Archive for the ‘Mark’s gospel’ Category

True honour

July 14, 2018

Pentecost 8 – 2018

Mark 6:14-29

(Notes while on leave)

Marian Free

In the name of God, who sees who we are and not who we pretend to be. Amen.

If you watch enough gangster or James Bond movies, you will know how precarious life can be for the members of a gang or terrorist group. In order to join the group a person must prove themselves by committing a crime or an act of violence. Once admitted, a member cannot afford to show any sign of weakness lest they be despised, humiliated or even abused by the other members of the gang. The position of leader is even more tenuous than that of members and can only be maintained by a continual show of strength and even violence. Any sign of insurrection or lack of discipline within the group must be dealt with immediately – the perpetrator put back into their place or in the worst-case scenario disposed of in order to establish the fact that the leader is the ultimate power within the group.

This is not a modern problem. Any examination of the ruling class in Great Britain will reveal that many of the Kings (or Queens) obtained their power through subterfuge, brutality, war or murder. If they achieved their goal, they were vulnerable to attack by those whom they had deposed or disenfranchised. The only way to maintain their hold on power was by violence and oppression. Because they had achieved their position by force, they had to hold on to it by force. They could never be sure who their friends were and had to always be on high alert because just as he/she had sought power, so he/she could be sure that someone else was waiting to take the power from them at the first opportunity. (The current documentary about Lady Jane Grey illustrates this most clearly.)

The situation was much the same in the first century. Herod Antipater had a reputation for ruthlessness. He was not a legitimate ruler, but had obtained his power by backing the winner in the battle between Pompey and Julius Caesar. The people resented him because he wasn’t a Jew and just as Rome had appointed him, so Rome could depose him if he didn’t keep the peace and if he didn’t ensure that the nation paid its dues to the Emperor. When Herod died, his son, Herod the Great inherited the kingdom and on his death the kingdom was divided among his three sons one of whom, also named Herod, is the Herod of today’s gospel. Like his father and grandfather before him, Herod was not secure in his position but was dependent on Rome and on his ability to subdue any opposition. He ruled by force – crushing any opposition to ensure that Rome saw him as a person of strength and that the people perceived him as a person not to be crossed.

It is against this background and against the background of a culture of honour and shame that the death of John the Baptist must be understood. (For a brief description of the honour/shame culture see last week’s offering.)

In the context of the time, hosting a feast was a means to reveal one’s wealth and to test the loyalty of one’s constituents. It was also a way to ensure that the guests were in one’s debt. Herod will have observed all the proper protocols in order to ensure that a) his guests would attend, b) that their honour was appropriately recognized and c) so that they would recognize their dependence on him. Seating arrangements would also have been organized to give to each person the respect due to their position relative to everyone else. The food will have been of an appropriate standard and entertainment will have been provided.

It is very unlikely in such a context that the daughter of his Herod’s wife would have danced for the guests. We have to see this as artistic license on the part of the author (or the tradition). (In fact for a member of Herod’s family to have danced before the guests would have been shameful – it would imply that Herod had no self respect and was not able to manage his family.) Even had the daughter danced, the kingdom clearly was not Herod’s to give away.

Taking the account at face value (as Mark would have us do) we have to understand that Herod cannot afford to lose face or to show weakness in front of his guests. To do so would jeopardize not only his status but his grip on power. He must fulfill his promise however reluctant he is.

We live in a world that is vastly different from that of the first century Mediterranean but most of us are still concerned with how others might see us and some of us compromise our values and ideals so as not to be derided or excluded.

Jesus had no such scruples. Jesus was absolutely confident in his own self-identity. He did not hesitate to cause offense or to be considered disreputable. Jesus, though strong enough to take on the authorities in verbal jousts, was not afraid to appear to be weak and vulnerable -both in public and in private. At the last he faced with courage and confidence the humiliation of arrest and crucifixion rather than compromise his values.

Jesus demonstrated that authority and honour did not lie in externals and that it was not dependent on the good opinion of others. He showed us that true honour lies in self assurance, integrity, loyalty and faithfulness and that the only opinion that ultimately matters is that of God.

May we have the courage to do and be likewise.

Bringing God down to our level (or not)

July 7, 2018

Pentecost 7 – 2018

Mark 6:1-13

Marian Free

 

In the name of God, who doesn’t value our worth by what we achieve, but by who we are. Amen.

In our culture one’s reputation is as much determined by the expectations that others have of our role as it is by what we do and don’t achieve. People are judged differently according to the organisation they represent, their occupation or the influence they are deemed to have. So for example, a Church official who behaves inappropriately is rightly condemned for not living up to expectations and his or her reputation (especially in Church circles) may be permanently damaged. Today’s sporting heroes are considered to be role models to the young and face intense criticism and even humiliation if they do something that is considered to be a bad example (take drugs, beat their wives, cheat).

When it comes to politicians and rock stars however, society demonstrates something of a double standard. Both John Kennedy and Martin Luther King were known womanizers, yet their reputations as great visionaries and reformers have remained in tact. In their case, the good that they did allowed the public to turn a blind eye to what would otherwise be considered immoral behaviour[1].

In the first century Mediterranean honour and shame were dominant cultural commodities that determined a person’s place in the social hierarchy.  A person’s honour was ascribed by their birth and was closely guarded and people (men) behaved in such a way as not to compromise their honour or to allow themselves to be shamed.  At the same time, honour was a limited commodity – there was only so much to go around. That meant that the only way for a person to increase their honour was to diminish another or to place them under obligation. In the New Testament, the religious authorities appear to be continually trying to undermine, expose or humiliate Jesus. In other words they were trying to maintain their honour and to ensure that his did not increase at their expense.

Jesus’ responses to their attacks demonstrate that he is well able to defend, if not increase his status (honour) within the society.

According to Mark’s telling, after the raising of Jairus’ daughter – an event that caused much amazement, Jesus returns to his hometown.  On the Sabbath he goes to the synagogue and begins to teach. Initially many of those who hear what he has to say are astounded – though perhaps they are also puzzled. “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands![2]” In their confusion they seek to determine Jesus’ place in their community, his status or honour.  To do this they identify his profession and his parentage. They remember that he is only an artisan after all. Workers in wood and stone were not respected as we might think. There would have been no work for a craftsman in a community the size of Nazareth. A tradesperson would have had to travel to find work, leaving their family at home and without protection. Those who had to make a living in this way were considered to be “without shame” that is, without the requisite sensitivity to protect their honour.

According to his fellows then, Jesus is not deserving of honour by virtue of his trade and certainly not by virtue of his birth. The villagers classify Jesus through his mother (not his father which was the norm.) This suggests that there was a question mark around the identity of his father and therefore around the honour of his mother.

The questions voiced by the crowd then, do not express their amazement or even their familiarity. Instead they are an attempt to put Jesus in his proper place, to refuse him the honour that seems to have been granted him in the previous scene.

The problem is that there is only so much honour to go around. Jesus’ status can only be increased at the expense of someone else’s, something that these poor villagers cannot and will not allow.

Home, it appears is not a place of welcome for Jesus. During his first visit home his family try to restrain him in the belief that he “is out of his mind”. Now, when he returns home having demonstrated his power over nature, over demons and even over death those who know him best remain unmoved, even skeptical of his growing status in the wider community. In the one place in which we imagine that Jesus would want to restore people to health, he finds that he is unwelcome and that the lack of welcome limits what he is able to do.

In our time and place honour is not such a rigid commodity. People can and do achieve the unexpected, people can and do overcome the limitations of birth, lack of education and poor connections.

That said, just as Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to box him in and keep him in his place, so too do we. Jesus’ contemporaries could not see the extraordinary in the ordinary person before their eyes. They refused to see the presence of God in this tradesperson of uncertain ancestry. We too are guilty of failing to see the transcendent and miraculous in the commonplace and in the everyday routine of our lives. We are tempted to look for God in the amazing and the extraordinary, the inspirational and the other-worldly when, as the life of Jesus demonstrates, God is just as likely to be found in the ordinary and the mundane – even among those who are considered of little worth.

God, in Jesus, entered the whole experience of human existence – the exciting and the unexciting, the exhilarating and the boring. If we don’t see and experience God in every aspect of our lives, it is not because God is not present, but because we choose not to notice.

[1]The tide is changing as we begin to demand higher ethical standards of our public figures and as women confront exploitative and abusive behaviours.

[2]The exclamation mark is in the English text, perhaps it too should be a question.

A matter of life and death

June 30, 2018

Pentecost 6 – 2018

Mark 5:21-43

Marian Free

In the name of God who knows our desperation and responds with compassion and love. Amen.

What would you do if your child or someone whom you loved were dying? Would you, as some parents have done, have raised money to travel overseas to a hospital or clinic that promised a cure, or at least an extension of life? Would you try an untested miracle cure because you didn’t want to leave any stone unturned? Would you publicly challenge doctors and hospitals if they told you that nothing more could be done and that further treatment – even different and better treatment – could not reverse the damage that the disease had already wrought on your child’s body?

None of us really know what we would do until we find ourselves in that situation, but I’m sure that most of us would do everything possible to ensure that our child received the very best chance of a positive outcome.

It should come as no surprise to us then that Jairus, a leader of the synagogue, should have sought out Jesus when he knew that his daughter was dying. Jairus was desperate and despite the fact that the scribes, the Pharisees and other Jews were suspicious of Jesus to the point of seeking to kill him, Jairus’ desperation was such that it overcame any reservations that he might have had about Jesus and overrode any concern for his status within his community. He was prepared to endure any social cost if it meant that his daughter would live. So, with no regard for his position or reputation, Jairus, in the presence of the crowds, threw himself at Jesus’ feet and begged him – not once but repeatedly – to come to his daughter. Jairus was not just hopeful. He was confident that Jesus would be successful.

Can you imagine then how Jairus might have felt when Jesus stopped in his tracks? His daughter was dying and his one hope that she might live had been distracted by someone in the crowd who had touched his clothes! Every second must have seemed precious to the anxious father and any number of people in the crowd could have rubbed against Jesus, bumped him or touched his clothes. As the disciples said, how could Jesus possibly identify this one particular offender? How much worse would Jairus have felt when messengers arrived to tell him that his daughter was already dead?

It is possible to draw all kinds of conclusions from the story as it stands. For example, Jesus knew that he was going to raise the child from the dead, God’s time is different from our time and so on.

In fact, according to the story, Jairus doesn’t react at all which tells us something about the way Mark has retold these two stories. Almost certainly, the two events occurred on separate occasions[1], but Mark brings them together allowing each to interpret and emphasise the other. Mark often uses this sandwiching technique to give greater depth and emphasis to the point that he is trying to make.[2]For example by interrupting the account of Jesus’ family trying to restrain him Mark makes the point that Jesus’ family are no different from the scribes who accuse Jesus of casting out demons by Beelzebul (3:20-35). Both Jesus’ family and the scribes have failed to see the hand of God in Jesus’ actions. In the same way Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple is framed by the account of Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and the withering of the fig tree. In this way Mark implies that the failure of the Temple to bear fruit will lead to it’s destruction of the Temple (11:12-24).

In this instance, the raising of Jarius’ daughter is interrupted by the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage. By placing the two stories together in this way Mark emphasises the desperation of the woman and of Jairus and also highlights Jesus’ power to restore a person to life. The two accounts compliment and contrast with each other in a number of significant ways. They are similar in that neither Jairus nor the woman give any thought to behaving in socially acceptable ways. Jesus is their last hope for a cure and they will risk everything – including censure from the community – to tap into his healing power. The stories are also different. Jairus is a person of high status and the woman, thanks to her gender and her illness, is marginalised ostracized. Jairus seeks Jesus’ help, while the woman creeps up to steal a touch. Jesus publically engages the woman in conversation, but heals the girl behind closed doors and insists that Jairus tell no one what has happened.

The similarities between the woman and the child, the disciples and the crowd are also significant.  The woman has been afflicted for 12 years and the child, we are told, is 12 years old. The woman has reached the end of her childbearing years and the girl has reached a marriageable age. The child is physically dead and the woman has been socially dead for years. By curing the woman, Jesus restores her to her place in society and by raising the girl Jesus restores her to her family and, in time to a family of her own. Both the disciples and the mourners doubt Jesus ability – the former question whether Jesus can identify who touched him and the latter laugh when Jesus suggests that the girl can be brought back to life..

These two miracle stories are, in the end, not about Jesus’ power to heal. Mark has intertwined them so as to illustrate the relationship between faith and salvation. Jairus begs that his daughter might be saved and live. The woman is sure that if she touches Jesus’ garments she will be savedand Jesus assures her that her faith has saved herand Jesus tells Jairus not to fear, but to have faith. Faith (confidence in Jesus) is the assurance of salvation. Salvation is life – life both in the present and  in the future.

 

 

 

 

[1]The writing style for each is quite different.

[2]A technical term is “intercalation”.

In the boat with Jesus

June 23, 2018

Pentecost 5 – 2018

Mark 4:35-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who takes us where we do not want to go, accepts our fears and lack of faith and loves us still. Amen.

Today’s gospel is a great example of some of the differences between Mark’s gospel and those of Matthew and Luke.  All three tell the same story but Matthew and Luke have made significant changes in their re-telling of the event (the website “Five Gospel Parallels, places the accounts side by side. Look for Mark 4:35, Matthew 8:18 and Luke 8:22 ). Both, in slightly different ways, have pared back the story with the result that their accounts are much less detailed and therefore less colourful and dramatic than that of Mark. The changes made by Matthew and Luke also significantly change the ways in which Jesus and disciples are depicted. They have, for example, omitted some of the dialogue between Jesus and the disciples that has the effect of making the disciples less petulant and Jesus more harsh.

As I’ve said before, most scholars agree that Mark was the first person to write an account of Jesus’ life and teaching. Matthew and Luke used Mark’s gospel as the basis for their own and added material from a common source as well as material that was unique to each of them. In the process they removed much of the detail that brings the stories and the characters to life. Matthew and Mark rehabilitate the disciples and depict Jesus in such a way as to emphasise his divinity over his humanity. Mark’s gospel is much shorter than either Matthew or Luke and it has a sense of urgency. The Greek of Mark is less refined and less polished than theirs but (perhaps as a consequence) his story-telling has an immediacy that the others do not.

Mark’s account of “the calming of the storm” is the most dramatic of the three. The author tells us that it is a “great” windstorm and adds that the waves beat against the boat. (The word “great” is repeated three times, great windstorm, great calm, great fear). Mark provides the rather intimate detail that Jesus is asleep in the stern of the boat on a cushion. In Mark, Jesus doesn’t simply rebuke the wind; he also speaks to the waves saying, “Peace! Be still!” The wind ceases and there is a great calm.

According to Mark the disciples are sullen and accusatory: “Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?” (Don’t you care? Don’t you love us? How can you sleep when we are all about to lose our lives?) Jesus response is more direct – to the point of insult: “Cowards! Have you still no faith?” Mark’s Jesus is also more authoritative, the word “θιμοω” that we have translated as “be still” has the more emphatic meaning of “to put to silence” and could be translated as strongly as: “be muzzled” or more crudely as “shut up.” When all is calm, the disciples do not respond (as might be expected) with faith or even relief. They were “frightened with a great fear” and despite what Jesus has done, and what he has taught they are none the wiser as to who he might be.

Not only does Mark provide colour and detail that Matthew and Luke omit, he is not afraid to present the disciples as fallible and weak (whiney even). Jesus is depicted as vulnerable and human. Jesus is asleep – on a cushion, he is impatient and not as tolerant of the disciples than Matthew and Luke would have us believe.

There is so much more to this apparently simple miracle story, than a human Jesus and pathetic, frightened disciples. In re-telling the story, Mark  has filled it with symbolism and hidden depths that are clear only in the context of the gospel as a whole.

As an example, there is no reason for Jesus to cross the sea. It is evening, (not an ideal time for a sea crossing) and Jesus has been teaching all day (neither he, nor his disciples have made any preparation for a journey). The sea, like other locations in this gospel is a literary artifice, used by Mark for a particular purpose. It is here (after Jesus’ teaches the crowds and after the two occasions that Jesus feeds the crowds) that the confusion and ignorance of the disciples is most clearly revealed. Here, even though the disciples have been privy to personal teaching, they still have no idea whom Jesus is or what his purpose might be.

Mark also uses boundaries to great effect whether social, geographic or political. Over and over again Jesus breaks through or ignores the boundaries between Jew and Gentile, the boundaries created by purity codes and the boundaries presented by geography. In this instance the sea is the boundary between Jewish Palestine and Gentile Gerasene. It is an in-between place in which a person need not be bound by either culture and in which anything is possible. Jesus is not bound by convention or religious tradition; he knows that the Gentiles will not contaminate him.

So much more than a miracle story, Mark’s account of the calming of the sea gives us an insight into the foolishness of the disciples, their incomprehension and their lack of faith. It moves the story forward, demonstrating Jesus’ power over nature, before revealing his power over demons and his authority over death. It reminds us that Jesus was not afraid of in-between places or of people and situations that had the potential to make him unclean and that he was as comfortable on a stormy lake as he was in a home. As the gospel progresses, Mark will use these and other literary techniques to expose the true nature of Jesus and to reveal the gradual comprehension of the disciples.

All of this is very well, but of what relevance is it to us – 21st century Christians  who have the advantage of knowing who Jesus is and how the story ends? Among other things, I think this story tells us that miracles are just as likely to raise questions as they are to provide answers; that Jesus exists at the boundaries and in the in-between places, refusing to see the world in black and white; that even if Jesus is frustrated with us he doesn’t lose hope in us, and that an absence of faith is not a reason for Jesus to abandon us.

Like the disciples we take Jesus in the boat with us, we expose our fallibility and lack of faith and in the process we learn who Jesus is and discover what we can be.

 

The kingdom of God is like a weed

June 16, 2018

Pentecost 4 – 2018

Mark 4:26-34

Marian Free

In the name of God, creator of the universe, source of all life and love. Amen.

Mustard

 

 

 

 

A story that I used to read my children goes like this:

There was once a father and a mother, six handsome little boys, five lovely little girls and a chubby baby who lived in a house in the middle of town. “I’d be a happy man,” said the father, “if I had a house the right size for my family.”

The mother baked all day in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Ask Grandma to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.”

Grandma came. Straight away she began washing in the laundry. Grandpa came with her. Straight away he began to mend his car in the garage.

The mother baked more food in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Ask Uncle John to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.” Uncle John came. Straight away he sat down by the fire and put his feet on the mantelshelf. His dog came with him. He lay down on the mat by the door.

Grandma did more washing in the laundry.

Grandpa kept on mending his car in the garage.

The mother baked even more food in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Ask Aunt Debbie to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.” Aunt Debbie came. Straight away she washed her hair in the bathroom and made her face beautiful. Her cat came too. It chased Uncle John’s dog.

Uncle John sat by the fire with his feet on the mantelshelf.

Grandma did even more washing in the laundry.

Grandpa kept on mending his car in the garage.

The mother baked more than a lot of food in the kitchen.

The boys fought on the verandah.

The girls played “shops” in the parlour.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” Ask your cousin’s children to come and stay,” said the mayor. “That’s what you can do.” The cousin’s children came. There were six lively boys and six sweet girls.

The six lively boys played football with the boys on the verandah.

The six sweet girls played hide-and-seek with the girls in the parlour.

Aunt Debbie washed her hair in the bathroom and made her face beautiful. Her cat chased Uncle John’s dog.

Uncle John sat by the fire with his feet on the mantelshelf.

Grandma did even more washing in the laundry.

Grandpa kept on mending his car in the garage.

The mother baked even more than a lot of food in the kitchen.

And the baby crawled all over the place.

 

“There’s no room to move in my house,” the father said to the mayor. “What can I do?” “Send all the visitors home,” said the mayor. “That’s all you need to do.”

 

The cousins went home.

Aunt Debbie went home. She took her cat.

Uncle John went home. He took his dog.

Grandpa went home. He took Grandma with him in his car.

The six handsome little boys stopped playing to wave good-bye.

The five lovely little girls stopped playing to wave good-bye.

The mother picked up the baby to wave good-bye.

The father waved good-bye, then sat down in his favourite chair. “I’m a happy man,” he said. “My house is exactly the right size for my family.”[1]

The bible is far too serious to include stories like this that are both absurd and humorous – or is it?

I think that we often overlook the humour in our scriptures because we have been brought up to believe that scripture is the word of God and that God is a humourless being. God, the creator of heaven and earth is far too majestic a figure to have sport with mere human beings – or so we think. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if we are open to the possibility we will see that the bible makes it very clear that God has a wonderful and robust sense of humour. Think of today’s Old Testament reading – God sends Samuel off to choose a new king. First of all God tells Samuel to engage in deceit – to lead the elders of Bethlehem to believe that he has come to offer sacrifices. Then when Samuel makes Jesse produce all his sons, one by one, God rejects them all in turn. Finally Samuel makes Jesse bring David, the youngest in from the field and God reveals that he is the chosen one. Then there is the story Jonah who is swallowed by a giant fish, or the last chapters of Job in which God appears to take delight in reciting all the wonderful things that God has done. I could go on and on. The bible makes such good reading because its writers have used hyperbole and comedy to get our attention and to make the stories inviting and repeatable.

Today’s gospel is one such example. “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed,” Jesus says. Now no Palestinian in their right mind would plant a mustard seed. Mustard was a common weed. It sprang up everywhere, spread like wild fire and was difficult to eradicate. The kingdom of God is like a weed – that must have brought a smile to those who were listening. But it doesn’t end there. Jesus goes on to suggest that this common, scrappy weed grows to be the greatest of all the shrubs with large branches that provide shade in which the birds can nest! No doubt Jesus’ audience laughed out loud at this point – the image is so absurd – birds sheltering under mustard – impossible! (Matt Skinner )

Why not compare the kingdom of God to the great cedar of Lebanon – that would have made more sense? Mustard – the kingdom of God is like a common mustard bush – that’s just ridiculous.

Jesus uses humour to grab the attention and to subvert the expectations of the listeners. The absurdity of the imagery will not only make them laugh, it will also serve to move them to a new way of viewing God’s kingdom. Contrary to their expectations, the kingdom of God will not come with a shout and a bang. Its coming won’t be dramatic and showy. Like an unwanted weed the kingdom will simply spring up all over the place and quietly and gradually it will take over. Before we know it, the kingdom will be everywhere.

Jesus pairs this parable with a second comparing the kingdom to another ordinary, unexceptional event – that of a seed growing. Just as mustard spreads and takes over without any help from us, so a seed once planted, quietly does its own thing with or without our interference. We don’t have to worry about the kingdom – God has it well in hand.

So you see, we don’t always have to take the gospels seriously, we don’t always have to find deeper meanings or make the texts fit our pre-conceptions.  Sometimes we can simply take the texts at face value – simple stories about simple facts. Mustard is a weed that grows prolifically; seeds have their own mechanisms for shooting and growing.

The point is this – the kingdom of God is not necessarily a grand affair heralded by trumpets, adorned with magnificent buildings and filled with important people. It is as ordinary and insignificant as a weed, quietly taking over, pushing its way into unlikely and unexpected places and growing inexorably until it spreads throughout the world and it does all this without our help.

We need to take our scriptures less seriously and perhaps more importantly we need to take ourselves less seriously.  The kingdom does not depend on us. God has it all in hand, we can relax, have a laugh and leave it all to God.

[1]A traditional tale, re-told by Jean Chapman in Tell me a Tale: Stories, songs and things to do. Hodder and Stoughton, Australia, 1974, 86-89.

Insiders and outsiders

June 9, 2018

Pentecost 3 – 2018

Mark 3:20-35

Marian Free

In the name of God who does not observe conventional boundaries and who brings the outsider in and challenges the insider to rethink their ideals and their values. Amen.

I don’t need to tell anyone that families are complicated beasts. An ideal family provides nurturing and safe place in which there is a genuine desire that each member is given the space and resources to develop their full potential. The reality however is sometimes very different. Children, and even parents can compete with one another for the limelight. Some parents want to live out their missed opportunities through their children and others want their children to follow in their footsteps. Even though most of us have good intentions, we can unwittingly bring to our relationships our own experience of family and our unmet needs.

Families may not be perfect, but most of us stumble through and our lives are enriched by the relationships and the security that family affords and most of us retain our loyalty to and our love for our families despite their flaws.

In the first century family life was complicated by the cultural norms of honour and shame and of the collective personality. Individualism as we know it did not exist. Society consisted of a web of relationships and individuals existed in relationship only to others – primarily to their extended families. At the same time a person’s honour was their most precious possession and had to be guarded zealously. A man’s reputation (his honour) could be negatively impacted or seriously undermined not only by his deeds but also by the actions of his family (who were seen as extensions of himself). Expectations of family members were much higher a result.

According to today’s gospel Jesus’ behaviour had led his family to believe that: “he had gone out of his mind” . It is not surprising then, that they determined to “restrain him”. The reputation of his brothers, his mother and his sisters and their standing in the community were at stake. We don’t immediately hear how this part of the story works out because Mark interrupts the discussion with a comment from “the scribes who came down from Jerusalem” who, while acknowledging that Jesus was possessed of power to heal, claimed that his power derived from Satan . When Mark returns to the story of Jesus’ family the reader is shocked to hear that Jesus not only ignores their call, but completely dissociates himself from them.

By placing these stories together Mark suggests that Jesus’ family was as misguided as the scribes. They were concerned with superficial issues such as reputation. They misinterpreted his teaching, his healing and the attention of the crowds as madness. The scribes, who were perhaps threatened by Jesus’ popularity, could not believe that God was at work through him (or indeed that God could be at work in the world). They refused to believe that a nobody from Galilee could work miracles that they themselves were unable to perform. They resented the fact that Jesus was liberating the poor and the marginalised from illness and possession.

Jesus pointed out the foolishness of the scribes’ point of view. Satan, he says, simply has no interest in relinquishing his power over individuals and certainly would waste no time in setting them free from the cords that bound them – to do so would only weaken Satan and ultimately destroy him – which would be counter- productive to Satan’s goal of controlling the world!

The actions of both Jesus’ family and the scribes reveal not only their lack of understanding, but that they in fact are in league with Satan. Both have committed the “unforgivable sin” – mistaking God for Satan and by standing in the way of God’s work in the world. They are unable to see God’s compassion and grace being worked out through Jesus – in fact they reject that very possibility. They have confused the divine with its opposite and what is worse, is that both Jesus’ family and the scribes try to stop Jesus – the family by restraining him, the scribes by denouncing him. Their hearts are hardened and their eyes are blinded to the presence of God’s liberating grace. They themselves have not been set free from the powers that bind them (honour in the case of the family, cynicism in the case of the scribes) and they cannot rejoice when others are set free.

That Jesus would reject his family is shocking even now. That he would put his family in the same category as the scribes and even Satan seems utterly outrageous.

Through his teaching and healing ministry, Jesus broke apart the conventional ways of behaving and of seeing the world. He opened up new possibilities for those willing and able to recognise the potential to bring about healing and wholeness for the world. Those who had not as yet identified their own brokenness resisted and condemned him, unable to relinquish their pre-existing points of view (as to how things should be done and who should do them).

Jesus broke down the barriers that separated people from one another and from God. His acts of healing restored them to family and to society, his teaching freed them to experience God’s love and compassion in their lives. Jesus redefined the meaning of family (personal and religious)– insiders became outsiders and outsiders become insiders. Insiders were no longer defined by belief or by blood, but by their relationship to God, their willingness to see God in Jesus and their desire to work with and not against God.

Insiders were (and are) those who are not concerned with reputation or position in the world, who are not rigidly locked into a particular way of seeing things, who do not resent God’s blessings being bestowed on the unlikely and the unworthy and who are not afraid to see God at work in new and unexpected ways.

For different reasons both Jesus’ family and the scribes are determined to stop him and as a result are exposed for whom they really are – people closed to the possibility that God might be at work in the world.

Let us pray that we do not make the same mistake, but remain open, expectant and excited by what God might be yet to do.

Not an ending – a beginning

March 31, 2018

Easter Day – 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Marian Free

 In the name of God who turns darkness to light, sorrow to joy, death to life. Amen.

 When something significant happens – a natural disaster, a mass shooting, the visit of a member of the royal family – not only does everyone know about the event but nearly everyone has an opinion on the matter. A certain amount of notoriety attaches to those who were close to or involved in the event and at the same time, those who were affected by what has happened need to talk about it because they have been so traumatized by it.

Why then does Mark’s gospel end on a note of silence. The women (who have seen the empty tomb and been told that Jesus has been raised) “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Silence is an inauspicious start for what was to become the Christian faith. Silence is an inappropriate response for something as extraordinary and unexpected as the resurrection. Silence and fear detract from Jesus’ victory over death, and silence defies the young man’s explicit instruction: “go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”

There are a number of explanations for Mark’s terse and unsatisfactory ending – and I will come to them – but first let me take a step back. Those of you who followed the gospel in the pew bibles will be saying to yourselves: “but the gospel doesn’t end at verse 8.” If you look closely though, you will see that the second half of verse 8 is headed “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and verses 9-20 “The Longer Ending”. The problem is that there are no original copies of the gospels, the earliest manuscripts that we have come from the fourth century and these are copies of copies of copies. Significantly, the oldest copies of Mark end at verse 8, that, plus the fact that this is such a difficult reading has led scholars to believe that the original gospel ended here.

If that is the case, t is not surprising that the later copiests added to Mark’s ending. They would have found the lack of resurrection stories unsatisfactory and they would have wanted to find a way for Mark’s gospel to line up with the other gospels. The longer ending, for example, includes a reference to Jesus’ appearance on the road to Emmaus (Luke) and the commission to proclaim the good news to all the nations (Matthew). It also contains disturbing “proofs of faith” that do not seem to go back to Jesus– “they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them.”

So why does the author of Mark leave us hanging? Why are we left with fear and silence rather than victory and joy?

There are a number of suggestions as to why this might be. One is that those for whom the gospel was written already know the ending. They know too that the story does not end with Jesus’ resurrection, but continues in their own lives and through the experience of the gathered community. Jesus’ is alive in their midst, they themselves are the proof enough of the resurrection. The author of Mark knows that the story is far from over. It is possible that he is challenging his community – the believing community to take their place in the story, to move the story forward. In some ways the resurrection is just the beginning of the story. In fact, Mark appears to set us up for an open-ended close from the start:

“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, Son of God”. The suggestions is that gospel as written is not the whole story rather it sets the scene for a story that is just beginning[1].

Another perspective suggestion is that the women find the tomb empty because Jesus has better things to do. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus doesn’t wait around for the disciples to come and process the resurrection, to chat with him, to eat with him. Jesus gets on with what he has to do and leaves a messenger to remind the disciples (in this case the women) of something that he said while he was still alive – that they were to meet up with him in Galilee where it all began. They are to go back to the beginning, but they go back as people who are profoundly different from the people that they were at the start of their discipleship. Having experienced the ending, the disciples are sent back to the beginning from where they will be able to see the story with fresh eyes. The contradictions and confusion that they experienced during Jesus’ ministry will, hopefully, now make sense to them. With any luck they will now understand that Jesus’ suffering had a purpose and that his vulnerability was in fact a strength[2].

Yet another explanation for the abrupt ending is that while Mark is well aware of the importance of the resurrection for the story and for the disciples, he is equally conscious that the ambiguity that attended Jesus’ ministry will continue in the lives of believers. That is, despite the resurrection, the believing community will experience suffering and rejection. Like Jesus they will be misunderstood and sought out for the wrong reasons.

Then again, Mark might just be chiding the community (through the women) for their lack of faith. Three times Jesus has explicitly predicted his death and resurrection and three times the disciples showed by their response how little they understand. Now, three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, the women come to the tomb expecting to find a body when they had been promised a resurrection. It is possible that Mark is challenging the community for whom he writes to maintain an openness to the possibility that God will do the unexpected so that, unlike the women, they will not be caught by surprised, they will not be traumatized and confounded when God does not meet their expectations and they will trust that God will do what God has promised to do.

Centuries later the ending of Mark’s gospel presents us with a mystery – a mystery with a purpose. It asks us to consider:

Do we understand that we are part of the ongoing story of the gospel?

Are we able to accept and to live with the contradictions of the gospel – that it is in service and through suffering that we draw close to and are formed in the image of God?

Are we aware that as followers of Jesus life will not always be easy and that we can expect the same treatment from our contemporaries as he received from his?

Do we trust that God will do what God has promised to do?

Finally, have we locked God into one version of the story or are we alert, open and expectant – ready for God to do God’s next new thing?

Mark’s gospel does not end tidily because there are no tidy endings. Indeed the story of Jesus has not and will not come to an end.

 

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

[1] David Lose. Working Preacher

[2] Lance Pape, Working Preacher

How is your relationship with Jesus?

March 24, 2018

Palm Sunday – 2018

Mark 14:1 – 15:27

Marian Free

In the name of God who asks us to retain an openness to the world around us so that we don’t mistake Jesus for a trouble-maker and miss him altogether. Amen.

We interrupt this bulletin to bring you some breaking news. Police have called for back up to quell a potential riot in the small regional town of Woiwoorung. Crowds from all over the region have descended on the town for the annual music festival. The usual levels of excitement and anticipation are threatening to spill over into mob behavior with the arrival in town of one Jesse Bunda. Jesse, a young indigenous woman, is well-known to police. She is a controversial figure who has been attracting crowds wherever she goes. Jesse has been spreading the message that the regional authorities are inefficient and corrupt. She has been suggesting that those who live beyond the town have the power to take things into their own hands to create better lives for themselves.

Some people are drawn to her and almost as many are disturbed by her presence, her actions and her words. The authorities in particular are wishing that she simply would fade away. As we speak, the police have the situation in hand, but they are worried that there might be a stand-off between Jesse’s supporters and those who see themselves as the brunt of her criticism.

At this moment the streets of Woiwoorung are continuing to fill with people. They are spilling out of their homes and businesses, from the pubs, the shops and the school just to catch a glimpse of the person who is causing such a stir. There is so much excitement in the usually quiet town that people are climbing on to cars and the backs of trucks. They are calling out, waving clothes and branches – doing whatever they can to catch Jesse’s attention. The populace is wondering whether Jesse will dare to speak here – here in front of the authorities of whom she has been so critical. Until now the influential people of the town have, of course, known about Jesse and what she has been doing, but they had thought of her as a harmless eccentric whose influence would die out as quickly as it had grown. They were completely unprepared for today’s reaction.

Our reporters on the ground tell us that it is almost impossible for the local police to see what is going on. At any moment things might turn ugly especially if those who support the status quo decide to take on those who are challenging it.

Keep watching as we bring you the latest developments.

It is easy for us, from the perspective of our comfortable, middle-class Anglicanism, to think of Jesus as a benign and comforting figure, to forget that in his day he was difficult, confrontational and divisive. As much as there were people who welcomed him and his message, there were those who viewed him with anxiety and suspicion – even with alarm. Almost from the start of his ministry Jesus angered and offended the leaders of his day – the Pharisees, the scribes and the priests. Jesus blatantly broke the Sabbath law and presumed to forgive sins – something that was God’s prerogative. He called the Pharisees hypocrites and told parables that implied that the authorities were greedy and corrupt. And the people he mixed with – well no decent, law-abiding person would have been seen dead with them, let alone have eaten with them or, worse still, included them among their companions. Those in authority could have been forgiven for thinking that he was inciting insurrection – after all the crowds seemed to hang on his every word and at any moment they could have turned against them. Jesus was provocative, disruptive and troublesome. No wonder that those charged with keeping the peace wanted to subdue and restrain him. No wonder they wanted to get rid of him.

From time to time I find myself asking: “If Jesus were among us today, would I recognise him (or her)? Would I find Jesus challenging and disturbing or comforting and reassuring? Would I try to protect the status quo or would I join Jesus in challenging structures and norms that had become unwieldy and unhelpful? Would I have the courage to own up to and let go of my hypocrisy?” The answer is, “I don’t know.” I can only hope that I have not created a Jesus who makes feel comfortable and secure and that I am able to retain an openness to who Jesus might have been and who Jesus might be if he were to appear in front of me today.

We should never be so comfortable in our faith that we do not allow our ideas to be challenged. We should never be so complacent that we allow ourselves to think that we know all there is to know and we should never simply assume that we alone are on the side of right.

Two thousand years ago, those who thought they knew who and what to expect called for Jesus to be put to death. Let us hope that we do not make the same mistake.

How is your relationship with Jesus? Would you know Jesus if he were right in front of you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whose side are you on?

February 24, 2018

Lent 2 – 2018

Mark 8:31-39

Marian Free

In the name of God, Earth Maker, Pain Bearer, Life Giver. Amen.

Last week I suggested that Jesus’ experience in the wilderness was a means of preparing him for what was to come. The hostile environment, the privations and the encounter with Satan could be seen a foretaste of what Jesus could expect as he began his ministry as one who had been named the Son of God. From start to finish, Jesus will encounter misunderstanding, antagonism and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his own disciples. If he could withstand the difficulties that he faced in the desert, he (and God) could be comfortable that he would be able to survive the forces that would oppose him as he attempted to share the good news.

Today’s gospel takes a great leap forward from Jesus’ baptism and temptation. What that means is that we have not been following Mark’s story line and so we have not seen the way in which the tensions between Jesus and his opponents build and develop. We have not been privy to the threats against Jesus’ life that began as early as chapter 3.

To bring you up to speed then: after Jesus’ baptism he is driven into the wilderness where he is tested or tried out by Satan. During the course of his ministry the demons confront him, the leaders of the church challenge and criticize him, his family are concerned that he is mad and now we discover that Peter, one of Jesus’ inner circle, is among those who would oppose or even prevent Jesus’ mission. So serious is Peter’s misunderstanding that Jesus accuses Peter of being Satan or the adversary.

Today’s passage, with the one that precedes it, is the climax of Mark’s gospel. In the verses immediately preceding those we have just read, Jesus asks the disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” They respond: “John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets.” Jesus then asks: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds: “You are the Christ.” Peter has spoken the truth, but what follows demonstrates that Peter knows and understands only half the truth. His understanding of the Christ is limited. It has been conditioned by the cultural expectations of his time and, despite the fact that he has been with Jesus since the beginning, his experiences have not impacted on his expectations.

In Mark’s gospel Jesus is very reluctant to make his identity public. Jesus is well aware that he will fail to meet the hopes of many of the people. He knows that those who were expecting God to send someone to restore the glory of Israel – politically, economically, spiritually – will be seriously disappointed. Jesus does not reveal who he is because he knows that he will be misunderstood. Contrary to the popular thought, Jesus will not be a Christ who will lead the people to a triumphant victory over Rome. He is not a Christ who will restore the purity of the Temple worship. Jesus is neither a warrior nor a high priest.

So, when Peter declares him to be the Christ, Jesus’ qualifies Peter’s declaration with a description of the future that he, as the Christ, can expect. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

Peter has so misunderstood Jesus’ ministry that he is shocked to the core by Jesus’ revelation and so validates Jesus’ belief that he will be misunderstood. In fact, Peter is so shocked that he immediately tries to convince Jesus that he is mistaken.

If Peter’s declaration that Jesus’ is the Christ is the climax of the gospel, then Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction is the other side of that fulcrum. The stakes are high – as is demonstrated by the strong language that is used in this passage. “Epitimaō” the word that is translated as “rebuke” in our versions of the New Testament, means “to overcome with a powerful word”. It can be used to demonstrate the way in which Jesus exercises power over the demons and over the natural elements. In other words it is used in the context of the fierce battle between the demons and the divine. On Peter’s lips it could be translated, “Shut up! Don’t say such things!” On Jesus’ lips, as the text makes clear, it suggests that Jesus understood Peter to be taking the side of the demonic forces that opposed Jesus. Jesus’ response is to tell Peter to go away. A better translation of “Get behind me, Satan,” is: “Depart behind me Satan” (in other words, “Get out of my sight, you have no place alongside the divine”). Not surprisingly, this is the same language used by Matthew when Jesus casts out demons. Jesus banishes Peter not only because he so spectacularly fails to understand but also because he has the arrogance to presume that he knows better than God what lies ahead. In that moment Peter has shown himself to be on the side of Jesus’ opponents who want to prevent him from fulfilling his destiny.

The language of this passage tells us that this is not a simple disagreement between Peter and Jesus but “a life-and-death clash between the divine and the diabolical”.[1]

This brief interchange between Jesus and Peter shows how much is at stake if we fail to truly grasp who and what Jesus is, if we try to contain Jesus through simple and well-worn categories or if we think that we know better than God. Jesus’ crucifixion is proof-positive that God acts in ways that we do not expect and that we cannot comprehend. The cross throws into relief all our false ideas, our hopes and expectations. Jesus is not all-powerful and all-knowing, but vulnerable and subject to misunderstanding. Jesus’ life, ministry and ultimately Jesus’ death forces us to continually rethink our ideas about God – who is not triumphant, who does not exert God’s will over us and who shows in high relief the distinction between the divine and its opposite.

Jesus is not and will not be who or what we expect. So let us not make Peter’s mistake of assuming that we know and understand, but rather suspend our certainty so that we can learn from Christ who and what he is.

 

 

 

 

[1] C. Clifton Black, workingpreacher.org. Lent 2 2018.


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