Psalm 68:28–36; Numbers 13:17–33; Mark 13:28–37

I am now writing from the porch of our house in Massachusetts.

Originally published 5/24/2016. Revised and updated 5/24/2018

Psalm 68:28–36: Our psalmist descends in levels of  abstraction from “Israel” to name several tribes:
There little Benjamin holds sway over them,
Judah’s princes in their raiment,
Zebulon’s princes, Napthali’s princes.
” (28)

Benjamin, Zebulon, and Napthali are the tribes mentioned in Judges 5 as the the ones that joined the battle against the Canaanites and their participation may be why they’re mentioned here. Judah is the house of David, Solomon and the subsequent kings of the south, so that’s probably why it’s included too.

In any event they are part of ceremonial procession to the temple, thanking God for bringing them victory,
Ordain, O God, Your strength,
strength, O God, that You showed for us
. (29)

The conquered nations also bring tribute to victorious Israel and therefore are required to do obeisance to Israel’s God:
To You the kings [of other nations] bring gifts. (30b)

The first nation mentioned is shown symbolically as “the beast of the marsh,/…cringing with offerings of silver,” (31) Which we presume to be Egypt. The following verse clarifies this:
Let notables come from Egypt,
Cush raise its hands to God.
” (32)

Now that all the nations are gathered, they worship in unison in a prophetic vision of every nation worshipping God as our psalmist reminds us that God is the God of all nations and the God whom all nations must must acknowledge:
Kingdoms of earth, sing to God,
hymn to the Master.
To the Rider in the utmost heavens of yore.
Look, He makes His voice ring, the voice of strength
. (33, 34).

We assume God’s ringing voice is heard as thunder. Needless to say, as far as our psalmist is concerned, Israel is certainly the nation that is primus inter pares here:
Acclaim strength to God,
over Israel is His pride
and His strength in the skies.
” (35)

And it is Israel that concludes this worship—and this psalm—as it circles back to acknowledging the favor God has bestowed on Israel:
Awesome, O God, from Your sanctuaries!
Israel’s God—He gives strength and might to His people.
Blessed is God.
” (36)

As a theocracy, Israel’s every victory becomes God’s victory. The question for me is, have I acknowledged and worshipped God in the victories he has brought to my own life?

Numbers 13:17–33: Moses gives the twelve leaders, who he now acknowledges as spies, some very specific instructions when they arrive in Canaan. He instructs them to evaluate the land, the people and the cities:  “see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the towns that they live in are unwalled or fortified.” (18, 19)

This being Numbers, our authors report every detail, noting that the spies covered Canaan quite thoroughly: “they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. They went up into the Negeb, and came to Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the Anakites, were there.” (21, 22) When they arrive at the “Wadi Eshcol, [they] cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs.” (23). In other words they are bringing evidence that Canaan is truly the promised land, infinitely  better than the wilderness in which the Israelites are presently camped.

Which is exactly what the spies report back to Moses: “[Canaan] flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” (27) referring to the grapes on the pole. However, the spies also report that there is a big problem and eleven of them give the majority opinion: “the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there.” (28) They go on to state that every corner of Canaan is already occupied by someone: “the Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan.” (29)

Caleb gives the minority report, and “quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” (30). But the other eleven are adamant that “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” (31) And to prove their point: “we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (33) These would be the giants who we will meet as the Philistines that Saul and David confront many years hence.

Thus it ever is. Only Caleb is willing to risk fighting in Canaan, but his voice is drowned out by eleven other [probably louder] voices. Why is Caleb willing to risk all? Because I presume he understands that Israel has God on its side and God will aid Israel, just as he has so far on this journey out of Egypt. But the other eleven look only at their worldly strength, which pales in comparison to the occupants of Canaan.

For me, this passage is all about understanding exactly what we confront, but also trusting God that we can take the risk and go for it.

Mark 13:28–37: The lesson of the fig is Jesus’ final apocalyptic pronouncement:  From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” (28) And he proceeds to put what has turned out to be a very controversial timeframe on when these events will occur: “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” (30)

If we go with the conventional interpretation that Jesus is referring to the coming destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Titus in CE70, this statement makes sense. We also need to remember that this gospel was written after CE70, so Mark may simply be making Jesus appear to be prophetic about an event that has already occurred.

However, at the same time Jesus may be referring to the end of history, as he seems to indicate in his next statement: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” (31) To me, this means that Jesus and his words transcend history. And of course it is John the gospel writer who picks up on this theme of Jesus’ words, expanding the idea to Jesus being the eternal Word himself.

Jesus, being the psychological master that he is, doesn’t just predict the end of the ages and stop. Rather, he gives very clear instructions as to what his disciples—and all of us—are supposed to do in the meantime: “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.” (33) We are like the slaves of the household and we are to keep working in the Kingdom while the Master is away: “each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” (34) As usual, Jesus is blunt: “Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn.” (35)

In fact I think this is Jesus’ next-to-greatest commandment: that we keep on working and remain awake and alert for the end of history—and as we recite in the Creeds, that Jesus will come again. But Jesus is equally clear about what we should be doing in the meantime: don’t waste our time speculating about the end of history.

Despite Jesus’ clear instructions, there’s a entire cottage industry out there that specializes in reading Jesus’ Olivet discourse and the symbols of Revelation in a never-ending attempt to predict his return. While Jesus’ words may be obscure about when history will end, he is extremely clear about what we’re supposed to be doing in the meantime: stay alert and to employ the over-used Britishism: Keep calm and carry on.

 

Psalm 68:7–18; Numbers 11; Mark 13:1–13

Originally published 5/22/2016. Revised and updated 5/22/2018

Psalm 68:7-18   Following the themes of jubilation and a reflection on God’s mercy, our psalmist  reminds Israel that God has been among them since the wandering in the desert:
God, when You sallied forth before Your people,
when You strode through the desert. (8)

God among his people is no small matter and our psalmist describes a theophany beginning with an earthquake:
The earth shook,
the heavens, too, poured down before God,
Sinai itself before God, God of Israel. (9),

Rain follows the earthquake as the land is restored:
A bountiful rain You shed, O God.
Your estate that had languished You made firm. (10).

And even, somewhat mystifyingly there is snow, which is rare but not unknown in Israel:
When Shaddai scattered the kings there, it snowed on Zalmon. (15)

Mixed into the poem are specific geological references, “crooked-ridged mountain, Mount Bashan.” (16) which have become so due to seismic activity
Why do you leap, O crooked-ridged mountains,
the mountain God desired for His dwelling? (17)

And as the psalmist looks to the heavens, where God also dwells:
The chariots of God are myriads beyond count,
thousands of thousands
The Master among them
—O, Sinai in holiness! (18)

So what does all this have to do with thanksgiving? I think this is a hymn to the glory, majesty and dynamic power of God’s creation.  God did not just create heaven and earth and then leave town.  He continues to create through the movement of the earth, the seasons, the weather, and as we have recently discovered, through the evolving, ever-changing stars, his “myriad chariots.

God is still very much involved: not only in his larger creation, but as the psalmist observes, in our lives as lives as well: “Blessed be the Master day after day. God heaps upon us our rescue.” (20).  God doesn’t just rescue us, but “heaps upon us” our rescues again and again.  God’s love is not just conceptual, but active within our lives.  Something this psalmist surely knew and had experienced.

Numbers 11: The Israelites, tired of being stuck out in the desert begin to complain “about their misfortunes, [and] the Lord heard it and his anger was kindled.” (1) This fire of anger is more than metaphorical and in fact “consumed some outlying parts of the camp.” (2)

Unsurprisingly, the complaints are about the food. Manna is boring compared to “the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic;” (5) Frankly, I’m rather sympathetic here, but clearly the Israelites had forgotten that they were in the desert and without manna they would have perished a long time ago.

Even Moses is angry, telling God that he’s had it up to here managing these complaining people, wondering once again why God appointed him as leader: ““Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me?” (11) In fact, Moses once again pleads his managerial limitations, telling God, “I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me.” (14). Then, in living proof that Moses was as human as the rest of us, he threatens God, telling him, “If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favor in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.”(15).  Anyone who has had to lead people for any length of time knows just how Moses felt.

The authors of Numbers assert that establishing the council of 70 elders was God’s idea: “the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you.” (16) Personally, I prefer the story in Exodus where it was Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law who set up the council. But we have to remember that our authors are members of the priestly class and all things that happen are directly attributable to God and God’s intervention.

In the meantime, Moses goes to the people, telling them, “the Lord will give you meat, and you shall eat.” But it comes at a substantial cost. They will have meat alright, but for “a whole month—until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, ‘Why did we ever leave Egypt?’” (20).  The disaster of the quails follows shortly.

If ever we needed an example of the importance of being careful what you wish—or pray—for, it is right here.

Mark 13:1–13: Mark is tersely dramatic as he records the dialog between Jesus and an unnamed disciple. Being from the country, the disciple expresses amazement at “what large stones and what large buildings!” (1) And if you’ve ever been to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you’ll understand why the disciple was impressed. But I can see the consternation on that man’s face when Jesus announces, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (2). Most interpreters take this as a direct prophecy of the temple’s destruction by Titus in CE70. But I’m not sure. Writing near CE90, Mark would certainly be aware of this event. Nevertheless, my own sense is that Jesus is speaking more apocalyptically about the end of history as all the great works of humankind meet their doom.

The inner circle—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—pick up on this dire prophecy and are naturally curious, asking, “when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (4) As is his wont, Jesus doesn’t answer the question directly, but speaks of the times leading up to the end, warning them (and us) first not to be duped. “Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray.” (5,6) I suspect that by the time Mark was writing, there were doubtless many variants of orthodox Christianity being preached throughout the Roman world, including perhaps even at Mark’s own community.

But it’s not just false religious leaders that threaten, but “wars and rumors of wars,” (7), and unceasing battle as “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;” (8a) We need look only at history and weep at the battles fought,  the lives lost  right on down to the present time to know the veracity of Jesus’ statement. But Jesus also predicts that nature itself will rise up against humankind, and “there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.” (8b) And also all true down through the centuries to today.

Jesus then gets personal, warning his disciples of persecutions to come, including the dissolution of entire families: “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (12) Of all the prophecies here, that is perhaps the most depressing because as Mark wrote, it was doubtless true. The Good News does not alwys produce good consequences within families.

Jesus gives them sage advice of what to do when they are brought before the authorities: “When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit.” (11)

My own take here is that Mark is writing for a community that is increasingly under fire for its Christianity, including individuals in their midst who had been disowned by their families for this cultic belief. This group has suffered, or is about to suffer for its beliefs that reject the Roman rules about worshipping Caesar and are about to have the iron fist of Rome come down on them. Jesus’ words give strength and courage and the fact that “the one who endures to the end will be saved.” (13)

But above all we must be careful not to set those words as applying only to people almost 2000 years ago. The Olivet Discourse feels even more relevant today as we move into a post-Christian culture, not all that unlike the culture within which Mark wrote.

Psalm 67; Numbers 9:15-10:36; Mark 12:35-44

Originally published 5/21/2016. Revised and updated 5/21/2018

Psalm 67  This psalm is a flat out song of thanksgiving (and just what I needed this morning while feeling somewhat despondent about my latest medical issue.)  It begins with those same lines we read not too long ago in Numbers 6, here as an invocation rather than a benediction: “May God grant us grace and bless us, may He shine His face upon us.”

This is also one of those psalms that reminds us that God is the God of all creation and of all humankind, not just Israel: “To know on the earth Your way,  among all the nations Your rescue.” (2)  There is even a feeling of the final throne room scene in Revelation where “Nations acclaim You, O God, all peoples acclaim You. Nations rejoice in glad song, ” (3,4a)

Just to make his point–the psalmist repeats verse 3 at verse 5: “The nations acclaim you…” In one sense this is a “missionary psalm,” and must certainly have been on Jesus’ mind when he gave the Great Commission.  How could the nations acclaim God if they did not know that it is God who “rule[s] people rightly and nations on earth You lead?” (4)

But it is also a stark reminder that no matter how far the nations have strayed from God–and they have certainly strayed far these days–it is God who will bless us and at some point, “all the ends of earth [will] fear Him.”  (Fear in the sense of awestruck worship.)

Numbers 9:15-10:36  Now that it is set up and good order established, the Cloud shows up and hovers over the Tabernacle.  The movement of the cloud/nighttime fire is the commanding signal for the ongoing journey of Israel.  And there is a certain unpredictability as how long the cloud–and therefore Israel–would stay at any one location.  The key point is that Israel followed the Lord’s leading: “By the LORD’s word they would camp and by the LORD’s word they would journey onward.” (9:20)

I’m sure all of us have wished for such a definite sign from God when it comes to the decisions of life: that we would know when to camp and when to move on. But the cloud also reminds us that it is God who should be leading our own lives in terms of the choices we ultimately make.  At a more pragmatic level, though, this passage about the cloud sets up the narrative that will follow the peregrinations of Israel in the remainder of this book.  All is ready for the journey.

In another one of those passages where we are impressed by the level of detail in which God involves Himself, the basic signaling devices–two silver trumpets–are fabricated and then the meaning of various signals is set out.  Again, details that point to the historicity of the wilderness journey.  Mere fiction would not take the time to lay out the precise order of march, including where the groups carrying the pieces of the Tabernacle fit in, nor would the meaning of the various signals sounded on the silver trumpets, including the call to battle, “you shall let out a long blast with the trumpets and be remembered before the LORD your God and be rescued from your enemies.” (10:10)

And a reminder to us that God never forgets, but always remembers us, too.

Israel leaves the foot of Sinai and we hear the Song of the Ark (or as Alter suggests, perhaps only the opening lines of that song):

“as the Ark journeyed on, that Moses would say, “Rise O LORD, and Your enemies scatter, and Your foes flee before You!”

and when it came to rest, he would say,  “Come back O LORD to Israel’s teeming myriads.””

Mark 12:35-44  Although the scribes are afraid to ask him any more questions, Jesus is not finished with them just yet, as he continues to point out their theological errors, this time about the relation between David and the Messiah and that the Messiah cannot possibly be David’s literal son.  Mark records the reaction of the crowd rather than the scribes.  The “large crowd was listening to him with delight.” (37)  

Delight, I imagine, not just at the truths Jesus was revealing but that he was putting these theological know-it-alls, who doubtless lorded their superior knowledge over the hoi polloi, into their rightful place.  

But wait, there’s more.  As Jesus points out their scribal hypocrisy: that somehow their superior knowledge has earned them the right to “walk around in long robes, and be greeted with respect in the marketplace.”  How easy it is for us who know a couple of theological truths to strut in the same practiced superiority. 

Jesus basically seals the deal with the scribes by promising them the “greater condemnation.”  Mark doesn’t need to describe the scribes reaction to this statement.  We know it: barely suppressed outrage.   As we’ve observed before, it’s almost as if Jesus continues to goad officialdom in order to ensure they make good on their threats by the end of this most significant week.

Another one of Mark’s juxtapositions follows:  Immediately following his condemnation of the haughty scribes, he praises the widow with two mites.  As we all learned in Sunday School, two mites trumps “large sums” because while others “contributed out of their abundance,” it is all she possessed.

But there is more here: there is the humility of the widow pitted against the haughtiness and hypocrisy of church officialdom.  As we see frequently in the OT, widows and orphans are always accorded special protection by God–and we all have a duty, which the scribes had clearly forgotten, to protect them.

 

Psalm 67; Numbers 8:5–9:14; Mark 12:18–34

Originally published 5/19/2016. Revised and updated 5/19/2018

Psalm 67: Although this psalm —clearly a hymn—opens with a benedictory phrase—”May God grant us grace and bless us,/ may He shine His face upon us.” (2)—it quickly becomes a psalm of thanksgiving that’s appropriate not only for worship by Israel, but for all the world:
To know on the earth Your way,
among all the nations Your rescue.
” (3)

This is one of those places where it’s clear that God is the God of all who live on the earth, and the wonderful possibility that all will worship him because at this happy time, perhaps at the end of history, every nation and every person worships God:
Nations acclaim You, O God,
all peoples acclaim You, O God.
Nations rejoice in glad song
You rule all peoples rightly,
and nations on earth You lead.
” (4, 5).

At this point, we need pause and reflect on what the world would truly be like if all people and all nations truly worshipped God. What a different place it would be! Alas, while the psalm can wish for this wonderful state, we live in a world where this wonderful possibility does not yet exist—and in light of societal violence and a growing rejection of God seems to be receding rather than advancing.

Nevertheless, this grim reality must never discourage us from singing our praise to God, and acknowledging God’s sovereignty over all the earth and all its inhabitants. Our psalmist emphasizes the possibility of this wonderful state by opening his second stanza with the same words that concluded the first:
Nations acclaim You, O God,
all peoples acclaim You. 
(6)

Moreover, we worship because God has blessed us with the rich bounty of the natural world, which we continue to despoil:
The earth gives its yield.
May God our God bless us. 
(7)

The psalm ends on this highest of high notes by repeating the prayer that opens the psalm: “May God bless us,
and all the ends of the earth fear Him
. (8)

This psalm is proof that we are commanded to pray for even those things that seem to be impossible: that peace would come to the earth and that all nations and all peoples would worship God.

Numbers 8:5–9:14: All twelve “secular” tribes have now brought their offerings and sacrifices to Aaron and Moses before the tabernacle. Our priestly authors now turn to the description of the consecration or ordination of the priestly tribe: the Levites. In a sign that continues to this day in the service of ordination, God commands, “you bring the Levites before the Lord, the Israelites shall lay their hands on the Levites. ” (8:10) And in so doing, “Aaron shall present the Levites before the Lord as an elevation offering from the Israelites, that they may do the service of the Lord.” (8:11). I have to admit the image of all Israel laying their hands on the Levites, who in turn, “shall lay their hands on the heads of the bulls” (12) is a striking one, although the laying on of hands on a bull evokes a slightly humorous reaction. These must have been pretty docile bulls…

God asserts that the Levites have thus been separated “from among the other Israelites, and the Levites shall be mine.”  (14) as symbolic of the first born, who always belong to God. Notice that God says “I have taken them to me” (16)—it’s not like he’s asking for firstborn volunteers….The Levites are the substitution for the first born and God turns them over “as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the Israelites, to do the service for the Israelites at the tent of meeting, and to make atonement for the Israelites.” (19) Our authors are making sure that all Israel understands that the appointment of the Levites as priests is a direct order from God himself.

The Levites “purified themselves from sin and washed their clothes; then Aaron presented them as an elevation offering before the Lord, and Aaron made atonement for them to cleanse them.” (21) And now they are ready for their priestly duties. This being the book of Numbers, we also find out that there is a well-defined period of service as a priest that begins at age 25 and ends at age 50. A defined retirement age is definitely not a new concept!

In chapter nine, the scene shifts back in time as the “Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they had come out of the land of Egypt.” (9:1) God’s instruction is clear indeed: “the Israelites keep the passover at its appointed time.” (9:2) Which is exactly what Israel did there at the foot of Sinai.

But as usual, there are technical difficulties; this time concerning persons, who have become unclean by touching a corpse, being able to celebrate Passover. These folks come to Moses with their question and Moses replies, “Wait, so that I may hear what the Lord will command concerning you.” (9:8). God responds generously, “Anyone of you or your descendants who is unclean through touching a corpse, or is away on a journey, shall still keep the passover to the Lord.” (9:10). In short, Passover is more important than the state of one’s body. However, other forms of uncleanness such as a menstruating woman are not addressed here.

And just to make sure everyone gets the message, God reminds Moses, “anyone who is clean and is not on a journey, and yet refrains from keeping the passover, shall be cut off from the people for not presenting theLord’s offering at its appointed time.” (13) Passover is not a festival as much as it is a required rite. We need to never forget that God has expectations of us.

Mark 12:18–34: The topic of temple discourse turns from the Pharisee’s trick questions and Jesus’ answer on rendering to Caesar to more arcane theology—although I suspect the Sadducees were equally interested as the other parties in tripping up Jesus. Inasmuch as they do not believe in resurrection, they pose the hypothetical of a man married sequentially to seven wives, and ask, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.” (23).  Jesus’ answer is instructive and as usual, refers directly to Scripture, reminding us that Jesus is not making this stuff up but instead providing a fresh (and almost always unexpected) interpretation: Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” (24, 25)

As for the question of resurrection itself, Jesus points out that in the incident of the burning bush, God uses the present tense when referring to Abraham, Issac, and Jacob: “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.”  (26) Jesus’ clear implication is that the patriarchs are indeed living, not dead. And he makes sure the Sadducees know, “you are quite wrong,” i.e. to not believe in the resurrection. Which truth they will be confronting soon enough when Jesus’ own resurrection turns the world upside down in just a few days.

A scribe then asks Jesus what I believe to be the first honest question anyone has asked him so far, free of hidden agendas and malice: “Which commandment is the first of all?” (28) Jesus gives what I take to be the standard answer from the Torah, The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’” (29, 30). But then uninvited, he adds, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (31)  

The scribe responds with what I think is the most profound answer of the entire dialog that Jesus has with the temple leadership, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the other scribes, “You are right, Teacher…—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (32, 33). And Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (34). These are enormously encouraging words, and the lesson to us is that of we ask honestly, we will be answered honestly.

Mark is telling us something very important here.  For all the theological confusion about the Kingdom of God, its essence is really very simple. It begins with obedience to the two great commandments.

So, we keep hearing these days about “Jesus as radical.”  But I’m forced to ask, what’s so radical about loving God and your neighbor?  Other than the simple fact that it means our own egos are third in precedence.

Even though we cannot address Jesus directly as the scribe was able to, I think that if we pray with an honest heart or if we search the Scriptures with an honest heart, as I believe the scribe did, we will receive and honest—and loving—answer. Mark tells us that “After that no one dared to ask him any question.” Honesty begets honesty. The crowd saw that there were no trick questions which would cause Jesus to stumble. Only honest questions mattered. I think the same goes for us.

Psalm 66:16–20; Numbers 7:72–8:4; Mark 12:13–17

Originally published 5/18/2016. Revised and updated 5/18/2018

Psalm 66:16–20: Our psalmist turns to personal testimony regarding his encounter with God:
Come listen and let me recount,
all you who fear God,
what he did for me.
 (16)

This is the first time I recall seeing such a direct statement regarding witnessing to others. To me, it means we are to tell other people of God’s actions in our own lives. God’s activity is simply too great and profound for us to keep it to ourselves.

Our poet’s testimony is simple but affecting:
To Him with my mouth I called out,
exaltation upon my tongue.
 (17)

This is a spoken prayer that occurs during worship [“exaltation upon my tongue.”] And he prays following confession, knowing that prayer with an unclean heart does not encourage God to listen to us:
Had I seen mischief in my heart,
the Master would not have listened
. (18)

To me, this verse suggests that in worship each week, if we are going to have public prayers, we must first have engaged in public confession. Every time we worship. Not just during Lent.

But with his clean heart, our poet asserts happily,
God indeed has listened,
has hearkened to the sound of my prayer.
 (19)

In my almost years including a diagnosis of cancer and with other issues such as a possible recurrence; in making the decision to move from California to Wisconsin, in so many other things, it is with a joyful heart that I can sing with the psalmist,
Blessed is God,
Who has not turned away my prayer nor His kindness from me.
“(20)

Numbers 7:72–8:4: Patiently waiting in line for the past ten days, “On the eleventh day Pagiel son of Ochran, the leader of the Asherites” (72) finally gets to deliver the offering of his tribe. It is the same as the preceding ten tribes. At last, on the twelfth day our anchor man, “Ahira son of Enan, the leader of the Naphtalites,” (78) completes the tribal offerings at the tabernacle.

Having sat through twelve days of identical offerings, our authors—being the accountants they are—summarize the “dedication offering for the altar, at the time when it was anointed, from the leaders of Israel,” (84)

  • 12 silver plates;
  • 12 silver basins;
  • 12 golden dishes full of incense;
  • burnt offering consisting of 12 bulls, 12 rams, 12 male one-tear old lambs (including grain);
  • 12 male goats for the sin offering;
  • well-being offering consisting of 24 bulls, 60 rams, 60 male goats, 60 male lambs a year old.

The dedicatory offering and sacrifices complete, our authors shift the POV to Moses, reminding us that  “When Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord,  he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the covenant  from between the two cherubim.” (89). In other words they are reassuring their readers that the twelve days of complicated sacrifices were indeed authorized by God and God had indeed spoken through his mouthpiece, Moses.

We return to the furnishings of the tabernacle, as Moses, having received instructions from God, passes them along to Aaron. First, are “the seven lamps shall give light in front of the lampstand.” (8:2) Whence the Menorah that remains a central part of Jewish worship today.

The authors also remind us of the construction of the lampstand, made “out of hammered work of gold. From its base to its flowers, it was hammered work; according to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so he made the lampstand.” (8:4)  Moses had many talents but I doubt making lampstands was one of them. However, our priestly author/ accountants are tight-fisted when it comes to giving credit to anyone outside the Moses-Aaron-Levite axis. Frankly, I much prefer the story way back in Exodus 37, where full credit is given to Bezalel in a much more believable scenario than the one here in Numbers.

Mark 12:13–17: The temple leadership knows that because of Jesus’ popularity, they cannot simply come and arrest him for high crimes and misdemeanors. So the conspire with “some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said.” (13). They come to Jesus and in possibly one of the most insincere and treacly statements in the gospels, they sidle up to Jesus and with complete artifice and fawningly speak, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth.” (14) They doubtless assumed that since Jesus, having just arrived at sophisticated Jerusalem from the Galilean outback was a simple country bumpkin, would be awed—and duped—by their blatant obsequy.

They spring their trick question on him, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?  Should we pay them, or should we not?” (15a) Jesus sees right through their ruse, telling them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” (15b) He famously asks them,“Whose head is this, and whose title?” (16) He then proceeds to give the answer that even those outside the church know quite well: “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (17) Or more famously, as the King James version puts it, “Render to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

We can only imagine the consternation of his interrogators. Mark tells us, “they were utterly amazed at him.” (17b) But I doubt this is awe-struck amazement; it is angry amazement at Jesus’ cleverness in once again being able to escape rather than trapped by clever questions. Earlier it was charges of blasphemy which the temple leadership failed to hang on him. This time, it is the Pharisees and Herodians—all obviously political animals—who fail to hang the charge of sedition on him.

Jesus is not about to be trapped by his words. The conspirators will have to turn to more desperate measures to rid themselves of this very wise and very clever rabbi.

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.