Psalm 71:9–18a; Numbers 20:1–21:9; Mark 15:1–20

Psalm 71:9–18a: Our psalmist pleads to God, “Do not fling me away in old age,/ as my strength fails, do not forsake me.” (9) Even though he is old in years, his woes have not retire with him. I can identify with this. Now that I’m in my 70th year, I still have the same role and responsibilities as when I was 40 or 50. But with the added burden of heath issues. Clearly, whoever called these the “golden years,” was not very old.

Even though he is old, his enemies have not relented. In fact they spy his increasing weakness, “For my enemies said of me,/ Who stalk me counseled together,/ saying ‘God has forsaken him.’” (10, 11a) And they wish to exploit his lonely vulnerability, “Pursue and catch him, for no one will save him.” (11b) Therefore, there is no human being to whom he can turn for help. Instead he asks, “God, do not keep far from me.” (12a)—and with great urgency: “My God, hasten to my help!” (12b)

Now our poet gets specific about what he wants God to do on his behalf: “May my accusers be shamed, may they perish—/ may they be clothed in shame and reproach,/ who seek my harm.” (13) And having said this, he feels his burden being lifted, “As for me, I shall always hope/ and add to all Your praise.” (14)

As always, we find the psalmist’s request for the shaming of his enemies to be antithetical to what Jesus has told us about our relationship to those who despise us and wish us harm. But here, in speaking his deepest thoughts and articulating his deepest wishes, I see a form of psychological release.  Our psalmist obviously does not intend to take action himself; he is leaving that up to God, knowing God will do what God will do. Does it mean we can pray for shame and reproach to come to our enemies? Obviously, we sometimes think those thoughts. The psalmist is merely expressing deeply held feelings—and we know by this example that we can express our darkest thoughts in prayer.

While waiting for God’s response our poet “shall come in the power of the Master, the Lord.” (16a) He has this confidence because “God, You have taught me since my youth,/ and till now I have told Your wonders.” (17) But even where there is confidence, there is also some uncertainty as he again begs, “And even in hoary old age,/ O God do not forsake me.” (18a) For me, this is a clear message that even though we have known God “since our youth,” and even though we have witnessed God’s actions before now, it is still quite OK to pray that God will listen and not forsake us. Because it is in voicing those words in prayer that we come to realize God has never forsaken us.

Numbers 20:1–21:9: Moses’ wife Miriam has died and the Israelites find themselves in desperate straits in the desert without water. Rather than asking Moses to pray to God to supply water, there is the usual complaining, “Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here?” (20:4) Moses prays to God, who issues rather precise instructions, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water.” (20:8)

Rather than following God’s instructions and speaking the command, Moses impatiently and famously strikes the rock twice with his staff and water pours forth. But if the Book of Numbers is anything, it is about following God’s rules. God is displeased at Moses’ effrontery, and the promise of entering Canaan is taken away from him: “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (20:12) The issue is not that Moses somehow abandoned God, but that he did not trust God and follow instructions to the letter. The message to all of us is that it’s one thing to have faith, but it’s another to gird that faith with trust that God will do as he promises.

Edom sits squarely between where the Israelites are and where Moses wants to lead them. He sends emissaries to the Edomite king, asking permission to use the “King’s Highway” through Edom. He promises they will not harm anyone or consume anything, “not turning aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” (20:19). But the Edomite king refuses, “so Israel turned away from them.” (20:21)  and they head off in the direction of the Red Sea. Did God harden the Edomite king’s heart as a further rebuke to Moses? Our authors don’t indicate that, but the lesson is clear: When our plans do not align with God’s plans. When that happens, obstacles will arise.

For Moses’ impetuous action, Aaron is also punished and “shall not enter the land that I have given to the Israelites, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah.” (20:24)  Which seems rather unfair to me…And further, Aaron’s time has come. So in view of all Israel, we have the poignant scene atop Mount Hor, where Moses takes the priestly vestments off Aaron and puts them on Aaron’s son, Eleazar. And it seems that Aaron dies immediately. What’s remarkable here is that this is a notable and peaceful transition of power. I think it’s because Moses, Aaron and Eleazar have followed God’s instructions precisely.

Aaron was deeply loved (probably much more so than Moses) and “all the house of Israel mourned for Aaron thirty days.” (20:29)

But now stuck in the desert, headed away form Canaan and unable to cross through Edom, things quickly return to their normal ugliness as “the people became impatient on the way.” (21:4) It is always the same complaint: “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” (21:5) God is in his “I’ll show them” mood, causing poisonous snakes inundate the camp and many die. The people move quickly to contrition: “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” (21:6). God tells moses to make a bronze serpent and hang it on a pole. A bitten person simply had to look up to the pole and live.

Many Christians have sees the serpent on the pole as a presaging of Jesus on the cross, where we need only look and be redeemed. But my own sense is that stretches the metaphor too far. The bronze serpent is symbolic of Jesus? Really?

Mark 15:1–20: Mark’s account of Jesus before Pilate is the author’s usual terseness. Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (2). Notice that this is the secular side of Mark’s Big Question. Understandably, Pilate has no knowledge of the davidic Messiah, which is the question the religious leaders have already asked him. Being a Gentile, Pilate would view Jesus only in secular terms, i.e., is he here to take over the titular kingship of Israel, a position currently held by Herod.  Jesus, ambiguous as always, answers neither ‘yes,’ nor ‘no.’ His response, “If you say so,” can be interpreted several ways. Of course Mark doesn’t tell us what Pilate thought of Jesus’ answer. My own theory is that Pilate thought Jesus was delusional. An opinion doubtless confirmed when Jesus refuses to respond to “many charges they bring against you.” (4) Pilate is “amazed,” which I take as “incredulous.”

The story of the release of Barabbas follows. I confess to great personal difficulty with the entire Barabbas episode. Would Pilate really release a known insurrectionist with the ability to incite a riot, who was also a murderer, back into the mob? Pilate’s having enough trouble keeping the Jews in line as it is. Frankly, I think the story here is to make it clear that the Jews, preferring Barabbas to a rabbi who claims to be the Messiah, were solely responsible for Jesus’ death. Mark’s Pilate releases Barabbas because he wished to “satisfy the crowd,” (15), which I’ll take as “he wished to avoid a riot.” Nevertheless, I frankly doubt the historicity of this story.

To demonstrate Jesus’ total degradation, Mark describes how the soldiers drag Jesus into the palace courtyard and mock Jesus “in front of the whole cohort.” The Roman soldiers, already convinced that the Jews were a backward, unruly people, mock this Jewish would-be king with a purple robe and a crown of thorns, laughingly “saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (18) before they beat him and then drag him off to be crucified.

This episode of the soldiers mocking Jesus is Mark’s grand irony. For he—and his readers and we—know that Jesus really is a king, whom we believe will come again in kingly glory. But here, the mockery is a presaging of all the glory that is yet to come. And in just three days time, Jesus will prove all Jewish and worldly pretensions to be as empty and hollow as this mockery.

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