Psalm 64; Numbers 4:15–49; Mark 10:32–45

Originally published 5/12/2016. Revised and updated 5/12/2018

Psalm 64:  This is an psalm explicitly about the damage wreaked by evil and slanderous speech. The opening line appears to be a fairly routine psalm of supplication as our poet, writing in David’s voice, asks,
Hear, God, my voice in my plea,
From fear of the enemy guard my life.

However, he’s not asking for God’s physical protection on the battlefield, but protection from evil speech by evil men, which the poet limns as powerful weapons of war:
Conceal me from the counsel of evil men,
from the hubbub of the wrongdoers.
Who whetted their tongue like a sword,
 pulled back their arrow—a bitter word—
 to shoot in concealment the innocent,
in a flash shot him down without fear.”  (3-5)

[(I like Alter’s “hubbub of wrongdoers” as over against the NRSV’s “from the scheming of evildoers” since it captures the mumbling and murmuring one would expect in a court rife with plotting and conniving.] We imagine, as I believe the poet wishes us to, David asking God to protect him from the intrigue and conniving politics of Saul’s court.

If we ever needed a current description of the destructive power of words—from the hateful speech of Donald Trump to a Hilary Clinton it is right here.

The tragedy of course is that there’s nothing innocent or unintended in evil speech. Just as we saw both Trump and Clinton appear to enjoy themselves in their putdowns of entire classes of people during their respective campaigns, our poet makes it clear that evil speech and attendant conspiracy can a source of joy to the speaker:
They encourage themselves with evil words.
They recount how traps should be laid.
They say, Who will see them?
” (6)

Human nature has not changed a whit in 3000 years: even today, men (and women) conspire, like David’s courtiers believing that they will never be held to account for their conniving as they boast,
Let them search out foul deeds!
We have hidden them from the utmost search,
in a man’s inward self,
and deep is the heart
.” (7)

Alas, in human terms they’re right, in the affairs of men they will almost always be able to get away with it. But not always, as witness the powerful men who’ve been outed by the #metoo movement. And in any event, there is someone else who is listening who will make sure they receive their comeuppance:
God will shoot an arrow at them.
In a flash they will be struck down.
” (8)

With grand irony, their weapons of words will become the source of their demise, which is certainly what we see today:
And their tongue will cause them to stumble,
all who see them will nod in derision.

We can only hope with the psalmist that when God finally shoots his arrow of retribution at them, they will understand that God does not brook evil speech hiding evil deeds:
All men will fear
and tell of God’s act,
and His deed they will grasp.

We can only wait and hope as we trust in God to respond in the current poisoned atmosphere that envelops American society.

Numbers 4:15–49: This entire chapter deals with the logistic issue peculiar to the Tabernacle.  Unlike temples and other holy places of other cultures of the time, the Tabernacle is portable and must be moved from place to place.  That’s a real problem when only the Levitical priests can touch or even look at the sacred objects, since it’s impractical to have the people responsible for packing and moving the Tabernacle and its furnishings struck dead by merely looking at or touching a sacred object.  So, special provisions are established to solve this problem.

The Kohathites have been given the dangerous task of carrying the tabernacle’s holy objects because “they must not touch the holy things, or they will die.” (15) In fact, God gives Moses special instructions because “this is how you must deal with them [the Kohathites] in order that they may live and not die when they come near to the most holy things.” (19a) Turns out that it’s all about careful organization and division of labor, as God tells Moses, “assign each to a particular task or burden.” (19b)

Thus, the Kohathites are designated for covering and packing the sacred objects; the Gershonites and are responsible for picking up and moving the furnishings and the Merarites are responsible for disassembling and reassembling the Tabernacle structure itself.  All of them are exempted from dying when the touch and move these objects.  [Irreverent side note: this chapter reminds me of the logistics involved in setting up and then disassembling a booth at a trade show.]

It’s interesting that the age designated–30 to 50 years old–is when a man is in his prime of life.  Not to mention that this stuff was big and heavy and required great strength.  As well, it suggests that the men involved had not only physical maturity but spiritual maturity as well.

But we have to stop and ask: why such a severe penalty for a non-priest to even look upon holy things. Death penalty? Really? I can only surmise that the priests writing this account have experienced some sort of vandalism. Indeed, if they’re sitting in Babylon writing this account, they may have had the dreadful experience of seeing the very temple of Solomon destroyed. So they wish to make it explicit that aspects and furnishings of worship are completely set apart—i.e., holy.

I have a strong feeling of deja vu as our authors revisit the duties of the Gershonites and the Meraites. We learn that men between the ages of thirty and fifty are the ones who are enrolled for labor and therefore qualified to work on the tabernacle. Aaron’s son Ithmar is the job superintendent for both the Gershonites and the Meraites.

Yet another census of the Levites, this time of the qualified workers, ages 30 to 50, i.e., the prime of their lives.

  • Kothaites: 2750
  • Gershonites: 2630
  • Meraites: 3200 [one wonders cynically that there were more of these guys because of accidents and resulting deaths caused by looking at holy objects that had depleted the ranks of the Kotaites and Gershonites.]

The last verse of the chapter, “By the LORD’s word did he reckon them through the hand of Moses, every man according to his work and according to his carriage,” (49) reads directly to the idea—which we don’t hear very much about these days—of the vocation of work.  That the laypeople who perform work both in and out of the church are as equally called by God as the priesthood of ordained pastors.  (Or as my late friend, Steve Gregoriev, used to put it, “paid holy persons…”)

Mark 10:32–45: Jesus and the disciples are headed up to Jerusalem as Mark tells us, “they were amazed.” (32) As usual, the pronouns drive me crazy. Who is “they?” The disciples? The other people walking on the road? My thinking is that it is the crowds that followed Jesus relentlessly everywhere. They must be thinking that Jesus is going to make a grand entrance into the belly of the beast: the temple and its officials, scribes and Pharisees. And on Palm Sunday, that’s pretty much what happens.

But Jesus pulls the disciples asides and predicts exact;y what is going to occur—quite a contrast to  the coup d’etat that the disciples doubtless envision: See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles;  they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.” (33,34).  Of course this is exactly what happens.

Here, I have to interject my doubt. Inasmuch as the gospels were written some three generations after the actual events, is this a simply retrospective memory of past events positioned as a yet-to-come prophecy? It probably doesn’t matter because Mark’s editorial point is that being a Jesus follower will often lead to dire consequences and not to political power.

But Jesus’ prophecy remains unheeded as we see the Zebedee brothers, James and John, request special places of honor at their leader’s side once he’s enthroned at Jerusalem. Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup or the same baptism as he. They respond enthusiastically, Yes! Of course, since we know how the story turns out, they have no idea what the implications of their request really are. Jesus also enigmatically states that “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (40) Of course he’s referring to his father in heaven, but no one is ready to understand that—nor do I pretend to understand it today.

The Zebedee brothers’ ambition also sews dissension in the disciple ranks and “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (41).  In what I think is one of the most beautiful of his teaching moments, Jesus explains that they are following Gentile practices—which would surely ring as anathema in the Jewish fishermen’s ears: “those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.” (42) In this statement, Jesus puts his finger on the precise quality of tyrants down through history: they lord it over others.

The true leader, on the other hand, is first a servant of those whom he or she leads: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (43, 44) It is by serving the led that the leader engenders undying loyalty. We have seen this in company commanders whose troops will willingly follow him into battle. But if he simply says, “go fight while I remain here at headquarters,” his troops will rightfully balk. There is a big difference between servant leadership and management delegation. And Jesus understood—and practiced—this long before there were leadership “coaches.”

In fact, it is this quality of Jesus’ servant leadership that is the foundation of what it means to be truly faithful to him. We see qualities of this “leader humility” in Pope Francis, and there’s no question that it is at the root of the enthusiastic loyalty he engenders.

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