Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Ah, Holy Jesus, How Hast Thou Offended

mark 15 recounts the events that culminated in jesus' crucifixion and death.  the religious leaders take jesus to pilate.  there is no explanation of who "pilate" is, so one must suppose that the intended readers of the gospel would already have been familiar with the stories mark is recording.  his accusers' principal complaint seems to be that jesus has called himself "king of the jews," since pilate asks him if that what is what he is.  jesus replies, "you say so."  it appears that pilate doesn't take the accusations against jesus seriously, perhaps regarding him as insane.  in reply to the many claims by his accusers, jesus makes no answer, to pilate's consternation.  had pilate considered jesus another insurrectionist trying to rid palestine of roman rule, no other accusation would have been necessary, and his execution would have been swift and merciless.

it seems that the writer is going to some length to make pilate appear more reasonable and humane than jesus' jewish accusers, as he goes on to tell a most improbable story of pilate offering to allow the mob to choose a prisoner to be released during the passover festival.  the two choices he offers are jesus or the leader of a rebellion named barrabas, who "with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection."  the writer offers no further explanation concerning this "insurrection."  according to mark, "the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release barabbas for them instead," and the crowd demands the crucifixion of jesus.  it is unbelievable that a roman governor would release a known murderer and rebel or that there would be a custom in a roman province of releasing a prisoner annually during a religious celebration, so the writer appears to be going to some lengths to place all the blame for what follows on the shoulders of the jewish religious leaders and absolving pilate of guilt in the death of jesus.

after having jesus flogged, he is turned over to the roman soldiers who mock him by crowning him with thorns, placing a royal robe on him, spitting on him, calling him "king of the jews," and bowing before him, before stripping him of the purple cloak and redressing him in his own clothes.  on the way to the place of crucifixion, a man called simon of cyrene is made to carry jesus' cross.  this man must have been well known in the stories circulating among the christians to whom the narrative is addressed, because mark speaks of him familiarly as "the father of alexander and rufus," as if his readers would know who these men were also.

jesus is offered "wine mixed with myrrh," but he refuses it, and soon he is crucified with two bandits at the appointed place.  those who pass by mock him, and the soldiers nail a sign above his head that reads "the king of the jews," perhaps to let the jews of jerusalem know in what contempt the romans hold them.  "the chief priests, along with the scribes," are among the crowd mocking jesus.  mark says that even the two thieves who were crucified on either side of jesus join in mocking him, which seems hard to believe since they would have been so concerned with their own suffering that the fate of jesus would have been of little concern to them.  at a distance, the writer says, was a group of women that included mary magdalene, mary the mother of james the younger and of joses, and salome.  here no further explanation of who these named women were, suggesting that they were also well known among mark's readers, but the writer does mention that this group of women, which includes "many other women," were followers of jesus who took care of him in galilee and had come with him to jerusalem.

in mark's account, the only intelligible thing jesus says from the cross is “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which mark says means, "“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  after this cry of desperation, jesus is offered a drink of "sour wine" before he "gave a loud cry and breathed his last."  then "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom," and the centurion in charge of jesus crucifixion proclaims that “truly this man was God’s son!”  in this way the writer assures his readers of the significance of jesus' death.

once more, pilate is made to appear unbelievably humane, since he allows "a respected member of the council," joseph of arimathea, to take possession of jesus' body for burial.  one wonders where this joseph was when his fellows on the religious council were trying jesus, turning him over to pilate, and demanding his crucifixion.  apparently joseph was a believer in jesus' apocalyptic message, so perhaps he viewed these events as leading up to the coming of the expected "son of man" who would conquer the world, drive out the romans, and set up a righteous kingdom with a resurrected jesus at its head.  joseph gives jesus a proper burial, as mary magdalene and the other mary that mark mentions witness where jesus' body is placed "in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock" and sealed with a stone.  here the chapter ends.

so much of this account is difficult to believe, yet one senses a glimpse of the suffering jesus must have endured as he is mocked by all those who witness the events leading up to his death, except for the group of women who have been his caregivers throughout his ministry.  it seems significant that the writer makes certain that the role of these women is made clear to readers of his account.  they are the only ones of jesus' followers who seem to have stuck by him while his closest male companions are nowhere to be found according to mark.

may we see beyond the layers of fiction to the man who was jesus.  may we have compassion for him during this period of great suffering that brought his ministry in palestine to an end.  may we not diminish the significance of his teachings about love and respect for all people, regardless of their status or gender, by turning him into a god, so that the theological questions about who he was overshadows what he taught. shalom.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

A Brief Intermission

i have not had time to complete my next post, and so i will work toward having it ready by next tuesday.  until then, may you be well, may you be happy, may you be at peace.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Service, Too, Is Sacrament

the end of jesus' ministry takes up most of the fourteenth chapter of mark's gospel.  beginning with a brief statement of the desire of the "chief priests and scribes" to secretly arrest and kill jesus, this chapter goes on to tell of his anointing by a woman "in the house of simon the leper" in bethany, jesus' last meal with the disciples, his prayers in the garden of gethsemane, his betrayal by judas and arrest by "a crowd with swords and clubs from the chief priests," his trial before "the high priest, . . . the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes," and peter's denial of jesus.

the writer records that some of those who were in simon's house with jesus were disturbed that the woman who anointed jesus had poured expensive oil on his head, when the "ointment of nard" could have been sold to help the poor.  jesus admonishes them, telling them that "you will always have the poor with you . . . but you will not always have me."  he says that "she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial" and that she will always be remembered for this act.  it seems that some of those who were followers of jesus are becoming disgruntled because jesus is not capitalizing on his popularity with the people and is failing to continue his challenge to the authority of the priests in the temple, and so they dare to criticize the woman in the presence of jesus for an act that pleased jesus.

just after this, judas goes to the chief priests and plots with them to have jesus arrested.  apparently, judas is one of the group that is critical of the path that jesus is taking in jerusalem.  perhaps he hopes to force jesus to use his powers to resist when he is arrested and cause the beginning of the insurrection that will defeat the romans and place jesus and his disciples in power in the coming kingdom that jesus has been talking about.

the next day, the disciples ask jesus where he wants them to prepare the passover meal.  he gives them mysterious instructions about finding a man carrying a jar of water who will meet them in jerusalem.  this man will lead them to a house where they are to ask where the "guest room" is "where i [jesus] may eat the passover with my disciples."  when the disciples follow his instructions, they find everything just as jesus had said and prepare the meal.  clearly, this has been prearranged without the knowledge of the disciples, indicating that jesus had a network of followers in and around jerusalem with whom he was in communication.  maybe the disciples saw this as part of the groundwork for the conflict leading to the establishment of the kingdom.

as jesus and the disciples eat the passover meal, jesus says, "truly i tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me."  naturally, the disciples are upset and begin to question jesus about who his betrayer is.  jesus assures them that it is one of the twelve who is eating with him.  jesus then takes a loaf of breat, blesses it, breaks it, and divides it among them, saying "take; this is my body."  next jesus blesses a cup of wine and all of them share the common cup.  he says, "this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  truly i tell you, i will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when i drink it new in the kingdom of God."  this statement reinforces the imminent arrival of the kingdom in the minds of the disciples.

as they leave the meal, jesus tells them that they will all desert him, but "after i am raised up, i will go before you to galilee."  peter assures jesus that, even if everyone else deserts him, peter will not do so.  jesus tells his that before "the cock crows twice" that same evening peter will deny jesus three times.  peter says emphatically that, "even though i must die with you, i will not deny you."  taking peter, james, and john with him, jesus goes to gethsemane to pray.  jesus prays, "abba, father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet not what i want, but what you want."  arising from his prayer, jesus finds the three disciples sleeping and admonishes peter to stay awake and pray "that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing but the flesh is weak."  does he address only peter because of peter's assertion that peter will not desert him?  jesus returns to his prayers twice more and after each prayer he finds the disciples sleeping.  After awakening them a third time, he tells them that the hour has come when "the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners . . . see, my betrayer is at hand."

just then, judas arrives with a show of force from the chief priests, scribes, and elders.  going to jesus, judas addresses him as "rabbi" and kisses him, the agreed-upon sign that judas has given that will indicate which man is jesus.  those with judas arrest jesus, but "one of those who stood near" draws his sword and cuts off the ear of "the slave of the high priest."  jesus ridicules those who have arrested them, pointing out that they had opportunity to arrest already as he taught in the temple, but they have come armed with swords and clubs in the dark of night "to arrest me as though i were a bandit."  as the disciples are fleeing, mark tells us that those arresting jesus attempt to catch "a certain young man" who appears mysteriously though jesus has taken only the three disciples with him to pray in gethsamane.  the young man, who was "wearing nothing but a linen cloth," leaves the cloth behind and runs away naked.  where did this young man come from?  was he an unnamed companion of jesus who has been with him in the garden all the time, or did he follow those who came to arrest jesus to see what their intentions were?

jesus is taken to be tried before the religious authorities, who bring false witnesses against him.  when the testimony of these witnesses is unconvincing, the high priest asks jesus if he claims to be the messiah.  jesus replies, "i am; and you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the power and coming with the clouds of heaven."  hearing this, the high priest accuses jesus of blasphemy, and some of those assembled spit on jesus, blindfold him, and strike him, as they order him to "prophesy."  the guards who are present take jesus and beat him.

as the trial takes place, peter is waiting in the courtyard.  a servant of the high priest tells peter that she knows he has been seen with jesus.  peter denies this, and as he does, a cock crows.  the servant tells those around them that she knows that "this man is one of them."  peter again denies it.  one of the bystanders says, "certainly you are one of them, for you are a galilean."  peter curses the man and says, "i do not know this man you are talking about."  the cock crows for a second time, and peter remembers what jesus had told him.  the chapter ends with peter weeping over his denial of jesus.

this day ended in a way that the followers of jesus did not expect.  rather than the beginning of an armed revolt, jesus ends up in the hands of his enemies, and the disciples have abandoned him.  even peter fails to defend the man who he believed to be the messiah.  after having given up everything to follow jesus, the disciples must have wondered what would become of them.  would they be pursued and arrested?  should they return to their homes or wait in jerusalem in hiding to see how events would unfold?

may we see that things are not always as they seem, that life does not conform to our expectations.  may we observe life unfold before us, open to its possibilities, even if those possibilities are not what we would have wished.  may we see the weakness in each of us that allows us to do that which we later regret.  may we forgive ourselves for those failings and learn from them.  shalom.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Work, for the Night Is Coming

mark 13 is a long discourse on the future.  it begins with the disciples commenting on the huge stones that make up the temple complex.  jesus tells them that "these great buildings" will all be "thrown down."  later on the mount of olives, peter, james, john, and andrew ask jesus, "when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?"  in answer to their question, jesus tells them that false messiahs will appear, wars will be raged, earthquakes will happen, and famines will come, signaling the beginning of "the son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory."

he goes on to tell them that they will be tried and beaten but that "the holy spirit" will give them the words to proclaim the good news.  in the coming persecution, family members will betray one another, and "you [the disciples] will be hated by all because of my name."  jesus assures them that "the one who endures to the end will be saved."

they are to watch for "the desolating sacrilege" to be set up.  the writer warns: "let the reader understand," but offers no explanation of what this sacrilege is.  when this happens, there will be great suffering "such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now."  those "in judea" must flee to the mountains, regardless of their circumstances at the time.  during this time of suffering, jesus warns again that "false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens" in order to "lead astray, if possible, the elect."  jesus instructs them to be alert, since he has "already told you everything."

during this time of suffering, when the son of man comes in the clouds, he will send the angels to gather the elect.  like the fig tree that puts out new leaves heralding the coming of summer, the signs jesus predicts will herald the coming of the son of man.  this, jesus says, is to take place before the present generation has passed away.  he goes on to tell them that "heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."

jesus' final message in this chapter is that the disciples must stay awake and alert, since "only the Father" knows when these times will come.  they are to watch, just as those left in charge when the master leaves on a long journey must watch, since they "do not know when the master of the house will come."

these words must have been frightening to the four disciples who heard them.  jesus lays out a vision of a dark time ahead before the mysterious son of man appears to make things right for the faithful followers of jesus.  their teacher makes it clear to the disciples that the adoration jesus has received from the people is short lived and that the arrival of the kingdom that expels the roman oppressors and crowns jesus king with the twelve disciples at his side is not going to happen in a matter of days.  one wonders if they questioned whether they had been right in abandoning everything to follow him and if the events that follow in the next chapter are not the result of the disillusionment of at least some of the disciples with the direction jesus is heading.

what are we to make of these troubling prophecies of jesus?  are we to understand that jesus was an apocalyptic preacher who believed that world-changing events were imminent when the "son of man" would come to make jesus king, not just of palestine but of the entire world, with his disciples as subordinate rulers?  is this the culmination of secret teachings that jesus had been sharing with the disciples over the course of his ministry, teachings that he dared not reveal publicly?

may we try to understand who jesus was and discern which of his teachings lead us to live better lives?  may we be unafraid to question orthodox understandings of jesus and his role in history.  may we follow the evidence where it leads us.  shalom.