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.


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