Psalm 52; Leviticus 15:25-16:25; Mark 6:1-6

Psalm 52   Doeg the Edomite was the guy who saw David fleeing and taking sanctuary with the priest Achimelech in Nob.  Saul then massacres all the priests of Nob (1 Samuel 21-22)

The psalm opens with sarcasm (you really can find every literary form in the Psalms, can’t you?): “Why boast of evil, O hero?” And once again, speech is at the center of evil: “Disasters your tongue devises, like a well-honed razor, doing deceit.” (3)  What a great line!  First the sarcastic “hero” and then a sharp (in every sense of the word) simile of a razor-edged tongue.

Our psalmist continues in this theme of the ability of words to tear down and destroy: “You love evil better than good, a lie more than speaking justice. You love all destructive words, the tongue of deceit.” (4,5)

But our psalmist believes firmly in God’s ultimate justice, and all this duplicity will meet a deserved end in a metaphor chockablock with active verbs of annihilation: “God surely will smash you forever,  sweep you up and tear you from the tent, root you out from the land of the living.”  Smash. Sweep. Tear. Root. And at the end of this sweet justice lies only derision for the offender: “And the righteous shall see and be awed and laugh over him.”

Like Leviticus, this is a black and white Psalm: Evil and lying deceit on one side; God’s kindness and righteousness on the other, as the psalm ends in a simile of growth and fruitfulness for those who trust God: “But I am like a verdant olive tree in the house of our God.” (9)  Quite a contrast to the smashing, sweeping, tearing and uprooting.

Leviticus 15:25-16:25  After reminding Moses of the fate of Aaron’s two sons who approached God in the wrong manner and paid with their lives, our priestly writers lay out the detailed instructions for approaching the Holy of Holies (Alter: “sacred zone”) on the one day of the year that can happen: the Day of Atonement for Israel’s accumulated sins.  Bathing is a central part of that process.  Whence the image of baptism to wash away our sins.

If we’ve ever wondered where “scapegoat” comes from, this is the place.  Two goats are brought forward, and  lots are drawn.  One goat “for Azael” (about whose identity there is much debate, but it’s apparently some kind of low-end desert spirit) “shall be set live before the LORD to atone upon it, to send it off to Azazel in the wilderness.” (16:10)  The other goat “for the Lord” is sacrificed as an offense offering.  When the sacrifices (bull, one goat) of the atonement before God are complete, the goat “for Azael” is brought forward.  Aaron lays both hands on its head, and shall “confess over it all the transgressions of the Israelites and all their sins, according to all their offenses” (16:21) before it is sent off into the wilderness.

In a passage remarkably similar to Isaiah, “And the goat shall bear upon it all their [Israel’s] transgressions to a remote region , and he shall send off the goat to the wilderness.” (16:22) Israel’s sins are carried away on the goat’s head.  A clear foreshadowing of our own sins being carried away on the head of a crucified Jesus.

Mark 6:1-6  Jesus preaches at Nazareth and while everyone is astounded at his wisdom and insight, they cannot believe the carpenter’s son would be capable of this, and “they took offense at him.” (3) So what is it that prophets cannot preach effectively in their own hometown?  Or that one’s brothers and sisters think he’s out of his mind?  It’s really very simple, I think.  When we know someone over a period of years, we form a pretty fixed sense of who that person is, what they will say and how they behave.  When someone radically transformed, as was Jesus, contradicts our preconceived notion our minds cannot handle the dissonance.  And in our psychological stubbornness it’s far easier to reject the changed person than it is to reflect on what has happened and think about changing our own minds.  Because in our own minds, we know that we are “right.” This is why “perception is everything” is such a truism for marketers.

Jesus is “amazed” at their unbelief. (6). Nothing has changed in 2000 years.  Look at how hard some people work (Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens among others) to disprove Jesus’ message and even call it evil.  Skepticism is one thing (thank you, Thomas), but active denial is quite another.

Mark names Jesus’ brothers (but not his sisters) who  obviously were not his disciples while he lives.  But we hear again about James, Jesus’ bother in Acts, who was surely transformed by the fact of the Resurrection.

Psalm 51:13-19; Leviticus 15:1-24; Mark 5:21-43

Psalm 51:13-19    This section deals with David’s response to “God’s rescue.”  And once again, the response is spoken and sung aloud: “Let my tongue sing out Your bounty. O Master, open my lips,  that my mouth may tell Your praise.” (14,15)  One has the impression that in a sate of remorse and not yet forgiven, that it is silence that is the greatest burden: God’s silence to be sure, but ours, as well. Everything up to this point is an interior process: “Create in me a clean heart, O God; take not your holy spirit from me.”  All these things happen in utter despairing silence.  But once forgiven, there is only one possible thing we can do: open our mouths and shout and sing for joy!

This psalm opens up our view of God’s forgiving action in the OT.  In the midst of Leviticus, we tend to feel that the only way to seek rescue and forgiveness is via a physical sacrifice at the altar.  But here David asserts, “For You desire not that I should give sacrifice, burnt-offering You greet not with pleasure.” (16) Rather, the sacrifice is within ourselves: “God’s sacrifices—a broken spirit. A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.” (17).  A Jew could make all the physical sacrifices at the Temple he wanted or could afford.  But absent a contrite and broken heart, they are worthless. Only after seeking forgiveness in our hearts, shall God “desire just sacrifices, 21 burnt-offering and whole offering.” (19)

The necessity of a broken spirit and a contrite heart is a point Jesus made to the Pharisees and religious officials over and over, most memorably when he calls them whited sepulchures.”  Like so many today, they chose rather selectively from the Scriptures, choosing those which supported their opinions or philosophies; conveniently ignoring the rest–as they surely ignored this psalm.  Were we to be more like David and focus on our interior state before God first, rather than moving directly to “external religious action,” there would be far fewer justified accusations of hypocrisy against the church–and those of us who inhabit them.

Leviticus 15:1-24  I believe this is one of those places where the prurient assert this is God’s command against masturbation since “‘Should any man have a flux from his member, he is unclean.” (3)  I take a more benign view that this refers to nocturnal emission as well as to other genitourinary conditions. (And as a person with a genitourinary disease, I am well aware of the huge number of things that can go wrong down there.)  This passage, as well as the section about mensturation, has much more to do with differentiating between what is pure and impure in order to participate in religious rites than it has to do with the condition itself.

Alter is helpful here, telling us in a footnote that “the overriding preoccupation of the Priestly writers is to protect the ritual purity of their special domain, the sanctuary, by instituting this system of sequestering and ablution in order to prevent the spread of the contamination…sin— and even certain normal physiological processes were thought to be intrinsic sources of impurity.” (Footnote 4 to Leviticus 15)

Mark 5:21-43 It is Mark’s editorial brilliance that in weaving these two miracles of Jairus’ daughter with the woman touching his garment that he enhances the power of Jesus even further than if he had written both stories in sequential order.  We know that time is of the essence, “My little daughter is at the point of death.” (23)  But Jesus’ growing popularity is such that he can barely move amidst the crowd.  The woman knows that it will be impossible to get a separate audience with Jesus, so the rather brilliantly thinks, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”  (28)  Jesus asks who did that and the woman “in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”  Jesus, remarking on her faith, tells her to go in peace.

[I have to wonder if the Moravians are just being sly or this is just an odd coincidence, but the story of the woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years” coming on the same day as we read about menstruation as a ritual impurity is an entertaining coincidence…]

In this account of the desperate woman, I think that Mark is telling us that we can approach Jesus in virtually anyway we can imagine. His power is there; the essential thing is that we have faith.  We certainly see that reality expressed in the enormous variety of worship forms in the church: from high liturgy with incense to “holy roller” ecstasy.  The point is, Jesus loves us as we are as long as we come on the one common ground: faith in who he is and what he has done for us.  There is no one “right” approach.  Jesus responds to who we are and where we are across every culture.

Mark’s other lesson is in his description of the crowd surrounding Jairus’ daughter. They had given up and had moved directly to mourning mode.  It was too late.  When Jesus suggests it’s not too late, they laugh at him.  But the daughter is raised up.  With Jesus, it’s never too late.  Even on our deathbeds.

Of course this incident of the little girl being raised up is a precursor of Jesus’ own death and resurrection.  The crowd here is the same as the crowd around the cross: laughing and mocking the would-be king of the Jews.  Never believing that the impossible could happen.  Which is certainly still the case today, where Jesus has been deemed weak and irrelevant.  I think God has a surprise in store.

Psalm 51:7-12; Leviticus 14:19-57; Mark 5:1-20

Easter Monday.  One of the things I hadn’t noticed in the Matthew account of the Resurrection is that Jesus told everybody to meet him in Galilee.  Monday must have been a travel day for everyone as they hiked north…  Except for maybe Jesus, who now had extra-human powers to appear and disappear at will.

Psalm 51:7-12  David certainly knew his Leviticus: “Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean. Wash me, that I be whiter than snow.”  (7) His sin had rendered him unclean before God and the entire community.  He longs to “hear gladness and joy,” and that his physical well being has been deeply affected by his sin as well, “let the bones that You crushed exult” once again.  David knows that God can forgive him, but he must ask for it.  Forgiveness just not just happen, “Avert Your face from my offenses, and all my misdeeds wipe away.” (9)  Just as we can confess before Jesus Christ (I John 1:8-9)

The next verses are familiar to Lutherans raised on the red and green hymnals, but coming at them in the context of the verses that come before makes their desperation and poignancy all the more intense. “A pure heart create for me, God, and a firm spirit renew within me.”  (10)  David is asking to be completely emptied (an example of OT kenosis) and essentially rebuilt, reconstructed, renewed.  Both his heart and his soul.  This seems more than simple confession; rather it is asking God for a complete reordering of his body, his mind, his heart and his soul.

In desperation he pleads, “Do not fling me from Your presence, and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (11).  I’ve not contemplated what before what real emptiness would be manifest should the Holy Spirit be taken form us.  And here is David begging that not happen.  I have the feeling he knows the depths of despair that would ensue.  In his current joyless state, he is asking God to return that happiness of spirit he has known so long: “Give me back the gladness of Your rescue and with a noble spirit sustain me.” (12)  David knows that the source of his joy, indeed his very life force is God alone.  The threat of its removal, because of his great sin, causes him to utter perhaps the greatest confessional verses ever written.

Perhaps the most remarkable part of this confession, though, is the verse we didn’t sing in the liturgy: “Let me teach transgressors Your ways, and offenders will come back to You.”  David pleads for forgiveness, not just to restore internal order and communion with God, but that he will use this searing experience to teach others.  Forgiveness by God is not just an interior event; it leads to actions that will help others avoid the pit into which he fell.  How many people have I helped because of God has forgiven me?

 Leviticus 14:19-57  Our modern cultural sensibilities create amusement and complete puzzlement at the elaborate purification ceremony that seems almost as if it is outlining dance steps:

“…and the priest shall take from the blood of the guilt offering and put it on the right earlobe of the one who is cleansing himself and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. And from the oil the priest shall pour into the left palm of the priest. And the priest shall sprinkle with his right finger from the oil that is in his left  palm seven times before the LORD.” (25-28)

Why would God require this elaborate ritual? Perhaps it is simply to make t clear that obedience to God requires paying attention to the details.  For me, anyway, the detail reminds me that God is concerned not only with every aspect of creation, but with every aspect and detail of my life.  This is good, because it makes God so much less abstract.  God is indeed in the the cracks and the minutiae and that reaffirms his love for me as who I am: my personality, strengths, weaknesses.  But it also reminds me that it is impossible to hide myself or my actions from God.  I am not an abstraction to God, so it would be good if I treated God less as an abstraction to me.

 Mark 5:1-20  Much has been spoken and written about this odd but indelibly memorable scene of Jesus casting out demons–“Legion”–, having the demons enter the pigs, which then promptly hurl themselves off the cliff.  Regardless of its theological implications, for me it is a proof text of the authenticity of Jesus’ ministry and of Mark’s gospel account.  Even the most talented novelist would be unlikely to make up this story from whole cloth, and even if he made it up, he’d be unlikely to stick it here in the middle of the story, interrupting the action.

While the story centers around the healing and the consequences of that healing, for me, the big lesson of this incident is the action of the healed demoniac. The healed man instantly wants to join Jesus’ party (or maybe he just wanted to get out of town now that the townspeople had seen the economic devastation visited on the swine herders).  But Jesus says no and commissions the man instead, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” (19).  And that’s exactly what he does.  Sure, we’d like to spend more time hanging out with Jesus, but the real work is out there in the Kingdom.   This healed man is a great example of the “right here, right now” mindset, because he does exactly what Jesus asks him to–and with great effect: “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.”

SIDE NOTE:  There are some very interesting parallels here between this healed demoniac and Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John. Both are unclean, both see who Jesus really is, and both obey his command to go back to their neighbors and proclaim the the Good News.  Quite a contrast with the religious leaders Jesus keeps encountering, who’d rather argue theology.

Psalm 51:1-6; Leviticus 13:47-14:18; Mark 4:30-41

Last evening’s Tenebrae service was without question among the finest to ever occur at Saint Matthew.  The only thing missing was Don Wagner singing “Were You There?” at the back of the sanctuary in complete darkness.

Today is Holy Saturday.  The day of waiting and reflection and vigil.  How wonderful it is that we know how the story turns out.  I can only imagine the agony, disappointment, and despair of the disciples as they attempted to accept what they thought was going to be the bleak new reality of living without their Rabbi–and hiding from the religious hierarchy.  They saw themselves as dupes of a failed movement that has come to naught.  “Follow me,” indeed!

Psalm 51:1-6  This is one of those rare psalms that describes its exact circumstances of when, for whom, and why: “a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.”  And it is perhaps the most famous confessional psalm of all.

David wastes no time in preludes, trying to explain or justify to God what he has done.  David knows that God knows the entire story.  But his shame and remorse are so great that he can seek only one thing: God’s grace and mercy.  But David also knows that despite his transgression God still loves him: “Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness, with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.” (1)

But what does it mean when David asks “wipe away my crimes” and then in the next verse, “Thoroughly wash my transgressions away and cleanse me from my offense?” (2)  David is seeking only one thing from God: forgiveness. As he makes clear in the next verse, he is not asking God to forget his crime by saying “wipe away” and “wash.”  Those are verbs of forgiveness but not of forgetting, as David makes immediately clear in the very next verse: “For my crimes I know, and my offense is before me always.”  And as we know, David must live with the consequences of this sin for the remainder of his life.

David also knows he is guilty and deserves harsh judgement: “You alone have I offended,  and what is evil in Your eyes I have done. So You are just when You sentence, You are right when You judge.” (4)  And he recognizes his place before God, a fallen human being: “Look, in transgression was I conceived, 7 and in offense my mother spawned me.” (5).

David has much to teach us: we must acknowledge we have sinned, not try to rationalize it away.  Only God can forgive our sins (and for us through the intervening power of Jesus Christ). We may be fallen human beings, but we are still individually responsible for our sinful actions.  David knows he is guilty and unlike so many today, he does not try to position himself as a victim of circumstances or the actions of others.  Something to bear in mind as our culture seems to be losing the concept of sin and with it, individual responsibility.

Leviticus 13:47-14:18  More good hygiene, this time regarding clothing.  Contaminated clothing needs to be sequestered.  Of course we could look at this section metaphorically.  If the garment  is laundered and the affliction remains, it shall be burned. (13:57).  But if the “affliction disappears [the garment] shall be laundered again and be clean.” (13:59).  Which is exactly what David is seeking in the psalm above: that the affliction of his sin be washed away by a loving God.  We are all afflicted garments.  But by confession, we can indeed be washed clean.

Chapter 14 returns to the person who “struck with skin blanch on the day he becomes clean.” (14:1) and the rather mysterious practice of two birds: one is killed and the living bird is dipped in “in the blood of the slaughtered bird over fresh water.” (14:7) Inasmuch as it is the day after Good Friday, it’s impossible to read these verses without thinking of Jesus’ shed blood and baptism. I don’t think “Washed in the blood of the lamb” is in the Lutheran Book of Worship, but the idea of sinners being washed in the salvific blood reads directly back to this seemingly obscure passage.

And the living bird is dipped in the blood over fresh water.  Is there a better image of how we, too, have been cleansed through the waters of baptism?

Mark 4:30-41  The parable of the mustard seed is less a parable than a simile.  Especially since Jesus says rather directly, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” (30) But Mark is at pains to explain that in public, Jesus spoke only in parables, but “he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (33).  Why just use the parables in public? Jesus has repeatedly said, “let those with ears hear.”  Based on no personal theological knowledge I can say only that Jesus’ message requires thought and introspection. My father always differentiated between Christianity and various cults by asserting that the cults required one to “leave your brains at the door.”  Jesus’ wants both our hearts and our minds.  I believe the good soil he describes in his first parable is that combination of heart and mind.  We must think through our faith–and keep on thinking it through. For me, that’s why faith also involves doubt. Even when I know truth in my heart, there can be doubt in my mind. And doubt requires study and reflection and seeking greater understanding through the scriptures and prayer.  Absent that dynamic tension, Christianity is a house built on emotional sand, a passing enthusiasm that the grows briefly and then withers and dies.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Mark places the story of Jesus calming the storm immediately after Jesus’ explanation of the use of parables.  This natural event is one of the greatest parables of all.  Like the disciples, our lives are buffeted by crises and storms.  We feel so often that the vicissitudes of life will swamp our little boats and we will drown. Jesus seems to be absent, asleep. Fear begins to trump faith. Peace comes from only one source: Jesus.

Psalm 50:16-23; Leviticus 13:9-46; Mark 4:21-29

God’s Friday.  The darkness before the light.

Psalm 50:16-23  In this inventory of wrongdoing, there is one common source: words, voices, that which is spoken.  First there is hypocrisy: “Why do you recount My statutes and bear My pact in your mouth, when you have despised chastisement and flung My words behind you?” (16, 17). Then there is evil speech: “You let loose your mouth in evil” (19a) and falsehood, “and your tongue clings fast to deceit.” (19b).  There is false testimony and outright slander–even to those closest to us: “You sit, against your brother you speak, your mother’s son you slander.” (20)

God hears all this, and because “I was silent,” we wrongdoers assume we will get away with it, “You imagined I could indeed be like you.” (21)  But that is delusion: “Understand this, you who forget God,  lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you.”  God is the roaring lion in the wilderness.  But for the righteous, “who set out on the proper way, I will show him God’s rescue.” (22)

While the image of God tearing evildoers apart seems awfully stark, I think it is fair to read this as there will be bad consequences to these various sins of the mouth.  Again and again, the psalms remind us that what we say is the root of so much evil.  And still, I seem to be unable to learn this simple truth…

Leviticus 13:9-46  The priest/ doctor examines the patient’s skin to observe any number of abnormalities: skin blanch, shiny spots, multiple white shiny spots, multiple white dull spots, lack of black hair, yellow hair, inflammation.  As doctors even today note, keen observation is key to diagnosis, and it is certainly set out in great detail in this hygiene medical manual.  Quarantine (“Unclean!”) in the crowded environment of the wandering Israelites was certainly one effective way that the cohort was able to avoid decimation by disease.   And the sophistication of the instructions here is striking.

Unfortunately, for better or worse, the separation of clean from unclean led directly to the plight of the lepers that Jesus encounters.  But it’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t suggest that their separation was unfair.  He was well aware of the Levitical rules.  It was only after being healed that the lepers were in a position to rejoin the community.

We could take this separation of clean versus unclean in the theological direction of our sinful state before and after Jesus’ work on the cross.  Roger Dill’s image of God taking a hypodermic and withdrawing sin from all of us and injecting it into the Savior on the cross seems especially apt here.  Like the lepers, we have been made clean before God.

Mark 4:21-29  Like the psalmist above, Jesus is making it clear that what we think is secret or hidden will eventually be revealed: “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (22)

Too often, we read verse 24 (“For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”) while ignoring the crucial verse that precedes it: “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.”  First, we must pay attention.  And then we must make a decision about how much we will give while working in the Kingdom.

We give some and then receive that plus a dividend (“still more will be given”).  This is not works righteousness, it is simply God’s economy.  If we give generously and without strings, be it our time, talent or treasure, our lives will be all the richer and we will receive more than we ever dreamed possible. Just ask anyone who works with shut-ins, prisoners, the homeless: They will invariably say they have received far more than they gave.  But if we refuse to work or to give, then it really is nothing. Jesus is simply saying:  “Zero in.  Zero out.”

Finally, Jesus is telling us that there is not necessarily a direct correlation between what we do in the Kingdom and exactly how the Kingdom grows.  It is like a seed sprouting while we sleep.  Too often, we are cause and effect people. We want to see the results of our labor and our gifts.  But Jesus did not say what you gave you will receive.  He says it’s the measure, the amount.  In mathematical terms he’s saying we receive the first derivative of what we have given.  Another reminder that the Kingdom is not about us. It is about Jesus Christ, who is indeed the Measure and who indeed has given us more than we could ever imagine.

Psalm 50:7-15; Leviticus 11:29-13:8; Mark 4:1-20

Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Triduum–the three days preceding Easter–where we reflect on the process that has led to our salvation under the terms of the New Covenant: Last Supper, the agony of Gethsemane, arrest, religious trial, secular trial, torture and crucifixion, burial.  Sunday is surely coming, but first we, like Jesus, must pass through Thursday, Friday, Saturday.

Psalm 50:7-15  The poet writes in God’s voice.  And as we’ve observed before, it is an audible voice, “Hear, O My people, that I may speak, Israel, that I witness to you. God your God I am.” (7)  It is almost as if God is in the dock, identifies himself (“God your God I am”)  and is now giving testimony, “That I may witness.”

At first reading, the topic about which God speaks is odd to us: basically God is saying, “I’m OK with your sacrifices, but it is an act that you are initiating because you worship me, your God.” God is not forcing you to do this as a form of taxation or demand, “I shall not take from your house a bull, nor goats from your pens.” (9)  After all, He continues, “Mine are all beasts of the forest, the herds on the thousand mountains.”  Not only are the animals God’s to begin with, but he has a relationship with them: “I know every bird of the mountains, creatures of the field are with Me.” (11)

This is one of those wonderful places where we see how much God loves his creation, and is tightly interwoven with creation.  But unlike the pantheists, God is extremely clear on one point: He is separate from his creation.  Something to bear in mind in this age where we keep hearing of “Gaia” and even “Mother Nature” as the deity d’jour.

And to differentiate Himself from the local gods, He makes it extremely clear that God does not require sacrifice as sustenance: “Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls, would I drink the blood of goats?” (13)  God is not petty, demanding sacrifice from his oppressed subjects.  Rather, he is amazingly generous: “And call Me on the day of distress— I will free you and you shall revere me.” (15)

And as we now remember in these coming days, it is God who has made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

Leviticus 11:29-13:8  As the categorization of what is clean and unclean continues, there are some basic hygienic principles around dealing with carcasses and dead bodies established that doubtless allowed the Israelites to survive and prosper in the wilderness and then in Canaan.  These rules doubtless provided nutritional and thereby physical advantage that other tribes in the area did not enjoy.  The young David is a prime example of healthy youth able to defeat apparently insurmountable odds.

The lesson is clear theologically, as well: “For I am the LORD Who has brought you up from the land of Egypt to be for you a God, and you shall be holy, for I  am holy.” (11:45).  As God is set apart form all those small-g gods, so too, Israel is set apart from all the other tribes and nations.  As God of Genesis, divided creation, light from darkness, earth from sea, and so forth, these rules are a reflection of this division: clean from unclean.

Chapter 12, which deals with the impurity associated with childbirth, reflects the limited understanding of physiology in that era.  (Alter notes that the idea of ritual impurity due to menstruation and childbirth was widespread in the ancient world.)  I think it’s important to note that is the perceived uncleanness of the blood itself, not an offense committed by the woman herself, that she is required to sacrifice. Unfortunately, too many men have read this passage to their convenience to view themselves as being more righteous than women for the simple reason they don’t menstruate.

Issues of hygiene and disease occupy chapter 13. Again, more proof that God cares deeply about his people at the most intimate and specific level, and that the health of those whom God loves is of concern to God.  As fact in which I take personal comfort.  (We also see that it is the priest who makes medical observations and decision.  Maybe this passage is the justification many doctors have used to see themselves as god-like!)

Mark 4:1-20  This first parable in Mark’s gospel, the sower whose seed is spread on various surfaces–path, rocky ground, thorns and good soil–sets the stage of every parable to follow.  Even though Jesus advises, “Let anyone with ears listen” (9) Jesus is well aware that most ears will simply not “get it.”  A reality underscored by the requirement for Jesus to explain the parable to his closest followers.

I think Mark is placing this particular parable first in his account because it is a metaphor for the rest of his Gospel story.  The issue is not simply that lots of people will not understand the parables themselves, but that this parable is the “ur-message” describing  Jesus’ ministry and its consequences on earth itself.  As Mark amply demonstrates, there are numerous examples of people not “getting it,” ( There’s the rich young ruler who is subject to “the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things ” (19) ) And there are certainly the enthusiastic followers who fall away, including even his own disciples at the moment of crisis.

Then there is the religious establishment which attempts to come steal all the seeds and kill the sower himself. I think Mark is editorializing here that they are the agents of “Satan [who] immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”

But above all, there is the good soil.  Mark is telling his readers–and us–that Jesus’ word will be accepted by many and that it will grow and bear fruit.  And so it has borne fruit thirty and sixty and a hundredfold such that 2000 years later we celebrate along with millions of others the great gift of God’s Word–Jesus Christ–sown among us.

 

Psalm 50:1-6; Leviticus 11:1-28; Mark 3:20-35

Psalm 50:1-6  Wow.  Here we are, one third of the way through the Psalms already (although the lengthy sojourn at 119 still looms ahead).  This psalm opens reminding us of God the Creator: “He spoke and called to the earth from the sun’s rising-place to its setting.” The Mormons who named that area of Utah “Zion,” must have sure had this second verse in mind:  “From Zion, the zenith of beauty God shone forth.” (2)  But God is not all sweetness and light, “Before Him fire consumes, and round about Him—great storming.” (3)  (Yesterday’s passage in Leviticus certainly reminds us about God as “fire [who] consumes…)

The  thread through these verses is that God speaks.  “He spoke and called to the earth” and the psalmists asks, “Let our God come and not be silent” (3a).  And then, “Let Him call to the heavens above and to the earth to judge his people.”  God never acts in conspiratorial silence.  His acts always involve his voice.  Which is why we feel such pathos in those psalms of supplication that beg for a too-silent God to speak.

And here, God speaks to Israel,”‘Gather to Me My faithful, who with sacrifice seal My pact.’ And let the heavens tell His justice, for God, He is judge.” (5,6)  God is reminding Israel of the terms of His covenant.  And later this week, we will remember the time when God was deathly silent.  So silent that His son cries out in the agony of sheer abandonment.  Such was the commencement of the New Covenant.

And had God spoken, perhaps he would have said something like this: Gather to Me My faithful, for whom I have sacrificed everything, even my own Son, to seal My pact.”

 Leviticus 11:1-28  Now that the Tabernacle is established and the ordinances involving sacrifice have been established, God now speaks to both Moses and Aaron, laying out very specific definitions of what is clean and what is unclean in the animal kingdom.  I’m struck by two aspects of this highly detailed passage.

First, is the sheer variety of animal life–in the air, on the ground, in the sea–that constitutes God’s creation.  OF course, in our modern era we know many more phyla and species than are listed here, but the completeness of this list that tells how many species were know at the time is striking.  It also tells us that the land was fecund and not just the middle eastern desert of our imaginations.  Which was one of the things that stuck me when I visited Israel: a far richer, more productive place that I had thought.

Second, I’m astounded by the careful division of everything into the two categories: clean and unclean.  The writers here seem almost obsessed with the issue of purity.  And I’m aware of the explanations that clean animals were healthier for human consumption. But at its base, the issue is more theological than nutritional.  The classification is completely binary: clean or unclean.  No middle ground; no fine gradations; no gray.  Which is exactly our relationship with God.  We are not “sort of redeemed.”  God’s act through Jesus Christ changes our lives from lost to found, from darkness to light.  It is we ourselves who bring ambiguity to God’s binary act of grace.

Mark 3:20-35  Jesus’s activities–especially his predilection to cast out demons– and his growing popularity have panicked his family.  Their good name is being besmirched by his acts and they, with no little help from the religious leaders who would be happy to be rid of him,  have convinced themselves that Jesus himself is demon-possessed.   Jesus uses both a logical argument and a theological argument to make the point that the claims of demon possession are impossible.  Logically, how can a demon-possessed man expunge demons?  But theologically, to claim Jesus has “an unclean spirit” (30) is to accuse Jesus of the unforgivable sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.

What I had never noticed before about this somewhat puzzling claim of the “unforgivable sin” is that Jesus is speaking of himself.  To accuse him, who is fully possessed of the Holy Spirit that is the driving force of his powers,  of “an unclean spirit” is to accuse the Holy Spirit herself of being unclean, which is truly blasphemous.  The Holy Spirit is sufficiently well-known and understood in the Hebrew Scripture that the religious people who made the accusation know exactly what Jesus is saying.  He has turned the tables and is accusing his accusers of blasphemy.

We tend to read Jesus’ break with his family as a sad event, but let’s remember what they were saying about him.  Mark speaks of “his mother and brothers.”   Notice, too, how Jesus divides the world into “outside” (where his mother and brothers were standing) and “in here.”  Even for Jesus’ own family there is no middle ground, no gray.  But did Jesus truly reject his mother and his brothers at this point, and break off all contact? I don’t think so.

I think Mark is telling us that this is Jesus’ own invitation to his mother and brothers to come join him “inside here.”  He does not explicitly reject them or cut them off.  Jesus is a man of invitation–“follow me”–never of rejection.  All we need do to be a relative of Jesus is to follow God’s will.  I’d like to think that his brothers and especially his mother did in fact join him.

 

Psalm 49:13-20; Leviticus 9:12-10:20; Mark 3:13-19

Psalm 49:13-20   I think it’s impossible to read the latter half of this wisdom psalm during Holy Week without reflecting on the underlying meaning of verse 15: “But God will ransom my life, from the grip of Sheol He will take me.”

Yes, at the top level, the psalmist is speaking of men, who like the Egyptians, believe their wealth will accompany and even protect them after death.  But they are sorely mistaken: “man will not rest in splendor.  He is likened to beasts that are doomed. This way of theirs is their foolishness,” (11,12)  There is no wealth; there is no splendor.  Instead, “Like sheep to Sheol they head— death shepherds them.” (14)  Even Sheol tires of them: “And they wear out their image in Sheol, a habitation for them.” (14b)

But there is one other Sheep, the Lamb of God who headed to Sheol but returned.  It is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ that has ransomed us; that has saved all of us from “the grip of Sheol.”  And unlike the deluded wealthy and powerful sheep, who cannot hang onto their worldly wealth and self-image (“Man will not grasp things in splendor. He is likened to beasts that are doomed.” (20)) when death comes, we have been ransomed once and for all.  And we receive a whole new kind of splendor.

 Leviticus 9:12-10:20  After all the various sacrifices and offerings are executed following God’s instructions, Moses and Aaron emerge from the Tabernacle “and they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of  the LORD appeared to all the people.” (9:23).  God’s glory manifested itself dramatically: “And a fire came out from before the LORD and consumed on the altar the burnt offering and the fat, and all the people saw and shouted with joy and fell on their faces.” (9:24)  God’s power can elicit great happiness and joy.

But…God is still God and requires his mandates to be followed precisely.  Two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadab and Abihu, “took each of them his  fire-pan and put fire in it and placed incense upon it and brought forward alien fire before the LORD, which He had not charged them.”  The sons may have thought that these terribly precise instructions were becoming onerous. Perhaps they were taking a shortcut.   But “fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.” (2).

Somewhat unsympathetically, Moses reminds Aaron what the “the LORD spoke, saying, ‘Through those close to Me shall I be hallowed and in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.’” (3) And in what I think is the saddest verse in this book, “And Aaron was silent,”  knowing that Moses was theologically correct, but he is torn in grief at the loss of his sons.  Moreover, Moses would not allow Aaron and his family to show the normal signs of grief, and since they were anointed priests had to remain inside the Tabernacle.  Moses bans consumption of alcohol in the Tabernacle as well.

Why? To set a clear boundary “between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach the Israelites all the statutes that the LORD spoke to them by the hand of Moses.” (10,11).  That may be so, but it was scant comfort to Eleazar and to Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, who then err by burning, rather than eating, the offense offering in the holy place (18)  Their fear of being struck dead like their brothers seems reasonable to me.  Aaron tells Moses that given the tragic events of the day, none of them could be expected to eat amidst their grief.  And Moses concedes that Aaron is right.  This is one of those places where we see the power of God juxtaposed against human feeling, that brings such poignancy to the story..  Moses may be God’s representative on earth, but Aaron is the representative humanity in all of us.

Not unlike the scene on Golgotha, where Christ is dying and the narrative turns to the women, including jesus’ mother, weeping at the foot of the cross.

Mark 3:13-19  Up to this point, Jesus has numerous adherents who have become camp followers as his healing ministry and popularity have grown. Here, Jesus “called to him those whom he wanted.”  Clearly, he had been observing those among the crowd and saw the essential qualities he required in his followers.  The first quality is response; that “they came to him.” (13).  In an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel, (this is the establishment of the New Covenant, after all) he appoints each man with three distinct aspects of the commission: (1) to be with him; (2) to proclaim the message; (3) the authority to cast out demons.”

The first two make complete sense to our modern brains.  But why the casting out demons bit? I think it was reflective of the times and to make it clear that Jesus was not just a magician with healing powers.  But more importantly, it comes back to that Markan theme: authority.  This is the first instance of Jesus passing along his authority to his followers.  And we, his followers 2000 years later, also have authority.  Perhaps not to cast out demons, but more authority than we (or at least me) tend to think.

The disciples are each named, even Judas.  The naming of names is crucial because that is the essence of our identity.  Not only before other people, but before God.  Names are God-given, albeit through our parents. And another distinctive that sets us apart form the rest of creation.

 

 

Psalm 49:1-12; Leviticus 8:18-9:11; Mark 3:1-12

Holy Week.  I wonder what OT connections to Jesus’ Passion we might spot this week?  Plus, we are no where near that final week here in the early chapters of Mark.  Yet, all of Scripture looks forward to this week that changed history forever.

Psalm 49:1-12  In many ways this psalm sounds more like it belongs in Proverbs with a couple of verses sounding as iff they belong in Ecclesiastes.  The words of this wisdom psalm apply to everyone, regardless of his or her station in life: “Hear this, all peoples, hearken, all who dwell in the world. You human creatures, you sons of man,  together the rich and the needy.” (1, 2)

Like so much wisdom literature, it feels relevant and contemporary because it describes the human condition, which has changed not a whit since this psalm was written: “Why should I fear in evil days, when crime comes round me at my heels?” (5) And as recent shootings and stabbings so amply attest, evil continues to plague humankind, despite all modern attempts to explain it away or redefine it as something else.

Just feeling the stress of people living right here in Walnut Creek underscores the truth of the psalmist’s assertion, “Who trust in their wealth and boast of their great riches— yet they surely will redeem no man,” (6,7)  The wealthy who refuse to give to the poor and who “will not give to God his ransom” will come to exactly the same dark end as the poor they refused to help: “Will he yet live forever? Will he not see the Pit?” (9).  As if lifted right out of Ecclesiastes, we sense the underlying despair of the psalmist as he writes, “For he sees the wise die, both the fool and the stupid man perish, and they abandon to others their wealth.” (10).

Thus our human lot. Rich, poor, wise, foolish.  We all go down to the Pit.  There is only One Way out.

Leviticus 8:18-9:11  Moses applies the sacrificial blood to his brother in seemingly odd places: “and put it on the right earlobe of Aaron and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.” (8:24)  And then does the same to Aaron’s sons.  And then “Moses cast the blood on the altar all around.” (8:25) And again, “Moses took from the  anointing oil and from the blood that was on the altar and sprinkled it on Aaron, on his garments, and on his sons and on the garments of his sons, with him, and he consecrated Aaron with his garments and his sons and the garments of his sons, with him.” (8:30)  After which, Aaron and his sons are instructed to remain inside the Tabernacle for seven days. Only then will atonement occur (8:34).

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stretch to compare this anointing of blood and oil followed by remaining inside the Tabernacle to Jesus shedding his own sacrificial blood and Jesus’ three days inside the tomb to Arron’s time inside the Tabernacle burial.  The New Covenant began as the old: with the shedding of blood and burial.  And only then Jesus’ atonement of our sins with one huge difference: once and for all.

Mark 3:1-12  Even this early in Mark’s account Jesus has gained more than a few enemies: “They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (2)  Knowing their thoughts, Jesus poses the question of Sabbath healing in the starkest terms possible: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (4) But Jesus’ opponents don’t answer. Why not? Were they afraid of a hostile reaction by the crowd?  Possibly.  Or did the way Jesus posed the question, not as an issue about keeping the Sabbath, but doing “harm on the Sabbath” surprise them and force them to look at their accusation in a wholly new and unexpected light?  Perhaps there was a glimmer of conscience, that maybe this itinerant preacher had a point.  Did their consciences keep them quiet because to speak would have been an admission that Jesus was right and they were wrong?  But it seems their pride could not allow that.   Had their pricked consciences collided with their pride and expressed itself as unbridled hatred?

Mark tells us that Jesus “looked around at them with anger.” (5a)  He was angry at their silence for failing to respond to a question whose answer is blindingly obvious.  Jesus is angry because their hearts have become so hardened against him that any shred of mercy for the man with the withered hand had been forgotten in their quest for theological correctness.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume some of these elders were in the room where Jesus claimed the ability to forgive sins and then healed the paralytic. Correct religious practice has truly trumped grace and mercy.  And that is why Jesus is “grieved at their harness of heart.”

They are exactly like the wealthy people who cannot find it in their hearts to give to the poor that the psalmist excoriates above. And their only response was to “go out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (6)  The events of the Passion have already been set in motion.

But Jesus is asking exactly the same question of us.  How often are our reactions to bold new thinking that considers grace more important than orthodoxy exactly like that of the Pharisees?

Psalm 48; Leviticus 7:22-8:17; Mark 2:13-28

Psalm 48  Another song of worshipful praise following a military victory.  “Great is the LORD and highly praised in our God’s town, His holy mountain.” (1) “God’s town” would be Jerusalem atop Mount Zion.  It is “the great King’s [David?] city” and “God in its bastions is famed as a fortress.”

So great a God-inhabited fortress that “the [enemy] kings have conspired,  passed onward one and all. It is they who have seen and so been astounded,   were panicked, dismayed. Shuddering seized them there, pangs like a woman in labor.” (4,5,6)  Given all the psalms of supplication where all the conspiring enemies seem far larger and more threatening to David, this psalm certainly delivers a victor’s satisfaction.

The last line of this psalm reminds us that God is outside time and that “this is God, our God, forevermore. He will lead us forever.”  This is the eternal reliability of God in whom we place our trust.  Would that I could be as reliable in return.

Leviticus 7:22-8:17  While the priests are responsible for executing the various sacrifices before the altar, there is one exception: “‘He who brings forward his communion sacrifice to the LORD shall  bring his offering to the LORD from his communion sacrifice. His own hands shall bring the fire offerings of the LORD,” (7:29-30).  For me this statement has two significant implications.  First, an act of communion is between God and the communicant.  The priests assists (7:31), but does not come between God and the person making the offering.  Second, even today we echo the act of coming forward for communion.  Not to the altar of sacrifice, but to the presence of Jesus Christ, who saved us.  (And why coming forward is far more meaningful for me than passing it around in the pews as we did in the church where I grew up.)

In chapter 8 we see the roots of ordination.  Beginning with ritual washing (8:6) –a literal baptism–and then the act of clothing Aaron, item by item, ending with the turban, and “at the front the golden diadem, the holy crown, as the LORD had charged Moses.” (8:13)  Aaron is then anointed with oil and a bull is sacrificed.  Aaron’s ordination notwithstanding, I also see why the author of Hebrews makes such a point about Jesus Christ being of the order of Melchizedek.  Because while Jesus has been ordained our Great High Priest, it is he himself who was sacrificed. The shedding of Jesus’ own blood eliminates once and for all the requirement for the endless ritual sacrifices we read here in Leviticus.

Mark 2:13-28  Jesus makes the same offer to Levi (Matthew) as to the other disciples: “follow me.”  While Peter et al were middle class fishermen, Levi was doubtless quite wealthy, and his act of following meant substantial monetary sacrifice. An interesting contrast to the rich young ruler.  And a party follows…

About which the religious leaders highly disapprove. Just like many religious leaders today.  I’ve always wondered about evangelicals who seem to disapprove of so many things, do with this passage.  Probably skip right over it.

Mark’s theme here and then more directly in Jesus’ answer to the question about fasting make it abundantly clear that Jesus came not to become yet another religious leader, but to go directly to the people, “those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”  Given the Jews long history of the priest as the official intercessor before God, it’s understandable why Jesus going directly to the people may have seemed so revolutionary to the religious leaders.  Not to mention that they were  being cut out of the process.  (Then again, they may have forgotten about the communion sacrifice which allowed a common person to come directly before the altar.)

Jesus is focused only on the end: saving the lost; healing those who need healing.  The Pharisees were focused on the means–the process–which had become the end in itself.  Something to remember when I complain about liturgy or the order of worship or the music, when the singular purpose of worship is to praise God and commune with his Son, who saved us.