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.

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.