Psalm 69:22–29; Numbers 15:32–16:27; Mark 14:32–42

 Originally published 5/27/2016. Revised and updated 5/28/2018

Psalm 69:22–29: In these verses, we can look directly into the psalmist’s heart as he spills his innermost thoughts and feelings onto the page. He writes how he has not found comfort. In fact, those who were supposed to be his comfort became his torturers:
They gave for my nourishment wormwood,
and for my thirst made me drink vinegar.
 (22)

At first, the latter phrase makes us think of the sponge given to Jesus while he was on the cross. However, I think that’s an over-interpretation of what is being written here. These verses have much more to do with one man’s hurt and anger than a theological prophecy.

Here, feelings of abandonment cause our poet to write with strongest possible vitriol (at least in the context of a psalm!) against his enemies as he curses them,
May their table before them become a trap,
and their allies a snare.
 (23)

Not finished with his curse, he prays that they will also experience blindness and palsy:

May their eyes grow too dark to see,
make their loins perpetually shake.
 (24)

His anger and desire for vengeance overbrimming, he begs God to acton his behalf:
Pour out on them Your wrath,
and Your blazing fury overtake them.
 (25)

He wishes not only that God will act against these enemies, but that their families and friends be ruined as well:
May their encampment be laid be laid waste,
and in their tents may no one dwell. 
(26)

As if this were not enough, he prays that God will destroy them psychologically, “Add guilt upon their guilt” (28a) and then the worst punishment of all, to be eternally separated from God altogether—which is what we actually mean, I think, when we tell someone to go to hell:
…let them have no part in Your bounty.
Let them be wiped from the book of life,
and among the righteous let them not be written.
” (28b, 29)

So what do we do with these verses, which are definitely antithetical to Jesus’ command that we are to love our enemies? My own sense is that the psalmist’s relationship with God is so intense and real that he knows that he can say anything to God in his deepest anger, including even curses against others. These verses are a primal scream, not deep theology. They also tell me that we can bring our hurts, anger, disappointment, and yes, even our curses before God. God can take it. And having spewed forth our deepest anger in prayer, we become psychologically and emotionally cleansed. How much better it is to curse before God in prayer than to curse before our family and neighbors.

Numbers 15:32–16:27: It’s one thing to read about the harsh commands that God has communicated to Israel; it’s quite another to read of a man being stoned to death because he was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But there’s no getting around the fact: “the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.”  (15:35) This is a manifestation of the Old Testament God that so distresses us. How can a God of mercy command death for something as seemingly trivial as gathering sticks outside the camp? Is it just to maintain order among an unruly crowd of 600,000 people camped in the desert? Or is it to engender unquestioning loyalty to a jealous God? I have no answer here.

In what at first seems almost humorous non sequitur, God commands Moses to “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.” (15:38) The fringe—which lives on today in Jewish prayer shawls— is a simple memory prompt: “you have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.” (15:39) But when we realize that the authors have placed this command immediately following the story of the man being stoned to death in order to address the Israelite’s (and our) weakness of intentional or unintentional forgetting the all-consuming importance of God’s commandments. And above all to remember that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” (15:41) Notice the repetition of “I am the Lord your God.” This is the framework in which every thought and action of every Israelite must occur.

Well, it had to happen. The Israelites have just been sentenced to 40 more years in the wilderness and now they’ve had to stone someone to death for committing the seemingly trivial act of gathering sticks. Moses is still their leader and it’s clear to some that it’s time for new leadership. Three members of the tribe of Reuben—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram— decide it’s time for a coup d’etat. And they gather a cohort of 250 men, “leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,” (16:2) and confront Moses and Aaron.

Korah’s complaint  to Moses seems straightforward: “why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3) Moses sends for Dathan and Abiram, who refuse to come, sending him a message, “Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?” (16:13)

Moses is understandably angry and calls their bluff, telling them to take lit censers put incense on them and stand in front of the tabernacle. So 250 men do this. Unsurprisingly God is displeased at this rebellion and issues his usual edict, saying to Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.” (21) And once again, Moses intercedes, using the logic that “shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?” (22) God appears to relent, but tells everyone to “get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (24). The reading closes with the families of the three standing “at the entrance of their tents, together with their wives, their children, and their little ones.” (27). One is left with the feeling that something bad is about to happen…

This is also why I think we have to read these passages as actual history. Why would our authors make up this detail if it were mere legend? And needless to say, it constitutes a clear warning to their readers and listeners that God is no friend of those who would rebel against good order.

Mark 14:32–42: The disciples and Jesus repair to Gethsemane. Jesus instructs the inner three—James, John and Peter— to come with him. And here, for the first time in the gospels, we see Jesus “distressed and agitated” (33) rather than his usual aura of serene equanimity. He tells the three, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” (34), bearing in mind that just before the Passover dinner he has told his disciples to remain alert and awake and then has told them he will be betrayed. Why of all times in the three years an what is the culmination of his ministry do the disciples fall asleep now? Was it the wine at dinner? Or is something deeper going on here?

In just a few words, we sense Jesus’ great distress and realize that he is indeed 100% human as “he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (35). He prays as fervently as we have ever heard him, calling his father the diminutive and familiar, “Abba.” We hear Jesus’ prayer, but as usual, do not hear God’s response. Nevertheless, Jesus must have found some succor and he returns from praying only to find the disciples asleep.

But Jesus does not chastise them beyond asking Peter rhetorically, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” (37) Jesus suggests that they remain awake but also acknowledges, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (38). This is one of those places where we realize that Jesus knows us and our weaknesses all too well. Our hearts and minds may be in the right place, but sometimes we simply cannot follow Jesus as well as we would like or intend. This same thing happens two more times: Jesus goes to pray and returns to find the disciples asleep.  Finally, we hear his exasperation, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough!” (41) Jesus tells them to wake up because “the hour has come.” And Jesus knows too well what is about to happen. But I suspect he also knows that the disciples will remain in denial. They cannot possibly believe he is about to be betrayed.

Of course Mark knows that his community—and us—who remain in denial about many aspects of Jesus as well. But we would prefer to sleep.

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