Archives for June 2018

Psalm 72:12–20; Numbers 23; Mark 16:1–13

Originally published 6/4/2016. Revised and updated 6/5/2018

Psalm 72:12–20:  The first half of this psalm celebrates the majesty and overarching power of King Solomon. In the second half, our psalmist comes down a level of abstraction and describes the reasons why the king deserves these encomia. Solomon may be great and mighty, but like God himself, he cares about the poor and oppressed and bringing justice to them:
For he saves the needy man pleading,
and the lowly who has none to help him.
 (12)

In short, Solomon practices what God has been commanding all along: that those in power must be  righteous and work tirelessly to bring justice to those who cannot get it on their own: the poor, the widows and the orphans.

To make sure we get his point, the psalmist recapitulates that the king’s key duties are to protect the poor from the rapacious schemes of the wealthy and powerful:
He pities the poor and needy,
and the lives of the needy he rescues,
from scheming and outrage redeems them,
and their blood is dear in his sight.
 (13, 14)

Here we are some three millennia later and our current leaders speak of these noble truths, but do they take effective action? There’s no question that in the psalmist’s eyes Solomon acts rather than merely talking.

The reminder of the psalm expresses a wish that under the king’s effective leadership, the kingdom will prosper economically, which in this society is that it prospers agriculturally:
May there be an abundance of grain in the land,
on the mountaintops.

May his fruit rustle like Lebanon,
and may they sprout from the town like grass on the land. 
(16)

This image of never-ceasing fecundity also applies to the king himself:
May his name be forever.
As long as the sun may his name bear seed.
May all nations be blessed through him, call him happy. 
(17)

As we know, this wish on the part of the psalmist has indeed come true. Even today, Solomon is celebrated as the wisest of kings and leaders.

This is the end of the psalm proper. The final verses are a general benediction for the conclusion of this, the second book of Psalms—and a benediction that would be wonderful to hear at the end of worship:
Blessed is the Lord God, Israel’s God, performing wonders alone.
And blessed is His glory forever, and may His glory fill all the earth.
Amen and amen.
(20)

Numbers 23: Hewing to the word of God, Balaam tells king Balak, “Build me seven altars here, and prepare seven bulls and seven rams for me.” (1) Balaam, who seems to have the same direct access to God as Moses, goes and again speaks to God, “I have arranged the seven altars, and have offered a bull and a ram on each altar.” (4) God replies, “Return to Balak, and this is what you must say.” (5).

The words God has put in Balaam’s mouth is an oracle or song of blessing on Israel. The angry king shouts, “What have you done to me? I brought you to curse my enemies, but now you have done nothing but bless them.” (11) Balaam’s answer is succinct: “Must I not take care to say what the Lord puts into my mouth?” (12)—something to which Balak had already assented.

Balak, thinking that a different location will change the outcome, takes Balaam to “the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah.” (14) Another seven altars are built; another seven bulls and rams are sacrificed. Balak asks Balaam, “What has the Lord said?” (17). This time (the “second oracle”) pronounces an even more distinct blessing on Israel:
     “Look, a people rising up like a lioness,
        and rousing itself like a lion!
       It does not lie down until it has eaten the prey
        and drunk the blood of the slain.” (24)

An extremely frustrated Balak thinks the third time will be the charm and tells Balaam, “Come now, I will take you to another place; perhaps it will please God that you may curse them for me from there.” (27) We’ll see about that.

Balaam sets the standard for the prophets yet to come to Israel: they speak what God has put in their mouth. I think our authors are using Balaam’s example here to remind Israel that like Balak, they cannot force a desired outcome and expect God’s blessing. Since they are speaking for God, like Balaam they must say what God has told them. Prophets will not do or say what we want them to. Just as God will not necessarily respond or act in the way we want him to when we pray.

Mark 16:1–13: The women continue to be the central actors in the Mark’s recounting of the death and resurrection of Jesus: “When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.” (1). Mark has already told us they know where the tomb is, but it occurs to them that their mission may be hampered by the large stone they knew covered the tomb’s entrance: “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (3). Happily, they arrive at the tomb and discover the stone has already been rolled back.

There’s a “young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side” (5) who utters the most startling and amazing statement in all of human history: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.” (6)

The young angel then tells them to tell Peter to meet the resurrected Jesus in Galilee. But what they have just witnessed and heard is far more terrifying than joyful, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them.” (8a). Mark completely understands how human nature would react: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (8b).  Which I think is a more psychologically realistic picture than the happy reunions that we read about in the other gospels. Mark could easily have a PhD in psychology.

In fact, in Mark’s traditional ending, we don’t even get to see Jesus. We only see the empty tomb.  Mark’s “shorter ending” ends his narrative with the abruptness of his reportorial style: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Which is Mark’s rather cryptic take on the Great Commission. The Good News is the resurrected Jesus. Mark is telling us that the good news of the resurrection is sufficient. For Mark the details of who he saw and what he said after this amazing event are irrelevant.

Obviously, this rather anticlimactic ending bothered somebody somewhere, for we now have “the longer ending of Mark,” which provides a some more details. Again, the women—and the cause of much speculation about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene—are at the center of the story: “he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons.” (9) But even when Mary carries the news to the men, “when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.” (11)

This theme of disbelief at the news is driven home further, as Mark’s longer ending gives his a brief take on the Road to Emmaus episode described in far greater detail in Luke: “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country.” (12). But again, the news is greeted only with skepticism: “And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.” (13)

It’s clear to me that Mark is writing to a community that was pretty skeptical about this whole Easter thing. I think he’s showing them (and us) that skepticism is perfectly OK: it is the most natural reaction of all to an event that was—and remains—the most incredible story ever told. Faith, Mark is telling me, anyway, includes skepticism. If the disciples didn’t believe at first, then why should we believe at first? Faith is a never-ending process, not a static state.

 

Psalm 72:1–11; Numbers 22:7–41; Mark 15:33–47

Originally published 6/3/2016. Revised and updated 6/4/2018

Psalm 72:1–11: This magisterial psalm is dedicated to the most magisterial of Israel’s kings, Solomon. It opens with a wish for God to bless the king with the greatest of all kingly responsibilities—judgement and greatest of all kingly qualities—righteousness:
God, grant Your judgements to the king
and Your righteousness to the the king’s son.
 (1)

Like God himself, these are the king’s first duties:
May he judge Your people righteously
and Your lowly ones justice.
 (2)

As always, it is the lowly poor who are most deserving of fair judgement, because in reality it is they who doubtless receive it least.

Our psalmist hammers home this crucial point, making it clear that this is Solomon’s greatest and most solemn duty, this plea for justice for the lowly is repeated with even greater intensity two verses later:
May he bring justice to the lowly of the people,
     may he rescue the sons of the needy
      and crush the oppressor.” (4)

Notice that the issue is not crushing the king’s personal enemies as we read in so many other psalms, but it is to “crush the oppressor,” the enemy of all the people, buts especially the poor and downtrodden. Of course the ugly irony here is that too often in Israel’s checkered history that it was the king himself who became the oppressor.

Turning to the king himself, our poet wishes Solomon kingly longevity using what has become over-used hyperbole:
May they fear you as long as the sun
and as long as the moon, generations untold.
 (5)

The grandeur of this psalm is expressed through its similes and metaphors. The first is comparing the king to the beneficence of nature: “May he come down like rain on new-mown grass,/ like showers that moisten the earth.” (6).

This is followed by the desire that this beneficence at the top propagates and affects the entire nation just as much as the king:
May the just man flourish in his days—
and abundant peace till till the moon is no more.
 (7)

This extravagant sweep for the king to become almost god-like is then expressed in geographic metaphor, first from east to west: “And may he hold sway from sea to sea” (8a)

And then all the way northeast to the Euphrates and beyond: “from the River to the ends of the earth,” (8b). Then to the south, “Before him may the desert-folk kneel,/ and his enemies lick the dust.” (9)  Then to the west along the Mediterranean, including its islands: “May kings of Tarshish and the islands bring tribute.” (10a) Then swinging south again, “may kings of Sheba and Siba bow to him,/ offer vassal gifts.”  (10b)

Finally, to make sure no king or tribal leader was left out of this catalog of those showing obeisance to Solomon, our poet ends this section with a grand sweep of inclusivity: “And may all kings bow to him,/ all nations serve him.” (11)

Numbers 22:7–41: The “elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand; and they came to Balaam,” (7) who is the person they want to contract with to curse Israel. Balaam wisely stalls them, inviting them to “Stay here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, just as theLord speaks to me.” (8) Balaam does not hesitate to tell them that he has a direct line to God. Such divination is forbidden within Israel, but our authors are telling us (1) it was widely used by other tribes and nations, and (2) rather than God disapproving of it; he apparnetly participates in this sort of prophecy.

God is crystal clear to Balaam:“You shall not go with them; you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” (12) Balaam tells the Moabite representatives to go home because “the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” (14) King Balak tries again, this time sending a more impressive entourage to Balaam. The seer still hesitates, “Although Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God, to do less or more.” (18) This time, God comes to Balaam, tells him to go back to King Balak, but to carefully follow God’s instructions. So Balaam eventually goes with Balak’s officials, heading back to Moab.

Then in what appears to be a puzzling change of mind of God’s part, “God’s anger was kindled [against Balaam] because he was going, and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the road as his adversary.” (22). Balaam’s donkey sees the angel and turns off the road. However, Balaam apparently does not see the angel and strikes the donkey for his stubbornness. By the third time it sees the angel blocking its path, the donkey simply lays down in the middle of the road. Balaam angrily strikes the donkey again. Then “the Lord opened the mouth of the donkey, and it said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (28)

In perhaps the most amazing part of this story, Balaam replies to the donkey as calmly if he and the donkey have had lots of previous conversations, “Because you have made a fool of me! I wish I had a sword in my hand! I would kill you right now!” (29) Finally, Balaam sees the angel, who asks him, “Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” (32). The angel tells Balaam he could have easily killed him, but has shown mercy. Rather than returning home, the angel instructs Balaam to “Go with the men; but speak only what I tell you to speak.” (35)

For me, this bizarre story of a talking donkey is probably apocryphal, but it carries a crucially important message. God asks for obedience and his demands can come from any source at any time. At another level, Balaam and the donkey are a metaphor for God’s relationship with Israel, which makes the symbolism of the stubborn donkey feel highly appropriate.

Mark 15:33–47: In what Mark clearly describes as a portentous sign, the earth becomes dark at noon—symbolic of the life slipping away from Jesus. Three hours later, Jesus recites the opening line of Psalm 22 in Aramaic. Bystanders mistakenly think Jesus is calling for Elijah, which suggests to me that people didn’t understand what Jesus was saying in death as much as they misunderstood what he was saying in life. One final agonizing scream and Jesus dies. Simultaneously, Mark reports, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (38) For Mark this event signifies the conclusion of the Old Covenant between God and the Jews. The Holy of Holies is exposed to the view every Jew, signifying, I think, that every Jew could now approach God through Jesus. The old temple order is no more. Except that the temple authorities certainly weren’t aware of that yet.

We must never forget that Mark is the master of juxtaposition and the very next sentence is the centurion’s statement,“Truly this man was God’s Son!” (39) which signifies to me that Jesus is now available to every Gentile as well as every Jew. In two sentences, Mark tells us the old order is finished and that a brand new thread of history has begun with Jesus is the center of the Jewish and Gentile universe.

Mark identifies two women standing off in the distance, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome.” (40) All the men, notably the disciples, seem to be absent. An observation that is reenforced by Mark’s statement that “there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.”  (41) Which forces me to ask, if Mark tells us that the women were present at this crucial moment, but the men apparently absent, why have women been subjugated in the church in the ensuing 2000 years? I suppose we have the strongly-opinionated apostle Paul to thank for that.

Mark introduces us to “Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, [who] went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (43) We will forever wonder that if Joseph of A was an ally of Jesus, who was willing to go “boldly” to Pilate, why does he only appear on the scene after Jesus’ death? Was he absent when the Sanhedrin tried Jesus? Or like the centurion, did he only really “get” who Jesus was at the moment Jesus died? For me, that makes Joseph representative of all of us. We tend to not understand who Jesus really is until it is virtually too late.

A small detail I’d not noticed before: “Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.” (44, 45) We presume this is the same centurion whose life has doubtless been transformed when he saw Jesus die. 

And another detail: “Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.” (46) This confirms for me that Jesus truly died naked and alone seemingly forsaken by everyone. But Joseph shows respect and mercy, bringing dignity to the dead body of Jesus at this dark, dark moment.

With only the slightest hint that something may be afoot, Mark notes that “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.” (47) The story that seems to  its participants to have concluded is indeed not yet over.

 

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.
 (18b)

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.