Psalm 63; Numbers 3:40–4:14; Mark 10:13–31

Originally published 5/11/2016. Revised and updated 5/11/2018

Psalm 63: The psalmist ascribes this to be “A David psalm, when he was in the wilderness of Judea,” probably a reference to the time when David was on the run from the pursuing Saul. Our poet appropriately opens with a metaphor of parched thirst in the throat of David, who is desperately seeking God:
God, my God, for You I search.
My throat thirsts for You,
my flesh yearns for You
in a land waste and parched, with no water.” (2, )

These verses remind us of the centrality of water as essential to human existence—just as God is living water that quenches our parched souls. Water in the desert certainly evokes John the Baptist as well as Jesus—the living water—being baptized moments before, like David, he heads into the wilderness. For it is in the wilderness that water takes on its greatest value.

The verses that follow are retrospective: images of David reflecting on his solid relationship with God, whose presence now only seems to shimmer far off in the undulating heat waves of the desert, oasis like. He once felt much closer to God’s presence, “in the sanctum I beheld You,/ seeing Your strength and glory.” (3) But even now, in the desert, hungry, and thirsty, our poet’s David knows that it is only in God that respite can be found:
Your kindness is better than life.
My lips praise You. 
(4)

Despite his intolerable circumstances, he worships God, which may become his last human act:
Thus I bless You while I live
in Your name I lift up my palms
.”(5)

The question for us is, if we found ourselves hungry and thirsty in the middle of spiritual desert would our faith be so strong that worshipping God could be our last living act?

More retrospection and memories follow:
Yes, I recalled You on my couch.
In the night-watches I dwelled upon You
. (7).

David looks to the past, remembering that despite his present dire circumstances, God has done much for him already and that he is God’s and God is his:
For You were a help to me,
and in Your wings’ shadow I uttered glad song.
My being belongs to You,
for Your right hand has sustained me.
” (8, 9)

en in the midst of this almost ecstatic outpouring, David never forgets to ask God that his enemies meet their doom, be it disasters such as falling off a cliff or death in battle and becoming carrion:
But they for disaster have sought my life—
may they plunge to the depths of the earth.
May their blood be shed by the sword,
may they be served up to the foxes. (10, 11)

Nevertheless, if we jump over the two verses, this is a psalm for all of us and it resonates for all of us particularly as we face both emotional and physical adversity.  I see how God has acted with awesome generosity with me. With David I can do naught but “rejoice in God,/ all who swear by Him will revel.” (12)

Numbers 3:40–4:14: We Christians believe that the death of Jesus was an act of “substitutionary atonement” for us sinners who are the ones who deserve to die for our sins. We see the roots of substitutionary atonement here as God announces to Moses that he will accept the Levites to be stand-ins for all first-born Israelites and livestock, which by virtue of God being the Creator, rightfully belong to him: “Accept the Levites as substitutes for all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for their livestock; and the Levites shall be mine.” (3:45)

One of the reasons for the census now becomes apparent. We are informed that there are 22,273 first born males a month or older in all of Israel. But we have just learned that there are only 22,000 Levites. How will this apparent substitutionary imbalance be resolved? This is where I am convinced that the authors of Numbers invented double-entry bookkeeping. The extra 273 first born males each will cost 5 shekels. In other words, money serves as an adequate substitute for the first-born-to-Levite numerical imbalance. So it is Aaron and his sons who wind up with 1,365 shekels (5 x 273). I also see where the money-changers in the temple could legitimately trace their roots.

I’ve been wondering why the Kohathites were not included in the earlier allocation of Levitical tabernacle duties. Turns out that “service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things.” (4:4) This may sound cynical, but I’m left with the impression that the author or authors of Numbers could trace their ancestral roots back to the Kohathite clan.

When Israel is about to set off to a new location, “Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain, and cover the ark of the covenant with it.” (4:5) This leaves the Kohathites with specific duties involving fine leather, blue clothes and specific packing instructions as well as what to do with the bread of the Presence, the lampstands, all related utensils, and even the altar itself. Blue cloth covers everything and it is all carefully packed away.

We’ve mentioned before that Numbers devotes insane attention to detail and this passage about how the Kohathites pack up the most holy objects in the tabernacle and make them ready for transport. For the authors of Numbers it is God who is in the details…And that’s something we would do well to remember: there is no act too trivial, no detail too small but that God is not there watching us.

Mark 10:13–31: One of the joys of Mark is that he gives us glimpses of every aspect of Jesus’ personality. Here we see Jesus at his most tender when he encourages people to bring their children to him:“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (14) Never one to waste a teachable moment, Jesus reminds the adults, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (15) In other words, we enter the kingdom without pride, without an agenda and in childlike innocence.

As usual for Mark, juxtaposition is everything. Jesus has just told us we must enter the kingdom as innocent children, and along comes the rich man [aka the ‘rich young ruler’ in other gospels.] The rich man tells Jesus that he has led an exemplary life. Jesus is thrilled to hear this, and “loved him,” believing I’m sure that this man would become his disciple. If only… Jesus tells him “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (21) And in one of the great missed opportunities in the gospels, the man, who will not change his priorities, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (22) Jesus keeps giving us the answers we don’t want to hear…

We, who have so much, are that rich man. Even though I give lip service to having Jesus as my priority, it is really not so as Mark describes those priorities here. Although I will admit that as I have grown older, possessions have become more of a burden than a pleasure. Nevertheless, whether it’s wealth or something else, I have been unwilling to turn my priorities upside down and inside out as Jesus asks here.

For Jesus’ disciples, this was an astounding assertion. In that Jewish society there was the belief of a simple and direct correlation between wealth and salvation: God blessed the good. After all, that’s pretty much what the law says, [except of course for the Job counterexample]. This exchange with the rich man and then with his disciples is a definite clue that for Jesus, the Kingdom of God had little to do with physical and social reality—despite the wishes of those theologians questing after the “historical Jesus,” who would like the Kingdom to be far more tangible and revolutionary than some strange place where social, cultural, and spiritual priorities are the complete opposite of the material and political priorities visible in the world.

 

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