Psalm 66:8–15; Numbers 7:36–71; Mark 11:27–12:12

Originally published 5/17/2016. Revised and updated 5/17/2018

Psalm 66:8–15: Grateful to God in worship, our poet reminds us that the God whom we worship is resolutely faithful to us, even in the worst of times: ”
Bless, O peoples, our God
and make heard the sound of His praise
Who has kept us in life,
and let not our foot stumble.
 (8, 9)

Life is not easy, and the psalmist believes that his rials and hardships arose because God allows us to be tested. But he also implies that this testing is for our own good, and having passed the test, we emerge from the trial refined—a better person:
For You tested us, God,
You refined us as silver refined
. (10)

In fact, as most people find out, some of this testing is quite arduous—at both a personal and national level—here the oppression of all Israel by other nations:
You trapped us in a net,
placed heavy cords round our loins.
You let people ride over us. (12a)

This said, I confess that I cannot cotton to the idea of God sitting back on his throne and and choosing specific means such as disease or a serious accident to put us to the test. Did God plan for me to have cancer and thereby make me a “better person?” Rather, with the psalmist, the idea that resonates is that God allows us to be tested, i.e., it comes naturally as we live life. This concept of allowing testing is of course the entire point of Job. This fallen world is filled with evil, and I believe that even the innocent are put to the test by virtue of simply being alive.

The key point of the psalm is that having been tested, whether instigated by God or not, God is our rescuer:
We came into fire and water—
and You brought us out to great ease. 
(12b)

And having been rescued we respond in worship. Just as our psalmist—who suddenly switches voice to first person singular—dedicates his life to God, worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem and making good on the vows he made when he prayed for rescue earlier:
I shall come to Your house with burnt offerings
I shall pay to You my vows
that my lips have uttered,
that my mouth spoke in my straits
.” (13, 14)

He then describes the sacrifices he made quite specifically:
Fat burnt-offerings I shall offer up to You
with the incense of rams.
I shall sacrifice cattle and goats
.” (15)

How often we forget to offer our deep gratitude to God after we have come through a trial or testing.

Numbers 7:36–71: In these verses, which read more like a catalog than Scripture we meet the six more representatives of the remaining tribes of Israel, each of whom is given a day of worship and sacrifice at the newly-dedicated tabernacle.

Our authors are definitely double-entry bookkeepers and make sure that each and every tribe offers exactly the same objects and animals:

  • one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, (37, 43, 49, 55, 61, 67)
  • one silver basin weighing seventy shekels;
  • one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense;
  • one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering;
  • one male goat for a sin offering;
  • and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old.

Notice that a complete sacrificial offering covers the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the sacrifice of well-being.

This precise inventory is repeated and listed for each tribe: Simeonites, Gadites, Ephramites, Manassites, Benjaminites, Asheites.

Why list the same items over and over? Obviously, there’s the issue of treating each tribe equally. But also, I think it’s because we are talking about an act of worship on the part of each tribe, and this chapter takes on a significant quality of serious liturgy by virtue of its repetition. The weekly repetition of confession, the Lord’s prayer, communion are fixed points in our lives to which following daily trials we can safely return to again and again. That focus and solidity and yes, repetitiveness are foundation stones on which to build an ordered and peaceful life.

In the insane hurriedness of 21st century America, we believe that repetition serves no useful purpose and must be avoided. This chapter reminds us to slow down and savor all that God has done for us. True worship must not be a hurried, efficient affair, but one of lingering in the sweet presence of God.

Mark 11:27–12:12: It’s now Tuesday morning and Jesus has returned to the temple, where he’s confronted by the senior leadership—chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—who are obviously upset to have their tight little empire threatened by this Galilean outsider. Resolute bureaucrats that they are, they demand an explanation, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” (28) Jesus fires back with his own question, and if they “answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.” (29). His question is of course a trap: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (30).

The leaders quickly realize that if they answer “heaven,” Jesus can rightfully accuse them of disbelief. If they answer “human,” the people will revolt, since “they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet.” (32) So, the question remains unanswered, but the leaders had to know, based on the example of John the Baptist, that something beyond the quotidian human realm was going on here. I think that is also Mark’s point in relating this incident. Something far beyond what we can imagine is going on here—a hint of even more unimaginable things to come. The comfortable temple status quo is about to be torn asunder—physically manifested at the tearing of the curtain before the Holy of Holies in just a few days.

Jesus, surrounded by the crowd and by the temple leadership, begins to tell a rather pointed parable. Unlike many of them, there’s no hidden meaning here—least of all to the temple authorities. The wicked tenants are indeed the temple authorities, who have rejected the prophets before Jesus: “And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” (12:4,5) I suspect that Jesus’ reference to “the one they killed” is John the Baptist.

And then, in the climax of this stark parable, the man sends his son, who is a clear reference to Jesus himself, whom they also kill. So, on top of Jesus’ effrontery in refusing to answer their “authority question,” now he’s not only insulting the leadership in front of the entire crowd, he’s engaging in outright blasphemy by claiming to be the son of God and quoting the prophecy about the rejected cornerstone on top of it.  The leaders would have torn him from limb to limb right then and there if they had the chance, but as usual, “they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.” (12:12) 

But Mark leaves no doubt that this confrontation is the final straw. The plot against Jesus now swings into full motion.

 

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