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.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Just from Sin and Self to Cease

mark 11 begins with jesus giving instructions to two of his disciples concerning his entry into jerusalem.  the writer doesn't tell us which disciples are charged with getting a colt for jesus to ride into the city, but jesus tells them to find an animal which has never been ridden just inside the city, untie it, and bring it to him.  if they are questioned, jesus tells they are to say "the lord has need of it and will send it back here immediately."  these instructions suggest that jesus has made prior arrangements for the use of the colt and the words the disciples are to use are a code to let the owner of the colt know that jesus is ready to come into the city.  the disciples find the colt just as jesus described it to them and, when questioned, repeat the sentence jesus told to them to their questioners.  after the disciples bring the colt to jesus and throw their cloaks on it, jesus sits on it and goes into the city.  as he progresses through jerusalem, "many people spread their cloaks on the road and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields" as shouts of "hosanna! blessed is the one who comes in the name of the lord! blessed is the coming of our ancestor david! hosanna in the highest heaven!" are heard from the crowd.  all of this seems to have been planned in advance, else why would these excited crowds have gathered just because someone rides into jerusalem on a colt.  was jesus involved in a plot to begin a rebellion in jerusalem?  had some of his disciples been in contact with zealots who wanted to use jesus to foment political unrest without jesus' knowledge?  we'll never know, but this "triumphal entry" seems suspicious to me.

next jeus goes to the temple, looks around and returns to bethany where he had begun his ride into jerusalem.  the next day as jesus and the disciples walk back toward the city, he sees a fig tree and looks to see if there is any fruit on it.  when he sees that the tree has no fruit, he says, "may no one ever eat fruit from you again."  mark points out that the disciples have heard what jesus says to the fig tree.  the following day, as they pass the fig tree again, peter points out that the fig tree has withered and died.  then jesus tells his disciples, to "have faith in God.  truly i tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.  so i tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours."  some would suggest that jesus cursed the fig tree to teach the disciples a lesson about having faith that one's prayers will be answered.  i find it amazing that jesus would find fault with the fig tree because it is not bearing fruit out of season.  is mark suggesting that it's acceptable to "zap" some living thing because it is unable to satisfy one's immediate desire?  this action seems uncharacteristic of jesus, and i can't believe that it is part of the actual teachings of jesus.  the next quotation of jesus, however, does seem to be consistent with his teaching:  "whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that you father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."

on the day jesus curses the fig tree, he and the disciples continue on to the temple, where jesus drives out "those who were selling and those who buying," overturning the money changers' tables "and the seats of those who sold doves."  he asks, "is it not written, 'my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations? but you have made it a den of robbers."  his actions anger the temple elite, and mark says that "they kept looking for a way to kill him."  yet jesus' enemies are afraid to take action against him because the people are "spellbound by his teaching."  how did jesus manage to take these actions by himself against so many?  did he have help from the disciples or other followers?  was this protest against the defilement of the temple planned in advance?  was this the beginning action in an anticipated revolt?

after jesus teaches his disciples about the nature of prayer on his way back to jerusalem for the third time, he returns to the temple where the religious leaders are waiting for him and question his authority to drive out the merchants from the temple.  jesus turns the tables on them by saying he will answer their question only after they answer this question from him: "did the baptism of john come from heaven or was it of human origin?"  those who have tried to corner jesus by questioning his authority are afraid to answer because, if they condemn john, the people will turn on them, and, if they say that john's teaching was sanctioned by heaven, jesus will ask why they didn't believe john.  unable to answer, they tell jesus that they have no answer for his questions, and jesus replies that he will not answer their question about his authority.  here the chapter closes.

in this chapter, i find one important teaching about the nature of forgiveness along with several questions.  it seems that the more i read, the more questions i have.  the true teachings of jesus seem obscured by the desire of the writer to make jesus into something i don't believe he was.  the jesus we see in this chapter is a jesus who pushes against an oppressive religious regime, and i find that admirable, but we also see a jesus who is either plotting against the religious and civil authorities or who is being used by those who want to end roman rule.  maybe jesus saw himself as the face of a revolt against the occupiers of his land, but his earlier actions don't suggest that.

more questions than answers!  may i and any others who search find the answers we need to understand this man who lived so long ago.  may we learn to forgive as jesus taught.  may the real jesus emerge from reading this account of his life.  shalom.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Whoever Would Be Great Among You

mark 10 is a puzzling chapter.  it begins with jesus teaching about marriage and divorce.  he condemns longstanding mosaic law on divorce, saying that in the law moses made it simple for a man to divorce his wife simply by writing a certificate of divorce "because of your hardness of heart."  this is an amazing statement to me.  in one sentence, jesus suggest that the law is the creation of moses rather than a divinely ordained compilation dictated by God to moses.  in fact, jesus plainly teaches that the law contradicts the purpose of God.  jesus goes on to say that God's intention is for men and women to marry for their entire lives in the words one often hears in marriage ceremonies--"what God has joined together, let no one separate."  privately jesus elaborates to his disciples, telling them that divorced people who remarry are adulterers.   there's a lot here that is troublesome.  the teaching of jesus is often used to condemn same-sex marriage, and most christians conveniently ignore jesus' teaching about divorce and remarriage.  i think both of these have to be viewed in light of the time in which jesus lived.  it seems clear that he is protesting the ease with which women were abandoned by their husbands and left to fend for themselves in a society that made living as a divorced woman quite difficult.  the concept of two people of the same sex living as a committed couple was unheard of, so the question of whether two people of the same sex could marry would never have been discussed.  jesus was asked specifically for his opinion on divorce by someone who wanted to entrap him.  his teaching grows from his desire to improve the lot of women in society and condemn the use of the law for purposes other than making life better for the jewish people.

in the next section of the chapter, the writer seems to retell and elaborate on an earlier incident in the previous chapter.  he returns to jesus' embrace of "little children."  jesus "was idignant" when he heard his disciples speaking "sternly" to parents who were bringing their children to jesus "in order that he might touch them."  jesus says, "let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  truly i tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  then he embraces the children and blesses them.  this is a beautiful teaching of jesus, but one wonders why it is told twice and why this more complete version didn't appear with the earlier telling.

jesus sets "out on a journey," and a man kneels before him to ask what he must "do to inherit eternal life," addressing jesus as "good teacher."  jesus tells him that "no one is good but God alone," and therefore he should not be addressed as a "good" teacher.  jesus then lists the basic commandments which are to be followed, and the man assures him that he has followed those commandments "since my youth."  jesus tells him that the one thing he must do is to sell "what you own and give the money to the poor . . . then come, follow me."  the disheartened man leaves "for he had many possessions."  jesus then tells his disciples that it is hard "for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!"  he goes on to say, "children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  the disciples ask "then who can be saved?"  jesus tells them that "for God all things are possible."  the implication of this teaching is that those who have great wealth spend much of their time and energy protecting their position, ignoring the suffering all around them, instead of using what they have to make life better for others.  the accumulation and retention of possessions becomes more important than caring for their brothers and sisters.

peter reminds jesus that he and the other disciples have "left everything and followed you."  jesus assures the disciples that all who have given up everything "for my sake and for the sake of the good news" will receive "a hundredfold now in this age .  .  . and in the age to come eternal life."  this teaching is often used to defend the "prosperity gospel," which teaches that God intends for those who worship God in the right way to have all the material blessings that one could hope for, that those who believe in God and yet remain in poverty don't have the right kind of faith or otherwise they would be wealthy.  it seems to me that what jesus is teaching is that the rewards of living a life in service to others allows the new relationships that such a life engenders to replace the material possessions that the rich find themselves slaves to.  when jesus says, "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first," i think this is just what he means.

jesus goes on to tell his disciples about his future persecution, death, and resurrection as they walk along the road toward jerusalem.  there is no further commentary on this or any description of the disciples' reaction to what jesus tells them, unless the request of james and john to sit on jesus' right and left "in your glory" grows from jesus' description of his rising from the dead.  jesus' comments on their request seems to be a repetition of the incident in chapter nine, when the disciples are arguing about who will be the greatest among them.  that teaching also arose after jesus had been teaching about future events in his life.  jesus tells the two "sons of zebedee" that it is not in his power to grant their request.  when the other disciples become angry with james and john, jesus reminds them that "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all," just as jesus himself has come "not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many."

the chapter closes with jesus healing a blind man named bartimaeus in jericho.  barimaeus cries out for jesus to have mercy on him, even though many in the crowd surrounding jesus order him to be quiet.  jesus tells the people to call the blind man to him, and "he sprang up and came to jesus."  jesus asks him what he wants, and bartimaeus says, "my teacher, let me see again."  as soon as jesus tells him to "go; you faith has made you well," bartimaeus has his sight restored and begins to follow jesus "on the way."

there are several important teachings in this chapter:  the teaching about living a life committed to another for one's entire life, the teaching about the importance of treating children with love and respect, the teaching about the best use of wealth, the teaching about service to others.  it is as if these fifty-two verses summarize the core of jesus' teaching, despite the unexplained repetition of earlier events.  perhaps the writer believed that the previous accounts of jesus' teaching had not been elaborated on enough.

may we take what jesus teaches in these passages from mark's gospel to heart.  may we not twist them to mean what we want them to mean and use them as weapons against others.  may we become servants of others.  shalom.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Jesus Loves the Little Children

i want to complete my journaling on the book of mark, so this week i'm tackling the ninth chapter.  the chapter begins with a verse that sounds as if it belongs at the end of the last paragraph of chapter eight: “truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”  jesus was talking at the end of the eighth chapter about the requirements to become his follower, and he ends his teaching by commenting on his return "in the glory of his father with the holy angels.”  the first verse of chapter nine suggests that jesus expects to make his return "with power" in the not-too-distant future.  it's a stretch, it seems to me, to try and make this statement mean that the coming of "the kingdom of God . . . with power" means anything other than jesus' belief that he will return as a powerful figure after his death and ascension.  perhaps this is a saying that was attributed to jesus in order to support such an idea, rather than an actual statement that jesus made during his own lifetime.

next comes the transfiguration, another miracle that supports the perception of jesus as something more than a mere mortal.  after the transfiguration, jesus tells peter, james, and john to keep the miracle secret until after jesus' resurrection.  the three follow jesus' instructions but are uncertain of what jesus means about "this rising from the dead."  they ask him why some religious teachers believe "that elijah must come first."  presumably "first" here means before the arrival of the messiah.  jesus confirms that this teaching is true, saying, "elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. how then is it written about the son of man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt?  but i tell you that elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.”  no further explanation is offered.  is jesus speaking of john the baptizer as the elijah figure?  is he prophesying about his own persecution and crucifixion when he describes the suffering of the "son of man?"

the next incident in the chapter is the curing of a boy who apparently suffers from epilepsy.  as jesus approaches the other disciples as he returns with the three witnesses to the transfiguration, there is a "great crowd around them and some scribes arguing with them."  the father of the stricken boy tells jesus that his disciples were unable to cure his son, and he describes the effect of "the spirit" that afflicts the boy.  jesus seems angry as he says, "you faithless generation, how much longer must i be among you? how much longer must i put up with you? bring him to me.”  is jesus describing his own disciples, attributing their inability to cure the boy to their lack of faith?  is he calling the crowd gathered around him and his disciples the faithless ones, or does he mean that it is the father's lack of faith that has made it impossible for his son to be cured?  when the boy is brought to jesus and exhibits the effects of his illness, jesus questions the father about the boy's history with his illness, and, after the father answers jesus' question, he asks jesus, "if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.”  it what reads like a contemptuous voice, jesus repeats the father's phrase, "if you are able" and tells the man that "all things can be done for the one who believes.”  the father asks jesus to help his unbelief, and, as the crowd closes in on him, jesus orders the spirit to leave the boy, never to return.  the boy convulses and is cured.  the disciples ask jesus in private why they were unable to cure the boy, and jesus tells them that "this kind can come out only through prayer.”  nowhere in the narrative is there any suggestion that jesus prayed about the boy or his cure, so what is the meaning of jesus' explanation to the disciples?  is he trying to soften his rhetoric which they may have thought was a rebuke to them?

the writer tells us that he and the disciples went the galilee without anyone recognizing them, as he continued teaching them privately.  one wonders how this was possible, since it seems that people are constantly flocking to jesus seeking cures in previous trips jesus and his disciples have made.  he tells the disciples about his persecution, death, and resurrections, but they do not understand him and are "afraid to ask him."

after they return to their home base in capernaum, jesus finds the disciples arguing amongst themselves.  when he questions them, they refuse to answer, but jesus apparently figures out that they were at odds about who was the greatest of the disciples.  he tells them that "whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  placing a child among them and embracing the child, jesus says, "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”  these seems among the most important teachings of jesus--serving others is a characteristic of true greatness and welcoming the openness and wonder of a child is a mark of discipleship.

two teachings remain in this lengthy chapter.  when the disciples call jesus' attention to a person who is not a follower performing cures in jesus' name, jesus tells them to leave this person alone, since he must support the work of jesus.  he goes on to tell them that anyone who does a good deed for them because they "bear the name of christ" will be rewarded.  next, the writer says that jesus speaks about "these little ones who believe in me."  is he speaking of children, or are the "little ones" other believers who are not part of jesus' retinue of followers?  jesus goes on to talk about the nature of sin, cautioning his disciples to rid themselves of anything that tempts them, lest they "be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched."  he tells them to "have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another."

this chapter is full of difficult passages, and i wonder how much is added to the sayings of jesus at a later date to support ideas the writer wants to defend and how much is actually part of the teachings of jesus.  i'm disturbed about jesus' seeming anger in the instance of curing the boy with epilepsy and about the apparent ability of jesus and the disciples to travel incognito when that has not been possible before.  the teachings about welcoming the innocent and becoming the servant of others that ring truest to me, and i have to discount much of the rest of the chapter.

may i and others who read the gospel account come to a better understanding of jesus and his teachings.  may we approach the gospel with a healthy skepticism, weighing what is written with our own experience of living as followers of jesus.  may we all find the acceptance that jesus accorded the child he embraced.  shalom.