Psalm 67; Numbers 8:5–9:14; Mark 12:18–34

Originally published 5/19/2016. Revised and updated 5/19/2018

Psalm 67: Although this psalm —clearly a hymn—opens with a benedictory phrase—”May God grant us grace and bless us,/ may He shine His face upon us.” (2)—it quickly becomes a psalm of thanksgiving that’s appropriate not only for worship by Israel, but for all the world:
To know on the earth Your way,
among all the nations Your rescue.
” (3)

This is one of those places where it’s clear that God is the God of all who live on the earth, and the wonderful possibility that all will worship him because at this happy time, perhaps at the end of history, every nation and every person worships God:
Nations acclaim You, O God,
all peoples acclaim You, O God.
Nations rejoice in glad song
You rule all peoples rightly,
and nations on earth You lead.
” (4, 5).

At this point, we need pause and reflect on what the world would truly be like if all people and all nations truly worshipped God. What a different place it would be! Alas, while the psalm can wish for this wonderful state, we live in a world where this wonderful possibility does not yet exist—and in light of societal violence and a growing rejection of God seems to be receding rather than advancing.

Nevertheless, this grim reality must never discourage us from singing our praise to God, and acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all the earth and all its inhabitants. Our psalmist emphasizes the possibility of this wonderful state by opening his second stanza with the same words that concluded the first:
Nations acclaim You, O God,
all peoples acclaim You. 
(6)

Moreover, we worship because God has blessed us with the rich bounty of the natural world, which we continue to despoil:
The earth gives its yield.
May God our God bless us. 
(7)

The psalm ends on this highest of high notes by repeating the prayer that opens the psalm: “May God bless us,
and all the ends of the earth fear Him
. (8)

This psalm is proof that we are commanded to pray for even those things that seem to be impossible: that peace would come to the earth and that all nations and all peoples would worship God.

Numbers 8:5–9:14: All twelve “secular” tribes have now brought their offerings and sacrifices to Aaron and Moses before the tabernacle. Our priestly authors now turn to the description of the consecration or ordination of the priestly tribe: the Levites. In a sign that continues to this day in the service of ordination, God commands, “you bring the Levites before the Lord, the Israelites shall lay their hands on the Levites. ” (8:10) And in so doing, “Aaron shall present the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may do the service of the Lord.” (8:11). I have to admit the image of all Israel laying their hands on the Levites, who in turn, “shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls” (12) is a striking one, although the laying on of hands on a bull evokes a slightly humorous reaction. These must have been pretty docile bulls…

God asserts that the Levites have thus been separated “from among the other Israelites, and the Levites shall be mine.”  (14) as symbolic of the first born, who always belong to God. Notice that God says “I have taken them to me” (16)—it’s not like he’s asking for firstborn volunteers….The Levites are the substitution for the first born and God turns them over “as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, to do the service for the Israelites at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the Israelites.” (19) Our authors are making sure that all Israel understands that the appointment of the Levites as priests is a direct order from God himself.

The Levites “purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes; then Aaron presented them as an elevation offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them.” (21) And now they are ready for their priestly duties. This being the book of Numbers, we also find out that there is a well-defined period of service as a priest that begins at age 25 and ends at age 50. A defined retirement age is definitely not a new concept!

In chapter nine, the scene shifts back in time as the “Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt.” (9:1) God’s instruction is clear indeed: “the Israelites keep the passover at its appointed time.” (9:2) Which is exactly what Israel did there at the foot of Sinai.

But as usual, there are technical difficulties; this time concerning persons, who have become unclean by touching a corpse, being able to celebrate Passover. These folks come to Moses with their question and Moses replies, “Wait, so that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.” (9:8). God responds generously, “Anyone of you or your descendants who is unclean through touching a corpse, or is away on a journey, shall still keep the passover to the Lord.” (9:10). In short, Passover is more important than the state of one’s body. However, other forms of uncleanness such as a menstruating woman are not addressed here.

And just to make sure everyone gets the message, God reminds Moses, “anyone who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet refrains from keeping the passover, shall be cut off from the people for not presenting theLord’s offering at its appointed time.” (13) Passover is not a festival as much as it is a required rite. We need to never forget that God has expectations of us.

Mark 12:18–34: The topic of temple discourse turns from the Pharisee’s trick questions and Jesus’ answer on rendering to Caesar to more arcane theology—although I suspect the Sadducees were equally interested as the other parties in tripping up Jesus. Inasmuch as they do not believe in resurrection, they pose the hypothetical of a man married sequentially to seven wives, and ask, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.” (23).  Jesus’ answer is instructive and as usual, refers directly to Scripture, reminding us that Jesus is not making this stuff up but instead providing a fresh (and almost always unexpected) interpretation: Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (24, 25)

As for the question of resurrection itself, Jesus points out that in the incident of the burning bush, God uses the present tense when referring to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.”  (26) Jesus’ clear implication is that the patriarchs are indeed living, not dead. And he makes sure the Sadducees know, “you are quite wrong,” i.e. to not believe in the resurrection. Which truth they will be confronting soon enough when Jesus’ own resurrection turns the world upside down in just a few days.

A scribe then asks Jesus what I believe to be the first honest question anyone has asked him so far, free of hidden agendas and malice: “Which commandment is the first of all?” (28) Jesus gives what I take to be the standard answer from the Torah, The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (29, 30). But then uninvited, he adds, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (31)  

The scribe responds with what I think is the most profound answer of the entire dialog that Jesus has with the temple leadership, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the other scribes, “You are right, Teacher…—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (32, 33). And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (34). These are enormously encouraging words, and the lesson to us is that of we ask honestly, we will be answered honestly.

Mark is telling us something very important here.  For all the theological confusion about the Kingdom of God, its essence is really very simple. It begins with obedience to the two great commandments.

So, we keep hearing these days about “Jesus as radical.”  But I’m forced to ask, what’s so radical about loving God and your neighbor?  Other than the simple fact that it means our own egos are third in precedence.

Even though we cannot address Jesus directly as the scribe was able to, I think that if we pray with an honest heart or if we search the Scriptures with an honest heart, as I believe the scribe did, we will receive and honest—and loving—answer. Mark tells us that “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Honesty begets honesty. The crowd saw that there were no trick questions which would cause Jesus to stumble. Only honest questions mattered. I think the same goes for us.

Speak Your Mind

*