Psalm 69:22–29; Numbers 15:32–16:27; Mark 14:32–42

 Originally published 5/27/2016. Revised and updated 5/28/2018

Psalm 69:22–29: In these verses, we can look directly into the psalmist’s heart as he spills his innermost thoughts and feelings onto the page. He writes how he has not found comfort. In fact, those who were supposed to be his comfort became his torturers:
They gave for my nourishment wormwood,
and for my thirst made me drink vinegar.
 (22)

At first, the latter phrase makes us think of the sponge given to Jesus while he was on the cross. However, I think that’s an over-interpretation of what is being written here. These verses have much more to do with one man’s hurt and anger than a theological prophecy.

Here, feelings of abandonment cause our poet to write with strongest possible vitriol (at least in the context of a psalm!) against his enemies as he curses them,
May their table before them become a trap,
and their allies a snare.
 (23)

Not finished with his curse, he prays that they will also experience blindness and palsy:

May their eyes grow too dark to see,
make their loins perpetually shake.
 (24)

His anger and desire for vengeance overbrimming, he begs God to acton his behalf:
Pour out on them Your wrath,
and Your blazing fury overtake them.
 (25)

He wishes not only that God will act against these enemies, but that their families and friends be ruined as well:
May their encampment be laid be laid waste,
and in their tents may no one dwell. 
(26)

As if this were not enough, he prays that God will destroy them psychologically, “Add guilt upon their guilt” (28a) and then the worst punishment of all, to be eternally separated from God altogether—which is what we actually mean, I think, when we tell someone to go to hell:
…let them have no part in Your bounty.
Let them be wiped from the book of life,
and among the righteous let them not be written.
” (28b, 29)

So what do we do with these verses, which are definitely antithetical to Jesus’ command that we are to love our enemies? My own sense is that the psalmist’s relationship with God is so intense and real that he knows that he can say anything to God in his deepest anger, including even curses against others. These verses are a primal scream, not deep theology. They also tell me that we can bring our hurts, anger, disappointment, and yes, even our curses before God. God can take it. And having spewed forth our deepest anger in prayer, we become psychologically and emotionally cleansed. How much better it is to curse before God in prayer than to curse before our family and neighbors.

Numbers 15:32–16:27: It’s one thing to read about the harsh commands that God has communicated to Israel; it’s quite another to read of a man being stoned to death because he was gathering sticks on the Sabbath. But there’s no getting around the fact: “the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.”  (15:35) This is a manifestation of the Old Testament God that so distresses us. How can a God of mercy command death for something as seemingly trivial as gathering sticks outside the camp? Is it just to maintain order among an unruly crowd of 600,000 people camped in the desert? Or is it to engender unquestioning loyalty to a jealous God? I have no answer here.

In what at first seems almost humorous non sequitur, God commands Moses to “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.” (15:38) The fringe—which lives on today in Jewish prayer shawls— is a simple memory prompt: “you have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes.” (15:39) But when we realize that the authors have placed this command immediately following the story of the man being stoned to death in order to address the Israelite’s (and our) weakness of intentional or unintentional forgetting the all-consuming importance of God’s commandments. And above all to remember that “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God.” (15:41) Notice the repetition of “I am the Lord your God.” This is the framework in which every thought and action of every Israelite must occur.

Well, it had to happen. The Israelites have just been sentenced to 40 more years in the wilderness and now they’ve had to stone someone to death for committing the seemingly trivial act of gathering sticks. Moses is still their leader and it’s clear to some that it’s time for new leadership. Three members of the tribe of Reuben—Korah, Dathan, and Abiram— decide it’s time for a coup d’etat. And they gather a cohort of 250 men, “leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men,” (16:2) and confront Moses and Aaron.

Korah’s complaint  to Moses seems straightforward: “why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3) Moses sends for Dathan and Abiram, who refuse to come, sending him a message, “Is it too little that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also lord it over us?” (16:13)

Moses is understandably angry and calls their bluff, telling them to take lit censers put incense on them and stand in front of the tabernacle. So 250 men do this. Unsurprisingly God is displeased at this rebellion and issues his usual edict, saying to Moses and Aaron: “Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment.” (21) And once again, Moses intercedes, using the logic that “shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?” (22) God appears to relent, but tells everyone to “get away from the dwellings of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram.” (24). The reading closes with the families of the three standing “at the entrance of their tents, together with their wives, their children, and their little ones.” (27). One is left with the feeling that something bad is about to happen…

This is also why I think we have to read these passages as actual history. Why would our authors make up this detail if it were mere legend? And needless to say, it constitutes a clear warning to their readers and listeners that God is no friend of those who would rebel against good order.

Mark 14:32–42: The disciples and Jesus repair to Gethsemane. Jesus instructs the inner three—James, John and Peter— to come with him. And here, for the first time in the gospels, we see Jesus “distressed and agitated” (33) rather than his usual aura of serene equanimity. He tells the three, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” (34), bearing in mind that just before the Passover dinner he has told his disciples to remain alert and awake and then has told them he will be betrayed. Why of all times in the three years an what is the culmination of his ministry do the disciples fall asleep now? Was it the wine at dinner? Or is something deeper going on here?

In just a few words, we sense Jesus’ great distress and realize that he is indeed 100% human as “he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (35). He prays as fervently as we have ever heard him, calling his father the diminutive and familiar, “Abba.” We hear Jesus’ prayer, but as usual, do not hear God’s response. Nevertheless, Jesus must have found some succor and he returns from praying only to find the disciples asleep.

But Jesus does not chastise them beyond asking Peter rhetorically, “Could you not keep awake one hour?” (37) Jesus suggests that they remain awake but also acknowledges, “the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (38). This is one of those places where we realize that Jesus knows us and our weaknesses all too well. Our hearts and minds may be in the right place, but sometimes we simply cannot follow Jesus as well as we would like or intend. This same thing happens two more times: Jesus goes to pray and returns to find the disciples asleep.  Finally, we hear his exasperation, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough!” (41) Jesus tells them to wake up because “the hour has come.” And Jesus knows too well what is about to happen. But I suspect he also knows that the disciples will remain in denial. They cannot possibly believe he is about to be betrayed.

Of course Mark knows that his community—and us—who remain in denial about many aspects of Jesus as well. But we would prefer to sleep.

Psalm 69:14–22; Numbers 15:1–31; Mark 14:12–31

Originally published 5/26/2016. Revised and updated 5/26/2018

Psalm 69:14–22: As he is being harassed and taunted on every side, our psalmist turns to God, almost flatteringly, humbly asking God to help it when it’s convenient:
O Lord, come in a favorable hour.
God, as befits Your great kindness,
answer me with Your steadfast rescue. 
(14)

This is a beautiful prayer for any of us who find us bogged down, whether by opponents or even the diseases and weaknesses of our own bodies.

He returns to the metaphor of drowning, this time appealing to God with more desperation:
Save me from the mire, that I not drown.
Let me be saved from my foes and from the watery depths.
Let the waters’ current not sweep me away
and let not the deep swallow me
. (15, 16)

These two metaphors —that we are stuck in the mire and that we not be swept away by the current—describe two awful states. For me, the mire represents being stuck in our own sinfulness, while the current symbolizes succumbing to the temptation to give in and join the culture as it hurtles toward its inevitable doom. Only God can rescue us from both.

Our psalmist now turns fully to God, throwing himself completely on God’s kindness and compassion, but also hoping that God will respond quickly:
Hide not Your face from Your servant,
for I am in straits. Hurry, answer me
. (18)

Yes, like the psalmist, we are completely free to ask God to act in our time not just his. Of course, we have no guarantee that God will do so. In any event, he writes, God is the only possible escape from his enemies:
Come near me, redeem me.
because of my enemies, ransom me
. (19).

God—and for us Christians, Jesus—is our only possible salvation. We cannot find it in other people, in institutions, nor in the culture at large. But the psalmist takes the first step by recognizing exactly who he is—a sinner. We, too, must recognize that God knows who we are and what we have done even better than we:
It is You who know my reproach,
and my shame and disgrace before all my foes
. (20)

It’s crucial that we realize how sin has brought us down and is destroying our life and we cannot find comfort, much less redemption outside of God. Without God’s absolution our state will only grow more desperate to the point of physical breakdown:
Reproach breaks my heart, I grow ill;
I hope for consolation, and there is none,
and for comforters, and do not find them
.”

Numbers 15:1–31: We come to an odd intermezzo in the dramatic action that has resulted in the Israelites being consigned to the desert for the next forty years. It feels almost like a non sequitur—perhaps an insertion by yet another author: a lengthy disquisition on the types of sacrifices they are to offer when they finally arrive in Canaan some forty years hence: “When you come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving you, and you make an offering by fire to the Lord from the herd or from the flock—whether a burnt offering or a sacrifice, to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering or at your appointed festivals—to make a pleasing odor for the Lord.” (2, 3) In that case, then “whoever presents such an offering to the Lord shall present also a grain offering, one-tenth of an ephah of choice flour, mixed with one-fourth of a hin of oil.” (4)

These commands regarding sacrifices apply to every Israelite: “Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in presenting an offering by fire, a pleasing odor to the Lord.” (13) But perhaps more interestingly, and what I believe is a clear indication that while God is has a specific covenant Israel, he is also the God of all humankind, “there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord.” (15). As Peter notes many centuries later in his eponymous letter, we Christians are all aliens in the land. To make his stance perfectly clear, God even repeats himself: “You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” (16)

The focus then shifts to the rules regarding unintentional sin and again, once the proper sacrifices are made, “All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.” (26)

Humility is always required—both before God and among each other: “But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts theLord, and shall be cut off from among the people.” (30).

The tragedy of course is that once Israel occupies Canaan, it is the aliens among them that corrupt Israel rather than God’s chosen people causing the non-Israelites to come and worship Israel’s God.

Mark 14:12–31: With his usual and remarkable skill, Mark packs grand theology and drama into this terse verses. A disciple asks where they’re going for Passover and Jesus replies, Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” (13, 14). So, how did Jesus know all this? Is it prescience, or had he somehow made prior arrangements? The business with the jar-carrying man certainly suggests something supernatural is going on since in that culture women did the water-carrying, so the sight of a man would be unusual indeed.

Seated at dinner and while everyone was still eating, Jesus drops the bomb: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” (18), which basically ruins the rest of the meal as the disciples “began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” (19). So why choose this time to announce it? Because it is “one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.” (20) And here Mark, unlike the other gospel writers, does not tell us what happened next or if Judas even leaves. Jesus simply remarks cryptically, “woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.” (21) As far as Mark is concerned, we’ll never know: was Judas in the room to hear that pronouncement of not? Mark’s spotlight remains only on Jesus and what he says.

Nevertheless, I’m going to assume that Judas left before Jesus said that because the next thing he does is institute the Eucharist. Mark hints at the sacrifice to come when Jesus says, “This is my blood of the  covenant, which is poured out for many.” (24) As indeed his death on the cross is a sacrifice for all of us down through history. He reinforces the connection between the Eucharist and his death and resurrection with the words, “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (25). Of course there’s no way the disciples would have understood the enormous implications of this statement. Only those of us living post-Resurrection can make the connection. And now every Sunday we drink that new wine. But the question always remains: are we working in the Kingdom with Jesus?

I always thought that Jesus told only Peter that the disciple would deny his Lord, but Mark makes it clear that Jesus was being inclusive: “And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters.” (27) Which is of course exactly what happened. Peter, being Peter, fervently denies this possibility, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” (29). Jesus tells Peter about the cock crowing, but Peter persists,“Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” (31a) And again, Mark is inclusive, noting that “All of them said the same.” (31b)

Of course “all of them” includes us. The nobility of my intentions notwithstanding, I deny Jesus again and again. We all do. Mark will never let us forget that.

Psalm 69:1–13; Numbers 14; Mark 14:1–11

Originally published 5/25/2016. Revised and updated 5/25/2018

Psalm 69:1–12: Even though it’s a metaphor, this psalm of supplication opens with a harrowing description of what it must be like to be drowning and rescue has not yet come:
Rescue me, God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
I have sunk in the slime of the deep,
and there is no place to stand.
I have entered the watery depths,
and the current has swept me away. (2,3)

We hear his desperate shouts and dire physical condition as he nears death:
I am exhausted from my calling out.
My throat is hoarse.
My eyes fail
from hoping for my God.
” (4)

These verses capture the sense of what it feels like to believe one has been abandoned by God right when things are most desperate. While I have not felt like a drowning man, I know what it feels like to wonder where God is. We seem to be most aware of God’s apparent absence when times are bad. When things are going well, God seems nearby—or probably more likely, we beleive we do not need God.

Our psalmist, still waiting to hear back from God, goes on to describe the reason for his predicament: his enemies are “more numerous than the hairs on my head,” (5a) And he believes he has done nothing to provoke them and that he has been accused unjustly, apparently of theft as he asks ironically, “What have I not stolen/ should I then give back?” (5b)

He asserts that God is well aware of his shortcomings—and that is not really a good reason for God to abandon him:
“God, You know my folly,
and my guilt is not hidden from You.
” (6)

But the things that distresses him most is the sense that he is bringing shame on his God-fearing community: Let not those who hope for You be shamed through me. (7)

It is this shame that makes this psalm so relevant to us today about how we also feel tied down by our shame. However, this shame seems to arise from the psalmist’s belief in God, and it is his faith in God that he finds himself in dire straits:
Because for You I have borne reproach,
disgrace has covered my face.
 (8)

In an eerie presaging of what Jesus said about family relationships and who is our mother or our brothers, our psalmist laments that
Estranged I have been from my brothers,
and an alien from my mother’s sons.
 (9)

The reason for the estrangement is really quite simple. He has devoted his entire time and attention to God’s work, neglecting important human relationships:
For the zeal of Your house has consumed me,
the reproach of Your reproachers has fallen on me
. (10)

As a result he is reduced to a shadow of his former being:
And in fasting I wept for my being—
it became a reproach for me.
 (11)

And now he is alone, the object of derision:
I was the talk of those who sit in the gate,
the drunkards’ taunting song
. (13)

Can there be any more dire situation than to feel unjustly accused, abandoned by our family, the subject of taunting, and overarching all this, feeling that one has been abandoned by a God who remains resolutely silent? This psalm is a touchstone for all who feel depressed and abandoned.

Numbers 14: On hearing the news from the spies that Canaan is occupied by giants and fierce armies, the Israelites can only “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!” (2). So, they decide, “would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” (3) and actually decide to act on that question: “So they said to one another, “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.” (4) Clearly, that captain will not be Moses or Aaron.

Joshua and Caleb remonstrate, telling the people that the land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey.” (7,8)

But to accomplish this, the people cannot “rebel against the Lord.” (9) This is not the message they want to hear and “the whole congregation threatened to stone them.” (10)

God is understandably angry at this mob and threatens to disinherit the lot of them and, interestingly, begin all over again with Moses: “I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (12) Moses again intercedes on the behalf of these stubborn people, reminding God that he should “let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,

‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression. (17, 18a)

God relents and forgives them, but adds, “ none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.” (22, 23). Their fate is sealed; they will wander in the wilderness until the present generation that rejected the call to enter Canaan dies off.

God’s sentence is long and harsh: “According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.” (34) With but two exceptions: “Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.” (30) As for the ten spies who brought back the negative report, “ the men who brought an unfavorable report about the land died by a plague before the Lord.” (37)

A small faction decides to ignore God’s judgement and invade Canaan. Moses advises, “That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies.” (42, 43)  As Moses predicted, things do not turn out well and “the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah.”

The lesson here is crystalline: even the best of intentions, including a show of courage, will not succeed where God has forbidden the action. This is why discernment is so crucial. Acting on emotional impulse alone—as this group did here—is the quick path to disaster.

Mark 14:1–11: By Wednesday of Holy Week, the machinery to rid themselves of this blasphemous Jesus has been set into motion as “the chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.”  (1). But stealth does not work well when the city is full of Passover-goers and knowing Jesus’ popularity among the hoi polloi, the priests hold off, knowing “there may be a riot among the people.” (2)

Meanwhile, Jesus remains in the safety of Bethany, staying at the house of Simon the leper. An unnamed woman (the other gospel writers do in fact name her) suddenly appears, opens the very expensive alabaster jar of nard and pours it on Jesus’ head. Unlike the other gospel writers, Mark doesn’t tell us who complained, “ in anger, [asking] “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” (4b, 5) Jesus rebukes them, reminding them (and us) that, “you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me.” (7) We need to be careful in our interpretation here: Jesus is not telling them—or us—to ignore the poor, but not every gift we bring to Jesus must be sent back or sold for welfare to the poor.  In short, just as God required the first born and first fruits, our greatest gifts belong first and foremost to Jesus.

I’m intrigued by Jesus’ next statement, “She has done what she could” (8a) with an action that in effect prepares his body for burial. I think Jesus is telling us that we are to offer what we can and to do what we can. If we truly love him, then by definition we will do what we can for Jesus—whether it’s an extravagant gift or ongoing help for the poor and homeless. Jesus values whatever we can give as long as it comes from the heart, not as a resented duty.

And of course, as Jesus predicts, what this unnamed woman did for him has indeed been told and retold down through the centuries in remembrance of her.

In stark contrast while the woman extravagantly gives Jesus all she has, Judas goes to the priests and says he’ll betray Jesus. The priests are “greatly pleased, and promised to give him money.” (11) This is one of Mark’s more brutal juxtapositions. Both good and evil simultaneously exist in our fallen world. We cannot ask why God allows evil to exist without also asking why God allows good to exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 66:8–15; Numbers 7:36–71; Mark 11:27–12:12

Originally published 5/17/2016. Revised and updated 5/17/2018

Psalm 66:8–15: Grateful to God in worship, our poet reminds us that the God whom we worship is resolutely faithful to us, even in the worst of times: ”
Bless, O peoples, our God
and make heard the sound of His praise
Who has kept us in life,
and let not our foot stumble.
 (8, 9)

Life is not easy, and the psalmist believes that his rials and hardships arose because God allows us to be tested. But he also implies that this testing is for our own good, and having passed the test, we emerge from the trial refined—a better person:
For You tested us, God,
You refined us as silver refined
. (10)

In fact, as most people find out, some of this testing is quite arduous—at both a personal and national level—here the oppression of all Israel by other nations:
You trapped us in a net,
placed heavy cords round our loins.
You let people ride over us. (12a)

This said, I confess that I cannot cotton to the idea of God sitting back on his throne and and choosing specific means such as disease or a serious accident to put us to the test. Did God plan for me to have cancer and thereby make me a “better person?” Rather, with the psalmist, the idea that resonates is that God allows us to be tested, i.e., it comes naturally as we live life. This concept of allowing testing is of course the entire point of Job. This fallen world is filled with evil, and I believe that even the innocent are put to the test by virtue of simply being alive.

The key point of the psalm is that having been tested, whether instigated by God or not, God is our rescuer:
We came into fire and water—
and You brought us out to great ease. 
(12b)

And having been rescued we respond in worship. Just as our psalmist—who suddenly switches voice to first person singular—dedicates his life to God, worshipping at the temple in Jerusalem and making good on the vows he made when he prayed for rescue earlier:
I shall come to Your house with burnt offerings
I shall pay to You my vows
that my lips have uttered,
that my mouth spoke in my straits
.” (13, 14)

He then describes the sacrifices he made quite specifically:
Fat burnt-offerings I shall offer up to You
with the incense of rams.
I shall sacrifice cattle and goats
.” (15)

How often we forget to offer our deep gratitude to God after we have come through a trial or testing.

Numbers 7:36–71: In these verses, which read more like a catalog than Scripture we meet the six more representatives of the remaining tribes of Israel, each of whom is given a day of worship and sacrifice at the newly-dedicated tabernacle.

Our authors are definitely double-entry bookkeepers and make sure that each and every tribe offers exactly the same objects and animals:

  • one silver plate weighing one hundred thirty shekels, (37, 43, 49, 55, 61, 67)
  • one silver basin weighing seventy shekels;
  • one golden dish weighing ten shekels, full of incense;
  • one young bull, one ram, one male lamb a year old, for a burnt offering;
  • one male goat for a sin offering;
  • and for the sacrifice of well-being, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five male lambs a year old.

Notice that a complete sacrificial offering covers the burnt offering, the sin offering, and the sacrifice of well-being.

This precise inventory is repeated and listed for each tribe: Simeonites, Gadites, Ephramites, Manassites, Benjaminites, Asheites.

Why list the same items over and over? Obviously, there’s the issue of treating each tribe equally. But also, I think it’s because we are talking about an act of worship on the part of each tribe, and this chapter takes on a significant quality of serious liturgy by virtue of its repetition. The weekly repetition of confession, the Lord’s prayer, communion are fixed points in our lives to which following daily trials we can safely return to again and again. That focus and solidity and yes, repetitiveness are foundation stones on which to build an ordered and peaceful life.

In the insane hurriedness of 21st century America, we believe that repetition serves no useful purpose and must be avoided. This chapter reminds us to slow down and savor all that God has done for us. True worship must not be a hurried, efficient affair, but one of lingering in the sweet presence of God.

Mark 11:27–12:12: It’s now Tuesday morning and Jesus has returned to the temple, where he’s confronted by the senior leadership—chief priests, the scribes, and the elders—who are obviously upset to have their tight little empire threatened by this Galilean outsider. Resolute bureaucrats that they are, they demand an explanation, “By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?” (28) Jesus fires back with his own question, and if they “answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things.” (29). His question is of course a trap: “Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” (30).

The leaders quickly realize that if they answer “heaven,” Jesus can rightfully accuse them of disbelief. If they answer “human,” the people will revolt, since “they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet.” (32) So, the question remains unanswered, but the leaders had to know, based on the example of John the Baptist, that something beyond the quotidian human realm was going on here. I think that is also Mark’s point in relating this incident. Something far beyond what we can imagine is going on here—a hint of even more unimaginable things to come. The comfortable temple status quo is about to be torn asunder—physically manifested at the tearing of the curtain before the Holy of Holies in just a few days.

Jesus, surrounded by the crowd and by the temple leadership, begins to tell a rather pointed parable. Unlike many of them, there’s no hidden meaning here—least of all to the temple authorities. The wicked tenants are indeed the temple authorities, who have rejected the prophets before Jesus: “And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed.” (12:4,5) I suspect that Jesus’ reference to “the one they killed” is John the Baptist.

And then, in the climax of this stark parable, the man sends his son, who is a clear reference to Jesus himself, whom they also kill. So, on top of Jesus’ effrontery in refusing to answer their “authority question,” now he’s not only insulting the leadership in front of the entire crowd, he’s engaging in outright blasphemy by claiming to be the son of God and quoting the prophecy about the rejected cornerstone on top of it.  The leaders would have torn him from limb to limb right then and there if they had the chance, but as usual, “they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.” (12:12) 

But Mark leaves no doubt that this confrontation is the final straw. The plot against Jesus now swings into full motion.

 

Psalm 66:1–7; Numbers 7:1–35; Mark 11:12–26

Originally published 5/16/2016. Revised and updated 5/16/2018

Psalm 66:1–7: This joyful psalm of thanksgiving opens with the imperative, “Shout out to God, all the earth,” (1) reminding us that we are not required always to be all prim and proper before God. If I really stopped for moment and reflected on what miracles God has brought to my own life I should stand outside and shout with the psalmist and begin singing, ”
Hymn His name’s glory.
Make His praise glory.
” (2)

And after singing his praises, my worship would continue :
Say to God, ‘How awesome are Your deeds.
Before Your great strength Your enemies quail.’
” (3)

But this psalm reminds us that worship exists in nature as well and our psalmist invites us to see the evidence of God’s power for ourselves:
All the earth bows down to You,
and they hymn to You, hymn Your name.
Come and see the acts of God,
awesome in works over humankind.
 (4, 5)

In other words, no matter how mighty and wonderful we think the accomplishments of human beings may be—and they are awesome indeed—God’s works are orders of magnitude greater. We may be able to create exciting new technologies and seeming medical miracles, but it is God and God alone who can rescue a human soul.

Our poet recalls both the crossing of Israel out of Egypt and the crossing of the Jordan River forty years later as Israel finally enters Canaan. This is another occasion for worship:
He turned the sea to dry land,
the torrent they crossed on foot.
There we rejoiced in him.
” (6)

With the psalmist we acknowledge that it is God who rules over all the affairs not just of Israel, but of all humankind:
He rules in His might forever.” (7a)

More importantly, God is far more than a benevolent uncle who makes nice things happen. God is aware of all that we do, and before undertaking a sinful act we would do well to remember that simple fact:
His eyes probe the nations.
Let the wayward not rise up.
” (7b)

Numbers 7:1–35: As usual, the authors of Numbers feel obligated to cover ground that the authors of Leviticus have already trod. Here, we again read that the tabernacle has been completed and is ready for dedication by “the leaders of Israel, heads of their ancestral houses, the leaders of the tribes, who were over those who were enrolled, made offerings.” (2) The offerings that the leaders bring with them are indeed impressive: “six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for every two of the leaders, and for each one an ox; they presented them before the tabernacle.” (3)

Using their usual editorial device, “the Lord said to Moses” (4), the authors demonstrate that the offerings have a very useful purpose, starting with the wagons and oxen themselves, which are handed over to the Levites. “Two wagons and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites,” (7) who are tasked with dealing with the tent canvas of the tabernacle, and the other “four wagons and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites,” (8) who are tasked with moving the bulky structural elements—tentpoles, etc.—of the tabernacle. On the other hand, the Kohathites received neither oxen nor wagon since in the relentless logic of our authors, “they were charged with the care of the holy things that had to be carried on the shoulders.” (9)

Now we encounter what Alter calls an “epic inventory,” a listing of the items that each tribe brought as an offering.  But each offering, described in loving detail, is exactly the same–denoting the equality of each tribe.  And the identical inventory is repeated for each tribe, resulting in twelve verbatim lists occupying this chapter.  But that’s not redundancy by any means: years later, when each tribe looked back  at its history, they could see in writing what their forebears had done.

This is also one of those passages where you realize that actual history is described.  A fairy tale would not deal with such mundane but necessary issues as cartage of the Tabernacle.

Each tribe is given a day of sacrifice worship at the tabernacle. Once again, as our authors always prefer, it is a very orderly affair. The offerings are noteworthy in their value, being mostly silver plates and bowls, in addition to the usual animals required for sacrifices. (Of course this being the book of Numbers, we are given the exact value of each gold and silver dish and plate in shekels.)

  • The one who presented his offering the first day was Nahshon son of Amminadab, of the tribe of Judah (12)
  • On the second day Nethanel son of Zuar, the leader of Issachar, presented an offering; (18)
  • On the third day Eliab son of Helon, the leader of the Zebulunites: (24)
  • On the fourth day Elizur son of Shedeur, the leader of the Reubenites: (30)

I have a feeling that tomorrow’s reading will describe the offerings of the remaining eight tribes..

Again we ask, why this detailed inventory of what each leader brought? I think that again, the authors know that God is in the details and that as the psalmist above has told us, His eyes probe the nations. In their long descriptions, the authors of Numbers keep reminding us again and again that no detail is too small for God.

Mark 11:12–26: Jesus appears to wake up in a grumpy mood. He heads from his overnight lodgings in Bethan back toward Jerusalem. Thinking he’ll have figs for breakfast, he “he came to [the fig tree, but] he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.” Mark subtly reminds us that Jesus was no farmer and he angrily curses the fig tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” (14).

Bearing in mind that Jesus is both hungry and angry, Mark tells us, “he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.” (15) Reading this action in context, I feel we have a pretty good glimpse of the 100% human Jesus. His hunger and anger is genuine.

I think that for Jesus, the commerce at the Temple was just as pointless as the fruitless fig tree–a perversion, if you will, of its original function.  The Temple has but one purpose: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.” (17)  But instead it has become a “den of robbers.” 

The priests and scribes “kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” (18) In a smart tactical move to remain elusive to those who would try to capture him at night in Jerusalem after the crowds have gone home, Jesus and disciples head back to Bethany for the night.

They pass the now withered fig tree, as Peter exclaims,“Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.” (21) Jesus uses this as a teachable moment about the quality of faith: “believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (23) And even more powerfully, is Jesus’ promise, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (24) Personally, I’m distressed by this saying. Can we really will the laws of physics to be broken? And if we can’t, is it really because of our inadequate faith? Obviously, no other human will have Jesus’ faith because no other human 100% divine. At the risk of being heretical, for me there has to be some hyperbole here. Yes, our faith needs to be strong enough to move mountains, but I’m going to take that statement as metaphorical rather than literal.

The more important Jesus saying is,“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (25) Here, the clear message is that we cannot really be in prayer if we are holding grudges or resentments against another person.

We also learn that absent prayer in our lives, or more specifically, faith that our prayers will be answered, we are not much different than a dead fig tree or a moneychanger in the Temple courtyard: pretty useless.  But if we have faith in praying then we too will bear great fruit. Especially when we pray to forgive others.