Psalm 51:1–7; Leviticus 13:9–46; Mark 4:21–29

Psalm 51:1–7: The superscription of what I think is the most moving penitential psalm in the Bible places it at a specific time and place: “Upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to [David] when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” (2) Even if, as Alter asserts, David did not actually write this psalm, it has become the “go to” confessional psalm for both Christians and Jews.

What’s intriguing to me, especially as we read of the complex sacrificial system detailed in Leviticus, is that David does not rush off to the temple to offer a sin sacrifice, but that he pleads directly to God in a spirit of humility and confession with an opening verse that tears at our heart: “Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,/ with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.” (3) He knows it is only God who can “Thoroughly wash my transgressions away/ and cleanse me from my offense.” (4) The idea of forgiveness by God as a cleansing is of course at the foundation of baptism.

But even though David pleas for forgiveness, he knows he will be haunted by the consequences of his sin for as long as he lives: “For my crimes I know,/ and my offense is before me always.” (5). So, too, for us. We can restore a right relationship with God through confession, but we must live with the result of our choices and actions.

The first step in confession is acknowledgement of sin, and for David, he knows “You alone have I offended,/ and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.” (6a). And he also knows, as should we, that whatever God does, whatever the outcome it may be it is because “You are just when You sentence,/ You are right when You judge.” (6b) In other words, even after we are made right before God through confession, we must accept the justice that is meted out because it is God’s sentence and God’s justice.

David tells God what God already knows: we are sinners by nature: “Look, in transgression was I conceived,/ and in offense my mother spawned me.” (7) The verb ‘spawned’ is particularly striking because it so clearly communicates our intrinsically fallen nature before God.

Leviticus 13:9–46: Our technical manual has become a medical textbook. It’s clear that skin disease must have been common among the Israelites. Based on this chapter, it’s also clear that many manifestations ranging from sores covering then entire body for various itching diseases were lumped in to the general category of leprosy. And among other symptoms there is a disturbingly long section on male baldness. But at least, “If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean.” (40) except when there is a reddish-white swelling.

The priest is the chief medical officer and the one who conducts visual examinations to determine the state of the patient. It is always binary: either the patient has leprosy and is therefore unclean or he does not have leprosy and is therefore clean.  No detail goes unnoticed here, and disease progression is dealt with by having the patient return after a period of time. For example, if a man comes with a persistent itch, he returns in seven days to see if the itch has healed.

The authors know about communicable disease and quarantine. A man comes to the priest with an itch “and it appears no deeper than the skin and there is no black hair in it, the priest shall confine the person with the itching disease for seven days.” (31). But the harshest quarantine is inflicted on those determined to have a “leprous disease” by being essentially expelled from the community: “The person who has the leprous[l] disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” (45) and “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” (46)  A harsh sentence on the individual but one which helps maintains the health of the community at large.

We meet the consequences of this rule again when Jesus encounters the ten lepers, whom he heals. But based on this chapter and its broad range of diseases considered to be leprosy, we have to assume there were numerous bands of disheveled men (and women?) wandering the countryside because they had been declared leprous. The community may have been preserved but it was done so at a very high cost to many.

Mark 4:21–29: Following Jesus’ rather unsettling explanation for the reason he speaks in parables, Mark records several parables. Jesus points out that we do not put lamps under bushel baskets or beds, but that are right out there, visible to all, on the lamp stand. He is simply pointing out that secrets will always be exposed at some point: “For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” (22) Once again, he advises, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” (23) and then repeat himself,“Pay attention to what you hear.” (24a). In short, I’m not just telling you stuff so you can say “Great sermon, pastor!” Rather, I’m telling you this because you have work to do! So, pay attention to the real meaning of what I’m telling you.

We then encounter one of Jesus’ hard sayings: “ the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” (24b, 25). Really? Does this mean the rich will get richer while the poor will get poorer?  That certainly seems to be how the world operates, but why would Jesus tell us that? Or is he saying something else?

I think his point here is that there is a direct correlation between our efforts and what we receive in return. As far as Kingdom work is concerned, we don’t just relax and show up for the occasional Easter or Christmas service. Because then, it all is spiritually meaningless. Grace ensures that we don’t work for salvation. But grace also frees us—and gives us the responsibility— to work for the Kingdom. In return, our lives grow richer. Just ask the people who work among the homeless at Trinity. I’m pretty sure they’ll tell you that they receive far more than they feel they give.

Jesus reenforces the point of reward for Kingdom work in his next parable. We scatter seeds, but we do not cause the seeds to grow: “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (27) The seed’s growth the work of the earth and what happens inside the seed. So, too, the work of the Holy Spirit is what happens inside someone. We do not cause spiritual growth in someone else, but we can prepare the “soil” and plant the “seed” for that person’s growth. That’s certainly a parental responsibility. At some point that spirit growth produces a person who eventually becomes ready to work in the kingdom. Just as the grain grows and it requires work to harvest it, Jesus is telling us that were are to come alongside that person and work with them as they grow and mature in Christ.

This is how a Christian community grows and flourishes: it’s the responsibility of everyone in the community to work together. We can’t just sit back and say that it’s the sole responsibility of a pastor or a staff to build community.  

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