Posts Tagged ‘misunderstanding’

Why don’t they just ask?

September 19, 2015

Pentecost 17 – 2015

Mark 9:30-37

Marian Free

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Keeping Jesus secret

September 12, 2015

Pentecost 16 – 2015

Mark 8:27-38

Marian Free

May God’s word, written and spoken, speak to our hearts and minds so that we might know God’s Son Jesus the Christ and in so knowing allow ourselves to deny ourselves such that Jesus is our all-in-all. Amen.

“Get behind me Satan!” Jesus strongest words of rebuke are directed towards Peter at the very point at which Peter has identified Jesus as the Christ. What is going on here? Why does Jesus react so strongly? Why is it that when Peter demonstrates both his insight and his concern that Jesus not only goes on the offensive but also identifies the spokesperson for the disciples as the devil? To grasp the answers to these questions we have to understand the strategy that lies behind Mark’s gospel and Mark’s understanding of the nature of Jesus’ ministry.

As I have said on other occasions, the gospels are not simply random collections of memories nor are they an orderly and exact account of Jesus’ life and teachings. They are in fact carefully crafted writings designed to gain the listeners’ attention and so to bring them to faith in Jesus. Like any good story, the gospels build suspense and come to a climax before finally coming to resolution and they make good use of literary techniques to achieve their end. In this the author of Mark is no different from the other gospel writers. He develops his plot in such a way that Jesus’ identity and destiny are only gradually revealed. In fact one of the characteristics of Mark’s gospel is that of secrecy. A reader could be excused for thinking that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel does not want to be recognised, that he does not want anyone to know who he is.

Secrecy is essential for the author of Mark. Central to his gospel is the cross. In his account of Jesus, Jesus is primarily depicted as the suffering Son of God. Mark knows that this is a contradiction in terms. It does not make sense that God would be vulnerable, that God would appear on earth, not as a leader but as a servant, a servant who would have to suffer and die. It is because a suffering Messiah is difficult to understand that the Jesus of Mark’s gospel reveals his true identity only gradually. Jesus fears that if he exposes his hand too soon those who follow him will form the wrong impression. If he reveals that he is the Messiah, they will cast him in a mould that fits their expectations and will be disappointed when he fails to conform.

The wisdom of Jesus’ caution becomes obvious in today’s reading, which represents a watershed moment in Mark’s gospel. Up until now, Jesus’ true nature has been recognised only by the demons whom he has exorcised. Today Jesus takes a risk and asks the disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answers confidently: “You are the Christ.” Peter is of course correct, but only partly so. He understands that Jesus is the one promised by God, but he fails to understand what this means in Jesus’ case. This is evidenced when Jesus announces that he must suffer and die. Peter takes him aside and rebukes him. In Peter’s world the Messiah doesn’t die, the Messiah comes to lead and to save.

It is this misapprehension that elicits Jesus’ strong rebuke. Peter has it all wrong. Despite knowing and working with Jesus for some time, he still thinks in human terms and categories. Peter is only able to identify Jesus according to known criteria. He simply cannot cope with the idea of a Messiah who does not conform to his expectations.

Over the next two weeks we will see that the disciples generally cannot come to terms with a Messiah who is not a triumphant leader, but a suffering servant. Each time Jesus announces his death and resurrection, the disciples demonstrate by their words and actions that they really have no idea – either what this means for Jesus or for their discipleship. It is no wonder that Jesus doesn’t want them to tell anyone about him. Until they fully understand his identity and destiny there is no point their sharing their knowledge with anyone. Unless they really comprehend who and what Jesus is, the crucifixion will make no sense at all.

Jesus’ question to Peter could well be Jesus’ question to us. How well do we understand Jesus? Do we make the mistake of ignoring Jesus’ suffering, Jesus’ vulnerability and frailty? Do we too soon elevate Jesus to Son of God without fully understanding his crucifixion and death? Do we really comprehend that Jesus life and ministry are a model for our own? That is, do we really understand that serving God means serving others? Have we grasped that following Jesus requires complete surrender – putting our own needs and wants aside in order to give to him our whole selves – heart, mind and body? Would we, should the occasion require, give even our whole lives?

Do we really comprehend the identity and destiny of Jesus? Or do we like Peter and the disciples still think in human terms? Does the real nature of Jesus remain a mystery for us or have we fully grasped the contradiction of a suffering Son of God?

“Who do you think that I am?” is a question that echoes through the ages, forcing each succeeding generation to examine their hearts and ask if they really do understand. It is a question that challenges every age to embrace a Saviour who must suffer and die before he rises in glory.

According to Mark

January 24, 2015

Epiphany 3 – 2015

Mark 1:14-20

Marian Free

In the name of God who will never, ever abandon us. Amen.

It is generally accepted that Mark’s gospel was the first of the four gospels to be written and that Matthew and Luke used Mark account as the model of their own records of the life of Jesus. The author of Mark is writing at the time of the Jewish War – that is some time in the late sixties or the early seventies, around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. Up until this time the central message of the faith (as is attested by the letters of Paul) had been the death and resurrection of Jesus. Now, those who knew the earthly Jesus have died. There was a need to flesh out the Passion story, to provide the context surrounding Jesus’ execution and to explain to a new generation why the Christ, the Son of God had to die. Jesus’ death and resurrection, though powerful events were no longer enough on their own. They needed to be balanced with stories that illustrated the extraordinary nature of the earthly Jesus. Jesus’ beginning, his teaching and his miracles were important elements in bringing the story to life for future generations.

At the same time it was becoming clear that those who believed in Jesus could expect to suffer. Even if those for whom the gospel was written were not themselves experiencing suffering or persecution themselves, they would have been aware of the plight of believers in Jerusalem and of the persecution of Christians in Rome by Emperor Nero. Members of Mark’s community not only had to come to an understanding of Jesus’ suffering, but they also had to learn that as disciples, they would share in that suffering.

The first gospel is the most honest of the gospels. By that I mean that in Mark’s gospel we see the characters as they really are – nothing is hidden from our gaze. The author doesn’t gloss over either the humanity of Jesus or the foolishness of the disciples.

In Mark’s gospel we meet a Jesus who, among other things, doesn’t know everything (13:32), who can’t do miracles for those who don’t believe (6:5), who at times does not seem to know the will of God and who allows a gentile who is a woman to change his mind (7:24-30). This Jesus expresses every human emotion – pity anger, sadness, wonder, compassion, indignation, love and anguish. His humanity is as evident as the divinity that is stressed from the very first sentence and repeated throughout.

If Jesus’ humanity is evident, the ignorance and fear of those who follow him, is equally clear. Mark’s picture of the disciples is far from flattering. They let Jesus down, they fail to understand, they try to persuade Jesus from his course and at the end they betray and desert him. The disciple’s frailty is particularly obvious when Jesus predicts his suffering and resurrection. In each of the three instances, the disciples’ reaction shows their complete lack of comprehension. On the first occasion, Peter rebukes Jesus, the second is followed by a discussion between the disciples as to who is the greatest and after the third prediction James and John ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and at his left in his kingdom. Unable to accept that the Christ must suffer, they demonstrate their complete lack of understanding by correcting Jesus, by changing the topic and by trying to regain control of things. Their response shows that they can only understand the kingdom in human terms.

According to Mark, Jesus is fallible and the disciples are anything but models for those who come after. (Matthew and Luke rehabilitate both Jesus and the disciples. In Matthew, then Luke and finally John, Jesus becomes more and more like God and the disciples become both wiser and braver.) Of course, there is method in Mark’s apparent madness. Mark is not interested in presenting either Jesus or the disciples as perfect. His purpose is to emphasise what God has done for us in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ humanity provides the vehicle through which Mark can reveal God’s grace and dependability. The frailty and fearfulness of the disciples reminds readers that it is what God does and not what they do that matters in the end.

This gospel is not a tale of triumph but an account of frailty and suffering. The gospel takes a circuitous and difficult route from the announcement of Jesus as God’s Son in verse 1 to Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross. “My God, my God why have you abandoned me?” It is only at the end that everything comes together. After the crucifixion – the apparent failure of Jesus’ mission – it becomes clear that God has been there all along. God’s presence in the rolling away of the stone and God’s messenger in the tomb announcing the resurrection are evidence that despite appearances to the contrary, God did not abandon Jesus. Jesus’ trust and confidence in God has been vindicated by his resurrection. The report that Jesus has gone before the disciples to Galilee is proof that though the disciples had denied and abandoned Jesus, Jesus has not abandoned them.

This year we will be travelling together through the Gospel of Mark, which was written not only for disciples at the end of the first century, but also for those of us in the twenty first century. We will hear how Mark moves the story along, we will see how from the moment he begins his ministry Jesus is always accompanied by those whom he chose to be his disciples, we will understand that the conflict that is evident from the beginning will characterize Jesus’ ministry and lead to his death, and we will be reminded that despite his cry of agony from the cross, God did not abandon him and God will never abandon us.

Faith in Jesus does not guarantee a life of ease. Following Jesus does not lead to perfection. Belief does not always equal understanding. There will be times of pain and suffering in our lives, there will be times when we are only too aware of our imperfections and there will be times when we simply do not understand what God is doing or where God has gone. At such times we can turn once again to Mark’s gospel and remember that whatever life has to throw at us, God will never, ever abandon us and however often we let him down Jesus will never, ever give up on us.

How well do we tell the story?

September 27, 2014

Pentecost 16

Matthew 21:23-32

Marian Free

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

Recently, our grandchild came to stay overnight. When his mother dropped him off he walked into the living room and waved his arm and said: “MaMa, can you move all this?” I’d have to say that when I surveyed the room and its furnishings I was more than a little dismayed. What on earth was wrong with my living room that a three-year old thought that I should completely rearrange it? Was he having a go at my housekeeping? Did he think that he would knock himself on the sharp corners of the furniture? I just couldn’t make sense of it. Thankfully my daughter came to the rescue. Apparently, before they came, she had been discussing with him the fact that there might be things at MaMa’s house that he wasn’t allowed to touch and he, all three years of him, had responded that that was OK he would just ask MaMa to move things. (And so he did). Without the explanation I would have been completely lost.

So often a failure to understand the context of what is said can lead to misunderstanding and even conflict. We can take offense when no offense was intended or misjudge a person’s intentions because we do not have the full story. Misunderstandings arise when we do not fully understand another person’s culture or background.

This is no less true when it comes to understanding the Bible. First century Palestine was vastly different from today’s Australia. If we are to properly understand the New Testament, it is important to have some knowledge of the historical, social and cultural situation in which the various books were written. It is also important to try to understand the particular agenda of the writer. Why do the gospel writers tell the gospel in their own particular ways? Why does Paul write to a community? What is the purpose behind the Book of Revelation?

Failure to take into account the context of the New Testament has had some disastrous consequences – not least of which was the Holocaust, the destruction of six million Jews. A failure to take into account the historical, social and cultural context of the New Testament has, among other things, led us to defend slavery, to turn a blind eye to domestic violence and to condemn and exclude those who don’t fit our idea of what it is to be “good”.

Context is particularly important when it comes to understanding Matthew’s gospel, a gospel that, to our shame and embarrassment, has been a source of anti-Semitism over the course of history.

Perhaps the first and most important thing to understand is that Matthew is the most Jewish of all the gospels. It is for this reason that the battle is so fierce. The community behind the Gospel is struggling for ascendency over and against the Jews who do not believe in Jesus. It is like two siblings fighting for their parent’s affection or battling it out over the inheritance. An underlying question for the gospel writer is: “Who is the true Israel?” to which Matthew’s answer is: “We are.” What that means is that the gospel is very deliberately setting out to paint the continuing Jews in as bad a light as possible and to do this, he writes the contemporary conflict back into the gospel.

For this reason, we have to be very clear. Jesus was and remained a Jew and while he foresaw that the current trajectory of his people might have led to the destruction of Jerusalem, and though he came into conflict with the Jewish leaders, he did not for one minute imagine the replacement of, let alone the annihilation of his people.

This then is wider context of the today’s gospel. It’s immediate context is Jesus in the Temple as the first sentence makes clear. Jesus is no longer in Galilee, but in Jerusalem the heart of Judaism. It is here that he comes into conflict with the Jewish leaders because he threatens their authority; the people are looking to him not to them. If you remember, when he enters Jerusalem the crowds welcome him as their King. As if that were not enough to cause disquiet among the leaders of the community, his first act is to enter the Temple and overthrow the tables of the moneychangers. No wonder that, on this, his second day in Jerusalem, the legitimate leaders of the Jews want to know what authority he has to behave in the way that he does. No wonder that they want to try to discredit him and reassert their own authority. They ask four questions that they hope will trip him up: about the source of his authority, about paying taxes, about the resurrection and about the law. Jesus not only has an answer to each of these, but he answers in such a way that the leaders do not have a leg to stand on. Finally Jesus asks a question of his own, which convinces them that argument is fruitless. Their plan has backfired. It is not Jesus who has been made to look foolish, but themselves.

In the context of Matthew’s agenda as to who is the true Israel, this section firmly establishes Jesus – the leader of his community – as the legitimate leader (of Israel).

Also in this section are three parables – the parable of the two sons, the parable of the wicked tenants and the parable of the banquet. These are told in such a way that it is clear that just as Jesus is the true leader, so the Matthean community can lay claim to be the true Israel. (Those who were outsiders are the ones who prove worthy of the gospel whereas those who were insiders either reject the invitation or reject the message.) The section finishes with Jesus’ denunciation of the Jewish leaders (which is unique to Matthew) and finally Jesus’ sorrowful prediction of the destruction of the Temple.

Matthew is not alone in telling these conflict stories. All the gospel writers are clear that Jesus runs up against the Jewish leaders, but it is Matthew alone who drives a wedge between the emerging Christian community and its Jewish parent.

It is only when we understand the wider context of Matthew’s gospel that we are able to put his apparent anti-Semitism into context. It is only when we fully comprehend his agenda – to establish his community as the true Israel that we begin to understand why he tells the story of Jesus and Jesus’ stories in the way that he does.

Understanding the context of our biblical traditions ensures that we are less likely to be dogmatic, less likely to be prone to arrogant presumption, more open to the possibility that there is more than one way to understand a story, more willing to engage in discussion with those of different faiths and different points of view and better equipped to explain difficult passages to those who have questions.

If we wonder why our churches are emptying, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether it has to do with how well we understand and how well we tell the story.

Accepting Difference

June 22, 2013

Pentecost 5 – 2013

Luke 8:26-29

Marian Free 

In the name of God whose love embraces all God’s creation. Amen.

There is an extraordinary story of a boy (now a young man) who lives in Fiji. His name is Sujit and his story is difficult to piece together. It appears that he may have been born with slight cerebral palsy and epilepsy. His father was murdered and his mother committed suicide. When Sujit was given to the care of his grandfather at two years old he was locked in a chicken coop (possibly because he was thought to be demon-possessed). Not surprisingly, the child developed behaviours not unlike those of the chickens with whom he spent so much time. At age eight, having been found on a road, he was consigned to an aged care home, where his behaviour was so disturbing and difficult to manage that for the next twenty-two years he was tied to a bed. No attempt was made to change his behaviour or to offer any kind of nurture. He was left to his own devices and his chicken like behaviour was allowed to continue without any intervention.

Elizabeth Clayton, an Australian living in Fiji came across Surit when she visited the care facility to deliver some plastic dining tables. He was filthy and covered in sores. Elizabeth felt she had no choice but to get him out of there and to provide the care that was so badly lacking. Even then at around age 26, the young man still clucked like a chicken, clawed at his food and didn’t know how to walk, let alone speak. His fingers still turn inward like claws, he understands only a minimum of speech and is not toilet trained.

As awful as this story sounds it is not unique. Out of ignorance or despair, many parents and institutions resort to what appear to be harsh and unnecessary forms of control for children whose behaviour they do not understand or cannot manage. In China today for example, there is no support for parents of children who are autistic. When such children exhibit violent or self-harming behaviour, parents feel that they have no option but to restrain the child – for the child’s safety as well as their own. With little knowledge and no help, these parents can only do their best to keep their children safe. Even if they want to, without support, they are unable to help the child to develop and to live a relatively normal life.

Our failure to understand difference has meant that even until quite recent times those with mental illness or disability were shut up or isolated from the mainstream of society. In many cases those who suffered from mental illness were feared and misunderstood. Not many people knew how to interact with them or considered that they might possibly have something to contribute to society. As a society we are still unable or unwilling to provide the support to families or individuals who do not fit the so-called norm.

In the first century the situation was no better and probably worse. Medical knowledge was extremely basic and demon possession was seen as the cause of many medical conditions which are understood quite differently today. From the New Testament accounts we surmise that conditions attributed to evil spirits or demon possession would have include mental illness and epilepsy to mention. Depending on the nature of the condition, family and friends would have resorted to a variety of treatments and forms of care – exorcism was a popular treatment.

In today’s gospel, we meet a man who is bound by chains among the tombs. In this case there are no clues to help us to understand what his condition might be in today’s terms. We simply know that according to those who knew him, the condition was so severe that he was believed to be possessed by a multitude of demons (Legion). Whatever is troubling the man it gave him such strength that he could not be managed. His behaviour was so intolerable and frightening to those around him that not only was he bound, but he was confined in a place as far away as possible from everyone.

It is shocking to think that people who through no fault of their own are violent and distressed are not only excluded from our presence but bound both by their condition and by the ties that others impose on them. Thankfully research and public education has reduced our fear of those with mental illness and of those who are differently abled. Our education system no longer excludes those who require additional support and we are challenged by the brilliance of such people as Stephen Hawking to reconsider our stereotyping and prejudices. Psychology and Psychiatry have made great strides in understanding not only what goes on in the mind, but how to treat mental illness and to enable sufferers to hold down jobs and to contribute to society in a wide variety of ways. Technology has made it possible for mute to communicate, the deaf to hear and the paralysed to contribute to society.

Jesus is not afraid of the man with the demons, nor does he see any reason not to intervene (despite the reluctance of the demons). He restores the man to his right mind and to his rightful place in the community. More than that, Jesus gives the man a responsibility – he is to be the bearer of the gospel to those among whom he lives. The outsider becomes the insider, the rejected becomes the accepted and the one who was excluded becomes the one chosen and commissioned by Jesus to share the gospel.

In a world that is uncomfortable with difference and which seeks the comfort of conformity, Jesus teaches us that love, compassion and understanding can transform the lives of those who were previously misunderstood, mistreated and excluded. We are challenged by Jesus’ example to create a society that is welcoming, empowering and inclusive of all God’s creation – no matter their race, their gender, their faith, their sexuality or their ability.


%d bloggers like this: