Archives for April 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 55:9-15; Leviticus 20:9-21:12; Mark 6:45-56

Writing in Pasadena this morning after a long but satisfying weekend in San Diego and here of connecting with family, grandchildren, friends, and relatives, as well as photographing an entire wedding.

Psalm 55:1-15  David is again (still?) in dire straits, pursued by his enemies, whose only objective is to do him in.  There’s a tone of urgent desperation as David asks God to “Listen well to me and answer me.”  There’s no false humility here or wishy-washiness here.  David’s faith in, and relationship with, God is so strong that he can call on God, and simply ask for–almost demand–an answer.

And there’s good reason he calls on God because he knows that in his current state there’s absolutely nothing he can accomplish on his own because “fear and trembling enter me, and horror envelopes me.” (7). Escape would be by far the best thing now as he utters the famous line, “Would I had wings like a dove. I would fly off and find rest.” and “I would wander far away, and lodge in the wilderness” (8)

How many times I have thought those same thoughts, albeit in situations far less dangerous than David’s current predicament.  But as attractive as the wilderness may seem, it is exactly that: emptiness.  David’s–and my–escape must be in the direction of God.  There is where we will find rescue.

Leviticus 20:9-21:12  In this lengthy catalog of sexual sins and their punishments, it’s interesting to me, anyway, that the list begins with perhaps the most important sin of all: the failure to honor one’s parents, “For every man who vilifies his father and his mother is doomed to die. He has vilified his father and his mother— his bloodguilt is upon him.” (9,10).  In our sex-obsessed society, we have too often forgotten that we have come from our parents and that they have, in essence, defined who we are.  To dishonor them is to dishonor our roots–and ourselves.

Parental vilification can take many forms–and children who abandon their parents are assuredly vilifying them.  At her independent living community, my mother observes that many people there have children, who live in the immediate area but never come to visit them.

The very next sin listed is adultery, and only later in the midst of the catalog is homosexuality mentioned along with the sins of incest and its variants.  Yet, so many Christians obsess over homosexuality, while conveniently skipping over the sins that they themselves are more likely to be guilty of.  Yet, the punishments are similar, suggesting that in God’s eyes, all sexual sins are pretty much equal.

Perhaps the best view of this catalog is that it is about preserving genetic integrity.  Procreation of a healthy race is what these sections seem to be about.  Any act which hinders that process is of necessity to be condemned.

Mark 6:45-56  Unlike his gospel-writing compatriots, Mark editorializes infrequently.  But here in his terse description of Jesus walking on the water, where there is no story of Peter, but only the concluding observation that “they [the disciples] were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (52) Is this a “hardening” of simple misunderstanding?  Or given the juxtaposition of the feeding of the 5000 together with this miracle showing Jesus’ control over nature itself, is the “hardening” simply mere befuddlement or skepticism?

Many prophets and seers of Jesus’ time claimed to be able to heal people and cast out demons.  And up to now, these personal miracles have pretty much defined Jesus’ ministry as well.  But now, with these two very large-scale miracles, Jesus has moved into unprecedented territory.  Perhaps the disciples are slowly realizing that have latched onto a movement that is far larger–and more dangerous–than they ever imagined.

We, too, so often prefer a safely contained, well-defined Jesus, preferably our buddy.  That makes him easier to control.  But the real Jesus, who as both John and Paul observe, was pre-exiting with God from the beginning of time and to whom the powers and principalities on and under the earth bow down is pretty scary.  CS Lewis, as usual, has it right when Mr. Beaver describes Aslan as not being safe, but being wholly good.  So, too, the real Jesus.  The disciples’ hardened hearts–like ours–will take a while to come around to this realization.  But not until after the Resurrection.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Friday.  The darkness before the light.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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