Leviticus 10-12, Psalm 34, Mark 7
God gets a black eye from the Bible
Leviticus 10 – 12
If you think reading Leviticus is difficult, just try writing about it. After reading Leviticus several times, it makes perfect sense to me why the Church pays so little attention to this tortuous book of the Bible, yet, if we are patient, there is some gold to be found hidden among vast portions that could easily be discarded and never missed.
Chapter 10 opens with one of the stranger stories in the Bible. It is the kind of story that gives God a bad reputation. If the author of this book was part of God’s press team, he failed to do his job well. The author’s agenda cannot be to promote God, but rather to promote fear that failure to perform rituals by the rules comes with a severe cost – death.
Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took a censer, put fire in it and laid incense in it. This goes on every Sunday in High Churches throughout the Anglican Communion. There is nothing unusual about it, except that Nadab and Abihu must have done this in a Low Church, because all hell broke out.
The Bible tells us that “they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them.” (Lev. 10:1) What does the God of compassion and mercy do? We are told, “And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Lev. 10:2) How merciful!
Surely, this story does not resonate with any of my own experiences with God or most of what the New Testament conveys about our Creator. How are we to treat passages like this? One way is the censor them and never read them in church or in the Daily Lectionary. This leaves Episcopalians completely unaware that such passages even exist.
It is far better to read them and to trust that God never acts like this way, but humans do. We are prone to tear each other to shreds sometimes if the new priest does not enact an old ritual the way his or her beloved predecessor did for many years or if a change is made in how we worship. God forbid!
One of the most painful lines of Scripture which can easily go unnoticed is, “And Aaron was silent.” (Lev. 10:3) Can this be so? His two sons were just consumed by a fire belching out from God, eliminating half of his household in one fell swoop, and Aaron is silent? What kind of father would act like this? Where is the ranting psalmist when we need him? Sadly, throughout history there have been too many people who failed to stand up to the Church, to God or to fools acting in God’s name when horrors occurred.
Compounding this tragedy, Moses commands Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eleazar and Ithamar, not to mourn the loss of their kin. “Do not dishevel your hair, and do not tear your vestments, or you will die and wrath will strike all the congregation…” (Lev. 10:6) Thank God Moses was never a pastoral counselor for this wretched advice. In truth, this is superstition masquerading as religion.
Chapter 11 offers some very peculiar dietary instructions. In recent years there have been lots of famous diets – the Atkins Diet, the Zone Diet, the vegetarian diet, the vegan diet, the Weight Watchers Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Raw Food Diet and the Mediterranean Diet. None of them can match the Levitical Diet for its austerity.
When Janet Jackson put on a lot of weight and greatly disappointed fans only to lose lots of pounds within four months, she could have succeeded even faster by following the Book of Leviticus and giving up camel, eagle, vulture, osprey, buzzard, raven, ostrich, sea gull, owl, stork and bat. She would have been relieved to know that while she could not eat all winged insects that walk on four legs, she could still eat “winged insects that walk on all fours… that have joined legs above their feet, with which to leap on the ground.” (Lev. 21) Does God really micromanage the world like this? I think not.
Leviticus 11:35 informs us that if part of tonight’s dinner falls on the old oven, you have to smash it to bits and get a new one. This is probably the ancient equivalent of today’s cell phone users “accidentally” dropping their cell phone in water in order to obtain a new phone. Verse 44, however, is the gold among the slag. Here we read lines worth memorizing, “For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” This is a verse worthy of reading every day of the year.
Chapter 12 may be the shortest chapter in the Bible, yet it is worth savoring. We are told that after a woman conceives and bears a son, she shall be unclean for seven days. Twenty-five years ago, when I served the Church of the Province of Kenya for a summer, students at the seminary where I was teaching dismissed the idea that a woman could be ordained because she would have a period once a month and be unclean and unable to enter the church and lead worship. The notion of being “ritually unclean” remains powerful in many cultures to this day.
On the eighth day, a Jewish baby is to be circumcised. Christians, therefore, demanded that children had to be baptized within eight days after being born. During the Middle Ages this was deemed vital as the infant mortality rate was so high.
A mother would then have to purchase an animal or animals to sacrifice in the Temple for a purification rite. The desirable sacrifice was a sheep, which the priests would relish eating. I love lamb, so this works for me. Temple sacrifices, however, were available on a sliding scale fee. Poor people, who could not afford a sheep, were allowed to offer two turtledoves or two pigeons. After offering these, the mother who had just given birth, would be deemed “clean.”
Why would this be important? First, it shows us that God understands that not everyone can offer the same offering. Yet, everyone had to contribute something. In every church that I have served, there are some who are happy to let others pay for them. They contribute nothing financially to support the church, but are happy to take from it. This is okay if they are truly poor, but, if not it lessens the self-esteem of the person who gives nothing and robs them of the joy of knowing that offering has helped to make each ministry of the church possible.
Second, turn to Luke 2:22-24, however, and you will find another profound reason. After giving birth to Jesus, Mary and Joseph traveled to the Temple in Jerusalem. We read:
When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated to the Lord”) and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons. (Luke 2:22-24)
This passage confirms that Jesus was poor into poverty. God’s greatest gift of love emerged from a situation of poverty, simplicity and also dignity, where his parents obeyed and fulfilled the law.
When Bishop Frank Turner, a much-beloved Assistant Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania recently died, the Rev. Harold Lewis, one of the Episcopal Church’s finest preachers, offered the eulogy. Dr. Lewis noted that Bishop Turner was a freshman in college attending a class in sociology when he learned that he was poor. His parents, who were sharecroppers in North Carolina, lived with such dignity that the young Frank never knew that he was poor. Such was the home in which Jesus also grew up.
When the Victorian era Scottish literary critic Thomas Carlyle’s church was seeking a new vicar, a parishioner asked Carlyle what he hoped to see in a new leader for their church. Carlyle responded, “Someone whose knowledge of God is more than hearsay.”
Young clergy are full of “hearsay.” I’ve heard it said that God is rather forgiving, or I’ve heard it said that God takes sin seriously. There is a big difference between someone full of “hearsay” about God and someone who speaks with authority and communicates firsthand about the grace, power and love of God. The psalmist clearly is such a person. He writes,
I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fear. (Ps. 34:4)
O taste and see that the Lord is good… (Ps. 34:8)
This latter verse gives birth to a wonderful African American spiritual called Taste and See, which is a beautiful hymn to sing during Communion. In verse 9 we read:
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
for those who fear him have no want. (Ps. 34:9)
I personally find the word “fear” almost always to be the wrong word in many Bible passages. It is much better to translate the word “fear” as “respect.” Each time you read the word “fear” in the Bible, try translating it as “respect” and see if it improves your understanding of the passage. We obey our parents because we “respect” them. If we obey them because we “fear” them, something is wrong.
While we ought not to live in “fear” of the Lord, as though God were out to get us, we need at all times to “respect” God. If we respect God at all times, we will not have to worry a lot about sin. Sin occurs when we stop respecting God and others who grace our journey of life.
The psalmist notes that “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34:18) You can bank on this verse. God indeed cares the poor. The Holy One sees through the walls of houses and mud brick shelters, prison walls and hospice units, operating rooms and mental health facilities, God has a huge heart for the broken-hearted and those in need.
Mark and Luke alone add something that Matthew omits, when he tells the story of Jesus berating the Pharisees for being overly scrupulous about washing one’s hands and utensils. Jesus challenges them by quoting the prophet Isaiah (Is. 29:13),
This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines. (Mark 7:6-7)
Both Mark and Luke have Jesus go on to say,
It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions comes: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these things come from within, and they defile a person. (Mark 7:20-23)
The trouble is that these are harder to clean up than merely taking a good soak in the bathtub. Straightening out what’s inside of us is hard spiritual work. It involves prayer, silence, solitude, spiritual direction, regularly engaging Scripture, worship and fellowship with other Christians and a commitment to serving God and others. The good news is that the fruit of this inner cleansing lasts far longer than a bath and brightens every relationship in our life.
Once again, Jesus cannot help himself from healing people. Complete strangers turn to him to restore loved ones to wholeness. Jesus takes a deaf man with a speech impediment aside and touches him where it hurts, and this makes all the difference.
Jim Laney was the President of Emory University. When he was announced as president, Robert Woodruff, heir to a fortune from the Coca-Cola Company, bestowed a $200 million gift on Emory University to inspire the new president, whom he greatly admired. It was at that time the single largest gift ever given to a university. One day while Laney, who was a phenomenal leader, was visiting the Emory University Hospital with one of the prestigious physicians on staff. They were walking grand rounds and visiting the sick.
Each time they entered a room and examined a patient, the medical students chirped like birds trying to score points with the prestigious physician who was leading them. Then they entered the room of a man with gangrene. The physician asked politely if the students and he might enter. Then he asked if he might show the students the man’s feet. He then asked if he might remove the man’s sock and show the students the infected foot. In each case the physician was extremely polite and sensitive. Laney recalls that the sight and the smell of the gangrene were horrific.
After exiting the room, the physician turned to the speechless students and said, “Never forget to touch the patient where it hurts.” The same truth applies in leading the Christian life. If we take a friend to lunch who is going through a divorce or whose parent is dying or whose spouse is in rehab or whose child attempted suicide and we talk about everything except the enormous hurt that this person has experienced, we have failed them. Like the good physician, we must politely and gracefully ask if we might touch the patient where he or she hurts. It is an invaluable part of the process of healing.
For I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. (Lev. 11:44)
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him. (Ps. 34:9)
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit. (Ps. 34:18)
Do you feel badly that you cannot offer God and the church more? Are you offering what you can or expecting others to offer for you? Have you discovered you own voice of faith or are you relying on religious “hearsay” to explain the love and grace of God to others? Who do you know is going through difficult times? Are you able and willing to touch them where it hurts? Can you ask them about the things that are causing them great pain and merely listen without trying to solve their problems?
Loving and Life-Giving God, we thank you for the gift of this day, for the weather and temperature, the sights and sounds that will fill our day, the voice of those who will speak to us this day, the companionship of each person we will encounter, the lessons that we shall learn, the opportunities for service that you will extend to us this day. Thank you, O God of wonder and love. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania