Psalm 55:21–24; Leviticus 21:13–22:16; Mark 7:1–8

Originally published 4/28/2016. Revised and updated 4/28/2018.

Psalm 55:21–24: “He reached out his hand against his allies,/ profaned his own pact.(21) signals a return to the psalmist’s outrage against his former friend who betrayed him. Now our poet describes how he was duped—and as usual, it was by smooth talking.

We encounter what I think is one of the more memorable metaphors of deceit that we find in the Psalms— a perfect description of the dynamic of internal evil masked by apparent kindness on the outside—a theme Jesus picks up when he accuses the Pharisees of being “whited sepulchers.” Of course today, we tend to call these people ‘politicians.’
His mouth was smoother than butter—
and battle in his heart.
His words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords. (22)

Butter vs. battle; oil vs. sword. I can think of no better definition of politicians who attempt draw us into wars or to con us with smooth talk. One of the things that is driving people crazy about Donald Trump compared to his predecessors is that he is anything but smooth talk.

The psalmist is telling us that even though he—and we—may have been duped by a conspiring colleague, there is still one place where we can turn that is safe. The image of casting one’s lot on God reminds us that turning to God is usually our last resort when we are at the end of our rope. We are feeling so betrayed by others that we hesitate to trust even God, so we say, “OK, everything else has failed, so I guess I try God and see what happens.”  But happily, as the poet says,
Cast your lot on the Lord
and he will support you.
He will never let you stumble.“(23)

The psalm ends with both a final imprecation as the poet asks God to act and with the poet’s confidence that righteousness will ultimately win out in the end because he has finally placed his trust in the right place. The wicked, on the other hand, are doomed:
And You, O God, bring them down
to the pit of destruction.
Men of bloodshed and deceit
Will not finish half their days.
But I shall trust in you.
” (24)

These are clear references back to this military imagery in the first part of the psalm [“bloodshed”] and then to betrayal by one individual [“deceit”]. In the end, though, our psalmist has learned there is only one person—God—who is worthy of his trust. As we fight our battles and seek to avoid deception, this psalm is a tremendous encouragement. The last line—But I shall trust in You—says it all.

: The list of demands required in order to qualify for the priesthood is impressively long—and it all has to do with the priest reflecting the purity that God requires. “He shall marry only a woman who is a virgin.” (21:31). Moreover, the woman must be a “virgin of his own kin,” (14) i.e., woman of the Levite tribe.

We tend to recoil when we read that “No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.” (16). This being the book of Leviticus, the authors go onto list what “blemish” means and it’s clear that the handicapped or even the unattractive need not apply. the priest may not be:
• blind
• lame
• have a mutilated face
• have one limb longer than the other
• have a broken foot or hand
• be a hunchback or dwarf
• have a blemish in his eyes
• have an itching disease or scabs
• have crushed testicles

The last one in the list makes me really squirm…  In our culture, which is legally and ethically structured to accept people as individuals worthy of respect no matter their infirmity, this list seems downright cruel. But this is a recent phenomenon. All through history, cultures have hidden or ignored persons with diseases or handicaps. Israel was no different in this respect.

As to why Leviticus demands unblemished priesthood, the reason is simple: we are to present the very best we have to God, and in this case it is the most perfect embodiment of God’s greatest creation—humans. We may not like that rule, but there it is.

With the requirements of the priesthood complete, our authors turn to the qualities of the”sacred donations” themselves. The first rule is quite straightforward: “If anyone among all your offspring throughout your generations comes near the sacred donations,… while he is in a state of uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord.” (22:3) Complicated instructions of what creates uncleanness follow, along with instructions of how to become clean again.

The sacred donations happen to be groceries for the priest and his family—which makes sense since the Levite tribe was not given any land to farm when Israel came into Canaan. But of course there are complicated rules about who may eat the “sacred donation” and who may not, e.g., “If a priest’s daughter marries a layman, she shall not eat of the offering of the sacred donations;” (12)

It’s clear to me that these rules are set out in such excruciating detail because by the time they were actually written down around the time of theBabylonian captivity, every conceivable situation such as a Levite woman marrying a “layman,” had already arisen. Leviticus becomes a giant technical manual to ensure good order at the restored (2nd) temple in Jerusalem.

Mark 7:1–8: Today is one of those days when I suspect the Moravian have calibrated the two of the daily texts to be cleverly in parallel. After reading about what constitutes cleanness and uncleanness in Leviticus, we read in Mark that the “Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus].” (1) And being dedicated followers the Torah, “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.” (2) In other words, per the instructions in Leviticus, Jesus and his disciples were ritually unclean.

Before we get to Jesus’ response, Mark inserts a parenthetical backstory about what by this time had become a religious obsession with cleanliness: “ (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,  thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;  and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)” (3,4)  This explanation suggests strongly to me that Mark’s audience was mostly Gentile and therefore unfamiliar with some of Judaism’s more arcane rules.

The Pharisees—understandably in my opinion—ask Jesus “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (5) That would be the tradition so thoroughly outlined in Leviticus and greatly expanded upon in the centuries that followed.

Jesus’ answer is not a paragon of kindness, but as usual is bluntly direct: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” He then quotes the prophet’s passage that states that they have taken what is God’s and made it man’s :”in vain do they worship me,/teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (7). He then proceeds to tell the religious men that “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (8)

Which is exactly what the church has done to a great extent, and why it has turned people off to “organized religion.” Like the rules of Leviticus, it’s essential to have good order in the church and in worship and sacraments. But when good order morphs over time into inflexible rules that trump God’s love, then it and we who are in the church have made it our own thing rather than God’s thing.

In the end it all comes down about who has control: man or God. Jesus’ is clearly siding with God here. But we humans always want to be in control and instituting “good order” as the Pharisees did is our natural inclination. At its base this is a good thing, but carried too far as the Pharisees did violates God’s own good order and creates an artificial barrier between God and humankind.

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