Psalm 69:1–13; Numbers 14; Mark 14:1–11

Originally published 5/25/2016. Revised and updated 5/25/2018

Psalm 69:1–12: Even though it’s a metaphor, this psalm of supplication opens with a harrowing description of what it must be like to be drowning and rescue has not yet come:
Rescue me, God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the slime of the deep,
and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths,
and the current has swept me away. (2,3)

We hear his desperate shouts and dire physical condition as he nears death:
I am exhausted from my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God.
” (4)

These verses capture the sense of what it feels like to believe one has been abandoned by God right when things are most desperate. While I have not felt like a drowning man, I know what it feels like to wonder where God is. We seem to be most aware of God’s apparent absence when times are bad. When things are going well, God seems nearby—or probably more likely, we beleive we do not need God.

Our psalmist, still waiting to hear back from God, goes on to describe the reason for his predicament: his enemies are “more numerous than the hairs on my head,” (5a) And he believes he has done nothing to provoke them and that he has been accused unjustly, apparently of theft as he asks ironically, “What have I not stolen/ should I then give back?” (5b)

He asserts that God is well aware of his shortcomings—and that is not really a good reason for God to abandon him:
“God, You know my folly,
and my guilt is not hidden from You.
” (6)

But the things that distresses him most is the sense that he is bringing shame on his God-fearing community: Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me. (7)

It is this shame that makes this psalm so relevant to us today about how we also feel tied down by our shame. However, this shame seems to arise from the psalmist’s belief in God, and it is his faith in God that he finds himself in dire straits:
Because for You I have borne reproach,
disgrace has covered my face.

In an eerie presaging of what Jesus said about family relationships and who is our mother or our brothers, our psalmist laments that
Estranged I have been from my brothers,
and an alien from my mother’s sons.

The reason for the estrangement is really quite simple. He has devoted his entire time and attention to God’s work, neglecting important human relationships:
For the zeal of Your house has consumed me,
the reproach of Your reproachers has fallen on me
. (10)

As a result he is reduced to a shadow of his former being:
And in fasting I wept for my being—
it became a reproach for me.

And now he is alone, the object of derision:
I was the talk of those who sit in the gate,
the drunkards’ taunting song
. (13)

Can there be any more dire situation than to feel unjustly accused, abandoned by our family, the subject of taunting, and overarching all this, feeling that one has been abandoned by a God who remains resolutely silent? This psalm is a touchstone for all who feel depressed and abandoned.

Numbers 14: On hearing the news from the spies that Canaan is occupied by giants and fierce armies, the Israelites can only “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (2). So, they decide, “would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (3) and actually decide to act on that question: “So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (4) Clearly, that captain will not be Moses or Aaron.

Joshua and Caleb remonstrate, telling the people that the land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (7,8)

But to accomplish this, the people cannot “rebel against the Lord.” (9) This is not the message they want to hear and “the whole congregation threatened to stone them.” (10)

God is understandably angry at this mob and threatens to disinherit the lot of them and, interestingly, begin all over again with Moses: “I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (12) Moses again intercedes on the behalf of these stubborn people, reminding God that he should “let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression. (17, 18a)

God relents and forgives them, but adds, “ none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.” (22, 23). Their fate is sealed; they will wander in the wilderness until the present generation that rejected the call to enter Canaan dies off.

God’s sentence is long and harsh: “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” (34) With but two exceptions: “Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (30) As for the ten spies who brought back the negative report, “ the men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord.” (37)

A small faction decides to ignore God’s judgement and invade Canaan. Moses advises, “That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies.” (42, 43)  As Moses predicted, things do not turn out well and “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah.”

The lesson here is crystalline: even the best of intentions, including a show of courage, will not succeed where God has forbidden the action. This is why discernment is so crucial. Acting on emotional impulse alone—as this group did here—is the quick path to disaster.

Mark 14:1–11: By Wednesday of Holy Week, the machinery to rid themselves of this blasphemous Jesus has been set into motion as “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”  (1). But stealth does not work well when the city is full of Passover-goers and knowing Jesus’ popularity among the hoi polloi, the priests hold off, knowing “there may be a riot among the people.” (2)

Meanwhile, Jesus remains in the safety of Bethany, staying at the house of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman (the other gospel writers do in fact name her) suddenly appears, opens the very expensive alabaster jar of nard and pours it on Jesus’ head. Unlike the other gospel writers, Mark doesn’t tell us who complained, “ in anger, [asking] “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” (4b, 5) Jesus rebukes them, reminding them (and us) that, “you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (7) We need to be careful in our interpretation here: Jesus is not telling them—or us—to ignore the poor, but not every gift we bring to Jesus must be sent back or sold for welfare to the poor.  In short, just as God required the first born and first fruits, our greatest gifts belong first and foremost to Jesus.

I’m intrigued by Jesus’ next statement, “She has done what she could” (8a) with an action that in effect prepares his body for burial. I think Jesus is telling us that we are to offer what we can and to do what we can. If we truly love him, then by definition we will do what we can for Jesus—whether it’s an extravagant gift or ongoing help for the poor and homeless. Jesus values whatever we can give as long as it comes from the heart, not as a resented duty.

And of course, as Jesus predicts, what this unnamed woman did for him has indeed been told and retold down through the centuries in remembrance of her.

In stark contrast while the woman extravagantly gives Jesus all she has, Judas goes to the priests and says he’ll betray Jesus. The priests are “greatly pleased, and promised to give him money.” (11) This is one of Mark’s more brutal juxtapositions. Both good and evil simultaneously exist in our fallen world. We cannot ask why God allows evil to exist without also asking why God allows good to exist.

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