Archives for April 2018

Psalm 56:1–9; Leviticus 22:17–23:22; Mark 7:9–23

Originally published 4/29/2016. Revised and updated 4/30/2018.

Psalm 56:1–8: The author of this psalm writes in David’s voice, “when the Philistines captured him in Gath.” Unsurprisingly, it’s a psalm of supplication, which opens in a pretty standard manner:
Grant me grace, O God,
for a man tramples me,
all day long the assailant does press me.

We can assume that David is referring to Saul, whose relentless pursuit is why David has ended up in Philistia.

As the attacks against him intensify, David turns to God with a more urgent plea:
My attackers trample me all day long,
for many assail me, O High One.
When I fear, I trust in you.

These six one-syllable words on the last line say it all: “When I fear, I trust in you.” While we are certainly not David, who is pressed in by his enemies in a hostile land, we come before God equally, knowing that in the end, God [and for us, Jesus] is in the end, the only one to whom we can turn.

David reassures himself that God is is only hope of rescue by doubling down on his trust: In God, Whose word I praise,
in God I trust, I shall not fear.
What can flesh do to me?
” (5)

Trust in God drives out fear. Of course this is exactly the point Jesus makes to his disciples in the story of his walking on water and earlier, when he calms the storm and tells the frightened disciples, “Fear not.”  If we truly trust in God we will free from fear.

Our poet, still speaking as David, gets to the reason why he is coming to God as he describes to God the machinations of his enemies:
All day long they put pain in my words,
against me all their plots of evil.

Not only do they plot evil, they do everything possible to carry out their deeds as conspirators. All that is left for David is prayer:
They scheme, they lie low,
they keep at my heels
as they hope for my life.

For their mischief free me from them.
In wrath bring down peoples, O God.
 (7, 8)

The verses that open this psalm end in a poignant metaphor:
put my tears in Your flask.
Are they not in Your counting?
” (9)

In other words, we come to God in desperation and sorrow. Our tears are stored in God’s “flask,” which to me means that God has heard and accepted our prayer. And, even more importantly, God will never forget the woes and sorrows we have cried out to him. Our prayers are forever stored in God’s inventory; in his “counting.”

Leviticus 22:17–23:22: Once again I’m reminded that Leviticus is a compilation of texts from at least two groups of authors as we again encounter lengthy descriptions of acceptable offerings (chapter 22) and appointed festivals (chapter 23).

While the Sabbath and Passover are rehashed again, we at least learn about a couple of new festivals: On “on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord” (23:6a).  Its celebration is quite straightforward: “seven days you shall eat unleavened bread.” (23:6b) beginning with a “holy convocation” and ending a week later with a second holy convocation. On those days, work is strictly prohibited. One of the things that comes across strongly is that God commands a lot of sabbath rest, a tradition—not to mention command—increasingly lost in our culture. We mistakenly believe we can get more accomplished by working all seven days with no time out, when our bodies are designed for periodic days of rest. Too much “work” becomes unproductive and ultimately pointless.As usual, there’s no question that God knows us and our inner workings than we.

The authors turn to describe the “first fruits offering,” which commands, “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.” (23:10) The implication is of course clear for both Israel and for us: we gratefully, without hesitation, offer our very best “first fruits” to God, be they tangible, or intangible, agricultural or things we have created with our hands. God demands the best from us, not the leftovers. But I think when we understand how much God loves us and wants to be in relationship with us, it’s a demand with which we will gladly comply.

Finally, there is the “festival of weeks,” which commences exactly fifty days after Passover. Given that Israel was a strictly agrarian society, this is unsurprisingly another grain offering, along with the usual unblemished lambs and a bull. For Christians, this “festival of weeks” is Pentecost—the time when God returned the favor and gave us his offering of the Holy Spirit.

We give to God first, then to ourselves, but there is one final requirement: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien.” (23:22) For me, this is a clear command that every society must provide for the poor and for the aliens. I am deeply saddened at so-called Christians who wish to do away with societal (governmental) programs that provide for the poor and to provide refuge for aliens.

Yes, these programs may be wasteful in some regards, but the Bible is clear again and again that providing for the widows, orphans, and the poor is our immutable duty. To do otherwise is to fly in the face of God’s command, which too many Christians wish to do selectively: enforce the prohibitions against homosexuality, but be sure to cut off welfare to the poor. My blood boils.

Mark 7:9–23: Jesus is not finished excoriating the scribes and Pharisees as he points out their hypocrisy with regard to their parents: “But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, ‘Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban’ (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother.” (11,12). Perhaps even worse than using religion to justify this selfish action, Jesus points out that these supremely “religious” leaders are thereby “making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on.” (13)

Jesus turns to the crowd and announces that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” (15) This tells me that natural bounty—what we harvest and consume—is part of God’s good creation and thus unblemished. [And as Mark points out parenthetically, Jesus thereby “declared all foods clean.”] It is our sinful nature that sullies what is good. Not merely sullies, but defiles. Those are strong words indeed. Jesus is basically saying that our natural inclination—rather than anything intrinsically flawed with God’s good creation—is toward sinfulness and hypocrisy, which of course is theologically true.

Lest we think Jesus is finished excoriating the Pharisees—and us—he lets loose with what I think is the most graphic metaphor in the Gospels as he uses the digestion and waste process to describe this intrinsic human sinfulness: “Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (18, 19) He goes on, It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” (22) [This statement must have inspired Paul, who delights in listing all manner of sin in his various letters.]

Alas, it is our intrinsically corrupt human nature that creates disorder in the world. And just to make sure we get the point, Jesus repeats himself: “All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (23) Which is why Jesus had to come to earth in the first place: to rescue us from ourselves.


Psalm 55:21–24; Leviticus 21:13–22:16; Mark 7:1–8

Originally published 4/28/2016. Revised and updated 4/28/2018.

Psalm 55:21–24: “He reached out his hand against his allies,/ profaned his own pact.(21) signals a return to the psalmist’s outrage against his former friend who betrayed him. Now our poet describes how he was duped—and as usual, it was by smooth talking.

We encounter what I think is one of the more memorable metaphors of deceit that we find in the Psalms— a perfect description of the dynamic of internal evil masked by apparent kindness on the outside—a theme Jesus picks up when he accuses the Pharisees of being “whited sepulchers.” Of course today, we tend to call these people ‘politicians.’
His mouth was smoother than butter—
and battle in his heart.
His words were softer than oil,
yet they were drawn swords. (22)

Butter vs. battle; oil vs. sword. I can think of no better definition of politicians who attempt draw us into wars or to con us with smooth talk. One of the things that is driving people crazy about Donald Trump compared to his predecessors is that he is anything but smooth talk.

The psalmist is telling us that even though he—and we—may have been duped by a conspiring colleague, there is still one place where we can turn that is safe. The image of casting one’s lot on God reminds us that turning to God is usually our last resort when we are at the end of our rope. We are feeling so betrayed by others that we hesitate to trust even God, so we say, “OK, everything else has failed, so I guess I try God and see what happens.”  But happily, as the poet says,
Cast your lot on the Lord
and he will support you.
He will never let you stumble.“(23)

The psalm ends with both a final imprecation as the poet asks God to act and with the poet’s confidence that righteousness will ultimately win out in the end because he has finally placed his trust in the right place. The wicked, on the other hand, are doomed:
And You, O God, bring them down
to the pit of destruction.
Men of bloodshed and deceit
Will not finish half their days.
But I shall trust in you.
” (24)

These are clear references back to this military imagery in the first part of the psalm [“bloodshed”] and then to betrayal by one individual [“deceit”]. In the end, though, our psalmist has learned there is only one person—God—who is worthy of his trust. As we fight our battles and seek to avoid deception, this psalm is a tremendous encouragement. The last line—But I shall trust in You—says it all.

: The list of demands required in order to qualify for the priesthood is impressively long—and it all has to do with the priest reflecting the purity that God requires. “He shall marry only a woman who is a virgin.” (21:31). Moreover, the woman must be a “virgin of his own kin,” (14) i.e., woman of the Levite tribe.

We tend to recoil when we read that “No one of your offspring throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the food of his God.” (16). This being the book of Leviticus, the authors go onto list what “blemish” means and it’s clear that the handicapped or even the unattractive need not apply. the priest may not be:
• blind
• lame
• have a mutilated face
• have one limb longer than the other
• have a broken foot or hand
• be a hunchback or dwarf
• have a blemish in his eyes
• have an itching disease or scabs
• have crushed testicles

The last one in the list makes me really squirm…  In our culture, which is legally and ethically structured to accept people as individuals worthy of respect no matter their infirmity, this list seems downright cruel. But this is a recent phenomenon. All through history, cultures have hidden or ignored persons with diseases or handicaps. Israel was no different in this respect.

As to why Leviticus demands unblemished priesthood, the reason is simple: we are to present the very best we have to God, and in this case it is the most perfect embodiment of God’s greatest creation—humans. We may not like that rule, but there it is.

With the requirements of the priesthood complete, our authors turn to the qualities of the”sacred donations” themselves. The first rule is quite straightforward: “If anyone among all your offspring throughout your generations comes near the sacred donations,… while he is in a state of uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from my presence: I am the Lord.” (22:3) Complicated instructions of what creates uncleanness follow, along with instructions of how to become clean again.

The sacred donations happen to be groceries for the priest and his family—which makes sense since the Levite tribe was not given any land to farm when Israel came into Canaan. But of course there are complicated rules about who may eat the “sacred donation” and who may not, e.g., “If a priest’s daughter marries a layman, she shall not eat of the offering of the sacred donations;” (12)

It’s clear to me that these rules are set out in such excruciating detail because by the time they were actually written down around the time of theBabylonian captivity, every conceivable situation such as a Levite woman marrying a “layman,” had already arisen. Leviticus becomes a giant technical manual to ensure good order at the restored (2nd) temple in Jerusalem.

Mark 7:1–8: Today is one of those days when I suspect the Moravian have calibrated the two of the daily texts to be cleverly in parallel. After reading about what constitutes cleanness and uncleanness in Leviticus, we read in Mark that the “Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around [Jesus].” (1) And being dedicated followers the Torah, “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.” (2) In other words, per the instructions in Leviticus, Jesus and his disciples were ritually unclean.

Before we get to Jesus’ response, Mark inserts a parenthetical backstory about what by this time had become a religious obsession with cleanliness: “ (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands,  thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it;  and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)” (3,4)  This explanation suggests strongly to me that Mark’s audience was mostly Gentile and therefore unfamiliar with some of Judaism’s more arcane rules.

The Pharisees—understandably in my opinion—ask Jesus “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?” (5) That would be the tradition so thoroughly outlined in Leviticus and greatly expanded upon in the centuries that followed.

Jesus’ answer is not a paragon of kindness, but as usual is bluntly direct: “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites,” He then quotes the prophet’s passage that states that they have taken what is God’s and made it man’s :”in vain do they worship me,/teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (7). He then proceeds to tell the religious men that “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.” (8)

Which is exactly what the church has done to a great extent, and why it has turned people off to “organized religion.” Like the rules of Leviticus, it’s essential to have good order in the church and in worship and sacraments. But when good order morphs over time into inflexible rules that trump God’s love, then it and we who are in the church have made it our own thing rather than God’s thing.

In the end it all comes down about who has control: man or God. Jesus’ is clearly siding with God here. But we humans always want to be in control and instituting “good order” as the Pharisees did is our natural inclination. At its base this is a good thing, but carried too far as the Pharisees did violates God’s own good order and creates an artificial barrier between God and humankind.

Psalm 55:16–19; Leviticus 20:9–21:12; Mark 6:45–56

Originally published 4/27/2016. Revised and updated 4/27/2018.

Psalm 55:16–19:Among the greatest agonies of life is betrayal by a friend. whom you trusted.  David makes it clear that he can bear the assaults of an enemy, but to have a friend turn on one is a bridge too far:
But you—a man to my measure, 
my companion and my familiar, 
with whom together we shared sweet counsel, 
in the house of our God in elation we walked.“( 14, 15)

In a film from Fuller Seminary of a conversation between Bono of U2 and Eugene Peterson of The Message, the singer observes, “The Psalms are not pretty; they are not nice, but they are honest.” The verses that follow are an excellent example of this disturbing honesty as our poet wishes death upon his enemies who earlier in this psalm have done him so much harm:
May death come upon them.
May they go down to Sheol alive.
For in their homes, in their midst, are evils.
” (16)

We recoil at these words until we realize that in Eugene Peterson’s phrase (from the same film) the Psalms “give us a way to cuss without cussing.” We can certainly feel the poet’s fiery anger and frustration in this verse. This is a certainly a prayer of “cussing without cussing.”

He compares his enemies’ evil acts against his own trust in God:
But I call to God,
and the Lord rescues me.
” (17)

But this is not just an empty hypocritical phrase because he goes on to describe how God has heard him:
Evening and morning and noon
I complain and moan,
and He hears my voice
.” (18)

This is an honest description of honest prayer. It is not a string of romantically prettified, ersatz religious cliches as we so often think of as being “prayer.” Instead it’s complaining and moaning—exactly as we have seen throughout this psalm. God can handle—and even welcomes— our moaning and complaining because the psalmist understands that in God’s eyes moaning and complaining is so far superior to prayer cliches or worse, not praying at all. As he says, “God will hear my voice,” no matter our attitude or feelings.

In this prayer the psalmist acknowledges that God has not only heard, but acted in vitally important ways:
He has ransomed my life unharmed
from my battle,
for many were against me.
” (19)

No matter how many enemies may be arrayed against us, no matter what our feelings are, the essential duty is to pray openly and honestly—even when we don’t feel like it or we think God will disapprove. We know from this psalm that God can take our anger and our cries for vengeance.

Leviticus 20:9–21:12: In what is starting to feel like an unhealthy obsession on the part of the authors, we encounter a reprise of the many sexual sins, starting with adultery: and its consequent capital punishment: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of  his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” (20:10) In our current “enlightened” era, perhaps the most disturbing prohibition and punishment is, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.” (13)

While there is little doubt that as far as the scriptures are concerned, homosexual acts are forbidden and punishable by death, so is adultery (19:10), incest (19:14), and bestiality (19:15, 16).

So, how do we deal with these verses in our own culture? Must we toss out the entire book of Leviticus treating it solely as a cultural artifact that applied to a tribe of people several millennia ago? We certainly are no longer engaged in ritual animal sacrifice. Yet many of the topics it addresses have been cornerstones of the Judeo-Christian culture.  Do we ignore the prohibitions altogether or selectively enforce them? Today, adultery is met with a wink, homosexual has become mainstream and those who disapprove of it are excoriated in the public square.  But incest and sex involving children remain deeply forbidden. Leviticus is especially puzzling here because adultery and homosexuality are punishable by death, while the punishment for acts of incest “merely” result in expulsion from the community.

I think a partial answer lies with the author, writing in God’s voice, says, “You shall not follow the practices of the nation that I am driving out before you. Because they did all these things, I abhorred them.” (20:23). In other words these acts are forbidden because of the Covenant. Israel is God’s creation of a holy nation on the earth—in stark contrast to the other tribes and nations that follow these perverse practices. Leviticus is all about building and preserving a community that will prosper because God is at its center and God makes specific demands on his people.

Nevertheless, I believe we cannot simply ignore the prohibitions outlined here since they are essential to maintaining a coherent and ordered civilization. As I look around at today’s “anything goes” culture that focuses on the individual rather than the culture I think we are witnessing a great unraveling of structure and comity. There is a social cost to declaring many (not all) of the prohibitions of Leviticus an irrelevant artifact applicable only to a long-dead middle eastern tribe.

The next chapter discusses the role and duties of priests, including their appearance: “The priest who is exalted above his fellows, … shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments. (21:11a)  And there are strict prohibitions against being around dead people: “He shall not go where there is a dead body; he shall not defile himself even for his father or mother.” (21:11b) And a very odd one: The priest “shall not go outside the sanctuary and thus profane the sanctuary of his God; for the consecration of the anointing oil of his God is upon him: I am the Lord.” (21:12) Really? He is stuck in the sanctuary for all time? Sometimes this book is just a bit too much.

Mark 6:45–56: Following the feeding of the 5000, Jesus “made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd.” (45) Jesus separates himself from everyone and “went up on the mountain to pray.” (46) This seems to be one of the few times in Jesus’ ministry where he successfully is able to get off by himself for a time of private prayer.

But Jesus, being Jesus, sees everything and “he saw that [the disciples] were straining at the oars against an adverse wind,” (48a). So in the morning he rather matter-of-factly decides to simply walk across the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida without benefit of a boat, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Mark adds the fascinating detail that Jesus “intended to pass them by.” (48b)  Did Jesus really think he would merely walk on by, blithely ignoring the disciples, pretending they wouldn’t notice him?

Needless to say, the sight of Jesus walking on water freaks out the disciples: “when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. (49) Jesus, seeing their distress, “immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.” (50) The wind promptly stops and Jesus clambers into the boat and “they were utterly astounded.” (51)

So, what is Jesus doing here that he would be so insouciant as to take a casual stroll on the surface of the lake? I think one reason that Mark hints at is that it’s a teachable moment. The disciples would understand once and for all that whatever miracles Jesus was to perform, they were from God and therefore not to be feared. All through the Bible we hear the words, “Fear not.” Unlike the small-g gods, our God is not out to get us to follow or obey him by striking fear into our hearts. Rather, he comes to us winsomely, seeking an honest, loving relationship with us.

I think the second reason for Jesus’ act is revealed in Mark’s comment at the end of this story, “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (52) That certainly suggests that they did not actually believe the feeding of the 5000 was a legitimate miracle. Perhaps, like many modern commentators, they believed the loaves and fishes that Jesus had presented to the crowd were simply a signal for the crowd to pull out the lunches they had brought along.

But the obvious miracle of water walking convinces the disciples who are “utterly astounded” that Jesus is far more and far greater than an interestingly charismatic rabbi and itinerant healer.

After the crossing, “they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat.” (53) People immediately recognize who Jesus is and he is besieged by the sick from far and wide, whom he heals and “all who touched [his cloak] were healed.” (56) Mark doesn’t say so, but I believe the disciples were looking at Jesus with softened hearts and new eyes, slowly beginning to realize that Jesus may indeed be closely related to God himself.

Of course we are exactly like the disciples. We would prefer a dramatic event to convince us about Jesus’ bona fides. Contrast this with the sick whose faith is so strong that merely touching Jesus’ garments is sufficient to heal them. Sometimes, sophisticated theology is a stumbling block compared to simple faith.


Psalm 55:9–15; Leviticus 19:12–20:8; Mark 6:30–44

Originally published 4/26/2016. Revised and updated 4/26/2018.

Psalm 55:9–15: Knowing that he is safe in God, who “would make haste to a refuge for me/from the streaming wind and the storm,” (9) the psalmist’s dread rather mysteriously transmogrified to complaints against people in “the town” [Jerusalem, I presume], who appear to be conspiring against him and causing trouble in general. Not surprisingly, he asks God to deal rather harshly with them:
O master, confound their tongue,
for I have seen outrage and strife in the town.
” (10)

These enemies appear to be generally making trouble not just for him, but all the inhabitants of of Jerusalem:
day and night they go round it on its walls,
and mischief and misdeeds within it,
disaster within it.
” (11, 12a)

Conspiracy and plotting seem to be the primary product: “guile and deceit never part from its square.” (12b). One thinks immediately of Washington DC. And words such as ‘guile,’ ‘ deceit,’  ‘mischief’ all seem to be a pretty accurate adjectives describing the unending shenanigans there. As usual, we’re reminded that human nature—especially its capacity for sin—remains immutable.

The complaints suddenly turn quite personal as our psalmist seems to have been betrayed by someone quite close to him. After first observing that he can withstand the slings and arrows of his enemies quite boldly the accusations become quite personal:
No enemy insults me, that I might bear it,
But you—a man to my measure,
my companion and my familiar.
 (13, 14)

We can feel the personal hurt this betrayal has caused as he mourns the former friendship, which is now irrevocably broken:
with whom we shared sweet counsel,
in the house of our God in elation we walked. 

To be betrayed by someone with whom we have been intimate is an enormous hurt. Alas, we see this brokenness around us every day—particularly between husband and wife. These few verses poignantly put into words the tragedy of a severed relationship. May God preserve us from that wound.

Leviticus 19:12–20:8 Another author seem to have taken over in chapter 19 as the style turns from  the God-Moses narrative to a list that is mostly striking in its miscellaneous nature. Were the author writing today, I’m pretty sure he’d format this chapter as bullets on a series of Powerpoint slides.

Some of the points are reprises of the Decalogue: “you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God.” (19:12) and “You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal.” (13). Others are commands of respect. Particularly striking is the command to respect the disabled: “You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind.” (14) And maintain harmonious relationships in your own family, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin.” (17) Obviously, there are backstories to each of these commands—and once again more proof that like the description of betrayal in the psalm above, sinful human nature is the great constant across our entire history.

One instruction in particular leaps off the page because it is half of what Jesus called the greatest commandment: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord.” (18)

Following this profundity, the list becomes more random, but it is remains practical advice and crucial to maintaining the cohesion and health of the community. These include prohibiting sexual relations with some other man’s slave. (20) and waiting three years after planting an orchard to harvest and and another two years to eat its fruit. (23-25) I’m no horticulturalist, but this admonition seems to make practical sense. There are other commands relating to commerce as well: “You shall have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (35)

Some instructions are quite odd: “You shall not round off the hair on your temples or mar the edges of your beard.” (28) And another one that I have broken personally: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you.” (29)

The elderly deserve respect, something I’m coming to appreciate more each day: “You shall rise before the aged, and defer to the old.” (32)

And perhaps the one that’s most relevant of all in our unending political dispute about immigration and xenophobes who want to expel immigrants and build a wall: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.” After all, God reminds them, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (34) Which is also true for basically everyone in America. We all came from somewhere else. 

Chapter 20 returns to the God-Moses narrative style as God communicates harsh imprecations against anyone who would worship his rival, the small-g god Molech rather than God: “Any of the people of Israel, or of the aliens who reside in Israel, who give any of their offspring to Molech shall be put to death.” (20) This is the same fire god that demanded child sacrifice. And of course it is one of the gods to which Israel turned in its later depravity.

Mark 6:30–44: By now, Jesus is a celebrity. He invites his disciples (which interestingly, Mark calls ‘apostles, in verse 30) to “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (31) They set out (presumably by boat, to “a deserted place by themselves,” but to no avail as “many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.” (33) So they step ashore to “a great crowd.”

But it’s a crowd on which Jesus takes compassion “because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (34). Mark’s message up to this point is crystalline: the crowd is spiritually hungry, eager to hear a new message that may offer escape from their ordinary—and doubtless oppressed—lives.

The crowds today are no different except that they seek to fill that same sheep-without-a-shepherd emptiness in ultimately meaningless pursuits such as being loyal fans of professional sports or adoring fans of popular musicians. They are willing to pay hundreds, even thousands, of dollars to feel fulfilled, if only for a few hours in clear demonstrations of the same existential hunger that pervaded the crowd in front of Jesus.

The ever-practical disciples point out that it’s late, everyone’s hungry, and even if they could afford the 200 denarii of bread, there’s no place to buy it. Of course these are also symbolic of the natural obstacles we all place in front of Jesus: we’re hungry and tired; there’s nowhere to turn for sustenance.

So Jesus famously feeds the 5000. There have been lots of explanations as to why this probably wasn’t the miracle it appeared to be. But explanations such as the crowd had actually brought its food with it are pointless, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether it’s a miracle or not. That’s not Mark’s point here.

I believe the real point of Mark’s story is that physical hunger is a stand-in for spiritual hunger. And there is only one place where that spiritual hunger can be satisfied: in Jesus, who as John points out in his eponymous gospel is the bread of life. Without Jesus, the crowd—us— will be still wandering. Still hungry. Still stuck in the spiritual desert.



Psalm 55:1–8; Leviticus 18:6–19:11; Mark 6:14–29

Originally published 4/25/2016. Revised and updated 4/25/2018.

Psalm 55:1–8: The psalm’s opening words, “Hearken, O God, hear my prayer,/ and do not ignore my plea” tells us this is a psalm of supplication. The psalmist, writing in David’s voice, is rather presumptuously demanding of God, telling him, “Listen well to me and answer me.” (3a) However, his harsh almost disrespectful informality may be due to his feeling that he will faint dead away imminently: “In my complaint I sway and moan.” (3b).

The verses that follow are an extended catalog of his dire situation, which appears to be an looming defeat in battle. His situation is having a profoundly negative psychological impact on him, running the gamut “from the sound of the enemy” (4a) to “horror envelopes me.” (6b) In between are adjectives and verbs that paint a picture of imminent death, which certainly explains the desperate language of his prayer:
In my complaint sway and moan.
From the sound of the enemy,
from the crushing force of the wicked
when they bring mischief down upon me
and in fury harass me.

This oppression creates the deep fear that he is indeed near death:
my heart quails within me
and death-terrors fall upon me,
fear and trembling enter me
and horror envelops me
.” (5,6)

He briefly dreams of escape even if that meant he would be forced to live alone in the desert:
And I say,Would I had wings like  dove.
I would fly off and find rest.’
Look, I would wander far away,
and lodge in the wilderness.
” (7, 8)

I have never experienced the horrors of battle, but there is a deep authenticity here that suggests it was written by someone who was. Above all, these verses communicate a desperation that impels the poet to turn to the only one who can rescue him: God.  And as he demonstrates, we do not need to reverent or formal in prayer. In fact I think it is better that our prayer honestly reflects our feelings of the moment. Prayer is not always formal liturgy; it is communication with God, no matter what the circumstance.

Leviticus 18:6–19:11: We encounter an astounding catalog of of the varieties of incest and forbidden sexual relations: “None of you shall approach anyone near of kin to uncover nakedness.” (18:6) I presume the phrase, “you shall not uncover her nakedness” is not only prohibition of viewing one’s kin naked, but also a euphemism for sexual relations. Every combination is anathema, but expressed in rather complex manner, as e.g., “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, which is the nakedness of your mother; she is your mother, you shall not uncover her nakedness.” (18:7)

Our authors extend the prohibition to sisters (18:9), granddaughters (10), “your father’s wife’s daughter, begotten by your father, since she is your sister.” (11), aunts (13), uncles (14), daughter-in-law, and even “a woman as a rival to her sister, uncovering her nakedness while her sister is still alive.” (18) Nor will there be sexual relations while a woman “is in her menstrual uncleanness.” (19) nor with any “kinsman’s wife.” (20)

Then almost casually amidst the other prohibitions, the authors list the astounding prohibition against child sacrifice: “You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God” (18:21) As well as the perversion of bestiality: “You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it.” (18:23)

And for our modern age, perhaps the most controversial prohibition of all: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” (22) There is no getting around the clarity of this statement. The question arises of course, how has homoerotic love become the exception to a long list of unacceptable sexual relationships that our society, by and large, still obeys? I do not know how to answer that.

What the authors do make clear, however, is that these practices are widespread among other tribes and nations: “Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves.” (18:24) This statement certainly greets me as an after-the-fact justification for the invasion and settling of Canaan by the Israelites. And it certainly seems to justify God’s command for Israel to wipe out the Canaanites

The punishment for the persons who commit any of these acts is crystalline: “For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people.” (18:29) As we have observed before, these prohibitions were essential elements in preserving the health and robustness of the Israelite race.

In chapter 19 our authors turn to other prohibitions as they explicate details of the decalogue. Parents are honored and sabbaths are kept. And the parts of sacrifices of well-being that have not be consumed by the third day are to be thrown away. Which certainly makes sense in an era without refrigeration.

Social welfare is also important: “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.”  (19:9) Which tells me that every society has a profound duty to care for the poor (and yes, also the aliens in the land!) among us. Christians who complain about social welfare programs or believe illegal immigrants are to be shipped back across the border would do well to reflect on this chapter.

Mark 6:14–29: Of all the gospel writers—and surprisingly in this shortest gospel where terseness is always present—Mark gives us the greatest detail regarding the death of John the Baptist. What’s particularly interesting here is that Mark introduces the story of the death of John by noting that word about Jesus’ acts had reached Herod. As is human nature—and certainly still true in our era of 24/7 talking heads on cable “news” shows—all kinds of wild rumors about Jesus were in circulation: “Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” (14,15) Mark gives us tremendous insight into Herod’s insecurity and even fear: “But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” (14:16)

Herod has good reason to be fearful because he knows the backstory about John that was certainly not public at that time. Herod arrested John because “John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” (18) Deep down, “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him.” At the same time Herod knew that John represented something important: “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” (20b)

But Herod’s daughter Herodius despised John. We know the story: Herod, in his unthinking stupidity offers his daughter anything she desires for her voluptuous dance performance, “even half my kingdom.” (23) But on the advice of her equally evil mother, asks for the head of John on a platter, a request with which Herod, to maintain face, complies.

Mark is telling us clearly that even though Herod knew John was right, he had refused to accept the truth and he remained a coward. John was executed because the king lacked the courage to refuse a stupid offer and to stand up against his wife and daughter. Of course, it’s also a negative example and therefore a challenge to Mark’s readers and to us that standing up for what is holy and right, as well as for Jesus, requires courage, especially in the face of political or cultural disapproval. A situation becoming increasingly common in our own culture. It is far too easy to take the easy route and become Herods ourselves.



Psalm 54; Leviticus 16:26–18:5; Mark 6:7–13

Originally published 4/23/2016. Revised and updated 4/24/2018.

Psalm 54: This psalm’s superscription, “when the Ziphites came to Saul, ‘Is not David hiding our among us?‘”  (2) refers to the incident in I Samuel 23 where David, fleeing from Saul, is betrayed by the Ziphites, in whose territory he is hiding. The context here suggests the psalm’s author is writing in David’s voice as he pleads to God after just hearing that Saul now knows where he is hiding.

It’s a pretty standard prayer of supplication although its first two verses seem somehow reversed. The prayer opens with a pleading cry followed by what seems like a more traditional opening:
God, thorough Your name rescue me,
and through Your might take up my cause
God, O hear my prayer,
hearken to my mouth’s utterances.
” (3, 4)

Perhaps the poet is underscoring David’s out-of-breath desperation, where the urgency of the supplication trumps taking the time to create a formal prayer structure. Which is good to know. I think many of us hesitate to pray because we feel our words will not be elegant enough or the structure of our prayer occurs in exactly the right order that we believe somehow God demands. This psalm suggests that God really does not care about all that.

The core of David’s prayer comes next: The strangers would be the Ziphites and the oppressor is Saul. As usual, there is a theological observation about their sinful state and the implication that therefore they have committed this grievous wrong against David:
For strangers have risen against me,
and oppressors have sought my life.

They did not set God before them.” (5)

Confidence that God will answer returns as David asserts,
Look, God is about to help me,
my Master—among those who support me.
” (6)

In short, God is on David’s side. And with that assurance, David hurls an imprecation, presumably against Saul and his men:
Let Him pay back evil to my assailants..
Demolish then through Your truth! “

This raises the interesting idea that rather than David’s actions, it is God’s truth and the refusal of his enemies to accept that truth that results in their ultimate defeat. That’s good advice for those who battle in the culture wars: the ultimate assurance that God’s truth will triumph in the ned—even though we wish he would act a little faster.

Leviticus 16:26–18:5: The instructions regarding the Day of Atonement conclude with the disposition of the bull for the sin offering and unsurprisingly, the command that the “one who burns them shall wash his clothes and bathe his body in water, and afterward may come into the camp.” (16:28) More significantly, I think, the precise day for the Day of Atonement is set “forever: In the seventh month, on the tenth day of the month, you shall deny yourselves,  and shall do no work, neither the citizen nor the alien who resides among you.” (16:29). Then, the authors summarize the purpose of this most holy of days: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord.” (16:30) Notice that this day is a gift from God—”for you”—not something God requires because he’s just being arbitrarily complicated.

Of course this day continues to be celebrated as Rosh Hashanah these several millennia later.

Chapter 17 emphasizes two critically important rules. The first is that sacrifices can be made in one place and one place only: at “the entrance of the tent of meeting.” (17:4) The consequences of disobedience are severe. If a sacrifice is made to God in any other location, no matter how sincerely, that person or persons “shall be cut off from the people,” (17:8)  i.e. banished from the community. I think this rule is in place to  delineate Israel clearly from the surrounding idolatrous tribes, who would create a “high place” in various locations and sacrifice right then and there. God demands order, not randomness. It also underscores the monotheism of Israel. God is present in only one place. And here, it is the tent of meeting. Once in Canaan, however, the Israelites set up all kinds of high places for sacrifice as they follow the pagan rites of their neighbors.

The other cause for being banished from the community, whether “anyone of the house of Israel or of the aliens who reside among them” (17:10) is the consumption of blood. The reason is straightforward: “For the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.” (17:11) Blood is life and that life has but one purpose: atonement for sins before God. The idea of blood as atonement of course finds its fulfillment for us in the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood on the ross. For it is in the blood that we are “washed white as snow.” In short, blood, whether animal or human, is sacred because it is the means by which God gives and sustains the lives of every creature. [Today, only the Germans and their predilection for blood sausage seem to ignore this rule.]

Chapter 18 opens with a brief intermezzo, reminding us that in the midst of all these rules, we must remember that Israel’s God is wholly unique among all the other small-g gods that surround them: “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the Lord your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you.” (18:2, 3) And Israel’s responsibility for enjoying this unique covenantal relationship is simply that “You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the Lord.” (18:5) A simple rule but as we will see, obeyed only in the breach.

Mark 6:7–13: Following the fairly disastrous encounter at Nazareth, Jesus turns to the mission at hand, and as far is Mark is concerned, the real reason Jesus has called these particular disciples: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.” (7) Notice that while Jesus has given them authority over the “unclean spirits,” presumably the ability to cast out demons, he has not given them healing powers. At this point Jesus has reserved this power to himself.

What remains somewhat puzzling to me is that Jesus basically creates an order of mendicant missionaries (a practice continued by some orders of Catholic monks): He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts. (8) This would presumably make their jobs harder, but I think Jesus is proving the point that working in the Kingdom does not require wealth or even bringing supplies. God will provide all that is needed.

Jesus’ next words need to be remembered again and again: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (11) Mark has placed this statement immediately following Jesus’ own lack of success in Nazareth as a reminder that not everyone will respond to the Good News—even to Jesus himself. And if it appears that if the Holy Spirit is not working in a person or place we are to move. I think many overly-sincere folks tend to badger their “targets” to the point of annoyance and then to outright rejection. For example, I’m suspicious of people who try to “convert” atheists.  It is enough to simply state what Jesus has done for us and then to live that example because actions always speak louder than words. Badgering someone by telling them they’re wrong-headed only leads to antipathy. Speak gently and let the Holy Spirit do its work. We should not be looking to put notches on our spiritual holsters.

Psalm 53; Leviticus 15:25–16:25; Mark 6:1–6

Originally published 4/22/2016. Revised and updated 4/23/2016.

Psalm 53: Alter notes that this psalm is essentially a duplicate of Psalm 14 with only a few minor exceptions. That said, its message is completely relevant to us today.

There is little ambiguity here. There are those who are on God’s side and those who are not. Our psalmist focuses on the “not” crowd, reminding us that a scoundrel is a God-denier and as a result of living without God and by denying God’s existence they are incapable of doing good at all:
The scoundrel has said in his heart,
There is no God.

They do corrupt and loathsome misdeeds.
There is none who does good.
” (2)

In a verse that recalls the conditions of Noah’s time, God-fearers seem to have vanished from the face of the earth:
The Lord from the heavens looked down
on the sons of humankind
to see, is there someone discerning,
someone seeking God
.” (3)

At least God found Noah, but now the situation is even more dire. No righteous man is to be found:
All are tainted,
one and all befouled.
There is none who does good.
There is not even one.
” (4)

That’s certainly a verse that resonates today as people in the name of “tolerance,” “equality,” “inclusivity,” deny God and seek to seek to eject God and God-followers from the public square. They are saying, “Go ahead, worship your pretend God, but do it only in private.”

The psalmist reminds of the profound ignorance of the God-deniers as they neither comprehend their fallen state nor tolerate those who believe in God. Rather, they consume the righteous:
Do they not know,
the wrongdoers?
Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.
They did not call on God. 

In the historical context of the psalm, those God-deniers who attempted to conquer Israel were in turn conquered themselves. In the usual confusion of pronouns, the psalmist writes, “They did sorely fear
[but] There was no fear,
for God scattered the bones of your besieger.
” (6)

Here, “they” appears to be Israel or Israel’s army. Everything turns out right for those who trusted in God. In fact, in Israel’s victory, “You put them to shame, for God spurned them [the would-be devourers].” (6b) Even as Israel feared defeat, God was there for them because they did not deny God.

So, too, that should be our attitude. When we are feeling besieged on all sides by the culture, our responsibility is simply to trust God. After all, if we have faith in God, who is over all things, we should not fear but rejoice that at some point, “God restores His people’s condition.” (7)

Leviticus 15:25–16:25: The authors conclude their clinical discussion of “discharges” by describing the ritual sacrifice requires to restore a state of cleanliness. In these concluding verses they seem to finally offer an explanation for this lengthy disquisition on bodily fluids: “Thus you shall keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, so that they do not die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst.” (15:31)

Just to make sure we get their point they remind us once again, “This is the ritual for those who have a discharge: for him who has an emission of semen, becoming unclean thereby, for her who is in the infirmity of her period, for anyone, male or female, who has a discharge, and for the man who lies with a woman who is unclean.” (15:32, 33) I trust this is the last discussion of this topic we will be forced to endure.

The authors now define the requirements of the Day of Atonement, which is still celebrated today as Rosh Hashanah. [I really have to wonder about who decided the topic order of Leviticus. It certainly seems jarring to move to the most holy of rituals immediately after the endless discussion of male and female bodily fluids.]

As usual, the ritual is framed as a set of instructions communicated by God to Moses, this time “after the death of the two sons of Aaron, when they drew near before the Lord and died.” (16:1) It appears that a primary cause of their death was that they just showed up before God on their own timetable, not God’s: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come just at any time into the sanctuary inside the curtain before the mercy seat that is upon the ark, or he will die.” (16:2)

When the time is appropriate, Aaron offers a bull as a sin offering and then takes two goats.If (we’ve ever wondered where “scapegoat” comes from, this is the place.) Lots are cast over the goat: One is sacrificed to God; the other “shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.” (16:10)

Detailed instructions regarding how the bull and one goat are sacrificed and their blood applied to the mercy seat. Then, “When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat.” (16:20). Aaron lays his hands on the live goat “and confess[es] over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task.” (16:21)

In a passage remarkably similar to Isaiah, “And the goat shall bear upon it all their [Israel’s] transgressions to a remote region , and he shall send off the goat to the wilderness.” (16:22) Israel’s sins are carried away on the goat’s head.

What is the theological meaning of the scapegoat? Why is the goat that bears the people’s sins allowed to live and be sent into the wilderness? It is a clear foreshadowing of our own sins being carried away on the head of a crucified Jesus—a hint of Jesus’ sacrifice wherein our sins were all laid on his head, but that like the goat, both he and we live.

Mark 6:1–6: Jesus heads back to Nazareth and Mark adds the note that “his disciples followed him.” (1) Jesus’ teaching at the synagogue is at a depth heretofore never heard in Nazareth: “On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded.” (2a) Interestingly, it is “many,” not “all” who were astounded. Proof that in every congregation there are always those who remain unimpressed no matter how fabulous the preaching.

Jesus’ erudition creates enormous cognitive dissonance in the congregation. First they acknowledge Jesus’ wisdom and “deeds of power”, asking “Where did this man get all this?” (2) Then reality sets in: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?“* (3) How could an ordinary tekton grubbing around in some insignificant country town amass all this wisdom and power? Firmly connected to reality, they quickly decide that he’s either a charlatan or demon-possessed: “And they took offense  at him.” (5) Which is exactly what today’s world does— so enamored of the power of science and rejecting of anything but that which is materially observable. We even have a term for it: scientific materialism. This passage also tells us is that human skepticism is not a modern phenomenon.

Jesus basically tells them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” (4) which is another way of saying that the people who truly know somebody—or think they know somebody— or have observed them from childhood are supremely fixated in their perception of that person and completely unwilling to change their point of view.

Which of course is what we all do. We think we know someone but when something miraculous happens we go out of our way to discount it. And that lack of faith drains away God’s power, which as Mark notes, “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” (5) The issue here is not that Jesus lacked power, but that the people—us—lacked faith and would rather remain rooted in what we know rather than willingly suspend our disbelief and accept the fantastic gift that the Kingdom of God really is.

When someone is radically transformed as Jesus was, he contradicts our preconceived notions and our minds cannot handle that much cognitive dissonance.  And in our psychological stubbornness it’s far easier to reject the changed person than it is to reflect on what has happened and think about changing our own minds.  Because in our own minds, we know that we are “right.” This is why “perception is everything” is such a truism for marketers.


*I believe this is the only place where we learn that jesus had brothers and sisters, even though many Catholics would like to believe Mary was perpetually a virgin and have come up with all kinds of entertaining theories to explain away this verse. Personally, I go with Occam’s Razor and accept that Mary and Joseph went on to have other children. Notice also here the absence of Joseph. Many have speculated that he died sometime after the event of Jesus at the Temple that Luke records.

Psalm 50:7–15; Leviticus 11:1–28; Mark 3:20–35

Originally published 4/15/2016. Revised and updated 4/16/2016.

Psalm 50:7–15: After the lengthy poetic introduction we reflected on previously, God finally speaks. His words are formal as if he is a judge speaking from the bench. They are directed to his chosen people and quickly establishes his godly bona fides with an irrefutable and dramatic statement in the third line of the verse:
Hear, O my people, that I may speak,
Israel, that I witness to you.
God your God I am.” (7)

While God certainly doesn’t disapprove of the sacrifices that Israel has been offering all these years, he seems to discount them as he sets the stage for something bigger although he is not about to prevent their continuation:
Not for your sacrifices shall I reprove you,
your burnt-offerings always before me.
I shall not take from your house [the temple, I presume] a bull,
not goats from your pens.
” (9)

God seems to be saying basically, “Yes, your sacrifices are just fine but don’t do them because you think I need the meat.” God then points out that he has far vaster resources than a few bulls and goats. After all, he’s saying, I’m the Creator:
Mine are all the beasts of the forest.
the herds on a thousand mountains,
I know every bird of the mountains,
creatures of the field are with Me
. (10, 11)

In fact, he continues, he does not actually need those sacrifices at all:
Would I eat the flesh of fat bulls,
would I drink the blood of goats?

God is making the point that the sacrifices are for humankind to atone for sin and to give thanksgiving. God does not need any of this for him to be God. He’s got all of creation to prove that. So, it is we who
Sacrifice to God a thanksgiving,
and pay to the High One your vows
.” (14) A

And when we are in trouble we reach out to God in our distress:
And call Me on the day of distress—
I will free you and you shall revere me
.” (15).

The key point here is that God is not the one who needs our acts of obedience. The idea that we worship God because he needs worship is false. We come and worship because we need it. Jesus said this distinctly when he said, “Man was not made for the Sabbath; Sabbath was made for man.” We, not God, are the ones who require forgiveness for wrongdoing, and help in time of trouble.

Leviticus 11:1–28: Now that the construction and erection of the tabernacle is complete, and now that the sacrificial acts have been defined and performed with rather dramatic results, Leviticus returns to its primary role as instruction manual for Jewish practice.

While it may seem strange to encounter these rather specific rules here in the Bible, we need to remember that this is here to preserve people from disease.  From a biological point of view, the rules make a lot of sense. [Well, with the possible exception of the business about four-legged insects.] Following these rules is how Israel survived in the desert and once in Canaan maintained their distinctiveness as a people. The instructions are comprehensive:

• “among all the land animals, these are the creatures that you may eat.” (2) No cloven hoof animals, are acceptable. And the “pig, for even though it has divided hoofs and is cleft-footed, it does not chew the cud; it is unclean for you.” (7)

• Finned and scaled fish are fine but forget everything else. [Wow. no scallops…]

• The a category I hope never to encounter in person:  “All winged insects that walk upon all fours are detestable to you.” (20). Although locusts, bald locusts, crickets, and grasshoppers are OK. Ugh.

• Don’t carry dead animal carcasses around. If you do, “whoever carries any part of the carcass of any of them shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening.” (25)

• After reminding us once again that “Every animal that has divided hoofs but is not cleft-footed or does not chew the cud is unclean for you” (26), animals that “walk on their paws, among the animals that walk on all fours, are unclean for you.” (27) Which would include dogs, cats, lions, and tigers.

I’m struck by two aspects of this highly detailed passage.

First, is the sheer variety of animal life–in the air, on the ground, in the sea–that constitutes God’s creation.  OF course, in our modern era we know many more phyla and species than are listed here, but the completeness of this list that tells how many species were know at the time is striking.  It also tells us that the land was fecund and not just the middle eastern desert of our imaginations. Which was one of the things that stuck me when I visited Israel. It is a far richer, more productive place that I had thought.

Second, I’m astounded by the careful division of everything into the two categories: clean and unclean.  The writers here seem almost obsessed with the issue of purity.  And I’m aware of the explanations that clean animals were healthier for human consumption. But at its base, the issue is more theological than nutritional.  The classification is completely binary: clean or unclean.  No middle ground; no fine gradations; no gray areas.  Which is exactly our relationship with God.  We are not “sort of redeemed.”  God’s act through Jesus Christ changes our lives from lost to found, from darkness to light.  It is we ourselves who bring ambiguity to God’s binary act of grace.

Mark 3:20–35: Jesus has become a celebrity and the people keep mobbing him, “so that they could not even eat.” (20). But his family [Mary, Joseph(?), his brothers] are pretty horrified at what Jesus is doing: all that demon-scourging; those miracles. Perhaps worst of all, he’s offending those respectable Pharisees, paragons of virtue in the community. They’re saying that Jesus is bringing shame on the entire family and it has to stop: “they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.”‘ (21)

An entire delegation of scribes from Jerusalem is called in to consult and conclude that “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” (22)  Jesus, inescapably logical, points out the inconsistency in their arguments: How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand…if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.” (23, 26) Mark does not record the scribes’ reply. Probably because they had no argument to refute Jesus.

The scribes have asserted, “He has an unclean spirit,” (30) but Jesus is not finished. He goes on to describe what is famously known as the unforgivable sin:  “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” (29)

What I had never noticed before about this somewhat puzzling claim of the “unforgivable sin” is that Jesus is speaking of himself. To accuse him, who is fully possessed of the Holy Spirit that is the driving force of his powers, of having “an unclean spirit” is to accuse the Holy Spirit herself of being unclean, which is truly blasphemous.  The Holy Spirit is sufficiently well-known and understood in the Hebrew Scripture that the religious people who made the accusation know exactly what Jesus is saying.  He has turned the tables and is accusing his accusers of blasphemy.

To me the “unforgivable sin” simply means that if we are filled with the Holy Spirit, it’s impossible to blaspheme the Holy Spirit. But those who accuse others of not having the Spirit are not only deluded but out of relationship with God. And without that relationship, there can be no forgiveness.

Mark isn’t quite done with Jesus’ family yet. Mary and his brothers appear and the crowd points that out: “they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” (32) But Jesus famously appears to reject them with his rhetorical question: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” (33). Rather, Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (34b, 35)

I think this is simply Mark’s way of saying to his audience that we are brothers and sisters in Jesus, and frankly, that relationship is far more important than even our flesh and blood one. At this point his biological family disappears from the narrative until we encounter Mary again at the foot of the cross. Jesus’ statement marks the turning point in his ministry. He is now completely out on his own, untied from family obligations and even loyalty. And besides, they hadn’t been very nice, what with calling in that delegation from Jerusalem. But I really wish Mark had given us a clue as to how Jesus’ mother and brothers reacted. But I’d like to think that his brothers and especially his mother did in fact join him.

Psalm 50:1–6; Leviticus 9:12–10:20; Mark 3:13–19

Originally published 4/15/2016. Revised and updated 4/14/2018:

Psalm 50:1–6: This prophetic psalm opens with an unusual sequence of God’s names, “El, the God Lord,” which is essentially “God, God Lord,” as opposed to the more typical “Lord God.” This psalm will record God’s speech to the entire world as our psalmist reminds us that God spoke the entire creation into existence:
He spoke and called to the earth
from the sun’s rising-place to its setting.

While God’s glory indeed covers the entire earth from east [“rising-place”] to west “[“setting], God’s central location is —no surprise here—Jerusalem:
From Zion, the zenith of beauty
God shone forth.

Before God speaks we witness an impressive theophany of fire, lightning, and thunder:
Let our God come and not be silent.
Before Him fire consumes,
and round Him—great storming.

God is making his appearance not just to speak but to judge:
Let Him call to the heavens above
and to the earth to judge His people:

Here, the “people” is Israel, as God’s first words are an invitation that includes a clear reference to the temple rites of sacrifice [of which we are currently reading in great detail in Leviticus]:
Gather to me Me My faithful,
who with sacrifice seal My pact.

The next verse confirms that when he speaks the quality that will be on full display is the God’s judgement:
And let the heavens tell His justice,
for God, He is judge.
” (6)

One of the things I like about the psalms is that there is no hesitation on the part of its poets to put words in God’s mouth. I think this suggests a closer relationship with God than our (my) tendency to make God an abstraction—to think of God only in the third person and unlike the psalmist that I dare not pretend to speak for him.

Leviticus 9:12–10:20: The inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood continues apace as Aaron carries out the sacrifices as instructed: “Then he slaughtered the burnt offering. Aaron’s sons brought him the blood, and he dashed it against all sides of the altar.” (9:12). The ordination completed, Aaron next “presented the people’s offering” (9:15), which is a sin offering. It’s crucial to note that Aaron is carrying out the sacrifices exactly as instructed, a point the authors make perfectly clear: “He presented the burnt offering, and sacrificed it according to regulation.” (9:16)

A sacrifice of well-being follows the sin offering—much as when we worship today we begin with a confession [or at least that’s what we used to do at Saint Matthew] before moving on to other parts of the liturgy. Once the sacrifices are complete, Moses and Aaron appear together “and blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people.” (9:23). In a final theophanic stroke that concludes this opening rite, “Fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.” (9:24) Which I think is exactly what I would do were I a witness there that day. God’s power can elicit great happiness and joy.

But…God is still God and requires his mandates to be followed precisely. Filled with wine or enthusiasm or both, “Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them.” (10:1) Their act, which was probably well-meaning as they were caught up in all the excitement exceeds the instructions God had given to Moses, or perhaps they were taking a liturgical shortcut: “And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (10:2)

Moses tells Aaron that it was God who was in charge, not his well-meaning sons. In perhaps the most freighted and certainly the saddest sentence in this book, “And Aaron was silent.” (10:3) We can only imagine Aaron’s thoughts and feelings at this moment: grief, anger, probably a desire to run out of the tabernacle and weep. And certainly to hate God for what he did.

For the first time in this book, God speaks to Aaron rather than Moses and gives a clear instruction: “Drink no wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons, when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die; it is a statute forever throughout your generations.” (10:9). The clear implication is that Nadab and Abihu were drunk when the misadventure occurred. In any event, the authors were making clear to their contemporary priesthood the seriousness of how to approach God completely sober and clear-headed


Moses then gives clear instructions to Aaron and his two remaining sons, Elezar and Ithamar that they are to consume the remaining grain and meat within the precincts of the tabernacle. Moses asks about the goat to be sacrifices and finds to his dismay, “it had already been burned!” (10:16) [Notice the exclamation mark.] Moreover, they have failed to eat the sin offering in the “sacred area.”

Moses chastises the already grief-stricken Aaron and his two sons.  Aaron pleads with Moses, saying that they had offered the sin offering, “and yet such things as these have befallen me!” (10:19a). [Another exclamation mark indicating the intense emotion of the moment.] Aaron asks “If I had eaten the sin offering today, would it have been agreeable to the Lord?” (10:19b) Moses replies that it would have been.

What do we take away from this episode? Certainly that when God gives instruction they are to be followed precisely. But perhaps the greatest lesson here is that we must be careful in keeping what is holy, holy. To set a clear boundary “between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and to teach the Israelites all the statutes that the LORD spoke to them by the hand of Moses.” (10: 10,11).

This theological lesson is clear, but it was scant comfort to Eleazar and to Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, who then err by burning, rather than eating, the offense offering in the holy place (10:18)  Their fear of being struck dead like their brothers seems reasonable.  Aaron tells Moses that given the tragic events of the day, none of them could be expected to eat amidst their grief.  And Moses concedes that Aaron is right.

This is one of those places where we see the power of God juxtaposed against human feeling, that brings such poignancy to the story.  Moses may be God’s representative on earth, but Aaron is the representative humanity in all of us.

Mark 3:13–19: Up to this point we have met only five of the disciples: Simon (soon to be Peter), Andrew, John, James and Levi (soon to be Matthew). But now Jesus—rather symbolically—ascends the mountain “and called to him those whom he wanted.” (13a). Jesus chooses the disciples just as he chooses us. Upon being called, those whom he called “came to him.” (13b) That is, we respond to the invitation; we do not initiate it.

Jesus appoints twelve, and  in something I had not noticed before, it is Jesus himself who “named them apostles.” (14)

In an echo of the twelve tribes of Israel, (this is the establishment of the New Covenant, after all) Jesus appoints each man with three distinct aspects of the commission, i.e., a very clear mission [what today we would call a ‘mission statement.’] consisting of three duties:
1. “to be with him;” (14)
2. “to be sent out to proclaim the message” (i.e., the ‘Good News’ that Mark speaks of in the very first line of his gospel); (14)
3. “to have authority to cast out demons.” (15)

Notice that while they can cast out demons, they cannot be healers. At this point Jesus reserves that power for himself. The first two parts of the mission statement make complete sense to our modern brains. But why the casting out demons bit? I think it was reflective of the times and to make it clear that Jesus was not just a magician with healing powers. More importantly, I think, it comes back to that Markan theme: authority.  This is the first instance of Jesus passing along his authority to his followers.

One also wonders: were demons easier to cast out than healing people?  Or would a whole bunch of disciples wandering around healing people undermine Jesus’ mission un earth and create exactly the political revolution he sought so earnestly to avoid. He has doubtless learned some lessons from John the Baptist’s ministry, his enthusiastic followers and the fact that John ended up in prison.

While I’m ambivalent about the casting our demons business, there’s no question that as disciples we are all called to do the first two things Mark lists here: to be with Jesus and to proclaim the good news.

Mark then lists the roster of Apostles, noting the change in Simon’s name to Peter, or more informally, “Rocky.” He also calls John and James the “sons of Thunder,” Doubtless a reference to a physical or personality trait, possibly that they were big, strong men, or perhaps that they spoke loudly and boldly.

Mark names Judas Iscariot last and adding the information this early in his gospel that it is Judas “who betrayed him.” (19) The naming of names is crucial because that is the essence of our identity.  Not only before other people, but before God.  Names are God-given, albeit through our parents. And names are an important distinctive that sets us apart from the rest of creation.

Once this task was accomplished, Mark tells us “Then he [Jesus] went home.” (19) In other words, when the task is complete, go home and rest. Ministry does not have to be 24/7. Jesus clearly understood the reasons for the Sabbath. As he pointed out to the Pharisees, the sabbath is made for humankind.

Psalm 49:13–21; Leviticus 8:18–9:11; Mark 3:1–12

Originally published 4/13/2016. Revised and updated 4/13/2018:

Psalm 49:13–21: Our psalmist continues his reflection on the brevity—and ultimate futility— of life and observes that the only encomiums following their deaths are the ones they wrote themselves:
This way of theirs is foolishness.
and after, in words alone, they show favor. (14)

Continuing in his dark mood, our poet asserts that the unobservant, even stupid people head off to death without ever having realized the purpose of life: “Like sheep to Sheol they head—/ death shepherds them—” (15a) A puzzling line follows: “and the upright will hold sway over them in the morn.” (15b) Does this mean that the righteous (“upright”) people who have preceded these ‘sheep’ in Sheol somehow rule over them? Things become a bit clearer with the poet’s assertion that they wear out their image in Sheol,/ a habitation for them.” (15c), which I take to mean that those who were formerly well-known [‘their image’], rich, and powerful on earth are now nothing special following their death. Which seems intuitively true.

As for the poet, however, he is a God-follower and “God will ransom my life,/ from the grip of Sheol he will take me.” (16) In other words, he’s been rescued from imminent death, even though he has already informed us that all—including him— will die and eventually end up in Sheol.

The upshot of this soliloquy is that given the ultimately meaningless end of the rich and powerful, we should not fear them while they rule or lord it over us here on earth:
Do not fear when a man grows rich,
when he enlarges his glory.
For in his death he will not take all.
 (17, 18a)

Our poet goes on to observe that the rich man is a hypocrite, whose motives are strictly self-centered even as he appears to be giving God the credit for his wealth and power:
For his own self he blesses [God] when alive
and acclaims You for giving him bounty
. (19)

Goodness knows we have seen many powerful men—especially politicians— give God credit or profess their religiosity when deep down we know they are making it all up. Which is one reason I cringe whenever I hear a politician say, ‘God bless America.’

But even the powerful will die in stupidity, never having understood that God holds him in his hand like a crumpled piece of paper; that all things are fundamentally meaningless:
He will come to the state of his fathers—
forevermore will not see the light.
” (20)

Our psalmist concludes on the same gloomy note about the ultimate futility of life. We are all doomed, even the rich and powerful are like mere animals heade to the slaughter:
Man will not grasp things in splendor.
He is likened to the beasts that are doomed.

This psalm is a dark reflection on the futility of life and how we go about our quotidian lives in basic ignorance, believing things that are not true; believing we are more important than we actually are. These verses again prove that the Psalms is an amazing collection of emotions and philosophies—including the cynical ones.

Leviticus 8:18–9:11: The elaborate ceremony of ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel continues with detailed, almost loving, descriptions of how each animal is eviscerated and burned on the altar. There are certainly bizarre qualities to the rite such as “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear and on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot.” (8:23) Blood and bread are intermixed as Moses “took one cake of unleavened bread, one cake of bread with oil, and one wafer, and placed them on the fat and on the right thigh.” (8:26).

I’m struck in reading this that Jesus’ disciples in the upper room—or at least some of them—would have recalled this passage in Leviticus when Jesus symbolically interweaves blood and bread as he holds the cup aloft and tells them that “this is my blood.”

There is certainly a lot of eating involved in this ceremony as well as Moses commands, “Boil the flesh at the entrance of the tent of meeting, and eat it there with the bread that is in the basket of ordination offerings, as I was commanded, ‘Aaron and his sons shall eat it.‘” (8:31). But it makes some sense when we read that Aaron and his sons “shall remain at the entrance of the tent of meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge.” (8:35a) —and as usual, on pain of death: “so that you do not die.” (8:35b).

Which is what they do. Moses returns on the eighth day and tells Aaron to “Take a bull calf for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, without blemish, and offer them before the Lord.” (9:2) All of Israel is standing there as Aaron offers the sacrifice, which is his first official priestly act as he will now “make atonement for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the offering of the people, and make atonement for them; as the Lord has commanded.” (9:7)

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable stretch to compare this anointing of blood and oil followed by remaining inside the Tabernacle to Jesus shedding his own sacrificial blood and Jesus’ three days inside the tomb to Arron’s time inside the Tabernacle burial.  The New Covenant began as the old: with the shedding of blood and burial.  And only then Jesus’ atonement of our sins with one huge difference: once and for all.

If nothing else, the elaborateness and precision with which God’s instructions must be followed emphasize [to me, anyway] that God is not just an abstract philosophical concept that we’re far too comfortable with. Rather, God is very much attached to us, his creatures, at every physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual level. No detail is too unimportant and just as Aaron and his sons had to follow a precise ritual, ritual in coming to God is equally important—and thankfully far less bloody—in how we worship. There is no randomness here, nor should there be in our own worship.

Mark 3:1–12: Mark continues to weave together the tenets of Jesus’ radical theology with his acts of healing. There’s a setup at the synagogue at Capernaum. The Pharisees “watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him.” (2). Jesus asks the man with the withered hand to come forward so everyone could witness what was about to happen. As he does so, Jesus, knowing their thoughts, poses the question of Sabbath healing in the starkest terms possible: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (4).The Pharisees don’t answer because to have answered would have been an admission that Jesus was right and they were wrong?  It seems their pride could not allow that. What seems to have happened is that their pricked consciences collided with their pride and will express itself as unbridled hatred?

It is in their silence that we witness Jesus’ emotional reaction: “He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” (5) Does Jesus look at all of us in anger and grieving when we fail to practice compassion—and especially when we use a theological excuse to justify that lack of compassion?

Then he heals the man as the Pharisees stalk out and “immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (6) Mark makes sure that we know that the conspiracy subplot begins early and that it begins way up in the remote reaches of Galilee, not in the center of power down in Jerusalem.

While the Pharisees despised Jesus, the people love him and he attracts “a great multitude from Galilee followed him.” (7) Even though there was no print or electronic communication, word of Jesus’ mighty acts spreads quickly as people “came to him in great numbers from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, beyond the Jordan, and the region around Tyre and Sidon.” (8) Which is to say both Jewish and Gentile areas. Mark is hinting early on that Jesus is far more than a local Jewish rabbi.

Because of the crowds, Jesus must preach from a boat anchored at the shore. This scene reminds me of the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachsuetts, famously described by Melville in the opening scenes of Moby Dick, where the pulpit is shaped like the prow of a boat.

Jesus heals many and equally important to Mark, he casts out demons. Mark writes that “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, “You are the Son of God!” (11) Is Mark telling us that while the ‘principalities and powers’ under the earth know who Jesus is, the religious leaders refuse to believe? If so, that makes the contrast between belief and unbelief even starker.