Archives for May 2018

Psalm 59:1-9; Leviticus 26:36-27:15; Mark 9:1-10

Originally published 5/62014. Revised and updated 5/5/2018

Psalm 59:1-9  David remains in mortal danger from Saul, who seeks to kill him. Not only does David open this psalm of supplication by getting directly to the point , emphasizing the irgency of God’s intervention:
Save me from my enemies, my God,  
over those who rise against me make me safe.
Save me from the wrongdoers,
from men of bloodshed rescue me.
For, look, they lie in wait for my life,
the powerful scheme against me. (2-4)

This is not paranoia as David pleads desperately for his life. He knows he is innocent: “For no misdeed they rush, aim their bows.” (5a) Having described his perilous situation, David begs God to “Rise toward me and see!” (5b) demanding action immediately:
You, LORD, God of armies, God of Israel,  
awake to make a reckoning with all the nations.
Do not pardon all wrongdoing traitors.
(6)

The progression in just a few verses from “Save me!” to “Awake”  to “Do not pardon the traitors” is striking.  Unlike so many of us who pray only timid prayers for fear of being irreverent or even of offending God, David is not being deferential here. He is pleading, begging, and ultimately, demanding no-holds-barred action.

In the psalm’s second stanza, as if God has already answered his desperate prayer, we see David’s courage return and with it, the deep connection he has with God as he suddenly begins mocking his enemies, who “mutter like dogs” and “prowl round the town.” (7) His enemies are impotent compared to the greatness of God, who will “laugh at them, You mock the nations.” (9)

As is typical in a psalm of supplication, he concludes with worship and assurance,
My steadfast God will come to meet me,
God will grant me sight of my foes’ defeat.” (11)

We see in this shift of tone within in just a few verses how his desperate prayer has been answered as he utters these words. We always tend to think there’s a time lag between praying and having the prayer answered.  But that’s to assume God is limited by time and space the way we are.  Clearly, David did not believe in that constraint—and this psalm is good evidence that prayer can be answered instantaneously.

Leviticus 26:36-27:15  Although it’s in this book’s penultimate chapter, God seems to wrap up the seemingly endless list of laws and rules by reiterating his covenant with Israel by naming the “founding fathers” with whom God sealed the covenant originally: “And I will remember My covenant with Jacob and also My covenant with Isaac and also My covenant with Abraham I will  remember,” (26:42)  The naming of names makes it clear that in God’s eyes, this covenant is no abstraction; it is based on his promises made to real people in real space in real time.

Then, after naming the patriarchs, God adds a surprising (to me, anyway) fourth aspect of the covenant: “and I will remember the land.”  (42b) The land is God’s creation and the land itself is an intrinsic part of the Covenant. God has granted his part of creation to Israel—valid for as long as they keep their side of the Covenant.

Notice also, how God frames the Covenant: each aspect is prefaced by the phrase, “I will remember.”  God never forgets.  And it is this phrase that convinces me that a fundamental aspect of humans being created imago deo is that God has given us the gift of memory.  That is why it is so tragic when people suffering from diseases like Alzheimers are robbed of their memory.  For to lose memory is to break a relationship.  And nowhere can a relationship be broken more severely than for Israel to forget God. Or for us to forget God. Both as individuals and collectively as a culture rushing as fast as it can away from God. Despite this, God always remembers us.

Mark 9:1-10 I have always assumed that Jesus’ prophecy, “I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (1) referred to a future event, such as Pentecost or Paul’s glimpse of heaven. But here in Mark it is the introductory verse to the Transfiguration, so the prophecy is fulfilled immediately–at least for Peter, James and John.  For what else can the Transfiguration be but a glimpse of the Kingdom and its power?

Peter seems to be one of those people who is uncomfortable with awed silence (or in this case a terrifying event) and attempts to deal with their terror by filling the air with speech. Lacking anything original to say, Peter states the obvious, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here,” (5) and talks about building “dwellings” or “booths.”  Mark’s laconic editorial remark following Peter’s statement, “He did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (6) makes it clear that Peter spoke in an attempt to ameliorate his fear.  

This is one of those places where the Gospels reveal their authenticity: a fictional document would never succeed in making the disciples so real and so human. And so much like us.

Once again, Jesus orders the disciples who have had this glimpse into the Kingdom not to talk about it, presumably including to the other disciples.  The conversation during the hike down the mountain includes Jesus talking about rising from the dead. At this point the disciples’ heads must have been ready to explode. By juxtaposing the terrifying yet awe-inspiring event atop the mountain followed immediately Jesus’ puzzling comments about resurrection Mark again underscores the disciples’ humanity. “They kept the matter to themselves,” (10) including not bugging Jesus with any more silly questions right at the moment.  Given what has just transpired, I’m pretty sure that at this point I would have kept my mouth shut, as well.

 

Psalm 58; Leviticus 26:1-35; Mark 8:22-38

Originally published 5/5/2014. Revised and updated 5/4/2018

Psalm 58  Alter warns us “that the Hebrew text of this psalm, from this verse to the end, with the sole exception of verses 7 and 11, is badly mangled.”  So, we should probably not read deep theology into this rather ferocious psalm about the “wicked [who] backslide from the very womb, the lie-mongers go astray from birth.” (3) In perhaps the direst imprecation in the entire book of Psalms, there is the psalmist’s wish for punishing violence:
God, smash their teeth in their mouth.
The jaws of the lions shatter, O LORD.
” (7)

The psalmist’s anger at wickedness is so immense that after the smashing, the wicked should not only disappear as water evaporating in the sun, but the wicked should experience even greater punishment:
“Let them melt away, like water run off.
Let Him pull back His arrows so they be cut down.” (8)

But that is insufficient. In the loathsome simile the wicked are, “Like a snail that moves in its slime.” (9) And perhaps cruelest simile of all:
[Like] a woman’s stillbirth that sees not the sun,
before their thorns ripen in bramble,
still alive and in wrath rushed to ruin. (9, 10)

Our psalmist will certainly enjoy the downfall of the wicked:
The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees,
his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood. (11)

Notice, however, that the psalmist is observing God’s vengeance on the wicked; he is not taking vengeance himself because he knows that
Man will say, ‘Yes, there is fruit for the just.
Yes, there are gods judging the earth. (12).

This psalm makes it abundantly clear that righteous anger is not a sin.  With the psalmist we can certainly be angry at the wicked, and angry at God. But in the end there is the bedrock assurance that the wicked will fail and then fall.  Because it is God who is “judging the earth.”

Leviticus 26:1-35  This great chapter is God’s summary of the fruits and rewards of keeping the Covenant that he has established with His people; its terms and conditions, if you will.  It’s all really quite straightforward: “If you go by My statutes and keep My commands and do them,” (3) numerous blessings will follow, including rain, trees that yield fruit and fields that yield grain. Grain that in turn becomes bread. (5)  If they “will lie down with none to cause terror, and I shall make evil beasts cease from the land , and no sword will pass through your land.” (6).  And they will win battles even when greatly outnumbered. (7)  They will multiply in number and therefore strength: “ I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.” (9) Above all, God will fulfill his promises if the people fulfill theirs: “I shall be God to you, and as for you,  you will be My people. (13)  God asks only one thing in return :strict obedience.

But in the face of Israel’s disobedience the converse is also true: “if you do not heed Me and do not do all these commands, and if you reject My statutes and if you loathe My laws, voiding My covenant, I on My part will do this to you:” (14)  And a long list of really bad things, including cannibalism, follows. And what God will do is not just a simple quid pro quo of bad things, but punishment is multiplied: “My part will chastise you sevenfold for your offenses.” (29)  This is God’s promise of a reversal of the Sabbath, “All the days of the desolation it shall keep a sabbath for not having kept your sabbath years when you dwelled there.” (35)

This is God’s deal. Unfortunately, we know what Israel did.

Mark 8:22-38  In his healing of the blind man of Bethsaida, and then sending him “away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village,” (26) we sense that Jesus feels his healing powers and growing popularity could result in a movement that too easily could become a revolution, which would certainly derail the divine plan God and he are pursuing.  So, too, when Peter acknowledges that Jesus is the Messiah, he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” (30)  [Notice also, that unlike Matthew, Mark does not include any kind of other exchange between Jesus and Matthew about rocks and his Church.]

The reasons for silence and not fomenting a revolution become clear in Mark’s next passage. Jesus has a divine plan:  “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (31)  A story so crazy, so absurd that Peter takes him aside and “rebukes him.”  

Mark does not tell us what Peter said, so we can only speculate.  I’ve always thought it was Peter telling Jesus of his unfailing loyalty, and that Jesus could never contemplate dying. That may be so, but I also think Peter may have tried to encourage Jesus to go ahead and foment that revolution. He may have argued that given Jesus’ increasing popularity, now was the time to strike politically.  I can hear him saying, ‘Forget that business about dying and rising.  Let’s strike while the iron is hot.’  For me, that is what lies behind Jesus’ rebuke that “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (33)

We are all Peter.  Because we always seem to want Jesus to do what we’ve outlined for him to do. As humans, our minds are almost always set on human things. Which is why when viewed in human terms the story of Jesus coming to earth, dying and rising from the dead is just so patently absurd.

Psalm 57:8–12; Leviticus 25:18–55; Mark 8:14–21

Originally published 5/3/2016. Revised and updated 5/3/2018

Psalm 57:8–12: Even in the midst of his troubles, David exudes confidence that can arise only from his ineradicable trust in God. David’s knowledge, indeed his confidence, that God has given him a firm heart invokes worship:
My heart is firm, O God,/ my heart is firm.
Let me sing and hymn.” (8)

This is not just an intellectual concept of worship; it is suffused in ecstatic action as he picks up his fabled instrument:
Awake O lyre, awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn.
” (9)

The psalmist writes to remind us of a miracle that comes every morning: the dawn. I share David’s joy that each morning the sun will rise over God’s good creation and that no matter what comes, God remains firmly in charge of all creation.

Although David is still in the cave hiding from Saul he envisions that happy future morning when he can worship in the morning sun and and he can play and sing for all:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Master./
Let me hymn You among the nations.
” (10)

And in a lesson for all of us who face trials of various kinds, even though David may be in great physical peril, he sings his powerful and unforgettable song that evokes everything that is good in God’s creation:
For Your kindness is great to the heavens,
and to the skies Your steadfast truth
.” (11)

No matter how dark the cave we may find ourselves in, there is the beautiful open sky of God’s glory just outside:
Loom over the heavens, O God.
Over all the earth Your glory.
” (12)

And in that reality I find enormous peace.

Leviticus 25:18–55: This long chapter covers the social contracts that allow a civilized society to live together under the rule of law “so that you may live on the land securely.” (18)  Of course this is a theocracy, so it is God who is the legislator. This being an agrarian society, the rules rather naturally begin with stewardship of the land , stating that in the seventh year when no crops are to be planted. God promises a rich harvest in the sixth year “so that it will yield a crop for three years.” (22). What is most interesting to me though is that God makes it clear that he is the owner and “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (23) this seems a clear message that the earth is not ours to pillage and rape. This is the same as being renters of a house and taking care of it. Our responsibility is to be stewards of the earth, carefully tending the natural resources, which are in fact owned by God the Creator. One wonders what a different world we might be living in had our ancestors—and we today— followed God’s commandment here more diligently.

There is a clear distinction between city and country. Real estate rules for city dwellers are clear. There’s a one year warranty, and if that right of redemption is not exercised within that first year, “a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations.” (30) and it’s exempted from the great 50-year Jubilee give-back.  However, these rules do not apply to “houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country.” (31) which certainly has to do with not throwing productive farmers out on the street.

The family is the core unit of Jewish civilization and “if any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you,  you shall support them.” (35) No government welfare programs here. However, one may not charge interest for this support nor “provide them food at a profit.” (38)

No Israelite may hold another Israelite in slavery even if that person is deeply in debt: Rather, “They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers.” (40) —whence the concept of indentured servanthood. Even then, they are bound only until the year of Jubilee at which time, they “shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.” (41) Only aliens may become slaves. Sadly, these verses doubtless were used to justify slavery of Africans since they were not of the same race—and doubtless helped create much of the ugly racism that persists to this day.

There are also rules for poor Israelites to sell themselves into slavery to prosperous resident aliens. However, they retain the right to redemption, and another Israelite can redeem them and “if they prosper they may redeem themselves.” (49) A complex mathematical formula based on the years served and years to the Jubilee is used to compute the price. As usual, no detail seems too small for our authors to have included. This is another one of those places where we realize these rules had nothing to do with a band of Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert but had everything to do with Jews being held in captivity in Babylon and the years afterward. Which is why I believe Moses had nothing to do with the authorship of these books, but those priests in Babylon sure did….

Mark 8:14–21: Following the feeding of the 4000, Jesus and the disciples once again set out in a boat. But “the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.” (14) Jesus rather enigmatically tells them,“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” (15) They think Jesus is reprimanding them for failing to bring enough bread for the journey when in fact Jesus is giving them sound advice.

He is warning them that they have been influenced by the questioning doubts of the Pharisees rather than having paid attention to the two great bread miracles he has just performed. His frustration is evident as he asks, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (17) His frustration edges toward anger in the next verse: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (18) He upbraids them like little children, asking them how many baskets of leftover bread they collected after the feeding of the 5000 and again after the feeding of the 4000. We can see their sheepish faces as they provide Jesus the correct answers.

Jesus realizes that his very own disciples still don’t get what his actual mission is. They see him as just another religious teacher whose charisma doubtless stirred up the crowd to have them produce bread they already had with them. Jesus must be shaking his head when “he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (21)

Of course Mark is speaking to all of us. Like the disciples, we approach Jesus in human terms firmly in our own framework of perception and therefore, understanding. That’s the yeast of the Pharisees, the yeast of blinkered religiosity, when Jesus is so much greater than our human concept of what “religion” is about. Jesus transcends “religion.” But like the disciples, we persist in keeping Jesus firmly ensconced in a religious box rather than taking him at his word for the bread he has provided to the world and the freedom he brings us.

 

Psalm 57:1-6; Leviticus 24:10-25:17; Mark 8:1-13

Originally published 5/3/2014. Revised and updated 5/2/2018

Psalm 57:1-7  David is still on the run from Saul.  He seeks shelter in the cave, which is a metaphor for the shelter that God grants him:
Grant me grace, God, grant me grace
for in You I have taken shelter. (2)

But more than shelter, David calls out to God for rescue, and because of his intimate trust, knows that God will come to him:
I call out to God the Most High,
to the god who requites me.
He will send from the heavens and rescue me. (3, 4a)

Not just rescue, but David will receive something even greater: God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4b)  When we are in trouble we need to remember as David did that God is more than a rescuer, he is steadfastly kind and loving.  This is tremendous contrast to those who seek to destroy him:
I lie down among lions
that pant for human beings.
Their fangs are spear and arrows,
their tongue a sharpened sword. (5)

Notice how David’s enemies are not just pursuing him with “spear and arrows,” but with an even deadlier weapon: their words.  Which is pretty much how people pursue their enemies these days, be it via print, TV, or social media.  Words are truly the deadly weapons of our culture.

David remains assured that his enemies will get their just punishment in the end:
A net they set for my steps,
 they pushed down my neck,
they dug before me a pit—
they themselves fell into it.  (7)  This is a brilliant evocation of how so many people fall into their own verbal traps.  There are plenty of cases in point, be it politicians’ emails presidential tweets.

Leviticus 24:10-25:17  Our names are crucial to establish our identity within the community.  In a rare turnabout, where the women are usually anonymous, the editors of Leviticus name the mother of the son “who vilified the Name of God” (24:11)  She is “Shelomith, daughter of Dibri of the tribe of Dan.”  So great was the offense of the son in vilifying God’s name that he would not be identified but was simply taken outside the camp and stoned to death.

But no name is greater than the name of God and “One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer” (24:16) Alien residents—I presume this includes even those who may not necessarily believe in God— are not exempt from this rule: “Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death.” (24:16b)  I suppose that the issue is not that God’s name is mentioned aloud, but that to use the common phrase, God’s name is “taken in vain.”

Would that society paid more attention to this rule, and we could possibly be spared the ubiquitous “OMG” acronym. Also, I suppose this is why even to this day, Jews write “G-d” rather than “God.”  And for those of us who spell out God’s name, a good reminder that naming God–and the attitude in which we name God– is serious business indeed.

Chapter 25 lays out God’s rules for the fifty-year jubilee.  And another one of those rules we pass right over today, the command, “and call a release in the land to all its inhabitants.”  In short, what we might call “God’s bankruptcy law.”

God also defines fair real estate sales here, “The larger the number of years, the more you shall pay for its purchase and the smaller the number of years the less you shall pay for its purchase, since he is selling you the number of yields.” (25:16)  Which is completely logical and fair in an agrarian society.  (Although given that these laws were theoretically promulgated while Israel was wandering around in the wilderness, all this attention to property seems something of a non sequitur and reminds us again that Leviticus was doubtless written many years after the wilderness journey.

Mark 8:1-13  Having previously fed the 5000, Jesus now feeds the 4000 in much the same way.  And once again, and recalling that in the incident in the storm on Galilee, the disciples did not understand what Jesus was doing, they apparently have not yet picked up on this miraculous feeding of the multitude business.  Once again they ask, How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” (8:4).  And once again, Jesus performs the miracle.  And once again, the disciples climb into the boat with Jesus (10).  Did they get it this second time? Probably not.

It’s easy to be hard on the disciples because we know the whole story. But the disciple’s question at both feedings is exactly our question, and a sure sign that we don’t “get it” either.  We claim to have great faith, but when push comes to shove, we’re just as clueless as the disciples as to Jesus’ true intentions and his true abilities.

Which is why I think Mark juxtaposes the Pharisee’s request for “a sign” immediately following this story.  “Show us a sign,” we cry along with the Pharisees. We keep asking for signs, but even if lightning were to zap from heaven and build a mansion in front of our eyes, we’d still find reason to doubt.  And anyone who claims to “know” is a fool (e.g., Harold Camping predicting the 2nd coming in 2011).  Which is why the endless quest for “proof” of God’s existence is such a fool’s errand. Only faith works.

Psalm 56:9-13; Leviticus 24:10-25:17; Mark 8:1-13

Originally published 5/1/2014. Revised and updated 5/1/2018.

Psalm 56:10-14  The latter half of this psalm is David’s version of “Blessed Assurance,” and is better sung than analyzed.  There is David’s assurance that God will be true to His word; “This I know, that God is for me.”  And although it’s not here in the psalm, the only possible response to that line must be, “Then, who can be against me?”

And as in the first stanza, we have what we might call the “Grand Triumvirate:” praise, trust and the banishment of fear.  The motto found on our coins, “In God we trust” is completed here at verse 12a: “I shall not fear.”  trust drives out fear completely.

And with fear banished, “What can man do to me?” (12b)

With fear banished and trust assured, David renews his vows to be faithful to God:
I take upon me, O God, my vows to You.
I shall pay thanksgiving offerings to You. (13)

I think that worship is also a place where we renew our vows to God each week. Sincere prayer each day is also renewal. In this renewal we can rejoice that God has rescued us from certain disaster. And if we needed an operating definition of what salvation is all about, it is right here in the closing verse of this psalm:

For You saved me from death,
yes, my foot from slipping,
to walk in God’s presence
in the light of life.

For us, that is indeed the salvific power of Jesus Christ.

Leviticus 23:23-24:9  When we think about the covenant between God and Israel, we (at least I) do not tend to think of celebrations and commemorations.  Yet, here God sets out at least three distinct periods of setting aside daily work and commemorating special events, chief among them, the Day of Atonement.  These are not casual holidays taken on a whim, but are commands from God, to be observed as “an everlasting statute for your generations.” (23:41) These celebrations are as much a part of the law as the Decalogue.

This is why one of the great gifts of the Lutheran church to me personally has been the liturgical calendar.  It is an ongoing reminder of Jesus’ transforming work through each year as we commemorate what he has done for us from birth to death to Resurrection to Ascension to Pentecost.  It’s clear from these passages in Leviticus that God means for us to turn from our daily tasks, stop and remember—and reflect.  Maybe we don’t dwell in huts for seven days (23:42) or offer food at an altar, but the subtext here is that pausing and reflecting on what God—and for us, Jesus—has done is a key element in our relationship with Him.

The next chapter opens with the command to Moses for “the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning regularly.” (24:2) Light has been the symbol of live and an active relationship with God since those days in the desert. For us, of course, Jesus is the light of the world, and in most liturgical churches, there is an oil lamp or a candle that burns continuously—a reflection of God’s command to Moses: “it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” (24:3)

Mark 7:24-37  As I recall noting when we read this story in Matthew that with the exception of the woman at the well in John, Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman is perhaps my favorite of all the people he meets and talks with. Operating at several levels, it is perhaps Jesus’ clearest statement that he came not just for Jews, but for the Gentiles and for the entire world. More than that, though, I think it tells us that when we have faith in who he is and what he can do, we can approach Jesus with boldness.

The woman had a real world need: a demon-possessed daughter that she believed  Jesus could heal. She had a solid faith that Jesus would do for her what she had heard he had done for many others. And she is smart: she understands Jesus’ metaphor of the children and dogs, and unlike so many of us who only come up with the perfect reply after the moment passes, she pushes back with the perfect reply: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (28) While the Gentiles may be only dogs foraging for crumbs under the Jewish table, Jesus makes it clear is what has led to her daughter’s healing, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (30)  Of course it is also Mark’s clear message that we Gentiles can also partake of Jesus’ grace and healing. And we can do so boldly. It was this woman’s boldness and courage that Jesus respected. But it is boldness and courage in the context of her deep faith that Jesus meets her need.

This is the same boldness with which David prays in so many psalms. But it is never confrontational boldness; it is always grounded in deep respect, reciprocated love, and a deep faith that Jesus will actually do what we’re asking him to do. We do not approach our Lord in weakness, but in faith in who he is and therefore in boldness of who we are: the beloved children of God.