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.

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