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.