Dear West Denmarkians, As you know, no one is going anywhere! Yet, the body of Christ that is the church does not require a building. The council and I are busily finding new ways to “come together” and stay in contact, if not in touch. For now,I will continue to direct you here to the websitefor Sunday prayers, the sermon and hymns (you supply the tune!)
Next week we will have either an audio or video of the sermon posted here. Chris Tou is working with me to upgrade westdenmark.org to make it more lively.
We are adding participation options like a place for your written response, or a conversation board of some kind, and Molly is creating a podcast to replicate the weekly lenten reflections. We have combined several menu tabs to decrease clutter while saving content, as a way of highlighting the responsive, participatory aspects.
These are creative ways of opening ourselves to the wide world. BUT, the internet does not reach everyone, and nothing replaces a human voice telling you that you are being thought of, and missed, and prayed for. Please reach out to those who ‘share your pew’. And maybe the one ahead of you, too. Give them a call, send a card. (May I suggest it)… cross the isle! Thank you for being the faith you believe.
In this and every circumstance, know that you are loved. Pastor Linda
Lord God of all, Why did you tell me to love my neighbor as I love myself? I have tried, but I come back to you frightened… Lord I was so content, so comfortably settled. I was alone, at peace, sheltered from wind, rain, and mud. But you, O Lord, have discovered a breech in my defenses. You have forced me to open my door. Your love for the world has drawn me. I cannot now close the door. Lead me into this grace. Amen.
Since chapter 8, Jesus has led his disciples south from Caesarea Philippi, around the Sea of Galilee, through villages on both sides of the Jordan – Gentile and Jewish – teaching as they went. We don’t know how long this took. Perhaps years. Mark presents it with a sense of urgency, as though Jesus is pressed for time, trying to reorient fishermen to the kingdom of heaven. They’ve witnessed signs and wonders – healings of all sorts, boat-swamping waves stilled at his word, massive crowds fed from meager provisions. They’ve heard the kingdom of God is like a mystifying array of images and stories that twist away from their expected ends. They’ve listened in on disputes between Jesus and scribes and Pharisees, and seen the religious leaders get caught in their own words. Jesus has warned them three times of his impending death in Jerusalem, and still they walk on, inexorably toward the city.
In Mark’s gospel account, Jesus comes to Jerusalem just once. They have arrived.
“Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘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.’
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.” Mark 11: 15-18
Tensions are rising as Jesus continues to teach the disciples and debate the scribes in and around the temple.
Three cameras are set in place. Jesus enters followed by his disciples. They sit to watch the activity. A group of scribes notices Jesus. A crowd mills around, gradually coming closer to hear.
Camera One: The scribes, believing they have home court advantage, come scurrying over to trap Jesus. “By what authority are you doing these things?” Jesus replied, “Answer one question of mine first, then I’ll answer yours. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?” Unable to answer this without angering the crowds, the trap snapped on them, and Jesus followed up with the parable of the vineyard. (see last week’s sermon)
The scribes and elders retreat; walking away murmuring, embarrassed and angry.
Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, elders – in Mark, these ‘characters’ represent the epitome of what is wrong with the Temple. The power structure, hierarchy, and traditions they promote reinforce their social status while oppressing the poor and limiting people’s access to worship of God. They were to be servants and interpreters, vintners in the cultivation of fine grapes in the parable. Instead, they puff themselves up with fine robes and places honor, violating the basic principles of justice and loving kindness for which the laws were given.
This hubbub attracted the attention of another scribe, though, who came to listen – and who now steps forward to inquire:
“So, what is the greatest law? If we are being criticized for our management of the vineyard, to which commandment do we owe primary allegiance?” Jesus responds, “The law of love. “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.’ And the second follows: it is a shared love, equal regard – “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 12:28-32
The scribe agrees, approving of Jesus’ answer as wise and faithful to their mutual Jewish tradition. He calls Jesus ‘Teacher’, and adds the judgment of the prophets: “This (love) is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” 12:33
Jesus commends the scribe for his clear vision and wisdom, saying he is not far from the realm of God, and, not knowing what else to say, the scribe and crowds disperse.
Jesus watches them go and warns his disciples, “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. They look and sound impressive, but they huff and puff and devour widow’s houses. They exploit the very people the law bids them protect, and for the sake of appearance, say long prayers.” 12:38-40
Camera 2 picks up Jesus and company as they move to the treasury where he watches the comings and goings. Silver coins ring as they are dropped into the temple coffers. Some worshipers deposit the required offering and hurry to prayer. Some approach with a great flourish and let their coins sound out with that self-satisfaction of privileged humility.
The disciples are people-watching, letting their attention float from form to form, not really seeing what they see until Jesus draws their attention to this One. Almost unnoticeable, camouflaged in drab gray against the stone floor and marble walls, she is one you could easily pass over. Her poverty and anonymity render her invisible. Plick, plick. The sound of two small copper coins can barely be heard.
Now, ignore every stewardship sermon you’ve ever heard that lifts this poor widow as an example of humble generosity, or the power of magic pennies, or trust in God’s amazing provision. Disentangle her from all of that, because it’s not here. Don’t let yourself hear Jesus’ tone in soft warm words of admiration. He’s pissed. “Truly I tell you, 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.” 12:43
Jesus never actually praises her. He simply points out that, proportionally, the widow’s donation is greater than all rest. It is in fact all she has left. These others contribute discretionary income to maintain the structure, the stone, the system, the vineyard. But “the system” requires a temple offering in order to worship. To meet the requirements of the law, this impoverished widow puts it all into the temple treasury. All that she has, so that she can go into the women’s court to pray in the only place their religion sanctioned prayer and worship – one last prayer before she dies.
She is a case in point, the embodiment of the system that needed to fall.
Void of income, widows must eventually sell their houses in order to buy food. Scribes would buy these houses, increasing their social power even as they violated God’s command to honor father and mother, and to protect widows, sojourners and orphans.
If this widow is an object lesson convicting the scribes, she is also a character prefiguring Christ who gives all he has, all that he is, to a system, a people, no less corrupt. Maybe this is why the temple curtain tears from top to bottom as Jesus dies on the cross. Discrepancy between love and justice ripped it apart.
Camera three: Jesus pushes through the crowd, needing to get out of the temple that suddenly sickens him. Some one of his clueless disciples says admiringly, “Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!” “Do you see these great buildings?” Jesus said. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down!” 13:1-2
“The temple is corrupt, the vineyard a sham, the system that supports those walls and buildings is held up by hollow rituals and laws for the sake of maintaining the law, but that miss the greatest law completely – to love: to love God in word and deed, to love the orphans and sojourners and poor and powerless and drab little impoverished widows who you can’t see unless you really try to.
“No, my beloved disciple, these are not great buildings and great walls, they are nothing, your devotion and offerings and prayers mean nothing, your religion amounts to nothing, if you don’t act out of basic human compassion for others, if you don’t begin to see those ‘others’ your eyes would rather skip over, unless you love the unloved and unloveable as much as you love yourself..… …..as much as God loves you.”
Well, there’s a word! (embellished at bit) How can we manage it?
We are scribes, knowingly or not. There’s no way to untangle us from our complicity in the ‘system’. How can we continue in behaviors and choices that support systems we know to be bad, harmful, wrong for the earth and for life? But we do.
How can we love like God loves us?
For starters, of course we can’t! But we can love larger than ourselves. Biblical love is not emotional love. It is not something that happens to us without our control or will, the way “falling in love” seems to happen inexplicably. It’s not something that causes you to feel warm and woozy.
Biblical love is ’45-years-of-marriage’ love. When you’ve fought and compromised and made-up and stomped out and giggled and watched sunsets and argued about the bills and raised kids and eaten 40,000 meals together. It’s something we do, something we choose, something we more or less will ourselves to do every day, loving the other one who can so annoy… and so wound… and so complete us. Showing mercy, acting on behalf of the poor, deciding to be reconciled is willful action, and generous, and costly. To love the neighbor as oneself is to act toward the other as you would have them act toward you. All the ‘others’, not just your favorites.
And so Jesus’ response to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” Apparently, the kingdom of God appears as we begin to understand that loving our neighbor, loving the other, is how we love God. We can’t ignore or oppress our neighbor and love God. We can’t selfishly consume or exploit the earth’s resources and love God. We can’t turn our backs on immigrants or sojourners or refugees and love God. The integrity of love is not in our feeling, but in our action, growing organically out of the love we have received. The kingdom of God isn’t someday, far away, beyond the clouds. Jesus keeps telling us that. The incarnate kingdom of God is here in the spaces between us (even as we social distance), and as we move into those spaces of division, we enter into the realm of love, the realm of God.
And that’s as far as this sermon is going to go – except, of course to ask questions.
Where are examples of the widow’s mite in your world? Do you see her as a generous giver? A victim of the system? A model of discipleship?
How can we participate in positive change in the ‘systems’ that limit and oppress?
In what ways is The Virus helping us see the change we need?
Sure, we could all be better at loving, bigger in justice, more intentional and reflective in our behavior, but you are kind and generous people. And, mostly, I want to encourage your work in the vineyard, and thank you for what you do, and for who you are ‘out and about’ in the world. (even though you can’t actually leave your shelter at the present time)
God will work out the details of salvation and eternity. I’ll take the kingdom of God as it shows up here, with you in the love you show, in the ways you try, and in the welcome you extend.
May God give us vision and bless our loving endeavors.
God of compassion, you forgive us in the of darkest places – places we hardly dare admit to you that we go (but we do from time to time.) You know us well – what we are capable of and complicit in – and still, through it all, your mercy embraces us. We pray that our lives may be worthy of bearing a little gospel into the world. We pray for growth and grace in us and for us, and through us for our neighbors, that what is broken may be healed by love. Amen
The gospel of Mark, from the 12th chapter:
Jesus and the disciples came to Jerusalem, and while Jesus was walking in the temple, the high priest and legal experts and elders came to him and began to ask by what authority he did the things he did.
Jesus did not answer directly but… “he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, set a hedge around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watchtower; then he leased it to vineyard keepers and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenant farmers to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard.
What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’?”
When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away. And they sent to him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians to catch him in his words.”
This is a difficult parable. Difficult as in hard to find something positive to say about it, and difficult (at least for me) to see the connection of the cornerstone to the parable. I would be standing among the onlookers with a dumbfounded look. So I’m going to ignore that part.
Difficulty #1: Unsettling questions arise about the landowner, whom we take to be God. Where is the lovingkindness we look for and rely upon? Distant and Destroyer are not among the beautiful names of God.* Unlike many parables, this one does not lure us into identifying with a character group, but we stand beside the narrator, looking on in horror at the tenants’ violence and the seemingly compulsive behavior of the absent vineyard owner. Distressed to watch his callous disregard for servant life – and remembering it is our calling to be such servants – we back away. “No! Stop! Don’t you see? Don’t send another one. For heaven’s sake, not your son!! It’s absurd to assume they’ll treat him differently!” And I, at least, get that pit-of-my-stomach ache and fear. The same one as when Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem every Lent. I know the ending. I can’t pretend it might be different this year. And the love deeper than God’s love for Jesus hurts. We see can through this allegory. We know the love is for us.
The problem, of course, is that we’re quite sure we’re not worthy of it. * actually it is one of the 99 beautiful names of God in the Koran. And perhaps this is why.
In reality, the Pharisees, high priest, legal experts and elders were not categorically bad people. They had faults, of course. They also had noble intentions and a public role. They got caught in the crossed purposes of leadership and faithfulness. They followed their ‘tradition’ evolving toward power and security – a hierarchical social ordering that favored themselves – instead of following God’s preferential treatment of the poor, sojourner, and vulnerable. They were very concerned about maintaining the status quo within their community (and under Rome’s watchful eye). For the safety of their people. For their own sense of righteousness. But self-interest compromised their obligations and integrity as religious interpreters of God’s will and way. They failed to see that the nugget of the law was always, only love. Love for God and love for others.
Jesus told this parable against them. They are the tenant farmers, and it is their failure to respond faithfully that provokes Jesus’ anger and judgement. They ritualized religion, espoused values they did not live, upheld the letter while opposing the spirit of God’s word. It makes us squirm a bit, true?
Difficulty #2: There is no denying that the parable’s tenant vintners were greedy, violent, ungrateful for their livelihood and vocations, willing to kill to get what they felt entitled to. While we may not resemble the parable characters, there’s no point in denying that we bear a certain likeness to Jesus’ opponents. (Satisfied with ‘going to church’ as the practice of our faith, espousing values we do not intend to live, or pay for, or change our way of living to accomplish.) Jesus’ life and death, and two thousand some years of genetic mutations haven’t made significant improvements in human nature. We still live somewhere between the valley of the shadow of death and mountaintop transcendence.
We know, especially well at the moment, the nature of greed and ‘me first’ accumulation of hoarded basic necessities. We know, especially well at the moment, the egoic nature of political leadership. Keeping the needs and aspirations of the ‘least of these’ at the forefront of policy and budgetary decisions seems antithetical both to current leadership and candidates’ concerns over ‘electability.’ It takes a pandemic to get concrete and specific in how our government, by and for the people, will actually help the people. It is a pandemic that finally reveals the tragic shortcomings of our nation’s health care system. Raising the vulnerable and suffering is our vocational calling as Christians (and human beings), not a ploy to win votes or a ‘hoax’.
So, is this parable just driving home the guilt and shame of our sorry lot, bringing us to our knees under the burden of remorse? Maybe.
It’s Lent, after all. And March. A cold, snowy, drizzly Monday in the midst of The Virus as I finish my Sunday sermon. Mea culpa.
However, in God’s topsy-turvy love, the bad news is what bears the good.
The Chinese word for crisis is formed from two characters – wé meaning “dangerous” or “precarious”, and jí meaning “a point where things happen or change”. That is the best description of Jesus’ interjection into history that I’ve heard. It was precarious for the Jewish leadership, the nation, for Jesus, for his dazed disciples, and for God. The crisis of incarnation was the epicenter of change, of happening.
Difficulty #3: We find ourselves at a precarious point this Lent. Change is happening – daily. Our lives-as-usual are put on indefinite hold. We hear that it is a crisis, and, indeed, life has a more precarious feel than it normally does. This heightened awareness of illness, mortality, medical shortfalls, empty shelves, isolation is perhaps the good news we need. Not that anyone would wish for it, or that its tragic consequences are anything but tragic. But we desperately need the “point where things happen:change”. “Normal” finds us focused on our own goals, our own means, our own particular self. We want our own way. What is good for others, needed by the less powerful or less favored takes left-over status. The Virus is bringing home our lenten theme. We are suddenly forced to be intentional, reflective, mindful of our activities, relationships, travel, germy hands, and other’s coughs. With less to do, we might wonder more about the state of our neighbor. It is raising difficult questions, uncomfortable awareness of the ethics of use of resources. The Virus is doing what climate change science has not yet been able to do: force us to stop in our tracks. And think: Is this trip, this want, this habit worth the potential risk? Do I have the right to keep going the way I usually do as long as I feel fine?
Pandemic crisis may be what finally makes us better neighbors, better practiced at self-examination, more observant of how it’s going for the young family, or widow, or minimum wage couple, or small business owner. This precarious point of happening may be the thing that shifts the balance of your life toward love of God and love of neighbor.
The good news of this parable is that God’s purposes find a way. A new way, where the usual way is blocked.
If we recognize the inflicted suffering and injustice and selfishness of the tenant farmers as bearing some degree of truth in the real world, some mirroring of human history and current life, then it should also be true that the vineyard and its grapes have produced a harvest and God’s mission is to share it, to make wine that gladdens the human heart, that brings all into communion with God.
Possibility: If the parable of the vineyard impels us see the unbecoming side of our nature, it might help that we know there’s an alternate ending. God’s activity, God’s persistence, the unrelenting nature of God in love reaches out, and reaches out, and reaches out again, in spite of our unbecoming nature. Throughout scripture, God looks for a way beyond our “No way”. God’s intention is to heal, to redeem things that are broken, to increase our joy – not our guilt, so that we may live in communion with all people, with all creatures, not in strife against them.
If we are looking for the truth or meaning in the allegory of this parable, it is to remember that God loves people because it is in God’s nature to love. However, God elects a people for the sake of God’s mission. God has established the vineyard so that justice, righteousness, and compassion might flourish. This parable does not raise the question of eternal salvation, but rather of our fitness to participate in the work and glory of God now, here, always.
Salvation doesn’t depend of it, but your life might – for your life will certainly be changed. It’s a question. And, as always, a question to which we have actual freedom of response.
Are you able, … are you willing, …. are you ready?
32 [The disciples and groupies] were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.”
35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.Mark 10:32-52
You might be familiar with a dapper little Belgian detective who says things that baffle Chief Inspector Japp, and leave poor, perplexed Captain Hastings gasping, “Good Lord!” and going off in completely the wrong direction. This sounds like a familiar story line, does it not? A biblical storyline?
I’m referring, of course, to Agatha Christie’s, Hercule Poirot – and although we might roll our eyes at Hastings’ ineptitude, we can hardly blame him when Poirot says things like, “It’s not who he is, mon ami, but who he is that matters!”
That is exactly the case today. It’s not who he is, but who he is, that matters. And it all began back in chapter 8 with the blind man in Bathsaida whom Jesus tried to heal. After Jesus laid his hands on the man’s eyes, he could see, but said that people looked like trees, walking. Jesus tried again and the blind mans’s sight was perfect.
That healing and the one today in Jericho are bookends for what happens in between.
Chapters 8, 9 and 10 form the centerpiece of Jesus’ teaching. Mark sets them off with these two similar, but not identical stories of blindness. Poirot would much prefer that they be identical.
What happens in these three chapters? Mark has written a most excellent murder mystery. This is the clue gathering section.
Jesus takes the disciples on a quest out of Jerusalem, from one side of the Jordan to the other – from Jewish to Gentile territory. They meet outsiders who receive him with joy, insiders who are threatened and so respond with threats, he is followed by crowds of people who are curious, who themselves provide clues to the mystery as he heals them of many ills.
The disciples are slow learners. We, however, are insiders to the narration, and we’re catching on, working out clues, gradually coming to understand the nature of this Son of Man. Jesus is coming into focus. For the disciples, it is a painful process.
Three times in the space of these three chapters, Jesus tries to teach them who he is, what kind of Lord he is, what kind of Messiah they follow.
The first teaching moment occurs after the healing of the blind man in Bathsaida in chapter 8.
Jesus asks his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answer, ‘John the Baptist; Elijah; one of the prophets.’ He asks, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah!’ (Or perhaps, ‘You are the Messiah??’). Mysteriously, Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone, and then begins teaching that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. Captain Hastings (Peter) takes him aside, and says, ‘Good Lord, this can’t happen, this would be a terrible thing.’ But Jesus rebukes him for not seeing that being the Messiah, and suffering for others, are one and the same thing.
Jesus calls the crowds to his disciples, and says, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. For 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 gain it.”
Honestly, I don’t think that shed much light on matters.
The second time Jesus tries to teach them who he is, is after the mountaintop transfiguration experience where Peter, James and John see Jesus dazzling white and standing in glory. Again, they are ordered not to tell anyone about this vision, but it isn’t long before the disciples are arguing among themselves which of them is the greatest. To which Jesus responds by saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” and he plops that small child in the middle of the group to make his point. ‘This is what the kingdom of God looks like – from this child’s perspective, not from the viewpoint of that mountaintop.’
And now we have the third attempt. Jesus tells them he will be rejected and put to death; and here come James and John. “Teacher, we want you to do something for us.” Jesus says, “What is it you want me to do for you?” “Well, we want to sit on your right and left hand in glory, drink from your banquet cup.” I like the image of Jesus stopping by the walls of Jericho to bang his head a few times. And then stopping to heal Bartimaeus, asking him the same question, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
The blind-men-who-gain-sight bracket the central chapters of the Gospel in contrast with the disciples who are only slowly gaining theirs.
Mark paints a picture of the disciples seeing through a glass darkly, as Paul wrote. They see who it is they are following, but not yet who he is. Peter managed to put a name on it — Jesus is the Messiah of God. But Peter didn’t know what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. The crowds see him as a teacher, healer, and miracle worker, but they can’t see past the mystery, the wonder of it all. James and John get that Jesus is the real deal. But don’t understand the nature of the deal. Having just been told by Jesus that he is to suffer, die, and be raised, they shoot past the suffering straight to glory.
Like the first blind man, they can’t see it clearly. Not fully. And because of that, they don’t know what it means to follow Jesus. They can’t count the cost of discipleship.
This section of the gospel closes with Bartimeaus. Who he is doesn’t matter. What is important or interesting about him is who he is – one who is healed without a touch, who isn’t led by the hand to Jesus as the other man was, but one who leaps up and throws off his beggar’s cloak while still blind. Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Rabouni,” my teacher “let me see again.”
That would have been an infinitely more satisfying response from James and John.
Jesus said to him, “Go: your faith has made you well,” and immediately the man’s sight is restored and he follows Jesus on the way. Who he is is a disciple, a follower who now sees clearly who Jesus is.
Mark seems to be wondering if we have eyes for this… if we have gained sight for what it means to be a follower of the Christ.
It’s a question we struggle with, I would say. Christians have had status for a long time. We have mistaken Empire with Christendom and made them the same thing. But Jesus’ words say something very different than that.
“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
What would happen if this was the mission statement prospective church members had to sign onto – like a liability waiver not to hold the church responsible for the suffering and toll that following Jesus will take on your life? I wonder how evangelism campaigns would fare?
Our selling points of fellowship, good worship, and perhaps spiritual growth might be a bit disingenuous if we really had this vision for the life of following God in the way of Christ. There is fellowship, companionship in the body of Christ, certainly, but it is to be a servant body. There is spiritual growth and personal development – but Jesus sets improvement on a downward slope – we are to get better at giving ourselves away for the needs of the world.
As the church hierarchy worries about the decline of mainline churches, this is rarely – well, never – mentioned at our theological conferences as a method of attracting aspiring disciples of Jesus. Praise bands and pastors who provide inspirational TED talks seem to be the magnet. We don’t yet have the vision of a servant life as you live out your Christian vocation….
So, my usual ending: the questions.
Is suffering a necessary part of discipleship? I have an idea about this, but I want to hear what you think.
How do you see servanthood discipleship playing out in your life? What are the things you struggle with in that image?
Who are the servants that you see or know of – who is it that takes up their place at the bottom, un-acclaimed, to serve and aid and heal and restore?
Where is your niche in addressing, ameliorating, the suffering we can too readily see around us, too easily ignore?
How would you answer Jesus: “What do you want me to do for you?”
17 As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’ ” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “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.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” Mark 10:17-31
A man runs up and kneels before Jesus, and asks him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
I don’t think I’ve paid attention to that question before. I usually wonder about Jesus’ enigmatic response that he shouldn’t be called Good, because God alone is good – or I might wonder about eternal life and when that came to be a thing in scriptural theology. I like to get to the camel conundrum. It’s fun to imagine the options. And I wish Jesus would have asked the riddle: “What does a rich man lack, that a poor man has in abundance?” The answer: “Nothing.” Ha!
But this time the man’s question itself caught my eye. He doesn’t wonder what he must do to deserve eternal life…. and he seems to know that even with all his possessions he can’t buy it. He doesn’t ask about being granted eternity, or grandfathered in, or what the right prayers might be. He wants to inherit it. Inheritance isn’t something you can do much about. It seems like he’s the one asking a riddle. Inheritance is passed along: it is bestowed, bequeathed, entrusted. The doing doesn’t belong to the receiver.
And that’s what Jesus tells him. Well, sort of, but backwards.
Jesus quotes from the 10 commandments – reciting the ones about loving our neighbor as we love ourselves, and then: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and come follow me.” The man turns away in grief – the only person in the gospel not to accept Jesus’ invitation to follow. Jesus watches him go, loving him, and repeats his favorite riddle: “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
On Wednesday, we heard that in another context. The topic was the value of a small child placed in the center of the disciples’ attention. A child whose value is minimal – just the menial work she can do at the periphery of the household economy. This service from the bottom up, however, becomes the entry point to the kingdom of God. Service to others, expecting nothing in return, equalizing wealth and status, jubilee reversals. God’s economics are not sound market principles. Giving all you have and all that you are for the sake of others (who may or may not deserve it) – is a disturbing, difficult word.
No wonder we would prefer to talk about camels.
But a few observations: This is the only time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus makes this demand about possessions. Although he calls everyone to radical change and softening, melting transformation, the specifics vary from story to story across the gospel. If we remember the parable of the seed and sower, wealth chokes out the word of God. But hard packed and shallow soil don’t fare any better. Wealth is not the unforgivable sin. Jesus’ call is to a life of discipleship, not to a life of poverty. His invitation to come and follow are spoken in love for our young friend who needed to un-encumber himself of too many goods and their distractions. Like Martha, he was hindered by his many tasks and trinkets.
I bet many of us can identify with that. I have too much stuff. I am concerned about our finances and ability to afford a retirement. I am motivated to maintain the lifestyle to which I am accustomed. And still I struggle with the disparity of wealth and my part in it. There are those who do live in Jesus’ model of radical faith that a community can support and sustain one another. But that, too, is a luxury afforded by societal structures. There are obligations and responsibilities of wealth that are part of helping our neighbor thrive in providing jobs, homes, hospitals, education, producing and transporting food. So it’s not wealth itself that is the problem, but its place in our lives.
The economy of heaven is not capitalism with its acquisitions and mergers, supply and demand. It is something much more disturbing. It is the call of our whole self, relinquishing our power for the sake of the weak, our wealth for the hungry and naked, our security for refugees and immigrants, our hearts and minds and souls for God’s own purpose.
In the end, this passage is about what kind of community Jesus is forging, the way of being not doing that we are to be following, belonging to, in this age, in this life. Here is where we take up our cross, where we surrender our domination, where we exercise our unique abilities in service to others. The purpose is not to inherit eternal life, it’s not something to accomplish so that we will be saved, but we follow Jesus’ way because we have already been saved through God’s love. A great letting go is required, a transformation, a jolting reorientation, a certain grief and a certain joy co-mingling, flowing down as possessions and purpose are shifted into proper perspective.
And our rich man? I like to think he was a slow adapter like I am, that he needed time to think and grieve and consider and pray. He was not able to extract emotion from information in the moment, but needed time to ponder these things in his heart. I like to think he gradually came to discipleship and lived into the kingdom one item, one recipient at a time as he divested himself of his many possessions. If he missed the boat, maybe he found a path along the shore.
If the first will be last, and the last first, maybe the order doesn’t matter. All things are possible for God.
[Jesus and the disciples] went on and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him. Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.
He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me, but the one who sent me.” Mark 9:30-37
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. It might be interesting to pause here, and ask what that means to you or how we should best respond to the season. What shouldone do about Lent? Presumably there is more to it than making time in our Wednesdays to gather for soup and sandwiches and a quick service.
Lent used to be a time when the faithful were urged to fast and pray through the 40 days, or at least renounce personal sin in the form of breaking a bad habit or engaging in a spiritual discipline as an intentional means of drawing our minds to God through the yearning or sense of loss that is suddenly created. Perhaps we think about Jesus’ urging, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” But what does that mean?
Renouncing coffee sounds drastic – yet that is the kind of response that is traditionally considered worthy of a lenten discipline. Denying ourselves brussel sprouts for six weeks would probably not produce the same kind of longing or sense of martyrdom. No matter how much I like them, six weeks without sprouts would likely not turn my attention to God.
Fortunately, I don’t believe denying ourselves food is being on the right track.
In the Gospel reading today, the disciples have not considered self denial, but rather are all about self promotion. Jesus’ response to them helps focus on the themes and disciplines that are more substantial in the season of Lent.
This reading was the second time that Jesus attempts to teach the disciples about his approaching death. He makes clear that following him along the way, this pattern of discipleship they have committed themselves to, means service to others. It’ not about greatness, or leading the pack, or surpassing others in law-abiding, personal piety, and devotion to God. That defines the Pharisees – they’ve got public practice covered, and still they are found lacking.
Another point the disciples – and we – need a bit of schooling on is that following Jesus isn’t a private endeavor. Faith is always personal, but not intended to be private. As hard as it is for nordic Lutherans to hear, discipleship isn’t to be kept quietly between me and God – nor is it for one’s own benefit. That goes against much that modern American Christianity stands for. We like private and idiosyncratic. We would much rather attend to ourselves and to our own salvation than attend to the world. But it is for the sake of others that the patriarchs, the prophets, Jesus, the disciples, and we have been called. Following in the way of Jesus requires community, because that is where true life takes place, and that is where God is truly present – where two or three are gathered. Discipleship requires belonging, because Christ’s way is lived out in service, in daily life, as members – with one another – of one body.
The disciples have argued about who is the greatest, each one contending for top dog, and in response, Jesus places a little child among them.
We know very well that things have changed in 2000 years, but it’s still hard to hear the gospel outside of our own cultural framework, and so the humiliation of this seemingly simple, natural act of Jesus taking a child in his arms has been lost.
We might picture one of those Sunday school posters of Jesus in a white robe with a cute little blond haired toddler smiling up at him. But in the world of Mark’s gospel, Jesus plucked up one of the least likely to be noticed, least likely to be brought forward, least likely to have attention or honor given to them. A good and valued slave was much more important within the household economy than was a child. Children learned early not to distract from the flow of family and communal life, not to get in the way. Although they were loved and cared for, the community’s attention was focused elsewhere.
So this is a teachable moment for the disciples. Notice is brought to the one person in the room to who was not in any way expecting it. That becomes the breathtaking challenge of discipleship. This child is lifted up, this small, scrubby bit of insignificance doing her menial chore on the sidelines is noticed and honored in the kingdom of God. This one who is truly the least, the last, the invisible server, is the one lifted up as greatest in the economy of heaven, wrapped in the arms of God.
That image, coming on the heals of the Super Bowl game with it’s pretend heroes and halftime hoopla and 6 million dollar a minute ads – and coming in the midst of this presidential campaign circus as candidates vie for the popularity and greatness and mouth-time, provides the perfect backdrop for us to see the contrast that Jesus exposed.
As an indicator of how radical the message was back in the day, the very next passage sees the disciples scolding people for bringing their children to Jesus. They were indignant that the teacher should be bothered in this way. Surely he has more important people to bless. But Jesus says, “No. You weren’t paying attention. Not only are they welcome to come to me, but they are the model. They are the ones who show how the kingdom of God is received. Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
When I hear that one must be like a child to enter God’s kingdom, my mind goes back to my kids as sweet toddlers and preschool-aged children. Even when they were willful and naughty, there was an innocence to it. They had an unsullied sense of wonder, and the anticipation of learning something new every day. Being childlike.
But that’s not what Jesus seems to be saying. Rather, he’s indicating that it is the kid mucking out the stable, picking through the trash of the wealthy, gathering kindling for the cook fire, carding wool, sweeping the dirt floor – a child who comes without status or power, who serves the family in those small, necessary tasks that no one wants to do so they get passed along to the end of the line. It’s that child who expects no special treatment, looks for nothing but daily bread whom Jesus says belongs to, and is first in, the kingdom of heaven.
The disciplines of Lent are for serving the community, not for self piety or salvation. If denying yourself some thing causes you to offer something to God by way of your neighbor or in some manner that eases the suffering of others, then it has a good purpose. But denying yourself a pleasure or necessity – and we’re back to coffee in both categories – simply for the sake of personal suffering merely adds to the suffering of the world. It does nothing to appease it.
The ashes smudged on our foreheads tonight form the sign of the cross, reminding us that we are not great, but that we are part of that great communion of welcome and belonging. As we enter the weeks of Lent, we may consider doing more than renouncing a pleasure or habit for 6 weeks.
Our theme for the Wednesday evening services will center around living with intention and vulnerability. Without realizing this, Molly reflected on that last Sunday as a perfect segue. Maybe, hopefully, we will be led and inspired during these weeks into a long-term, gradual reshaping of our lives and priorities and expectations toward the command to love ourselves and our neighbor in a mutually beneficial ratio. Jesus called us to pay attention to others (not only ourselves) – to serve, to be as a small child in the household of God, taking up the task – however menial or marvelous – that you have within you to offer.
In the next 5 weeks, we will hear from some yet to be determined number of you about your experiences, attempts, methods of being intentional – in faith practices, in daily choices, in relationships within the communion of saints and with God – and what sacrifices or benefits are inherent to the practice. As always, we will learn from, and be inspired by, one another.
The last time we saw the disciples, Jesus had sent them out two by two and they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Now back with Jesus, they report all that they had done and taught, and he said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” So many were coming and going, they had no leisure even to eat. So, they got in a boat and headed for a deserted place, but it was quicker on foot, and the crowd beat them to this once deserted spot. As Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. And it grew late.
Jesus must have been in the flow and lost track of time, because his disciples came announcing the obvious, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late. Send the people away so that they can go into the villages and buy something to eat.”
But Jesus – whose ways are not our ways nor thoughts our thoughts – said, “No, you give them something to eat.”
I think the disciples must have made a lot of sideways glances in their career, checking to see if any of them had a glint of understanding. Mike Miles offers a disciples’ kind of quote from Ken Keesy: “Since we don’t know where we’re going, we have to stick together in case someone gets there.”
However, lacking this glint of insight, the fellas ask if they should make a run to the IGA and buy two hundred denarii worth of pita. Jesus said, “How many loaves do you have? Go and see.” They came back saying, “Five, and two fish,” no doubt thinking this would put an end to the matter.
But it didn’t, and we know the rest of the story: Jesus blessed and broke the loaves, gave them to the disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And when everyone had eaten their fill, there were twelve baskets of leftovers – both bread and fish – and those who had eaten numbered five thousand men. Lukes adds, “not counting women and children”, but we won’t quibble about women not counting (this time). We get the point. It was a sign and a wonder, followed immediately by another one. After getting their fill of Wonder Bread, Jesus sent the people away and sent the disciples back over the Sea of Galilee to Bethsaida in Gentile territory. But Jesus misses the boat praying, a storm comes up, and everyone is afraid for their lives until Jesus catches up to them, walking over the water. They are perhaps more terrified at this, “utterly astounded”, we are told, “for they did not understand about the loaves, because their hearts were hardened.” They finally came ashore at Genessaret, which means they were blown from the northeast shore of Lake Galilee back across the sea to land 3 miles south of where they started out. All in all, a trying day.
When they finally disembarked, people “at once recognized Jesus, and chased about that whole region bringing their sick to wherever they heard he was teaching. Wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.”
“Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,” (that is an 85 mile journey to the north, by the way – I don’t really picture scribes and Pharisees going that far), but anyway, apparently they did, and “they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “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.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’
Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honor your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban.”‘ (that is a practice of willing assets to the Temple making them unavailable to be used for elderly parents’ care, but rather encourages circumventing the moral and legal imperative to honor mother and father) “‘thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’
Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’
When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'”
Our reading ends here, except that the next bit is important, and we’ll miss it if I don’t add it now.
From there they set out and went to the northern Gentile region of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast. That’s a 40 mile hike through rough terrain, climbing and dropping 4000 feet in elevation a number of times on their way to the coast. In Tyre, Jesus was spotted by a Syrophoenician woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit. This is a great story but I’m not going to tell now because I’m focusing on the travelogue. From Tyre, Jesus and his merry men went another 20 miles north to Sidon, and then in an eastern arch back towards the Sea of Galilee, ending on the southeast side of the lake in the region of the Decapolis – all in Gentile territory.
Of course, Jesus heals along the way, he feeds 4000, then turns around again and goes back 50 miles north to Caesarea Philippi. There is no explanation for all of this hiking activity away from Galilee. Perhaps it’s to shake off the crowds. Perhaps Jesus wanted to see a bit of the world away from home, to see how the other side lived. Perhaps it was to stay out of reach of his opponents in Jerusalem while he teaches the disciples all that they need to know. (That teaching maybe took more time than he had scheduled?) And, this is a three year story told without any time markers, so, perhaps it took over a long time, slowly walking, lots of visiting along the way.
We can’t know any of that, of course. What we do know is that Mark’s travelogue is unique among the gospels and shows us that Jesus was not limiting God’s activity to the chosen people. In fact, he was always expanding the territory, widening the reach. Not only to the unclean, ignorant, and disgraceful among his own people, but to those ‘dogs’ – the derogatory name for Samaritans and Phoenicians.
So we know there is wideness in God’s mercy, amazing grace, peace to soothe our bitter woes, love divine, all other love’s excelling.
And we know that people in this gospel are real people – not stylized people like in the gospel of John – but true to the human condition. There are those who trust and those who doubt and those who oppose – all of which is evidence of the condition of their hearts. And that is Jesus’ problem with the Pharisees and scribes. They have hardened their hearts because Jesus doesn’t meet their expectation and doesn’t fit within the framework of their tradition.
But, how are we supposed to tell the difference between religion and human tradition? I mean, we know that Fastelavns isn’t a means of salvation, but it is, in its own way, a means of grace. Intergenerational, playful, open to anyone who finds their way in on a cold dark night in February. The Lutheran Church is full of traditions – what to say in performing a baptism, what baptism does, who is allowed communion, how Christ is present in the sacraments, the purpose of ordained leadership for the sake of right order, the shape of liturgy, being a creedal church – stating belief in the creeds as an orthodox standard of faith. There are more – hymns to sing on festival days, how acolytes are to approach the altar, when to switch from regular to decaffeinated coffee.
This particular congregation intentionally blurs the lines of many official traditions if they seem to limit access to, or estrange people from, a relationship with God. Traditions are human precepts, humanly devised standards that do keep a certain order, allow a certain standardization of what one can expect to take place or be spoken and performed here. But are any of them standing in the way of, or in the place of Jesus?
Are our personal, social heritage and traditions – like quietude, passivity, Danish tribalism preventing God’s word to open fully in your heart or the heart of others? Does my progressive, often imaginative interpretation of scripture characterize God in ways that invite or limit faith to grow?
These are among the things Jesus was talking about, they just didn’t make his list along with infidelity, greed, debauchery, corruption, hubris, materialism, irresponsibility and cuckoldry. I’m a word nerd – I looked up synonyms for his list.
Jesus’ list is itself a word nerd expansion of the 10 commandments – you shall not kill, steal, lie, covet, slander – these are bad because they are hard on your neighbor and do not demonstrate the love of God.
I occasionally go to continuing ed. or synod sponsored events. Every registration form these days lists about 8 dietary categories to choose from – vegan, vegetarian; gluten, soy, dairy free; allergy to nuts or shellfish; Keto; omnivore. We are very particular about what we put into our bodies. A modern, individualistic form of the purity code. Jesus says God is fine with all of it because it will all end in the sewer.
Are we as particular with what we put into our minds? Video games, books, music, movies, 24 hr news – do these things feed you, nourish a sense of well being or wonder, fill you with a peaceful kindliness toward others? Do they expand your horizons of tolerance and justice and courage? Are they worthy of your mind? In biblical terms, they don’t end in the sewer, but in your heart and in your behavior and in your soul.
It can seem as though we live in a heartless society. Cruelty makes the news daily, courage only occasionally. Perhaps we seem heartless in order to protect our hearts, to keep them from bleeding out at all the grief and horror we witness. Maybe it feels safest to keep your heart closed, if not hardened – but that leads to hardened arteries with plaques of anger, fear, prejudice that can let go at any time and block your heart altogether, or damage the functioning of your whole body in one stroke.
Maybe on those long walks in rough terrain, Jesus was teaching his disciples there is no reason to be afraid of the unholiness of others, of unsavory or dangerous elements of creation, of places, people and situations that may appear godforsaken.
The world Jesus invites us to see has no quarantines, no refugee camps, no decontamination chambers, no border walls. So he eats with tax collectors and sinners, he touches lepers and bleeders, he handles the bodies of dead and diseased, he preaches to pig farmers, Gentiles and heathens. In the story of the Syrophoenician mother, Jesus is surprised by her insightful conversation. If Jesus continued to learn from ‘others’, then so may we. The world is wide when we consider everyone worthwhile. And so our sentence to repeat 5 times a day this week is this:
Open heart, open mind – let the good and God enter the world through me.
“Jesus left [Capernum] and came to his hometown [of Nazareth], and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, “John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.” But others said, “It is Elijah.” And others said, “It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.” But when Herod heard of it, he said, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.”
For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”
There’s a lot going on here. One of the themes that occurs to me in this passage is the importance – and the effects – of recognition. Three connected episodes make up today’s reading, and they each hinge on people’s recognition of Jesus.
In the first vignette, Jesus comes home. We might expect that he will be welcomed as a local hero, praised for putting Nazareth on the map – destination tourism! He’s a popular healer, a charismatic preacher – even a prophet – and now he’s coming home! It could be that they’d run out to greet him with rings for his fingers and bells for his toes – that a fatted calf would be killed for a feast in his honor!
While it is true that his reputation proceeds him, the hometown folks are not impressed – or at least not favorably impressed. They know him, he grew up with their kids. They probably bought a lampstand from Joseph & Sons Carpentry Shop.
“This is Jesus, for heaven’s sake” – they say – “and here is his mom and brothers and sisters – we know them! What the dickens is going on? How can he say these things? (How can he do these things?) Well… we don’t know, but we don’t like it!”
And they don’t believe what they see; instead, they take offense.
Jesus can’t do anything among them because, in their certainty about who he is, they have closed their minds, hardened their hearts, shut their eyes to the work of God in him. This is a familiar theme in Mark – those with eyes who do not see, those with ears yet cannot hear… it’s the soil that’s been trampled down so hard seed can’t take root.
We might recognize a degree of truth in this scenario. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” while “absence makes the heart grow fonder”… the expert is always an hour’s drive away from home; and your spouse’s silly opinion suddenly makes a lot of sense when someone else says it!
The people of Nazareth knew Jesus, so they were’t able to recognize him.
Are we like that? Are we stuck in attitudes or assumptions about people of certain generations or economic class or race or religion or some other pigeon hole? I’ll just say yes, we are.
We, too, know people and therefore don’t allow them to change. Have you never said, “Yeah, well, that’s Murgatroyd for you, she’s always been like that.” Don’t we hold others to beliefs or statements they once made as though there could be no learning or growth, no insight? I’ll hazard a guess that, yes, we do that, too. Especially if they are a public figure like a politician… or a young woman who had a rough start… or a son of the community who comes home to teach in the synagogue and heal. Change seems threatening on some deep level even when we’re not necessarily aware.
Do we allow – or expect – ourselves to change? It seems like a no brainer, but, don’t we say some version of, “That’s just who I am!” as if our character or personality is unalterable, immutable, eternal? Are you who you were 30 years ago? Would you claim that person now that you are older and wiser? The goal of the gospel is to change us, teach us, transform us into siblings of Christ – bringers of God’s love into the world, to help us recognize God even if we think we know better.
In Mark, Jesus becomes who he is in his baptism. He wasn’t breathing flight into clay birds as a child as in the gospel of Thomas, or astounding rabbis with his wisdom and understanding of scripture as a teenager. In this gospel, God speaks to him in his baptism, saying, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” And only after John is arrested does Jesus begin being who we expect him to be. So maybe Nazareth isn’t uniquely hard of heart or blind to the workings of God. Maybe we are wired to fear change if we’re comfortable where we are.
What’s interesting about this reading is that closed minds have the ability to limit the work of God. That’s a lot of power residing in the negative. “Jesus could do no deed of power there,” Mark tells us, “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their lack of belief.” He could still cure them even though they didn’t believe, but his power was thwarted by their certainty that they knew all there was to know about this son of Mary.
It has been somewhat of a comfort to me that God has power to use us and heal us despite our blond moments. (Come on, you’ve had them! ) Everyone is blond now and then – it’s not quite blind, just slow to catch on.
The next part of the reading finds Jesus out in the countryside and villages teaching. He calls the twelve disciples and sends them out, two by two, giving them authority over unclean spirits. He tells them to take no provisions but rather to look for hospitality and welcome as they go – signs of life, receptive soil to the word of God.
“So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them.” Wow.
The disciples did not have this ability before. They were ordinary people. They aren’t known for their healing powers – actually, they aren’t even known for their faith… or for seeing what Jesus is all about even as he is being with them…. So this is perhaps their shining hour in the whole gospel. Maybe Mark paired these events to show us that it wasn’t Jesus’ problem in Nazareth. It wasn’t his failure. He wasn’t having an off day that limited the power of God, but rather it was the people’s inability to see and respond to him that tied his hands.
But Jesus is able to infuse his mostly bumbling disciples with healing capacity and power over demons, to fill them with God’s spirit even as they take to the highways. They were able to do signs and wonders because they were open to being used for God’s activity. They echo Mary’s response – “let it be with me according to your will.” Those open to the message become tools for God’s kingdom. And through them (through you), others are able to recognize godly action, to experience God’s healing.
And so we come to Herod. Herod was the King. He was a Jewish king, supposedly bound by Jewish law. But as a person of royal authority, he was confident in the power of his will, in the power of the sword and prison and political positioning. And, as is often true of kings, Herod thought himself to be above the law.
He imprisoned John the Baptist for being outspoken – proclaiming the lack of moral legitimacy of Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodius. John was imprisoned for raising a public outcry and for holding power accountable to the moral laws of the day.
Herodius is the Cruella de Vil of the gospels. She’s heartless, without conscience, and waiting for her chance. If you watched the halftime dancing at the Super Bowl, maybe you can feel for Herod in his weakness, in his frenzied pleasure and outlandish promise while in close proximity to flipping bangles on whirling hips and spinning sequins and waves of perfumed hair.
But Herod gets caught – and suddenly sober. He is squeezed between the respect and fear he feels for John and the conniving nature of his wife; between his moral integrity – and his fear of losing face if he backs out of his impetuous boast. Perhaps he wasn’t in the best condition to use his cortical, rational brain at that time of the night. Pushed to a precipitous edge, he could think of no better alternative. He could think of no clever way to keep John captive as an intriguing pet holy man, and still live with Herodius. She used Herod’s weakness for evil ends and forced him to order the beheading of John. At stake was Herod’s royal dignity and manliness before his peers. That’s a bad place for a king to be. Herod orders the head of the baptist to brought to his step-daughter on a plate.
Well, what would you do? We’d like to think that we’re better than that, obviously. But, what would you do under pressure – admit you were wrong, put ourself through all of the fallout – or just do it and get it over with and hope you can move on?
Let’s take a less sexy example.
Mitt Romney was the only senator to vote against the party line in the recent Impeachment trial. He said his faith compelled him to vote his conscience. It was a brave statement. True, it had less danger of payback for him than for many. Mitt has credibility, institutional history, and he is not up for re-election for another 4 years. As singular as it was, his career is relatively safe. How many other Republicans – or Democrats – would have voted differently if they had the moral courage to be honest/impartial jurors in spite of what that vote might mean to their re-election plans. Like Herod, they caved in under pressure, taking the easier immediate option of conformity to power rather than the higher-minded risk of their conscience. What would you have done?
Meanwhile, Jesus’ name and activities have made a splash. People are talking. Jesus reminds them of Elijah or Moses or one the prophets of old. Jesus reminds Herod of John whom he has just killed. Actually, what Herod recognizes are signs of the kingdom, the work of God in John and Jesus. In them, Herod catches a glimpse of real power. His power is control over – theirs is power through, power from some deeper source – and the difference scares him.
If we’re honest, I’d say the power of God scares us, too – right? It should. Trusting that God has real power in – over – through our lives is frightening, unsettling. It’s easier to be skeptical and hopeful and carry on with the ways of the world. That is a much more reasonable approach.
Because, what does it mean for us if we open ourselves to be an instrument of God’s peace?
What would it mean to for us to see actual people wearing the image of God, instead of seeing people in general? I probably mean the ones you don’t like very much, don’t respect.
What would it mean for us to see God in all things, to see all things part of God? To take seriously, intentionally, Greta Thunberg’s call to change for the sake of the future? Have you tried a plastic fast for Lent? No purchase of things wrapped or packaged in plastic – it’s difficult. I have tried. We aren’t extravagant people, but we all have our blindsides. There are always things we can’t see, can’t recognize as God’s, and of God’s concern.
The hope I finally take away from the good news of God in Christ, is that it is God’s grace, not my ability to believe, that finally holds me. It is God’s grace – not your will, not your belief, not your openness to God’s will – because, as God knows and Mark keeps showing us, we are all flawed and broken and blind to the things that really matter. We catch a glimpse here and there. We see things that are ‘kinda like’ the kingdom of God that remind us of the love of an almighty God, things that compel us, convict us, and inspire us to clearer vision and broader horizons. It might not sound much like good news, but on days when I feel like a muddled failure and not a pillar of spiritual fervor, I’m really grateful that scripture is full of muddled characters… even the good ones don’t get it, and they – like us – rely body and soul on the grace of a loving, merciful, powerful God.
And they – like us – are not disappointed.
Maybe we should practice 5 times a day, “Let it be with me according to your will.”
This week I wrote out the gospel using the Greek word order. I usually read from my Greek translation book when preparing a sermon because it helps me pick up little things in the language that I miss in a regular English translation. Mark, especially, is better this way because Greek past tense is written with present sense giving it a kind of breathless urgency. You’ll notice all the phrases that begin with the verb form, “having come, having spent, having noticed…” It’s also just fun, because I get to sound like Yoda.
We begin today where we left off last week. Jesus and his friends were on the Gentile side of Lake Galilee and were invited to immediately row back home after freeing a man from a legion of demons at the expense of a herd of pigs.
“And Jesus, having crossed over again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue came, Jairus by name, and, having seen him, he fell down at the feet of Jesus and begged him earnestly saying, “My daughter is at the point of death. Come and put your hand on her that she may be healed and may live.” And he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and were pressing in on him.
And there was a woman, being with a flow of blood twelve years and having suffered much by many physicians, and having spent everything and having benefitted nothing, but rather into a worse condition having come, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd behind, she touched the garment of him. For she was saying, “If I may touch even the garments of him, I will be healed.” And immediately was dried up the fountain of the blood of her; and she knew in her body that she has been cured from the terrible affliction.
And immediately Jesus, having known within himself, from him power had gone out, turned around in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And the disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing against you; and you say, “Who touched me?’ ” But he looked around to see the one having done this.
Now the woman was fearing and trembling and fell down before him and said to him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, the faith of you has healed you; go in peace, and be healed from the affliction of you.” While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not be afraid, only believe.”
And he did not permit anyone to follow after him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the synagogue leader, he saw an uproar, and weeping and loud wailing. And having entered, he said to them, “Why are you distressed and weeping? The child did not die but is sleeping.” And they laughed at him.
But he, having put them all outside, took the father of the child and the mother and those with him, and went in where the child was. And having taken the hand of the child, said to her, “Talitha kum,” which means, “Little girl, to you I say arise!” And immediately arose the little girl and she was walking around for she was twelve years old. And they were amazed with great amazement. And he gave orders to them earnestly that no one should know this, and he said to give her something to eat.”
There are a few observations to make right away. “And having taken the hand of the child, Jesus said “Little girl, to you I say arise!” And immediately arose the little girl and she was walking around for she was twelve years old.” And he told them to give her something to eat.
Jesus has done this before. Back in chapter 1, Peter’s mother-in-law was sick with a fever and Jesus took her by the hand and immediately she arose and began to make them something to eat. The word for “arise” is the resurrection word. We are now halfway through the gospel, and Mark wants us to hear it again, to prime the pump for when God, taking Jesus by the hand, will say, “My son, to you I say arise!” We don’t see that part – especially in Mark. But in Luke and John’s gospel, Jesus does then walk around and gets something to eat. This healing is told now as a prefiguring, a happy warning of what is to come. God can heal every disease, can bring a little girl back from the fresh edge of death, God’s power can prevail over death.
Another thing particular to Mark’s gospel is Jesus’ geographical movement. It is different than in the other gospels. Jesus is continually on the move, and often in a boat going over to the Gentile side and then back across to Galilee. That is significant, Jesus’ intentional crossing over to the other side, and is a major theme of today’s story.
I watched some of the recent impeachment hearings and happened to be listening in the car Friday night during the role call of votes on the articles and amendments. Whichever side you were on, it was predictable. With two exceptions, every senator voted along party lines. It is a sad testimony to the power of ‘sides’, and the consequences and risks of crossing over to the other side. Belief in the material presented by the House, whether or not it is an impeachable act didn’t matter – it was all predetermined by numbers of the two sides. Personal integrity or convictions seemingly had little to do with it; crossing over was too risky.
We fall victim to the same dynamics, the same fear of the ‘other‘ part of the ‘other side’. Almost everyone can identify with the borders beyond which we don’t go. Poverty, race, wealth, religion, privilege, gender, politics – the list could go on. We are tribal by nature and find groupings of ‘our own kind’ within which we associate. We grow accustomed to seeing the boundaries of those other groupings as impermeable. In our minds we assign a hierarchy – those above us, where we would not be welcome or feel that we fit in, and those groups beneath us.
The geographical travelogue in Mark highlights Jesus’ (and therefore God’s) desire to transgress those boundaries, for the boundaries to disappear, for the other to be welcomed or understood, for radical inclusion, “courageous compassion” as Alan Storey, a South African pastor, tells it.
Jesus and his band of brothers has crossed over to ‘their’ side the lake again, landing back in Capernaum. Like mosquitoes that mysteriously know the moment you step out of the house, the crowd swarms around Jesus as he sets foot on the shore. But we can imagine them parting, making space at the hurried approach of a highly respected leader of the synagog. Jairus represents all that is holy and proper and connected and clean according to their Jewish codes and standards. He resides at the opposite end of the pole of social desirability and power from the man Jesus just cleansed from a horde of demons. Yet Jairus’ response is the same as the wild man’s – as soon as he sees Jesus, he runs and falls at his feet and begs Jesus earnestly to heal his daughter. Jesus agrees.
But this story comparing and contrasting two men is suddenly interrupted.
The crowd quickly coalesced around Jesus, jostling him as they make their way to Jairus’ daughter. But unseen, in the midst of the commotion, a woman touches his cloak. Just that – a little tug on Superman’s cape – and he stops and turns around. He knows. And he doesn’t know. In the moment she felt the fabric, she knew within her body, and was, no doubt, pondering this, letting the crowd pass by, when he turned. Now she was terrified. She had no business being there. She could be called out, beaten or worse without being able to explain. Death, blood, and disease make a person unclean and contamination spreads by touch, fouling those who are clean. Purity was fragile, a difficult state to maintain, and the protective codes of behavior and exclusion were well and widely known. She should not have been there. Jesus looks intently at the crowd.
It’s interesting to consider what Jesus didn’t know. He knew power left him, but didn’t know at whose touch, or what that stolen power had accomplished. We see healings of many varieties in Mark’s gospel, but I can’t think of another one that Jesus did unknowingly.
Jairus mets Jesus face-to-face: the woman creeps up from behind through the crowd and takes for herself what she can’t ask for face-to-face. Jairus is a somebody: for twelve years, she has been a nobody. He is someone who walks the streets of Jerusalem head up, nodding to those of his class, admired from those below: she is invisible, has been forced away even from family. He has power and physical presence: she is anemic, isolated, weakened, but not powerless. She ventured out because she was dying in secret. She has been untouched and untouchable for 12 years: Jairus has spent those same 12 years in a household with servants and cooks, enjoying the companionable love of his wife and daughter. These two people share nothing in common. They are on different sides of community life.
But, this day is different. This day, in their need, both are vulnerable, both are drawn to Jesus, compelled to him. Suffering levels the playing field. Desperation undercuts social standing and self-respect and leaves one a beggar at Mercy’s lap.
The direction of these paired stories, then, has to do with the power of Jesus to overcome all that divides us from God, whether it’s in the realm of religion or daily life. This can be a challenge for the Christian religion itself or for any religion. One of the commentaries I read said, “the point, from the beginning, was never that Judaism was bad and Christianity good. The point was and is that religion itself is good only so long as it is an open avenue of approach to God. It becomes counterproductive or even evil when it imposes itself instead as a barrier to keep certain people—often those with less social power—away from God.”
It took courage for Jairus to leave the security of his position and practiced religion and fall at the feet of a scruffy, itinerant teacher. Jesus had touched an unclean woman and so was himself ritually defiled. I wonder if Jairus even thought of that. I imagine him over the edge of grief and fear for his daughter and coming to Jesus for the only help he could think of – “Come heal my daughter! Lay your hand on her that she might live..” And then Jesus allowed himself to be held up by a sickly woman who had simply touched his clothing! No, don’t stop! My daughter, come on, quickly!
But Jesus did stop. He brought this woman back to life, back to personhood, publicly calling her “daughter,” listening to her tell her whole truth. She was already healed from her affliction. It happened before Jesus knew what had happened. But that wasn’t the healing she most needed. She broke the law of segregation and purity by entering the crowd, by coming out, by being public. Her healing was to face down the lie that she was worthless. When someone notices you, pays attention to you, claims you as family, something heals deep down inside of you.
Jairus is waiting – somehow, in some state, we aren’t told. But in needing to wait for Jesus, he had to face down the lie that he was privileged, entitled, superior to this woman. Alan Storey says that is the miracle for Jairus… that he continued to wait and trust. He had those minutes to realize that purity codes will not keep you safe or guarantee health. That is a lesson for us, too. We have purity codes like immigration, class, color, and they can’t keep us safe. In wanting Jesus to lay his hand on his precious daughter – hands defiled by the healing of one from the other side, hands defiled by his daughter’s death, Jairus, too was healed of his narrow view of God’s love.
The gift of restoring a person’s relationship is not inferior to that of restoring life itself. For Mark, the two are parallel miracles. The scope of his inclusion is worth thinking about. If we are tempted, on the one hand, to “use” God’s word in order to safeguard the privileges of one group or another—whites, males, heterosexuals, Christians—we are moving in exactly the opposite direction from Jesus. If, on the other hand, we are tempted to ignore the gospel’s capacity for spiritual renewal and transformation and treat God’s word, instead, as a collection of stories or examples of goodness, then we deprive the good news of much of its power, and deprive ourselves of an openness to change and healing.
Faith will not necessarily make you healthy, but faith may make you well. Trusting God’s grace and loving ways may restore health, it may restore families, it may lead to death – but through faith can come wholeness and peace. To be very honest, I don’t know quite what to make of healing stories and miraculous resuscitations. On one side, I am sadly skeptical, and on the other I simply believe it. But I have no doubt in God’s power to transform and reconcile and bring relationships and people into wholeness. And I have no doubt that it is our common vocation – a mutual ministry of reconciliation, care, kindness, courageous compassion, transcendence.
And in that, I believe there is hope and the healing of many ills.
“Again Jesus began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that, [as the prophet wrote,] “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’ ”
And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?
The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
The opening line of Mark’s gospel says it about as directly as it can: this is the “good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” But when the narrative turns to introduce Jesus and his ministry, we see that the story and its implications aren’t so simple. The first words out of Jesus’ mouth announce that God’s kingdom has now drawn near. He calls his followers (and us) to turn our lives around, to always be re-orienting, re-booting, reconsidering our assumptions and allegiances; to deny the power of Evil and Empire; to live trusting in the nearness and presence of divine love as power. And Jesus teaches this new life through glimpses and anecdotes; in riddles and parables; always obliquely…at a slant. The kingdom of God is like…
I’ve read that there are 83 sayings and parables beginning with some version of, “the kingdom of heaven is like…” recorded in the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. We might get the idea then that the kingdom of God is of some importance for us to understand. And that Jesus is not just giving information about a future hope or an imagined place. Parables aren’t chit-chat. Through them, Jesus brings us into a new relationship with God – and perhaps more importantly – into a new understanding and relationship with each other and with the earthly world…because the kingdom of heaven isn’t like a puffy cloud with those rays beaming down through the openings, or the depth of the stars at midnight, or angels and cherubim…
The kingdom of heaven is like…new wine; it’s like a woman who – losing a coin, sweeps out her entire house until she finds it and then rejoices with her friends – or a shepherd who leaves his flock to go in search of one lost lamb – or a man who has two sons – or a man who opens the door at midnight because his friend won’t stop knocking – or a lamp placed on a lampstand and not under a bushel – or a fig tree producing its fruit in due season – or treasure found buried in a field – or a pearl of great price for which everything else will be gladly sold – or beautiful lilies of the field, or a rich fool, or those wise and silly bridesmaids, or a king going to war, or a builder calculating the costs, or the fate of a house built on sand versus one built on stone, or yeast added to bread dough, or a great wedding feast where all the outsiders are brought in because the invited guests came up with excuses, or good seed scattered equally on good soil and rocks and the path, seed that grows in secret, no one knows quite how – or where it will come up – or when the harvest will come – or how much it will yield – or how much of the field will be taken over by wild mustard – whose seed is so tiny it can hardly be perceived yet grows into shrubs giving rest to the birds. The kingdom of heaven is like that …. something we know, but not quite.
If, after all of these descriptors, you still can’t quite get the kingdom of heaven into focus… that is as it should be.
Mark doesn’t record all of those parables, but he does give us the reason Jesus tells them – so that those who hear will not understand, and those who see will not perceive.
That makes me feel a little bit better for not having a clue about the one that tells us to “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
This is Jesus? I would welcome your insight.
But whatever it means, the confusion about parables told so we don’t understand is not God being mean, (I don’t think) or highly selective, or judging those without understanding who make fools of themselves. I think it’s because, in Mark’s gospel, the inability to get a handle on the kingdom of heaven is part of the good news.
In our lives – and for the sake of the world – our inability to understand the kingdom of God is an essential feature of the good news.
Why? Because it means the kingdom of God, the way and will of God, the reign and rule, expectation and expression, home and heart of God is a mystery… it is here and nowhere, in and of the world and beyond the world, present in you and your neighbor, yet unseen, illogical, undiscoverable, incomplete, still becoming. Always now and yet to be.
Why the secretiveness? I don’t know. But maybe because not knowing keeps people of faith pondering, seeking, leaning forward into a future they cannot control or even imagine. It keeps us considering the merits of finding God present in our neighbor… in our enemy, in the land our grandchildren will inherit, in the work of our hands, in the stranger at our door.
In Hebrew scripture, Moses’ righteousness comes primarily from two events – saying, “Okay” and packing up all his things and leaving home with no plan of his own in mind when God said, “Go from your father’s home to a land that I will show you,” and the second event – when he prepared a fine feast for three sojourners who showed up at his tent flap simply asking for water and bread. He served a feast for strangers, and in so doing, unknowingly, he served the angels of God.
The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways – and causes us to open the door and let in the light. That’s the good news for the world. Actually, it may be the only hope for the world – to think that at any moment it might be God.
Mark’s gospel is called the messianic secret because secrecy, the mystery of God at any moment, is a big theme. God is in Jesus, hidden and revealed, denied, rejected, transformed, given to to all things – all of creation. It’s not so much a secret or even a mystery in the way we think of mysteries as something to be figured out and solved. The messianic secret is humility in knowing that we aren’t God and can’t begin to understand God’s ways apart from our own will.
The greatest mystery might be that God can be in us, in you – that this is holiness, this life is sacred space – if we allow it to be for us. That we have some mysterious, unknown-to-us part in being the kingdom of God, in serving proverbial angels while unaware of their identity. It is complex, this kingdom of heaven – not complicated like a tax form, but complex like the flavors, hints, earthiness and aromas written on the label of a bottle of wine.
If you want to know something definitive about the kingdom of heaven, then look to Jesus and notice whom he defended and whom he befriended. Think about our predisposed ideas and assumptions of people and church and tradition – and then consider who is being excluded or denied by those assumptions.
There is no easy take-home message for us in these parables. Some of the sayings baffle me. Still, they ask that we engage our imaginations and follow the possibilities and incongruities between two worlds – one, where everything is planned, linear, logical, and discoverable, and one filled with mysteries and surprises. The kingdom of God is this world into which a suffering, sovereign God beckons you, and invites you to look with new eyes.