Psalm 60; Numbers 2; Mark 9:38-50

Psalm 60 Yet another psalm beginning with an angry shout to God: “God, You have abandoned us, breached us.”  But the second verse tells us why: “You were incensed—restore us to life!” (1) One way or the other, David and his army have gone against God’s will.  The psalmist turns retrospective, noting how “You once gave to those who fear You a banner for rallying because of the truth.” (5)  Where are you now, God? is the question at hand.  God once blessed all of Israel, naming its geographical components from north to south, ending in Judah, where Jerusalem lay:

   God once spoke in His holiness:
“Let Me exult and share out Shechem,
and the valley of Sukkoth I shall measure.
Mine is Gilead and Mine Manasseh,
and Ephraim My foremost stronghold,
Judah My scepter. (7-8)

At the same time, the lands near Israel are to be despised:”Moab is My washbasin, upon Edom I fling My sandal, over Philistia I shout exultant.” (9)

Regardless of their complaint, the psalmist acknowledges that God’s help is still the only way in which victory will come: “Give us help against the foe when rescue by man is in vain.” (12) and this psalm ends where they always do: praising God, full of assurance that “Through God we shall gather strength, and He will stamp out our foes.” (13)

Again, no matter how angry at, or abandoned by, God we feel–and we have the absoluter freedom to raise our fist and shout to God–our faith, indeed, our assurance, in God’s power and righteousness remains unquenched.

Numbers 2   This chapter impresses me with the reality of just how ancient military organization really is.  After conducting the census cum military draft in the first chapter, this second chapter covers all 12 tribes, naming the tribal chiefs, the headcount, and marching order, with each tribe marching under its own banner.

Exactly the same arrangement as when I was in US Navy Officer Candidate School: NAVOCS class 6908, November Company, marching under the blue and white checkered flag that means the letter “N” in the US Naval Flag system.

 Mark 9:38-50 Jesus’ statement, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” (39-140) is incredibly freeing.  Jesus is asking only one thing: that whatever deeds of power we accomplish that they be done in his name.  To me, this means that the incredible variety of Christianity, the multitude of ways we “do church” is not outside of Jesus’ plan.  

Ecumenism may be desirable, but it is not necessary for the church to be effective in the world.  How much energy has been expended in looking inward at each other trying to find common ground when Jesus has already defined that very ground!  But then again, it’s always easier to look inward and talk to (or shot at) each other, rather than doing the difficult work of advancing the kingdom.

Which is exactly Jesus’ point in the passage that follows.  Stay out of the stumbling block business! 

And in what seems to be a clear prophecy of Pentecost–“for everyone will be salted with fire” (49)–Jesus’ final words are “be at peace with one another.”  How greatly the church has sinned through history; we have sinned; I have sinned…

 

Psalm 59:10-17; Numbers 1:17-54; Mark 9:30-37

Psalm 59:10-17  In its second half, the tone of this psalm seems to shift from David’s physical danger from Saul to a reflection on slander.  Again, words have become the weapons: “Through their mouth’s offense, the word of their lips they will be trapped in their haughtiness, and through the oaths and the falsehood they utter.” (12)  This verse includes the interesting idea that in uttering falsehoods his enemies are “trapped in their haughtiness.”  In short, they have come to believe their own lies–or in the modern parlance, they believe their own press releases.  Always a sign that their fall is coming soon.

In the meantime his enemies “mutter like dogs. They prowl round the town.” (14).  In stark contrast, David worships God in deep gratitude with his voice: “I shall sing of Your strength, and chant gladly each morning Your kindness.” (16)  This is exactly where we find ourselves today: surrounding by a growing cacophony of “muttering voices” on all sides, we can find refuge in the soaring song of worship.

God as refuge, “a haven when I was in [dire] straits.”  I think this is one reason why periods of silence and great hymns are such crucial elements on Sunday morning.

 Numbers 1:17-54  True to its title, the numbers of adult men of each tribe “who went out in the army of Israel” (33, 37, 43…)  are listed and recorded in the census.  These are not trivial numbers: the tribe of Reuben: 46,500; the tribe of Simeon: 59,300; the tribe of Gad 45,650 and so on through all twelve tribes, totaling a fairly astounding 603,550 men in the Army.  A number strikingly close to the current size of the Israeli military (629,150 per Wikipedia). 

This number does not include women and children, so we can easily double the population.  So, more than a million people were out wandering in the desert.  No wonder Moses had management troubles!  And no wonder that surrounding tribes were pretty nervous about all those folks out there looking for a homeland.

The Levites are excluded from the census, which is another way of saying they were not eligible to be drafted into the army.  This is a long tradition; as I recall, clergy were not drafted into the US military when the draft was in force.

The Levites have other duties: setting up and taking down the Tabernacle.  And only the Levites can do that since a “stranger,” i.e. a layperson, who “who draws near shall be put to death.” (51).

 Mark 9:30-37  Jesus seem to have reached an explanatory impasse with his disciples.  He now tells all his disciples what he told Peter, James and John coming down form the Mount of Transfiguration: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” (31)  And again, “hey did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” (32).

So, why were they afraid to ask him?  Were they afraid that Jesus would become angry with them? That’s not unreasonable since Jesus has already shown his frustration in various ways, notably telling peter, “Get behind me Satan.” (8:33) and more recently, “How much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19)

Or, perhaps they were afraid of the answer.  Jesus has said repeatedly that the Son of Man must die.  They are not confused that Jesus must be referring to himself.  The disciples were operating in the human frame of reference and Jesus in the Kingdom frame. The disciples felt they were riding a cresting wave that would result in a new order and a politically restored Jerusalem.  Why burst that bubble?

Some questions simply should not be followed up on, and this was one of them.  Besides, what was that three day business all about?  No one could even imagine something as unprecedented as a resurrection.

So the disciples’ follow-up questions remain unasked–and unanswered.  Besides, it was much more fun to speculate about who was going to be “the greatest” when this earthly kingdom was established.  In Jesus’ question, “What were you arguing about on the way?” and the disciples’ silence, we can see the their abashed and embarrassed faces. Never one to waste a teaching moment, Jesus describes the nature of servant leadership: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 

How like the disciples we are! Rank and position inevitably trump servanthood in our minds.  But true leadership is not about “who shall be the greatest.” Would that politcians understood this.

Psalm 59:1-9; Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16; Mark 9:11-29

Psalm 59:1-9  David remains in mortal danger from Saul, who seeks to kill him. Not only does David open this psalm of supplication by getting directly to the point, “Save me from my enemies, my God,  over those who rise against me make me safe.” (1) but there is urgency: “For, look, they lie in wait for my life, the powerful scheme against me.” (2) This is not paranoia as David pleads desperately for his life.  He is innocent: “For no misdeed they rush, aim their bows.”

Having described his situation, David begs God to “Rise toward me and see!” (3) and then demands, “You, LORD, God of armies, God of Israel,  awake to make a reckoning with all the nations.”  The progression in just a few verses from “Save me!” to “Awake” is striking.  David is not being deferential to God, he is pleading, begging, and finally, demanding action.

Then in the second stanza, as if God has already answered his desperate prayer, we see his courage return and with it, the deep connection David has with God as he suddenly begins mocking his enemies, who “mutter like dogs” and “prowl round the town.” (5) His enemies are impotent compared to the greatness of God, who will “laugh at them, You mock the nations.” (7)

Concluding on a note of worship and assurance, “My steadfast God will come to meet me, God will grant me sight of my foes’ defeat.” (9) we see in this shift of tone within in these few verses how David’s prayer is answered as he utters the words.   We always think there’s a time lag between praying and having the prayer answered.  But that’s to assume God is limited by time and space the way we are.  Clearly David did not believe in that constraint–and this psalm is proof that prayer can be answered instantaneously.

Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16  After what seemed like the grand finale of the Covenant in the previous chapter, chapter 27’s collection of miscellaneous laws seems like the editors suddenly uncovered a bunch of laws they meant to add in earlier.  Perhaps working against deadline, they just added them basically as an appendix.  Even the final line of Leviticus, “These are the commands that the LORD charged Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai.” (27:34) seems tacked on.

The book of Numbers opens by placing God and Moses in  a real place in real time, “in the Wilderness of Sinai in the Tent of Meeting on the first of the second month in the second year of their going out from Egypt,” (1)  And, true to its title, God tells Moses to take a census.  There is no randomness to this activity; God sets the sex and age limit, starting with the army: “every male by their heads. From twenty years old and up, everyone who goes out in the army in Israel.” (3)

Once again, a reminder that God is indeed in–and cares deeply about– the details.  Something, in our tendency to make God a benevolent abstraction, we too easily forget.

Mark 9:11-29  Jesus puts to rest the apparently popular idea that Elijah would return in triumph to save Israel.  Elijah is a historical figure,not the Messiah.  He has lived and his story has already been written: “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” (13)  If you want to read prophecy, Jesus is telling them, then read what Scripture has to say about the Son of Man.

Talk about coming down quickly from a mountaintop experience!  After the awe and presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus returns to the status quo ante: a big crowd begging for healing and the disciples attempting to heal the little boy. This is one of those times where Jesus’ frustrated humanity shows through clearly: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” (19).  We can almost hear his heavy sigh.  “Thickheaded disciples,”  he must be thinking, “now this…”

Mark uses this story to remind us that it’s about honest, from-the-heart belief, not feigned belief.  Words simply affirming belief are insufficient.  Real belief is deeper and doesn’t come automatically; we must work at it.  We hear Jesus testing the father that way: “If you are able.”  (23) In other words, belief is much, much more than mere acquiescence to a way of thinking or straightforward intellectual assent.  It comes from deep inside, and it comes from the Spirit.  That is why the father desperately says, “Help my belief.”  A short but terribly effective prayer.  Which is the point Jesus makes at the end of this incident, ““This kind can come out only through prayer.” (29) 

Which brings us back to David’s prayer. His belief was so deep; his connection to God so close, that uttering his desperate words in the framework of real belief that God would act instantly answered his prayer.

Psalm 58; Leviticus 26:36-27:15; Mark 9:1-10

Psalm 58  Alter warns us “that the Hebrew text of this psalm, from this verse to the end, with the sole exception of verses 7 and 11, is badly mangled.”  So, we should probably not read deep theology into this rather ferocious psalm about the “wicked [who] backslide from the very womb, the lie-mongers go astray from birth.” (3) and then asks God to “smash their teeth in their mouth. The jaws of the lions shatter, O LORD.” (6)

The psalmist’s anger at wickedness is so great that after the smashing, the wicked should “melt away, like water run off.” (7) and then as triple punishment, “Let Him pull back His arrows so they be cut down.” (7)  But that’s still not enough, in the striking simile the wicked are “Like a snail that moves in its slime.” (8)

And he will enjoy the downfall of the wicked, “The just man rejoices when vengeance he sees, his feet he will bathe in the wicked one’s blood.” (10) Notice, however, that the psalmist is observing God’s vengeance on the wicked; he is not taking vengeance himself because he knows that “man will say, “Yes, there is fruit for the just.” (11).

This psalm makes it abundantly clear that righteous anger is no sin.  We can certainly be angry at the wicked, and angry at God. But in the end there is the bedrock assurance that the wicked will fail and then fall.  Because God is “judging the earth.” (11)

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

Then, after naming the patriarchs, God adds a surprising (to me, anyway) fourth aspect of the covenant: “and the land I will remember.”  The land itself is part of the Covenant. The land is God’s creation, and this part of creation he has granted to Israel–as long as they keep their side of the deal.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Psalm 57:7-11; Leviticus 26:1-35; Mark 8:22-38

Psalm 57:7-11  The last half of this psalm radiates peace and light–a stark contrast to the wiles and sword-like words of his enemies described in the first half.  The night has passed; it is a new morning and now there is only music: “Let me sing and hymn. Awake, O lyre, awake, O lute and lyre.” (8) Singing and playing of such grace and power that “I would waken the dawn.”  Surely one of the most beautiful phrases in the psalms.

As a person who is up before dawn every morning, this image resonates strongly for me in the realization that every new dawn is the beginning of the precious gift of a new day from our gracious God.  As the sun rises, our psalmist praises God, whose “kindness is great to the heavens, and to the skies Your steadfast truth.”  (10) In this evocative image that the psalmist paints in words and music, it is not the sun, but God’s kindness and truth that light the daytime sky.

For truly, each new day comes from the reality that God “Loom(s) over the heavens, Over all the earth Your glory.” (11).  In the midst of the evil that our psalmist has endured–and in the midst of so much evil in the world–God’s kindness and truth still light the sky each morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are all Peter.  Because we always seem to want Jesus to do what we’ve outlined for him to do. But as humans, our minds are almost always set on human things.

Psalm 57:1-6; Leviticus 25:18-55; Mark 8:14-21

Psalm 57:1-6  David is still on the run; this time from Saul.  He seeks shelter in the cave, which is a metaphor for the shelter that God grants him: “Grant me grace, God, grant me grace, for in You I have taken shelter.” (1)   But more than shelter, David calls out to God for rescue, and because of his intimate trust, knows that God will come, “He will send from the heavens and rescue me.” (3)

Not just rescue, but something even greater, “God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4)  God is more than a rescuer, he is steadfastly kind and loving.  A tremendous contrast to those who seek to destroy him, “I lie down among lions that pant for human beings. Their fangs are spear and arrows, their tongue a sharpened sword.”  Notice how David’s enemies are not just pursuing him with “spear and arrows,” but an even deadlier weapon: their words.  Which is pretty much how people pursue their enemies these days, be it via print, TV, or social media.  Words are truly the deadly weapons of our culture.

And David remains assured that his enemies will get theirs in the end: “A net they set for my steps,  they pushed down my neck, they dug before me a pit— they themselves fell into it.” (6)  Which is a pretty good summary of how so many people fall into their own verbal traps.  There are plenty of cases in point, be it politicians’ emails or recorded phone calls of basketball franchise owners.

Leviticus 25:18-55  This chapter details the terms and conditions of property ownership, and is basically a manual  about real estate, indentured servitude–and slavery.

It’s interesting that there’s a distinction between property located within a walled city and that out on the land.  Houses in cities are residences and produce nothing, where rural land–especially in an agrarian society–produces a harvest and is economically more important.

But the issue that underlies all these rules and price-setting is the Jubilee Year.  If this chapter describes the basics of an early capitalist society, perhaps we could call it “capitalism with a 50-year reset button,” when everything basically starts over again.  It’s tempting to imagine how a true jubilee year as describe here would work in the 21st century.  What would this reset look like?  Would the capital accumulated by a few be redistributed to all? In an era where income inequality seems to be the topic d’jour I don’t think it’s a completely irrelevant question.

The final verse of this chapter casts a new light on the nature of God’s covenant with Israel.  All slaves are “be released in the jubilee year, he and his children with him.” (54)  yet, as the human slaves are released, all Israel is reminded, “For Mine are the Israelites as slaves, they are My slaves whom I brought out of the land of Egypt.”

But a covenant with God is a completely different kind of “slavery” than the human version.  Although we have been given the gift of free will, we are still God’s creatures and because of the covenant we have with God through Jesus Christ, we are in fact God’s beloved slaves.  Tough to get our minds, if not our hearts, around that idea.

Mark 8:14-21  I want to be sympathetic with the disciples here as Jesus exclaims, ““Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (17)  They’re talking about physical bread and Jesus is talking about spiritual bread.  Metaphors can easily confuse us.  But then Jesus gives us the three basic rules for distinguishing between the physical and the spiritual: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”(18) See. Hear. Remember.  

It’s what Sherlock Holmes is all about.  If we truly see, and truly hear and truly remember, we will understand far more about what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in the world in which we live.  Again and again, Jesus tells us to be alert.  To see and to listen.  

I for one, pretty much tend to drift through life clueless, ignoring (or choosing not to see or hear) that which is truly going on around me.  Going through the motions, but not really seeing–and responding to what I see.  Working in the kingdom is about idling our time away.  It is about using the senses of the mind–and the senses of the heart–that God has given us.  Only then will we truly understand, “Right here. Right now.” 

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

Psalm 56:9-13  The latter half of this psalm is David’s version of “Blessed Assurance,” and is better sung than analyzed.  There is David’s assurance that God will be true to His word; “This I know, that God is for me.”  And although it’s not here in the psalm, the only possible response to that line must be, “Then, who can be against me?”

And as in the first stanza, we have what we might call the “Grand Triumvirate:” praise, trust and the banishment of fear.  The motto found on our coins, “In God we trust” is completed here at verse 11: “I shall not fear.”  trust drives out fear completely.

And with fear banished, “What can man do to me?” (11)  If we needed an operating definition of what salvation is all about, it is here in the closing verse of this psalm:

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

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

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

But no name is greater than the name of God and “he who invokes the LORD’s name shall be doomed to die; and the community shall surely stone him, sojourner and native alike,” (24:16) and just to make sure everyone gets the point, the punishment is repeated immediately: “for his invoking the Name he shall be put to death.”  I suppose that the issue is not that God’s name is mentioned aloud, but that it is (in Alter’s words) “vilified,” or to use the common phrase, “taken in vain.”

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

Chapter 15 lays out God’s rules for the fifty-year jubilee.  And another one of those rules we pass right over today, the command, “and call a release in the land to all its inhabitants.”  In short, what we might call “God’s bankruptcy law.”

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

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

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

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

Psalm 56:1-8; Leviticus 23:23-24:9; Mark 7:24-37

Psalm 56:1-8  The introductory paragraph indicates this is a David psalm when the Philistines seized him at Gath, so he writes, we presume, as a prisoner.  He is hemmed in and assailed form all sides: “My attackers trample me all day long, for many assail me, O High One.” (2).  He knows, as should we, there is only one direction to turn, which Alter renders with clever symmetry: “When I fear, I trust in You,  in God, Whose word I praise, in God I trust, I shall not fear.”  Fear leads to trust leads to praise leads to trust, which banishes fear.

What strikes me here is the close relationship of trust and praise of God’s word.  Even in the most dire circumstance, worship is possible because we are grounded in trusting God.  And couched in this trust we rest in assurance that no one can harm us: “What can flesh do to me?” (4).  David then catalogs their attempts to bring him low and even take his life from him: “All day long they put pain in my words, against me all their plots for evil.  They scheme, they lie low, they keep at my heels as they hope for my life.” (5,6).

David is not content to merely accept his enemies’ depredations and he asks God for relief: “For their mischief free me from them. In wrath bring down peoples, O God.”  We can pray for release from our present circumstances, but always knowing that by trusting God we are freed from fear-perhaps the greatest enemy of all.

These verses bring to mind the old Fanny Crosby hymn, which we never sing any more, “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”  Assurance in the God’s steadfastness rings out from this first verses of this psalm.

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

This is why one of the great gifts of the Lutheran church to me personally is the liturgical calendar.  An ongoing reminder of Jesus’ transforming work, as we commemorate what he has done for us from birth to death to Resurrection to Ascension to Pentecost.  It’s clear from these passages in Leviticus that God means for us to turn from our daily tasks, stop and remember–and reflect.  Maybe we don’t dwell in huts for seven days (23:43) or offer food at an altar, but the subtext here is that pausing and reflecting on what God–and for us, Jesus–has done is a key element in our relationship with Him.

Unfortunately, I live a life where reflection and contemplation is too rare.  I am too eager to move on to the next task at hand.  Busyness is a too effective way to avoid reflecting on who we are and the nature of our relationship with God.

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

The woman had a real world need: a demon-possessed daughter that she believed  Jesus could heal.  She had a solid faith that Jesus would do for her what she had heard he had done for many others.  And she is smart: she understands Jesus’ metaphor of the children and dogs, (and unlike so many of us who only come up with the perfect reply after the moment passes), she pushes back with a reply, which Jesus makes clear is what has led to her daughter’s healing, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (30)  It was this woman’s boldness and courage that Jesus respected.  But it is boldness and courage in the context of her deep faith that Jesus meets her need.

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

 

Psalm 55:20-23; Leviticus 22:17-23:22; Mark 7:9-23

Psalm 55:20-23   To be betrayed from within one’s own camp is greater than being defeated by the enemy on the battlefield.  David reflects on how the betrayer “reached out his hand against his allies, profaned his own pact.” (20).  And as is almost always the case, David and his party had been taken in by words that hid true intentions of the betrayer’s heart: “His mouth was smoother than butter— and battle in his heart. His words were softer than oil, yet they were drawn swords.” (21)

Surely Jesus remembered these lines as he was led away by the soldiers.  Although, unlike David, he knew what was coming because he knew the betrayer’s heart.

But he would also know the lines that follow: “Cast your lot on the LORD and He will support you.” (22)  In the end, only God is truly trustworthy; only God will support us in our hour of need, whether or not we have been betrayed.  And as is David’s wont, he knows that retribution is God’s alone: “And You, O God, bring them down to the pit of destruction.”  God will “never let the righteous stumble.” (23) Nor will his enemies triumph in the end; “Men of bloodshed and deceit Will not finish half their days.” (24).  Even in the face of betrayal, David commits to do but one thing: “But I shall trust in you.”  As did Jesus.  As should we.

We will not get through life without being betrayed one way or the other by butter-smooth words that are “softer than oil.”  Our trust can be in only one place: in God.

 Leviticus 22:17-23:22  Only a perfect freewill or communion offering is acceptable to God: “it shall be unblemished to be acceptable, no defect shall there be in it.” (22:21)  This is not an arbitrary rule.  God, being perfect, cannot accept imperfection.  Humankind is blemished, imperfect.  Which is why the perfect sacrifice was the necessary means to approach God.

In this context we begin to understand why the incarnation and the sacrifice of Jesus, the unblemished lamb of God, was so necessary.  We imperfect humans could not approach God, and in the long run, as the author of Hebrews informs us, the sacrificial system itself was untenable.  Only Jesus Christ, of the priesthood of Melchizedek was suitable to approach God directly.

Chapter 23 deals with matters of the calendar and sets out the rules for the “the seventh day, an absolute sabbath, a sacred convocation. No task shall you do. It is a sabbath for the LORD in all your dwelling places.” (23:3).  Which of course led to the Pharisaical view that even healing was work and therefore forbidden on the sabbath.

But this chapter is not just about rules; it is about bringing a portion of the harvest as an offering to God.  God is a God of boundaries, not restriction. He lays out rules, but we should remember that the offering comes from the bounty God has provided.  Just as our own bounty has been provided by God.  Something we all know, but at least for me, something on which I rarely reflect.

Mark 7:9-23  Jesus continues his disquisition on tradition, using a brilliant piece of logic, informing the Pharisees that they are “thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.” (13) Just to make sure they get his point, Jesus adds, “And you do many things like this.”  Tradition cannot trump the word of God.

Obviously, this discourse between Jesus and the Pharisees is not happening in private and Jesus makes this a teachable moment for the crowd: “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (15) What goes in is not evil, but what comes out is.  (Mark adds an interesting parenthetical note here, observing,”Thus he declared all foods clean,” which may have addressed a simmering controversy in his own community to which he was writing.)

Building on David’s words in the psalm about “buttery and oily words” that deceive, Jesus makes it perfectly plain–no parable, no hyperbole here– that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (21), which evils he then helpfully lists.  We are not defiled by externals, but by internals. Such is the nature of fallen humankind. 

What Jesus did not say, but surely meant, is that we cannot blame others for evil we ourselves have committed. Yet that is exactly our tendency as individuals and as society: we’d rather play the victim than admit our own wrongdoings.  Say what you will about the Pharisees, at least they were concerned with matters of sin–an idea that seems to be disappearing not only in our culture, but in many of our churches as well.

 

Psalm 55:16-19; Leviticus 21:13-22:16; Mark 7:1-8

Psalm 55:16-19   Among the greatest agonies of life is betrayal by a friend. whom you trusted.  David makes it clear that he can bear the assaults of an enemy, “But you—a man to my measure, my companion and my familiar, with whom together we shared sweet counsel, in the house of our God in elation we walked.” (15)

This betrayal has led first to anger: “May death come upon them. May they go down to Sheol alive.” (16).  But as a man of intense faith, David catches himself and realizes without saying it that vengeance is indeed the Lord’s.  Rather than wreaking vengeance, he calls out to God, “But I call to God, and the LORD rescues me.” (17)  In this instance, “God rescues me” means God rescues David from himself.

David then does a bit of self-analysis: “Evening and morning and noon I complain and I moan,” but “the Lord rescues me.” (18) If God can rescue David from the physical assaults of his enemies, he will indeed save David from taking revenge on those (here: “Ishmael and Jalam and the dweller in the east”) who have betrayed him.  Is my faith sufficient that I could do the same were I to be betrayed by a friend?

Leviticus 21:13-22:16   After laying out the rules for the people, Moses, speaking for God, turns his attention to the required qualities of priests in the line of Aaron (“…man of your seed to their generations”).  The physical requirements for priesthood are stiff indeed.  Basically, male perfection is required, “For no man in whom there is a defect shall come forward,” (21:18), followed by a long list of what’s not acceptable, including cataracts, scabs, or a crushed testicle.

Why this perfection?  God apparently required the most perfect possible exemplars of his human creation to approach him.  This may sound strange, even hostile on the part of God, to our cultural ears so well tuned to non-discrimination.  But God is reminding us that just as the animals sacrificed must be unblemished, so too the priests making the offering.  Too bad the priests of Jesus time focused on this outward perfection (“whited sepulchers”) at the cost of inward hypocrisy and evil.

It’s worth noting, however, that even though a man of the seed of Aaron could not approach the altar to offer a sacrifice, they were not deprived of eating the food, “the sacred levy.”  As to who could and could not eat is described in detail in the verses that follow.  What’s clear is that there was a strict separation between the priesthood and the lay population, as for example, the daughter of a priest who marries a layperson could no longer eat with her priestly family. Reading these chapters is an excellent reminder of what “holy”–set apart– is all about.

Mark 7:1-8  At first glance, Mark’s account of the disciples eating with “defiled hands” seems to read directly from Leviticus and its numerous rules.  But then Mark adds an ellipsis, noting “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders.” (7:3)  The key word here is, “tradition.”  It’s quite logical to think that in light of the numerous Levitical rules that the “tradition” of hand washing would have accreted to other practices specifically required by God.  Certainly there was nothing wrong with washing one’s hands, so why the fuss?

As Jesus makes abundantly clear by quoting Isaiah 29:13, this is strictly a human tradition that in point of fact detracts from the worship of God because in the eyes of the Pharisees, the tradition has become a requirement.  So the obvious question: what is Jesus saying to those of us who prefer traditions such as “traditional” worship, none of which has been specifically ordained of God?  I think if we were to prefer that over the essentials, proclamation of the Word and sacrament, demanding that “true worship” could occur only with sung liturgy and organ-accompanied hymnody, then we would indeed have become Pharisees.