Archives for April 2016

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

Psalm 56:1–8: The author of this psalm places it in David’s mouth “when the Philistines captured him in Gath.” Unsurprisingly then, it’s a psalm of supplication, which opens in a pretty standard manner: “Grant me grace, O God,/ for a man tramples me,/ all day long the assailant does press me.” (2) We can assume that David is referring to Saul, whose pursuit is why David has ended up in Philistia in the first place.

As the attacks against him intensify, David turns to God: “My attackers trample me all day long,/ for many assail me, O High One./ When I fear, I trust in you.” (3). These six one-syllable words say it all: “When I fear, I trust in you.” While we are certainly not David, who is pressed in by his enemies in a hostile land, we come before God equally, knowing that in the end, God [and for us, Jesus] is the only one to whom we can turn.

David reassures himself that God is is only hope of rescue by doubling down on his trust: “In God, Whose word I praise,/ in God I trust, I shall not fear./ What can flesh do to me?” (5) Trust in God drives out fear. Of course this is exactly the point Jesus makes to his disciples in the story of his walking on water and earlier, when he calms the storm and tells the frightened disciples, “Fear not.”  Trust in God and we are free from fear. Just as I am free from fear as I head off to surgery in a few days to remove a lesion that may be cancerous.

Our poet, still speaking as David, gets to the reason why he is coming to God as he turns to describe the machinations of his enemies: “All day long they put pain in my words,/ against me all their plots of evil.” (6) Not only do they plot evil, they do everything possible to carry it out as a conspiracy: “They scheme, they lie low,/ they keep at my heels/ as they hope for my life.” (7) All that is left for David is prayer: “For their mischief free me from them./ In wrath bring down peoples, O God.” (8)

These opening verses end in a poignant metaphor: “put my tears in Your flask./ Are they not in Your counting?” (9) In other words, we come to God in desperation and sorrow. Our tears are stored in God’s “flask,” which to means that God has heard and accepted our prayer. And, even more importantly, he has not forgotten the sorrows we have brought to him. Our prayers are forever stored in God’s inventory; in his “counting.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Psalm 55:21–24; Leviticus 21:13–22:16; Mark 7:1–8

Psalm 55:21–24: “He reached out his hand against his allies,/ profaned his own pact.(21) signals a return to the psalmist’s outrage against the former friend who betrayed him. Now our poet describes how he was duped—and as usual, it’s by smooth talking.

We encounter what I think is one of the more memorable metaphors of deceit that we find in the Psalms— a perfect description of the dynamic of internal evil masked by apparent kindness on the outside—a theme Jesus picks up when he accuses the Pharisees of being “whited sepulchers.” Of course today, we tend to call these people ‘politicians.’
His mouth was soother than butter—
     and battle in his heart.
     His words were softer than oil,
     yet they were drawn swords.” (22)

Butter vs. battle; oil vs. sword. I can think of no better definition of those who would attempt draw us into wars or to con us with smooth talk.

The psalmist is telling us that even though he—and we—may have been duped by a conspiring colleague, there is still one place where we can turn that is safe: “Cast your lot on the Lord/ and he will support you.” (23a) The image of casting one’s lot on God reminds us that turning to God is usually our last resort when we are at the end of our rope. We are feeling so betrayed by others that we hesitate to trust even God, so we say, “OK, everything else has failed, so I guess I try God and see what happens.”  But happily, as the poet says, “He will never let you stumble.” (23b)

The psalm ends on a final imprecation as the poet asks God to act: “And You, O God, bring them down/ to the pit of destruction.” (24a) And the psalm ends with the poet’s confidence that righteousness will win out in the end because he has finally placed his trust in the right place, while the wicked are ultimately doomed:  “Men of bloodshed and deceit/ Will not finish half their days./ But I shall trust in you.” (24b) These are clear references back to this military imagery in the first part of the psalm [“bloodshed”] and then to betrayal by one individual [“deceit”].

The psalmist has learned there is only one person—God—who is worthy of trust. As we fight our battles and seek to avoid deception, this psalm is a tremendous encouragement. The last line—But I shall trust in You—says it all.

Leviticus 21:13–22:16: The list of demands required in order to qualify for the priesthood is impressively long—and it all has to do with the priest reflecting the purity that God requires. “He shall marry only a woman who is a virgin.” (21:31). Moreover, the woman must be a “virgin of his own kin,” (14) i.e., woman of the Levite tribe.

We tend to recoil when we read that “No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.” (16). This being the book of Leviticus, the authors go onto list what “blemish” means and it’s clear that the handicapped or even the unattractive need not apply. the priest may not be:
• blind
• lame
• have a mutilated face
• have one limb longer than the other
• have a broken foot or hand
• be a hunchback or dwarf
• have a blemish in his eyes
• have an itching disease or scabs
• have crushed testicles

The last one in the list makes me really squirm…  In our culture, which is legally and ethically structured to accept people as individuals no matter their infirmity, this list seems downright cruel. But our cultural and legally mandated acceptance of all, no matter their infirmity, is a recent phenomenon. All through history, cultures have hidden or ignored persons with diseases or handicaps. Israel was no different in this respect.

As to why Leviticus demands unblemished priesthood, the reason is simple: we are to present the very best we have to God, and in this case it is the most perfect embodiment of God’s greatest creation—humans. We may not like that rule, but here it is.

With the requirements of the priesthood complete, our authors turn to the qualities of the”sacred donations” themselves. The first rule is quite straightforward: “If anyone among all your offspring throughout your generations comes near the sacred donations,… while he is in a state of uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord.” (22:3) Complicated instructions of what creates uncleanness follow, along with instructions of how to become clean again.

The sacred donations happen to be groceries for the priest and his family—which makes sense since the Levite tribe was not given any land to farm when Israel came into Canaan. But of course there are complicated rules about who may eat the “sacred donation” and who may not, e.g., “If a priest’s daughter marries a layman, she shall not eat of the offering of the sacred donations;” (12)

It’s clear to me that these rules are set out in such excruciating detail because by the time they were actually written down around the time of theBabylonian captivity, every conceivable situation such as a Levite woman marrying a “layman,” had already arisen. Leviticus becomes a giant technical manual to ensure good order at the restored (2nd) temple in Jerusalem.

Mark 7:1–8: Today is one of those days when I suspect the Moravian have calibrated the two of the daily texts to be cleverly in parallel. After reading about what constitutes cleanness and uncleanness in Leviticus, we read in Mark that the “Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus].” (1) And being dedicated followers the Torah, “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.” (2) In other words, Jesus and the disciples were ritually unclean.

Before we get to Jesus’ response, Mark inserts a parenthetical backstory about what by this time had become a religious obsession with cleanliness: “ (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,  thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;  and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)” (3,4)  This explanation suggests strongly to me that Mark’s audience was Gentile and unfamiliar with some of Judaism’s more arcane rules.

The Pharisees—understandably in my opinion—ask Jesus “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (5) That would be the tradition so thoroughly outlined in Leviticus and greatly expanded upon in the centuries that followed.

Jesus’ answer is not a paragon of kindness, but as usual is bluntly direct: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” He then quotes the prophet’s passage that states that they have taken what is God’s and made it man’s :”in vain do they worship me,/teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (7). He then proceeds to tell the religious men that “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (8)

Which is exactly what the church has done to a great extent, and why it has turned people off to “organized religion.” Like the rules of Leviticus, it’s essential to have good order in the church and in worship and sacraments. But when good order morphs over time into inflexible rules, then it and we who are in the church have made it our own thing rather than God’s thing.

In the end it all comes down about who has control: man or God. Jesus’ is clearly siding with God here. But we humans always want to be in control and instituting “good order” as the Pharisees did is our natural inclination. This is a good thing, but carried too far as the Pharisees did violates God’s own good order.

Psalm 55:16–19; Leviticus 20:9–21:12; Mark 6:45–56

Psalm 55:16–19: In a recent film from Fuller Seminary of a conversation between Bono of U2 and Eugene Peterson of The Message, the singer observes, “The Psalms are not pretty; they are not nice, but they are honest.” These verses are an excellent example of disturbing honesty as our poet wishes death upon his enemies who earlier in this psalm have done him so much harm: “May death come upon them./ May they go down to Sheol alive./ For in their homes, in their midst, are evils.” (16) We recoil at these words until we realize that in Eugene Peterson’s phrase (from the same film) the Psalms “give us a way to cuss without cussing.” We can certainly feel the poet’s fiery anger and frustration in this verse. This is a certainly a prayer of “cussing without cussing.”

He compares his enemies’ evil acts against his own trust in God: “But I call to God,/ and the Lord rescues me.” (17) But this is not just an empty hypocritical phrase because he goes on to describe how God has heard him: “Evening and morning and noon/ I complain and moan,/ and He hears my voice.” (18) Here is an honest description of honest prayer. It is not a string of romantically prettified, ersatz religious cliches as we so often think of as being “prayer.” Instead it’s complaining and moaning—exactly as we have seen throughout this psalm. God can handle, even welcomes, our moaning and complaining because the psalmist understands that in God’s eyes moaning and complaining is so far superior to prayer cliches or worse, not praying at all. As he says, “God will hear my voice,” no matter our attitude or feelings.

In this prayer the psalmist acknowledges that God has not only heard, but acted in vitally important ways: “He has ransomed my life unharmed/ from my battle,/ for many were against me.” (19) No matter what enemies may be arrayed against us, no matter what our feelings are, the essential duty is to pray openly and honestly—even when we don’t feel like it or think God will disapprove.

Leviticus 20:9–21:12: In what is starting to feel like an unhealthy obsession on the part of the authors, we encounter a reprise of the many sexual sins, starting with adultery: and its capital punishment: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of  his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” (20:10) In our current “enlightened” era, perhaps the most disturbing prohibition and punishment is, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (13)

While there is little doubt that as far as the scriptures are concerned, homosexual acts are forbidden and punishable by death, so is adultery (10) and bestiality (15, 16).

So, how do we deal with these verses in our own culture? Can we toss out the entire book of Leviticus treating it solely as a cultural artifact that applied to a tribe of people several millennia ago? We certainly are no longer engaged in ritual animal sacrifice. Yet many of the topics it addresses have been cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian culture.  Do we ignore the prohibitions altogether or selectively enforce them? Today, adultery is met with a wink, homosexual increasingly tolerated, but incest remains deeply forbidden. Leviticus is especially puzzling here because adultery and homosexuality are punishable by death, while the punishment for acts of incest “merely” result in expulsion from the community.

I think a partial answer lies in the author, writing in God’s voice, says, “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.” (20:23). In other words these acts are forbidden because of the Covenant. Israel is God’s creation of a holy nation on the earth—in stark contrast to the other tribes and nations that follow these perverse practices. Leviticus is all about building and preserving a community that will prosper because God is at its center and God makes specific demands on his people.

Nevertheless, I believe we cannot simply ignore the prohibitions outlined here since they are essential to maintaining a coherent and ordered civilization. As I look around at today’s “anything goes” culture that focuses on the individual rather than the culture I think we are witnessing a great unraveling of structure and comity. There is a social cost to declaring many (not all) of the prohibitions of Leviticus an irrelevant artifact applicable only to a long-dead people.

Mark 6:45–56: Following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.” (45) Jesus separates himself from everyone and “went up on the mountain to pray.” (46) This seems to be one of the few times in jesus’ ministry where he successfully is able to get off by himself for prayer.

But Jesus, being Jesus, sees everything and “he saw that [the disciples] were straining at the oars against an adverse wind,” (48a). So in the morning he rather matter-of-factly decides to simply walk across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida without benefit of a boat, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Mark adds the fascinating detail that Jesus “intended to pass them by.” (48b)  Did Jesus really think he would merely walk on by, blithely ignoring the disciples, pretending they wouldn’t notice him?

Needless to say, the sight of Jesus walking on water freaks out the disciples: “when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. (49) Jesus, seeing their distress, “immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (50) The wind promptly stops and Jesus clambers into the boat and “they were utterly astounded.” (51)

So, what is Jesus doing here that he would be so insouciant that he would take a casual stroll on the lake? I think one reason that Mark hints at is that it’s a teachable moment. The disciples would understand once and for all that whatever miracles Jesus was to perform, they were from God and therefore not to be feared. All through the Bible we hear the words, “Fear not.” Unlike the small-g gods, our God is not out to get us to follow or obey him by striking fear into our hearts. Rather, he comes to us winsomely, seeking an honest, loving relationship with us.

I think the second reason for Jesus’ act is revealed in Mark’s comment at the end of this story, “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (52) That certainly suggests that they did not actually believe the feeding of the 5000 was a legitimate miracle. Perhaps, like many modern commentators, they believed the loaves and fishes that Jesus had presented to the crowd were simply a signal for the crowd to pull out the lunches they had brought along.

But the obvious miracle of water walking convinces the disciples who are “utterly astounded” that Jesus is far more and far greater than an interestingly charismatic rabbi and itinerant healer.

After the crossing, “they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.” (53) People immediately recognize who Jesus is and he is besieged by the sick from far and wide, whom he heals and “all who touched [his cloak] were healed.” (56) Mark doesn’t say so, but I believe the disciples were looking at Jesus with softened hearts and new eyes, slowly beginning to realize that Jesus may indeed be closely related to God himself.

Of course we are exactly like the disciples. We would prefer a dramatic event to convince us about Jesus’ bona fides. Contrast this with the sick whose faith is so strong that merely touching Jesus’ garments is sufficient to heal them. Sometimes, sophisticated theology is a stumbling block compared to simple faith.


Psalm 55:9–15; Leviticus 19:12–20:8; Mark 6:30–44

Psalm 55:9–15: Knowing that he is safe in God, who “would make haste to a refuge for me/from the streaming wind and the storm,” (9) the psalmist’s fear of dread rather mysteriously transmogrifies to complaints against people in “the town” [Jerusalem, I presume] who appear to be conspiring against him and causing trouble in general. Not surprisingly, he asks God to deal rather harshly with them: “O master, confound their tongue,/ for I have seen outrage and strife in the town.” (10)

They appear to be generally making trouble not just for him, but all the inhabitants of the place: “day and night they go round it on its walls,/ and mischief and misdeeds within it,/ disaster within it.” (11, 12a) Conspiracy and plotting seem to be the primary product: “guile and deceit never part from its square.” (12b). One thinks immediately of Washington DC. And words such as guile, deceit, mischief all seem to be a pretty accurate adjectives describing the current political season. As usual, we’re reminded that human nature—especially its capacity for sin—remains immutable.

The complaints suddenly turn quite personal as our poet seems to have been betrayed by someone quite close to him. After first observing that he can withstand the slings and arrows of his enemies quite boldly—”No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,”(13a)—he turns personal: “But you—a man to my measure,/ my companion and my familiar.” (14) And we can feel the personal hurt this betrayal has caused as he reflects on the former friendship, which is now broken: “with whom we shared sweet counsel,/ in the house of our God in elation we walked.” (15)

To be betrayed by someone with whom we have been intimate is an enormous hurt. Alas, we see this brokenness around us every day—particularly between husband and wife. These few verses poignantly put into words the tragedy of a severed relationship. May God preserve us from that wound.

Leviticus 19:12–20:8 Another author seem to have taken over in chapter 19 as the style turns from God-Moses narrative to a list that is striking in its miscellaneous nature. Were the author writing today, I’m pretty sure he’d format this chapter as bullets on a series of Powerpoint slides.

Some of the points are reprises of the Decalogue: “you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God.” (19:12) and “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal.” (13). Others are commands of respect: “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” (14) And maintain harmonious relationships in your own family, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” (17)

One instruction in particular leaps off the page because it is half of what Jesus called the greatest commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (18)

Following this profundity, the list becomes more random, but it is still practical advice and important to maintaining the cohesion and health of the community. These include no sexual relations with some other man’s slave. (20) and waiting three years after planting an orchard to harvest and and another two years to eat its fruit. (23-25) I’m no horticulturalist, but this admonition seems to make practical sense. There are other commands relating to commerce: “You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (35)

Some are quite odd: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (28) And another one that I have broken personally: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” (29)

The elderly deserve respect, something I’m coming to appreciate more each day: “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old.” (32)

And perhaps the one that’s most relevant of all in our unending political dispute about immigration and xenophobes who want to expel immigrants and build a wall: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.” After all, God reminds them, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (34) Which, when I think about it is also true for basically everyone in America. We all came from somewhere else. 

Chapter 20 returns to the God-Moses narrative style as God communicates harsh imprecations against anyone who would worship his rival, the small-g god Molech rather than God: “Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death.” (20) This is the same fire god that demanded child sacrifice. And of course it is one of the gods to which Israel turned in its later depravity.

Mark 6:30–44: By now, Jesus is a celebrity. He invites his disciples (which interestingly, Mark calls ‘apostles, in verse 30) to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (31) They set out (presumably by boat, to “a deserted place by themselves,” but to no avail as “many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” (33) So they step ashore to “a great crowd.”

But it’s a crowd on which Jesus takes compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (34). Mark’s message up to this point is crystalline: the crowd is spiritually hungry, eager to hear a new message that may offer escape from their ordinary—and doubtless oppressed—lives.

The crowds today are no different except that they seek to fill that same sheep-without-a-shepherd emptiness in ultimately meaningless pursuits such as being loyal fans of professional sports or adoring fans of popular musicians. They are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to feel fulfilled, if only for a few hours. The recent outpouring of well publicized grief over the death of pop artist Prince is a clear demonstration of the same existential hunger that pervaded the crowd in front of Jesus.

The ever-practical disciples point out that it’s late, everyone’s hungry, and even if the could afford the 200 denarii of bread, there’s no place to buy it. Of course these are the natural obstacles we all place in front of Jesus: we’re hungry and tired; there’s nowhere to turn for sustenance.

So Jesus famously feeds the 5000. There have been lots of explanations as to why this probably wasn’t the miracle it appeared to be. But explanations such as the crowd had actually brought its food with it are pointless, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether it’s a miracle or not. That’s not mark’s point here.

I believe the real point of Mark’s story is that physical hunger is a parable for spiritual hunger. And there is only one place where that spiritual hunger can be satisfied: in Jesus, who as John points out in his gospel is the bread of life. Without Jesus, the crowd—us— will simply wander in the desert hungry, fruitlessly placing flowers and teddy bears along the fence of the dead pop star’s estate. Still wandering. Still hungry. Still in the spiritual desert.



Psalm 55:1–8; Leviticus 18:6–19:11; Mark 6:14–29

Psalm 55:1–8: The opening words, “Hearken, O God, hear my prayer,/ and do not ignore my plea” tells us this is a psalm of supplication. The poet writing in David’s voice is rather presumptuously demanding of God, telling him, “Listen well to me and answer me.” (3a) However, his harsh almost disrespectful informality may be due to his feeling that he will faint dead away imminently: “In my complaint I sway and moan.” (3b).

The verses that follow are an extended catalog of his dire situation, which appears to be an looming defeat in battle. His situation is having a profoundly negative psychological impact on him, running the gamut “from the sound of the enemy” (4a) to “horror envelopes me.” (6b) In between are adjectives and verbs that paint a picture of imminent death, which certainly explains the desperate language of his prayer: “In my complaint sway and moan./ From the sound of the enemy,/ from the crushing force of the wicked/ when they bring mischief down upon me/ and in fury harass me.” (4). This oppression creates the deep fear that he is indeed near death: “my heart quails within me/ and death-terrors fall upon me,/ fear and trembling enter me/ and horror envelops me.” (5,6)

He briefly dreams of escape: And I would say, ‘Would I had wings like  dove./ I would fly off and find rest.“(7)—even if the possibility of escape meant he would be forced to live alone in the desert: “Look, I would wander far away,/ and lodge in the wilderness.” (8)

I have never experienced the horrors of battle, but there is a deep authenticity here that suggests it was written by someone who was. Above all, these verses communicate a desperation that impels the poet to turn to the only one who can rescue him: God.  And as he demonstrates we do not need to reverent or formal in prayer. In fact I think it is better that our prayer honestly reflects our feelings of the moment. Prayer is not liturgy; it is communication, no matter what the circumstance.

Leviticus 18:6–19:11: We encounter an astounding catalog of of the varieties of incest and forbidden sexual relations: “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness.” (18:6) I presume the phrase, “you shall not uncover her nakedness” is not only prohibition of viewing one’s kin naked, but also a euphemism for sexual relations. Every combination is anathema, but expressed in rather complex manner, as e.g., “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.” (7)

Our authors extend the prohibition to sisters (9), granddaughters (10), “your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister.” (11), aunts (13), uncles (14), daughter-in-law, and even “a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.” (18) Nor sexual relations while a woman “is in her menstrual uncleanness.” (19) nor with any “kinsman’s wife.” (20)

Then almost casually amidst the other prohibitions, the authors list the astounding prohibition against child sacrifice: “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God” (21) As well as the perversion of bestiality: “You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it.” (23)

And for our modern age, perhaps the most controversial prohibition of all: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (22) There is no getting around the clarity of this statement. The question arises of course, how is homoerotic love has become the exception to a long list of unacceptable sexual relationships that our society by and large still obeys? I do not know how to answer that.

What the authors do make clear, however, is that these practices are widespread among other tribes and nations: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves.” (24) This statement certainly greets me as an after-the-fact justification for the invasion and settling of Canaan by the Israelites.

The punishment for the persons who commit any of these acts is crystalline: “For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.” (29) As we have observed before, these prohibitions were essential elements in preserving the health and robustness of the Israelite race.

In chapter 19 the authors turn to other prohibitions as they explicate details of the decalogue. Parents are honored and sabbaths are kept. And the parts of sacrifices of well-being that have not be consumed by the third day are to be thrown away. Which certainly makes sense in an era without refrigeration.

Social welfare is also important: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” Which tells me that every society has a profound duty to care for the poor (and yes, the aliens!) among us. Christians who complain about social welfare programs or believe illegal immigrants are to be shipped back across the border would do well to reflect on this chapter.

Mark 6:14–29: Of all the gospel writers—and surprisingly in this shortest gospel where terseness is always present—Mark gives us the greatest detail regarding the death of John the Baptist. What’s particularly interesting here is that Mark introduces the story of the death of John by noting that word about Jesus’ acts had reached Herod. As is human nature—and certainly still true in our era of 24/7 talking heads on cable “news” shows—all kinds of wild rumors about Jesus were in circulation: “Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” (14,15) Mark gives us tremendous insight into Herod’s insecurity and even fear: “But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (16)

Herod has good reason to be fearful for he knows the backstory about John that was probably not public at that time. Herod arrested John because “John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (18) Deep down, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” At the same time Herod knew that John represented something important: “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (20b)

But Herod’s daughter Herodius despised John. We know the story: Herod, in his unthinking stupidity offers his daughter anything she desires for her voluptuous dance performance, “even half my kingdom.” But on the advice of her equally evil mother, asks for the head of John on a platter, a request with which Herod, to maintain face, complies.

Mark is telling us clearly that even though Herod knew John was right, he had refused to accept the truth and he remained a coward. John was executed because the king lacked the courage to refuse a stupid offer and to stand up against his wife and daughter. Of course, it’s also a negative example and therefore a challenge to Mark’s readers and to us that standing up for what is holy and right, as well as for Jesus, requires courage, especially in the face of political or cultural disapproval. A situation becoming increasingly common in our own culture. It is far too easy to take the easy route and become Herods ourselves.



Psalm 54; Leviticus 16:26–18:5; Mark 6:7–13

Psalm 54: This psalm’s superscription, “when the Ziphites came to Saul, ‘Is not David hiding our among us?‘”  (2) refers to the incident in I Samuel 23 where David, fleeing from Saul, is betrayed by the Ziphites, in whose territory he is hiding. The context here suggests the psalm’s author is writing as David pleads to God after just hearing that Saul now knows where he is.

It’s a pretty standard prayer of supplication although its first two verses seem somehow reversed. The prayer begins with the plea, “God, thorough Your name rescue me,/ and through Your might take up my cause.” (3) followed by what seems like a more conventional opening sentence: “God, O hear my prayer,/ hearken to my mouth’s utterances.” (4) Perhaps the poet is underscoring David’s out-of-breath desperation, where the urgency of the supplication trumps taking the time to create a formal prayer structure. Which is good to know. I think many of us hesitate to pray because we feel our words will not be elegant enough or the structure of our prayer occurs in exactly the right order that we believe somehow God demands. This psalm suggests that God really does not care about all that.

The core of David’s prayer come next: “For strangers have risen against me,/ and oppressors have sought my life.” (5a) The strangers would be the Ziphites and the oppressor is Saul. As usual, there is a theological observation about their sinful state and the implication that therefore they have committed this grievous wrong against David: “They did not set God before them.” (5b)

Confidence that God will answer returns as our poetic David asserts, “Look, God is about to help me,/ my Master—among those who support me.” (6) In short, God is on David’s side. And with that assurance, David hurls an imprecation, “Let Him pay back evil to my assailants../ Demolish then through Your truth! ” (7) Which raises the interesting idea that it is God’s truth and the refusal of his enemies to accept that truth that results in their ultimate defeat. That’s good advice for those who battle in the culture wars: the ultimate assurance that God’s truth will triumph in the ned—even though we wish he would act a little faster.

Leviticus 16:26–18:5: The instructions regarding the Day of Atonement conclude with the disposition of the bull for the sin offering and unsurprisingly, the command that the “one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward may come into the camp.” (16:28) More importantly, the precise day for the Day of Atonement is set “forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves,  and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (16:29). I think the next verse is the most significant one of all for it summarizes the day’s purpose: “ For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord.” (16:30) Notice that it is a gift from God—”for you”—not something God requires because he’s just being arbitrarily complicated.

Of course this day continues to be celebrated as Rosh Hashanah these several millennia later.

Chapter 17 emphasizes two critically important rules. The first is that sacrifices can be made in one place and one place only: at “the entrance of the tent of meeting.” (17:4) The consequences are severe. If a sacrifice is made to God in any other location, no matter how sincerely, that person or persons “shall be cut off from the people,” (17:8)  i.e. banished from the community. I think this rule is in place to  delineate Israel clearly from the surrounding idolatrous tribes, who would create a “high place” in various locations and sacrifice right then and there. God demands order, not randomness. It also underscores the monotheism of Israel. God is present in only one place. And here, it is the tent of meeting.

The other cause for being banished from the community, whether “anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them” (17:10) is the consumption of blood. The reason is straightforward: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (17:11) Blood is life and that life has but one purpose: atonement for sins before God. The idea of blood as atonement of course finds its fulfillment for us in the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood on the ross. For it is in the blood that we are “washed white as snow.” In short, blood, whether animal or human, is sacred because it is the means by which God gives and sustains the lives of every creature. [Only the Germans and their predilection for blood sausage seem to ignore this rule.]

Chapter 18 opens with a brief intermezzo, reminding us that in the midst of all these rules, we must remember that Israel’s God is wholly unique among all the other small-g gods that surround them: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (18:2, 3) And Israel’s responsibility for enjoying this unique covenantal relationship is simply that “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.” (18:5) A simple rule but as we will see, rife with faulty execution.

Mark 6:7–13: Following the fairly disastrous encounter at Nazareth, Jesus turns to the mission at hand, and as far is Mark is concerned, the real reason Jesus has called these particular disciples: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (7) Notice that while Jesus has given them authority over the “unclean spirits,” presumably the ability to cast out demons, he has not given them healing powers. At this point Jesus has reserved this power to himself.

What remains somewhat puzzling to me is that he basically creates an order of mendicant missionaries (a practice continued by some orders of Catholic monks): He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. (8) This would presumably make their jobs harder, but I think Jesus is proving the point that working in the Kingdom does not require wealth or even bringing supplies. God will provide.

Jesus’ next words need to be remembered over and over: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (11) Mark has placed this statement immediately following Jesus’ own lack of success in Nazareth as a reminder that not everyone will respond—even to Jesus himself. And if it appears that the Holy Spirit is not working in a person or place we are to move. I think many overly-sincere folks tend to badger their “targets” to the point of annoyance and then to outright rejection. For example, I’m suspicious of people who try to “convert” atheists.  It is enough to simply state what Jesus has done for us and then to live that example because actions always speak louder than words. Badgering someone by telling them they’re wrong-headed only leads to antipathy. Speak gently and let the Holy Spirit work. We should not be looking to put notches on our spiritual holsters.

Psalm 53; Leviticus 15:25–16:25; Mark 6:1–6

Psalm 53: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially a duplicate of Psalm 14 with only a few minor exceptions. That said, its message is completely relevant to us today.

There is little ambiguity here. There are those who are on God’s side and those who are not. Our psalmist focuses on the “not” crowd: “The scoundrel has said in his heart,/ ‘There is no God.‘” (2a) A scoundrel is a God-denier and as a result of living without God, “They do corrupt and loathsome misdeeds./ There is none who does God.” (2b) In short, by denying God’s existence they are incapable of doing good at all.

In a verse that recalls the conditions of Noah’s time, “The Lord from the heavens looked down/ on the sons of humankind/ to see, is there someone discerning,/ someone seeking God.” (3) At least God found Noah, but now the situation is even more dire. No righteous man is to be found, “All are tainted,/ one and all befouled. / There is none who does good./ There is not even one.” (4) That’s certainly a verse that resonates today as people in the name of “tolerance,” “equality,” “inclusivity,” deny God and seek to seek to eject God and God-followers from the public square. They are saying, “Go ahead, worship your pretend God, but do it only in private.”

The psalmist asks rhetorically, “Do they not know,/ the wrongdoers?” (5a). They were “Devourers of my people devoured them like bread./ They did not call on God.” (5b) In other words, those God-deniers who attempted to conquer Israel were in turn conquered themselves. In the usual confusion of pronouns, the psalmist writes, “They did sorely fear/ [but] There was no fear,/ for God scattered the bones of your besieger.” (6a) Here, “they” appears to be Israel or Israel’s army. Everything turns out right for those who trusted in God. In fact, in Israel’s victory, “You put them to shame, for God spurned them [the would-be devourers].” (6b) Even as Israel feared defeat, God was there for them because they did not deny God.

So, too, that should be our attitude. When we are feeling besieged on all sides by the culture, our responsibility is to trust God. After all, if we have faith in God, who is over all things, we should not fear but rejoice that at some point, “God restores His people’s condition.” (7)

Leviticus 15:25–16:25: The authors conclude their clinical discussion of “discharges” by describing the ritual sacrifice requires to restore a state of cleanliness. In these concluding verses they seem to finally offer an explanation for this lengthy disquisition on bodily fluids: “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (15:31) Just to make sure we get their point they remind us once again, “This is the ritual for those who have a discharge: for him who has an emission of semen, becoming unclean thereby, for her who is in the infirmity of her period, for anyone, male or female, who has a discharge, and for the man who lies with a woman who is unclean.” (15:32, 33) I trust this is the last discussion of this topic we will have to endure.

The authors now define the requirements of the Day of Atonement, which is still celebrated today as Rosh Hashanah. [I really have to wonder about who decided the topic order of Leviticus. It certainly seems jarring to move to the most holy of rituals immediately after the discussion of male and female bodily fluids.]

As usual, the ritual is framed as a set of instructions communicated by God to Moses, this time “after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.” (16:1) It appears that a primary cause of their death was that they just showed up before God on their own timetable, not God’s: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die.” (16:2)

When the time is appropriate, Aaron offers a bull as a sin offering and then takes two goats. Lots are cast over the goat: One is sacrificed to God; the other “shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” (16:10)

Detailed instructions regarding how the bull and one goat are sacrificed and their blood applied to the mercy seat. Then, “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.” (16:20). Aaron lays his hands on the live goat “and confess[es] over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.” (16:21) Whence our term ‘scapegoat.’

What is the theological meaning of the scapegoat? Why is the goat that bears the people’s sins allowed to live and be sent into the wilderness? Is it a hint of Jesus’ sacrifice wherein our sins were all laid on his head, but that like the goat both he and we live?

Mark 6:1–6: Jesus heads back to Nazareth and Mark adds the note that “his disciples followed him.” (1) Jesus’ teaching is at a depth heretofore never heard in Nazareth: “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.” (2a) Interestingly, it is “many,” not “all” who were astounded. Proof that in every congregation there are those who may remain unimpressed no matter how fabulous the preaching.

Jesus’ erudition creates enormous cognitive dissonance in the congregation. First they acknowledge Jesus’ wisdom and “deeds of power”, asking “Where did this man get all this?” (2) Then reality sets in: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?“* (3) How could an ordinary tekton grubbing around in some insignificant country town amass all this wisdom and power? Firmly connected to reality, they quickly decide that he’s either a charlatan or demon-possessed: “And they took offense  at him.” (5) Which is exactly what today’s world does— so enamored of the power of science and rejecting of anything but that which is materially observable. We even have a term for it: scientific materialism. This passage also tells us is that human skepticism is not a modern phenomenon.

Jesus basically tells them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (4) which is another way of saying that the people who truly know somebody—or think they know somebody— or have observed them from childhood are supremely fixated in their perception of that person and completely unwilling to change their point of view.

Which of course is what we all do. We think we know someone but when something miraculous happens we go out of our way to discount it. And that lack of faith drains away God’s power, which as Mark notes, “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (5) The issue here is not that Jesus lacked power, but that the people—us—lacked faith and would rather remain rooted in what we know rather than willingly suspend our disbelief and accept the fantastic gift that the Kingdom of God really is.


*I believe this is the only place where we learn that jesus had brothers and sisters, even though many Catholics would like to believe Mary was perpetually a virgin and have come up with all kinds of entertaining theories to explain away this verse. Personally, I go with Occam;’s Razor and accept that Mary went on to have other children. Notice also the absence of Joseph. Many have speculated that he died sometime after the event of Jesus at the Temple that Luke records.

Psalm 52; Leviticus 15:1–24; Mark 5:21–43

Writing again from Monterey…

Psalm 52: The superscription of this psalm states it is written for “when Doeg the Edomite came and told [King] Saul and said to him, ‘David has come to the house of Achimelech.‘” (2) As we read in I Samuel 21, Doeg’s treachery results in Saul slaughtering all the priests of Nob, including Achimelech, so this event sets the dark, almost hateful tone of this psalm.

Our poet opens with sarcasm: “Why boast of evil, O hero?” (3) and then goes on to make his accusations: “Disasters your tongue devises,/ like a well-honed razor, doing deceit.” (4) His actions arise from his evil character: “You love evil better than good,/ a lie more than speaking justice.” (5)  As happens so frequently in the Psalms, it is speech—here the betrayal to Saul—that does the damage: “You love all destructive words,/the tongue of deceit.” (6)

The psalmist returns the favor with one of the strongest imprecations we encounter in the Psalms: “God will surely smash you forever,/ sweep you up and tear you from the tent,root you out from the land of the living.” (7) These are strong verbs indeed—smash, sweep, tear, root—that lie in this sentence hoping for the traitor’s death.

The psalmist believes that the traitor’s death will cause “the righteous [who] shall see it and be awed/ and laugh over him.” (8) Jesus of course turns this all on its head and while we can read and even think that the traitor is receiving his just desserts, we are obligated to love him or her. Tough to do.

Our psalmist turns to the moral lesson here: “Look, the man who does not make/ God his stronghold,/ and who trusts in great wealth, / who would be strong in his disaster!” (9) In other words, the only outcome is “strength in disaster,” i.e., the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

We who follow God, on the other hand are “like a verdant olive tree/ in the house of our God.” (10a) And we have but one overriding obligation: “I trust in God’s kindness forevermore.” And as always, out of trust in God arises worship: “I shall acclaim You forever, for You have acted,/ and hope in Your name, for it is good,/ before Your faithful.” (11)

Leviticus 15:1–24: Well now we come to the lovely issue of issues: bodily discharges. For me: semen in the form of nocturnal emission, masturbation, or premature ejaculation . For women: menstruation.

As far as semen is concerned, anytime it ends up outside a woman’s vagina it renders the man and anything he touches—clothes, bedclothes, and even the bizarre situation of “the one with the discharge [who] spits on persons who are clean,” (8) unclean. Even the person who touches the sheets where semen has landed becomes unclean.

Becoming clean again requires a seven day wait and a modest (two turtledoves or two pigeons) sin sacrifice. While a man may suffer this uncleanness only occasionally, menstruating women are condemned to be ritually unclean for seven days every month. If a man has sex with her during this period he, too, becomes unclean.

So, why this seeming obsession with bodily fluids? If nothing else, the bother and effort of of ritual cleansing would certainly cause a man to think twice before “self-pleasure,” not to mention sexual intercourse. As for the idea of a woman being unclean during her period, this squeamishness has lasted well into our time. As always, the Levitical rules have practical effect and were probably revolutionary in their time compared to other cultures.

Mark 5:21–43: Jesus returns to Capernaum and is immediately confronted by a distraught Jairus, who is a leader in the synagogue. This is no calm rational conversation, but Jairus “begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’” (23) As the father of a daughter I can empathize with his anxiety. So, Jesus agrees to head over to Jairus’s house.

In the crowd that accompanies Jesus and Jairus is a woman “who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.” (25). In a sentence that feels completely modern, Mark informs us, “She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.” (26) Anyone who has had lengthy encounters with the medical industrial complex to little avail can identify with her hopelessness.  Mark is telling us this to ensure we know she is completely at the end of her rope. And in this world of ritual cleanliness, she has been rendered permanently unclean and therefore effectively an outcast in society.

Being a woman she has not has direct access to Jesus for help and to ask politely. She has but one option left: “she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” (28) She does that and “Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.” (29). Mark tells us that Jesus was “Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him.” (30). Notice how Mark uses “immediately” twice in rapid succession. I think he is telling us that Jesus power is independent of time. There is no waiting period; it is always present if we have faith.

Jesus’ question of course creates great anxiety in the newly-healed woman. Has she done something awful? Will Jesus retract his healing? Jesus actually doesn’t know who touched him until “the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” (33) The woman knows she has been healed by a power that is far greater than anything human. I think I would have been in fear and trembling as well. But she demonstrates enormous courage by coming to Jesus and confessing what she did. She could have just run off and hoped for the best.

This woman shows us that true faith is accompanied by courage. This is a faith that arises not out of intellectual assent, as I so often regard it. Rather it is a faith that arises out of  the core of her very being; a faith based on knowing that nothing else will save her. And that, I think, is what real faith is about: knowing that all the human alternatives are ultimately dead ends. Only a raw faith in Jesus allows us to tap into his power.

Jesus’ trip to Jairus’s house has been delayed by the woman and I’m sure Jairus was nervous about the delay only to have his worst fears realized when he’s told his daughter has died. But Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, only believe.” (36) Which of course is exactly the same thing the hemorrhaging woman has just displayed: Faith without fear. Jesus heals the little girl, and Mark again demonstrates that faith and courage—the absence of fear—go hand in hand. There can be no such thing as a fearful faith. We are either one way or the other.


Psalm 51:13–19; Leviticus 14:19–57; Mark 5:1–20

Writing this morning from the Monterey Plaza Hotel looking out over the water…

Psalm 51:13–19: Having asked for a pure heart and a renewed spirit, David now pleads, “Do not fling me from Your presence,/ and Your holy spirit take not from me.” (13) Here we see two aspects of the Trinity quite clearly; proof that the Holy Spirit was not an invention of the New Testament. The Holy Spirit that Jesus promised, and which appeared on Pentecost, has been here along.

Our poet, speaking as David, goes on to ask for a renewal of his entire being: “Give me back the gladness of Your rescue/ and with a noble spirit sustain me.” (14) With his own joy and spirit restored, he is now able to witness to those who have drifted away from God: “Let me teach transgressors Your ways,/ and offenders  will come back to you.” (15) For me, this is the essence of Christian witness: a personal joy and spirit that speaks far more eloquently than sermons, songs, or altar calls.

Our poet’s David knows he is in an extremely rough situation, perhaps referring to the time when Saul was pursuing him: “Save me from bloodshed, O God,/ God of my rescue.” (16). The challenge here for us when we find ourselves in difficult circumstances is to remember that God is a rescuing God if we but call out to him.

And when God has rescued and restored us, we come, as always, to worship: “Let my tongue sing out Your bounty./ O master, open my lips,/ that my mouth may tell Your praise.” (17)

In perhaps one of the most radical verses in the Old testament, our poet realizes that the entire temple and sacrificial is but a simulacrum—a play act—of the real relationship that God really desires: “For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,/ burnt-offering You greet not with pleasure.” (18) The relationship between Creator and creature that God seeks is far superior. It is a relationship of the heart and a contrite spirit: “God’s sacrifices—a broken spirit. / A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.” (19) We come to God in abject humility, not is empty religiosity.

Leviticus 14:19–57:

We are deep into the details of the sacrificial system that our psalmist, speaking as David, spurns. As we’ve observed before, diseases of the skin must have been prevalent for the authors to spend all this detail on how the formerly leprous person is restored through sacrifice into full relationship with the community at large.

Attention then turns to the dwelling of the person with leprosy. One of the clues that these comprehensive instructions were written long after the desert wanderings is the fact that “houses” appear to be permanent dwellings, not the tents we would expect. When the homeowner comes to the priest and says, “There seems to me to be some sort of disease in my house.” (35) the priest conducts the usual examination to see if “the disease is in the walls of the house with greenish or reddish spots” (37).

If the house appears still to be contaminated after seven days, then “the priest shall command that the stones in which the disease appears be taken out and thrown into an unclean place outside the city.” (40) Plaster is also removed and dumped outside the city. If resetting stones and replastering don’t work, and the disease remains, the priest “shall have the house torn down, its stones and timber and all the plaster of the house, and taken outside the city to an unclean place.” (45) Pretty drastic action, but as always, the health of the community trumps the individual. Further hygienic cautions are required, and “and all who sleep in the house shall wash their clothes; and all who eat in the house shall wash their clothes.” (47)

In the happy circumstance where the priest inspects the house and finds it to be clean, then the same sacrifice—two birds, with cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop, (49)—as for the formerly leprous person is conducted, although this time the object of cleansing is the house.

The authors conclude this seemingly endless set of instructions that deal with persons, clothing, and houses affected by skin disease by summarizing, “This is the ritual for any leprous disease: for an itch, for leprous diseases in clothing and houses.” (54) This section, indeed, all of Leviticus, provides ample proof that the Bible is not simply a Holy Spirit-inspired book, it is also a set of comprehensive instructions to maintain the health of the community. We can be grateful for modern science that has given us less drastic ways in which to deal with communicable disease, but we cannot criticize the sophistication of ancient rules that helped preserve Israel while tribes around them have simply disappeared.

Mark 5:1–20: We come to the famous story of Jesus healing the Gerasene demoniac. This man is clearly suffering a severe form of mental illness: “no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces.” (3, 4) In a culture where disease was seen as a strictly physical manifestation (See Leviticus above), the ravings of the lunatic were seen as straightforward demon possession. 

But then Mark makes a pretty convincing case that something beyond mental illness is going on here as he records the dialog between Jesus and the demon speaking through the man. Mark makes it clear that the demon recognizes Jesus as being much more than merely human, but that he has power not only on earth but over the “powers and principalities.” Inasmuch as Mark does not recount the story of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, it is here that he gives us a clear picture of Jesus as God, as the demon shouts, “at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” (7) Jesus does not explicitly cast out the demon but exercises his power by allowing the demon to transfer itself into two thousand (!) pigs, who immediately “rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea.” (13) To a Jewish audience, the fact that these are pigs further emphasizes the uncleanness, indeed the evil, of demonic reality.

The demoniac is now in his right mind, but the pig owners are pretty upset and demand that Jesus leave Gerasene. The healed man begs permission to join up with Jesus, but Jesus refuses and tells him to become a witness in his own town: “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.” (19) Which is exactly what the man does and “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.” (20).

I think it is this final scene between Jesus and the man that is the key lesson here. Mark is telling his readers—and us—that we are effective witnesses in our own places. Not everyone is called to become a missionary to a foreign land. Nor is everyone called to enter religious service. Most of us are called by Jesus to live and testify to his power right where we are.

Psalm 51:7–12; Leviticus 13:47–14:18; Mark 4:30–41

Psalm 51:7–12: The poet, speaking in David”s voice, turns to the reality of his innate sinfulness: “Look, in transgression I was conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.” (7) I assume that some interpreters would take this verse as a description of original sin, but for me it is far more personal. The poet seems to be suggesting that his birth is the result of a lustful action, perhaps even rape, on the part of his father.

In light of his sinfulness, he seeks purification: “Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.” (9a). Priests in the temple dipped hyssop branches in the animal’s blood and sprinkled it on the altar. Here, hyssop is the natural symbol of purification. And in an image remarkable in the Middle East where snow is rare, he famously asks, “Wash me whiter than snow.” (9b).  Blood (hyssop) is juxtaposed against whiteness as purity (snow). Both Leviticus (chapter 17) and the author of Hebrews make it clear that purification comes only through the shedding of blood. Of course, for us that is Christ’s blood, which was shed once and for all.

He prays for God to bring something back into his life that has been missing for a long time: “Let me hear gladness and joy,/ let the nones that You crushed exult.” (10) In confession and forgiveness there is joy. As for the crushed bones, I don’t think he is talking about God literally breaking his bones, but rather that his realization of his sinfulness has brought him to a prostrate position before God, and now free of sin, he asks God to raise him up to exult in worship.

David recognizes that as a God of justice and truth, God cannot look directly upon him in his current sinful state. He asks God to “Avert Your face from my offenses.” (11a) But even though God’s face may be averted, there can be forgiveness: “and all my misdeeds wipe away.” (11b) There is first purification and expunging of sins. Then there is restoration: “A pure heart create for me, God,/ and a firm spirit renew within me.” (12) This verse and the one that follows are at the center of traditional Lutheran liturgical confession and renewal, which as a congregation we used to sing every Sunday. Alas, another vital element of worship that has been replaced by praise song banality.

Leviticus 13:47–14:18: The authors clearly understand concept of contamination and describe elaborate rules for dealing with clothing—both fabric and animal skin. Apparently there were skin diseases which caused garments to “show greenish or reddish in the garment, whether in warp or woof or in skin or in anything made of skin,” (13:49). Once again it is the priest who assesses the garment after it’s been stored for seven days. If he declares the garment unclean, “He shall burn the clothing, whether diseased in warp or woof, woolen or linen, or anything of skin, for it is a spreading leprous disease.” (52). On the other hand, if the washed garment and “the disease has abated after it is washed, he shall tear the spot out of the cloth, in warp or woof, or out of skin.” (56)  This certainly explains the origin of the torn clothes that lepers are supposed to wear. But if after another week the spot reappears elsewhere on the garment, it is consigned to fire.

While these details seem somewhat absurd in what is supposed to be holy scripture, there’s no question that these arcane rules and regulations prevent epidemics and preserved the overall health of the community.

The authors now turn to the ritual of purification of lepers and their houses. In the happy event that the “disease is healed in the leprous person, the priest shall command that two living clean birds and cedarwood and crimson yarn and hyssop be brought for the one who is to be cleansed.” (14:4) [I’m fascinated by the crimson yarn, whose color must certainly signify blood.] After a week of living outside the camp, the person who has been purified “he shall shave all his hair: of head, beard, eyebrows; he shall shave all his hair. Then he shall wash his clothes, and bathe his body in water, and he shall be clean.” (14:9) Wow. Even the eyebrows. Clearly the belief was that the hair harbored a communicable disease.

Once washed and clean, the healed person comes and offers a very precisely defined sacrifice: “On the eighth day he shall take two male lambs without blemish, and one ewe lamb in its first year without blemish, and a grain offering of three-tenths of an ephah of choice flour mixed with oil, and one log of oil.” (14:10) The lambs are sacrificed and the procedures associated with a guilt sacrifice are followed. At this point the previously leprous person is restored to the community. And we have to imagine there was a big party at this point.

Both today’s psalm and the Leviticus passage center around purification and restoration. Once we have been purified we are restored. In Leviticus, restoration is to the community. More significantly, in the Psalm, we are restored to a right relationship with God.

Mark 4:30–41: Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, which begins small and yet “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (32) If we imagine Jesus and his disciples as the seeds, the church which continues to grow more than two millennia later certainly underscores the truth of his parable.

Once again, Mark tells us that Jesus’ public speeches were strictly in parables, which he used to “speak the word to them.” Mark observes that the public was able to “hear it,” (33) But while the people heard, there’s the very strong sense here that they did not really comprehend. Nor did the disciples. But at least, “he explained everything in private to his disciples.” (34).  This also gives me the personal freedom to not fret when I don’t understand everything we read in the Bible.

So, why did Jesus speak only in parables? Was he trying to hide something? Or make it more difficult to enter the Kingdom? Mark really never tells us, and we are forced simply to accept this as Jesus’ preaching method.

Jesus is ready to cross over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee and catches a nap as they do so. Mark adds the intriguing detail, “Other boats were with him.” (36) as the crowd follows him relentlessly. The famous storm arises and unlike other gospels where this storm is described, Mark provides us a pretty good reason why these seasoned fishermen would be afraid: “the boat was already being swamped.” (37). The panicked disciples awaken Jesus and rather than simply asking for help make sure to accuse him of getting them into this dire situation and, “said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (38).

This accusation is one of those places that underscore the human authenticity of the gospels. If this were some fairy tale being written by the disciples, I’m pretty sure they would have left out the part about being panicked and then rebuking their leader so thoughtlessly. What Mark describes is, I think, exactly how any anxious group of people would react.

Jesus stills the storm and rebukes them: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (40) Which is exactly how we should be reminded when we panic and forget that God is with us. One of the gifts that Jesus brings to us is freedom from fear. All we need to do is just grasp that truth.

Notice that in Mark’s telling of this story there is no walking on water, no Peter following jesus and nearly drowning. Mark, as usual, is terse and straight to the point, which the disciples articulate as it begins to dawn on them that Jesus is much more than a healer and someone who casts out demons, while speaking publicly in riddles: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (41)

Mark is reminding us that something truly great and unprecedented is afoot here.