Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Jesus, Thou Art All Compassion

in the fifth chapter of mark, we are told of three more miracles.  first, jesus heals a demon-possessed man in the region of the decapolis, sending the demons from the man into a swineherd.  the 2,000 or so pigs rush into the sea and drown after the "unclean spirits" enter them.  the man asks to go with jesus when he departs, but jesus tells the man to go and tell his friends "how much the lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.  mark says that when the man "began to proclaim in the decapolis how much jesus had done for him everyone was amazed."

next jesus returns to the other side of the sea of galilee, and a man named jairus, "one of the leaders of the synagogue," begs jesus to cure his daughter who is "at the point of death."  on the way to the man's house, "a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years" approaches jesus from behind and touches his cloak, believing that just making contact with jesus' clothes will cure her.  the gospel says that she was immediately cured.  jesus, sensing that some power has gone out from him, asks "who touched my clothes?"  the disciples are incredulous, since jesus is surrounded by a large crowd, and in all likelihood many people have touched him in the crush.  the woman admits that she was the one who touched him seeking a cure, and jesus tells her, "daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

as this encounter is taking place, word comes that the daughter of jairus has died, so they believe jesus can do nothing for her.  jesus tells jairus not to fear, but instead to believe.  taking peter, james, and john with him, jesus goes to jarius' home, where the girl is being mourned.  jesus asks, "why do you make a commotion and weep?"  when jesus tells the mourners that "the child is not dead but sleeping" they laugh at him.  taking the only the girl's parents and his three disciples with him, jesus goes to the room where the girls is.  he takes her by the hand and says, "little girl, get up!"  the twelve-year-old girl arises and begins to walk around the house.  those present are amazed, but jesus tells them to keep what has happened secret and orders them to give the child something to eat.

mark paints a picture of a man with great power, curing a man in great mental distress, healing a woman when she has only touched his clothing, and raising a child from the dead.  in the first two miracles, jesus wants others to know of what has transpired, as he tells the man to go tell his friends about his cure and calls the woman out of the crowd to tell those around him of her cure.  yet he wants this final miracle to be kept secret, perhaps because thousands of others will come to him wanting loved ones resurrected, thus increasing the demands on him.

maybe the writer is attempting to show jesus as one who brought hope to those who were hopeless, making those who were at the mercy of the occupying romans and their native allies see something beyond their desperate plight.  were these miracles exaggerations to give greater credibility to the claims that jesus was a man-god?  did the evangelist feel it necessary to portray jesus as the equal to other god figures in the roman world?  whatever the case, i long to hear more of what jesus taught, more that would show what jesus was like.  surely, there was more to jesus that attracted others to him than the working of miracles.  would the disciples have dropped everything to follow him if that was all there was?

may we seek the man behind the miracles.  may the teachings that caused others to abandon their settled lives to follow him emerge from the little we know of jesus from the gospels.  may we find the same hope that those early followers found.  may the compassion that jesus showed for others be manifest in our lives.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

I Am Not Skilled to Understand

in mark 4, jesus tells a series of parables.  he uses tasks and objects that are a part of the everyday lives of his listeners: the planting of crops, an oil lamp, a mustard seed.  these parables challenge those who hear them to figure out their meaning, and jesus seems to be trying to provoke them to think for themselves.  his disciples don't understand the first of these parables, the parable of the sower, and so jesus must explain the symbols in the story.  he tells the disciples that they have "been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables."  it seems that jesus will make the meaning of his teachings explicit to these close followers, but others must figure them out for themselves.

i am puzzled by jesus' statement.  why would he wish to obscure his teachings to the larger audience, while explaining them privately to his disciples?  perhaps he hoped that those among his hearers who wished to entrap him in what they considered false teachings would find little to accuse him of if he spoke in this way, leaving the interpretation of his parables to be figured out with no public explanation.  maybe the explanation is in the first parable in the gospel, in which only those who are "seeds [that] fell into good soil"  can understand, while all others are seeds that fell into rocky ground or among thorns.

the chapter concludes with one more miracle.  jesus and his discples sail toward the opposite shore of the sea of galilee, and, as they are crossing, a storm comes up.  the disciples are frightened since the boat is being swamped by the waves and ask the sleeping jesus to awaken and protect them.  jesus says, "peace! be still!" and the storm subsides.  then he rebukes the disciples for their lack of faith.  it is as if mark cannot describe the work of jesus without throwing in a miracle.  this is the first chapter of the gospel that is devoted for the most part to the teachings of jesus, but in the end, there has to be a miracle.  it is as if the series of teachings presented in mark 4 are taken from another source of "sayings of jesus;" one parable follows the other in a way that seems unnatural as a pattern for imparting jesus' teachings, with only an explanation of the meaning of the first of the parables.  maybe the writer thought, "i'm leaving the impression that all jesus did was walk around performing miracles.  i'd better throw in some teachings to demonstrate the jesus did more than that."

as i read the gospel of mark, i find this chapter to be puzzling, leaving me with more questions than answers.  i suppose i am one of those without ears of whom jesus is speaking when he says, "let anyone with ears to hear listen!”  after more time to digest it, i'll have to come back and try to ferret out each parable individually to make sense of them.

may each of us seek the truth, not looking for simple answers to complex questions, but taking the time to think for ourselves so that we "have ears to hear."  may we look beneath the surface to discover the beauty of what lies underneath.  may we be mindful of the miracle of life as it presents itself to us.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Scenes by the Wayside

in the third chapter of mark, the conflict between jesus and the religious establishment continues.  in the act of jesus healing the withered hand of a man on the sabbath, jesus deliberately provokes them, asking, "is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”  when the devout around him remain silent, jesus is angry that keeping the sabbath rules is more important to them than aiding the man with the injured hand and proceeds to heal him.

jesus continues around the countryside teaching, healing, and calling more disciples before returning home, one supposes to capernaum, but perhaps he is in or near nazareth since his family is nearby.  here, he is confronted by his family and by "scribes who came down from jerusalem."  these scribes accuse him of using the power of "beelzebul" and "the ruler of demons" to heal and cast out demons.   jesus asks why these dark powers would wish to attack their own minions, in effect dividing their house or kingdom against itself.   he goes on to suggest that the scribes are committing an "eternal sin" by attacking the work of the holy spirit that resides in jesus.

when he is told that his mother and brothers are outside the home wishing to see him, he asks, "who are my mother and my brothers?”  continuing, he indicates that those seated around him "are my mother and my brothers!  whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”  earlier, mark says that the members of jesus' family wishes to "restrain him" because people are saying that "he has gone out of his mind.”  perhaps jesus is offended that the members of his own family are more concerned with gossip rather than they are with supporting the work jesus is doing.

it seems that jesus is making it clear that he has no use for the opinions of the devout proponents of the religious laws and that he will not be hampered by the seeming embarrassment of his family who are concerned about their own reputation.  the attraction to jesus continues to center around his ability to heal the broken in body and spirit, with people coming not only from the immediate vicinity but also from "judea, jerusalem, idumea, beyond the jordan, and the region around tyre and sidon."  by stating the widespread fame of jesus, mark lets his readers know that the final conflict with the religious powers is inevitable.  jesus refuses to back away from his questioning of their oppressive laws or to modify his work among the people so as not to offend, though it is clear he knows that the more people are attracted to him the less secure the power of the religious leaders over the people becomes.

may we, like jesus, be fearless in "speaking truth to power."  may our compassion be greater than our love for standing in the community.  may we not be passive conformists in order to get along.  may we act and speak wisely, living skillfully, embracing our common humanity.  may we follow the path that does the most good and the least harm.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Who Makes the Woeful Heart to Sing

in the second chapter of mark, the writer tells of the beginning of jesus' conflict with the religious "fundamentalists" of his day.  he describes several incidents in jesus' life.  in the first, a paralyzed man is lowered through the roof of a house where jesus is surrounded by a large number of people, so many that those who have brought the man for healing can reach jesus in no other way.  jesus tells the man that his sins are forgiven.  then, sensing that some of the "scribes" sitting in the room are whispering about jesus having the audacity to proclaim that the man's sins are forgiven, jesus tells those gathered around them that it is as easy to say "your sins are forgiven," as it is to say, "stand up and take your mat and walk."  he tells them that he has forgiven the man's sins so that the scribes will now that he has the "authority on earth to forgive sins."  the story concludes with jesus telling the man to stand up, take his mat, and return home.

in the second incident, jesus calls levi, a tax collector, to follow him.  the tax collector obeys jesus' instructions.  later, at levi's home, jesus is eating with an assortment of "tax collectors and sinners."  the pharisees who have been watching jesus, ask his disciples why jesus eats with such people.  overhearing the question, jesus tells them that "those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; i have come to call not the righteous but sinners."

subsequently, the pharisees want to know why jesus and his disciples are not fasting along with them and the disciples of john the baptist.  jesus replies, "the wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they? as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day."  he continues, according to mark, "no one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. and no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.”

next, mark says that jesus and his disciples are going through some grain fields on the sabbath, and, as they walk, some of the disciples are plucking heads of grain.  this is considered "work" that is forbidden on the sabbath, and the pharisees that are observing them are quick to ask jesus why he allows his disciples to violate the religious sabbath laws.  jesus reminds them of the time when david and his companions ate the forbidden "bread of the presence," when they were hungry, even though only the priests are permitted to eat this bread.  he goes on to say that "the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the son of man is lord even of the sabbath.”

in each of these stories, mark asserts jesus' authority over that of the religious leaders and their interpretation of the law.  he has the power to forgive sins; he is not made unclean by eating with those are considered unclean; he wants his disciples to enjoy their time with him, saving their fasting for the time when he is no longer among them; his good news is like a new unwashed cloth that can't be used to patch old fabric, suggesting that the "old cloth" of rules and regulations must be replaced by the "new cloth" of his teaching; he, as lord of the sabbath, is restoring the sabbath to be a time of rest rather than a chore that weighs people down with complex rules for its observance.  mark portrays jesus as a leader who confronts the religious establishment, siding with ordinary people, tax collectors, and sinners, lifting the burden of religious practice that has little meaning for those on whom it is imposed.

may we, like jesus, look for meaning in life, not practicing an orthodoxy that distorts the ideals of love and compassion, the very essence of true religion.  may we not set ourselves up as paragons of virtue who are above the "sinners" that surround us.  may we see our common humanity, the suffering that is shared by all of us.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

For All--Not Just for Some

of the five sayings of jesus in the first chapter of mark's gospel, three are related to healing miracles.   jesus' first miracle is casting out an unclean spirit from a man in the synagogue in capernaum.  the second miracle is the healing of a man afflicted with leprosy.  the man implores jesus to choose to make him "clean."  using the words of the man, jesus says, "i do choose.  be made clean!" and as he speaks, jesus reaches out and touches the man.  after the man is healed, mark says that jesus warned the man sternly to leave and "see that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what moses commanded, as a testimony to them."  the man fails to do as jesus has instructed but tells everyone he encounters of his healing.  we don't learn whether he ever followed religious protocol by having the priest confirm his healing when he offers the appropriate offering as described in leviticus 14.

as in the first miracle, one wonders if these miracles are legends attributed to jesus, if they are tricks of a charlatan faith-healer, or if they indeed occurred.  i'm inclined to the first view, that these were later additions to the life of jesus that supported the belief of some followers that jesus had supernatural power, just as superhuman powers were attributed to other religious leaders by later followers.  what is striking to me is the fact that jesus touched the man, a person who was "unclean" according the religious norms of the day.  in doing so, jesus demonstrates that his compassion is greater than the taboos that would prevent him from coming into direct contact with one who is afflicted with a contagious skin disease.  as he often did, jesus refused to bow to rules and regulations that prevented people from showing kindness to those who were in need.

jesus was also concerned that the man's place in the community be restored as jesus instructed him to follow accepted practice by having a priest declare him cured and therefore no longer unclean.  in his excitement, the man tells everyone of his miraculous healing at the hands of jesus, resulting in jesus avoiding population centers so that he would not be overwhelmed with people coming to him to be healed.  nevertheless, mark says that people "from every quarter" sought him out, suggesting that they wanted to be healed or witness others being miraculously healed rather than coming to hear the teaching of jesus.

human nature being what it is, we are more attracted to extraordinary events than to simple teachings that help us live more skillful lives.  we yearn for the sensational when commonplace is far more beautiful.  we are not content to accept jesus as a teacher who showed his followers how to live a joyful life in a difficult world, but are compelled to give him attributes that overshadow the simplicity and directness of his teaching, to transform him into a god rather than a great man.

may we show compassion where compassion is needed, as jesus did.  may we not allow the demands of orthodoxy to prevent us from reaching out to others.  may we see our common humanity rather than accepting the prejudices which separate us from those who are different, viewing them as "unclean" in the same way the people of jesus' day viewed those who were unlike them.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

All Things Are Possible, Only Believe?

as i read the gospel of mark, it is difficult to see past the superstitious explanations of the day to the teachings of jesus.  in the next occasion when mark purports to convey jesus' words, jesus has gone away to a quiet place to pray and his followers come looking for him.  when they find him, they tell him that "everyone is searching for you."  jesus replies, " let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that i may proclaim the message there also; for that is what i came out to do.”  mark says that jesus and his companions travel throughout galilee as jesus teaches in the synagogues and casts out demons.

jesus was not the only teacher/miracle worker who lived in galilee, and many common people were followers of these rabbis.  because galilee was ruled by a king placed there by the romans and had more independence from direct rule by the romans, there were more messianic figures who fomented rebellion against rome and the herodian ruling family and who engaged in social protest against the political elite.  to be a galilean meant to be a rebel, a nonconformist, to be a questioner of orthodoxy.  in the southern part of galilee where capernaum was located, there were speakers of hebrew, aramaic, and greek, and more tolerance for diversity.

against this backdrop, it's easy to see jesus as a typical galilean religious/political figure, who attracts followers through both his teaching and working of miracles.  he is not the only miracle worker of the period, and people who struggle to put food on the table from day to day and live under the difficulties of being an occupied population are eager to see miraculous deeds of healing.  what sort of messiah would be unable to perform such miracles?  jesus would have been seen as ineffective and powerless had his teaching not been accompanied by the working of miracles.

the gospel doesn't say what jesus taught in the synagogues he visited as he wandered around galilee, and that's what's more interesting to me than the descriptions of miracles.  there must have been a lot of madmen in galilee at the time, since casting out demons seems to play such a prominent role in the life of jesus.  the widespread belief in demonic possession being the cause of many maladies would have made it necessary for jesus to be able to exorcise demons in order to effect cures, and the power of suggestion, the belief that jesus was indeed a miracle worker, would have resulted in many cures, just as modern day miracle workers appear to be able to do.  i remember as a child watching some of these, like oral roberts, on television as they placed their hands on the ill and commanded their diseases and handicaps to leave their bodies, after which the "healed" would walk away cured and the audience would gasp and applaud.   something of this sort must have happened when jesus and others like him performed their miracles in galilee, if mark is to be believed.

jesus' own words, according to mark, made no mention of miraculous cures.  his desire was to proclaim his message to a wider audience.  this suggests that the healings were less important than the good news jesus wished to convey, that the miracle working was a product of jesus' compassion for those who were hurting and in some ways a distraction from his teaching.  one wonders, though, if jesus would have been able to attract followers without the miracles, if the healing was more important to those who came to see and hear jesus that the words he spoke.  these miracles seem to figure large in mark's gospel here at the beginning of jesus' public life.

may we see jesus in the context of the time in which he lived.  may we seek to understand what made jesus a more important figure that men like judas the galilean or "the egyptian."  may we sort out the superstition from the teaching, the biases of jesus' biographers from the message jesus sought to convey.  may we not accept by faith that which is not reasonable.  shalom.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Clear Our Thought and Calm Our Feeling

the second time mark's gospel quotes the words of jesus occurs when jesus has been teaching in the synagogue in capernaum.  mark says that jesus has amazed his listeners by the authority with which he speaks.  in the middle of his teaching, a man "with an unclean spirit" cries out  and asks what jesus has to do with those who are listening, addressing jesus as "jesus of nazareth."  the man asks why jesus has "come to destroy us," referring to jesus as "the holy one of God."  jesus replies, "be silent and come out of him!"  according to the gospel, the man convulses and cries out, and the unclean spirit leaves him.

mark characterizes the speech of jesus in this instance as a rebuke.  i suppose we are to understand descriptions of this man's malady and others similar to it as mental illnesses.  the ability of jesus to exorcise this unclean spirit is related to the idea of his authority in explaining the scripture to his listeners in the synagogue.  jesus has no need of traditional rituals associated with exorcism, but simply orders the unclean spirit to leave the man.  we know nothing of what follows and are left to wonder what became of this man, where the unclean spirit went after leaving him, and how those who witnessed this miracle reacted to it.

here, again, jesus is portrayed as a charismatic personality who attracts followers with a simple command, explains the scriptures with skill that would not be expected from a person from the village of nazareth, and cures mental and physical illnesses effortlessly.  underlying this picture of jesus is a compassion for those who are suffering.  those first four disciples yearning for something more than a life scraping by with their meager income from fishing and this man whose mental illness causes him to verbally assault jesus without cause are changed because jesus has come into their lives.

life lived under the roman conquerors and their allies in the jewish religious establishment who burdened ordinary people with onerous taxes and complex ritual rules was difficult, and jesus presents an alternative.  here is a man who sees beyond the rules to the basic principles from which they evolved, who espouses a philosophy which elevates its devotees above the commonplace difficulties of life as an occupied people.  here is one who dares to live life on his own terms, refusing to bow to tradition or governmental control, but possessing his own authority.

there is the implicit secrecy of jesus silencing the man's outcry when the man proclaims jesus as the "holy one of God."  jesus doesn't tell the man that his characterization of jesus is incorrect, but instead silences him by commanding the unclean spirit to leave him.  jesus seems to be willing to let others think that he has a special calling ordained by God without proclaiming so himself, perhaps because he wants to cause those who observe him to be curious about where his teaching may lead.

whatever mark's intentions, one is left with the impression of jesus as an extraordinary person, a man of great compassion who intuitively understands the needs of those around him and addresses those needs.  whether it the longing for a better life, the desire to understand the mysteries of the scriptures, or the pain of mental disease, jesus addresses the problems of others where he finds them.  it is this ability which makes him stand out from the crowd of people who struggle to get by from day to day.

may we, like jesus, be sensitive to the needs of those around us, doing what he can to relieve their suffering and thereby relieve our own.  may our compassion lift us above our own day-to-day problems and limitations.  may we not simply try to get by but pursue our longing for greater understanding and peace.  shalom.