Leviticus 13-15, Psalm 35, Mark 8
Who is Jesus for you?
Leviticus 13 – 15
Since the HIV/AIDS epidemic broke out, people in the United States and other countries have become increasingly fearful of illnesses and disease. A whole host of additional airborne viruses and health scares have deepened fears. More and more people are washing obsessively after any human contact.
After a worship service ended about a decade ago, I excused myself from a conversation with a visiting priest to wash my hands. Afterwards, I explained that I had learned that it was wise to wash my hands after each Sunday after shaking hands sometimes two hundred or more people at the church door.
The guest preacher then told me that the best book that he read after graduating from seminary was Washing the Parish off Your Hands. It began with a story of a priest washing his hands after worship to avoid catching colds and flus, but it went on to talk about the necessity of leaving parish problems at church and not bringing them home to one’s spouse and family and stewing over them – wise counsel.
In Leviticus 13 – 15, we find an obsessive focus on cleanliness. If a leper has a blemish…If a man has a discharge…If a woman has a discharge… Ancient priests functioned more like physicians at times. No one would think of coming to a priest today to be “pronounced clean” of an illness.
Ancient priests had the power to pronounce people “unclean.” (Lev. 13:20) It was a great responsibility. Throughout history, society has bestowed on clergy significant powers, which can be used or abused. The Church, above all institutions, must handle its power with utter care. The massive pedophile scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church, the widespread cover-up and inability to have these matters handled in criminal courts have tarnished religion. People expect more from the Church.
We might benefit also from re-reading Mark 7:1-8, where Jesus scolds the Pharisees and scribes for obsessing with exterior cleanliness and not addressing what is within a person, which is where sin emerges. Jesus further notes, “For it is within the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:22-23)
I love how the psalmist rarely holds back with his thoughts and feelings. The psalmist offers a huge range of human emotions. I used to worry whenever I resonated with the psalms, because I knew that my life had to be in a bad situation as the psalmist often rants about the challenges of life.
Psalm 35 is a fascinating prayer. The psalmist begins by pleading, “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me.” (Ps. 35:1) We are wise to let God handle our adversaries for us and turn over to God’s control that which we cannot control ourselves.
But part of this psalm is a primitive prayer. It is an attempt to enlist God on our side, such as praying, “O God help me to get this job” or “O God help me to pass the exam.” For as long as humans have walked the earth, we have sought to bend God’s will to our will. Yet, prayer is meant to do just the opposite. True prayer occurs when we allow God gently to bend our will to serve his will. The psalmist cries out,
Let them be put to shame and dishonor
who seek after my life.
Let them be turned back and confounded
who devise evil against me.
Let them be like chaff before the wind,
with the angel of the Lord driving them on. (Ps. 35:4-5)
There are many different levels of faith represented in the Bible. This is level one. The psalmist often treats God like a butler in Downton Abbey summoned to assist his master. “Oh, Carson, fetch my slippers and smoking jacket please.” God is our heavenly father, not our heavenly butler. If, however, we are seeking to let God bend our will to align with his will, God is all ears!
Chapter 8 is bound to feel a bit like déjà vu. Fear not, you are not losing your mind. Yes, you have just read a very similar story in Mark 6:30-44. If you like, you might re-read it, and then read Mark 8:1-10, where Jesus feeds the four thousand. Note the similarities and differences. Jesus’s ratings are plummeting. He has 20% less followers. This time he only feeds four thousand, not five thousand men.
It is remarkable how little the disciples have learned. They not witnessed some extraordinary miracles. Jesus has fed five thousand persons with a handful of five and loaves. Surely, the disciples are aware of his miraculous powers. Yet, they ask, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?”
It reminds me of ministering to a wonderful gentleman who was suffering from dementia. We used to walk our dogs together once a week. Each time he shared similar thoughts with me, having forgotten that he had shared them the previous time we met, but I loved it. Here the disciples seem to be suffering from dementia and are unable to recall what they have recently witnessed.
Jesus must have had incredible patience. Had he not fed five thousands with five loaves and two fish? Now, he had seven loaves and a few fish and only four thousand to feed? Soon after, we read, “Now the disciples had forgotten to bring any bread; and they had only one loaf with them in the boat.” (Mark 8:14) Truly, these are slow learners. Most scholars believe that Matthew spotted the deficiency in the way that Mark portrayed the disciples and focused on improving their image. It was, after all, hard to sell the future of Christianity to potential believers if the faith’s founding fathers were blessedly dense.
While we earlier reviewed Jesus’s questioning of the disciples at Caesarea Philippi (Matt. 16:13-20), the story was first told in Mark’s Gospel. It is one of the Bible’s most pivotal moments. Think of it as one of the ten top moments in the Bible. In Mark’s Gospel, Peter’s declaration about Jesus falls almost exactly in the middle of the gospel. (Mark 8:27-30) It is no accident, for it is the turning point in the disciple’s journey with Jesus. The mask is removed, and Jesus is identified as the Christ or the Messiah, God’s Son who has been sent to bring about our redemption.
After quizzing the disciples about whom others think that he is and hearing – John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets – Jesus asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter boldly answered, “You are the Messiah.” Surely, the disciples must have whispered among themselves about this possibility. “Is he the Christ,” they must have asked each other after witnessing his miracles and teachings.
I know people who have worshipped or attended a Bible study for many years and still express Christian 101 doubts like, “Did Jesus really rise from the dead?” or say, “Wasn’t Jesus really just a great teacher.” A lot of persons question whether Jesus was God’s Son. For me, it is clear. Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah, who was crucified and died for us and rose again to conquer death for all time.
Read Mark 8:31-33 carefully. Jesus knew what would take place. “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31) There are some passages where the evangelists seem to put words in Jesus’s mouth when writing the gospels. This is not one. I believe that Jesus uttered these words. Their experience at Caesarea Philippi must have been a day never to forget.
Peter then led the way for every agnostic throughout time when he took Jesus aside and rebuked him for speaking about his suffering, death and resurrection. Then Jesus countered, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on divine things, but on human beings.” (Mark 8:33) The same problem occurs today for many Christians. God invites us to set our minds on heavenly things.
This does not mean just being polite and thinking nice thoughts. It means believing in heaven, the Holy Trinity, the divinity of Christ and in Jesus’s Resurrection. The latter belief is not optional for Christians. It is at the heart of our faith. Everyone can worship and participate in the church, but to bear the name “Christian” means to believe by faith that Jesus rose from the dead and conquered death. It is only when we accept this on faith that we began to move forward on the Christian journey. Jesus then offers some great counter-intuitive teaching, which is as valid today as it was when he first uttered it,
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life. (Mark 8:34-36)
He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ (Mark 8:29)
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? (Mark 8:34-36)
Who do you need to wash off your hands and let go of emotionally? Who or what is beyond your ability to control? Have you turned their control over to God through prayer? In what ways are you treating God like your cosmic butler? Who is Jesus for you? Who do you say that he is?
Gracious, Loving and Ever-Forgiving God, we test your patience each day and are so grateful for your steadfast love. Give us, we pray, the blessed assurance that you will always be there for us. May we be a bridge from your divine love, grace and mercy to all those around us. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania