Tuesday, March 13, 2018

He Will Teach Me How to Live

as i think about the life of jesus and what little we know of it, i am troubled by how we have distorted his teachings by regarding him as God.  it is apparent that his earliest followers did not know what to make of him, with some considering that he was "adopted" as God's son at the time of his baptism, others believing that he became divine at the time of his conception, some regarding him as divinized when he was raised from the dead or when he ascended to heaven, while still others believed that he was a divine being who was present with God at the time of creation and for all eternity prior to the creation.  finally the doctrine of the trinity which taught that jesus was God, as was the holy spirit, so that there were three expressions of the godhead--father, son, and holy spirit--became the orthodox explanation of the relationship between jesus and God.

in the process, jesus-the-human-being was obscured, and jesus became the object of christian worship.  as jesus was elevated to being regarded as God incarnate, it seems to me that we lost a great deal.  as i was reading mark's gospel, i saw in it a jesus who would have been deeply offended to be regarded as God, a man who insisted on his own humanity.  certainly, jesus thought that he was ordained by God to proclaim teachings about a soon-to-be cataclysmic event that would turn the old order topsy-turvy, but in the process of delivering that message he preached a way of life that was quite different from the religious legalism that passed for the "true" religion among his fellow jews.  at the heart of his message was a path that emphasized love and compassion, service rather than conquest, respect for all people--women and children included, forgiveness rather than punishment, belief in a God who was more like a father than a king.  this is the message that turning jesus into God eclipses, and it is a message that i want to recapture in my own life.

may we place more value in the teachings of jesus than in a theology that veils those teachings.  may jesus speak to us in very human terms, not as a god but as a fellow being who struggled as we do.  may love, compassion, respect, and mercy be our goals, not a religious orthodoxy that hides those qualities from us.  shalom.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Fill My Soul with Peace and Love

the concluding chapter of mark is troublesome because there are several different versions of its ending.  in some the chapter ends after verse eight, without recounting any appearance of jesus after his resurrection, and the women who have seen the empty tomb and the young man clothed in white inside it keep what he has told them secret.  in others it continues with a shorter ending in which the women go and tell peter and those around him what they have seen, after which jesus appears and sends them out to  proclaim "the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation."  still others have a longer ending in which the resurrected jesus appears "in another form" to two disciples who are walking in the country and then to all eleven of the remaining disciples before being "taken up into heaven [where he] sat down at the right hand of God."  there is yet another ending that contains a conversation between jesus and the disciples concerning "this [present] age of lawlessness and unbelief [that] is under Satan" and a statement about the purpose of jesus' crucifixion.

which is the "authoritative" version?  there is no way of knowing for certain.  if we accept the conclusions of most scholars, the "shorter" and "longer" endings of mark were later additions, though they came very early in the common era, and read mark as concluding with verse eight, the resurrection of jesus is not corroborated by the appearance of jesus to anyone after his death.  we have only the statement from mark that jesus will appear to the disciples in galilee, suggesting that the disciples are being instructed to leave jerusalem and return to galilee.  it is interesting that mark says the women are to tell "peter and the disciples," and so one wonders if peter, after his denial of jesus, is out of favor with the others.  what do we make of the statement that the women "said nothing to anyone" about what they had seen at jesus' tomb?  it makes no sense that they would have kept quiet about their amazement at finding the tomb empty when they returned to the followers of jesus, and so the shorter ending is a logical conclusion to the chapter.

at any rate, the writer of mark does not seem concerned about trying to convince his readers that jesus was resurrected by citing various witnesses to the risen jesus, just as he didn't include elaborate details about the birth of jesus.  it seems that his chief purpose was to record what he knew of the life of jesus during his ministry on earth in order to preserve the oral traditions that had been passed down.  perhaps the details of jesus' birth and the accounts of his appearances after his crucifixion were unclear because there were many conflicting oral traditions about these events, and the writer didn't want to choose some accounts over others.

i have been puzzled about how much of this first gospel is consumed by the miracles of jesus and how little there is about the teachings of jesus, as i've picked it apart chapter by chapter.  when i first began reading and writing about the gospel, i intended to concentrate on only the words jesus spoke, but i soon discovered that the words of jesus made little sense without the context in which they were spoken.  here's what i have concluded from this reading of the gospel and writing about it:  jesus believed that he was a messenger whose mission it was to alert the common people to a coming cataclysmic end to the rule of rome in which he and his disciples were to be elevated to rule in righteousness over the world, jesus had great compassion for the suffering of the people among whom he lived, jesus thought that women were deserving of great respect and were maltreated by society, jesus was angered by the use of religion to enrich some at the expense of others, jesus insisted that his purpose and that of his followers was to serve others, jesus loved children and thought that they were worthy of care and respect.  this is the jesus that i follow, and all else obscures that jesus.  his belief in a coming kingdom where righteousness will prevail is a natural outcome of his desire to see an end to the oppression of those with whom he surrounded himself.  i'm not concerned about miracles, atoning death, or resurrection.  the essential jesus for me is the jesus who is great because he serves others.

may we become more like this jesus.  may we oppose injustice and exploitation.  may we care for those who are unable to care for themselves.  may be share love, respect, tolerance, and forgiveness with those around us, and may our intention be to make the world a better place because we have lived.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended

mark 15 recounts the events that culminated in jesus' crucifixion and death.  the religious leaders take jesus to pilate.  there is no explanation of who "pilate" is, so one must suppose that the intended readers of the gospel would already have been familiar with the stories mark is recording.  his accusers' principal complaint seems to be that jesus has called himself "king of the jews," since pilate asks him if that what is what he is.  jesus replies, "you say so."  it appears that pilate doesn't take the accusations against jesus seriously, perhaps regarding him as insane.  in reply to the many claims by his accusers, jesus makes no answer, to pilate's consternation.  had pilate considered jesus another insurrectionist trying to rid palestine of roman rule, no other accusation would have been necessary, and his execution would have been swift and merciless.

it seems that the writer is going to some length to make pilate appear more reasonable and humane than jesus' jewish accusers, as he goes on to tell a most improbable story of pilate offering to allow the mob to choose a prisoner to be released during the passover festival.  the two choices he offers are jesus or the leader of a rebellion named barrabas, who "with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection."  the writer offers no further explanation concerning this "insurrection."  according to mark, "the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release barabbas for them instead," and the crowd demands the crucifixion of jesus.  it is unbelievable that a roman governor would release a known murderer and rebel or that there would be a custom in a roman province of releasing a prisoner annually during a religious celebration, so the writer appears to be going to some lengths to place all the blame for what follows on the shoulders of the jewish religious leaders and absolving pilate of guilt in the death of jesus.

after having jesus flogged, he is turned over to the roman soldiers who mock him by crowning him with thorns, placing a royal robe on him, spitting on him, calling him "king of the jews," and bowing before him, before stripping him of the purple cloak and redressing him in his own clothes.  on the way to the place of crucifixion, a man called simon of cyrene is made to carry jesus' cross.  this man must have been well known in the stories circulating among the christians to whom the narrative is addressed, because mark speaks of him familiarly as "the father of alexander and rufus," as if his readers would know who these men were also.

jesus is offered "wine mixed with myrrh," but he refuses it, and soon he is crucified with two bandits at the appointed place.  those who pass by mock him, and the soldiers nail a sign above his head that reads "the king of the jews," perhaps to let the jews of jerusalem know in what contempt the romans hold them.  "the chief priests, along with the scribes," are among the crowd mocking jesus.  mark says that even the two thieves who were crucified on either side of jesus join in mocking him, which seems hard to believe since they would have been so concerned with their own suffering that the fate of jesus would have been of little concern to them.  at a distance, the writer says, was a group of women that included mary magdalene, mary the mother of james the younger and of joses, and salome.  here no further explanation of who these named women were, suggesting that they were also well known among mark's readers, but the writer does mention that this group of women, which includes "many other women," were followers of jesus who took care of him in galilee and had come with him to jerusalem.

in mark's account, the only intelligible thing jesus says from the cross is “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which mark says means, "“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  after this cry of desperation, jesus is offered a drink of "sour wine" before he "gave a loud cry and breathed his last."  then "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom," and the centurion in charge of jesus crucifixion proclaims that “truly this man was God’s son!”  in this way the writer assures his readers of the significance of jesus' death.

once more, pilate is made to appear unbelievably humane, since he allows "a respected member of the council," joseph of arimathea, to take possession of jesus' body for burial.  one wonders where this joseph was when his fellows on the religious council were trying jesus, turning him over to pilate, and demanding his crucifixion.  apparently joseph was a believer in jesus' apocalyptic message, so perhaps he viewed these events as leading up to the coming of the expected "son of man" who would conquer the world, drive out the romans, and set up a righteous kingdom with a resurrected jesus at its head.  joseph gives jesus a proper burial, as mary magdalene and the other mary that mark mentions witness where jesus' body is placed "in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock" and sealed with a stone.  here the chapter ends.

so much of this account is difficult to believe, yet one senses a glimpse of the suffering jesus must have endured as he is mocked by all those who witness the events leading up to his death, except for the group of women who have been his caregivers throughout his ministry.  it seems significant that the writer makes certain that the role of these women is made clear to readers of his account.  they are the only ones of jesus' followers who seem to have stuck by him while his closest male companions are nowhere to be found according to mark.

may we see beyond the layers of fiction to the man who was jesus.  may we have compassion for him during this period of great suffering that brought his ministry in palestine to an end.  may we not diminish the significance of his teachings about love and respect for all people, regardless of their status or gender, by turning him into a god, so that the theological questions about who he was overshadows what he taught. shalom.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Brief Intermission

i have not had time to complete my next post, and so i will work toward having it ready by next tuesday.  until then, may you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Service, Too, Is Sacrament

the end of jesus' ministry takes up most of the fourteenth chapter of mark's gospel.  beginning with a brief statement of the desire of the "chief priests and scribes" to secretly arrest and kill jesus, this chapter goes on to tell of his anointing by a woman "in the house of simon the leper" in bethany, jesus' last meal with the disciples, his prayers in the garden of gethsemane, his betrayal by judas and arrest by "a crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests," his trial before "the high priest, . . . the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes," and peter's denial of jesus.

the writer records that some of those who were in simon's house with jesus were disturbed that the woman who anointed jesus had poured expensive oil on his head, when the "ointment of nard" could have been sold to help the poor.  jesus admonishes them, telling them that "you will always have the poor with you . . . but you will not always have me."  he says that "she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial" and that she will always be remembered for this act.  it seems that some of those who were followers of jesus are becoming disgruntled because jesus is not capitalizing on his popularity with the people and is failing to continue his challenge to the authority of the priests in the temple, and so they dare to criticize the woman in the presence of jesus for an act that pleased jesus.

just after this, judas goes to the chief priests and plots with them to have jesus arrested.  apparently, judas is one of the group that is critical of the path that jesus is taking in jerusalem.  perhaps he hopes to force jesus to use his powers to resist when he is arrested and cause the beginning of the insurrection that will defeat the romans and place jesus and his disciples in power in the coming kingdom that jesus has been talking about.

the next day, the disciples ask jesus where he wants them to prepare the passover meal.  he gives them mysterious instructions about finding a man carrying a jar of water who will meet them in jerusalem.  this man will lead them to a house where they are to ask where the "guest room" is "where i [jesus] may eat the passover with my disciples."  when the disciples follow his instructions, they find everything just as jesus had said and prepare the meal.  clearly, this has been prearranged without the knowledge of the disciples, indicating that jesus had a network of followers in and around jerusalem with whom he was in communication.  maybe the disciples saw this as part of the groundwork for the conflict leading to the establishment of the kingdom.

as jesus and the disciples eat the passover meal, jesus says, "truly i tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me."  naturally, the disciples are upset and begin to question jesus about who his betrayer is.  jesus assures them that it is one of the twelve who is eating with him.  jesus then takes a loaf of breat, blesses it, breaks it, and divides it among them, saying "take; this is my body."  next jesus blesses a cup of wine and all of them share the common cup.  he says, "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  truly i tell you, i will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when i drink it new in the kingdom of God."  this statement reinforces the imminent arrival of the kingdom in the minds of the disciples.

as they leave the meal, jesus tells them that they will all desert him, but "after i am raised up, i will go before you to galilee."  peter assures jesus that, even if everyone else deserts him, peter will not do so.  jesus tells his that before "the cock crows twice" that same evening peter will deny jesus three times.  peter says emphatically that, "even though i must die with you, i will not deny you."  taking peter, james, and john with him, jesus goes to gethsemane to pray.  jesus prays, "abba, father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what i want, but what you want."  arising from his prayer, jesus finds the three disciples sleeping and admonishes peter to stay awake and pray "that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak."  does he address only peter because of peter's assertion that peter will not desert him?  jesus returns to his prayers twice more and after each prayer he finds the disciples sleeping.  After awakening them a third time, he tells them that the hour has come when "the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners . . . see, my betrayer is at hand."

just then, judas arrives with a show of force from the chief priests, scribes, and elders.  going to jesus, judas addresses him as "rabbi" and kisses him, the agreed-upon sign that judas has given that will indicate which man is jesus.  those with judas arrest jesus, but "one of those who stood near" draws his sword and cuts off the ear of "the slave of the high priest."  jesus ridicules those who have arrested them, pointing out that they had opportunity to arrest already as he taught in the temple, but they have come armed with swords and clubs in the dark of night "to arrest me as though i were a bandit."  as the disciples are fleeing, mark tells us that those arresting jesus attempt to catch "a certain young man" who appears mysteriously though jesus has taken only the three disciples with him to pray in gethsamane.  the young man, who was "wearing nothing but a linen cloth," leaves the cloth behind and runs away naked.  where did this young man come from?  was he an unnamed companion of jesus who has been with him in the garden all the time, or did he follow those who came to arrest jesus to see what their intentions were?

jesus is taken to be tried before the religious authorities, who bring false witnesses against him.  when the testimony of these witnesses is unconvincing, the high priest asks jesus if he claims to be the messiah.  jesus replies, "i am; and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven."  hearing this, the high priest accuses jesus of blasphemy, and some of those assembled spit on jesus, blindfold him, and strike him, as they order him to "prophesy."  the guards who are present take jesus and beat him.

as the trial takes place, peter is waiting in the courtyard.  a servant of the high priest tells peter that she knows he has been seen with jesus.  peter denies this, and as he does, a cock crows.  the servant tells those around them that she knows that "this man is one of them."  peter again denies it.  one of the bystanders says, "certainly you are one of them, for you are a galilean."  peter curses the man and says, "i do not know this man you are talking about."  the cock crows for a second time, and peter remembers what jesus had told him.  the chapter ends with peter weeping over his denial of jesus.

this day ended in a way that the followers of jesus did not expect.  rather than the beginning of an armed revolt, jesus ends up in the hands of his enemies, and the disciples have abandoned him.  even peter fails to defend the man who he believed to be the messiah.  after having given up everything to follow jesus, the disciples must have wondered what would become of them.  would they be pursued and arrested?  should they return to their homes or wait in jerusalem in hiding to see how events would unfold?

may we see that things are not always as they seem, that life does not conform to our expectations.  may we observe life unfold before us, open to its possibilities, even if those possibilities are not what we would have wished.  may we see the weakness in each of us that allows us to do that which we later regret.  may we forgive ourselves for those failings and learn from them.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Work, for the Night Is Coming

mark 13 is a long discourse on the future.  it begins with the disciples commenting on the huge stones that make up the temple complex.  jesus tells them that "these great buildings" will all be "thrown down."  later on the mount of olives, peter, james, john, and andrew ask jesus, "when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"  in answer to their question, jesus tells them that false messiahs will appear, wars will be raged, earthquakes will happen, and famines will come, signaling the beginning of "the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory."

he goes on to tell them that they will be tried and beaten but that "the holy spirit" will give them the words to proclaim the good news.  in the coming persecution, family members will betray one another, and "you [the disciples] will be hated by all because of my name."  jesus assures them that "the one who endures to the end will be saved."

they are to watch for "the desolating sacrilege" to be set up.  the writer warns: "let the reader understand," but offers no explanation of what this sacrilege is.  when this happens, there will be great suffering "such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now."  those "in judea" must flee to the mountains, regardless of their circumstances at the time.  during this time of suffering, jesus warns again that "false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens" in order to "lead astray, if possible, the elect."  jesus instructs them to be alert, since he has "already told you everything."

during this time of suffering, when the son of man comes in the clouds, he will send the angels to gather the elect.  like the fig tree that puts out new leaves heralding the coming of summer, the signs jesus predicts will herald the coming of the son of man.  this, jesus says, is to take place before the present generation has passed away.  he goes on to tell them that "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

jesus' final message in this chapter is that the disciples must stay awake and alert, since "only the Father" knows when these times will come.  they are to watch, just as those left in charge when the master leaves on a long journey must watch, since they "do not know when the master of the house will come."

these words must have been frightening to the four disciples who heard them.  jesus lays out a vision of a dark time ahead before the mysterious son of man appears to make things right for the faithful followers of jesus.  their teacher makes it clear to the disciples that the adoration jesus has received from the people is short lived and that the arrival of the kingdom that expels the roman oppressors and crowns jesus king with the twelve disciples at his side is not going to happen in a matter of days.  one wonders if they questioned whether they had been right in abandoning everything to follow him and if the events that follow in the next chapter are not the result of the disillusionment of at least some of the disciples with the direction jesus is heading.

what are we to make of these troubling prophecies of jesus?  are we to understand that jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed that world-changing events were imminent when the "son of man" would come to make jesus king, not just of palestine but of the entire world, with his disciples as subordinate rulers?  is this the culmination of secret teachings that jesus had been sharing with the disciples over the course of his ministry, teachings that he dared not reveal publicly?

may we try to understand who jesus was and discern which of his teachings lead us to live better lives?  may we be unafraid to question orthodox understandings of jesus and his role in history.  may we follow the evidence where it leads us.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Let Inward Love Guide Every Deed

after jesus has fended off the challenge of the religious leaders at the end of mark 11, he begins a series of teachings.  some of them are in response to further questioning by his enemies, but the first is in the form of a parable in which jesus attacks those who seek to entrap him.  in this parable, he tells of a vineyard owner who wants to collect his rent from evil tenants.  the landlord repeatedly sends envoys to collect the rent, all of whom are attacked and some murdered.  in a final act of desperation, the vineyard owner sends his son, thinking that his renters would not dare to harm his son.  however, the tenants kill the son as well.  jesus asks, "what then will the owner of the vineyard do?"  in answer to his own question, jesus says, "he will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others" and proceeds by quoting a passage from the psalms: "the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes."  knowing that they are the evil tenants in the parable, the religious leaders leave because they know that "the crowd" is supportive of jesus.

next "some pharisees and some herodians" pose a question to jesus, hoping to entrap him.  they first flatter jesus and then ask him if it is "lawful to pay taxes to the emperor or not."  jesus sees through their ploy and asks them "why are you putting me to the test?"  he then has someone hand him a coin, asking "whose head is this [on the coin], and whose title?"  when he is told that it is the emperor's, he replies, "give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s."  mark tells us that his interrogators were "utterly amazed at him."

jesus is next challenged by "some sadducees" who tell him a complicated story about a woman whose husband dies, but the widow has no children who can care for her.  they say that according to the law, the brother of the widow is obligated to marry her.  the woman has seven brothers-in-law, each of which marries her and then dies, and she has no children with any of the seven husbands.  these sadducees want to know which of the men will be her husband in the resurrection.  after explaining that when the woman and her husbands "rise from the dead" there is no such thing as marriage since those who are resurrected "are like angels in heaven," jesus goes right to the heart of their attempt to entrap him by attacking the sadducees' lack of belief in the resurrection.  he tells them that the scriptures demonstrate that God "is God not of the dead, but of the living" and that they are "quite wrong."

in the last teaching in this chapter, "one of the scribes" hears those who are disputing with each other and that jesus "answered them well."  he asks jesus, "which commandment is the first of all?”  jesus tells him, "the first is, ‘hear, o israel: the lord our God, the lord is one; you shall love the lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  the second is this, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ there is no other commandment greater than these.”  the scribe agrees that jesus is has spoken truly and tells jesus that following these two commandments "is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  jesus praises the man's statement, saying "you are not far from the kingdom of God.”

after this series of challenges, mark tells us that no one dared to question him further, leaving jesus alone to teach without interference.  one of the additional teachings disputes the "scribes" belief that "the messiah is the son of david."  quoting from the psalms, jesus demonstrates that, since david calls the messiah "lord," the messiah cannot be david's son.  jesus goes on to denounce the scribes, "who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets," while at the same time, "they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers."  jesus points out a "poor widow" who has put "two small copper coins, which are worth a penny," into the temple offering.  praising her to his disciples, jesus tells them that "this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  for all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

this chapter begins the longest series of teachings that mark provides in his gospel, and those in mark 12 sum up much of what is essential for followers of jesus.  he condemns the false religion of the jewish leaders for whom religion is a practice of following rules, many designed to enrich themselves at the expense of others, thus subverting the whole point of the law, which is to love God and to love one's neighbor.

may we each practice that law, which is common to many religions.  may our hearts be filled with loving-kindness and compassion, whatever our religion or lack of religion.  may we see that-of-God in every sentient being.  shalom.