Thursday, 15 October 2009

Mark 10 moral issues, riches and power

Many of the ethical issues that Jesus and his followers faced are no longer live issues: some of the issues the church faces today are not adequately dealt with in scripture. But it is clear that Jesus generally took a broad approach to ethics rather than a legalistic one. He tends towards compassion for the weak and is scathing towards those who exploit the law to gain advantage from it. Thus cleanliness rules which make it even more difficult for the hungry to eat, which make it easier for the rich farmers with good facilities to sell their produce and impossible for the poor to take their goods to market, are bad (whatever the scriptures may or may not say); and glosses on the law which enable people to wriggle out of responsibility to care for their elderly parents by making apparently generous donations to temple or synagogue are corrupt.

It appears that if a son made over to God that part of his possessions with which he would normally be expected to support his parents then he would be exempt from keeping them. However, the gift to God seems sometimes to have been a technicality, the son still receiving income from the property thus ensuring that scribes (who may have received a fee for the service) and sons did well out of it - but poor parents suffered. In some cases the son may have wished to be exonerated from the vow (Korban) but the scribes refused exemption (possibly for the benefit of the temple fund) and so they prevented him from making provision for his parents.

Later in the gospel Jesus similarly shows support both for children and for women: again siding with the weak against the strong. The Mosaic divorce law as practised was particularly hard on women. They had no right to divorce or even leave their husbands but the husband could divorce his wife for all kinds of reason: and whereas any affair the wife might have with another man was viewed as adultery, men could only commit adultery against another man by having an affair with his wife. An affair with a widow or an unmarried woman did not count as adultery. Moreover a woman whose husband had divorced her was left discarded, defenceless and impoverished; in a worse position socially even than widows.

Jesus is not prepared to enter into arcane disputes about what constitutes a serious enough reason for divorce. No excuse will ever be adequate to justify breaking apart those whom God has made one flesh. He recognises, however, that the law instituted by Moses was designed to make provision for human weakness; sometimes marriages will break down; when these breakdowns occur it is painful for all concerned and such breakdowns should never therefore be brought about on mere pretexts. Nor can they ever be justified by pulling Moses and divine law into the situation. God’s law is clear: marriage is intended to be for life and indissoluble. However when breakdowns occur, as they will from time to time, he asserts that women have the same rights as men; he maintains, despite the Jewish understanding of his times, that, when men have affairs with other women or divorce their wives to marry another, they commit adultery against their wives. He recognises that women can divorce their husbands - though in so doing they are committing adultery just as their husbands do if they divorce their wives. In other words if men accept the validity of divorce then that validity applies equally to women. In our culture Jesus’s teaching can seem unbending and harsh: but in a culture where men could treat their wives casually and claim to be keeping the law, his teaching safeguarded women and impressed upon both men and women the sacred nature of a marriage covenant. His firm stand on the sanctity of marriage primarily protected women and children: and his apparent equating of the rights of wives to obtain a divorce with those of their husbands protected them against abuse from their husbands.

In his teaching on children, Jesus similarly raises their status. When parents bring children to Jesus for him to bless them the disciples brush them aside. They have no time for such trivialities. Perhaps they were angry at the lingering superstition and folk religion that surrounded Jesus’s ministry: But Jesus has already placed a child at the very heart of his ministry. It has been pointed out that it later became traditional for parents to take their children to the rabbi for a blessing on the Day of Atonement. Throughout his gospel Mark seems only to deal with children as victims. Here once again they appear as victims of the disciples discrimination against them. Jesus, though, turns everything on its head: it is to these children that the kingdom of God belongs. The next two passages make clear that it is not the rich or those with ambitions to sit at the left and right hands of Jesus who will inherit the kingdom: rather it is those who have nothing. Here the children stand as examples of all little ones. And all people who would enter the kingdom must receive it with the faith of such little ones: those who are dependent and vulnerable; those who allow themselves to be lifted and loved; those obedient to the Father; those, hopefully, not yet vitiated with the power games and desire for status of the adult world. On that simple faith the atonement of the world might depend.

The next story provides the contrast that makes the meaning of the incident with the children stand out in sharp relief. A man comes up to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Once he has satisfied Jesus that he has kept all the commandments since his youth Jesus tells him to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. The man is unable to do this and goes away sorrowful. In explaining his treatment of the man to his disciples Jesus points out to his disciples how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It is not simply riches that prevent people from entering the kingdom, a whole set of values has to be turned on its head. The prevailing attitude in Jewish theology was that wealth was a sign of God’s favour. Yet this man seems not to have been totally satisfied with this complacent doctrine otherwise he would not have come to Jesus in the first place unless it was purely for reassurance. Those who argue that Jesus, in commanding the man to dispose of his possessions and help the poor was being specific only to this particular case have to wrestle with Jesus’s own explanation to the disciples afterwards. It is apposite to quote RH Grundy commenting on the parallel passage in Matthew: “That Jesus did not command all his followers to sell all their possessions gives comfort only to the kind of people to whom he would issue that command”. For children who own no property, who are totally dependent on their parents for everything they have, entry into the kingdom is easy: for the rich it is even more difficult than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, despite the fact that the man whose sad story gives rise to the teaching is the only one in Mark’s gospel who is marked out as a man Jesus loved.

Indeed this story is typical of many in the gospels in which everything is stacked up to reach a particular conclusion only to arrive at the opposite. There is no mention of the man being rich at the beginning of the story. He kneels before Jesus much as the leper had done. Uniquely in the gospel he identifies Jesus as “good”. He had the right priority for his own life - the desire for a life of eternal worth. He has kept the commandments. And Jesus looked at him with love. Then came the bombshell. As a man of property, he ends up going away devastated.

Ched Myers draws our attention to a number of interesting features within this story. It may well be that the man is trying to flatter Jesus and that explains Jesus’s sharp reply. He obviously not only thought Jesus was good but wanted to be told he was good in return. He had kept the commandments since his youth and wished for commendation. In Jewish tradition only Aaron and Moses had been credited with keeping the whole law. Jesus gives none. It is likely that the long, compassionate look of love Jesus gave him is meant to be in contrast with the man’s keeping of the law. Jesus’s love is people this man’s love is wealth. To begin with Jesus speaks to him as he did to the leper: “get up and go”. It is as if this man needs to be healed in the same way as the leper was. The last word to him, “come, follow me”, is the same call to discipleship as that offered to fisherman at the beginning of the gospel. It is the second and third orders that are exceptional: to sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor and so exchange treasure on earth for treasure in heaven. This the only story in Mark’s gospel of discipleship rejection.

For the disciples with their traditional theology the inability of rich people (those patently enjoying God’s blessing) to enter the kingdom makes entry for anyone impossible. However, the lesson of the story of the sower and the seed still stands true. Despite all negative appearances the kingdom will come. And those prepared to let go of all their loves for the love of the kingdom will see their losses amply repaid in blessings of greater value, though those blessings may also come with persecution. For this turning on its head of all materialist life-styles cannot be achieved painlessly. Nevertheless the disciples are not to despair for what looks impossible in human terms is not impossible to God.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Mark 5 21- 43 dealing with daughters

One device that Mark uses frequently in his gospel is to interrupt one story with another: thus each story shines light on the other. Back in Galilee, one of the leaders of the synagogue is anxious about his daughter who is dying. He asks Jesus to heal her but the journey to the house is made difficult by the crowds pressing in on Jesus and hampering his progress. Meanwhile hidden in the crowds is a woman who has been haemorrhaging for twelve years. By the strict purity laws of the day she should not have been in direct contact with people, but she pushes through and touches Jesus’s coat, believing that even that small touch will heal her. Immediately she experiences healing. Jesus, aware that power has gone out of him, stopped and asked who touched him. The woman steps forward, expecting a rebuke, but nevertheless admitting her guilt. Jesus, far from admonishing her, addresses her personally: "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." While Jesus is still speaking, messengers come from Jairus’s house; they say,"Your daughter is dead”. That juxtaposition of the word daughter is as powerful as anything in the gospel.

For many people the life of the unclean woman in the crowd with the 12 year haemorrhage, which had been persistently treated by doctors to no avail, was not worth the same as that of the twelve year old daughter of a leader of the synagogue. Yet by the use of the word daughter Jesus immediately and unequivocally puts a value on that woman as she relates to him as directly equivalent to that of the little girl as she relates to her father. Moreover, Jesus could have allowed the woman to have slipped away into the crowd, healed but unnoticed. By drawing attention to her, by singling her out, by making her step forward and by addressing her so publicly, Jesus makes plain to all around, even to Jairus, that he has been touched by a woman who is unclean. The received wisdom was and always has been that clean is made dirty when it touches something contaminated.
“As dirtie hands foule all they touch,
and those things most which are most pure and fine” (George Herbert)
Here Jesus breaks the eternal rule: instead of him being contaminated he feels power flow out of him, the clean one, to purify the unclean. The damage of the fall has been thrown into reverse.

A challenge has now been thrown down to Jairus. If he wants his daughter be restored to life he has to accept Jesus into his home whether clean or not. His faith overcomes his misgivings. Jesus then clears the crowd, including all but three of his disciples and makes his way to Jairus’s house; at the house mourning rituals are already in motion. Again Jesus clears the house of all but the immediate family: this healing is to be an intimate private affair, possibly out of sensitivity to the child. Gently calling her to her feet, Jesus raises her to life and tells them to give her something to eat, and to respect the private way in which she had been raised.

At this point a number of parallels between the two stories become apparent. First of all the twelve years haemorrhaging of the woman is mirrored by the twelve years of the little girl’s age. Possibly the repeated number twelve is intended to be symbolic of the twelve tribes and the twelve disciples, whose faith seems to have been haemorrhaging away. Possibly the mention of the girl’s age in the context of the twelve years’ haemorrhage reminds us that she, too, was about to begin to menstruate, or perhaps is simply there to indicate the appalling suffering of the woman whose needs had been ignored, indeed whose condition had been exploited by unscrupulous doctors, for the whole lifetime of Jairus’s precious daughter.

The ability of an articulate leader of the local community to come and plead with Jesus for healing on behalf oh his daughter is contrasted poignantly with the woman with no-one to plead her case, who has to approach surreptitiously, hiding herself in the crowd and illegally touch him for healing. Only then, when already clean was she able to come out of the crowd and ask formally in the way Jairus had done, though, even then, only in fear and trembling. In the end it was not the nature of the approach, nor the issue of social class or age, gender or status that was significant: only faith.

The professional mourners who made a living out of death are treated scathingly by the story teller. They have the temerity to laugh at Jesus, the Lord of life. Their mocking prepares the way for the mockery of the Golgotha crowds just as surely as the amazement of the family prepares us for the similar amazement of the women as they fled from the open tomb at the very end of the gospel.

Monday, 15 June 2009

crossing to the other side Mark 4 35-41

It is generally thought that Mark’s gospel was written between 65 & 70 C.E., probably either in Rome or in the north of Palestine. This was a time of crisis for both Christians and Jews both in Rome and in Israel. In Rome Nero’s persecutions were in full swing until he died in 68; during his reign the two great leaders of the church, Peter and Paul, were both martyred. Utter chaos prevailed from 68-69 with 4 emperors taking office in that year. The situation in Palestine was even more fractured: the Jewish revolt was being bloodily put down: in 70, Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple plundered and burnt under the orders of Titus, and eventually the religious and political fabric of the Jewish nation was to be totally dismembered. Whichever provenance we choose for Mark’s gospel, the background against which it was written was stormy and dangerous, particularly for Jews and Jewish sub-sects like the Christian church. At the same time we know from Paul’s letters that the church was rapidly reaching out from its Jewish roots into Gentile communities. This trans-cultural movement in itself caused pain and soul-searching within the more conservative Jewish-Christian groups; this pain could only have been exacerbated by the persecutions in Rome and war in Palestine.

In the early chapters of Mark’s gospel Jesus frequently withdraws to the lake or the hills for prayer, for respite, for thinking-space, or even to coach his team in discipleship. Right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus establishes a rhythm of frenetic activity and withdrawal. From time to time the order is given to cross to the “other side” of the lake for mission. The gospel stories of journeys to the other side are fraught with danger, difficulty, feelings of alienation and the seeming absence of God: the stories are of headwinds, rough seas, storms and sinking boats. When Jesus is in the boat he seems ineptly unaware and unconcerned: sometimes he is not even in the boat at all.

On the first occasion a huge storm descended upon them in the night: even the experienced fishermen thought the end had come, but Jesus was asleep in the back of the boat. It is not difficult to imagine the first hearers of this gospel listening knowingly to this story. Here they were seeking to take the word of life to other side and yet whenever they did so they encountered trouble: persecutions in Rome and hostility at home. Major figures of the church had been killed including both the radical Paul - the apostle to the Gentiles and the more conservative Peter, with whom Paul had had stand-up rows about circumcision and gentile dinner parties. This going to the other side was indeed a dangerous and lonely business.

The early church had been given courage by the assurance that Jesus would return in triumph. Indeed Jesus’s promise is recorded in the gospel: And he said to them, "Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power." Yet here these leading figures were tasting appalling death while Jesus seemed to be either asleep, or worse, absent. The outcome of the story, however, was that Jesus silenced the storm and then rounded on the disciples for their lack of faith. They then, in their turn, are more amazed than ever at the authority of the man they are following.

On another occasion they found themselves rowing into a headwind that was so strong that they feared they would die of exhaustion before they reached the shore. This time Jesus was not in the boat; he had sent them on ahead while he went into the hills to pray. Then he came to them walking across the water; the result was the same. The wind dropped and they reached their destination safely.

Journeys to the other side are implicit in the work of the kingdom. Indeed there can be no kingdom without them. Invariably they are going to be hard. In the time of the gospels it meant engaging with the Gentile population on the other side of the lake. In our day they may mean crossing equally deep cultural divides: engaging with youth culture, the homeless, those living in tower blocks and neglected housing estates, people of different colour, different religion, crossing into the world of commerce or industry, or entering into politics. While it may seem on the whole easier to keep to what we know, to be settled within the small circle of our own fellowship, the call is always going to be to take the risk and go to the other side whatever that might mean to us in our situation. Obeying it will undoubtedly lead to difficulty, mistakes, the feeling that we are up against it, sometimes even the sense of the absence of God. It will frequently seem that the hostile elements have the advantage over us. Yet if we are called to do this work then it will not fail. Lack of faith is a greater enemy than the forces ranged against us: for lack of faith may cause us to sink untraced into the sea, though even then, despite appearances, the Lord is close by to save.

In understanding the power of these stories it is helpful to know something of the immense fear and respect Jews had for the sea. They left love of the sea to their neighbours; in earlier times, the Philistines, more recently the Phoenicians and Greeks. They took delight in a God who had closed the sea in behind fixed boundaries. The sea was the unstable and untameable domain of Leviathan; a place of storms and unpredictability. Sometimes that capriciousness worked in their favour as when the waters of the Red Sea came tumbling back and engulfed the pursuing Egyptians. But a huge bronze representation of the sea was kept in the temple as a sign that even those things over which man had no control lay within the reach of God. Job cries out, “Am I like the sea that you have to set a guard over me?” When prophets like Isaiah wanted to proclaim the cosmic breadth of God’s salvation it was to extend it to coast-lands and islands. And here was Jesus able to sleep in the height of a storm at sea, while
They mounted up to heaven, they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their calamity;
they reeled and staggered like drunkards,
and were at their wits' end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he brought them out from their distress;
he made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

On another occasion, even more powerfully, he was able to stride across its unstable waters with all the security and control of one walking up a country path. The Jesus who was at peace in a wilderness of wild beasts, is equally at peace in the midst of a stormy sea. Clearly there were not any no go areas for him. It seems likely that it was to point up such theological points as these that Mark referred not to the Lake of Galilee, its usual title, but the Sea.

These stories of crossing to the other side, however, show the disciples in a far less favourable light. Jesus had failed to find faith in the religious establishment and had only just chosen this group to be a new symbolic Israel through whom he could work. He had begun to instruct them in the secrets of the kingdom and now put them to their first test. How would they manage without him? They had panicked and shown themselves to be no more full of faith than his own family: they had rounded on him, accused him of not caring, lacking compassion and being lazy. Above all they demonstrated that they were ultimately just as prone to despair, to give up, to let the sea of evil overwhelm them as the religious establishment had been. This failure at the first test was sadly to be replicated several more times before those shocking last hours when all forsook Jesus and fled, the last of them disappearing naked into the night losing his last vestige of respectability and dignity in the melee of the Jerusalem streets on the night when he was betrayed.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

mustard seed Mark 4 31,

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed........

Jesus has much to say about seeds. They are to be scattered freely, even wastefully, not held on to grimly; they are to be allowed to germinate in their own time; they do their work most effectively when they are hidden in the dark fertile soil rather than exposed to scrutiny. Though small, insignificant and apparently shrivelled and dead they carry within themselves latent energy that, in the right conditions, brings forth a miraculous harvest. They are quite capable of producing a harvest even when enemy forces attempt to displace them. They are also reliable and true to type: if wheat is sown wheat is reaped: if weeds are sown then only weeds grow.

With seed size does not matter: authenticity is more important. So the kingdom of God is not about making a big impression. The world has seen its empires come and go: they are lampooned in the prophecies of Daniel (4. 20ff) and Ezekiel (17. 24). They have dominated the world like cedars but the kingdom of God is not like that: its energy is concealed in the humble mustard seed of faith. It will displace the ostentatious mountains of empire and manipulative religion (Matthew 17. 20): and will cast the luxuriant mulberry with its blood-red fruit into the sea of oblivion. (Luke 17. 6)

The mustard seed, when planted, becomes a shrub capable of providing shelter even to birds, which, in the parable of the sower, are the enemies of the seed. But, of course, although the birds of the air swoop down and eat the seed, in turn they spread the seeds through their droppings. The kingdom of God provides shelter for all kinds of people and projects. There are times when some of these even seem hostile - devouring faith. But in the work of the kingdom even the enemies of good turn out to be the allies of the gospel: like the birds nesting alarmingly in the shadows of its branches and pecking away at the seeds even while the bush is still in flower, they become inadvertent spreaders of the seed, providing new growth points in unlikely locations.

In mission we are to be openhanded. Sometimes we feel embarrassed that the projects we can see with the eye of faith, look insignificant in seed and unspectacular in fulfilment. Like the mustard plant. Often the growth of the plants is slow and unspectacular. Sometimes even when they flourish they bring with them alarming side effects which disappoint us. But God sees more than we can imagine: he prizes that which we often disdain. The mustard plant in his eyes is more important than the cedar. He puts his trust in our minuscule faith. To fulfil his dream he hands his kingdom over to us like seed; not for us to cling to and keep within our tight fists, but for us to sow, in promising and unpromising locations.

Through faithfulness, integrity, openhandedness and patience the kingdom of heaven comes with simple grace and humble maturity, not to dominate or to overpower but to provide shelter and peace for all even its enemies. He has entrusted the kingdom to us. Dare we let him down?

Monday, 9 February 2009

Mark 1 40-45 touching a leper

There were times when Jesus, himself, cried out in anguished despair at the state of the world he had come into. The sheer weight of it appalled him and angered him. In the next healing story we find Jesus confronted by a man suffering from a virulent skin disease which alienated him from society. In this meeting we read that Jesus was angry and as he sent him away he was ‘snorting with indignation’. When a man came to him with an epileptic child Jesus was so outraged at the incapability of either the ‘teachers of the law’ or his own disciples to do anything about it that he launched out “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you?” In some ways the boy with the demon that makes him both deaf and speechless is symbolic of the religious world to which Jesus came. The disciples ask him how he cast out this demon. Jesus replies: "This kind can come out only through prayer." The religious establishment seems both so complacently accepting and at the same time so utterly despairing that it has come to accept the world for what it is and has either totally lost all hope of a Kingdom of God or pushed it so far into the future that it is distant and irrelevant. Thus the religious establishment - both disciples and scribes alike - have become the means by which the world continues to suffer without any sign of justice because they have ceased to be the channels of God‘s grace and love and the means of his compassion. Similarly, in the story of the man with the skin disease, the way the Torah (law) was interpreted by the priests compelling a man to live as a leper an outcast within a chosen people, with no hope of rehabilitation, left Jesus snorting with rage. The man clearly had already been to the priest for a declaration that he was clean for Jesus sent him back. Jesus trumped the authority of the priest by touching the man, declaring him clean and sent him back to make the sacrifices only a clean man could make, thus ‘witnessing against the system’. But the failure of the man to comply with the law, of course, and instead tell the whole town that Jesus had touched him, marked Jesus out as potentially unclean too. Hence his need to retreat from that area.

Monday, 26 January 2009

the man of authority Mark 1 21-28

It is the Sabbath. Jesus goes into the synagogue and begins teaching. His words are compelling: there is an authority none of them have ever encountered before. It immediately arouses opposition: a man cries out, “Why have you come here to mess with us?” Here in the cosy, contented world of the religious clique, cushioned in their traditional cult, glossing their scriptures, and easing their ills with properly turned prayers, the man from the wilderness seems to speak from a deeper well of wisdom and a more authentic spirituality threatening their position as religious leaders in the community. “Have you come to destroy us?” The voice is clearly one Jesus had identified in wilderness as belonging to the great antagonist who opposes everything God and his kingdom stand for. And here it speaks out, not in some obviously evil, diabolic form but in an angry elder of the synagogue, who, in his outrage, recognises in the authority of Jesus, a prophet, a Holy One of God, who will disturb the already fragile, delicately balanced peace in Galilee on which he and his friends depend for their continuing power and prosperity. Jesus with awesome clarity calls the demon for who he is and drives him out. A scribe is exposed as an enemy of God. Battle is joined.