Archive for the ‘Mark’s gospel’ Category

Temporary happiness or eternal joy?

January 6, 2018

Baptism of Jesus – 2018

Mark 1:4-11

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who asks us to place our trust in God and to know our true worth. Amen.

There is a great gulf between what we are being promised by the commercial world and what we actually receive. One example is the advertisements for L’Oreal products in which a beautiful and rich woman encourages other women to buy their products because “we are worth it”. I understand that the advertising company is challenging a view held by many women that they shouldn’t put themselves first. The question is – does spending more on beauty products really improve a person’s feelings of self-worth. Or perhaps more important, does the use of beauty products make a person – woman or man – more worthwhile than they were before they used the product?

Another example is an advertisement I saw last week for a (supposedly) impressive four-wheel drive. Apparently, if you own this car you can get away with doing just about anything. In the advertisement the mother of young adult daughters attends a rock concert with them and causes them great mortification by crowd-surfing. The by-line is: “if you have nothing to lose you can do anything.” The connection between owning the car and having nothing to lose escapes me. Presumably, other people will be so impressed by what you drive that they will not think any the less of you if you do something that is immature, crazy or just fun. At the same time, the advertisement suggests, if you own this car you will free to do whatever you like and will never be embarrassed. Both advertisements have sensed – presumably correctly – that most people want to feel good about themselves. People want to know that they have value and credibility in the eyes of others. But does owning a better car, a more powerful car, a more prestigious car really help a person overcome feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt? If underlying feelings of failure and powerlessness are not addressed, no car, not matter how powerful will fill the void.

Advertisements, knowing our insecurities, focus on externals – the image that we can create if we use or buy their product. They suggest that simply by purchasing or applying their product that we can change our state of mind – become more confident, be more respected, have more authority or generally feel better about ourselves.

In the commercial world there is no place for inner strength, inner beauty or the self-confidence that comes from being at peace with yourself. Yet we all know that our identity has nothing to do with externals. Who we are is not defined by what is on the surface – how we look or what we own – but by our character, our relationships with others and by our inner strengths and resources.

What set Jesus apart – as we will see over and over again – was that Jesus did not feel a need to prove himself. He didn’t need external signs of power to make people sit up and take notice of him; he didn’t need to be richer or faster than everyone else to know his true value and worth. He didn’t need to set himself apart from his contemporaries to give the impression that he was better than them. Jesus appears to have had an inner confidence in his abilities and his sense of his own worth such that he did not need to be bolstered by what he owned or by what other people thought. Jesus’ belief in his own self-worth meant that he didn’t to seek affirmation or validation by jumping off cliffs or turning stones into bread. It was Jesus’ self-confidence and inner strength that allowed him to ignore the criticisms of the authorities of his day – not the fact that he owned the latest chariot. It was Jesus’ compassion and understanding that drew the crowds to him – not the fact that he was wearing designer clothes. It was Jesus’ personal resilience and inner resources that enabled him to make the journey to the cross – not the way in which his beard was trimmed. Jesus didn’t need any external prop to make him feel strong and invincible.

It was because Jesus knew who he was and where he was going that he felt free to seek John’s baptism of repentance. Having nothing to prove and nothing hide, Jesus didn’t have to feel self-conscious or embarrassed when he lined up with everyone else to repent. Jesus was happy in his now body and comfortably with his humanity. Another person might have been too proud or too independent to submit to such a ritual, but not so Jesus whose humility came from a sense of self that was sufficiently strong to ignore the games of power and outward appearance and to resist the social pressure to conform to the expectations of others.

The commercial world offers us products that promise to make us feel stronger, better, brighter, richer, more attractive or in some way better than our neighbour. The gospel gives us assurances of inner peace, joy and security, assurances of our own worth and our worth in God’s eyes – riches beyond our wildest desires. The gospel remind us that we are all of equal value before God. If we choose to buy into the values of the world in which case we will never feel that we have enough. If we choose the values of the kingdom we will have all that we need and more. The choice is ours – temporary fixes or lasting change, external signs of worth or inner certainty, temporary happiness or eternal joy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Who are you??

December 16, 2017

Advent 3 – 2017

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who cannot and will not be contained on constrained by our limited understanding. Amen.

 

Renae [1] and I have had an interesting week. I have been introducing her to people whom I visit. Among other things we discovered that not everyone is clear about the role of a curate or a Deacon. For example, one person asked Renae if she was going to be ordained, and another, despite our protestations to the contrary, continued to believe that Renae was my daughter. At one point this person commented how much Renae looked like me; at which point I realised that it was foolish to argue any longer!

Two of today’s readings are about identity – the identity of the prophetic voice in Isaiah and the identity of John the Witness. In relation to John the Witness, those who came to ask who he was, already had made up some guesses as to who he was. If those whom Rosemary and I visited were not troubled by dementia, a conversation between Rosemary and someone who knows a little about her might go like this:

Your maiden name is Solomon. That’s an unusual name, are you related to Peter Solomon? (No, I’m not.)

Solomon is a Jewish sounding name – do you have a Jewish ancestry? (No not at all!)

I guess that if you are a Deacon that you are expecting to become a priest. (Comment)

(If we already know some details about Renae – that she is a woman, a wife and a mother, that she has a Bachelor degrees in Arts and Theology, we might use our preconceptions and stereotypes about these roles and qualifications to fill out our picture of her. In the end, we might have a reasonable amount of information, but we wouldn’t really know her at all.)

It is all too easy to make mistakes or to draw conclusions about a person’s identity on the basis of very little information. Most of us are guilty of drawing conclusions about someone based on first impressions and most of us at some time, uses stereotypes to categorise someone because it saves time and makes life easier than trying to process a lot of information.

The conversation between the priests and Levites and John bears some similarities to that which I have just had with Renae in that it tries to fill out some very limited details by asking simplistic, stereotypical questions. That John is baptizing people in the river Jordan has become known in Jerusalem. In order to maintain their relationship with the Roman occupiers, the Jewish authorities have some responsibility for keeping the peace. They are keen to know whether John poses a threat to the stability of the region or whether his popularity threatens to unsettle their place and their status among the Jews. In short they want to know if John was simply calling the people to repentance or whether he was using his charisma to de-stabilise Temple worship and the priesthood. Was he stirring up the people to call for change or was he simply urging them to repent and to deepen their relationship with God. The former was dangerous but the latter was harmless.

The authorities didn’t go out to the Jordan themselves; they delegated the task to priests and Levites. John’s interrogators are stumped, they want him to fit into a preexisting category: the anointed one, Elijah or a prophet. John is none of these, but because his interrogators can only see the world through one lens, they ask the same question three times: “Who are you? What then? and Who are you?”

John does not fit into any of their boxes. His responses are all negative. He is not the anointed one, he is not Elijah and he is not the prophet. John knows that in and of himself he is nothing; his role is simply to point the way to someone else. He points to Jesus, to the light, to the one whose sandals he is not worthy to untie. He is a voice crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for another. In the end we only learn what John is not, however his responses have reassured his questioners, they return to Jerusalem confident that he is not going to form a revolutionary movement that will upset the delicate balance of power.

John’s gospel is not interested in John the Baptist. The author of John is more interested in John who bears Witness to Jesus. John the Baptist is the wild man of the Synoptic gospels who preaches repentance, addresses the crowds as vipers and warns that Jesus will come with a winnowing fork in his hand and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. John the Witness is a peaceable, mild-mannered holy man whose spirituality draws people to him and leads them to seek baptism, John the Witness points forward to Jesus. He does not draw attention to himself.

The readings during Advent challenge us to pay attention – to the presence of God in and around us, in people and in creation and in the unexpected surprises in our day. Paying attention demands that we take time to focus, to notice details that would usually escape us and to celebrate God in our lives.

This week we are challenged to pay more attention to people whom we know or whom we think we know. Who are they really? What are their hopes and dreams? We are encouraged to ask ourselves: Do we allow the people around us to really be themselves or do we expect them to conform to our preconceived ideas? Have we boxed them in, restricted them to particular roles or fitted them into pre-existing stereotypes that are limiting and confusing? John didn’t fit the categories into which the priests and Levites tried to place him but so long as he didn’t cause trouble they were content to let him be.

There are no images or types that are able to contain Jesus the Christ. We must be careful to pay attention and try to adjust focus so that when Jesus is right in front of us we will not make the mistake of thinking that he is something or someone else.

This Advent, pay attention, keep awake, be alert. Allow God to stretch and challenge your way of thinking about God. Open yourself to new and different possibilities and experiences of the divine, because only then will you be ready when God in Jesus catches you by surprise.

 

[1] Renae was ordained as a Deacon two weeks ago and has begun working with us as a Curate.

Promise and threat

December 9, 2017

Advent 2 – 2017

Mark 1:1-8

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who comforts the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable. Amen.

Isaiah calls out to those in exile:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low;

the uneven ground shall become level,

and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

God has charged Isaiah with a message of assurance for the Israelites. The time of their banishment has ended. Soon they will be able to return to their homes. What is more, a road will be prepared for them so that they do not encounter too many obstacles on their way. Isaiah declared that despite all that their forebears have done, despite their present anxieties and fears, God has not forgotten them. During their exile the Israelites have recognised their dependence on God and God, who observed their remorse had sent the prophet with words of comfort and hope.

Centuries later, the author of Mark’s gospel used these same words more as a threat than a promise. John the Baptist did not offer words of assurance but rather insisted that the people: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Instead of offering comfort to a suffering people, John demanded that the people admit and repent of their sins, that they turn their lives around in order to make the path clear for the coming of God.

Isaiah reassured the people that God had forgiven their transgressions and would come to them and will comfort them. In contrast John the Baptist warned the people to seek forgiveness for their transgressions because God was coming among them.

In Mark the words of Isaiah are applied to a different time and place. Whereas the Israelites in exile needed to hear words of comfort and reassurance, the people of the first century needed to be confronted and challenged. The exile had given the Israelites plenty of time to think about the past and to long for their relationship with God to be restored, whereas the situation of the 1st century had allowed them to once again become complacent. It was true that the Romans had occupied the land, but the Temple still stood and the people were free to worship and offer sacrifices without too much interference. Such freedoms however had come at a cost. The priests and leaders of the Israelites had accommodated themselves to the Roman occupation. They had made themselves comfortable with the present situation and they had made compromises that meant that they had lost the trust of the people and led others to believe that the Temple and its worship had become corrupted. They had lost sight of their need to trust in and depend on God to take care of all their needs. They felt that they were comfortable enough. They did not need a prophet to speak words of comfort. They needed to be challenged and confronted. They needed to be forced to consider what was really important – their own comfort or their relationship with God.

Isaiah offered comfort. John demanded repentance. Our scriptures are full of these kinds of contradictions: comfort and judgement, reassurance and challenge, compassion and rage. The different voices of our scriptures reflect the different situations into which they speak. There are times when the prophets need to censure the people of Israel, to remind them of their true calling and to bring them back to God. At other times, often when the people of Israel have been humbled and humiliated – the prophets need to speak words of reassurance and comfort, to reassure the people that God has seen their suffering and has not abandoned them.

The different voices of scripture speak to our own situations. There are times in our lives when we need to know God’s loving presence: when a loved one is dying, when we have lost our job or when our child comes up against an obstacle. At such times it is easy to recognise our dependence on God and to seek the comfort of God’s presence. There are times in our lives when everything seems to be going along smoothly, when we are at peace with the world around us. At such times it is easy to take God for granted, to lose sight of our dependence on God and to go our own way.

The contradictions that we find in scripture help us to seek the right balance between anxiety and complacency. Threats of judgement remind us that we cannot take our relationship with God for granted. Like any other relationship, our relationship with God can be damaged by neglect, by carelessness and disregard and when it is damaged we will experience the pain and heartache of being separated from God as if we really were in exile. Words of comfort provide us with hope in our moments of darkness and despair. They remind us that no matter how far we have strayed, God is constant and will never abandon us.

The tensions and contradictions in our scriptures serve to heighten our awareness of our relationship with God and encourage us to take stock of our lives. Words of judgement and calls to repentance remind us that there are consequences to pay for going our own way. Words of comfort provide strength and encouragement in those times when we are tempted to feel lost and alone.

This Advent, may the contradictions and tensions of our scriptures keep us on our toes, help us to focus on what is really important and prevent us from falling into the sort of complacency that allows us to neglect God and to forget how much God has done for us. May words of comfort not blind us to the need to be on the alert so that we are ready when Christ should come again.

Are you ready or will you be caught by surprise?

December 2, 2017

Advent 1 – 2017

Mark 13:24-37

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who is always present and always coming to us. Amen.

 

Loud noise (cymbals, child crying). Bach’s Toccata

That got your attention didn’t it?

I love Advent. I love the sense of anticipation, the build up towards the coming of Jesus, the assurance of God’s love and the time to reflect on whether or not my relationship with God is such that I would know Jesus when he comes again. That said I always experience a sense of disquiet as we come to the end of the church year and the first Sunday of Advent. Instead of eager expectation, we might find ourselves experiencing a sense of dread and trepidation. Like me, you may have noticed that for the last few weeks we have been bombarded by Matthew’s parables of the end times. There was the parable of the foolish maidens whose lack of preparedness saw them locked out of the banquet, the parable of the servant who hid the money with which he was entrusted and who, as a result was cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and finally the parable of the sheep and the goats which concluded with the sheep being admitted to eternal life whereas the goats were sent to eternal punishment.

If that wasn’t enough, prior to that Matthew had warned his readers (and therefore us) about the suffering that would precede the end of the age and the need for watchfulness so that we would not be caught out when the Son of Man returned unexpectedly. We are constantly warned to be alert, awake and prepared so that the coming of Jesus will not catch us by surprise (1 Thess 5) and we are expected to live in such a way that we will be counted among the sheep and not the goats.

In today’s readings, Isaiah expresses a longing that God will rend the heavens and come down so violently that the mountains would quake at God’s presence. He begs God not to be exceedingly angry and not to remember our iniquity forever. Mark, quoting Zephaniah, tells us that at the coming of the Son of Man, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. When you add to these warnings and dire predictions the descriptions of the end found in Jeremiah and Joel and worst of all in Revelation, it is a wonder that we do not spend our days cowering in terror, desperately hoping that Jesus will not return anytime soon.

Such predictions of cosmic realignment, destruction, judgement and punishment are so vivid and dramatic that they have the potential to strike terror into our heart and to cause us to live in such a constant state of anxiety that we would never do or achieve anything. This in itself creates a problem because the parable of the talents warns us that being so fearful that we do nothing is not the solution. So where do we go from here? It seems that we cannot afford to be complacent or relaxed, but neither can we afford to live in a state of heightened anticipation or anxiety.

I wonder if the colorful and terrifying pictures of the end are designed not so much to cause us apprehension, but are intended to gain our attention, to keep us on our toes and to get us to focus on what is important. Through the writers of scripture God is trying to shake us out of our complacency, encourage us to think about the way we live and to ask ourselves whether we are really prepared for the experience of engaging with God face-to-face. Stars falling out of heaven and fire-breathing armies (Joel) are much more likely to penetrate our awareness and capture our imagination than God’s simply turning up unannounced.

The irony is, that despite the posturing and the ominous threats, despite the lurid and violent images that were associated with God’s coming, God defied all expectation and entered the world silently, anonymously and unobtrusively. Instead of wreaking utter destruction, God made Godself totally vulnerable and came among us as a new-born child. Instead of our finding ourselves at the mercy of God, we discovered that God had placed Godself entirely at our mercy. Instead of wreaking vengeance and destroying humanity, God placed Godself in a situation in which humanity could destroy God.

The contradiction between our expectations and the actual event of God’s coming among us gives us cause for thought, challenges us to pay more attention and encourages us to be more ready and more alert so that we are better equipped to notice and to recognise God’s presence in the world.

This Advent, take some time to look around you, to notice God in unexpected places, in surprising events and unusual people. In the next few weeks, try to be more aware of the world around you so that you are able to recognise God in God’s creation. Above all be alert, keep awake and be expectant so that God’s coming will not catch you unawares, but however subtle, however unusual God’s coming may be, it will not be beyond your capacity to see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reading the signs

November 14, 2015

Pentecost 25 – 2015

Mark 13:1-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who remains beyond our knowing and beyond our ability to control. Amen.

“Red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in the morning, shepherd’s warning,” goes the saying. Reading the weather is an essential part of a farmer’s life, whether the farmer is a herder or an agriculturalist. Lambs have to be brought in if it looks as if it is going to snow, grapes have to be covered if a frost is likely, seed is best planted if rain is imminent and so on.

Signs and signals are an integral part of all of our lives. Signs help us to order our lives and to navigate our way through what can be a complex and confusing world. Signs can be natural or constructed, simple or complex, obvious or subtle and our ability to read them can make a difference to our day-to-day lives and to our relationships with others.

Signs warn us of danger, create order and provide direction. Signals at a level crossing tell us when a train is imminent, green lights indicate that it is safe to continue driving, traffic signs warn us that a road might be steep or windy, slippery or gravelly. Signs enable us to drive in a way that is appropriate to the conditions and to avoid accidents at busy intersections.

Some signs warn us of unseen perils – telling us that we are close to an edge of a cliff, that we are approaching crocodile infested waters, or that kangaroos are likely to jump out onto the road in front of us. Others provide helpful information – which train to catch, which road to take to get to a certain place, which gate our plane is leaving from and so on.

There are signs are relatively easy to read. If the clouds are low and black we can presume that there will be a storm somewhere close. If the clouds are low and green then we can be sure that hail will accompany the storm. Other signs are much more subtle and complex and require a certain amount of knowledge or skill to interpret. Symbols don’t always mean the same thing to all people and pictures can have more than one meaning that can lead to misinterpretation. The subtle signals that make up inter-personal relations can be particularly confusing. People can say the most malevolent words while at the same time keep their facial expressions absolutely bland or even friendly and others can make a joke while keeping an absolutely straight face.

A failure to properly interpret signs can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings – between people and sometimes between nations. Missing an important cue in another person’s facial expression or stance or giving off the wrong cues by one’s own expression or bearing can lead to embarrassment or even cause affront. A misplaced look or gesture can leave another person (or nation) feeling denigrated, insulted or humiliated.

From a human point of view then, the proper interpretation of signs is absolutely vital to the smooth running of society and even of international relations.

Reading heavenly signs is another thing altogether. Indeed, it can be a foolish and dangerous occupation – foolish, because behind such reading is an assumption that God is able to be interpreted and dangerous, because it leads to rash and sometimes deadly actions[1]. A belief that we know what God will do and can predict when God will do it can on the one hand lead to the sort of complacency that Jesus’ return is not to be feared because it belongs in a distant and irrelevant future and on the other lead to a state of constant terror that God will return at any moment and catch us unawares.

In today’s gospel Jesus warns the disciples to be careful how they read the signs lest they make the mistake of believing that they are able to discern when the end is near. He tells them that there will be times when the world seems to be collapsing in on itself, times when violence prevails or when natural disasters wreak untold destruction. These things will happen he says, but they do not herald the end of all things[2]. The planet on which we live is unstable, the weather patterns are essentially outside of our control, and we seem unable to be able to leave peaceably with one another. None of these factors mean that God is behind the heartache and devastation that we witness on a daily basis.

In fact, if we read to the end of the chapter, Jesus reminds us that even he does not know when the end will come. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.”

Two things are essential. The first is to remember that in good times and in bad we need never fear for we are never alone, God is always with us and in the event that it is necessary God through the Holy Spirit will even speak for us. The second is to live in joyful expectation of Jesus’ return – whenever that might be.

We might not be able to read the heavenly signs, but that does not prevent us recognising God’s presence with us, and living lives that allow that presence to be a reality in the world.

[1] The Jonestown massacre comes to mind, as do other apocalyptic cults that persuade members to take their own lives in the belief that the end is near or that their deaths will bring on the end.

[2] I write this within twenty four hours of the terrible violence in Paris, and in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying itself through terror and war and through a careless disregard for the environment but I am not sure that these signs of human failings are evidence that Jesus is about to come and rescue us from ourselves.

Who is forced to suffer so that we do not have to???

November 7, 2015
A widow's mite purchased on our recent visit to Palestine.

A widow’s mite purchased on our recent visit to Palestine.

Pentecost 24

The Book of Ruth, Mark 12:38-44

Marian Free

In the name of God whose preference is for the poor and the vulnerable. Amen.

It is no secret that I am a Jane Austen fan. This may have to do with my growing up in an era when the role of women was still considerably constricted. It was not until I reached my teens that mothers began stepping confidently into the work force and I still have vivid memories of a single female friend who, despite having a good job and regular income was obliged to ask my father to be guarantor so that she could obtain a home loan. She may not have felt this way, but even though I was relatively young I felt keenly the humiliation of her experience. The idea that because she was a woman she could not be trusted with something as weighty as a home loan seemed (indeed was) ludicrous.

That said, by the time I came into the world some things had changed for the better. By then the government was providing some sort of support for women who had been widowed and for single mothers who were strong enough to refuse to put their child up for adoption. For centuries prior to that, women without a husband or father to protect them often found themselves in very straightened circumstances[1].

Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility gives an insight into the precarious nature of a woman’s place in the world of the eighteenth century. Mrs Dashwood is the second wife of an older man whose estate is entailed on his son John. When her husband is dying he makes John promise to care for his stepmother and stepsisters. The son promises, but does not take into account his overbearing wife who cannot bear the thought of sharing the estate, or of their only son being deprived of even a modest part of what might become his inheritance. Mrs Dashwood senior and her daughter’s find themselves unwelcome visitors in what up until then had been their family home. They feel sufficiently uncomfortable that they seek to find somewhere else to live, but their allowance will not stretch very far and many suitable house have to be ruled out. Thankfully a distance cousin offers them a small cottage on his estate and so they move (with the few possessions that they can call their own) to a situation far removed from that which they were used to.

The privations do not end there. Even though their cousin is very generous and insists that they eat with his family most evenings, the yearly allowance does not stretch to beef or even sugar. Overnight what had been a privileged and comfortable lifestyle is reversed and the women find themselves utterly dependent on the generosity of others.

The Book of Ruth is set during the time of Judges – approximately 1200-1020 BCE. At this time the majority of Israelites were small landowners and could support themselves through farming. Laws were in place to ensure that the widows and orphans were able to sustain themselves. Not only was it the responsibility of everyone to provide for them, but there was a law to the effect that farmers should exercise a certain amount of carelessness when harvesting. Leviticus 19:9-10 specifically instructs the Israelites to leave the margins of their fields unharvested, to leave behind any produce that fell to the ground and to harvest only once. This ensured that the poor and the aliens could be assured of finding food to eat. They could enter a “harvested” field and glean what had been left behind. It was not an easy existence, but it did provide a way for the poor to support themselves.

Fast forward to the beginning of the first century and we discover a situation that was completely different. With the best will in the world no one could impose the Levitical law universally. At this time many Israelites had been forced off their land so that the Emperor could give gifts to soldiers who had served him well. This meant that there were fewer farms in the hands of the Israelites and therefore fewer people to observe the obligations set down in Leviticus. In the city of course the situation was even worse. It has been said that Israelite women were at this time among the poorest people in the world.

Today’s gospel has often been used to extol the widow for her utter selflessness and to encourage the rest of us to follow her example, but that interpretation misrepresents what is really happening here. When we read the passage in its entirety we see that the story of the widow is a continuation of Jesus’ attack on the scribes. This forces us to observe that Jesus is not complimenting the woman for her generosity; but instead is lamenting the political and social climate that has created a situation in which the widow thinks that she has to give anything at all. The scribes it seems have found a way to convince the poorest and the most vulnerable that God requires demonstrations of their commitment – in the form of donations to the Temple. By insisting on “sacrificial giving” they are in effect, “devouring the estates of the widows”. The poor and the widows should have received support from the Temple, not felt obliged to do the reverse.

By giving her last two coins, the widow has not achieved anything. Her small contribution will not all much to the Temple resources but will certainly deprive herself and any dependents of a future[2].

Jesus’ attack on the scribes suggests that they were more into outward show than they were into meeting their obligations to those who were entirely dependent on their goodwill and generosity. Like all people of wealth and status, the scribes were determined that they should they behave in a way that demonstrated their wealth and power and that they should receive the honour that they believed was owed to someone in their position. At the same time, they were determined to preserve their relative position at all costs – in particular at the expense of those who could least afford it.

The problem then, as it is now, is that one can only maintain one’s own position at the expense of those who have no resources and no position. The gospel challenges us to seriously consider how much we ourselves exploit and disempower the poor and the vulnerable in order to hold on to our status and relative wealth. Who is disadvantaged and oppressed because we refuse to give up our comfortable lives? Whose life is on a knife-edge because we cannot bear to give up our relative luxuries in order to liberate others to do more than eke out an existence?

Who is forced to suffer so that we do not have to?

[1] If you were poor you might, as a woman, have found work as a servant or in the mills, but the novel Tess of the d’Ubervilles demonstrates that even for the rural poor, life could be horrendous for those who had no husband or son to provide for them.

[2] The coin, a lepta, was the least value of the coins of that era and was worth about 6 minutes of an average day’s wage.

Seeing only what we want to see

October 24, 2015

Pentecost 22

Mark 10:46-52

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens the eyes of those who are willing to see. Amen.

It is true that many of us, indeed from time to time – all of us – see only what we want to see. This is true in relation to so many things – individual and corporate. Parents sometimes are unable to see their children’s shortcomings. Spouses are often able to turn a blind eye to their partners’ misdemeanors – adultery, corruption, and even criminal behaviour. Whole populations want to believe that their governments will not mislead them and will do what it best for the nation as a whole – even in the face of information to the contrary. The gullible and not so gullible find themselves wanting to own products that advertisers tell them are absolutely essential to our well-being or our life-style – this despite the fact we know full well that we are being manipulated.

Sometimes this sort of blindness is so firmly entrenched that nothing short of a major catastrophe can shake us into opening our eyes to reality. Conversely, sometimes reality is so disturbing and hurtful, that blindness – however unreal – is preferable to seeing and accepting the truth.

In fact, on occasions the truth makes us so uncomfortable that we seek to silence or even to destroy those who expose it. John the Baptist lost his head because he dared to name Herod’s adultery for what it was. Those who saw through Hitler were sent to death camps. Nelson Mandela and others who identified the evils apartheid were jailed for decades. Journalist Steve Biko was tortured and killed by a government that needed to silence opposition.

The truth can be dangerous. It can be so disturbing and confronting that many prefer to ignore it finding it simpler remain in ignorance. There are many who would rather not acknowledge that governments can and do act immorally and dishonestly. They close their eyes to the truth and dismiss the critics by labeling them troublemakers or dissidents.

By and large we prefer the status quo. We don’t like our comfortable lives or strongly held ideals challenged or confronted. It is easier not to rock the boat, sometimes in the face of very strong evidence that the boat is corrupt or dangerously compromised.

One of the themes running through Mark’s gospel is that of a refusal or a failure to see. Members of the religious establishment suffer from a form of blindness that leads them to dismiss this unknown, uncomfortable person from Galilee. They do not like this man who challenges what they do and what they represent. It is impossible for them to conceive that such an unlikely person might be the one promised by God and because they do not understand him, they try to silence Jesus by plotting to kill him. Even the disciples are blinded to the reality of who and what Jesus is. They simply cannot accept that Jesus will be rejected, will suffer and will die. They can only envisage a future in which Jesus will triumph. When Jesus predicts his suffering and humiliation, his disciples retreat to what they think they know. They try to silence Jesus by rebuking him or by changing the subject to something that makes them feel more comfortable.

Neither group is able to see beyond their expectations or prejudices. Neither the disciples nor the authorities can accept the apparent contradiction – either that the Christ should suffer, or that such an ordinary person could be the one sent by God.

There are however, some who are able to recognise Jesus for who he is – the demons and those who are on the outside. The demons are able to identify Jesus because he challenges their authority. He presents a threat. Jesus is able to reduce their power to nothing which enables them to discern that he is a representative of good and therefore of God. On the other hand those who are on the outside of Jewish society have no preconceptions that might blind them to Jesus’ true nature. Such people have no idea how a Christ or Son of God should behave or should present himself. This allows them to see Jesus for who he is and not for who they think he should be. So it is that at the moment of Jesus’ death, when it appears that he has utterly failed, when all his followers have deserted him, when he has been publicly humiliated and shamed, it the centurion – a Roman, a gentile, an outsider who declares: “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:39).

Bartimaeus is another outsider who, despite his blindness, instinctively knows who Jesus is. Sitting by the road he calls out not once, but twice: “Son of David, have mercy!” The crowds react by trying to silence him. What he is saying is reckless and dangerous – to identify Jesus as the Son of David is to invite trouble, to threaten tenuous peace that exists between the Hebrews and the Romans. At the same time it is disturbing that someone such as Bartimaeus identifies Jesus as the Son of David, despite the fact that Jesus bears no resemblance to a King like David.

Bartimaeus is undeterred. He speaks what he knows and is rewarded by Jesus’ response. Even though he is blind, his openness and clear-sightedness enables him to see what others cannot see.

It is easy to make the mistake of believing that we see clearly, that we know all there is to know about God. We can convince ourselves that what we have learnt in the past is sufficient for the present and for the future and we can allow our faith to be reduced to well-worn formulas, easily remembered doctrines and simple to follow rules. We can find it tempting to silence or ignore the voices that challenge our world-view or suggest that we may be wrong.

If Jesus showed us anything, it was this – that faith can and will take us out of our comfort zone, and in directions that we cannot imagine. Jesus’ own experience show us that he journey of faith can be perilous and dangerous, it can expose us to ridicule and misunderstanding and it can force us to see the world around us in new and different ways. Jesus didn’t promise us that following him would be easy, instead he told us that it would lead to the cross.

If we silence the voices that disturb or challenge us, we risk the spiritual blindness that led Jesus’ contemporaries to misunderstand, to reject and destroy him and we lose the opportunity to grow and develop and to come to a fuller understanding of ourselves, of others and ultimately of God.

Outside the box

October 17, 2015

Pentecost 21 – 2015

Mark 10:32-45

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who challenges, surprises and above all turns the world upside down. Amen.

For the third time, Jesus predicts his suffering and crucifixion and for the third time his disciples show their complete failure to understand. If you remember, the first time Jesus announced his upcoming death and resurrection, Peter rebuked him. On the second occasion the disciples (embarrassed and awkward) changed the topic and began to argue among themselves as to who was the greatest among them. Finally in today’s gospel James and John ask Jesus to give them preeminent places in his kingdom. It appears that despite Jesus’ teaching and example, they have still failed to understand the nature of Jesus’ task.

It is simply beyond the comprehension of Jesus’ disciples that the “anointed one”, the one sent by God, would be anything but a leader – someone in control of not only his own destiny, but of the destiny of those who followed him. The notion that the one sent by God would be a servant, that he would exhibit vulnerability and frailty and, worst of all that he would be at the mercy of the leaders of the church and of the nation, was completely outside their world view. So even though Jesus tries to explain to them the nature of his ministry, it simply does not sink in. They can only think of Jesus in ways familiar to them.

In order to understand the request of James and John then, it helps to understand something of the culture of the first century Mediterranean culture in which ideas of honour and shame played a very big part. Honour was something to be sought after. It was what set one person apart from another. Honour was bestowed primarily by one’s birth, but it could also be bestowed by a leader – as a reward for services rendered, in response to flattery and other inducements – or by competing with other members of one’s group for positions of influence over the remainder. Honour could also be gained by shaming another in debate. Shame was to be avoided at all costs because to be publicly shamed was to lose one’s place in the world both figuratively and in reality[1].

So, even though James and John have completely misunderstood everything that Jesus represents, it can be said in their favour that they are behaving in a way that is completely understandable in terms of their cultural situation. They are on their way to Jerusalem, the seat of government. We, the readers, know that this is a risky venture, and the text tells us that Jesus’ followers were afraid. No doubt they expected some sort of confrontation. Reading between the lines, we can assume that the disciples thought that Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem in order to take on the authorities. There seems to have been no doubt in their minds that he would come out of such a confrontation as the victor. Hence the request by James and John: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.“ James and John believe that when Jesus has conquered the authorities in Jerusalem he will be able to share his victory with those who have followed him. That is, he will be able to give positions of honour to those who have served him well.

What they have not realised is that Jesus’ “glory” will be unlike anything that they can imagine. Jesus “glory” will be unrecognisable as glory. To them, at least initially, it will appear as shame – crucifixion being a humiliating and shameful way in which to die.

Jesus does not strive for honour in the same way that his disciples do. For Jesus, honour was to be found not in striving for recognition or power, but in accepting the fate that God had in store for him. He will willingly “drink the cup” that has been given to him, however degrading, and he asks whether James and John have the courage to do the same[2].

Mark almost certainly uses Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ failure to understand as a literary device. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ predictions and the disciples’ misunderstanding illustrates the point that Jesus’ mission overturns the values and expectations of this world.

God’s action in Jesus was so radical, so “outside the box” that twenty centuries later we still fail to completely understand. The notion of a God who serves, the idea that God could love us so much as to place Godself completely in our hands is so utterly foreign to the idea that many of us hold of God, that we simply cannot grasp it. We long for a God who is all-powerful and who is victorious over all. Instead we have to settle for a God who is powerless and vulnerable and who, by his life and actions, confronts all human values and ideals – thereby demonstrating that service, vulnerability and an absence of striving are the values that will lead to peace in our own lives and thus to peace in the world.

[1] Jesus plays on the idea of the avoidance of shame in the parable about taking the lower place at the banquet and it was in order to avoid shame, that Herod allowed John the Baptist to be beheaded.

[2] Here again, understanding the cultural context is useful. “In Mediterranean culture, the head of the family fills the cups of all at table. Each one is expected to accept and drink what the head of the family has given.” (John Pilch, www.liturgy.slu.edu) In the case of Jesus, the head of the family is of course God and it is God, not Jesus, who will determine places of honour.

How much is too much?

October 10, 2015

Pentecost 20

Mark 10:17-31 (St Francis)

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who has given us all things. Amen.

If we are honest many of us find today’s gospel challenging. “Sell all you own and give to the poor.” “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” We wonder if these words applies to us. We ask ourselves: What is too rich? Is it a person or a company whose yearly income could pay the debt of a third world country and more? Is it being rich enough able to spend millions of dollars on a home when many are homeless? Is it worrying about whether to send our children to a state school or a private school when millions of children do not have the opportunity go to school at all?

I don’t have the answer to these questions. On the one hand I support the initiative and enterprise that leads to the creation of jobs. On the other hand it does worry me that 85% of the world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of just 10% of the world’s population. I would like every person in the world to have the same advantages that I have, but at the same time, I am very grateful that I do not have live hand-to-mouth like so many millions of people do and not entirely sure how much I am willing to give up in order to make the world a more equitable place.

St Francis thought that today’s gospel applied directly to him. As the story goes, Francis was the son of a wealthy textile merchant. It was expected that he would follow in his father’s footsteps, join the business, finally taking and charge of it himself in turn passing the business and any accumulated wealth to his own children. Francis’ experience of Jesus altered all that. He changed from a wild, hedonistic young man into a fervent follower of Jesus Christ. He understood that his call was to renounce all worldly possessions and to live a simple life entirely dependent on God.

Francis embraced poverty, not because he had some romantic notion about it, but because it freed him from the responsibilities and concerns that wealth, possessions and status can bring with them. Poverty for Francis’ signified reliance not on material, but on spiritual things. He did not want anything to have a hold on him or to stand between himself and God.

It is clear that Francis’ view is not the dominant Christian view, even though we find the story unsettling, very few Christians have taken the text as literally as did Francis. That doesn’t mean that we are off the hook or mean that we shouldn’t attempt to understand what Jesus is saying here.

Today’s gospel begins with an interaction between Jesus and a young man who “has many possessions”. The young man interrupts Jesus’ journey and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. He has, by his own account, has lived a blameless life. Despite this he seems to sense that something is missing, he recognises that despite all that he has his life is empty and without meaning. Though he observes the commandments and presumably has all that he needs, he is not satisfied. He recognises that even though (according to the thought of the day) his wealth is a reward for righteousness his relationship with God could be so much richer.

Jesus looks at the young and loves him. He sees (we must assume) that the young man is bound by his possessions – they own him, not he them. Jesus knows that the young man will not be at peace, he will not be entirely happy until his possessions no longer have a hold on him, until there are no longer a measure of his righteousness or of his place in the world. Jesus’ advice? – sell it all, get rid of everything, free yourself from all worry and concern. Do what you really want to do – give yourself to God. It is too much. Unlike Francis, this young man’s passion and desire has not been kindled to the point that he can fully let go. He departs from Jesus in a state of sorrow. Jesus has given the answer for which he was seeking, but now that he hears it, he cannot do it. For the moment at least his wealth has too great a hold on him.

Jesus’ advice to the young man leads Jesus to reflect on wealth in general. It is not that wealth is necessarily bad. The problem is that, for some, wealth can become an obsession that needs to be guarded and maintained. A person can become so focused on what they have and what they want that they becomes self centred and inward-looking, absorbed by their own needs and desires and careless with the needs of others.

Jesus’ advice to the young man may not be Jesus’ advice to us all, but it would be a mistake to think that the reading doesn’t not apply to us. Wealth is not the only thing that binds us or causes us to focus on ourself us or that prevents us from seeing the needs of others. Greed and selfishness are only two things that make us look inwards and not outwards, that create a barrier between ourselves and God. Pride, anger, bitterness, self-righteousness are all signs of self-absorption that lead us to concentrate on our own wants and needs and that, as a result, separate us from our fellow human beings, from God and ultimately from our eternal inheritance.

The bible does warn us against allowing wealth to have control of us rather than our controlling our wealth but to make that the only focus of today’s gospel might be to miss the point. The young man has the courage to ask Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Are we brave enough to ask the same question and if we do will we, like the young man, walk away or will we have the courage to respond to Jesus’ love, recognise what it is we lack and make the changes necessary to remove the barriers between ourselves and God and between ourselves and others?

Why don’t they just ask?

September 19, 2015

Pentecost 17 – 2015

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

 In the name of God who withholds nothing and who reveals Godself to those who seek. Amen.

“Why didn’t you just ask?” These are the words that are uttered by an exasperated parent or frustrated teacher when confronted with a child or student who has misunderstood what was required, done something foolish or embarked on the wrong exercise. If only they had asked for clarity, they might not have got themselves into such a muddle or headed off in the wrong direction. There are a number of reasons why people do not ask for clarity, for direction or for permission. Some people are afraid that asking a question will expose their ignorance or foolishness. Others are ashamed to admit that they do not understand and still others assume that they have understood what is required and so there is no need to ask. The problem is that a failure to ask can have disastrous consequences. People end up going off at a tangent – either tentatively because they do not understand or confidently because they are so sure that they have got it right that they don’t need to ask. It is only when things go awry, when it clear that they are lost, doing the wrong exercise or using the wrong tools that such people wish that they had asked.

The situation can be even worse with relationships. One person in the relationship may draw the wrong conclusion or inference from what the other has said or done. As a result the relationship may be damaged or, in the worst case scenarios, the person who has misunderstood may becomes bitter or trapped into a way of thinking and behaving that prevents them from growing and maturing. Think for example of the child who perceives a parent’s reserve as a lack of affection and who carries that perception around like a stone only to discover that they were wrong all the time. “Why didn’t you ask?” Is the cry of the anguished parent or the misjudged person – I would have told you: that you were loved; that I was proud of you; that you never disappointed me. “I would have told you.” “You need not have been afraid.”

“Why didn’t you just ask?” could have been Jesus’ question to his disciples. For the second time now Jesus has told the disciples that he will be betrayed and killed and on the third day will rise again. The idea that their leader and teacher should be put to death is so foreign to the disciples that they simply cannot come to terms with it. The first time Jesus announced his death, Peter rebuked him and was in his turn roundly rebuked by Jesus. Perhaps it is no wonder that the disciples are now afraid to ask Jesus what he means. Not only do they not wish to look foolish, they might also be a little afraid of Jesus’ frustration.

So the disciples react in the way many of us do when we do not understand, they change the subject. Instead of asking Jesus what he means, instead of trying to grapple with what Jesus is saying, instead of trying to understand what sort of Christ this might be, they turn to something familiar: who among them is the greatest? Here they are on solid ground. In first century society honour and shame determined a person’s place in the world. Honour had to be won and shame avoided.

Faced with something utterly beyond their comprehension, the disciples turn to a familiar argument – who, in their little group, has the highest status? By focusing on something they do understand reveal not only their failure to grasp what Jesus had just said to them but their complete misunderstanding of what he is about.

Jesus doesn’t respond by saying: “Why didn’t you ask!” Nor does he express his exasperation by rebuking the disciples. This time he takes a different approach. If the disciples don’t understand what he says, perhaps they will comprehend an action that illustrates what he is trying to tell them. That is that honour and status have no place among those who follow a Christ such as he who is destined to suffer and to die. So he sits down and says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and the servant of all.” Then he places a child in the midst of them before taking it in his arms and saying: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

Later Jesus will use a child to demonstrate the innocence and simplicity required of those who would enter the kingdom, but here his purpose is quite different. In the first century worlds of both Palestine and of Rome, the place of children was complex. On the one hand they had value as those on whom the future depended, on the other they presented a liability, as they had to be nurtured and protected and yet they contributed nothing to the household. An adult slave was a more productive member of the household than a child. At the same time a child had no legal status or power and therefore could not bestow honour or status on those who welcomed them. (A child was not worth the time or effort of someone’s attention, as they could give nothing in return.)

By insisting that a child be welcomed and respected, Jesus subverted the social conventions of his time and illustrated more clearly than words are able that discipleship contradicts the norms of society and that Jesus’ leadership turns on its head everything the disciples thought they knew and understood. Those who follow him will have to stand outside the culture and renounce the values honour and shame. True greatness, Jesus suggests, cannot be achieved by serving only those who can give you something in return, rather it lies in welcoming those who can give nothing – the disabled, the poor, the unclean, the widow, the child anyone who is considered an outsider, anyone who has no status at all.

What the disciples have yet to grasp is that Jesus’ leadership is completely counter-cultural, it does not and will not conform to known categories, but will continue to contradict and to subvert their expectations and their view of the world and will demand the same of them.

Jesus continues to subvert and confound our expectations. He refuses to be categorized. He will not be tied down to societal norms. He breaks the rules and relates to the wrong people. His behaviour shocks and unsettles. We like the disciples continue to be confused and disconcerted. We try to fit Jesus into known categories, to confine him to the limits of our expectations, to force him to be conventional. In our efforts to understand we may follow many false leads and wander off on our own paths.

If only we could admit our ignorance. If only we would ask. If only we would search the scriptures for answers, open our hearts to the Spirit who knows what God has yet to reveal to us?


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