Psalm 73:1–12; Numbers 24,25; Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4

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

Psalm 73:1–12: These verses are a detailed description of the qualities and even the physical characteristics of the wicked. The opening verses express the psalmist’s relief at his close call of having nearly become one of the wicked himself:
As for me, my feet had almost strayed,
my steps nearly tumbled.

The reason he almost fell in with them is simple—and completely consonant with that most human inclination to envy others—especially those who seem to be effortlessly cruising through life with ample resources:
For I envied the revelers,
I saw the wicked’s well-being.

Since human nature has not changed a whit since this psalm was written, he describes a 21st century affliction to a tee: we are obsessed with wealth and who has what. Why else would the media relentlessly publish lists of the wealthiest people in America in an unending variety of permutations? So too, our cultural obsession with celebrity. Their lives appear glamorous and worry-free compared to ours.

Our poet goes on to describe the specifics of our attraction to the wealthy in the detail that almost caused him to stumble:
For they are free of the fetters of death,
    and their body is healthy.
    Of the torment of man they have no part,
     and they know not human afflictions.” (4,5)

They appear to be above it all: paragons of “evolved humans” free of the ugliness, sickness, and desperation of daily life experienced by the hoi polloi.

But then, as he moves his poetic camera in for a close-up, we see that what looks attractive from afar is actually quite corrupt:
This haughtiness is their necklace,
outrage, their garment bedecks them.

This is a perfect description of know-it-alls (politicians, especially) who see themselves as morally superior and in a perfect description of a current president, full of the outrage that permeates everything in our culture from Facebook feeds to political stump speeches. Then, the picture turns even uglier in a memorable description of corruption affecting the physical body as the psalmist describes their true character perfectly:
Fat bulges around their eyes,
imaginings spill from the heart.
They mock and speak with malice,
from on high they speak out oppression
. (7, 8)

Then, even more strikingly, their corruption becomes consumption of the world’s resources:
They put their mouth up to the heavens
and their tongue goes over the earth
. (9)

The tragedy then, just as it is today with politicians, celebrities and especially men n powerful positions, is that the people are eager to hear—and believe—what they say:
Thus the people turn back to them,
and they lap up their words
. (10)

Is there a more perfect description of the crowds surrounding celebrities, politicians, and captains of industry?

In our material culture that rejects faith and believes the answers are found strictly within science and technology, those who claim there is no God see themselves as the masters of the universe: And they say,’ How could God know,
and is there knowledge with the most high?
” (11)

Alas, our poet sighs,
such are the wicked,
the ever complacent ones pile up wealth
. (12)

And thus, as we reflect on the infamous 1%, it is still is. But what will Jesus have to say to them on the day of judgement? He certainly gives us a clue in Matthew’s account of sheep and goats.

Numbers 24,25: Almost unbelievably, Balaam has retained his commission from King Balak to speak what God tells him to say. This time, our authors tell us, Balaam, “did not go, as at other times, to look for omens, but set his face toward the wilderness.” (24:2) And what he sees as he looks out over the tents of Israel and speaks is the realization that Israel, as God’s chosen people, will indeed conquer neighboring tribes and nations:
    “God who brings him out of Egypt,
        is like the horns of a wild ox for him;
     he shall devour the nations that are his foes
         and break their bones.
         He shall strike with his arrows.” (24:8)

King Balak is beside himself at this point: “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them these three times.” (24:10) and tells Balaam to go home. But before he does, Balaam offers one last oracle that predicts the imminent demise not only of Balak’s kingdom, but of of all of Israel’s potential enemies:
“First among the nations was Amalek,
but its end is to perish forever.” (20) 

Balaam, having proniuced the words of God can only shake his head as he concludes, “Alas, who shall live when God does this?” (24:23) And with those final words of impending destruction, “Balaam got up and went back to his place, and Balak also went his way.” (24:25)

What are we to make of the story of Balaam? I think it’s an amazingly creative means for our authors to use an independent outside source like Balaam to validate Israel being led by God to conquer nations. Balaam was not an Israelite, but he clearly followed God and stood firm in his commitment to speak only what God told him to say. In this, he is the first prophet. That Balaam speaks what God says also tells us that God works though others than just the Jews. The groundwork is laid right here for the Good News to be spread among the Gentiles more than a thousand years after Balaam’s four oracles.

Meanwhile down at the Israelite campground: “the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab.” (25:2) Worse than that, “These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.” (25:2) God is mightily displeased and commands Moses to kill all those “who have yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor.” (25:5) Not surprisingly plague commences

There is a particularly ugly scene where Phineas, Aaron’s grandson, seeing an Israelite with a Midianite woman impales the two with a spear. Aaron is impressed by this action which stopped the plague among Israel, but not before 24,000 people die. Aaron blesses Phineas, “It shall be for him and for his descendants after him a covenant of perpetual priesthood, because he was zealous for his God, and made atonement for the Israelites.” (25:13)

What strikes me as odd here is that both the man and the woman are named, apparently because they are from leading families. The Israelite is “Zimri son of Salu” and the Midianite woman is, “Cozbi daughter of Zur, who was the head of a clan, an ancestral house in Midian.” (25:15) God promptly commands Moses to ““Harass the Midianites, and defeat them.” (25:17)

This is one of those places where we have a difficult time believing that God—this same God of love—commands all this bloodshed. To be blunt, I’m inclined to treat these stories as mythical.

Mark 16:14– Luke 1:4: Mark’s shorter ending features a terse Great Commission—”Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” (16:8b)— while the longer ending of the gospel restates it in more familiar terms, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (16:15)  But then in this version, Jesus goes on to add uncomfortable elaboration, beginning with a black and white statement, “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. ” (16)

Things get weirder when Jesus elaborates, “these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (17, 18). These two verses have led, IMO, to all kinds of abuses such as snake-handling in churches to test who’s saved and who isn’t, as well as the rite of exorcism in the Catholic Church.  Happily, I’ve not heard of a church that encourages drinking poison, but who’s to say it hasn’t been tried. Of course the victims aren’t around to testify…

Frankly, I think the longer ending is a later add-on by an author or group dissatisfied with Mark’s original ending. I am very wary of drawing substantial theological conclusions from it.

In their ever-mysterious division of the readings, the Moravians carry us right into the beautiful opening introduction to the Gospel of Luke. Perhaps they want us to savor the juxtaposition between the rather disorderly conclusion of Mark’s gospel with the pristine opening verse of Luke’s: “many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us.” (1:1) It appears Luke has been reading (or hearing) some other gospels or eyewitness accounts: “just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” (2).

This motivates Luke to pick up his pen, “ I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,” (3) Luke’s purpose in writing is of course beneficial not only to Theophilus, but to all of us: “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” (4) And here we have a hint that perhaps these other gospels or stories may be somewhat suspect. (Such as the longer ending of Mark!) I think in this introduction Luke is aware of the various and often fantastic Gnostic gospels that began to be written and circulated around the same time he sat down to write Luke and Acts. Here was a man who wanted to set the record straight…

So, who is Theophilus? It’s a Greek name [“God-lover”] so we know this Gospel is written to a Gentile. We know from an autobiographical note in Acts that Luke is a Gentile, so this is a gospel written for Gentiles by a Gentile. Of course there are those who argue that Theophilus was not an actual person, but a literary construct, but in the end, that doesn’t matter. We are about to to embark on a telling of the Jesus story that in many ways is the most accessible of the gospels because Luke gives us details we don’t read elsewhere.



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