Psalm 62; Numbers 3:1–39; Mark 10:1–12

Originally published 5/10/2016. Revised and updated 5/10/2018

Psalm 62: Two years ago when I wrote about this psalm I had just found out that the suspicious tumor in my ribs was benign. Even today, the opening verses of this David psalm resonate strongly for me:
     Only in God is my being quiet.
     From Him my rescue.
     Only He is my rock and my rescue,
     My stronghold—I shall not stumble. (2,3)

The psalmist raises his fist at enemies that would harm him, asking,
How long will you demolish a man—
commit murder, each one of you—like a leaning wall,
a shaky fence?
” (4)

The wall and fence metaphor is perfect. Enemies tend to appear strong and malevolent on the outside, but when one digs deeper it is more appearance than reality—much like the tumor that appeared malignant but was not… These enemies are like a wall without a foundation or a fence about to fall over. In the face of God’s true strength, their seeming power is only a sham, soon headed to destruction.

Our poet continues to limn the strong contrast between scheming enemies and God’s benevolent rescue. As usual, it is hypocritical speech that is their primary vehicle for working evil:
They took pleasure in lies.
With their mouths they blessed
and inwardly cursed
. (5)

This is exactly the same behavior that Jesus calls out in his many encounters with the Pharisees and scribes. He could do this because the affirmation of this psalm was his reality as the poet returns to the fact of the respite that only God can bring:
Only in God be quiet, my being
for from Him is my hope.
Only He is my rock and my rescue,
 my fortress—I shall not stumble. (6,7)

It is this unshakable assurance from which our psalmist invites others to enjoy this same stronghold of God’s rest:
Trust in Him at all times, O people.
Pour out your hearts before Him.
God is our shelter.
” (9)

The final verses of this psalm are another ecclesiastical warning not to trust in the empty words of those who would deceive us. After all human life is but a fleeting whisper:
Only breath—humankind,
the sons of man are a lie.
On the scales all together
they weigh less than a breath.
 (10)

And in realizing our ephemerality, we should respond accordingly. There may be seeming rewards for malfeasance but they are ephemeral:
Do not trust in oppression
and of theft have no illusions.
Though it bear fruit of wealth,
set your heart not upon it.
 (11)  As our poet remarks, God may have said only one thing, but there are two wonderful realities in his words:
One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that strength is but God’s
and Yours, Master, is kindness.
For You requite a man by his deeds. (13)

This is what one could call the great dichotomy: God is indeed all powerful, but he is also the source of all love. And how we behave toward others in kindness makes all the difference in the world.

Numbers 3:1–39: It’s obvious that the author or authors of Numbers are not the same as the group that wrote Leviticus. They reprise material we’ve seen before beginning by listing Aaron’s sons and then quickly noting without a backstory that “Nadab and Abihu died before theLord when they offered unholy fire before the Lord in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children.” (4a). On the other hand, the good sons, “Eleazar and Ithamar served as priests in the lifetime of their father Aaron.” (4b)

The verses that follow describe the formal charter of the tribe of Levi as priests, assisting Aaron: “ They shall perform duties for him and for the whole congregation in front of the tent of meeting, doing service at the tabernacle.” (7) Moreover, the Levites are the exclusive source of priests, as God commands Moses to “give the Levites to Aaron and his descendants; they are unreservedly given to him from among the Israelites.” (9)

What’s interesting here, is that the Levites serve as the substitute for all first born among all Israel: “I hereby accept the Levites from among the Israelites as substitutes for all the firstborn that open the womb among the Israelites.” (11) I’m presuming here that it is this idea of first born substitution which comes into play when God sacrifices his first only (and therefore first-born) son, Jesus, to atone for the sins of all humankind.

This being the book of Numbers, a census of the Levites follows. The qualification to be counted in the Levite tribe is quite different than the other tribes where only men over twenty were counted: “You shall enroll every male from a month old and upward.” (15) Even with this expanded definition, Levites comparitively few in number, totaling only 22,000. (39)

There are three tribes in the house of Levi, each consisting of several clans: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari. And there’s a very precise division of duties among these three tribes.

The Gershonites camped behind the tabernacle on the west, and were the property committee, responsible for “the tent with its covering, the screen for the entrance of the tent of meeting,” (25) and all the other physical aspects of the tabernacle fabric.

The Kohathites camped on the south side of the tabernacle, and were responsible for “the ark, the table, the lampstand, the altars, the vessels of the sanctuary with which the priests minister, and the screen—all the service pertaining to these.” (31)

The Merai clans camped on the tabernacle’s north side. They were responsible for the tabernacle structure: “the frames of the tabernacle, the bars, the pillars, the bases, and all their accessories—all the service pertaining to these,” (36)

Finally, it is Aaron, Moses, their sons and their families that have the high privilege of exclusivity by camping on the eastern front side of the tabernacle.

Mark 10:1–12: We come to what in the 20th century became one of the very hard sayings of Jesus when the Pharisees, once again trying to trick Jesus, ask,Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (3a) Jesus shoots right back,  “What did Moses command you?” (3b)  They respond that the Law allows the husband to write a certificate of divorce against the woman—but apparently there’s no reciprocity here for the wife. Jesus points out that because of man’s “hardness of heart [Moses} wrote this commandment for you.” (5) In short, divorce is allowed. But divorce, and indeed if we read carefully, even single adulthood and other forms of human intertwining and consummation (and celibacy?) violate the perfection of God’s good creation: “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’” (6) and because there are two sexes, they are creatively designed by God to unify into a single being of two parts—just as two strands of DNA become a unified whole: “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’” (7, 8a) To make sure everyone understands his point Jesus repeats himself: “So they are no longer two, but one flesh. (8b) There seems to be little question that in God’s order sex is between a man and woman. Only. And then the famous phrase: “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (9) That is God’s clear intention. But I don’t think Jesus is saying that the violation of this command will not occur in a fallen world.

Jesus goes on to say that divorce followed by remarriage is a form of adultery because the person who divorces and remarries is acting in his own best interest, not the interests of both humans who were once a single intertwined flesh.

The way I read this passage is that marriage is the consummation of God’s perfect creation and anything less violates that perfect union. But I also see that Jesus does not expressly forbid divorce. Rather, it is an inferior form, reflecting humankind’s fallenness. I don’t think it would be a stretch to expand Jesus’s reasoning to the current brouhaha over same sex marriage and perhaps even the perversity of transgenderism. More than even divorce, these practices are signs of a fallen humanity and a full frontal societal rejection of God’s intended creation. Are these individuals to be punished? I don’t think that’s what Jesus is saying. Rather, they become a living reflection of our human hardness of heart. Not just of the persons involved, but indeed of all of us…

 

Psalm 61; Numbers 2; Mark 9:38–50

Originally published 5/9/2016. Revised and updated 5/9/2018

Psalm 61: At first read this appears to be be a straightforward psalm of supplication:
Hear, God, my song,
listen close to my prayer
” (2)

But I see it as a psalm of joyful assurance. Our psalmist knows God hears him—there’s no doubting or disappointment here:
From the end of the earth I call You.
When my heart faints, You lead me to a a rock high above me.
 (3)

The source of this assurance comes from his realization that God has been there for him in the past as he recalls with faint military imagery,
For You have been a shelter to me,
a tower of strength in the face of the foe.
 (4).

God has protected him not only in battle but in every confrontation with enemies of every type. This is a crucial lesson for us. Foes are not just other people; in my case it is a disease in my own body that has endured disease. Yet, I know with absolute assurance that God is at my side and that I can dwell with God as David did, under the shelter of an impregnable rock.

Our psalmist finds such rest in God so wonderful that he would prefer to remain in God’s shelter forever:
Let me dwell in Your tent for all time,
let me shelter in Your wings’ hiding place.
 (5)

Alter informs us that in this context , “tent’ refers to the Temple at Jerusalem and I presume “Your wings’ hiding place refers to the Ark of the Covenant, topped by its two winged cherubim.

But as we all must do, our psalmist knows this reflection must be followed by a return to the real world, but with the serene knowledge that God has heard him—and us:
You, God, have heard my vows,
You have granted the plea of those who fear Your name
. (6)

Following something of a non sequitur  to “add to the days of the King” (7) and that the king “ever abide in the presence of God,” (8) our poet concludes, as almost every psalm of supplication does, on a note of worship:
So let me hymn Your name forever
as I pay my vows day after day.
 (9)

And so, too, for us. Worship is always the joyful conclusion to every trial that we endure.

Numbers 2: Whoever wrote Numbers seems to have recognized that in the previous books of Exodus and Leviticus, Aaron has received relative short shrift in terms of hearing God. Now, “the Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron,” (1). However, the topic at hand  is hardly theological or priestly instructions. Instead it is extremely detailed instructions about which side of the tabernacle, which lies at the geographic center of the Israelite assembly, each of the twelve tribes—here called “ancestral houses”— shall reside: East, south, west, north, together with the designated leader and population count for each house. This would have been a good place for the authors to state the facts in tabular form, so I am providing it instead.

Compass      Tribe        Leader    Number
East              Judah       Nahshon  74,600
East             Issachar    Nethanel  54,400
East             Zebulon     Eliab         57,400
TOTAL  East                                  186,400
South            Reuben     Elizur          46,500
South            Simeon      Shelumiel  59,300
South            Gad            Eliasaph    45,650
TOTAL  South                                    151,450
West              Ephraim   Elihama     40,500
West              Manasseh  Gamaliel   32,200
West              Benjamin   Abidan      35,400
TOTAL  West                                    108,100
North             Dan             Ahiezer     62,700
North             Asher          Pagiel       41,500
North             Napthali     Ahira       53,400
TOTAL  North                                    157,600

The all-important tribe of Levi “shall set out in the center of the camps” (17). But no leader or body count is included. I presume that’s because the Levites are priests, not warriors.

The military necessity of the census becomes crystalline at the end of the chapter. Both the census and the precise arrangement of clans around the tabernacle have brought order out of chaos: “The Israelites did just as the Lord had commanded Moses: They camped by regiments, and they set out the same way, everyone by clans, according to ancestral houses.” (34)

At our far remove from these events we may wonder why the naming and counting? The reason for the names has to be tribal memory. Since Israel did not believe in an afterlife, ancestral roots were at the very core of each person’s identity. So, here at least the tribal leader is memorialized. The precision of the population numbers certainly lends an authentic historicity to this book, whose authors want to make sure that the beginning of Israel was a very real event in space and time. These details help accomplish that.

But I still wonder: inasmuch as we believe the Pentateuch was committed to writing some centuries after these event, how were these numbers, which certainly sound authentic, preserved. It seems to me that there would have to be more than oral history at work here? Something more permanent would be required Perhaps these numbers were inscribed on a scroll or a stone at the time this census occurred.

Mark 9:38–50: Even though many of Jesus’ sayings are inscrutable, one cannot fairly accuse him of complete ambiguity. He inhabits a very black and white world, whose reality is captured in his response to the disciples’ complaint that some unauthorized person was casting out demons in Jesus’ name. To preserve the sanctity of their inner circle and they assumed, Jesus’ reputation, the disciples report that “we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (38) But Jesus retorts that by naming the name of Jesus, even a negatively motivated person or even one who is mocking Jesus will eventually come around: “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.” (39)

I think this is a basic psychologically reality, which we see acted out negatively in our time by hostages who come over to the hostage-takers side via the so-called “Stockholm syndrome.” But we also often see or hear of former disbelievers coming around to understanding, accepting and loving Jesus. Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was at work in this man whom the disciples had castigated.

Jesus cannot make his point any clearer than this: “Whoever is not against us is for us.” (4). I think this statement also tells us a lot about the community to which Mark is writing. There is definitely dissension in the ranks and some (I suspect Jewish Christians) feel others are behaving improperly, using Jesus’ name in places they shouldn’t and performing deeds that call their theological purity into question. Of course we do this all the time in church when it comes to judging “proper behavior” and how Jesus’ name and power is used. Which means that I need to be more tolerant of people like Joel Osteen, who to my mind treads awfully close to heresy. But that’s hard to do.

Mark then presents us with a selection of Jesus sayings that emphasize the stark black and white commitment at the heart of calling oneself a Jesus follower: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (43) This shocking statement is followed by similar sayings regarding feet and eyes. What strikes me here is that Jesus is not putting “marketing spin” on the benefits of being a Jesus follower and entering the Kingdom of God. It is hard and yes, dangerous work. This is no question of making one’s life “better,” rather it is stark two alternative forced choice: enter the Kingdom and work or enjoy hell, “where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.” (48)

There is also a warning of persecution to come, “For everyone will be salted with fire.” (49) and Jesus’ soliloquy ends with a plea that surely Mark wanted desperately to deliver to his community: “Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” (50).  In other words, stop fighting among yourselves and be prepared to fight together against the forces of darkness. Words we in the church would do well to heed today in our increasingly post-Christian culture.

Psalm 60; Numbers 1:17-54; Mark 9:30-37

Originally published 5/8/2014. Revised and updated 5/8/2018

Psalm 60 Yet another psalm beginning with an angry shout at God, although it’s clear that one way or another, David and his army have gone against God’s will. An earthquake is a direct result of God’s anger:
God, You have abandoned us, breached us.
You were incensed—restore us to life!
You made the land quake, You cracked it.
Heal its shards, for it has toppled. (3, 4)

The psalmist speaks ironically, telling God, “You once gave to those who fear You /a banner for rallying because of the truth.” (6)  ‘Where are you now, God?’ is the unstated question  as our poet asks in a direct supplication, reminding God that they were once his friends:
So that Your friends be set free,
rescue with Your right hand and answer us. (7)

He continues in this theme of a broken relationship, reminding God by speaking in his voice that he once blessed all of Israel. He takes an original route, naming Israel’s geographical components from north to south, ending in Judah, where Jerusalem is:
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. (8, 9)

Still speaking in God’s voice, he continues the geographic angle stating how God despises the lands and tribes surrounding Israel:
Moab is My washbasin,
upon Edom I fling My sandal,
over Philistia I shout exultant. (10)

In any event, God seems to have disappeared as the poet, speaking again in David’s voice, asks plaintively:
Have You not, O God, abandoned us?
You do not sally forth, god, with our armies. (12)

Regardless of their complaint and God’s apparent silence, our psalmist acknowledges that God’s help remains the only way in which victory will come:
Give us help against the foe
when rescue by man is in vain. (13)

Despite the anger and frustration, this  psalm ends where they always do: praising God and assured that “Through God we shall gather strength, and He will stamp out our foes.” (14)

Once again, no matter how angry at or abandoned we feel we have the absolute freedom  to raise our fist and shout to God. And even though we may be angry, with David we know that our faith— indeed our assurance—in God’s power and righteousness remains unquenched.

 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 census does not include women and children, so the actual population was certainly two to three times the size of the army.  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 wandering around and 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 as they came down from 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 once again, “they 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 his 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 spoke in the frame of the Kingdom of God. 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? The disciples are just as human as we. They wanted to dwell in mistaken belief as over against confronting the harsh truth. I know I’ve certainly operated that way throughout my life.

In our human tendency to avoid hard truths, 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?” (33) 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.”  (37)

How like the disciples we are! Rank and position inevitably outweigh servanthood in our minds.  But true leadership is not about “who shall be the greatest;” it is about serving those whom they lead. Would that politicians understood this reality.

Psalm 59:12-18; Leviticus 27:16-Numbers 1:16; Mark 9:11-29

Originally published 5/6/2014. Revised and updated 5/7/2018

Psalm 59:12-18  The second half of this psalm is a general reflection on the effects of slander.  Once again, words have become the weapons, but weapons that will ultimately boomerang back on those who use words that way:
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. (13)

This verse includes the interesting idea that in uttering falsehoods his enemies will become “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.  This self-deception is almost always a sign that their fall is coming soon.

Our psalmist is quite anxious to haste their fall as he asks God to accelerate their downfall. We sense deep underlying anger here at how much the words have injured David—so much so that he seeks God’s vengeance on them, but with the interesting twist that it be done so that all Israel understands that it is God who is in charge:
Destroy, O destroy in wrath, that they be no more,
and it will be known to the ends of the earth
that God rules over Jacob [Israel].” (14)

In the meantime his enemies “mutter like dogs. /They prowl round the town.” (16).  In stark contrast to this prowling and muttering, David worships God in deep gratitude with his voice (and we presume, his lyre):
But I shall sing of Your strength,
and chant gladly each morning Your kindness.
For You were a fortress to me
a haven when I was in dire straits. (17)

Isn’t this is exactly where we find ourselves today? We are increasingly surrounded by a growing cacophony of “muttering voices” on all sides. But rather than joining in the angry muttering and posting that Facebook riposte we think the mutterer so richly deserves, we can join David and find refuge in the soaring songs and prayers of worship. With the psalmist we sing:
My strength, to You I would hymn,
for God is my fortress,
my steadfast God. (18)

I have a feel that when Martin Luther was besieged on all sides he found refuge in this psalm—and knowing what we do of his personality, he would not have hesitated to ask God to bring calumny down on the heads of his enemies. And perhaps he found inspiration for his famous hymn here in the last verse of this psalm.

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 scrolls that they meant to add in earlier. Perhaps working against deadline, they’ve added these laws about land-holding, seed amounts, prorated land assessments basically as an appendix. Above all, this chapter makes it clear that when something is dedicated to God there are no take-backs: “Nothing that a person owns that has been devoted to destruction for the Lord, be it human or animal, or inherited landholding, may be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord.” (27:28)

Despite the solemnity of these laws the final line of Leviticus seems to lack gravitas and seems anodyne and flat: “These are the commands that the LORD charged Moses for the Israelites on Mount Sinai.” (27:34)

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) We then get a list of the men—one form each tribe— who will assist Moses and Aaron in what has to be a pretty arduous and thankless task.

The command for a census and the details of who will carry it out is once again a reminder that God is involved in—and cares deeply about— the details.  Something, in our tendency to make God a benevolent abstraction, we too easily forget.

   Jesus puts to rest the apparently popular idea that Elijah would return in triumph to save Israel. Jesus tells them Elijah is a historical figure, not the Messiah. He once lived and his story has already been written. But there’s an intriguing ambiguity here. Is Jesus talking about the historical Elijah or John the Baptist, who indeed has already come, thus making it clear that Jesus himself if the Son of Man?. “I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.” (13) I think Jesus is telling them if you want to read prophecy, then read what Scripture has to say about the Son of Man rather than about Elijah.

Talk about coming down quickly from a mountaintop experience!  After the awe and presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus immediately 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 faith in Jesus must be about honest and from the heart. It cannot be feigned belief. Easy words simply affirming belief are insufficient. True 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 arises from the unfettered presence of the Holy Spirit.  That is why along with the father we say, “I believe; help my belief.”  In other words, belief—faith—is a process and often, a struggle—not a static objective. The father’s prayer my be short, but it has been prayed in true belief that Jesus is who he says he is.  It’s a short but terribly effective prayer.  Which is the point Jesus makes at the end of this incident, This kind [of exorcism] can come out only through prayer.” (29) 

All of 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 true belief that God would indeed  answer his prayer and act instantly. The question is, is our belief, our faith so strong that we really believe that God can answer prayer instantly as he did for David and for the distraught father?

Psalm 59:1-9; Leviticus 26:36-27:15; Mark 9:1-10

Originally published 5/62014. Revised and updated 5/5/2018

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 , emphasizing the irgency of God’s intervention:
Save me from my enemies, my God,  
over those who rise against me make me safe.
Save me from the wrongdoers,
from men of bloodshed rescue me.
For, look, they lie in wait for my life,
the powerful scheme against me. (2-4)

This is not paranoia as David pleads desperately for his life. He knows he is innocent: “For no misdeed they rush, aim their bows.” (5a) Having described his perilous situation, David begs God to “Rise toward me and see!” (5b) demanding action immediately:
You, LORD, God of armies, God of Israel,  
awake to make a reckoning with all the nations.
Do not pardon all wrongdoing traitors.
(6)

The progression in just a few verses from “Save me!” to “Awake”  to “Do not pardon the traitors” is striking.  Unlike so many of us who pray only timid prayers for fear of being irreverent or even of offending God, David is not being deferential here. He is pleading, begging, and ultimately, demanding no-holds-barred action.

In the psalm’s second stanza, as if God has already answered his desperate prayer, we see David’s courage return and with it, the deep connection he has with God as he suddenly begins mocking his enemies, who “mutter like dogs” and “prowl round the town.” (7) His enemies are impotent compared to the greatness of God, who will “laugh at them, You mock the nations.” (9)

As is typical in a psalm of supplication, he concludes with worship and assurance,
My steadfast God will come to meet me,
God will grant me sight of my foes’ defeat.” (11)

We see in this shift of tone within in just a few verses how his desperate prayer has been answered as he utters these words. We always tend to 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 good evidence that prayer can be answered instantaneously.

Leviticus 26:36-27:15  Although it’s in this book’s 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 I will remember the land.”  (42b) The land is God’s creation and the land itself is an intrinsic part of the Covenant. God has granted his part of creation to Israel—valid for as long as they keep their side of the Covenant.

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.  That is why it is so tragic when people suffering from diseases like Alzheimers are robbed of their 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. Despite this, 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 attempts to deal with their terror by filling the air with speech. Lacking anything original to say, Peter states the obvious, “Rabbi, 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” (6) makes it clear that Peter spoke in an attempt to 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 much like us.

Once again, Jesus orders the disciples who have had this glimpse into the Kingdom not to talk about it, presumably including to 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-inspiring event atop the mountain followed immediately Jesus’ puzzling comments about resurrection Mark again underscores the disciples’ humanity. “They kept the matter to themselves,” (10) including not bugging Jesus with any more silly questions right at the moment.  Given what has just transpired, I’m pretty sure that at this point I would have kept my mouth shut, as well.

 

Psalm 58; Leviticus 26:1-35; Mark 8:22-38

Originally published 5/5/2014. Revised and updated 5/4/2018

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) In perhaps the direst imprecation in the entire book of Psalms, there is the psalmist’s wish for punishing violence:
God, smash their teeth in their mouth.
The jaws of the lions shatter, O LORD.
” (7)

The psalmist’s anger at wickedness is so immense that after the smashing, the wicked should not only disappear as water evaporating in the sun, but the wicked should experience even greater punishment:
“Let them melt away, like water run off.
Let Him pull back His arrows so they be cut down.” (8)

But that is insufficient. In the loathsome simile the wicked are, “Like a snail that moves in its slime.” (9) And perhaps cruelest simile of all:
[Like] a woman’s stillbirth that sees not the sun,
before their thorns ripen in bramble,
still alive and in wrath rushed to ruin. (9, 10)

Our psalmist will certainly 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. (11)

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.
Yes, there are gods judging the earth. (12).

This psalm makes it abundantly clear that righteous anger is not a sin.  With the psalmist 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 it is God who is “judging the earth.”

Leviticus 26:1-35  This great chapter is God’s summary of the fruits and rewards of keeping the Covenant that he has established with His people; its terms and conditions, if you will.  It’s all really quite straightforward: “If you go by My statutes and keep My commands and do them,” (3) numerous blessings will follow, including 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)  They will multiply in number and therefore strength: “ I will look with favor upon you and make you fruitful and multiply you; and I will maintain my covenant with you.” (9) 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 in return :strict 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 simple quid pro quo of bad things, but punishment is multiplied: “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 God and he are pursuing.  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. As humans, our minds are almost always set on human things. Which is why when viewed in human terms the story of Jesus coming to earth, dying and rising from the dead is just so patently absurd.

Psalm 57:8–12; Leviticus 25:18–55; Mark 8:14–21

Originally published 5/3/2016. Revised and updated 5/3/2018

Psalm 57:8–12: Even in the midst of his troubles, David exudes confidence that can arise only from his ineradicable trust in God. David’s knowledge, indeed his confidence, that God has given him a firm heart invokes worship:
My heart is firm, O God,/ my heart is firm.
Let me sing and hymn.” (8)

This is not just an intellectual concept of worship; it is suffused in ecstatic action as he picks up his fabled instrument:
Awake O lyre, awake, O lute and lyre.
I would waken the dawn.
” (9)

The psalmist writes to remind us of a miracle that comes every morning: the dawn. I share David’s joy that each morning the sun will rise over God’s good creation and that no matter what comes, God remains firmly in charge of all creation.

Although David is still in the cave hiding from Saul he envisions that happy future morning when he can worship in the morning sun and and he can play and sing for all:
Let me acclaim You among the peoples, Master./
Let me hymn You among the nations.
” (10)

And in a lesson for all of us who face trials of various kinds, even though David may be in great physical peril, he sings his powerful and unforgettable song that evokes everything that is good in God’s creation:
For Your kindness is great to the heavens,
and to the skies Your steadfast truth
.” (11)

No matter how dark the cave we may find ourselves in, there is the beautiful open sky of God’s glory just outside:
Loom over the heavens, O God.
Over all the earth Your glory.
” (12)

And in that reality I find enormous peace.

Leviticus 25:18–55: This long chapter covers the social contracts that allow a civilized society to live together under the rule of law “so that you may live on the land securely.” (18)  Of course this is a theocracy, so it is God who is the legislator. This being an agrarian society, the rules rather naturally begin with stewardship of the land , stating that in the seventh year when no crops are to be planted. God promises a rich harvest in the sixth year “so that it will yield a crop for three years.” (22). What is most interesting to me though is that God makes it clear that he is the owner and “the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.” (23) this seems a clear message that the earth is not ours to pillage and rape. This is the same as being renters of a house and taking care of it. Our responsibility is to be stewards of the earth, carefully tending the natural resources, which are in fact owned by God the Creator. One wonders what a different world we might be living in had our ancestors—and we today— followed God’s commandment here more diligently.

There is a clear distinction between city and country. Real estate rules for city dwellers are clear. There’s a one year warranty, and if that right of redemption is not exercised within that first year, “a house that is in a walled city shall pass in perpetuity to the purchaser, throughout the generations.” (30) and it’s exempted from the great 50-year Jubilee give-back.  However, these rules do not apply to “houses in villages that have no walls around them shall be classed as open country.” (31) which certainly has to do with not throwing productive farmers out on the street.

The family is the core unit of Jewish civilization and “if any of your kin fall into difficulty and become dependent on you,  you shall support them.” (35) No government welfare programs here. However, one may not charge interest for this support nor “provide them food at a profit.” (38)

No Israelite may hold another Israelite in slavery even if that person is deeply in debt: Rather, “They shall remain with you as hired or bound laborers.” (40) —whence the concept of indentured servanthood. Even then, they are bound only until the year of Jubilee at which time, they “shall be free from your authority; they shall go back to their own family and return to their ancestral property.” (41) Only aliens may become slaves. Sadly, these verses doubtless were used to justify slavery of Africans since they were not of the same race—and doubtless helped create much of the ugly racism that persists to this day.

There are also rules for poor Israelites to sell themselves into slavery to prosperous resident aliens. However, they retain the right to redemption, and another Israelite can redeem them and “if they prosper they may redeem themselves.” (49) A complex mathematical formula based on the years served and years to the Jubilee is used to compute the price. As usual, no detail seems too small for our authors to have included. This is another one of those places where we realize these rules had nothing to do with a band of Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert but had everything to do with Jews being held in captivity in Babylon and the years afterward. Which is why I believe Moses had nothing to do with the authorship of these books, but those priests in Babylon sure did….

Mark 8:14–21: Following the feeding of the 4000, Jesus and the disciples once again set out in a boat. But “the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.” (14) Jesus rather enigmatically tells them,“Watch out—beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” (15) They think Jesus is reprimanding them for failing to bring enough bread for the journey when in fact Jesus is giving them sound advice.

He is warning them that they have been influenced by the questioning doubts of the Pharisees rather than having paid attention to the two great bread miracles he has just performed. His frustration is evident as he asks, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” (17) His frustration edges toward anger in the next verse: “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” (18) He upbraids them like little children, asking them how many baskets of leftover bread they collected after the feeding of the 5000 and again after the feeding of the 4000. We can see their sheepish faces as they provide Jesus the correct answers.

Jesus realizes that his very own disciples still don’t get what his actual mission is. They see him as just another religious teacher whose charisma doubtless stirred up the crowd to have them produce bread they already had with them. Jesus must be shaking his head when “he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?” (21)

Of course Mark is speaking to all of us. Like the disciples, we approach Jesus in human terms firmly in our own framework of perception and therefore, understanding. That’s the yeast of the Pharisees, the yeast of blinkered religiosity, when Jesus is so much greater than our human concept of what “religion” is about. Jesus transcends “religion.” But like the disciples, we persist in keeping Jesus firmly ensconced in a religious box rather than taking him at his word for the bread he has provided to the world and the freedom he brings us.

 

Psalm 57:1-6; Leviticus 24:10-25:17; Mark 8:1-13

Originally published 5/3/2014. Revised and updated 5/2/2018

Psalm 57:1-7  David is still on the run 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. (2)

But more than shelter, David calls out to God for rescue, and because of his intimate trust, knows that God will come to him:
I call out to God the Most High,
to the god who requites me.
He will send from the heavens and rescue me. (3, 4a)

Not just rescue, but David will receive something even greater: God will send his steadfast kindness.” (4b)  When we are in trouble we need to remember as David did that God is more than a rescuer, he is steadfastly kind and loving.  This is 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. (5)

Notice how David’s enemies are not just pursuing him with “spear and arrows,” but with 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.

David remains assured that his enemies will get their just punishment 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.  (7)  This is a brilliant evocation of how so many people fall into their own verbal traps.  There are plenty of cases in point, be it politicians’ emails presidential tweets.

Leviticus 24:10-25:17  Our names are crucial to 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 would not be identified but was simply taken outside the camp and stoned to death.

But no name is greater than the name of God and “One who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer” (24:16) Alien residents—I presume this includes even those who may not necessarily believe in God— are not exempt from this rule: “Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death.” (24:16b)  I suppose that the issue is not that God’s name is mentioned aloud, but that to use the common phrase, God’s name is “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 indeed.

Chapter 25 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 sequitur and reminds us again that Leviticus was doubtless written many years after the wilderness journey.

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

Originally published 5/1/2014. Revised and updated 5/1/2018.

Psalm 56:10-14  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 12a: “I shall not fear.”  trust drives out fear completely.

And with fear banished, “What can man do to me?” (12b)

With fear banished and trust assured, David renews his vows to be faithful to God:
I take upon me, O God, my vows to You.
I shall pay thanksgiving offerings to You. (13)

I think that worship is also a place where we renew our vows to God each week. Sincere prayer each day is also renewal. In this renewal we can rejoice that God has rescued us from certain disaster. And if we needed an operating definition of what salvation is all about, it is right 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.

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

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) These celebrations are 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 has been the liturgical calendar.  It is an ongoing reminder of Jesus’ transforming work through each year 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 (23:42) 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.

The next chapter opens with the command to Moses for “the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for the lamp, that a light may be kept burning regularly.” (24:2) Light has been the symbol of live and an active relationship with God since those days in the desert. For us, of course, Jesus is the light of the world, and in most liturgical churches, there is an oil lamp or a candle that burns continuously—a reflection of God’s command to Moses: “it shall be a statute forever throughout your generations.” (24:3)

Mark 7:24-37  As I recall noting 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 Gentiles and 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 the perfect reply: “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (28) While the Gentiles may be only dogs foraging for crumbs under the Jewish table, Jesus makes it clear is what has led to her daughter’s healing, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” (30)  Of course it is also Mark’s clear message that we Gentiles can also partake of Jesus’ grace and healing. And we can do so boldly. 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, reciprocated love, and a 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 therefore in boldness of who we are: the beloved children of God.

 

Psalm 56:1–9; Leviticus 22:17–23:22; Mark 7:9–23

Originally published 4/29/2016. Revised and updated 4/30/2018.

Psalm 56:1–8: The author of this psalm writes in David’s voice, “when the Philistines captured him in Gath.” Unsurprisingly, it’s a psalm of supplication, which opens in a pretty standard manner:
Grant me grace, O God,
for a man tramples me,
all day long the assailant does press me.
 (2)

We can assume that David is referring to Saul, whose relentless pursuit is why David has ended up in Philistia.

As the attacks against him intensify, David turns to God with a more urgent plea:
My attackers trample me all day long,
for many assail me, O High One.
When I fear, I trust in you.
 (3).

These six one-syllable words on the last line say it all: “When I fear, I trust in you.” While we are certainly not David, who is pressed in by his enemies in a hostile land, we come before God equally, knowing that in the end, God [and for us, Jesus] is in the end, the only one to whom we can turn.

David reassures himself that God is is only hope of rescue by doubling down on his trust: In God, Whose word I praise,
in God I trust, I shall not fear.
What can flesh do to me?
” (5)

Trust in God drives out fear. Of course this is exactly the point Jesus makes to his disciples in the story of his walking on water and earlier, when he calms the storm and tells the frightened disciples, “Fear not.”  If we truly trust in God we will free from fear.

Our poet, still speaking as David, gets to the reason why he is coming to God as he describes to God the machinations of his enemies:
All day long they put pain in my words,
against me all their plots of evil.
 (6)

Not only do they plot evil, they do everything possible to carry out their deeds as conspirators. All that is left for David is prayer:
They scheme, they lie low,
they keep at my heels
as they hope for my life.

For their mischief free me from them.
In wrath bring down peoples, O God.
 (7, 8)

The verses that open this psalm end in a poignant metaphor:
put my tears in Your flask.
Are they not in Your counting?
” (9)

In other words, we come to God in desperation and sorrow. Our tears are stored in God’s “flask,” which to me means that God has heard and accepted our prayer. And, even more importantly, God will never forget the woes and sorrows we have cried out to him. Our prayers are forever stored in God’s inventory; in his “counting.”

Leviticus 22:17–23:22: Once again I’m reminded that Leviticus is a compilation of texts from at least two groups of authors as we again encounter lengthy descriptions of acceptable offerings (chapter 22) and appointed festivals (chapter 23).

While the Sabbath and Passover are rehashed again, we at least learn about a couple of new festivals: On “on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord” (23:6a).  Its celebration is quite straightforward: “seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” (23:6b) beginning with a “holy convocation” and ending a week later with a second holy convocation. On those days, work is strictly prohibited. One of the things that comes across strongly is that God commands a lot of sabbath rest, a tradition—not to mention command—increasingly lost in our culture. We mistakenly believe we can get more accomplished by working all seven days with no time out, when our bodies are designed for periodic days of rest. Too much “work” becomes unproductive and ultimately pointless.As usual, there’s no question that God knows us and our inner workings than we.

The authors turn to describe the “first fruits offering,” which commands, “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.” (23:10) The implication is of course clear for both Israel and for us: we gratefully, without hesitation, offer our very best “first fruits” to God, be they tangible, or intangible, agricultural or things we have created with our hands. God demands the best from us, not the leftovers. But I think when we understand how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, it’s a demand with which we will gladly comply.

Finally, there is the “festival of weeks,” which commences exactly fifty days after Passover. Given that Israel was a strictly agrarian society, this is unsurprisingly another grain offering, along with the usual unblemished lambs and a bull. For Christians, this “festival of weeks” is Pentecost—the time when God returned the favor and gave us his offering of the Holy Spirit.

We give to God first, then to ourselves, but there is one final requirement: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien.” (23:22) For me, this is a clear command that every society must provide for the poor and for the aliens. I am deeply saddened at so-called Christians who wish to do away with societal (governmental) programs that provide for the poor and to provide refuge for aliens.

Yes, these programs may be wasteful in some regards, but the Bible is clear again and again that providing for the widows, orphans, and the poor is our immutable duty. To do otherwise is to fly in the face of God’s command, which too many Christians wish to do selectively: enforce the prohibitions against homosexuality, but be sure to cut off welfare to the poor. My blood boils.

Mark 7:9–23: Jesus is not finished excoriating the scribes and Pharisees as he points out their hypocrisy with regard to their parents: “But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.” (11,12). Perhaps even worse than using religion to justify this selfish action, Jesus points out that these supremely “religious” leaders are thereby “making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.” (13)

Jesus turns to the crowd and announces that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (15) This tells me that natural bounty—what we harvest and consume—is part of God’s good creation and thus unblemished. [And as Mark points out parenthetically, Jesus thereby “declared all foods clean.”] It is our sinful nature that sullies what is good. Not merely sullies, but defiles. Those are strong words indeed. Jesus is basically saying that our natural inclination—rather than anything intrinsically flawed with God’s good creation—is toward sinfulness and hypocrisy, which of course is theologically true.

Lest we think Jesus is finished excoriating the Pharisees—and us—he lets loose with what I think is the most graphic metaphor in the Gospels as he uses the digestion and waste process to describe this intrinsic human sinfulness: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (18, 19) He goes on, It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (22) [This statement must have inspired Paul, who delights in listing all manner of sin in his various letters.]

Alas, it is our intrinsically corrupt human nature that creates disorder in the world. And just to make sure we get the point, Jesus repeats himself: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (23) Which is why Jesus had to come to earth in the first place: to rescue us from ourselves.