Psalm 55:9–15; Leviticus 19:12–20:8; Mark 6:30–44

Originally published 4/26/2016. Revised and updated 4/26/2018.

Psalm 55:9–15: Knowing that he is safe in God, who “would make haste to a refuge for me/from the streaming wind and the storm,” (9) the psalmist’s dread rather mysteriously transmogrified to complaints against people in “the town” [Jerusalem, I presume], who appear to be conspiring against him and causing trouble in general. Not surprisingly, he asks God to deal rather harshly with them:
O master, confound their tongue,
for I have seen outrage and strife in the town.
” (10)

These enemies appear to be generally making trouble not just for him, but all the inhabitants of of Jerusalem:
day and night they go round it on its walls,
and mischief and misdeeds within it,
disaster within it.
” (11, 12a)

Conspiracy and plotting seem to be the primary product: “guile and deceit never part from its square.” (12b). One thinks immediately of Washington DC. And words such as ‘guile,’ ‘ deceit,’  ‘mischief’ all seem to be a pretty accurate adjectives describing the unending shenanigans there. As usual, we’re reminded that human nature—especially its capacity for sin—remains immutable.

The complaints suddenly turn quite personal as our psalmist seems to have been betrayed by someone quite close to him. After first observing that he can withstand the slings and arrows of his enemies quite boldly the accusations become quite personal:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
But you—a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar.
 (13, 14)

We can feel the personal hurt this betrayal has caused as he mourns the former friendship, which is now irrevocably broken:
with whom we shared sweet counsel,
in the house of our God in elation we walked. 

To be betrayed by someone with whom we have been intimate is an enormous hurt. Alas, we see this brokenness around us every day—particularly between husband and wife. These few verses poignantly put into words the tragedy of a severed relationship. May God preserve us from that wound.

Leviticus 19:12–20:8 Another author seem to have taken over in chapter 19 as the style turns from  the God-Moses narrative to a list that is mostly striking in its miscellaneous nature. Were the author writing today, I’m pretty sure he’d format this chapter as bullets on a series of Powerpoint slides.

Some of the points are reprises of the Decalogue: “you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God.” (19:12) and “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal.” (13). Others are commands of respect. Particularly striking is the command to respect the disabled: “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” (14) And maintain harmonious relationships in your own family, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” (17) Obviously, there are backstories to each of these commands—and once again more proof that like the description of betrayal in the psalm above, sinful human nature is the great constant across our entire history.

One instruction in particular leaps off the page because it is half of what Jesus called the greatest commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (18)

Following this profundity, the list becomes more random, but it is remains practical advice and crucial to maintaining the cohesion and health of the community. These include prohibiting sexual relations with some other man’s slave. (20) and waiting three years after planting an orchard to harvest and and another two years to eat its fruit. (23-25) I’m no horticulturalist, but this admonition seems to make practical sense. There are other commands relating to commerce as well: “You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (35)

Some instructions are quite odd: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (28) And another one that I have broken personally: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” (29)

The elderly deserve respect, something I’m coming to appreciate more each day: “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old.” (32)

And perhaps the one that’s most relevant of all in our unending political dispute about immigration and xenophobes who want to expel immigrants and build a wall: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.” After all, God reminds them, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (34) Which is also true for basically everyone in America. We all came from somewhere else. 

Chapter 20 returns to the God-Moses narrative style as God communicates harsh imprecations against anyone who would worship his rival, the small-g god Molech rather than God: “Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death.” (20) This is the same fire god that demanded child sacrifice. And of course it is one of the gods to which Israel turned in its later depravity.

Mark 6:30–44: By now, Jesus is a celebrity. He invites his disciples (which interestingly, Mark calls ‘apostles, in verse 30) to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (31) They set out (presumably by boat, to “a deserted place by themselves,” but to no avail as “many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” (33) So they step ashore to “a great crowd.”

But it’s a crowd on which Jesus takes compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (34). Mark’s message up to this point is crystalline: the crowd is spiritually hungry, eager to hear a new message that may offer escape from their ordinary—and doubtless oppressed—lives.

The crowds today are no different except that they seek to fill that same sheep-without-a-shepherd emptiness in ultimately meaningless pursuits such as being loyal fans of professional sports or adoring fans of popular musicians. They are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to feel fulfilled, if only for a few hours in clear demonstrations of the same existential hunger that pervaded the crowd in front of Jesus.

The ever-practical disciples point out that it’s late, everyone’s hungry, and even if they could afford the 200 denarii of bread, there’s no place to buy it. Of course these are also symbolic of the natural obstacles we all place in front of Jesus: we’re hungry and tired; there’s nowhere to turn for sustenance.

So Jesus famously feeds the 5000. There have been lots of explanations as to why this probably wasn’t the miracle it appeared to be. But explanations such as the crowd had actually brought its food with it are pointless, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether it’s a miracle or not. That’s not Mark’s point here.

I believe the real point of Mark’s story is that physical hunger is a stand-in for spiritual hunger. And there is only one place where that spiritual hunger can be satisfied: in Jesus, who as John points out in his eponymous gospel is the bread of life. Without Jesus, the crowd—us— will be still wandering. Still hungry. Still stuck in the spiritual desert.



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