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 Alas, another vital element of worship that has been replaced by praise song banality.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.

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