Psalm 50:16–23; Leviticus 11:29–13:8; Mark 4:1–20

Psalm 50:16–23: God’s speech turns to address hypocrites: “And to the wicked, God said: / ‘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) God accuses hypocrites; those who mouth religiosity, proudly telling others how well the know and obey God’s law and the Covenant, but in reality toss off God’s words as unimportant, even worthless. It’s a great image: tossing God’s truths into the metaphorical garbage can behind us as we walk by—as if to rid ourselves of a pesky annoyance and go about our business ignoring God’s law.

God’s accusations continue to pile up. Hypocrites not only fling God’s words behind them, they eagerly take up with the wrong crowd: “If you see a thief, you run with him,/ and with adulterers is your lot.” (18) And no psalm of this sort would be complete without addressing the problem of wicked and hypocritical speech: “You let loose your tongue in evil,/ and your tongue clings fast to deceit.” (19)

God turns now to how wickedness ruins relationships. I have the feeling that the psalmist has somebody—his brother— quite specific in min. His sibling has apparently done him great wrong as he continues to write in God’s voice: “You sit, against your brother your speak,/ your mother’s son you slander.”  (20) The psalmist (speak as God) sees himself as forbearing even in the face of this great wrong. But now it is time for God’s judgement: “These you have done and I was silent./ You imagined I could indeed be like you./ I reprove you, make a case before your eyes.” (21)

The poet continues to employ the conceit of God addressing the wicked in general, as he threatens personal retribution: “Understand this, you who forget God,/ lest I tear you apart, with no one to save you.” (22) While his brother may be wicked, but the psalmist positions himself as a righteous God-follower, still cleverly using the voice of God to make his point: “He who sacrifices thanksgiving reveres Me/ and sets out in the proper way.” (23a) Finally, it is the righteous—our psalmist among them—who benefit: “I will show him God’s rescue.” (23b)

This is really a brilliant strategy on the part of the psalmist: write in the voice of God while making it clear that the issue between his brother and himself is quite personal. At the same time, though, what he has God say is absolutely true. Hypocrites and sinners will get their just desserts for ignoring God.

Leviticus 11:29–13:8: The seemingly endless list of unclean animals reveals just how extensively the menagerie of animal life had been identified and named these many centuries ago: “the weasel, the mouse, the great lizard according to its kind, the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon.” (11:30, 31).

Uncleanness is transmitted to whatever it touches, “an article of wood or cloth or skin or sacking, any article that is used for any purpose.” (32) Only after letting the object be dipped in water and set aside until evening does it become clean. Again, these rules make a great deal of sense when viewed in the context of hygiene. Nevertheless, some of the rules are just weird: ” If any part of their carcass falls upon any seed set aside for sowing, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of their carcass falls on it, it is unclean for you.” (11:38)  One other thing is made abundantly clear:  “All creatures that swarm upon the earth are detestable.” (41)

We now come to rules about childbirth. Giving birth renders the woman unclean. If it’s a male child, it is circumcised after 8 days. But the woman herself remains unclean for 33 days. And in that patriarchal world, bearing a less desirable female child banishes the woman from the tabernacle for 66 days. Once those waiting periods are complete, the woman comes to the tabernacle and has the priest offer a sin sacrifice. As usual, if the woman is poor and “she cannot afford a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” (12:8)

The authors then turn to the problem of leprosy. First, there is a careful diagnostic examination as the priest becomes physician and examines the sore. The criterion used to determine whether or not it’s leprosy is simple: if “the disease appears to be deeper than the skin of his body, it is a leprous disease.” (13:3) Rules of quarantine are established. The priest examines the wound every seven days, keeping the patient confined to make a definitive diagnosis. These rules are brilliant as a means of keeping disease from spreading. But unfortunately, they also eventually morph into the practice of casting lepers such as the ones Jesus encounters and heals out of the community.

Mark 4:1–20: Mark now moves to record the parables of Jesus, beginning with the sower. Jesus is preaching from the boat and a big crowd is gathered on the beach. Mark tantalizes us with his statement, “He began to teach them many things in parables.” (2) While many parables were recorded by the gospel writers, and we assume they were the most important ones, we are left feeling that there ar many sayings of Jesus that are lost to history.

I think Mark places the parable of the sower as the first one he records because it is all about the Good News that he describes in the opening line of his gospel: “The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (1:1) But Jesus makes it quite clear that to receive and then process that good news imposes a requirement on us: “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (9)  Jesus makes a clear distinction between hearing and listening. We may go to church for years and hear the good news every week, but until we hear with our hearts, which could be one definition of “listen,” the good news will have absolutely no impact on us. We will simply be the seeds that fell on the path that the birds consume.

Mark is extremely helpful in that having written down one parable, he takes the time to have Jesus explain why he talks in parables [One is tempted to say ‘riddles.’] He quotes Isaiah 6:9 almost verbatim:
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
    and may indeed listen, but not understand;
     so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ (12)

Huh? Jesus seems to be saying that it’s a good thing that people will not understand what he’s saying, which hardly seems like a productive strategy for conveying good news to as many who will hear. The key lies in what jesus says before this: “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.” (11) Which is a pretty good summation of the Kingdom of God. It appears to be errant nonsense to those who reject Jesus’ message, but for those who “get it,” it is the center of life.  But in order to truly listen and understand, we must first become Jesus’ disciples. That is the only way into the Kingdom.

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