Leviticus 1-3, Psalm 31, Mark 4
God can be found in the details of daily life
The Book of Leviticus is the Waterloo for most people who attempt to read the Bible from beginning to end. Unless a person reads a portion of the New Testament and perhaps a psalm as well each day while reading parts of Leviticus, most people who attempt to read the Bible from cover to cover and only read portions of Leviticus for several days give up reading the Bible altogether. They simply find it boring, repetitive and irrelevant to their daily life.
According to our reading plan, participants in The Bible Challenge will spend nine days wading through the waters of Leviticus. Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible in 1611, said that there were parts of the Bible shallow enough for a lamb to shade, and other parts deep enough for an elephant to swim. It’s hard to say whether Leviticus is shallow or deep, but most would find is very different what our life today.
We, therefore, encourage readers to skim parts of Leviticus and not feel obligated to read each word. There are, however, important lessons to be learned while reading Leviticus, whose name means “relating to the Levites.” The Levites were members of the Hebrew tribe of Levi. When Joshua led the armies of the Israelites to conquer Canaan, the Levites were allotted cities but not allowed to be landowners because “the Lord God of Israel is their inheritance.” (Joshua 13:33)
The Levites are best known for having responsibility for exercising particular religious duties for the Israelites. In turn, the landed tribes of Israel were expected to offer tithes to the Levites to support the priestly classes. The Levities also had exclusive rights to teach the Torah and perform religious ceremonies in the Temple. Moses and his brother, Aaron, were Levites. Other notable biblical figures who were Levites include Miriam, Samuel, Ezekiel, Ezra and Malachi.
The Book of Leviticus describes the role and duties of the priestly class as well as offers instruction to the laity. Leviticus presupposed that the world was created as good, but can become contaminated by sin and defilement and where the faithful enactment of ritual makes God’s presence available. Similarly, ignoring the rituals that God instructs the Levites to follow creates a breach between God and humanity.
Tradition holds it that Leviticus, the third of five books belonging to the Torah, the Law or the Pentateuch, was compiled by Moses. Most scholars, however, believe that Leviticus dates to a much later period of Jewish history, maintaining that Leviticus is actually a post-exilic work that was compiled after 538 B.C. Scholars believe that the materials included in Leviticus had a long period of composition prior to the Exile, representing probably centuries of development before it reached its current state.
Readers of today’s lessons are warned that their burnt offering must be a male animal without blemish. It must be slaughtered on the north side of the altar by Levitical priests and its blood must be dashed against the sides of the altar. The animal’s head and suet must be cut into pieces by the priests and burned atop the altar while the entrails and legs shall be washed with water.
What do we make of all of this? The readers is encouraged to see that God is often found in the details of our life – how we prepare a meal, who we invite, how we eat, the use of good manners, saying grace, acknowledging God’s blessings as all times and sharing the best that we have to offer with God and others. One of the keys in religion is to determine what are the essential teachings that remain relevant for us today and what are customs from a bygone era that we no longer need to follow. No Christian is expected to carry out today most of the teachings found in Leviticus. What we are urged to do is to honor God with our best, participate in meaningful worship and make generous contributions of tithes – ten percent of what is financially available to us – to support the mission of the Church.
I survived only one season of high school football, before switching over and becoming a soccer player. Football was not my sport. I was sent onto the field only twice all season and made mistakes both times! I longed, however, to have the cheerleaders call my name and succeed with the other football players. We all need a cheerleader in our life – someone who supports us through thick and thin.
The Psalmist is aware that God is our ultimate cheerleader, when we are committed to leading a life of service, holiness and integrity. Because God is our “rock,” “refuge,” and “strong fortress,” the Psalmist can say, “Into your hand I commit my spirit; you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.” (Ps. 31:5) Whoever wrote this psalm was undergoing great hardship.
For my life is spent with sorrow,
and my years with sighing,
my strength fails because of my misery,
and my bones waste away. (Ps. 31:10)
For the third day in a row we have no heat in our house. The temperature this morning was 19 degrees outside. Inside, it felt just as cold. At night, my wife and I move around in the darkness with flashlights while a power outage continues to affect more than 300,000 residents living around Philadelphia. I find it very fatiguing to cope in the cold and dark and drive through streets with fallen trees and power lines which make our suburb resemble a war zone. I can only imagine what it must be like to live in a true war zone like Syria. The Psalmist, however, knows that God and God alone can be trusted at all times.
O how abundant is your goodness
that you have laid up for those who fear you… (Ps. 31:19)
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord. (Ps. 31:24)
In chapter 4 we see something of the tension in which every Christian should attempt to live his or her life. Jesus carefully balances a wide scope of service with a much narrower focus on developing 12 leaders who will become the foundation of the Church. So, likewise, each of us must try to meet some of the wider needs of a world where countless persons are dying for lack of food, medicine and fresh water, where others are tortured or wrongly imprisoned, oppressed by dictators or living in unbearable circumstances of poverty and abuse. At the same time, our principal focus must be nurturing those closest to us – our family and a circle of friends.
In Mark 4, Jesus is found teaching beside the sea, when a large crowd gathers to listen. Throughout this chapter we learn that all of his teaching is in parables, which he only explains to his closest followers. There are a lot of people who want to come to church and want to be there for key moments of Christmas and Easter, a family baptism or wedding, but far fewer who are looking to serve as leaders and make major sacrifices to serve God.
Jesus tells his followers that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is smaller than a BB, yet which grows into one of the largest shrubs. So, too, the kingdom of God has an explosive potential to give growth. Those who work with it must exercise great caution, remain humble, obedient and focused on God and on others. Jesus instructs his entourage:
Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing; even what they have will be taken away.” (Mark 4:24-25)
There are high stakes in life. If we decide to play it safe and avoid God, we take risks with our life and may end up losing what we think is already ours. If we decide to follow Jesus and serve God, we must be prepared to make major sacrifices and focus our life on serving God’s kingdom and others. Neither the soft berth nor the hair shirt will do. God calls us to strike a balance between carrying for the needs of the world and discovering joy in daily living as we serve the needy and tend to our family and friends.
Be strong, and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. (Ps. 31:24)
Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. (Mark 4:24)
Do you experience God’s presence in some of the little things of your daily life? What creates fatigue in your life? What is wearing you down? How might you trust more in God in order to shoulder less of a burden? Are you prepared to make significant sacrifices to serve God or do you want a God of convenience who will leave you alone unless you need God?
Heavenly Father, you gather us as disciples inviting us to join you on the most incredible journey known to humankind. There is, however, a great cost to accepting your invitation to serve. You desire nothing less than all that we have and are. Help us to commit more and more of who we are and what we have to offer with each day that we follow your call to serve. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania