Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Who Makes the Woeful Heart to Sing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

For All--Not Just for Some

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

All Things Are Possible, Only Believe?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Clear Our Thought and Calm Our Feeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

I'll Labor Night and Day to Be a Pilgrim

i've begun rereading the gospel of mark, with special attention to the teachings of jesus.  mark is believed to be the oldest of the gospels, and it seems to me to be the most direct and accessible.  there is no attempt to trace the family line of jesus back to ancient ancestors, no recounting of a miraculous birth, just a simple proclamation that the "good news of jesus christ" begins with the preaching of john the baptist, jesus' cousin, and the baptism of jesus.

today i'm thinking about the first words of jesus in mark's gospel: "follow me and i will make you fish for people."  jesus says this to peter and his brother andrew as he finds them fishing on the shores of the sea of galilee, and they drop their nets and follow jesus.  a bit farther along the shoreline, jesus finds james and john mending nets while sitting in their boat, calls to them, and they too follow him.  the gospel doesn't say that jesus had any prior conversations with these four fishermen, but it seems reasonable that the five men are acquainted.  we don't know why jesus was near their homes in the fishing village of capernaum, or what their earlier encounters were like, but it appears that what jesus had to say to them was compelling enough for them to abandon their settled lives to become his disciples.

probably their wandering with jesus far from capernaum didn't begin immediately, because jesus seems to have used the little town as his base for his early ministry.  so peter, andrew, james, and john could have lived in their homes with their families and continued to fish to support themselves, venturing out with jesus from time to time in the neighborhood of capernaum.  it is possible that these four were already prepared to become jesus' followers and were waiting for his invitation to do so, since they immediately left what they were doing.  to have done this with no prior preparation, no knowledge of the person of jesus or his teachings, would have been the acts of unstable individuals who were willing to turn their lives upside down at the drop of a hat.

i try to put myself in their places and imagine that i find myself dissatisfied with my present life, tired of the drudgery of making a living going out onto the sea every day hoping to make a good catch, feeling an emptiness, a longing, for something more.  i think of the wandering of siddhartha as he began his search for meaning and the pattern of jesus' life.  so much is left unsaid in mark's gospel, and indeed in all the gospels, about jesus' life prior to his baptism.  we know almost nothing of his childhood or of the year's in his adult life leading up to the beginning of his ministry and the calling of his discples.  what we do know is fragmentary and unreliable.  by the time jesus calls the fishermen to follow him, he is a mature teacher, and his teaching must have resonated with those who heard him, convincing some like peter, james, john, and andrew that he had the answers to the questions that gnawed at them.

there are so many unanswered questions in those simple words that are jesus' first utterances in mark's gospel.  i long to know what led up to these encounters along the seashore.  surely the lesson to be learned is not that one abandons everything on a whim to become a follower of jesus.  it seems to me that jesus is saying that his teaching will enable these four to relate to people in a new way, to see life in a new way.  by following jesus, they will draw people to them, just as their nets draw fish from the sea.  people will come to them to hear their teachings, their answers to life's questions, just as these first followers came to jesus.

may we each be seekers of the answers to life's mysterious questions.  may we use our minds to reason through what is presented to us, rather than blindly accepting what our forebears believed.  may we choose the path that speaks most clearly to both our hearts and our minds.  shalom.