How will they hear?

Pentecost 6

Mark 6:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God whose word informs and enlightens our faith. Amen.


In his charge to Synod, the Archbishop spoke with passion about the Bible – the contradictions contained within it and the importance of studying it. ( The reason that he spoke so strongly is that the Natural Church Development tool that is being used by many of the Parishes in the Diocese has revealed that one of the weaknesses in our Parish life is passionate spirituality – our reading and understanding of the Bible. We all know what we believe and some of us are able to articulate it to others, but when it comes to explaining the central texts of our faith we are on less certain ground.

There are at least two barriers to becoming more familiar with the Bible. One is that academic study of the Bible can be quite challenging, if not confronting. For many, it is a discipline that is demanding and difficult. A second barrier is that of time – in particular the lack of it. In past centuries, the services of Morning and Evening Prayer were designed to provide an opportunity for the Bible to be explained and expounded. Longer passages of the Bible were read during these services and it was expected that the sermon would be up to half an hour in length. In a less pressured world, in which there were fewer forms of entertainment, there was more leisure to spend time in church. Many people attended both Morning and Evening Prayer or Communion and Evening Prayer which provided a larger diet of Bible reading than is possible in the Eucharist alone. Longer readings and longer sermons on Sunday mornings might solve the problem, but would destroy the balance of Word and Sacrament which is central to the Eucharist and perhaps lead to fewer people attending church.

Not only do we have less time to spend expounding the Bible, it is also true that not all members of the clergy have had the confidence or courage to share the latest scholarship with their congregations. What this means is that few lay people have been given the opportunity to keep up with the research of the last 100 years and many are shocked and surprised when informed that scholars have made discoveries that change the way in which familiar stories have been previously taught and understood.

As you know, the Bible study group in this Parish has been studying the gospel of Luke using a commentary written by Brendan Byrne. Over the course of the study, I have become acutely aware of how complex much of Jesus’ teaching is and how difficult it is to understand unless one has the tools with which to interpret it. I think for example of the story of the dishonest steward who is praised by Jesus for acting in a way which will secure his future. At first glance it appears that Jesus is saying that God approves of dishonesty! Then there is the story of the widow who wears down the unjust judge through her persistence. Does this mean that God is like the unjust judge and will not act unless we wear him down with a constant repetition of our requests?

There is a lot more to the New Testament than the wonderful stories and adventures that we learn at Sunday School. Our understanding of our faith is enhanced and our appreciation of our texts is enriched if we take some time to grapple with and to try to understand what the more difficult passages really mean. For example, the story of the dishonest steward is, of course, not a story about God’s approving dishonesty but rather it is Jesus’ challenge to all of us that we make sure that we live our lives in such a way that we will be welcomed into heaven – that, like the dishonest steward, we make provision for our future salvation. The story of the widow and the judge is not about our wearing God down through endless prayer. Rather a reminder that God is not like the unjust judge and will hear our prayer. This means we should not allow ourselves to feel disheartened when times are difficult, but that we should remain confident that God will hear us. In both stories, Jesus is using unsavoury characters to shock us into paying attention to what he is saying.

During my week away I was able to read a book written by a friend of ours – Paula Gooder . In it she explores a wide variety of methods that are used by scholars to study the New Testament. What makes this book easy to read is that it is aimed at those who are new to biblical studies. Not only is each explanation brief but each is followed by an example of how the particular technique is used to interpret a passage of the bible. This means is that the reader not only learns all kinds of interesting things about the New Testament, but is also able to apply what they have learnt.

Today’s gospel consists of two discrete stories both of which contain puzzles for the modern reader. In the first section, Jesus is welcomed by the people of his hometown, but shortly afterwards they are scandalized by him. Why their change in attitude? Secondly, Jesus is identified as the son of Mary. This is quite unusual in first century Palestine – a person would usually be identified by their father’s name. The first puzzle is solved if we understand that the people attribute Jesus’ ability to work miracles not to God, but to some other – possibly demonic-force and so they treat him with suspicion. The second puzzle – that of his name may be a derogatory inference to the fact that his father is unknown. Put together these two explanations help us to make sense of why Jesus was rejected by his hometown.

The second story in today’s gospel relates the sending out of the twelve disciples. In itself, the account is reasonably straightforward unless we are familiar with the ways in which Matthew and Luke record the same account. Not only is Mark’s account briefer, but Matthew and Luke change at least three significant details. Whereas Mark’s Jesus sends the disciples two by two, Matthew and Luke send them out all together, Mark says the disciples may take a staff, Matthew and Luke expressly forbid the taking of a staff and finally, Matthew and Luke enlarge the disciple’s task by adding the healing of the sick to Jesus’ command to cast out unclean spirits. Among other things, these differences have led scholars to believe that Mark was written first and that Luke and Matthew used Mark to write their accounts but added to it details that were known to them.

Our scriptures provide us with an exciting and fascinating glimpse into the life and teaching of our Saviour, they give us insights as to how we should live as followers of Christ and they open doors into the way that Jesus was seen and understood by his contemporaries and those who followed after. Passages that at first seem difficult to understand are often easily explained and others that seem harsh and uncompromising are sometimes a means to shock us into action.How will we know what they mean if we don’t make time to read and understand them? We live in a world that is increasingly divorced from the church and from the teachings of Jesus.

If we don’t know and tell our story who will?


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