears to be Israel or Israel’s army. Everything turns out right for those who trusted in God. In fact, in Israel’s victory, “You put them to shame, for God spurned them [the would-be devourers].” (6b) Even as Israel feared defeat, God was there for them because they did not deny God.

So, too, that should be our attitude. When we are feeling besieged on all sides by the culture, our responsibility is simply to trust God. After all, if we have faith in God, who is over all things, we should not fear but rejoice that at some point, “God restores His people’s condition.” (7)

Leviticus 15:25–16:25: The authors conclude their clinical discussion of “discharges” by describing the ritual sacrifice requires to restore a state of cleanliness. In these concluding verses they seem to finally offer an explanation for this lengthy disquisition on bodily fluids: “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (15:31)

Just to make sure we get their point they remind us once again, “This is the ritual for those who have a discharge: for him who has an emission of semen, becoming unclean thereby, for her who is in the infirmity of her period, for anyone, male or female, who has a discharge, and for the man who lies with a woman who is unclean.” (15:32, 33) I trust this is the last discussion of this topic we will be forced to endure.

The authors now define the requirements of the Day of Atonement, which is still celebrated today as Rosh Hashanah. [I really have to wonder about who decided the topic order of Leviticus. It certainly seems jarring to move to the most holy of rituals immediately after the endless discussion of male and female bodily fluids.]

As usual, the ritual is framed as a set of instructions communicated by God to Moses, this time “after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.” (16:1) It appears that a primary cause of their death was that they just showed up before God on their own timetable, not God’s: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die.” (16:2)

When the time is appropriate, Aaron offers a bull as a sin offering and then takes two goats.If (we’ve ever wondered where “scapegoat” comes from, this is the place.) Lots are cast over the goat: One is sacrificed to God; the other “shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” (16:10)

Detailed instructions regarding how the bull and one goat are sacrificed and their blood applied to the mercy seat. Then, “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.” (16:20). Aaron lays his hands on the live goat “and confess[es] over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.” (16:21)

In a passage remarkably similar to Isaiah, “And the goat shall bear upon it all their [Israel’s] transgressions to a remote region , and he shall send off the goat to the wilderness.” (16:22) Israel’s sins are carried away on the goat’s head.

What is the theological meaning of the scapegoat? Why is the goat that bears the people’s sins allowed to live and be sent into the wilderness? It is a clear foreshadowing of our own sins being carried away on the head of a crucified Jesus—a hint of Jesus’ sacrifice wherein our sins were all laid on his head, but that like the goat, both he and we live.

Mark 6:1–6: Jesus heads back to Nazareth and Mark adds the note that “his disciples followed him.” (1) Jesus’ teaching at the synagogue is at a depth heretofore never heard in Nazareth: “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.” (2a) Interestingly, it is “many,” not “all” who were astounded. Proof that in every congregation there are always those who remain unimpressed no matter how fabulous the preaching.

Jesus’ erudition creates enormous cognitive dissonance in the congregation. First they acknowledge Jesus’ wisdom and “deeds of power”, asking “Where did this man get all this?” (2) Then reality sets in: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?“* (3) How could an ordinary tekton grubbing around in some insignificant country town amass all this wisdom and power? Firmly connected to reality, they quickly decide that he’s either a charlatan or demon-possessed: “And they took offense  at him.” (5) Which is exactly what today’s world does— so enamored of the power of science and rejecting of anything but that which is materially observable. We even have a term for it: scientific materialism. This passage also tells us is that human skepticism is not a modern phenomenon.

Jesus basically tells them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (4) which is another way of saying that the people who truly know somebody—or think they know somebody— or have observed them from childhood are supremely fixated in their perception of that person and completely unwilling to change their point of view.

Which of course is what we all do. We think we know someone but when something miraculous happens we go out of our way to discount it. And that lack of faith drains away God’s power, which as Mark notes, “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (5) The issue here is not that Jesus lacked power, but that the people—us—lacked faith and would rather remain rooted in what we know rather than willingly suspend our disbelief and accept the fantastic gift that the Kingdom of God really is.

When someone is radically transformed as Jesus was, he contradicts our preconceived notions and our minds cannot handle that much cognitive dissonance.  And in our psychological stubbornness it’s far easier to reject the changed person than it is to reflect on what has happened and think about changing our own minds.  Because in our own minds, we know that we are “right.” This is why “perception is everything” is such a truism for marketers.

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*I believe this is the only place where we learn that jesus had brothers and sisters, even though many Catholics would like to believe Mary was perpetually a virgin and have come up with all kinds of entertaining theories to explain away this verse. Personally, I go with Occam’s Razor and accept that Mary and Joseph went on to have other children. Notice also here the absence of Joseph. Many have speculated that he died sometime after the event of Jesus at the Temple that Luke records.

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