Archives for May 2018

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.

 

Psalm 66:1–7; Numbers 7:1–35; Mark 11:12–26

Originally published 5/16/2016. Revised and updated 5/16/2018

Psalm 66:1–7: This joyful psalm of thanksgiving opens with the imperative, “Shout out to God, all the earth,” (1) reminding us that we are not required always to be all prim and proper before God. If I really stopped for moment and reflected on what miracles God has brought to my own life I should stand outside and shout with the psalmist and begin singing, ”
Hymn His name’s glory.
Make His praise glory.
” (2)

And after singing his praises, my worship would continue :
Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your deeds.
Before Your great strength Your enemies quail.’
” (3)

But this psalm reminds us that worship exists in nature as well and our psalmist invites us to see the evidence of God’s power for ourselves:
All the earth bows down to You,
and they hymn to You, hymn Your name.
Come and see the acts of God,
awesome in works over humankind.
 (4, 5)

In other words, no matter how mighty and wonderful we think the accomplishments of human beings may be—and they are awesome indeed—God’s works are orders of magnitude greater. We may be able to create exciting new technologies and seeming medical miracles, but it is God and God alone who can rescue a human soul.

Our poet recalls both the crossing of Israel out of Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan River forty years later as Israel finally enters Canaan. This is another occasion for worship:
He turned the sea to dry land,
the torrent they crossed on foot.
There we rejoiced in him.
” (6)

With the psalmist we acknowledge that it is God who rules over all the affairs not just of Israel, but of all humankind:
He rules in His might forever.” (7a)

More importantly, God is far more than a benevolent uncle who makes nice things happen. God is aware of all that we do, and before undertaking a sinful act we would do well to remember that simple fact:
His eyes probe the nations.
Let the wayward not rise up.
” (7b)

Numbers 7:1–35: As usual, the authors of Numbers feel obligated to cover ground that the authors of Leviticus have already trod. Here, we again read that the tabernacle has been completed and is ready for dedication by “the leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings.” (2) The offerings that the leaders bring with them are indeed impressive: “six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the leaders, and for each one an ox; they presented them before the tabernacle.” (3)

Using their usual editorial device, “the Lord said to Moses” (4), the authors demonstrate that the offerings have a very useful purpose, starting with the wagons and oxen themselves, which are handed over to the Levites. “Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites,” (7) who are tasked with dealing with the tent canvas of the tabernacle, and the other “four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites,” (8) who are tasked with moving the bulky structural elements—tentpoles, etc.—of the tabernacle. On the other hand, the Kohathites received neither oxen nor wagon since in the relentless logic of our authors, “they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.” (9)

Now we encounter what Alter calls an “epic inventory,” a listing of the items that each tribe brought as an offering.  But each offering, described in loving detail, is exactly the same–denoting the equality of each tribe.  And the identical inventory is repeated for each tribe, resulting in twelve verbatim lists occupying this chapter.  But that’s not redundancy by any means: years later, when each tribe looked back  at its history, they could see in writing what their forebears had done.

This is also one of those passages where you realize that actual history is described.  A fairy tale would not deal with such mundane but necessary issues as cartage of the Tabernacle.

Each tribe is given a day of sacrifice worship at the tabernacle. Once again, as our authors always prefer, it is a very orderly affair. The offerings are noteworthy in their value, being mostly silver plates and bowls, in addition to the usual animals required for sacrifices. (Of course this being the book of Numbers, we are given the exact value of each gold and silver dish and plate in shekels.)

  • The one who presented his offering the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah (12)
  • On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, presented an offering; (18)
  • On the third day Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the Zebulunites: (24)
  • On the fourth day Elizur son of Shedeur, the leader of the Reubenites: (30)

I have a feeling that tomorrow’s reading will describe the offerings of the remaining eight tribes..

Again we ask, why this detailed inventory of what each leader brought? I think that again, the authors know that God is in the details and that as the psalmist above has told us, His eyes probe the nations. In their long descriptions, the authors of Numbers keep reminding us again and again that no detail is too small for God.

Mark 11:12–26: Jesus appears to wake up in a grumpy mood. He heads from his overnight lodgings in Bethan back toward Jerusalem. Thinking he’ll have figs for breakfast, he “he came to [the fig tree, but] he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Mark subtly reminds us that Jesus was no farmer and he angrily curses the fig tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” (14).

Bearing in mind that Jesus is both hungry and angry, Mark tells us, “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (15) Reading this action in context, I feel we have a pretty good glimpse of the 100% human Jesus. His hunger and anger is genuine.

I think that for Jesus, the commerce at the Temple was just as pointless as the fruitless fig tree–a perversion, if you will, of its original function.  The Temple has but one purpose: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (17)  But instead it has become a “den of robbers.” 

The priests and scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (18) In a smart tactical move to remain elusive to those who would try to capture him at night in Jerusalem after the crowds have gone home, Jesus and disciples head back to Bethany for the night.

They pass the now withered fig tree, as Peter exclaims,“Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (21) Jesus uses this as a teachable moment about the quality of faith: “believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (23) And even more powerfully, is Jesus’ promise, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (24) Personally, I’m distressed by this saying. Can we really will the laws of physics to be broken? And if we can’t, is it really because of our inadequate faith? Obviously, no other human will have Jesus’ faith because no other human 100% divine. At the risk of being heretical, for me there has to be some hyperbole here. Yes, our faith needs to be strong enough to move mountains, but I’m going to take that statement as metaphorical rather than literal.

The more important Jesus saying is,“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (25) Here, the clear message is that we cannot really be in prayer if we are holding grudges or resentments against another person.

We also learn that absent prayer in our lives, or more specifically, faith that our prayers will be answered, we are not much different than a dead fig tree or a moneychanger in the Temple courtyard: pretty useless.  But if we have faith in praying then we too will bear great fruit. Especially when we pray to forgive others. 

 

 

Psalm 65:10–14; Numbers 6; Mark 11:1–11

Originally published 5/15/2016. Revised and updated 5/15/2018

Psalm 65:10–14: The concluding verses of this psalm are a paean to how God brings forth bounty in the land, beginning with rain and water—the source of all life:
You pay mind to the earth and soak it.
You greatly enrich it.
God’s stream is filled with water.
” (10)

We can hear the water as is cascades down the hill and irrigates the farmer’s fields:
Quench the thirst of its furrows, smooth out its hillocks,
melt it with showers, its growth You will bless
. (11)

And we can almost taste God’s fruitful blessings:
You crown Your bountiful year,
and Your pathways drip ripeness.
 (12)

This beautiful language becomes even more gorgeous aspect as our poet celebrates God’s bounty with a metaphor of attire which clothes the fields:
The wilderness meadows do drip,
and with joy the hills are girded
. (13)

In a beautiful conclusion, the poet’s camera pulls back slowly to reveal a landscape that actually resembles some I’ve seen here in the Midwest in spring. And in one of the most affecting closing lines in the Psalms, God’s good creation worships its creator:
The pastures are clothed with flocks
and the valleys mantled with grain
.
They shout for joy, they even sing. (14b)

If the fields and flocks can sing at the glory of God’s creation, so must we. Even when we seem overwhelmed by worries and care—and especially the goings-on of the political world that seem more insanely fraught every day, we need only look to the verdant hills and valleys to understand how truly richly we have been blessed.

Numbers 6: We meet the Nazirites, who are men and women choosing to”separate themselves to the Lord.” (2) We can see the roots of religious life as these people—who are definitely not priests—choose to lead an ascetic life, foregoing any product, including wine, that comes from grapes. But their most distinctive aspect is their “vow [that] no razor shall come upon the head; until the time is completed for which they separate themselves to the Lord, they shall be holy; they shall let the locks of the head grow long.” (5) Of course we meet the most famous Nazirite of all, Samson, in a few hundred years down the road of Israel’s history.

Nazirites are required to separate themselves from their family and “they shall not go near a corpse. Even if their father or mother, brother or sister, should die, they may not defile themselves.” (6, 7) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to speculate that the various sects of Jesus’ time, e.g., the Essenes, based their practices on those of the nazirites. The nazirite sect also looks to be the predecessor of some of the more ascetic religious brotherhoods of non-ordained men and women down through history who have purposely separated themselves from the world in order to be closer to God. And like the religious orders of today, it appears that one can cease being a Nazirite when one so chooses: as they “separate themselves to the Lord for their days as nazirites,” (12) suggesting those “days” can come to an end.

Our text does not describe what the nazirites actually do on a day-to-day basis, although the authors do into great detail about the service of nazirite consecration before the entrance to the tabernacle (and we presume at the entrance of the temple after it was built). But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that a Nazirite spent his or her time almost solely in contemplation and prayer, probably out in the wilderness. In other words, a nazarite was about being before God rather than doing before God.

What is the lesson here for us? That some (not I) are called to separate themselves from the world and to concentrate solely on reflection, prayer, and service to God. Unfortunately, the Protestant church seems to have lost (or never had) communities that set themselves apart as our Catholic brothers and sisters have. Perhaps it’s because we are far more concerned with doing —accomplishing clear goals—rather than simply being. This doing is certainly reflected in the exclusively  Protestant term, “full time Christian work.”

As we wander through the metaphorical desert of some of the more obscure aspects of Numbers, we suddenly come upon the Priestly benediction, which is spoken to this day in churches around the world:

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Amen.

Mark 11:1–11: Mark’s telling of Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem is as terse as usual. The gospel writer doesn’t record any further conversations between Jesus and the disciples prior to arriving in Jerusalem, but as Mark has made clear, the disciples still don’t “get it.”  So, perhaps in their excitement, the disciples thought, “At last! He’s going to claim his rightful place as the Messiah that will rescue Israel from the Romans by riding into the city triumphantly astride a horse, just like the average Roman leader.”

But then Jesus does two things that surely should have raised some doubts about that theory.  First, he instructs his disciples to go borrow am unridden colt.

That said, however, Mark’s description of the business of Jesus sending two disciples to take the colt is much clearer than in the other gospels. Here, he makes it abundantly clear that the colt was being borrowed, not taken since Jesus told them, “to say ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” (3) Since by the time Jesus arrived at the gates of Jerusalem he was a celebrity surrounded by large crowds, the colt’s owner understood that the colt was going to be part of the celebration and he may even have felt honored to lend it. The question for me is, would I have been as generous as the colt’s owner?

In the words that the crowd chants, Mark leaves little doubt that by the time Jesus has arrived at Jerusalem the surrounding mob truly believes that he is indeed the long-awaited davidic Messiah:
   “Hosanna!
    Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
    Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
    Hosanna in the highest heaven!” (9, 10)

But then the second thing Jesus does is to not do anything at all. Unlike every politician in recorded history he does not take advantage of the crowd’s fervor. I’m sure that everyone—especially his disciples— expected a rousing speech once Jesus arrived at the temple to claim his messiahship. In one of the great anti-climaxes in the Bible, Jesus simply goes to the temple and “and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” (11)

The real question here is, what does the cryptic phrase, “he had looked around at everything” really mean? Did Jesus suddenly realize that the shouts of Hosanna still ringing in his ears would be transformed into shouts of execration in a mere five days? Did he realize just how entrenched the religious authorities were and that his message would be drowned out and he would be crucified? What was Jesus thinking? What did Mark know about Jesus’ thoughts that he isn’t telling us? Or is Mark as disappointed and puzzled as the rest of us when Jesus simply decamps back to Bethany without uttering a word?

Psalm 65:1–9; Numbers 5; Mark 10:46–52

Originally published 5/13/2016. Revised and updated 5/14/2018

Psalm 65:1–9: We’ve observed many times that speech and singing are the central element of the Psalms, many of which end with the psalmist singing praises to God. This psalm of praise catches our attention because it asserts the opposite:
To You silence is praise, God, in Zion,
and to You a vow will be paid
. (2).

This verse is a touchstone for those of us who are happiest in the rare moments of silence during worship. In short, one can praise God without speaking of singing, which is what I feel I am doing here at my keyboard almost every morning. Reading and reflection are themselves a form of praise.

And of course that other terribly significant means of praise: prayer—whether spoken or silent—is what lies at the center of this psalm:
O, Listener to prayer,
unto [God] all flesh shall come.
 (3)

What a great name for God! We pray for many reasons, but above all it is because God is our Listener. Moreover, we don’t come to God just because it feels good or is the ‘right’ thing to do, but primarily because,
My deeds of mischief are too much for me.
Our crimes but You atone.” (4)

Atonement for wrongdoing comes exclusively through our confession to God.Our psalmist realizes that in the end, it is God who not only listens but comes to us through prayer, Scripture, and the words and deeds of others. And for us Christians, we realize it is Jesus has come to us in baptism—and keeps on coming. He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks, ready to come in:
Happy whom You choose to draw close,
he will dwell in Your courts.
” (5a)

And having been drawn close to God through silent or spoken prayer, we see evidence of God’s power and mighty acts around us:
With awesome acts justly You answer us,
our rescuing God,
refuge of all the earth’s ends
and the far flung sea.
” (6)

I continue to feel God’s rescuing power in the big decisions Susan and I have made over the past 18 months. Evidence of his power—his awesome acts— dwells not only around me as the psalmist has it here, but within me in the form of God’s magnificent healing power.

God, who is Creator, endlessly continues his creative acts which extend beyond natural creation, but as our psalmist points out, within the affairs of humankind as well:
Who sets the mountains firm in His power
—He is girded in might—
Who quiets the roar of the seas,
the roar of their waves and the tumult of nations.
” (7, 8)

Our poet tells us that some point every person will come to appreciate God’s majestic power, especially as expressed in nature, and especially sunrise and sunset:
And those who dwell at earth’s ends will fear Your signs.
The portals of morning and evening You gladden
.” (9)

I for one am glad that I do not have to search for evidence for God. I know he is here and that he is acting.

Numbers 5: Yielding no ground to the authors of Leviticus, the authors of Numbers recapitulate and expound on the key elements of the Decalogue. First on their list is that unclean persons—”everyone who is leprous, or has a discharge, and everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse” (2)—be they male or female is put outside the camp. It may seem cruel on the face of it, but no question that it’s a central requirement to maintain community hygiene.

The rule of law is another key to maintaining order within the community—just as it is today. “When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt.” (6) Notice that crimes against others also breaks faith with God. In other words our acts here on earth have consequences with our relationships not only with others in the community, but with God himself.

To restore that broken bond requires full restitution against the person wronged plus 20%. [One cynically wonders if the extra 20% went to the lawyers…]. And if restitution cannot be made to the person harmed, “the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest.” (8) In short, we must always make confession [see the Psalm above] to God and yes, restitution to those we have hurt.

The majority of content in this chapter regards an unfaithful or adulterous wife. The definition of “unfaithful” includes adultery where “a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself” (13) If her husband becomes jealous—even if the wife is innocent— the husband brings the wife to the priest. There, a bizarre ritual takes place involving disheveling the hair of the woman and forcing her to drink bitter muddy water. If the woman has indeed “defiled herself,” the water will bring a curse cause severe diarrhea, “her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people.” (27) But if she is innocent, “she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.” (28)

I think this primitive rite is cruel and demeaning but no more so than the depressing last verse of this chapter. Even if the husband is in a fit of jealous rage, it is the woman who suffers: “The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.” (31) As far as I am concerned this practice is a sign of a primitive God and a primitive tribe. I see no way to reconcile these commands to the words of Jesus, which happily trumps the law—especially in places like this. One cynically wonders why the people who pull verses out of context to condemn homosexuals don’t pull these out to condemn adulterers.

Mark 10:46–52: Unlike the other gospel writers (especially John), Mark is not given to explaining Jesus’ acts as symbols or metaphors or how it connects to OT prophecy as Matthew does. He sticks to the straight reportorial facts. Yet, the deeper meaning of Jesus’ acts lies just below the surface of the story. The healing of blind Bartimaeus is one these.

Jesus and his disciples, accompanied by the usual crowd, are leaving Jericho and encounter “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.” (46) [I’m struck that Mark names the man about to be healed. We rarely find out the names of the people whose lives have been changed by Jesus’ healing interventions.] Bartimaeus’s other senses, his sharpened hearing I presume, alerts him to Jesus’ presence. He cries out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (48). That title, ‘Son of David,’ is Mark’s way of telling us that Bartimaeus, and others, recognized Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.

Jesus relents and tells those around him, “Call him here.” Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and bounds across the road, heedless of his blindness, and comes right up to Jesus. Whereupon Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (51) Bartimaeus understandably and logically replies, “My teacher, let me see again.” (51) and Jesus restores his sight, noting that “your faith has made you well.” (52)

Notice that Jesus does not heal uninvited and he asks that we articulate what it is we want. Like Bartimaeus, our faith is expressed in the specifics: Batimaeus wishes to see again—just as we need to see again—in every sense of that verb.

The lesson for me here is that Jesus really wants us to articulate what we need, which means we must know what we need. That is why wishy-washy statements of vague spirituality are pointless. In the end, faith is about specifics. Knowing who we are and what we need is an essential component in a meaningful relationship with Jesus. Until we name it for ourselves, our faith is too abstract. Faith must be grounded in reality.

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.
 (2)

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.
 (9)

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.
 (10)

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.

Psalm 63; Numbers 3:40–4:14; Mark 10:13–31

Originally published 5/11/2016. Revised and updated 5/11/2018

Psalm 63: The psalmist ascribes this to be “A David psalm, when he was in the wilderness of Judea,” probably a reference to the time when David was on the run from the pursuing Saul. Our poet appropriately opens with a metaphor of parched thirst in the throat of David, who is desperately seeking God:
God, my God, for You I search.
My throat thirsts for You,
my flesh yearns for You
in a land waste and parched, with no water.” (2, )

These verses remind us of the centrality of water as essential to human existence—just as God is living water that quenches our parched souls. Water in the desert certainly evokes John the Baptist as well as Jesus—the living water—being baptized moments before, like David, he heads into the wilderness. For it is in the wilderness that water takes on its greatest value.

The verses that follow are retrospective: images of David reflecting on his solid relationship with God, whose presence now only seems to shimmer far off in the undulating heat waves of the desert, oasis like. He once felt much closer to God’s presence, “in the sanctum I beheld You,/ seeing Your strength and glory.” (3) But even now, in the desert, hungry, and thirsty, our poet’s David knows that it is only in God that respite can be found:
Your kindness is better than life.
My lips praise You. 
(4)

Despite his intolerable circumstances, he worships God, which may become his last human act:
Thus I bless You while I live
in Your name I lift up my palms
.”(5)

The question for us is, if we found ourselves hungry and thirsty in the middle of spiritual desert would our faith be so strong that worshipping God could be our last living act?

More retrospection and memories follow:
Yes, I recalled You on my couch.
In the night-watches I dwelled upon You
. (7).

David looks to the past, remembering that despite his present dire circumstances, God has done much for him already and that he is God’s and God is his:
For You were a help to me,
and in Your wings’ shadow I uttered glad song.
My being belongs to You,
for Your right hand has sustained me.
” (8, 9)

en in the midst of this almost ecstatic outpouring, David never forgets to ask God that his enemies meet their doom, be it disasters such as falling off a cliff or death in battle and becoming carrion:
But they for disaster have sought my life—
may they plunge to the depths of the earth.
May their blood be shed by the sword,
may they be served up to the foxes. (10, 11)

Nevertheless, if we jump over the two verses, this is a psalm for all of us and it resonates for all of us particularly as we face both emotional and physical adversity.  I see how God has acted with awesome generosity with me. With David I can do naught but “rejoice in God,/ all who swear by Him will revel.” (12)

Numbers 3:40–4:14: We Christians believe that the death of Jesus was an act of “substitutionary atonement” for us sinners who are the ones who deserve to die for our sins. We see the roots of substitutionary atonement here as God announces to Moses that he will accept the Levites to be stand-ins for all first-born Israelites and livestock, which by virtue of God being the Creator, rightfully belong to him: “Accept the Levites as substitutes for all the firstborn among the Israelites, and the livestock of the Levites as substitutes for their livestock; and the Levites shall be mine.” (3:45)

One of the reasons for the census now becomes apparent. We are informed that there are 22,273 first born males a month or older in all of Israel. But we have just learned that there are only 22,000 Levites. How will this apparent substitutionary imbalance be resolved? This is where I am convinced that the authors of Numbers invented double-entry bookkeeping. The extra 273 first born males each will cost 5 shekels. In other words, money serves as an adequate substitute for the first-born-to-Levite numerical imbalance. So it is Aaron and his sons who wind up with 1,365 shekels (5 x 273). I also see where the money-changers in the temple could legitimately trace their roots.

I’ve been wondering why the Kohathites were not included in the earlier allocation of Levitical tabernacle duties. Turns out that “service of the Kohathites relating to the tent of meeting concerns the most holy things.” (4:4) This may sound cynical, but I’m left with the impression that the author or authors of Numbers could trace their ancestral roots back to the Kohathite clan.

When Israel is about to set off to a new location, “Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain, and cover the ark of the covenant with it.” (4:5) This leaves the Kohathites with specific duties involving fine leather, blue clothes and specific packing instructions as well as what to do with the bread of the Presence, the lampstands, all related utensils, and even the altar itself. Blue cloth covers everything and it is all carefully packed away.

We’ve mentioned before that Numbers devotes insane attention to detail and this passage about how the Kohathites pack up the most holy objects in the tabernacle and make them ready for transport. For the authors of Numbers it is God who is in the details…And that’s something we would do well to remember: there is no act too trivial, no detail too small but that God is not there watching us.

Mark 10:13–31: One of the joys of Mark is that he gives us glimpses of every aspect of Jesus’ personality. Here we see Jesus at his most tender when he encourages people to bring their children to him:“Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (14) Never one to waste a teachable moment, Jesus reminds the adults, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (15) In other words, we enter the kingdom without pride, without an agenda and in childlike innocence.

As usual for Mark, juxtaposition is everything. Jesus has just told us we must enter the kingdom as innocent children, and along comes the rich man [aka the ‘rich young ruler’ in other gospels.] The rich man tells Jesus that he has led an exemplary life. Jesus is thrilled to hear this, and “loved him,” believing I’m sure that this man would become his disciple. If only… Jesus tells him “go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (21) And in one of the great missed opportunities in the gospels, the man, who will not change his priorities, “was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” (22) Jesus keeps giving us the answers we don’t want to hear…

We, who have so much, are that rich man. Even though I give lip service to having Jesus as my priority, it is really not so as Mark describes those priorities here. Although I will admit that as I have grown older, possessions have become more of a burden than a pleasure. Nevertheless, whether it’s wealth or something else, I have been unwilling to turn my priorities upside down and inside out as Jesus asks here.

For Jesus’ disciples, this was an astounding assertion. In that Jewish society there was the belief of a simple and direct correlation between wealth and salvation: God blessed the good. After all, that’s pretty much what the law says, [except of course for the Job counterexample]. This exchange with the rich man and then with his disciples is a definite clue that for Jesus, the Kingdom of God had little to do with physical and social reality—despite the wishes of those theologians questing after the “historical Jesus,” who would like the Kingdom to be far more tangible and revolutionary than some strange place where social, cultural, and spiritual priorities are the complete opposite of the material and political priorities visible in the world.

 

Psalm 62; Numbers 3:1–39; Mark 10:1–12

Originally published 5/10/2016. Revised and updated 5/10/2018

Psalm 62: Two years ago when I wrote about this psalm I had just found out that the suspicious tumor in my ribs was benign. Even today, the opening verses of this David psalm resonate strongly for me:
     Only in God is my being quiet.
     From Him my rescue.
     Only He is my rock and my rescue,
     My stronghold—I shall not stumble. (2,3)

The psalmist raises his fist at enemies that would harm him, asking,
How long will you demolish a man—
commit murder, each one of you—like a leaning wall,
a shaky fence?
” (4)

The wall and fence metaphor is perfect. Enemies tend to appear strong and malevolent on the outside, but when one digs deeper it is more appearance than reality—much like the tumor that appeared malignant but was not… These enemies are like a wall without a foundation or a fence about to fall over. In the face of God’s true strength, their seeming power is only a sham, soon headed to destruction.

Our poet continues to limn the strong contrast between scheming enemies and God’s benevolent rescue. As usual, it is hypocritical speech that is their primary vehicle for working evil:
They took pleasure in lies.
With their mouths they blessed
and inwardly cursed
. (5)

This is exactly the same behavior that Jesus calls out in his many encounters with the Pharisees and scribes. He could do this because the affirmation of this psalm was his reality as the poet returns to the fact of the respite that only God can bring:
Only in God be quiet, my being
for from Him is my hope.
Only He is my rock and my rescue,
 my fortress—I shall not stumble. (6,7)

It is this unshakable assurance from which our psalmist invites others to enjoy this same stronghold of God’s rest:
Trust in Him at all times, O people.
Pour out your hearts before Him.
God is our shelter.
” (9)

The final verses of this psalm are another ecclesiastical warning not to trust in the empty words of those who would deceive us. After all human life is but a fleeting whisper:
Only breath—humankind,
the sons of man are a lie.
On the scales all together
they weigh less than a breath.
 (10)

And in realizing our ephemerality, we should respond accordingly. There may be seeming rewards for malfeasance but they are ephemeral:
Do not trust in oppression
and of theft have no illusions.
Though it bear fruit of wealth,
set your heart not upon it.
 (11)  As our poet remarks, God may have said only one thing, but there are two wonderful realities in his words:
One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that strength is but God’s
and Yours, Master, is kindness.
For You requite a man by his deeds. (13)

This is what one could call the great dichotomy: God is indeed all powerful, but he is also the source of all love. And how we behave toward others in kindness makes all the difference in the world.

Numbers 3:1–39: It’s obvious that the author or authors of Numbers are not the same as the group that wrote Leviticus. They reprise material we’ve seen before beginning by listing Aaron’s sons and then quickly noting without a backstory that “Nadab and Abihu died before theLord when they offered unholy fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children.” (4a). On the other hand, the good sons, “Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.” (4b)

The verses that follow describe the formal charter of the tribe of Levi as priests, assisting Aaron: “ They shall perform duties for him and for the whole congregation in front of the tent of meeting, doing service at the tabernacle.” (7) Moreover, the Levites are the exclusive source of priests, as God commands Moses to “give the Levites to Aaron and his descendants; they are unreservedly given to him from among the Israelites.” (9)

What’s interesting here, is that the Levites serve as the substitute for all first born among all Israel: “I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites.” (11) I’m presuming here that it is this idea of first born substitution which comes into play when God sacrifices his first only (and therefore first-born) son, Jesus, to atone for the sins of all humankind.

This being the book of Numbers, a census of the Levites follows. The qualification to be counted in the Levite tribe is quite different than the other tribes where only men over twenty were counted: “You shall enroll every male from a month old and upward.” (15) Even with this expanded definition, Levites comparitively few in number, totaling only 22,000. (39)

There are three tribes in the house of Levi, each consisting of several clans: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. And there’s a very precise division of duties among these three tribes.

The Gershonites camped behind the tabernacle on the west, and were the property committee, responsible for “the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting,” (25) and all the other physical aspects of the tabernacle fabric.

The Kohathites camped on the south side of the tabernacle, and were responsible for “the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen—all the service pertaining to these.” (31)

The Merai clans camped on the tabernacle’s north side. They were responsible for the tabernacle structure: “the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories—all the service pertaining to these,” (36)

Finally, it is Aaron, Moses, their sons and their families that have the high privilege of exclusivity by camping on the eastern front side of the tabernacle.

Mark 10:1–12: We come to what in the 20th century became one of the very hard sayings of Jesus when the Pharisees, once again trying to trick Jesus, ask,Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (3a) Jesus shoots right back,  “What did Moses command you?” (3b)  They respond that the Law allows the husband to write a certificate of divorce against the woman—but apparently there’s no reciprocity here for the wife. Jesus points out that because of man’s “hardness of heart [Moses} wrote this commandment for you.” (5) In short, divorce is allowed. But divorce, and indeed if we read carefully, even single adulthood and other forms of human intertwining and consummation (and celibacy?) violate the perfection of God’s good creation: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” (6) and because there are two sexes, they are creatively designed by God to unify into a single being of two parts—just as two strands of DNA become a unified whole: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” (7, 8a) To make sure everyone understands his point Jesus repeats himself: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. (8b) There seems to be little question that in God’s order sex is between a man and woman. Only. And then the famous phrase: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (9) That is God’s clear intention. But I don’t think Jesus is saying that the violation of this command will not occur in a fallen world.

Jesus goes on to say that divorce followed by remarriage is a form of adultery because the person who divorces and remarries is acting in his own best interest, not the interests of both humans who were once a single intertwined flesh.

The way I read this passage is that marriage is the consummation of God’s perfect creation and anything less violates that perfect union. But I also see that Jesus does not expressly forbid divorce. Rather, it is an inferior form, reflecting humankind’s fallenness. I don’t think it would be a stretch to expand Jesus’s reasoning to the current brouhaha over same sex marriage and perhaps even the perversity of transgenderism. More than even divorce, these practices are signs of a fallen humanity and a full frontal societal rejection of God’s intended creation. Are these individuals to be punished? I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. Rather, they become a living reflection of our human hardness of heart. Not just of the persons involved, but indeed of all of us…

 

Psalm 61; Numbers 2; Mark 9:38–50

Originally published 5/9/2016. Revised and updated 5/9/2018

Psalm 61: At first read this appears to be be a straightforward psalm of supplication:
Hear, God, my song,
listen close to my prayer
” (2)

But I see it as a psalm of joyful assurance. Our psalmist knows God hears him—there’s no doubting or disappointment here:
From the end of the earth I call You.
When my heart faints, You lead me to a a rock high above me.
 (3)

The source of this assurance comes from his realization that God has been there for him in the past as he recalls with faint military imagery,
For You have been a shelter to me,
a tower of strength in the face of the foe.
 (4).

God has protected him not only in battle but in every confrontation with enemies of every type. This is a crucial lesson for us. Foes are not just other people; in my case it is a disease in my own body that has endured disease. Yet, I know with absolute assurance that God is at my side and that I can dwell with God as David did, under the shelter of an impregnable rock.

Our psalmist finds such rest in God so wonderful that he would prefer to remain in God’s shelter forever:
Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,
let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding place.
 (5)

Alter informs us that in this context , “tent’ refers to the Temple at Jerusalem and I presume “Your wings’ hiding place refers to the Ark of the Covenant, topped by its two winged cherubim.

But as we all must do, our psalmist knows this reflection must be followed by a return to the real world, but with the serene knowledge that God has heard him—and us:
You, God, have heard my vows,
You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name
. (6)

Following something of a non sequitur  to “add to the days of the King” (7) and that the king “ever abide in the presence of God,” (8) our poet concludes, as almost every psalm of supplication does, on a note of worship:
So let me hymn Your name forever
as I pay my vows day after day.
 (9)

And so, too, for us. Worship is always the joyful conclusion to every trial that we endure.

Numbers 2: Whoever wrote Numbers seems to have recognized that in the previous books of Exodus and Leviticus, Aaron has received relative short shrift in terms of hearing God. Now, “the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron,” (1). However, the topic at hand  is hardly theological or priestly instructions. Instead it is extremely detailed instructions about which side of the tabernacle, which lies at the geographic center of the Israelite assembly, each of the twelve tribes—here called “ancestral houses”— shall reside: East, south, west, north, together with the designated leader and population count for each house. This would have been a good place for the authors to state the facts in tabular form, so I am providing it instead.

Compass      Tribe        Leader    Number
East              Judah       Nahshon  74,600
East             Issachar    Nethanel  54,400
East             Zebulon     Eliab         57,400
TOTAL  East                                  186,400
South            Reuben     Elizur          46,500
South            Simeon      Shelumiel  59,300
South            Gad            Eliasaph    45,650
TOTAL  South                                    151,450
West              Ephraim   Elihama     40,500
West              Manasseh  Gamaliel   32,200
West              Benjamin   Abidan      35,400
TOTAL  West                                    108,100
North             Dan             Ahiezer     62,700
North             Asher          Pagiel       41,500
North             Napthali     Ahira       53,400
TOTAL  North                                    157,600

The all-important tribe of Levi “shall set out in the center of the camps” (17). But no leader or body count is included. I presume that’s because the Levites are priests, not warriors.

The military necessity of the census becomes crystalline at the end of the chapter. Both the census and the precise arrangement of clans around the tabernacle have brought order out of chaos: “The Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses: They camped by regiments, and they set out the same way, everyone by clans, according to ancestral houses.” (34)

At our far remove from these events we may wonder why the naming and counting? The reason for the names has to be tribal memory. Since Israel did not believe in an afterlife, ancestral roots were at the very core of each person’s identity. So, here at least the tribal leader is memorialized. The precision of the population numbers certainly lends an authentic historicity to this book, whose authors want to make sure that the beginning of Israel was a very real event in space and time. These details help accomplish that.

But I still wonder: inasmuch as we believe the Pentateuch was committed to writing some centuries after these event, how were these numbers, which certainly sound authentic, preserved. It seems to me that there would have to be more than oral history at work here? Something more permanent would be required Perhaps these numbers were inscribed on a scroll or a stone at the time this census occurred.

Mark 9:38–50: Even though many of Jesus’ sayings are inscrutable, one cannot fairly accuse him of complete ambiguity. He inhabits a very black and white world, whose reality is captured in his response to the disciples’ complaint that some unauthorized person was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. To preserve the sanctity of their inner circle and they assumed, Jesus’ reputation, the disciples report that “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (38) But Jesus retorts that by naming the name of Jesus, even a negatively motivated person or even one who is mocking Jesus will eventually come around: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” (39)

I think this is a basic psychologically reality, which we see acted out negatively in our time by hostages who come over to the hostage-takers side via the so-called “Stockholm syndrome.” But we also often see or hear of former disbelievers coming around to understanding, accepting and loving Jesus. Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was at work in this man whom the disciples had castigated.

Jesus cannot make his point any clearer than this: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (4). I think this statement also tells us a lot about the community to which Mark is writing. There is definitely dissension in the ranks and some (I suspect Jewish Christians) feel others are behaving improperly, using Jesus’ name in places they shouldn’t and performing deeds that call their theological purity into question. Of course we do this all the time in church when it comes to judging “proper behavior” and how Jesus’ name and power is used. Which means that I need to be more tolerant of people like Joel Osteen, who to my mind treads awfully close to heresy. But that’s hard to do.

Mark then presents us with a selection of Jesus sayings that emphasize the stark black and white commitment at the heart of calling oneself a Jesus follower: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (43) This shocking statement is followed by similar sayings regarding feet and eyes. What strikes me here is that Jesus is not putting “marketing spin” on the benefits of being a Jesus follower and entering the Kingdom of God. It is hard and yes, dangerous work. This is no question of making one’s life “better,” rather it is stark two alternative forced choice: enter the Kingdom and work or enjoy hell, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (48)

There is also a warning of persecution to come, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” (49) and Jesus’ soliloquy ends with a plea that surely Mark wanted desperately to deliver to his community: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (50).  In other words, stop fighting among yourselves and be prepared to fight together against the forces of darkness. Words we in the church would do well to heed today in our increasingly post-Christian culture.

Psalm 60; Numbers 1:17-54; Mark 9:30-37

Originally published 5/8/2014. Revised and updated 5/8/2018

Psalm 60 Yet another psalm beginning with an angry shout at God, although it’s clear that one way or another, David and his army have gone against God’s will. An earthquake is a direct result of God’s anger:
God, You have abandoned us, breached us.
You were incensed—restore us to life!
You made the land quake, You cracked it.
Heal its shards, for it has toppled. (3, 4)

The psalmist speaks ironically, telling God, “You once gave to those who fear You /a banner for rallying because of the truth.” (6)  ‘Where are you now, God?’ is the unstated question  as our poet asks in a direct supplication, reminding God that they were once his friends:
So that Your friends be set free,
rescue with Your right hand and answer us. (7)

He continues in this theme of a broken relationship, reminding God by speaking in his voice that he once blessed all of Israel. He takes an original route, naming Israel’s geographical components from north to south, ending in Judah, where Jerusalem is:
God once spoke in His holiness:
“Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead and Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter. (8, 9)

Still speaking in God’s voice, he continues the geographic angle stating how God despises the lands and tribes surrounding Israel:
Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant. (10)

In any event, God seems to have disappeared as the poet, speaking again in David’s voice, asks plaintively:
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, god, with our armies. (12)

Regardless of their complaint and God’s apparent silence, our psalmist acknowledges that God’s help remains the only way in which victory will come:
Give us help against the foe
when rescue by man is in vain. (13)

Despite the anger and frustration, this  psalm ends where they always do: praising God and assured that “Through God we shall gather strength, and He will stamp out our foes.” (14)

Once again, no matter how angry at or abandoned we feel we have the absolute freedom  to raise our fist and shout to God. And even though we may be angry, with David we know that our faith— indeed our assurance—in God’s power and righteousness remains unquenched.

 Numbers 1:17-54  True to its title, the numbers of adult men of each tribe “who went out in the army of Israel” (33, 37, 43…)  are listed and recorded in the census.  These are not trivial numbers: the tribe of Reuben: 46,500; the tribe of Simeon: 59,300; the tribe of Gad 45,650 and so on through all twelve tribes, totaling a fairly astounding 603,550 men in the Army.  A number strikingly close to the current size of the Israeli military (629,150 per Wikipedia). 

This census does not include women and children, so the actual population was certainly two to three times the size of the army.  So, more than a million people were out wandering in the desert.  No wonder Moses had management troubles!  And no wonder that surrounding tribes were pretty nervous about all those folks out there wandering around and looking for a homeland.

The Levites are excluded from the census, which is another way of saying they were not eligible to be drafted into the army.  This is a long tradition; as I recall, clergy were not drafted into the US military when the draft was in force.

The Levites have other duties: setting up and taking down the Tabernacle.  And only the Levites can do that since a “stranger,” i.e. a layperson, who “who draws near shall be put to death.” (51).

 Mark 9:30-37  Jesus seem to have reached an explanatory impasse with his disciples.  He now tells all his disciples what he told Peter, James and John as they came down from the Mount of Transfiguration: The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (31)  And once again, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (32).

So, why were they afraid to ask him?  Were they afraid that Jesus would become angry with them? That’s not unreasonable since Jesus has already shown his frustration in various ways, notably telling Peter, “Get behind me Satan.” (8:33) and more recently, “How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19)

Or, perhaps they were afraid of his answer.  Jesus has said repeatedly that the Son of Man must die. They are not confused that Jesus must be referring to himself.  The disciples were operating in the human frame of reference and Jesus spoke in the frame of the Kingdom of God. The disciples felt they were riding a cresting wave that would result in a new order and a politically restored Jerusalem.  Why burst that bubble? The disciples are just as human as we. They wanted to dwell in mistaken belief as over against confronting the harsh truth. I know I’ve certainly operated that way throughout my life.

In our human tendency to avoid hard truths, some questions simply should not be followed up on, and this was one of them. Besides, what was that three day business all about?  No one could even imagine something as unprecedented as a resurrection.

So the disciples’ follow-up questions remain unasked and unanswered. Besides, it was much more fun to speculate about who was going to be “the greatest” when this earthly kingdom was established.  In Jesus’ question, What were you arguing about on the way?” (33) and the disciples’ silence, we can see the their abashed and embarrassed faces. Never one to waste a teaching moment, Jesus describes the nature of servant leadership: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  (37)

How like the disciples we are! Rank and position inevitably outweigh servanthood in our minds.  But true leadership is not about “who shall be the greatest;” it is about serving those whom they lead. Would that politicians understood this reality.

Psalm 59:12-18; Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16; Mark 9:11-29

Originally published 5/6/2014. Revised and updated 5/7/2018

Psalm 59:12-18  The second half of this psalm is a general reflection on the effects of slander.  Once again, words have become the weapons, but weapons that will ultimately boomerang back on those who use words that way:
Through their mouth’s offense, the word of their lips
they will be trapped in their haughtiness,
and through the oaths and the falsehood they utter. (13)

This verse includes the interesting idea that in uttering falsehoods his enemies will become “trapped in their haughtiness.”  In short, they have come to believe their own lies–or in the modern parlance, they believe their own press releases.  This self-deception is almost always a sign that their fall is coming soon.

Our psalmist is quite anxious to haste their fall as he asks God to accelerate their downfall. We sense deep underlying anger here at how much the words have injured David—so much so that he seeks God’s vengeance on them, but with the interesting twist that it be done so that all Israel understands that it is God who is in charge:
Destroy, O destroy in wrath, that they be no more,
and it will be known to the ends of the earth
that God rules over Jacob [Israel].” (14)

In the meantime his enemies “mutter like dogs. /They prowl round the town.” (16).  In stark contrast to this prowling and muttering, David worships God in deep gratitude with his voice (and we presume, his lyre):
But I shall sing of Your strength,
and chant gladly each morning Your kindness.
For You were a fortress to me
a haven when I was in dire straits. (17)

Isn’t this is exactly where we find ourselves today? We are increasingly surrounded by a growing cacophony of “muttering voices” on all sides. But rather than joining in the angry muttering and posting that Facebook riposte we think the mutterer so richly deserves, we can join David and find refuge in the soaring songs and prayers of worship. With the psalmist we sing:
My strength, to You I would hymn,
for God is my fortress,
my steadfast God. (18)

I have a feel that when Martin Luther was besieged on all sides he found refuge in this psalm—and knowing what we do of his personality, he would not have hesitated to ask God to bring calumny down on the heads of his enemies. And perhaps he found inspiration for his famous hymn here in the last verse of this psalm.

Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16  After what seemed like the grand finale of the Covenant in the previous chapter, chapter 27’s collection of miscellaneous laws seems like the editors suddenly uncovered a bunch of scrolls that they meant to add in earlier. Perhaps working against deadline, they’ve added these laws about land-holding, seed amounts, prorated land assessments basically as an appendix. Above all, this chapter makes it clear that when something is dedicated to God there are no take-backs: “Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord.” (27:28)

Despite the solemnity of these laws the final line of Leviticus seems to lack gravitas and seems anodyne and flat: “These are the commands that the LORD charged Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai.” (27:34)

The book of Numbers opens by placing God and Moses in  a real place in real time, “in the Wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year of their going out from Egypt,” (1)  And, true to its title, God tells Moses to take a census.  There is no randomness to this activity; God sets the sex and age limit, starting with the army: “every male by their heads. From twenty years old and up, everyone who goes out in the army in Israel.” (3) We then get a list of the men—one form each tribe— who will assist Moses and Aaron in what has to be a pretty arduous and thankless task.

The command for a census and the details of who will carry it out is once again a reminder that God is involved in—and cares deeply about— the details.  Something, in our tendency to make God a benevolent abstraction, we too easily forget.

   Jesus puts to rest the apparently popular idea that Elijah would return in triumph to save Israel. Jesus tells them Elijah is a historical figure, not the Messiah. He once lived and his story has already been written. But there’s an intriguing ambiguity here. Is Jesus talking about the historical Elijah or John the Baptist, who indeed has already come, thus making it clear that Jesus himself if the Son of Man?. “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” (13) I think Jesus is telling them if you want to read prophecy, then read what Scripture has to say about the Son of Man rather than about Elijah.

Talk about coming down quickly from a mountaintop experience!  After the awe and presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus immediately returns to the status quo ante: a big crowd begging for healing and the disciples attempting to heal the little boy. This is one of those times where Jesus’ frustrated humanity shows through clearly: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (19).  We can almost hear his heavy sigh.  “Thickheaded disciples,”  he must be thinking, “now this…”

Mark uses this story to remind us that faith in Jesus must be about honest and from the heart. It cannot be feigned belief. Easy words simply affirming belief are insufficient. True belief is deeper and doesn’t come automatically; we must work at it.  We hear Jesus testing the father that way: “If you are able.”  (23) In other words, belief is much, much more than mere acquiescence to a way of thinking or straightforward intellectual assent.  It comes from deep inside, and it arises from the unfettered presence of the Holy Spirit.  That is why along with the father we say, “I believe; help my belief.”  In other words, belief—faith—is a process and often, a struggle—not a static objective. The father’s prayer my be short, but it has been prayed in true belief that Jesus is who he says he is.  It’s a short but terribly effective prayer.  Which is the point Jesus makes at the end of this incident, This kind [of exorcism] can come out only through prayer.” (29) 

All of which brings us back to David’s prayer. His belief was so deep; his connection to God so close, that uttering his desperate words in the framework of true belief that God would indeed  answer his prayer and act instantly. The question is, is our belief, our faith so strong that we really believe that God can answer prayer instantly as he did for David and for the distraught father?