Friday, April 18, 2014




Dear Readers,

Daily Exegesis blog will be taking a short break during the Easter Season.  We will be returning to posting after Easter Week.  Have a very blessed Holy Week and Easter!



Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes


 Then He began to speak to them in parables:  "A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country.  Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers.  And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated.  And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.  Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But those vinedressers said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.'  So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.  Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do?  He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others.  Have you not even read this Scripture:
'The stone which the builders rejected
Has become the chief cornerstone,
This was the LORD's doing,
And it is marvelous in our eyes'?"
And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them.  So they left Him and went away.

- Mark 12:1-11

Yesterday, we read that Jesus and the disciples came again to Jerusalem.  And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him.  And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority to do these things?"  [They were referring to the cleansing of the Temple.]  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men?  Answer Me."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed.  So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." 

Then He began to speak to them in parables:  "A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went into a far country."  My study bible explains that in this parable, the vineyard is Israel, and the vinedressers are the Jewish leaders.  It says the parable is plainly told against the chief priests, scribes and elders who question Jesus (see yesterday's reading) -- and it is in the presence of the multitude.

"Now at vintage-time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers."    In the services of the Orthodox Church during Holy Week there is emphasis on this theme of fruit-bearing.  My study bible says that "Jesus has recently focused on fruit-bearing in the fig tree incident [see Monday's reading].  John reports more conversation of Jesus at this time on fruit-bearing (John 15:1-8) -- the vine and branches.  The bearing of fruit is the mark of vital spiritual life."

"And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated.  And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.  Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But those vinedressers said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.'  So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.  Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do?  He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others.  Have you not even read this Scripture:  'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, this was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"  And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them.  So they left Him and went away.   My study bible says, "With this parable, Jesus totally discredits the religious leaders of Israel and establishes Himself as Messiah.  The religious leaders plainly understand Jesus' criticism and would have Him arrested, but they feared the multitude and a possible insurrection.   The leaders in Jerusalem were often viewed by the people as collaborators with the Romans, seeking to maintain their positions.  Therefore the people tended to favor popular charismatic figures such as Jesus."

Let us consider fruit-bearing and what it means here.  The issue is so essential that Jesus likens our dependency upon God for life to those who are to bear fruits in a vineyard that belongs to someone else.  In Galatians 5, St. Paul writes that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law."    So, one way we can think of spiritual fruitfulness is in an understanding of how God's work in us bears fruit in our character, in the ways in which we conduct ourselves in the world.  Jesus' parable about the vinedressers suggests repeated visits to the vineyard by those who represent the owner, who is God.  For the Jewish leadership, this long line of mistreated servants and emissaries are the prophets of Jewish spiritual history:  those who have been stoned, mistreated, shamefully abused for bearing God's word to the people -- and especially to the religious establishment.  Finally, it is the Son who is sent.  It's interesting to note the trust implied here by the vineyard owner:  "They will respect my son."  In some sense, since the parable is about an act of judgment, this phrase teaches us about our free will:  there is something in us that allows us to reject or receive the hand of God teaching us in our lives.  But we do deal with the consequences:   "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, this was the LORD's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes"  (Psalm 118:22-23).  The parable is about the whole history of Jewish spirituality, the story of Israel which we can read in Old Testament Scripture; that is, the spiritual history of Israel as it had evolved until Jesus' time.  But I think there are lessons to be learned by each of us from the parable.  How does God reach to us in our own lives to help us to bear spiritual fruits, or to remind us that we need to do so?  Are there ways in which spurning this help results in our world, in some sense, being turned upside down?  Whatever the answers are to these somewhat mysterious questions, I think we need to take Jesus' parable seriously in terms of how spiritual life works in us.  While its focus may be on spiritual leadership, and is certainly therefore essential to the leadership of the Churches to take seriously, I think also it applies to each one of us, and perhaps that's how the readers of this blog may best take it.  We're stewards of what we're given:  our lives, our talents, our possessions, the life we're given and the part of the world we inhabit.  What do we do with this vineyard?  Do we remember the kinds of fruits the owner desires here?  Taking the parable of the Sower (Jesus' first parable told), we can ask ourselves how we are cultivating our inner ground, whether we're letting toil or the weeds choke us out and get in the way of our real goals here.  Going back to today's parable, we can also ask ourselves if there have been times in our lives when those who seem to bear Christ to us have been dismissed or mistreated.  Jesus' words are not just for the Jewish leadership.  They are for all of us, for each of us.  How do we treat those who reflect His image?  How do we receive testimony?  Where do we bear the fruit in our heart that St. Paul speaks of in the letter to the Galatians?  Are we prepared to be true servants of the vineyard owner, even at the risk of mistreatment?  All of these questions are here.  But we must take the response seriously, the consequences of heartless choices.  Do we have ears to hear?  Do we have eyes to see?


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Answer Me


 Then they came again to Jerusalem.  And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him.  And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority to do these things?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men?  Answer Me."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed.  So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."

- Mark 11:27-33

Yesterday, we read that when Jesus and the disciples had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar the fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again."  And His disciples heard it.  So they came to Jerusalem.  Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple.  Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'?  But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'"  And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.  When evening had come, He went out of the city.  Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you will receive them, and you will have them.  And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."
 
Then they came again to Jerusalem.  And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him.  My study bible tells us that in the opinion of the official leaders of Israel, Jesus has trespassed on their territory.  If He is allowed to remain they are totally discredited.  It says, "The stage is set after the cleansing of the temple; they must destroy Him."

And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority to do these things?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men?  Answer Me."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed.  So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."  A note tells us, "Answering the angry oppositions questions is often not wise.  Their question By what authority are You doing these things? is logical, for Jesus' acts are messianic.  And there is an answer:  the authority is that of Himself and His Father.  But, knowing they seek to entrap Him, He will not say so.  He leaves them with their question unanswered, and in confusion over His question.  Those who claim to have the answers are left admitting their ignorance."

Jesus sets an example of integrity here.  He's loyal to His mission and His purpose.  Often, I'm afraid that Christ is portrayed as someone without a lot of vigor.  But if we look at today's reading, we see His courage and strength.  It is a picture of authority and confidence.  He won't directly answer their question, on their terms.  He's a smart opponent.  He will match wits with them anytime.  But it is always to His purpose, and He never wastes a moment with useless talk -- this confrontation and purpose is essential to His ministry.  He is focused and He always does what it takes to express His truth.  In this case, He is still teaching by showing that these leaders are not simply cowardly, but that they don't have any real justice to stand on here.  There's also the contrast between Jesus and the leadership.  They present a seemingly united front, they have "worldly" authority in some sense, they are the nominal officials of the Temple.  And yet, He as one Man will stand up and assert Himself so that they are befuddled.  They are juggling too many agendas which have little to do, really, with a true love of God.  The notion of "authority" comes through here in Jesus' example - even as a single person without any worldly authority or position to fall back on - as someone who sticks to the truth, to His purpose, to His mission.  He does not even defend His own authority; He simply gets to the heart of the truth here.  What did they think of John, another one who told the truth?  He also issues a command to them:  "Answer Me."  In Jesus' example, we have this splendid combination of truth, courage, authority, and humility -- even in His combative spirit.  In other examples of confrontation, we have seen Jesus straight and to the point -- and yet protective of His disciples -- when Pharisees and scribes were debating with the disciples (see here and here).  The power and authority in Jesus is combined with humility:  He speaks the truth, without a resort to His own position or popularity.  Rather, He is unafraid of this confrontation with the authorities in the Temple.  He knows it must happen.  His act of cleansing the Temple made that a certainty.  He speaks with authority and power that is of the truth, and at the same time, He's not afraid of showing up His opponents, exposing their weakness and hypocrisy -- for that is also part of the truth here.  Let us remember this blazing example of the type of confidence that Jesus has.  His confidence is in the truth, with humility, and intelligence, and the purpose of His mission.  We could do no better than to aspire to be like this picture of strength and integrity, and to remember the one mission we really have that strips every other agenda away.






Monday, April 14, 2014

Is it not written, "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations"?


 Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar the fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again."  And His disciples heard it.

So they came to Jerusalem.  Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple.  Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'?  But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'"  And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.  When evening had come, He went out of the city.

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you will receive them, and you will have them.  And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."

- Mark 11:12-25

On Saturday, we read that Jesus and His disciples came to Jericho.  As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging.  And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then many warned him to be quiet, but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.  Then they called the blind man, saying to him, "Be of good cheer.  Rise, He is calling you."  And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus.  So Jesus answered and said to him, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  The blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, that I may receive my sight."  Then Jesus said to him, "Go your way, your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.    The lectionary skips over the events which we commemorated yesterday, on Palm Sunday, which you can read here.

Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar the fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again."  And His disciples heard it.  My study bible explains that "it was not the season for figs means that this fig tree had sprouted an early full foliage, indicating a first crop, but without bearing any fruit.  Jesus, finding not even one fig, condemns it.  In Scripture a fig tree is often a symbol of Israel (Hos. 9:10).  Her fruitfulness has ceased, so the Kingdom will be taken from her and given to another people, who will bear spiritual fruit (see Matt. 21:43; Gal. 5:22)."

So they came to Jerusalem.  Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple.  Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'?  But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'"  And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.  When evening had come, He went out of the city.  My study bible says here that "John appears to report the cleansing of the temple as occurring early in Jesus' ministry (John 2:13-22), whereas the other Gospels place it in the week before His Passion.  Perhaps there were two cleansings.  More likely, John is not concerned with chronological order and places the event early for teaching purposes.  Jesus acts as the King of Israel would, utterly in control.  He disrupts business and makes a sweeping condemnation of the religious system, yet He is untouched.  The religious rulers and the Roman soldiers are close by, but all are paralyzed.  In the light of the imagery in the account of the fig tree [above], the temple is all leaves and no fruit, a picture of the nation itself."

 Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."   My study bible tells us that this cursing and withering of the fig tree is a prophetic act, which signifies the judgment of Israel.  It says, "The disciples need to learn that Israel is being rejected.  They will establish His Church, ultimately filled with Gentiles and Jews, and they need assurance that they are following His will.  The fig tree will be an indelible image in their minds."

So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you will receive them, and you will have them."  Another note explains that "the cursing of the fig tree also demonstrates the power of faith in God and prayer.  This mountain probably refers to the Mount of Olives, but Jesus speaks not of its physical relocation, but of great deeds done through undoubting faith.  Neither Jesus nor the disciples moved any actual mountains, but they did turn society upside down with the message of the Kingdom.  We all need such faith in our struggle for full repentance and life in Christ. . . . We can have assured faith in answered prayer, according to St. John Chrysostom, when we ask things worthy of the Lord and strive for holiness.  Of course, human requests neither limit nor control God's omniscient freedom." 

"And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses."  In many manuscripts, there is another verse added here, that says, "But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."  My study bible says that "a call to forgive follows the promise of nearly unlimited possibilities of faith in prayer.  What can deter faith that is able to move mountains?  Failure to forgive -- the greatest hindrance to knowing God.  Not only does unforgiveness cripple our prayers, but even the Father in heaven does not forgive the unforgiving.  As the fig tree is rejected for bearing no fruit, so are unforgiving people rejected."

Today's reading combines several elements.  We start with the most vivid and perhaps shocking:  the cleansing of the temple.  It follows a theme about wealth that Jesus has been teaching about, most notably in the story of the rich young man who wished to inherit eternal life.  (See Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!)   There, the very moral young man (according to the Mosaic Law) was told to sell all he had, and give to the poor, and follow Christ.  It is a question of separating identity from the riches themselves.  Next, He taught the disciples about greatness:  that "whoever desires to be great among you shall be your servant."  This is another kind of teaching about attachment to things, like power and status in life.  His greatness asks of us a kind of fruitfulness that is of service.  We see an emphasis in teaching that would strip away the focus on things we own or have, and get to the core of who we are and what our capacities really are.  In this light, we view the fig tree, that has failed to produce fruit.  There's a great show of foliage, like an external brilliance, but where are the real gifts and capacities of this creation?  Fruit we read as an analogy to spiritual fruit, something which comes from the persons we really are, not simply some product of status or wealth.  In this context we move to the temple and its cleansing, with its complete focus on wealth as a measure of status, of success, of ability:  selling the "better" sacrifices for the Passover for a higher price, making an effectively material judgment on that which is to be spiritual.   The psalms teach us:  "You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—These, O God, You will not despise" (Psalm 51:16-17).  Psalm 51, perhaps the best known penitential prayer, teaches us truly about preparation for this time.  We strip away the reliance on things, even material gifts to God, and get to the heart of what really matters, what produces the spiritual fruits God truly wants of us.  This is borne out through the teachings of Jesus on the road to Jerusalem, to this day of cleansing and the withering of the fig tree.  Finally, the "judgment" we see in the fig tree is couched in Jesus' teachings on the place we really are utterly ourselves:  in prayer.  What is faith?  What does it mean?  I think there's an important implication here about faith, and about "asking for things" in prayer.  What does faith do?  How are we really "stripped down" with God, down to who we really are and what we face about ourselves?  The focus here is combined with the need for forgiveness, another kind of stripping away.  Forgiveness is literally "giving up" in the Greek.  We give up to God the things we hold inside.  It is a great teaching on the true sacrifice, the broken and contrite spirit, the heart that is truly circumcised in Spirit.  Forgiveness is the act of giving up more "things" we hold that serve to define us, that substitute for or mask who we really are when we are with Him in prayer, in that place where we come face-to-face, or rather, heart-to-heart.  This is the place of real faith, where everything else, all the flashy foliage, is stripped away, and we are finally capable of bearing the real fruits He asks.  This is where utter confidence truly resides, because what is left is what is real, a foundation of our true identity, a place of security that's not dependent on what can be stripped away.  In short, this is the place of faith in what is genuine.  We strip away even the things we hold against others to find who we are in that place where we are with Him in prayer, where He can teach us what service He'd like, what capacities we have and real fruits we can bear, what prayer can do.  Let us consider this treasure, and what we are willing to give up to truly find it.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Go your way, your faith has made you well


 Now they came to Jericho.  As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging.  And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then many warned him to be quiet, but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.  Then they called the blind man, saying to him, "Be of good cheer.  Rise, He is calling you."  And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus.  So Jesus answered and said to him, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  The blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, that I may receive my sight."  Then Jesus said to him, "Go your way, your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.

- Mark 10:46-52

Yesterday, we read that the disciples were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them, and they were amazed.  And as they followed they were afraid.  Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him.  "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."  Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask."  And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory."  But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  They said to Him, "We are able."  So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared."  And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

 Now they came to Jericho.  As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging.  And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then many warned him to be quiet, but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"   My study bible tells us:  "Have mercy is a favorite phrase of prayer in the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church.  Mercy is God's lovingkindness, His tender compassion toward repentant sinners."

So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.  Then they called the blind man, saying to him, "Be of good cheer.  Rise, He is calling you."  And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus.  So Jesus answered and said to him, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  The blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, that I may receive my sight."  A note says, "Jesus knows all things, and knows this man is blind.  Yet He asks, What do you want Me to do for you?  The man could have asked, 'Lord, give me grace to live with blindness,' but he asks for his sight.  Faith needs to be specific, and Jesus requests him to exercise his faith by asking for a specific need.  Rabboni means 'my teacher,' showing the man's affection for Jesus."  I think the text gets specific and vivid when it tells us that Jesus has stood still in the middle of the road, on this journey with His disciples toward Jerusalem, in order to call out Bartimaeus.  It's a way of focusing attention, zeroing in on the one calling out to Him, and stopping -- even while everything seems to simply be moving in an inevitable direction.

Then Jesus said to him, "Go your way, your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.  My study bible says, "Bartimaeus follows Jesus, becoming a disciple of His (the road is Gr. hodos, the same word used for 'the Way' in Acts 9:2), and is not commanded to silence.  Now that Jesus is heading toward an open confrontation with the Jewish leaders in the Holy City, the veiling of His identity (the messianic secret) is no longer necessary."   In the Greek, the word translated as "made (you) well" is literally "saved (you)."

Bartimaeus makes a connection with Jesus here in today's reading -- this is what we notice.  He cries out, repeatedly, "Have mercy on me!" and he won't be silenced.  Bartimaeus, it would seem, already has a sense that there is a connection here.  His referral to Jesus as Rabboni, "my Teacher," also tells us that.  There is a sense of personal connection on Bartimaeus' part, whether he has formally met Jesus or not.  When Jesus stands still, in the middle of the road (the "way"), even as He is on His way to Jerusalem, and commands Bartimaeus to be called, it's a personal connection.  It's interesting, also, that Jesus doesn't call Bartimaeus Himself, but commands others to call him.  It's like Bartimaeus is personally being called, the way we imagine angels in heaven are commanded to call one person or another to summon them to the presence of God.  There is an amazing personal connection here, where, even though Jesus is on His way to His Passion, death and Resurrection, He takes time out to command one to be called, the one who is crying out repeatedly "have mercy on me!" and who called Him, "Rabboni."  I think that this personal connection to Christ is so important that Mark's Gospel gives it to us right on this road to the greatest event in history, the central event in the history of the world -- from a Christian point of view -- the culmination of God's mission into the world, the time of inconceivable sacrifice:  that God, as human, will suffer and die, and be Resurrected to save a whole world, past, present, and future.  And yet, while He's on this mission, and clearly set His sights for Jerusalem, the blind Bartimaeus cries out, and Jesus stops everything and commands him to be called.  It's reminiscent of the healing of the woman with the blood flow, who touched His garment in the midst of a crowd, even as He was on His way to heal Jairus' daughter:  Jesus has time for everyone.  He does what He is here to do, and each one of these things take place not just in "examples" to give us a general idea of what He is about, but in personal stories, in actions that make up all the links in this chain of love, all the points of light in the great, blinding, otherworldly light that is Christ which we can't possibly contain.  These stories aren't just examples to teach us the "concept" of Christ:  rather, these stories are the heart of Christ.  His work takes place in each of us, in each of our hearts and each of our lives.  "Rabboni" is the place of the heart, the place where Jesus dwells.  He knows each one of us personally.  And that's the place where we meet Him, we carry His presence around with us, with love and affection, in a kind of Person-to-person reality of the heart:  the whole of which, a whole universe of beings, past, present, and future, we can't possibly comprehend nor know.  But if we miss the personal, we miss the story.  We miss that mystical reality that we need.  We miss the point, and I think we lose out on our faith.  Here is where Jesus steps in and tells Bartimaeus, "Your faith has made you well."  Or, more literally, "Your faith has saved you."  In that depth of trust, we find the real power of Christ to save; we may know the grandest theories, we may understand all things known to man and even more, but if we don't have that place of love, that personal connection, we're missing out.  Let us remember He's got time for each of us, and wants us to make that time for Him.  When He tells Bartimaeus, "Go your way," that way is His Way, on the road ("the way") with Him.  Bartimaeus' shout of have mercy is the "new" shout of Jericho, the one that liberates and knocks down walls so that we enter into the real promised land, with Him.







Friday, April 11, 2014

Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant


Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them, and they were amazed.  And as they followed they were afraid.  Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him.  "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask."  And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory."  But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  They said to Him, "We are able."  So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared."  And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."

- Mark 10:32-45

Yesterday, we read that as Jesus was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.   You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Do not defraud,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth."  Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack:  Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me."  But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.  Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"  And the disciples were astonished at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."  Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

Now they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them, and they were amazed.  And as they followed they were afraid.  Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him.  "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."  This is the third time that Jesus has warned the disciples what is to come in Jerusalem.  But this time, more detail is given.  He has set His sights upon Jerusalem, and He knows exactly what will happen there, including what will happen when He is handed over to the Gentiles, the Romans.  His Resurrection is also predicted here

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask."  And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory."  But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  My study bible notes, "Jesus says you do not know what you ask because He does not promise a visible kingdom on earth or an immediate, victorious and glorious consummation, but rather toils, struggles and conflicts.  Cup and baptism are references to suffering and death.  The disciples do not grasp this now.  But they will meet both these realities in future persecutions and in the sacramental realities of the cup of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:26) and the death and resurrection of baptism (Col. 2:12)."

They said to Him, "We are able."  So Jesus said to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared."   A note here reads:  "A place of honor in the eternal Kingdom will be given by the Father to those for whom it is prepared, that is (according to the Church Fathers) not by God's arbitrary choice but according to a believer's sacrifice and suffering for Christ and the Kingdom."

And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."  My study bible comments:  "Service is characteristic of true greatness.  The model is Christ's incarnate life and death:  the perfect man is the perfect servant.  Ransom is the price paid for the release of someone held captive.  In this case, humanity is released from the bondage of sin and death by Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the Cross."

I have a friend who speaks about the difference between cultural perceptions before Christ and after Christ.  It would seem that the idea of service being correlated to greatness is truly a gift of Christ to the world.  If we think about the unabashed uses of power in service of Empire, in the ruling of kings and emperors, and especially pre-Christian societies, we get a picture that is quite different from the notion that power must at least be couched in the language of justice and, more particularly, of service.  Our politicians call themselves "public servants" and the notion of nobility and courtesy really has to do with the graciousness of Christ.  The world still chases after its own material power:  we call war "hell" after the words of a famous general in the US military.  But we have to acknowledge the contribution of Jesus to our notions of greatness:  that those who would be great among us must be servants of all.  He says it here Himself:  "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them."  This is the notion of greatness in the world that Jesus is born into.  But He is seeking to bring a kingdom into the world with different rules, a different energy, a different reality that forms and shapes and guides its values.  That's the Kingdom to which we aspire to belong, and that we must carry in our hearts.  These notions of the great ones being the ones that serve, that sacrifice, who accept hardships, even persecutions, is an entirely alien notion to the world of power in which Jesus was born.  It still remains a difficult, uncomfortable understanding in terms of how we think of greatness, material power, acquisition of wealth and social position.  But it remains the ideal we're given as Christians.  This lesson follows closely upon the lesson of the wealthy young man, who is perfect according to the Mosaic Law (yesterday's reading), who has done all that he must to obey the commandments.  But Jesus teaches him that to truly be saved, he must sell what he has and give to the poor, and follow Him.  He calls us to more, and in the heart of Jesus this notion of service remains supreme.  In yesterday's reading, He told His disciples that those who sacrifice for the Kingdom will receive a hundredfold -- with persecutions.  Again, the notion of service, a very alien concept for greatness in a kingdom.  If we're going to wrap our minds around what He teaches, perhaps it helps if we think about service as doing that which is best for everyone by seeking to serve God, and finding the way in which we are called to serve.  To reach that goal, every sacrifice asked is "worth it" as a kind of exchange.  To be the servant or slave of all isn't, to my mind, to become some sort of a doormat.  Rather, it's to love God with all one's heart and mind and soul and strength, and what follows must be loving one's neighbor as oneself, finding a place in the Kingdom where service is the ultimate greatness.  Christ does not mean that we should all find ways to become martyrs or victims in any sense:  I don't believe this is what service is.  It doesn't mean we serve the whims of others in some unreasonable or chaotic way, either.  Rather, we find His way to be of service, in the image He calls us toward, through love of God, through prayer, and love of neighbor.  His plan, not ours.  Let us think in terms of the ways in which we are called to serve; it may be something as simple as giving a cup of water to someone in His name.  Service may involve a great dose of humility, but each one of us has a way in which we're called to use our own gifts to serve this Kingdom.  Let us remember this is His definition of greatness.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!


Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.   You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Do not defraud,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth."  Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack:  Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me."  But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"  And the disciples were astonished at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."  Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

- Mark 10:17-31

Yesterday we read that Jesus left Galilee and came to the region of Judea by the other side of the Jordan.  And multitudes gathered to Him again, and as He was accustomed, He taught them again.  The Pharisees came and asked Him, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" testing Him.  And He answered and said to them, "What did Moses command you?"  They said, "Moses permitted a man to write a certificate of divorce, and to dismiss her."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Because of the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.  But from the beginning of the creation, God 'made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."   In the house His disciples also asked Him again about the same matter.  So He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.  And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."  Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them.  But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God.  Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it."  And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.   You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Do not defraud,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth."   My study bible points out that this man approaches Christ as "a mere human" and Jesus responds as the same.  He puts emphasis on the goodness of God, and focuses the man's attention entirely on the same.  Then Jesus goes on to affirm the power and validity of the Ten Commandments as a guide to life; this obedience, says my study bible, is "an essential aspect of the quest for righteousness and eternal life."   In this way, the Gospel also establishes for us what type of man is before Jesus, and his righteousness in accordance with the Mosaic Law.

Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack:  Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me."  But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.    I think it's important that we note first what the Gospel tells us:  Jesus loved this man, and with this motivation goes on to teach him what he must do.  My study bible has a lengthy note here:  "Jesus recognizes and approves the man's moral righteousness.  But He tests him at his point of greatest vulnerability, where he needs to repent most.  It is his money that is keeping him from salvation.  Jesus challenges him with the ideal of total sacrifice for His sake.  The command to sell all is for this man, or for any other whom Christ may call in this particular way, but should not be construed as a universal requirement.  Christians are to use their possessions according to God's purposes, above all to help the poor and needy, but they are not to reject ownership of property. However, voluntary poverty is a legitimate part of a freely chosen way of life -- for example, for monastics."

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"  And the disciples were astonished at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!"  My study bible tells us, "Riches grip the heart like few other things.  When people trust in money more than in God, refusing to return their wealth to Christ, they fail to gain eternal life."

"It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  My study bible says here:  "Jesus uses an exaggerated image to indicate the extreme difficulty of entering the kingdom for those given to riches."

And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."  Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  This is an interesting passage:  the disciples are stunned at His teaching (Who then can be saved?), but at the same time, Peter soberly reflects, We have left all and followed You.  My study bible points out here that justification is never by faith alone, though it is by faith apart from the law (Gal. 2:16).  It says, "God calls on people to believe and to act because they believe."

So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."  A note here reads:  "Discipleship is radical self-denial, a total offering of oneself to God.  This implies readiness to give up dear possessions or even relationships that stand in the way of following Christ." . . . "That disciples will receive earthly rewards a hundredfold now in this time is not an absolute promise:  countless saints and martyrs were not so rewarded.  However, God has a way of returning and multiplying earthly blessings along with persecutions to faithful men and women according to His will."

There's a lot to think about in today's reading, particularly in terms of how we view wealth and how we live with it.  There are multiple parallel things going on here.  There is first of all the young man, who is not only a morally upright person in all ways the Law might require of him, but we're told that Jesus loves him.  So here, the attachment to wealth goes deeper than merely a moral or perhaps even an ethical approach to how we may use wealth.  I think this is important to understand here; Jesus is getting to our very core of ourselves as human beings, how we think of ourselves, and what we are attached to.  This is something He will do with His teachings over and over again.  He will ask us to go to our hearts, to our core, and make choices there, especially about what we love.  So often we tend to identify ourselves with our possessions.  Our homes and what we have become symbols, tangible things we show to one another, of who we are.  I think this is the place where Jesus is taking this young man when He asks him to give away what he has to the poor.  Possessions are just that -- they are things we have, not what we are.  By teaching that he should give his possessions away, Jesus is clearing the way in a psychological sense for a true identification:  "treasure in heaven," and "take up the cross, and follow Me."  It's a radical re-setting of identity, of what real treasure is in the heart, and what comes first in what we love.  That is what is going on here.  The disciples reflect that they've done the same (through Peter's sobering realization) and this tells us something about what it is to follow Him.  Perhaps we may not even understand where it is we're being led, but upon reflection, we see what He has taught us and how He has taught us.  They've left everything behind for His sake and the Gospel's.  Perhaps, each in our own way, Christ may call upon us to do the same, and if we reflect we may come to realize how we were led -- even when we didn't quite realize it at the time.  The difficulties signified by a person who is, perhaps, born into great wealth are no joke.  Again, we come to the problems of identification with the possessions we have.  And, I think that particularly for we who live in a modern world full of tremendous material capacities, there is really a great danger when we take all of these things for granted, and lose sight of who we truly are and our dependence on God.  We also can't merely focus on ethics or morals as the things that save us; this young man already is an upright and righteous person in those terms.  Who we know ourselves to be changes how we act.  Jesus' radical prescription for the spiritual health of this young man may also be a prescription many in our modern world can voluntarily take -- at least psychologically -- by seeking to see ourselves as God sees us, and not identify with what we have in life as the things that define us.  God may give us many blessings in life, but they are just that, blessings.  They do not form the core of who we really are.  For that we need to be radically clear about who we are in the heart, what we truly love and treasure, who and what tells us who we really are.  Blessings are meant to be put back in God's hands, so to speak, to be used responsibly the way God teaches us to be stewards of whatever gifts we have; I'd say that talent and even children also come under this topic of blessings or gifts.  This would be a sacramental kind of life.  We may suffer from persecutions in living this type of life, but the gift we get back is the great gift of who we really are, possession of our souls, for which there is no substitute and no security greater, nor freedom, nor independence of heart.  In this way, the first may be last, and the last first.  We can't do this all by ourselves, but with God, all things are possible.