Psalm 56:1–9; Leviticus 22:17–23:22; Mark 7:9–23

Originally published 4/29/2016. Revised and updated 4/30/2018.

Psalm 56:1–8: The author of this psalm writes in David’s voice, “when the Philistines captured him in Gath.” Unsurprisingly, it’s a psalm of supplication, which opens in a pretty standard manner:
Grant me grace, O God,
for a man tramples me,
all day long the assailant does press me.
 (2)

We can assume that David is referring to Saul, whose relentless pursuit is why David has ended up in Philistia.

As the attacks against him intensify, David turns to God with a more urgent plea:
My attackers trample me all day long,
for many assail me, O High One.
When I fear, I trust in you.
 (3).

These six one-syllable words on the last line say it all: “When I fear, I trust in you.” While we are certainly not David, who is pressed in by his enemies in a hostile land, we come before God equally, knowing that in the end, God [and for us, Jesus] is in the end, the only one to whom we can turn.

David reassures himself that God is is only hope of rescue by doubling down on his trust: In God, Whose word I praise,
in God I trust, I shall not fear.
What can flesh do to me?
” (5)

Trust in God drives out fear. Of course this is exactly the point Jesus makes to his disciples in the story of his walking on water and earlier, when he calms the storm and tells the frightened disciples, “Fear not.”  If we truly trust in God we will free from fear.

Our poet, still speaking as David, gets to the reason why he is coming to God as he describes to God the machinations of his enemies:
All day long they put pain in my words,
against me all their plots of evil.
 (6)

Not only do they plot evil, they do everything possible to carry out their deeds as conspirators. All that is left for David is prayer:
They scheme, they lie low,
they keep at my heels
as they hope for my life.

For their mischief free me from them.
In wrath bring down peoples, O God.
 (7, 8)

The verses that open this psalm end in a poignant metaphor:
put my tears in Your flask.
Are they not in Your counting?
” (9)

In other words, we come to God in desperation and sorrow. Our tears are stored in God’s “flask,” which to me means that God has heard and accepted our prayer. And, even more importantly, God will never forget the woes and sorrows we have cried out to him. Our prayers are forever stored in God’s inventory; in his “counting.”

Leviticus 22:17–23:22: Once again I’m reminded that Leviticus is a compilation of texts from at least two groups of authors as we again encounter lengthy descriptions of acceptable offerings (chapter 22) and appointed festivals (chapter 23).

While the Sabbath and Passover are rehashed again, we at least learn about a couple of new festivals: On “on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord” (23:6a).  Its celebration is quite straightforward: “seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” (23:6b) beginning with a “holy convocation” and ending a week later with a second holy convocation. On those days, work is strictly prohibited. One of the things that comes across strongly is that God commands a lot of sabbath rest, a tradition—not to mention command—increasingly lost in our culture. We mistakenly believe we can get more accomplished by working all seven days with no time out, when our bodies are designed for periodic days of rest. Too much “work” becomes unproductive and ultimately pointless.As usual, there’s no question that God knows us and our inner workings than we.

The authors turn to describe the “first fruits offering,” which commands, “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.” (23:10) The implication is of course clear for both Israel and for us: we gratefully, without hesitation, offer our very best “first fruits” to God, be they tangible, or intangible, agricultural or things we have created with our hands. God demands the best from us, not the leftovers. But I think when we understand how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, it’s a demand with which we will gladly comply.

Finally, there is the “festival of weeks,” which commences exactly fifty days after Passover. Given that Israel was a strictly agrarian society, this is unsurprisingly another grain offering, along with the usual unblemished lambs and a bull. For Christians, this “festival of weeks” is Pentecost—the time when God returned the favor and gave us his offering of the Holy Spirit.

We give to God first, then to ourselves, but there is one final requirement: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien.” (23:22) For me, this is a clear command that every society must provide for the poor and for the aliens. I am deeply saddened at so-called Christians who wish to do away with societal (governmental) programs that provide for the poor and to provide refuge for aliens.

Yes, these programs may be wasteful in some regards, but the Bible is clear again and again that providing for the widows, orphans, and the poor is our immutable duty. To do otherwise is to fly in the face of God’s command, which too many Christians wish to do selectively: enforce the prohibitions against homosexuality, but be sure to cut off welfare to the poor. My blood boils.

Mark 7:9–23: Jesus is not finished excoriating the scribes and Pharisees as he points out their hypocrisy with regard to their parents: “But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.” (11,12). Perhaps even worse than using religion to justify this selfish action, Jesus points out that these supremely “religious” leaders are thereby “making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.” (13)

Jesus turns to the crowd and announces that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (15) This tells me that natural bounty—what we harvest and consume—is part of God’s good creation and thus unblemished. [And as Mark points out parenthetically, Jesus thereby “declared all foods clean.”] It is our sinful nature that sullies what is good. Not merely sullies, but defiles. Those are strong words indeed. Jesus is basically saying that our natural inclination—rather than anything intrinsically flawed with God’s good creation—is toward sinfulness and hypocrisy, which of course is theologically true.

Lest we think Jesus is finished excoriating the Pharisees—and us—he lets loose with what I think is the most graphic metaphor in the Gospels as he uses the digestion and waste process to describe this intrinsic human sinfulness: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (18, 19) He goes on, It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (22) [This statement must have inspired Paul, who delights in listing all manner of sin in his various letters.]

Alas, it is our intrinsically corrupt human nature that creates disorder in the world. And just to make sure we get the point, Jesus repeats himself: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (23) Which is why Jesus had to come to earth in the first place: to rescue us from ourselves.

 

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