Psalm 49:1–12; Leviticus 7:22–8:17; Mark 2:13–28

 Psalm 49:1–12: If the authors of Ecclesiastes or Proverbs wrote psalms [and perhaps one of them did], it would be this one. His message is for all who will listen to the wisdom he is about to utter: “Hear this, all peoples,/ hearken, all who dwell in the world./ You human creatures, you sons of man.” (2, 3a) His message is for everyone regardless of economic status: “together with the rich and needy.” (3b).

There is no false modesty here: “My mouth speaks wisdom,/ my heart’s utterance, understanding.” (4) He will even accompany his sayings with music: “I take up with the lyre my theme.” (5b) and tells us that we live in a fallen world: “Why should I fear in evil days,/ when crime comes round me at my heels?” (6)

His first words are directed at the well off, who have misplaced trust in their wealth, thinking it will be of benefit, especially when it comes to pleasing God: “Who trust in their wealth/ and boast of their great riches—/ yet they surely will redeem no man,/ will not give to God his ransom.” (7,8) In fact they do not posses what’s needed for salvation: “To redeem their lives is too dear,/ and one comes to an end forever.” (9) This last line is consistent with the Jewish belief that there was no afterlife or heaven, as he asks rhetorically, “Will he yet live forever?/ Will he not see the pit?” (10)

In a verse that seems lifted directly out of Ecclesiastes, he reflects on death as the great equalizer: “For he sees the wise die,/ both the fool and the stupid man perish,” (11a), reminding us that we can’t take it with us: “and they abandon to others their wealth.” (11b) Just to make sure we get the point, he states that no matter how great our reputation or fame may have been in life, “Their grave is their home forever,/ their dwelling for all generations./ though their names had been called upon earth.” (12)

It is verses like these that remind us that mankind has been reflecting on the seeming pointlessness of life for thousands of years. Each generation matures, thinking it has discovered some new truth, but as the author of Ecclesiastes points out, there is nothing new under the sun—including our insights and wisdom.

Leviticus 7:22–8:17: Clothed within the rites of sacrifice is hygienic advice: “The fat of an animal that died or was torn by wild animals may be put to any other use, but you must not eat it.” (7:24) And once again everyone is reminded, “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements.” (7:26) The penalty for disobedience is banishment: “Any one of you who eats any blood shall be cut off from your kin.” (7:27)

For their priestly efforts, Aaron and his sons receive the breast and thighs of the animals that are sacrificed as “as a perpetual due from the people of Israel.” (7:35) Which is also a not-so-gentle reminder to the people hearing these instructions hundreds of years later that what the priestly class takes as what is essentially a tax.  And it’s been justified by virtue of using the literary device of God speaking to and instructing Moses himself. Who can argue with that?

The authors conclude this section on offerings and sacrifices by listing the various rites about which they’ve given instruction : “This is the ritual of the burnt offering, the grain offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being, which the Lord commanded Moses on Mount Sinai.” (7:37) They are now ready to move onto describing (again) the rites of priestly ordination.  In this second turn of describing what priestly ordination, there is a more human touch than the drier instructions given a few chapters back. 

First, Moses announce to multitude assembled before the tabernacle:“This is what theLord has commanded to be done.” (8:5) and it is Moses who brings “Aaron and his sons forward, and washed them with water.” (8:6). Once again we see the direct connection to baptism.

Moses then dresses Aaron in his priestly vestments, including the  ephod with its famous Urim and Thummin. We see traces of this act of dressing in the rite of ordination today as the newly ordained pastor/ priest receives the stole (and in the Catholic church, the chasuble) that represents his office.

We can also trace the act of anointing with oil back to this ceremony as “Moses poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” (12) Happily, however, we do not follow the rite of a sacrificial bull as a sin offering, which Moses uses as a cleansing agent for the altar.

Notice that the sacrifice is a sin offering, not an offering of good will. This makes it clear that the primary priestly duty is one of atonement. It is reading about these priestly duties and rites here that helps me realize once again just how significant Jesus’ great act of once-for-all sacrifice has been.

Mark 2:13–28: Jesus chooses his fifth disciple, a certain “Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth,”(14) [whom we come to know as Matthew] with the simple words, “Follow me.” What’s interesting here is that Jesus joins Levi’s colleagues for a party, which offends the Pharisees. I assume that up to now, they had considered this Jesus guy to be one of them, so I think their question—“Why does he eat[f] with tax collectors and sinners?” (16)— is completely natural.

Jesus’ response to this question is the beginning of his estrangement form the religious establishment, which held itself to be better than the hoi polloi: “I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (17) Mark is also telling us that Jesus and his mission on earth is strikingly different from all who have come before. Even John the Baptist’s disciples are puzzled as they ask along with the Pharisees, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (18)

The question about the Sabbath is in the same vein. This time, the Pharisees have their turn and assert, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (24) This time Jesus uses Scripture—which the Pharisees surely knew cold—to point out that David ate the bread of the Presence on the sabbath because he and his men were hungry. Jesus concludes, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” (27)

I think these words identify what is wrong with “religion” right up to the present time. The rites and rules of religious practice too easily become the end in themselves. We forget that these are the means to connect with God, and that Jesus is always  concerned first with our welfare as persons, not with our piety—or lack  thereof.

In the midst of this dialog, Jesus has reiterated the revolutionary nature of his ministry with the metaphor of the coat to be replaired, “No one sews a piece of new cloth on an old cloak;” (21)  and the more famous metaphor of new wine in old wineskins, where “the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (22) Mark is making sure that we “get it.” What is going on here is completely unprecedented, breaks all the long-established rules, and as we shall see, will change the world in unimaginable ways.


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