Archive for the ‘Mark’s gospel’ Category

If only …

October 20, 2018

Pentecost 22 – 2018

Mark 10:35-45

Marian Free

In the name of God, who values us for who we are – not for who we might wish to be. Amen.

Few of us are so secure in ourselves that we do not need affirmation. Not being sufficiently confident in our own abilities, we look to others to confirm that we have value, that our talents are recognised or that we have some sort of authority in and of ourselves. People seek this recognition in both indirect and direct ways. A common expression of the subtle approach can be observed when an obviously talented person demurs when complimented. “Oh, it’s not really that good,” they might say, in response to being told that what they have done is remarkable. Such false humility is often a way of fishing for more recognition. The person in question may well be hoping to be reassured. “Please insist that my work is great,” might be the sub-text of their outward modesty.

A more direct way to attract attention and acclaim is to boast about one’s recent (or past) achievements – “Here’s my latest book, my most recent embroidery, my promotion and so on.” (“Please tell me how clever, how talented I am.” This group of people, while appearing to be more confident in themselves and their abilities than the former, are still hopeful that by sharing their successes they will receive praise for what they have done. Even though their achievements are on display, and they themselves are obviously proud of what they have done, their self-belief is sufficiently shaky that their achievement is as nothing if it is not noticed by others.

Another way in which people seek to bolster their own sense of worth is to exercise power over those who are more vulnerable or less able than themselves. By imposing their will on others – whether through bullying or simply through the force of their personality, they have a (albeit false) sense of superiority. (The exercise of power over others allows them to feel that there are some people who have less value than themselves. In turn their own sense of worth is increased.)

Human beings are complex creatures which means that any or all of us might engage in any one of these behaviours to a greater or lesser extent over the course of our life-times.

Of course, all our posturing – whether it is false modestly, misplaced pride or lording it over others – is a waste of time and energy. Other people can usually see through our outward behaviour to the insecurity that drives it. This means that the hoped for effect of our modesty, our boasting or our “authority” is the opposite from that for which it is designed. Instead of gaining respect, we are diminished in the eyes of others who see what lies behind our outward behaviour.

In today’s gospel, James and John are seeking recognition from Jesus. We only have the bald text, so we don’t really know the reasons behind their request. It is possible that they want reassurance from Jesus that they are special, that they want Jesus to affirm that have something to offer him that the other disciples do not. Perhaps they are feeling insecure – in relation to the future, in respect to their place in Jesus’ opinion or their position in Jesus’ community.

It is no wonder the other disciples are enraged. They too are insecure.( Immediately prior to today’s encounter Peter has effectively asked: “What about us? What is in it for us?” (10:28)) Their confidence in themselves and their position also needs bolstering.

It is clear that neither James and John, nor the other ten, have been paying attention to Jesus. Twice in recent times Jesus has presented a child as the model for discipleship. According to Jesus discipleship is not about power and authority. It has nothing to do with competing with one another for recognition or affirmation and everything to do with childlike trust in God. The kingdom is not something to be claimed, but something to be received. A place in the kingdom is not to be earned. It is something we are given.

On the threshold of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the disciples make it blatantly clear that they still fail to understand Jesus’ mission, Jesus’ proclamation and Jesus’ fate. Nothing that Jesus has said has penetrated their thick skulls. This close to Jesus’ suffering and death, they demonstrate by their actions and words that they still think in human terms. They cannot let go of the very human need for affirmation, they cannot believe that Jesus’ choice of them is already an affirmation of their worth and they cannot exhibit that childlike confidence that who and what they are is sufficient in itself.

Over and over again, Jesus has overturns human constructs and asks us to see the world through his eyes – through the eyes of God. Throughout his life, Jesus modelled a complete self-assurance and a self-belief that comes through self-acceptance and the conviction that placing himself completely in the hands of God was the best and healthiest approach to whatever situation he found himself in. Through his submission to death on a cross, Jesus demonstrated that even the most debased and humiliating experience could be turned into a victory.

If only we could accept our own value in God’s eyes. If only we could be secure and assured in ourselves. If only we were so confident of our own worth that we could let go of competitiveness, give up striving for greatness, and be content without recognition – we would be more at peace with the world, and the world itself would be at peace.

If only …….




God gives – we receive. It’s that simple

October 13, 2018

Pentecost 21 – 2018

Mark 10:17-31

Marian Free

In the name of God who gives us everything and demands nothing in return. Amen.

The importance of life-long learning is that not only does it broaden our minds and our understanding, but that it also it assists in putting misconceptions and falsehoods to bed. Many of us will have been brought up with the “fact” that there was a gate in the wall in Jerusalem through which travellers could pass once the gates had been closed for the evening. This gate, we were told, was substantially smaller than the main city gates and, while sufficient for a person, could only be passed through by a camel if its load had been removed and if the camel itself stooped to its knees. When one really thinks about it, the story has to be apocryphal – can anyone really imagine a camel crawling on its knees, or a weary traveller taking the load off his camel only to replace it once the camel is through the gate? A smart trader would have timed the journey to arrive when the gate was opened in the morning and close to the time that the market was scheduled to open.

There never was such a gate in Jerusalem but the mythology has prevailed. At the same time much ink has been spent in trying to explain Jesus’ statement about the “eye of a needle” – for example, is the word translated as “camel” really meant to be translated as “rope”[1]?

The story of the gate (and the apparent need for it to be explained) goes some way to illustrate the difficulties that many have in coming to terms with the story of the encounter between Jesus and the young man. So little information is provided by the text that we find ourselves adding details that are not there. For example, though we are not told as much, we speculate that the young man was unhappy with his life or that his possessions controlled him. To let ourselves off the hook we make out that Jesus’ direction to “sell what you own” applied only to the situation of the young man. When we focus on the aspect of the young man’s possessions, we miss other details that are significant. Why, when only about 3% of the population live above the poverty line, would the disciples be “perplexed” and ask: “Then who can be saved?” It is an odd response. Surely, they do not think that everyonein the first century Mediterranean is too wealthy to be saved[2]? Is it possible that they (the disciples) think that they won’t be saved?

A further point of interest is Jesus’ reaction to the young man. It is the only occasion in Mark’s gospel that we are told that Jesus loved someone (and that the one so loved turns his back on that love).

Our focus on the needle and the gate demonstrates a certain discomfort around the question of riches and possessions – how rich is too rich? How many possessions are too many? From positions of relative comfort in the Western world we seek to work out how Jesus’ conversation with the young man applies to us and this is important. The gospel has some very clear messages about wealth and our use of our resources.

Without wanting to minimise that aspect of the gospel, I believe that it is important to examine the story of the young man (Mark does not call him ‘rich’) in its context.

We not that immediately before the young man approaches Jesus, Jesus blesses the children and claims that; “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it”. As Hamm points out, one does not earn an inheritance, one receivesit. It may be then that the young man’s question is misplaced. He asks: “What must I do?” Unlike the children who simply accept and receive what is offered, the young man believes that he must earneternal life.

Perhaps the problem lies here. The issue at the heart of this encounter is one of trust. The young man does not trust in the promises of God, he believes that though he is doing what is required by the law that there is yet more that he must do. This explains why he fails to see (or accept) that Jesus loves him. He does not accept that he is worthy of God’s love. We assume that he turns away because his possessions have a hold on him but it is possible that he simply has no confidence that Jesus loves him and will continue to love him – no matter what he does or does not do.

Our concern with the wealth of the young man allows us to pass over the disciples’ almost inexplicable confusion and Jesus’ response; “With mortals it is impossible, but not for God, with God all things are possible.” Mortals, mere humans can never do enough, be good enough to earn God’s favour – perfection, godliness is impossible. No matter – God dispenses God’s favour and love lavishly and indiscriminately. Our task is to trust in that love and to see where that trust might lead us. Along the way we just may discover that there are all kinds of things (possessions, resentments, insecurities) that we might just be able to dispense with.

God’s love is a given. Just as Jesus loved the young man – as he was – so God loves us, just as we are.

God gives – we receive. It may just be that simple.



[1]In this instance, Jesus is not being original. We can find similar sayings in other ancient texts (Jewish and otherwise). It simply means that something is unlikely if not impossible.

[2]They are right to be confused. In their culture wealth was associated with honour and status and, most importantly in relation to their question, with divine favour. Wealth was a blessing, a sign of being in a right relationship with God.

God’s trust in us

October 6, 2018

Pentecost 20 – 2018.

Mark 10:2-16

Marian Free

In the name of God who trusts us to make wise and compassionate decisions in a changing world. Amen.

I am applying for a new passport. The last time I applied the choice of gender was simply between male and female. Now there is an opportunity to tick a box “Indeterminate/Intersex/Unspecified”. A lot has changed in ten years. When discussing the School’s report at Synod yesterday one of the comments/questions related to the way in which one of our schools handled the sensitive issue of a child who was ‘transitioning’ from one gender to another (you may have seen reference to this on the news). The person who brought the issue to our attention praised the response of the school and asked whether there was a uniform approach to similar situations across Anglican schools. I have to admit that I was surprised, but pleased, to hear that in January the Heads of Schools will be addressed by an expert in that field.

I had a fairly enlightened upbringing. In an era in which divorce was spoken of in hushed whispers, my parents spoke openly of the few members of the church and among their acquaintances whose marriages came to an end. In the past fifty years or so there have been many changes to our social and cultural landscape that could not have been envisaged 50 years ago or even 15 years ago. We laughed at Mr Humphries in Are you Being Served, but did not imagine that gay marriage would become part of the social fabric, or that gay couples would become natural or adoptive parents. During my childhood the notion that there were people, even children, who felt that they had been born into the wrong body would have been completely novel to a majority of the population.

If the difference between the world of my childhood and the world today is huge, the differences between first century Palestine and 21st century Australia are vast as is the gap between the composition of the Torah and the time of Jesus. It would have been absolutely impossible for the writer of Genesis and Deuteronomy to envisage, let alone write for a time and culture so different from its own. It would have been equally difficult for Jesus to make pronouncements in the first century that would be as relevant now as they were then.

There is great wisdom in having only Ten Commandments – universal principles that govern our life together – as opposed to writing detailed, prescriptive laws that would prevent us from responding to changes and developments in the world around us.

The problem is that the lack of detail forces us to look for overarching principles as we seek to govern our lives together.

Todays’ gospel is more complex than a superficial reading would suggest. It includes two apparently distinct periscopes – one the question of divorce and the second Jesus’ welcome of children despite the disapproval of his disciples, Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and what Jesus says to his disciples. A closer look suggests that the stories were put together in order to emphasise the point that Jesus seems to be making – a view that is reinforced by a consideration of both the immediate and wider context. Earlier, in chapter nine, Jesus has placed a child in the midst of the disciples and said: “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” In first century Palestine children had no legal status and little to no value. Not only is Jesus identifying with those who are vulnerable and powerless, he is elevating them to his position! In today’s gospel Jesus welcomes and blesses the children whom the disciples consider to be beneath his notice. It seems clear that the writer is making a point about Jesus’ concern for those who have no status, no agency and no voice. He is overturning accepted behaviour and claiming another way of seeing the world or of responding to those of no account. This is reinforced by his earlier tirade against disciples who would cause harm to any of these “little ones” saying that; “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Such strong language is indicative of Jesus’ passion for the inclusion and protection of those who have no voice.

Jesus modelled both in his teaching and his actions a concern for those who were marginalised, disempowered and disenfranchised. He showed little respect for the social norms and cultural mores of his time. He demonstrated that compassion, tolerance and understanding overrode convention and tradition and he continued to welcome, include and call those who were reviled and excluded by his fellow countrymen and women. He implied that no law could ever adequately reflect the will of God and that laws, no matter how well intentioned, were a concession to human frailty and could not be held valid for all time and in all places.

We do not have a crystal ball to tell us what the future might throw at us. We cannot guess what we have still to learn about the human condition. What we do know is that God who created us loves us in all our wonderful diversity and complexity, that God in Jesus has demonstrated God’s concern for the vulnerable and dispossessed and that God has faith in us to make decisions that will lead to the inclusion and valuing and healing of all our brothers and sisters.

Doing more harm than good

September 29, 2018

Pentecost 19 – 2018

Mark 9:38-50

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires that we do not behave in ways that would cause others to lose or to question their faith. Amen.

When my children were small the Parish organised a trip to the musical “Godspell”. I was looking forward to sharing with them this laid-back, light-hearted look at the life of Jesus. Imagine my horror when the players began to talk about cutting off hands and feet and tearing out eyes! I hadn’t remembered that being in the movie version. Thankfully the words appear to have gone over my children’s heads, but I was deeply disturbed that they had been exposed to language that associated the Christian faith with such violence. What sort of Saviour demands behaviour such as this? My initial reaction (as someone who was at the beginning of my biblical studies degree) was to believe that these words were an invention of the writer of Luke’s gospel who, for some reason, wanted to terrify members of his community into good behaviour. This hope was quickly shattered when I discovered that the sayings were repeated in all three of the Synoptic gospels suggesting that they originated with Jesus.

Scholars vary greatly in their interpretation of this passage. Yarbo-Collins points to evidence that in the first century the language (hands/feet) was code for the penis and that Jesus was speaking specifically of sins of a sexual nature. Pilch on the other hand believes that a reading of the Bible tells us that humans were believed to consist of three interlocking zones. Hands and feet, he argues, symbolised “purposeful activity”; whereas eyes were integrally related to the heart, the source of information that the heart used to make decisions. Still others suggest that Jesus was using exaggeration to make it clear how important this theme was to him.

We are at somewhat of a disadvantage both because we are not privy to what was going on in Jesus’ head and because we cannot time travel back to the first century. We are also hampered by the way in which the lectionary divides the gospel of Mark to provide us with bite-sized Sunday readings[1].

If we consider the text in its context in Mark, we are reminded that, before John distracted Jesus with the issue of the exorcist, Jesus had placed a child in the midst of the disciples and said: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” In response to Jesus’ announcement that he will suffer, the disciples have begun a conversation about who is the greatest. Jesus reminds them that in the kingdom the least is the greatest and stresses the importance of a child, or child-like faith, within the community. Amazingly, the disciples do not get it. They move from arguing among themselves to being incensed that someone else is moving into their patch (exorcising a demon which, to their simple understanding, should be a task reserved for them)!

Jesus reacts with not a little exasperation – just as the disciples are not called to compete with one another in regard to their position in the community, so they are not to compete with outsiders in regard to doing things in Jesus’ name. Being a part of the community of faith is not about “big noting” oneself at the expense of others, nor is it about preventing others from doing good or about deciding through whom God can work. It is possible that their parochialism and exclusivism may actually do more damage than good.

John’s question serves to allow Jesus to amplify the point that he was making beforethe interruption – about the importance of the “little ones” in the community – those who are more vulnerable, more at risk of harm and less able to understand complex issues. Self-aggrandisement and finger-pointing both have the effect of preventing self-awareness. Worrying about greatness, or being precious about who does what, allows the disciples to ignore or over-look their own shortcomings – short-comings that have the potential to injure or to destroy the faith of members of the community.

In a very strongly-worded repetitive tirade, Jesus demands that the disciples look first to themselves and to their own behaviour. Instead of worrying about someone exorcising a demon (which has the potential for good) they should excise the arrogance and protectionism in their own lives (which has the potential for harm) and which blinds them to their own faults and to the damage they are unknowingly inflicting on others.

Whether or not we accept that Jesus is using code or exaggeration or symbolism in this passage, the sheer violence of the language forces us to accept that for Jesus this is a very serious matter. He will not, cannot, accept behaviour that leads to the loss of faith or to the harming of a member of the community.

The institutional church would do well to take these verses very seriously. In the west the very foundations of many churches have been shaken by the revelation of child sex abuse behind which lay, among other things, a desire to protect the reputation of the institution rather than a care for the ‘little ones”. In Australia, the Royal Commission into Child Sexual Abuse has discovered that, as far as the Anglican Church is concerned, only one third of the victims are prepared to trust the church with their story. In the cases of two thirds of the victims then, the harm inflicted on them means that their faith or their potential to come to faith or to trust in the church has been utterly and permanently destroyed. Our own protectionism and sense of self-importance have led to irreparable harm.

As we seek to offer redress to those who have been harmed by our actions and by our lack of action it is vital that we examine the underlying systemic issues that allowed such violence to be perpetrated and worse that to its being covered up or ignored. Instead of believing that the Royal Commission is the beginning of the end of this story it is essential that we examine our structures and to identify what it is about the culture of our institutions that allowed such harm to not only occur, but to be perpetuated and to change our organisations such that any behaviour, any action or inaction that allows another member to be hurt by what we do is quickly and readily identified and corrected so that the ’little ones’ are not harmed by what we do and do not do, and that in the future our behaviour does not lead to another inquiry into why we behaved so badly and were blind to the damage we inflicted.

[1]The headings in our bibles are also liable to send us off in the wrong direction.

Do not be afraid

September 22, 2018

Pentecost 18 – 2018

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

In the name of God who sees us as we are and loves us still. Amen.

Imagine this – in a small country church there are two women. Each woman has a daughter and each daughter has a daughter. The woman in the middle is both a daughter and a mother and she is addicted to illegal drugs. Our church-going women tell no one of their situation, not even their church community. They are worried that other members of the congregation will think less of them if they know of the family’s situation. For some reason, are ashamed of their situation, too embarrassed to share their grief and powerlessness with members of the church family. And, because they do not feel comfortable sharing their pain, they remain unaware that someone else is in exactly the same situation. They do not know that within their very own church community there is another grandmother standing by helplessly, unable to intervene fearful of losing contact with her granddaughter altogether.

Because they hide their pain and their shame inside, they deprive themselves not only of the mutual support they could give each other, but also of the help and encouragement of other members the congregation. They deny the community the community the opportunity to provide support and prayer. Almost certainly nothing except divine intervention will change the situation but imagine how different their day-to-day lives would be if they knew that members of the community were holding them, their daughters and granddaughters in prayer. Imagine what a difference it would make if they shared with each other their anxieties and their griefs. How much stronger the congregation could be if together they took on one another’s burdens?

Now imagine the same small community in which a woman has a daughter who has a granddaughter who has the more socially acceptable diagnosis of a brain tumour. This grandmother has no fear of sharing her grief and anxiety with the congregation who prayer week after week, day after day for the grandchild. When that grandmother comes to church she is assured of sympathy and concern. Everyone knows what is happening and shares the devastation the grandmother feels whenever the child has setbacks and her joy when things are going well.  This grandmother has the assurance that the whole community is holding her family in their hearts and in their prayers. Eventually the child recovers. The community that grieved together can rejoice together.

I am sometimes saddened by the fact that many of us who are members of a church community feel unable or unwilling to be vulnerable, to have our weaknesses exposed to one another. It seems that we are afraid that if our fellow worshippers know that we struggle with depression, that we get angry more easily than we should, that we resent the impositions made upon us, that our income barely stretches to cover our expenses or any number of real or perceived failings, that they will think less of us for it. Instead of believing that the Christian community is the one place in which we can be truly ourselves, the one place where we might hope to receive unconditional love and the best forum from which to seek advice, support and help, we imagine that we have to present an image that best represents what we think that they think a “good” Christian would be like.

None of us like our weaknesses to be laid bare – a situation that is all too evident in today’s gospel. Jesus tells the disciples – for the second time – that he is going to suffer and die. Clearly the disciples do not understand this anymore now than they did the first time Jesus told them. This is understandable – nowhere in the gospels does Jesus expand on his announcement or explain why this might happen. According to the context he simply states: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” Nothing in scripture, or in their tradition, has prepared the disciples for a suffering, dying Christ. They must have been perplexed that their leader had no vision for the future beyond his death, no plan for the community that had built up around him. They must have wondered what they were expected to do when he had left them. If they were confused, they didn’t show or express it. They didn’t ask: “What do you meant? What will happen to us?”  They kept quiet because, as we are told: “they were afraid to ask him.”

Why were they afraid to ask? Surely the future of their movement depended on their understanding what sort of Saviour they were following.  Were they afraid of appearing foolish to the other disciples or to Jesus? Were they worried that Jesus might think less of them if they revealed their ignorance? Were they afraid of what the answer might be? Were they worried that their fear might make them appear childish? Whatever the reason for their fear they do what anyone else would have done – they cover up their fear, their vulnerability and their ignorance with bravado. They compete with each other as to who is the greatest. They are not vulnerable but strong, not foolish but knowledgeable. As if anyone is fooled by their talk! Jesus certainly is not duped. He knows exactly what is going on and he confronts it head on.

Not only does Jesus know that they were arguing, he points out that it is what they are arguing about – not their failure to understand that has revealed just how foolish they are.  The way to greatness in the kingdom is not gained by competing with one another, not by being stronger, smarter or richer. Greatness in Jesus’ eyes is measured by vulnerability, trust and dependence, a by a willingness to admit to not knowing everything above by being like the child Jesus places in their midst.

The disciples have it so wrong – as do we!

If only we had had the courage to acknowledge our vulnerability and to confront our weaknesses, we as church may not have covered up child sex abuse out of a sense of shame and embarrassment. If we had been more willing to ask questions of God and of the scriptures, we may have avoided the centuries of condoning domestic violence and condemning divorce. If we were more open about our imperfections, more willing to trust others with our real selves more people might have been drawn into our number rather than being put off by our apparent goodness or disgusted by our obvious hypocrisy.

Over and over again in the gospels we hear the refrain: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid to show your real self to others. Do not be afraid to ask for help. Do not be afraid to question God and question the scriptures. Do not be afraid to trust God and others with your weaknesses, your imperfections, your fears and your doubt.

Do not be afraid – and who knows – you and the whole church might just be stronger for it.




On the side of Satan???

September 15, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

In the name of God who through Jesus reveals something of Godself to the world. Amen.

 Today I’d like to do something a little different. I invite you to take a few moments now to think about your image of Jesus –

Do you, as some people do, think of Jesus as your friend or is Jesus the judge who is watching you to catch you out in some minor or major misdemeanour?

In your imagination is Jesus enthroned or on the cross; coming in glory or mingling with friends?

Do you see Jesus as a tiny baby who is dependent on others or as a self-confident adult who takes on the power brokers of the church? Is the Jesus you relate to powerful or vulnerable?

is your Jesus a benign teller of stories, a “don’t rock the boat” sort of person or is your Jesus an uncomfortable radical who challenged the establishment?

Did “your” Jesus ask his followers to support the status quo or to struggle for justice?

In your mind is Jesus someone who comforts and mends or someone who breaks down barriers and takes you out of your comfort zone?

Is Jesus always male for you or do the images of the Christa[1]inform your picture of Jesus?


There is an old hymn that references a number of different ways in which people have thought of/named Jesus. In Together in Song it is hymn 205 and over the course of 12 verses the hymn explores a number of expressions that have been applied to Jesus – “Redeemer, Angel, Prophet, Counsellor, Pattern, Guide, Surety, High-Priest, Advocate, Conqueror, King, and Captain” and each term is expanded on in some way.

“I love my Shepherd’s voice,

his watchful eyes shall keep

my wandering soul among

the thousands of his sheep:

he feeds his flock, he calls their names,

his bosom bears the tender lambs.”

Today the language of Isaac Watts is foreign and even peculiar, but it reflects the ways in which people saw Jesus in the 18thcentury.

Even the  New Testament includes a variety of expressions to refer to Jesus. These include: “Lord”, “Saviour”, “Shepherd”, “Lamb”, “True Vine”, and “Bread of Life”.

It seems that no one image is enough to capture all that Jesus was and is. At different times and in different places people have different experiences of Jesus that inform how they name Jesus and how they relate to him. Depending on where we are in our life’s journey we too might experience Jesus differently over the course of a life-time.

In my childhood the picture of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” was the predominant image. Jesus was depicted as a benevolent social worker who went around doing good. He did not challenge the system but accepted and therefore supported the world as it was. For many people that image still holds but, during the twentieth century there was a growing awareness that Jesus might have been anything but mild-  at least on occasion. For example, when Jesus saw the money changers in the Temple he was sufficiently enraged that he fashioned a whip to drive them out of the Temple. It is hard to miss the fact that Jesus was a change-agent who was incensed by injustice and frustrated by the complacency and self-satisfaction of the leaders of the church. And, as we see today, he was not afraid to accuse even his closest followers of being Satan.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” This question is the climax of Mark’s gospel. Until now Jesus’ identity has been veiled; and from now on Jesus will gradually reveal his true nature to his disciples until it is finally announced by the centurion at the foot of the cross.

Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say that I am?” Then he asks: “Who do you say that I am?” it is clear from the responses that those who came into contact with Jesus drew a number of different conclusions as to who he was based on their expectations and their experience – John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the Christ, but when Jesus goes on to clarify what that means, Peter is sufficiently confused that he rebukes him. It is beyond Peter’s comprehension that the Christ should suffer, be rejected and die. Peter obvious hoped that Jesus would be a Christ who would be triumphant in a worldly sense, that he would either reform the church or oust the Romans.

His misunderstanding causes Jesus to react in a way that seems completely out of proportion to Peter’s response. He says angrily: “Get behind me Satan!” That he would call his closest friend and most significant disciple Satan, demonstrates the seriousness of Peter’s misunderstanding. In Jesus’ eyes Peter is so far off the mark in his comprehension of who Jesus is that he has put himself on the side of evil rather than the side of good.

While it is true that there are many different ways to think of Jesus, we must never be complacent and self-satisfied, never think that ours is the only view and never think that we really know who Jesus is. We must keep an open mind, continue to explore scripture for the answers to our questions keep on building and developing our personal relationship with Jesus so that at last we can feel that we truly know him.

As today’s reading shows us, this exploration is not an added extra to our faith but an essential element. The consequences of being mistaken in our understanding of Jesus could be catastrophic. We could be so far from the truth that, like Peter, we could be found to be  on the side of Satan.


[1]For example Sydney Nolan, for others see for example:

God’s holiness making us holy

September 8, 2018

Pentecost 17 – 2018

Mark 7:24-37

Marian Free

In the name of God through whom all things are made clean. Amen.

 In the early part of this century, an Indio-Canadian woman produced three controversial movies – “Fire”, “Earth” and “Water”. I have only seen the last of these. “Water” follows the life of two widows – one who is only eight years old and another who appears to be in her late twenties. The movie is set in 1938 when widows in India were allowed to remarry but, as we all know, some traditions – especially those that are rooted in religion – are not easily overturned by legislation. Chuyia and Kalyani who were members of the Brahmin caste had only two choices when their husbands’ died – to throw themselves on the funeral pyre or to marry their husband’s brother. If they chose to do neither they were forced to enter an ashram. For the remainder of their lives they were to live as nuns, hidden away from society and dependent on the charity of others. Their hair was cut short and they were robed in white so as to make them identifiable to the public because their status as widows meant that they were considered unclean and were to be avoided.

It is a powerful and disturbing movie that demonstrates the way in which, as one commentator puts it, “an ancient religious law has been put to the service of family economy, greed and a general feeling that women can be thrown away.” The widows have no social status, in fact it is as if they did not exist. In one scene, a woman brushes up against Kalyani who, though she is young and beautiful causes the other woman to recoil in disgust, screaming at Kalyani for allowing herself to get so close. Her widowhood has made Kalyani ritually impure and she has, albeit inadvertently, made the other woman impure through contact. Societies such as that in which the movie is set have strict protocols that must be observed so as to avoid any possibility of pollution of the one by another.

In our reasonably enlightened and unstratified society, it is difficult for us to imagine the utter revulsion that people in some cultures feel when exposed to others whom they have been taught to see as soiled or polluted. We do not feel that we have to have religious rituals that would restore us to purity or make us fit to attend worship.

As the gospels and the letters of Paul reveal, issues of clean and unclean were the lived reality of first century Jews. The Pharisees worry that Jesus does not wash. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the priests and Levites avoided the Samaritan because they did not want to be polluted by his injuries or by his status as a Gentile. The priests do not enter Pilate’s quarters when they bring Jesus to be tried because they do not want to be rendered unclean by the contact.

Today’s gospel stands alone as a powerful story of a woman whose desperation meant that she refused to be silenced and whose persistence, it appears, changed the course of Jesus’ ministry.

If we look at the context of this story within the gospel as a whole, we can see that Mark uses this story in a very particular way to illustrate Jesus’ argument with the Pharisees regarding ritual purity and concerns about what food is clean and unclean. The narrative section in which the account of Jesus’ meeting with the Syrophoenician woman occurs actually extends from Mark 6:31 (the account of the feeding of the 5,000 Judeans) to Mark 8:21 (the feeding of the 4,000 Gentiles)[1].

The discussion begins in Jewish territory (6:31-7:29) and concludes in Gentile territory (7:31-8:21). Both the geography and the narrative setting serve to highlight the central point – Jesus declares all things to be clean. In technical terms Mark uses a chiasm to place the emphasis on the central point – clean and unclean. Simply put, the story is framed by two different accounts of a miraculous feeding (and a misunderstanding of the meaning of bread). Within those outer brackets are two other sets of brackets.  Immediately inside this the stories of feeding we find instances of Jesus’ healing ministry and inside those again are two controversy stories (with the Pharisees and with the Syrophoenician woman). Nested within this framework is Jesus’ discussion with the disciples in which he declares all things to be clean.

It is clear that in Mark’s retelling of the story Jesus’ discussion with the woman serves to emphasise the point that he has already made in his argument with the Pharisees – that cleanliness and purity depend not on outward behavior, but on inward disposition. Boundaries related to food, religion or ethnicity have no place in the Kingdom that Jesus is announcing. Borders considered to be immutable are being torn down in the new world that Jesus’ teaching is bringing into being.

In the short account of Jesus’ interaction with the Syrophoenician woman a number of significant frontiers are crossed. Jesus (for no apparent reason) not only enters Gentile territory but presumably the home of a Gentile and he engages directly with a woman. The woman, who by Jewish standards is unclean on account of her race and her gender is further tainted by the presence of an unclean spirit in her daughter. According to the social and religious norms of the day she should not have approached Jesus, let alone entered the house in which he was staying. The woman’s actions demonstrate her deep love for her child. Jesus’ actions reveal his understanding that the social and geographic boundaries of his time are a human artifice that have nothing to do with true holiness.

The society of Jesus’ time and place believed that the impure polluted the pure. In declaring all things to be clean, by responding to the pleas of the Syrophoenician woman, Jesus exposes the false thinking of his age. God, God’s temple and God’s people cannot be polluted by the unholy and profane. Impurity does not flow from us to God. Rather purity and holiness always flow in the other direction from God to us. God is not tainted by our behavior or by our failure to observe certain protocol, neither is God sullied by those deemed (by us) as unfit for God’s presence. Rather God’s love and goodness extend outwards from God making holy all those who, like the woman, believe that they are not beneath God’s notice.




[1]For more details read “The Construction of Identity in Mary 7:24-30: The Syrophoenician Woman and the Problem of Ethnicity.” Smith Julien C.H., Biblical Interpretation.20 (2012), 458-581.

If only the outside is clean

September 1, 2018

Pentecost 15 – 2018

Mark 7:1-8, 14-23

Marian Free

In the name of God who sees us as we really are. Amen.

There is a fairy story that goes something like this.

Once upon a time there was a widow who had two daughters. The elder was very like her mother and was doted on to the point that she became proud, sullen and disagreeable. Though she was much put upon by her mother and elder sister, the younger daughter was sweet and obliging no matter what was asked of her. One of her daily tasks was to go to the well at the edge of the woods to draw water for the family. One day, while she was at the well, she met a poor, old woman who asked for a drink. ‘Of course,’ said the girl, ‘is there anything else that you need?’ ‘Nothing,’ replied the woman as she went on her way, ‘but your kindness and generosity will be rewarded.’

When the girl returned home her mother scolded her for taking so long. As she began to explain what had kept her, there came from the girl’s mouth flowers and precious stones. Astonished, and not a little put out, the mother demanded to know exactly how this had come about. Again the girl shared what had happened at the well, only this time she remembered that the woman had promised to reward her. All the while flowers and jewels fell from her mouth as she spoke.

Anxious that her favorite should be equally enriched, the next day the mother kept the younger daughter at home and sent the elder to fetch the water – having first given her instructions as to how to respond when she saw a poor old woman at the well. The spoilt and selfish spoilt daughter hurried to the well keen to receive the riches that were her sister’s. To her surprise she was met, not by a poor old woman but by a richly dressed princess who also asked for water. ‘Surely she has servants who can do this for her,’ the girl thought, as she ungraciously drew some water and gave it to the princess to drink. (Not for one moment did she think to ask if there was anything else that she could do to help.)

When the princess had departed, the girl waited to see if the old woman would return. After some time, she returned home, As she began to explain what had happened to her it was not flowers and precious stones, but toads and snakes that issued forth from her mouth. Just as the younger daughter’s real nature was exposed by her response to the old woman, so the elder daughter’s disposition could not be disguised when she responded to the Princess. Instead of riches and beauty, she produced the horrors born of her avarice and self-centredness.

As today’s gospel reminds us, no amount of window dressing can disguise what lies beneath. Wallpaper may cover cracks in the surface, it it does not fix them. No amount of washing the exterior of something can make the interior clean. Ultimately, superficial change is no change at all. The reality is that our real natures do not remain hidden no matter how much we try to change the surface. No matter what image we try to present to the world, the world will ultimately see through our deception. Figuratively, if we do not take the time to clean up and repair what is below the surface, we will produce toads and snakes when we hope to present flowers and precious stones. If the world is not fooled by our outward behavior, we can be sure that God will not be fooled. We will damage ourselves and others and most importantly we will damage our relationship with God.

Far better that we take the time and trouble to to identify and clean up those things that sully and damage our hearts and our souls.

If we are unfaithful to true self,

we will extract a price from others.

We will make promises we cannot keep,

build houses from flimsy stuff,

conjure dreams that devolve into nightmare,

and other people will suffer …

— Parker J. Palmer

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.

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