Psalm 71:18b–24; Numbers 21:10–22:6; Mark 15:21–32

Originally published 6/2/2016. Revised and updated 6/2/2018

Psalm 71:18b–24: Realizing that he will not be abandoned by God, our psalmist turns to praise, promising to witness God’s power to all now and in the future:
Till I tell of Your mighty arm to the next generation,
to all those who will come, Your power.

This is a clear message to us that it is our responsibility to raise our children in a faith in God. When they come of age, they will make their own decisions about their faith, but at least we have given them a context and example of what faith in God is about. The psalmist continues in the same worshipful vein looking upward to heaven:
and Your bounty, O God to the heights,
as You have done great things.
” (19a).

Then he asks the question we all must ask and answer, “O God, who is like You?” (19b) Either we accept God as God, or we substitute other things or other philosophies as our small-g gods. In today’s culture we see more and more people saying that God is just one among many gods, and that whatever—or whoever— satisfies us spiritually is just fine. Alas, it is an ultimately empty path that diminishes their own being.

However, in his effusive praise, the psalmist seems to ascribe the difficulties he has experienced to God’s actions: As You surfeited me with great and dire distress, (20a) Is the psalmist really saying that God “surfeited,” i.e., created more than amply, the difficulties he experienced or did God merely allow them to happen? If we consult Job, God seems to allow, but does not create, the bad things that happen to us. But I question even that interpretation. I suggest that there is sufficient evil and fallenness in the world that bad things happen without God needing to creating them. Job notwithstanding, God is love, not manipulator. But the eternal question, why does God allow evil, is ever-present.

Nevertheless, for the psalmist, his troubles lie in the past as he speaks with assurance that God has rescued him once again. And God will not just rescue him, not just bring him succor, but through these trials make him a better man than before:
You will once more give me life,
and from earth’s depths once more bring me up
You will multiply my greatness
and turn round and comfort me.
”  (20b, 21)

There is not only psychological healing (“multiply my greatness”) but God is ever the comforter when we have been pushed down by circumstance or by others. Would that I turn more frequently to God for comfort. As the psalmist knows, God is always there, offering exactly that.

The psalm’s coda is pure, grateful worship:
And so I shall acclaim You with the lute.
—Your truth, my God./ Let me hymn with the lyre,
Israel’s Holy One
.  (22)

He will not only “sing glad song when I hymn to You,” but he will speak and witness to others as well:
My tongue, too, all say long
will murmur Your bounty
. (23)

This should be our natural response as well when we reflect on how many times God has rescued us down through our years.

The psalm closes by noting that in the same way he asked at the opening verse, [“Let me never be shamed“], except it is now his enemies who will experience that shame:
For they are shamed, for they are disgraced,
those who sought my harm
. (24)

Once again, we do not take action to shame or hurt our enemies; it is God who will see that they will bring that shame down upon themselves.

Numbers 21:10–22:6: Back in Sunday School I always had the impression that Israel’s desert wanderings were a lonely enterprise without much, if any, contact with other tribe and nations. But as we read today there was lots of interaction, much of it not very pretty.

Our authors are very much in travelogue mode as they describe the wanderings of the Israelites from Oboth to “lye-abarim, in the wilderness bordering Moab toward the sunrise. From there they set out, and camped in the Wadi Zered.” (21:11,12) Then on to Arnon on the boundary of Moab. Our authors then cite another source, “the Book of the Wars,” to describe their further journeys to Beer—”that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, and I will give them water.” (16), where the Israelites pause to sing. Then ever onward: “Mattanah to Nahaliel, from Nahaliel to Bamoth, and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that overlooks the wasteland.” (21: 19, 20)

Problems inevitably arise when Israel wishes to cross some other nation’s territory. As he had done with the king of Edom, Moses sends emissaries to the King Sihon of the Amorites seeking permission to cross, promising, “we will not turn aside into field or vineyard; we will not drink the water of any well; we will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” (22)

But King Sihon not only refuses permission but decides to battle Israel in the wilderness of Jahaz. Israel is victorious in its first battle, and then all of a sudden we have Israel settling in the former Amorite territory: “Israel took all these towns, and Israel settled in all the towns of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages.” (21: 25) These victories leads to a song commemorating the battles:
Woe to you, O Moab!
    You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives,
    and his daughters captives,
    to an Amorite king, Sihon.
So their posterity perished
    from Heshbon[f] to Dibon,
    and we laid waste until fire spread to Medeba.” (21:29, 30)

So I have to ask: is Israel still living in tents, able to pick up and move, or has a substantial portion of the people taken up permanent residence in the former Amorite territory? This apparent conundrum does not seem to bother our authors.

Israel then goes on to defeat the wonderfully-named King Og of Basan and take possession of his territory.  After battling, victories, and land possession we once again find a transient Israel “camped in the plains of Moab across the Jordan from Jericho.” (22:1) Word about this ravenous wandering mob that seems skilled in battle has spread and “Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel.” (22:3)

Moab’s King Balak, realizing a military defeat may be inevitable tries a new and but not very effective strategy: “He sent messengers to Balaam son of Beor at Pethor,” which is located far away on the Euphrates River, asking that king (apparently famous for his necromancy) “Come now, curse this people for me, since they are stronger than I; perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land; for I know that whomever you bless is blessed, and whomever you curse is cursed.” (6)

We’ll see how this turns out in our next reading…

Mark 15:21–32: Mark devotes only eleven verses to Jesus’ crucifixion. Compared the the many details and emotional writing of the other Gospel writers, Mark’s reportorial style describes the numerous facts about this execution rather dispassionately. First, the Romans “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.” (21) With these two names we encounter a reference that lies outside the gospel narrative. Alexander and Rufus apparently become missionaries in the early church.

Mark does not give us the gory details of nails or spears involved in the process of crucifixion. All that comes in the other gospels. Here he simply states, “they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.” (24) I’m guessing the casting lots was normal routine for the Roman soldiers. All the paintings and images down through the centuries depictions to the contrary, I’m sure that to add humiliation to the crucifixion, the condemned hung on the cross naked, so there was no further need for clothing.

Mark records that Jesus was “crucified between two bandits, one on his right and one on his left.” (27) but here in Mark there is no dialog among the three. Instead, he focuses on the mockery that Jesus endured, noting the sign, “King of the Jews” that was nailed into the cross. Everything that follows here is mockery and derision: “Those who passed by derided  him, shaking their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!” (29, 30)

To make sure we get it about the Jewish religious leaders being primarily responsible for Jesus’ death, “the chief priests, along with the scribes, were were also mocking him among themselves and saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.” (31, 32a)  Even in his terseness, Mark helps us witness the smug satisfaction that doubtless was on their faces.

Mark’s main message here is the ultimately ironic mocking of the “king of the Jews.” In fact, even “Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.” (32b) Physical death occurs by crucifixion but mockery is the final degradation. And since I’m sure Jesus heard all this as he hung there dying, a type of psychological death by execration. As far as his humanity is concerned, Jesus can be brought no lower than this. It is Mark’s stark picture of suffering and death that reminds us that Jesus suffered as no other human ever has.

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