Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Of the Themes That Men Have Known

again in mark 8, there is a miracle of feeding a large crowd of people from meager resources.  in this instance, it is jesus who has "compassion for the crowd because they have been with [him] for three days and have nothing to eat."  the disciples don't understand how all these people can be fed.  apparently they have short memories, since they have already witnessed the feeding of thousands after jesus blessed a few loaves and fish.  this time jesus blesses seven loaves of bread, has "the crowd to sit down on the ground," gives the bread to the disciples to distribute, and all are fed.  one would think that after the first miracle of creating abundance from next to nothing the disciples would know that jesus would have no difficulty doing the same thing again.  if jesus has this power, why would anyone ever go hungry?  a literal reading of this story makes no sense to me.  are we to understand it as a lesson to us who have so much to do what we can to see that others are fed, to have "compassion for the crowd" as jesus did?

in the next part of the chapter, jesus gives a clue to what we may take away from this miracle.  he rebukes the pharisees who have come to test him, asking for a sign of some kind, asking them "why does this generation ask for a sign? truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.”  then he and his disciples leave to sail elsewhere.  when jesus discovers that the disciples have brought no bread for the trip, he tells them to "watch out—beware of the yeast of the pharisees and the yeast of herod.”  the disciples think that jesus is speaking about literal bread because they have forgotten to bring any food with them, but he reminds them of the two miracles of feeding large crowds that they have witnessed and asks, "do you not yet understand?”  mark provides no further explanation, but i wonder if jesus is not telling his close followers that the creation of food is not the significant lesson of the miracles, but what is important is the compassion for the hungry that prompts the miracles.  unlike the pharisees who are concerned about following myriad religious rules that include dietary restrictions and prohibitions against doing good on the sabbath as all around them suffer, his followers should be concerned about the welfare of others above all else.

when they arrive at their destination, a blind man is brought to jesus.  after leading the man out of the village, jesus restores his sight and sends the man home, cautioning him to "not even go into the village.”  in this miracle, it appears that it took jesus two "tries" to cure the man.  first, he "put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him," but the man can only "see people, but they look like trees, walking.”  then "jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly."  there's another puzzle here: why didn't the man have his sight restored immediately?  in the other healing miracles, the effect is seen instantly.  there must be some significance to this two-stage miracle.  perhaps the man's eyes needed to time to adjust to light entering them for the first time.  maybe jesus was suggesting through this miracle that understanding doesn't come easily or quickly in an instant of awakening but require time to cultivate, that his followers shouldn't be quick to judge or take action until they are sure they see things clearly.

traveling on, jesus and his disciples come to villages near caesarea philippi in the golan heights.  here jesus asks his disciples who "people say that [he] is."  they tell him that some believe he is the reincarnation of john the baptist, elijah, or one of the other prophets.  jesus then asks who they believe him to be.  peter answers that jesus is the messiah, and jesus tells the disciples to keep quiet about his true identity.  as he goes on to tell the disciples of his persecution, death, and resurrection that will take place in the near future, peter takes jesus aside and criticizes him for these dire predictions.  jesus rebukes peter in front of the other disciples, telling him to "get behind me, satan! for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

apparently a crowd has been watching jesus and the disciples from a distance, and jesus calls the crowd to them as he continues teaching.  he tells them that all who wish to become his followers must "deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me."  he goes on to say that "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."  he warns that "those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the son of man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his father with the holy angels.”  there has been no preparation for these remarks about jesus coming in glory with a retinue of angels, and the crowd hearing these words must have been perplexed.  is jesus suggesting in this teaching that only those who have abandoned everything as his disciples have done are his true followers?  is he calling for complete devotion to himself and his teaching to the exclusion of all else as being essential to one's salvation?  perhaps this is jesus' response to those who come to him solely to solicit some miraculous healing from him.  maybe he is saying that there are more important teachings that are being obscured by the people's fascination with his miraculous powers.  one senses a jesus who is frustrated by the inability of those who come to him and even those disciples who have given up everything to follow him to understand the new approach to life that jesus advocates.

may we see the jesus of compassion that lies behind the contradictions and illogical stories in the gospel.  may we, too, beware of the leaven of orthodoxy and narrow-mindedness of those who prescribe rules for living while ignoring the suffering of those around them.  may we abandon lives of selfishness and free ourselves to love without condition.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Know My Heart Today

finally, in mark 7, some of the teachings of jesus are quoted by the writer.  the chapter begins with a confrontation between jesus and his religious critics.  in this teaching, jesus compares the traditions that his adversaries hold sacred, which jesus calls "human tradition," to "the commandment of God."  the disciples of jesus have been observed eating without first washing their hands, and the pharisees and scribes "who had come down from jerusalem" challenge jesus because his disciples do "not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands."  jesus quotes the book of isaiah in which the prophet says "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."  jesus goes on to cite the accepted practice of declaring part of one's wealth as an offering to God, thereby relieving one from the obligation to use that money in the support of one's parents.   this practice, jesus says, is a way of using a human religious tradition to avoid observing the commandment to honor one's father or mother.  jesus goes on to tell his adversaries that "you do many things like this.”

jesus then tells the crowd observing this exchange that it not what one consumes that defiles but rather that which comes out of one's heart and mind, suggesting that the strict dietary laws that have been developed over time are of little consequence compared to the great harm that is done by "evil intentions" that come "from the human heart."  he goes on to list several: "fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, [and] folly."

the chapter ends with two miracles.  in the first jesus is asked by a gentile woman from around tyre to cast out a demon from her daughter.  in his conversation with the woman, jesus replies to the woman's request by saying, "let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  when the woman replies that "even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” jesus is impressed by her reply and tells her, "for saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  this exchange puzzles me.  jesus seems to suggest that this gentile woman's daughter is underserving because she is not jewish and only the intelligence of the woman's reply causes jesus to cure her daughter.

in the concluding miracle of the chapter, jesus cures a deaf man who has a speech impediment.  after the man's "ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly," jesus instructs the man and those with him to keep the cure secret, to no avail.  the writer says, "the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it."

in the two teachings that begin mark 7, we see a jesus who encourages his followers to examine the rules that constrict them as they practice their religion, abandoning those that are unreasonable, some of which enable harm to be done in the name of religion and some of which are clearly intended to subvert the most fundamental concepts of living in a way that shows compassion for others.  he is portrayed as a man who is fearless in condemning respected religious leaders and practitioners, using the words of scripture against them.

in his conversation with the woman in "the region of tyre," one wonders if jesus is testing the sincerity of the woman's beliefs by suggesting that she and her daughter are unworthy of his consideration.  if she had taken his bait and railed against his seeming prejudice against those who were not jewish, jesus would know that she was uninterested in his teachings and was only interested in what benefit she could gain for herself and her daughter.  still, i am troubled by jesus' seeming lack of compassion for the daughter's plight.

may we examine our beliefs, testing their validity, abandoning those which are unreasonable and harmful to ourselves and others.  may we be unafraid when confronted by those who wish us to conform to their orthodoxy when accepted practice is detrimental to us and to society.  may our compassion extend to all around us, regardless of how different others may seem to us.  shalom.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

I Want to See Jesus

for the most part, mark 6 is a continuation of recounting the miracles of jesus.  the chapter opens with jesus visiting his home town of nazareth.  here is resented by the people of the town.  they think he is putting on airs, that he has forgotten his roots.  they remember him as a carpenter, a member of a local family, some of whom are still there.  mark says that jesus "could do no deed of power there" except for curing a few sick people, because the townspeople "took offense at him."  several questions arise from this: what other deeds of power might he have performed there?  the principal "deeds of power" that mark has mentioned so far in his gospel is healing the sick.  the only other such acts that mark has described to this point in the narrative is the quieting of the storm in mark 4 and the resurrection of jairus' daughter in mark 5.  if jesus is God incarnate, why would his ability to perform miracles be dependent on his acceptance by the people of nazareth?  when jarius' daughter was raised from her deathbed, the house was filled with doubters and that didn't prevent jesus from acting.  when he stilled the storm, the disciples lacked faith in his ability.

leaving nazareth, jesus sends his discples out in pairs to heal and proclaim the people's need to repent.  he tells them "to to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts,  but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics." additionally he instructs them that "wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.  if any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”  there is no explanation of jesus' intentions in sending the disciples out in this way, nor does mark explain the negative tone of jesus' instructions regarding those who will not welcome or listen to the message of jesus' disciples.  does jesus feel no compassion for those who are wary of these itinerant preachers who come to them as beggars?  didn't his earlier parable of the sower suggest that the seed of his message needed time to take root in order to flourish?

when the disciples return from their preaching/healing mission, jesus suggests that they "come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”  crowds anticipate their arrival as the disciples and jesus come ashore from their boat, and they flock to jesus.  seeing that the people "were like sheep without a shepherd," jesus teaches them "many things."  the disciples are concerned that the people are far from home and need food, so they encourage jesus to send them away to seek food in the surrounding villages.  jesus says to the disciples, "you give them something to eat.”  the disciples ask where they are going to find the money to feed such a large crowd, and jesus asks, "how many loaves have you" and tells the to "go and see."  only five loaves of bread and two fish are found, but, after jesus blesses the food, there is enough to feed everyone with twelve baskets left over.  mark says that "five thousand men" were fed.  how could jesus address that many people at once?  how could all have heard him?  why weren't the people awestruck as they watched a few loads of bread and a couple of fish multiply before their eyes?  mark mentions no reaction from the crowd at such a miracle.  did the twelve baskets for the remaining food just appear when they were needed?

at the end of the day, jesus sends his disciples away in the boat.  as the disciples row the boat against the wind, they see a figure walking towards them on the water and are terrified, believing that they are seeing a ghost.  jesus says, "take heart, it is i; do not be afraid.”  to the astonishment of the disciples, jesus climbs into the boat and continues on with them.  if the doubt of others prevents jesus from performing miracles in nazareth, how is this miracle possible?  mark refers back to the miracle of the loaves, saying that the hearts of the disciples "were hardened," thereby preventing their understanding of the earlier miracle.  what does jesus walking on the sea have to do with the feeding of the five thousand?  what is mark suggesting by saying the disciples' hearts were hardened?  are they great doubters like the people of nazareth?

the chapter closes with jesus and the disciples landing at gennesaret, where they are mobbed by people seeking cures from jesus.  as jesus continues traveling from village to village, people bring the sick, and, mark says that all who as much as touched the fringe of jesus' garments are healed, as the woman in mark 5 was healed earlier.

the continuing descriptions of the miracles of jesus give us few clues about the man behind these miracles.  for the most part, one sees a compassionate man who is regarded more highly for his healing than his teaching.  jesus shows concern for the disciples, as he encourages them to come with him to rest after their mission of teaching and healing, and as he reassures them after they are frightened when he walks to them on the sea.  he feels concern for the people who come to him, despite his desire for time to rest with his disciples, and he never turns away anyone who comes to him for healing.

mark's emphasis on the miracles may have been intended to bolster the belief that jesus was more than a mortal man, that he deserves to be worshiped as a god.  i wish that mark had spent as many words telling his readers what jesus taught the crowd of "five thousand men" as he did recounting the miracle of the loaves and fish.  if compassion for them prompted him to teach them, did he encourage them to show others the same compassion?  did he tell them that even their enemies and oppressors were people deserving their love?

may we continue to seek the whole man that jesus was, not just the miracle worker.  may we take the miracles for what they were, attempts to transform a charismatic roving teacher into a god.  may we, like jesus, have compassion for those around us.  shalom.

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.