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.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Although It's Been Said Many Times, Many Ways

i write this on the first day of the new year, though it won't get posted until the second day of the year.  i'm not ready to return to writing about mark's gospel, and today i want to write about our family christmas.  our two children and their spouses were with us for several days for our first holiday together in our new home.

we love having our children with us.  they both live some distance away--one has to drive seven hours to get here, the other eighteen hours--so they won't be able to come often now that we've moved.  both our children are easy going and considerate, and we're comfortable with them.  after all we have a long and mostly pleasant history together.  we don't know their spouses well and have spent little time with them.  naturally, the relationship between our children and their spouses changes the dynamic of our relationship with our children.

both couples were with us for several days, and, after they had all headed back to their homes, i fell into a depression.  for a couple of days i moped around, unable to shake the blues that struck me.  i felt as if my christmas had been spoiled.  it wasn't just that our nest was empty again, but something deeper and darker.  my wife was worried, since it's rare that i am in a sour mood, and she depends on me to be my usual upbeat self.

i stewed over how i was feeling during those sad days.  i wanted to yell at someone, to break something, to crawl in the bed and pull the covers over my head to close out the world.  by the third day of this sad-sack routine, i began to think more about the whys of my attitude.  i realized that all the time our family had been with us, i was tense and ill-at-ease.  because we don't know our children's spouses very well nor do the two in-laws know each other well, comments were made that were taken the wrong way.   feelings were hurt.  little quirks irritated.  i was holding my breath during their visit waiting for someone to lose their temper and say things that would escalate into something more than petty irritations and minor hurts.  i never relaxed and, when we returned to having just me and my wife in the house, i was exhausted from the stress that i had created for myself.

as soon as i realized the cause of the funk i was in, it dissipated and i became my normal self again.  i talked with my wife about it, and she had the same reactions to our family time together but handled it in a different way.  she was more honest with herself about how she felt and had talked to me about how she reacted to our son- and daughter-in-law during their visit while i had kept my feelings inside, trying to convince her and myself that what we were both perceiving was incorrect.  what a weight it was to have the depression lift and to let go of the anger over my spoiled holiday!  i'm so grateful for the time we had with our two wonderful children, and i hope as time goes by i will learn to know their partners better so i can enjoy being with them, too.  i hope that i can prepare myself better mentally for the stresses that inevitably arise when so many people are together in the same house for so long.

may i not expect perfection in my relationships or build up expectations of how things are going to be.  may i honestly deal with my own feelings and accept them for what they are without judging myself harshly.  may we all see that our imperfections are part of who we are and deal with ourselves gently and lovingly.  may we deal with others in the same way.  shalom.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

We Wish You . . .

with our family home for the holidays and all the activities that involves, i haven't had any time to write during the past several days.  i hope to post again by next tuesday, january 2, 2018.  in the mean time, i wish any who read this blog the happiest of new year's.  may this be all of our best year ever.  shalom.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What Can I Give Him, Poor As I Am

in these days leading up to christmas, i'm taking a break from writing about mark's gospel to reflect on what i've read and written about so far.  i have read this gospel many times but this is the first time i've journaled about it.  one of the things that has surprised me is how little we know about jesus.  we have the four gospels that were written some time after the lifetime of jesus and a few mentions of him from other sources.  we don't even know who the writers of the gospels were or much about them, though two of them have been attributed to the disciples, matthew and john.

when i try and peak behind the miracles mark writes about to the actual man of flesh and blood, i see a jesus who is filled with compassion for the suffering of others.  the writer wants us to believe that jesus was able to cure all sorts of physical and mental illnesses and diseases and to raise people from the dead, perhaps to convince his readers that jesus was more than a mere mortal, maybe God incarnate.  to accept these supernatural deeds as fact obscures the person i claim to be a follower of and diminishes his true nature, i think.  if jesus were primarily a faith healer in the mold of current-day charlatans, he would not be worthy of following.

i see a jesus who gives people hope in a God who is more loving than the god of the religious authorities of his day, who condemns the rule-based religion that oppresses common folk and colludes with the roman conquerors to exploit a subject population.  this jesus is brave enough to confront false teachers, even at the risk of his own life.

as i think about christmas, i grow weary of hearing that "jesus is the reason for the season."  the appropriation of various winter solstice celebrations for our own religious purposes diminishes the person we christians claim to follow.  insisting that there is no other way to celebrate christmas is insulting to non-christians and to the many christians who believe it is a mistake to commemorate jesus' birth on one specific day in december.  there's nothing wrong with observing december 25th as the anniversary of jesus' birth, but it's not the only way to celebrate the season.  i love hearing the stories of the angels and the shepherds, of the wise men, of the journey of mary and joseph to bethlehem where their child was born in a manger.  i love singing the carols and seeing churches decked out in greenery and twinkling lights.  i love decorating our home for christmas.  christmas is all that and much more.  it is a season of giving to loved ones and to those who are in need, of hoping that there will be peace and good will on earth, of special foods and sweet treats, of gathering together as families.  all these things are possible whether we are observing the birth of a religious figure, enjoying chanukah or any number of ancient holidays, or treating this season as an entirely secular time of year.  why not let christmas have whatever significance it has for each person and allow all to enjoy christmas in their own ways without insisting that our way in the only way?

may you have a joyous holiday season.  if this is a time of sadness for you, may you find solace and peace.  may you give to others as you are able and graciously accept the gifts you receive.  may you continue to seek truth wherever it can be found.  shalom.

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.