Monday, August 3, 2015

Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod


 Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him.   But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign?  Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation."  And He left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to the other side.  Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat.  Then He charged them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "It is because we have no bread."   But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, "Why do you reason because you have no bread?  Do you not yet perceive nor understand?  Is your heart still hardened?  Having eyes, do you not see?  And having ears, do you not hear?  And do you not remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?"  They said to Him, "Twelve."  Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?"  And they said, "Seven."  So He said to them, "How is it you do not understand?"

- Mark 8:11-21

Saturday, we read that in those day of Jesus' ministry, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat.  And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar."  Then His disciples answered Him, "How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?"  He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?"  And they said, "Seven."  So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground.  And He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude.  They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them.  So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments.  Now those who had eaten were about four thousand.  And He sent them away, immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.

 Then the Pharisees came out and began to dispute with Him, seeking from Him a sign from heaven, testing Him.   But He sighed deeply in His spirit, and said, "Why does this generation seek a sign?  Assuredly, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation."  Jesus is challenged to prove He's the Messiah, to prove He's "from heaven."   This would mean some spectacular display of power.   My study bible says that the time of the Messiah was expected to be accompanied by signs, but the Pharisees refuse to recognize the signs already performed by Jesus which we've read about in the Gospel so far in His ministry.  Instead, they "up the ante," as the expression goes, demanding a greater "proof."  Jesus will work according to the Father's will; He does not provide signs on demand for anyone.  Jesus speaks of Herod here; in Luke's Gospel, when Jesus is presented before Herod, having been sent by Pilate for judgment, we're told that Herod eagerly sought to see a sign on demand, but was given none.

And He left them, and getting into the boat again, departed to the other side.  Now the disciples had forgotten to take bread, and they did not have more than one loaf with them in the boat.  Then He charged them, saying, "Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "It is because we have no bread."   But Jesus, being aware of it, said to them, "Why do you reason because you have no bread?  Do you not yet perceive nor understand?  Is your heart still hardened?  Having eyes, do you not see?  And having ears, do you not hear?  And do you not remember?  When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of fragments did you take up?"  They said to Him, "Twelve."  Also, when I broke the seven for the four thousand, how many large baskets full of fragments did you take up?"  And they said, "Seven."  So He said to them, "How is it you do not understand?"   Leaven, says my study bible, is used both positively and negatively in Scripture.   (See Matthew 13:33 for a positive reference; here Jesus uses it negatively.)   But leaven symbolizes a force that "gets into things."  As my study bible puts it, it symbolizes a force "powerful enough (and often subtle enough) to permeate and affect everything around it (see 1 Corinthians 5:6-8)."   

We have to think about how Jesus' ministry works, and what He is here for.  We know that whatever He does, He is following the will of the Father.  There's an unfolding that happens here, for a reason.  His ministry is teaching everyone the things of God, the ways in which we're to think about what is holy, and what is good.  But the crux of everything, the rock on which the Church will be built, is faith.   Faith is a kind of key that unlocks everything about God, and it's the key to Jesus' ministry.  We know that because of faith, great healings have happened.  There is the healing of the woman with the twelve years' blood flow, which we read about in the same reading as the raising of Jairus' daughter (see Do not be afraid; only believe).  In both of those healings, faith played a powerful role in the capacity for Jesus' holy power to work within the human beings who needed it.  We have read that in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, there was so much cynicism about Him, and so little faith, that He could not perform the usual healings and great works that accompany His ministry.  So the presence of faith produces signs of the presence of God, and the lack of faith means that Christ cannot work the great works of the holy power present with Him.  This is a synergistic ministry; what is in us works hand in hand with God's power.  Both things must be present.  If we think about it, we know that God's power is always present, but it is our capacity for faith that somehow unlocks knowledge of God in us, provides the opportunity for God to work in us and with us.  It is a relationship of love and trust.  Where is the love and trust in the demand for a sign, in the demand for a proof?  That implies a different sort of heart, one that is "hardened" against the things of God, in the language of the Scriptures.  It's a heart that's looking for something else, somewhere else, looking to condemn, to find ways to hide from this love of God.  This is the "leaven of the Pharisees."  Coupled with these attacks on Him by the Pharisees, Jesus finds His own disciples with hearts "hardened" so that they don't understand His power, don't recognize it.  They don't understand His words, either, His teachings which are also part and parcel of the "mysteries" of God to which disciples have access via faith.  Jesus marvels, "How is it you do not understand?"  because they think He's upset they didn't bring bread, when twice now He's fed thousands in the wilderness by multiplying what is on hand.  There's another clue here, in the relationship of the words "leaven" and "bread" to Christ Himself.  He brings to the world a faith that is like leaven:  the kingdom of heaven He has likened to leaven in one parable (Matthew 13:33).  He has already fed thousands on two occasions with blessed bread, multiplied through holy power (to which He refers in today's reading, the second occasion we can read from Saturday, above).   These prefigure the Eucharist which will be given at the Last Supper.  He is Himself the bread of life, the bread that came down from heaven.  All of this is linked to faith:  to trust and love, the roots of faith.  And in some way we're all called to choose what we put our faith in, what we put our trust in.  Jesus presents the disciples with a choice here:  the leaven of the Pharisees or faith in Him.  Are His works enough for them, or are their hearts hardened as in the doctrine of the Pharisees who demand a sign on their terms?  It all comes down to whose love we trust in.  That's the real root of faith.  Do we respond to God's love for us, or to the leaven that teaches us to find ways to deny that love?  Which do we think is true?



Saturday, August 1, 2015

I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat


 In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat.  And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar."  Then His disciples answered Him, "How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?"  He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?"  And they said, "Seven."  So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground.  And He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude.  They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them.  So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments.  Now those who had eaten were about four thousand.  And He sent them away, immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.

- Mark 8:1-10

In yesterday's reading we read that Jesus went to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon. (This was after His encounter with Pharisees and scribes who'd come from Jerusalem and criticized Him and the disciples.)   And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden.  For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet.  The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  But Jesus said to her, "Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."  And she answered and said to Him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs."  Then He said to her, "For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter."  And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.  Again, departing from the region of Tyre and Sidon, He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee.  Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him.  And He took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.  Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."  Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.  Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it.  And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

 In those days, the multitude being very great and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples to Him and said to them, "I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now continued with Me three days and have nothing to eat.  And if I send them away hungry to their own houses, they will faint on the way; for some of them have come from afar."  Then His disciples answered Him, "How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?"  He asked them, "How many loaves do you have?"  And they said, "Seven."  So He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground.  And He took the seven loaves and gave thanks, broke them and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and they set them before the multitude.  They also had a few small fish; and having blessed them, He said to set them also before them.  So they ate and were filled, and they took up seven large baskets of leftover fragments.  Now those who had eaten were about four thousand.  And He sent them away, immediately got into the boat with His disciples, and came to the region of Dalmanutha.  This is a second feeding of a multitude, distinctly different from the first (in which five thousand men, and more women and children, were fed in the wilderness).  I think it's significant that this feeding occurs after Jesus has used His power to heal the daughter of a Gentile woman, in the region of Tyre and Sidon.  We note some of the differences between this feeding and the earlier one:  there were five loaves in the first, which my study bible says symbolizes the Law.  Here seven loaves are present.  Seven is a number symbolic of fullness or completeness, my study bible suggests "spiritual perfection" in contrast to the Law.  In the first instance, it says, Christ reveals Himself as fulfilling the Law, but here it is He who grants spiritual perfection.  We note the crowds had been with Him three days, the number of days He would be in the tomb before Resurrection.  My study bible says, "Participation in His perfection can only come through being united to Christ's death (see Romans 6:3-5)."  After the previous feeding of the five thousand, there were twelve baskets of fragments left over, symbolizing the work of the Twelve Apostles.  But here, there are seven, again the number of completeness, symbolizing the gospel message that will be sent out universally, to the whole world, Jew and Gentile.

Two feedings, two central acts for the Gospel.  The great surprise is the first, but we remember after that one that we were told the apostles' heart was "hardened"  -- when Jesus walked on the sea they were "greatly amazed . . . beyond measure, and marveled.  For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened"  (see Wednesday's reading).   But this second feeding is impossible to miss in its repetitive aspects.  Jesus will say He is the door (or the gate), He is the light of the world, that He is the way, the truth, and the life.  In the first feeding, Jesus said that the people were like sheep not having a shepherd -- and He has taught that He is the good shepherd.   But here it is affirmed for us twice now that He is, as He has said, the bread of life.  What He has brought into the world feeds the world.  In the Eucharist, He feeds us with Himself -- just as He will lay down His life for the sheep, and for the life of the world.  He gives us Himself.  Food is an image of something universal and necessary.  It is something versatile, affirming of culture everywhere in the world, giving us what is both necessary and pleasurable.  Food is used to express love, it is a form of beauty and even devotion.  Those who prepare it are those who serve us, whether it is a mother feeding her children or those who serve others at a more formal setting.  In food, we have the universal metaphor for Christ:  needful and beautiful, giving us necessary nutrition and also healthful and blessed rest.  Meals are also a time for communion with one another -- traditional in all cultures universally.  We call the Eucharist communion:  it begins with our communion from Christ, the Good Shepherd, who feeds us the "supersubstantial bread" which we pray for in the Our Father, and that communion extends through Him to one another.  This is the image of His Church.  His is the bread of life -- life that is given so that we may have it "more abundantly"  -- not just for bare necessity but also far, far beyond.  This is the affirmation we get in this double feeding, via this second feeding -- that this bread of life is for the whole world:  first to the Jews and then to all the nations.    The few "little fish" present here may symbolize that, along with the number four thousand meaning both Jews and Gentiles.   In this symbolism we have the affirmation that He is the bread of life, who came down from heaven, so that we may receive of everything He has to give, including most fully the sacrifice of Himself.  Let us be with Him, as these people were; we remember the three days in the tomb.  Our devotion to Him is rewarded via what He offers us, even in our own wilderness.  It is faith that makes the difference, giving us the power to receive what He offers, even multiplies immeasurably.


Friday, July 31, 2015

Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs


 From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden.  For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet.  The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  But Jesus said to her, "Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."  And she answered and said to Him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs."  Then He said to her, "For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter."  And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.

Again, departing from the region of Tyre and Sidon, He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee.  Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him.  And He took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.  Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."  Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.  Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it.  And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."

- Mark 7:24-37

Yesterday, we read that the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem.  Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.   For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.  When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.  Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?"    He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:  'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men -- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do."   He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.  For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.'  But you say, 'If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban" --' (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.  And many such things you do."    When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand:  There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"  When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable.  So He said to them, "Are you thus without understanding also?  Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?"  And He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within and defile a man."

  From there He arose and went to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  And He entered a house and wanted no one to know it, but He could not be hidden.  For a woman whose young daughter had an unclean spirit heard about Him, and she came and fell at His feet.  The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she kept asking Him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  But Jesus said to her, "Let the children be filled first, for it is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."  And she answered and said to Him, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs."  Then He said to her, "For this saying go your way; the demon has gone out of your daughter."  And when she had come to her house, she found the demon gone out, and her daughter lying on the bed.  My study bible tells us that Jesus goes to the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon in order to withdraw from the Pharisees, and not to preach.  Hence, "He entered a house and wanted no one to know it."  But the power of this ministry, even among the Gentiles, is clear -- that's illustrated by the text.   The children (as we can read more explicitly in Matthew's account, Matthew 15:21-28)  are the Jews;  the "little dogs," meaning a puppy or a house dog, and therefore under the table, are Gentiles like this woman.  We can imagine a little dog under the table begging, like this woman is so insistent!  Her faith, as expressed by her tenacity and her engagement with Him, makes the difference.

Again, departing from the region of Tyre and Sidon, He came through the midst of the region of Decapolis to the Sea of Galilee.  Then they brought to Him one who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech, and they begged Him to put His hand on him.  And He took him aside from the multitude, and put his fingers in his ears, and He spat and touched his tongue.  Then, looking up to heaven, He sighed, and said to him, "Ephphatha," that is, "Be opened."   My study bible reports this sigh from Jesus as a sign of divine compassion for "the sufferings of our fallen human nature."  In yesterday's reading and commentary, we discussed the perspective of the Gospels in which such sufferings aren't really natural, rather our true nature of health (and here, expression and communication) is what Jesus restores to us.

Immediately his ears were opened, and the impediment of his tongue was loosed, and he spoke plainly.  Then He commanded them that they should tell no one; but the more He commanded them, the more widely they proclaimed it.  And they were astonished beyond measure, saying, "He has done all things well.  He makes both the deaf to hear and the mute to speak."   My study bible comments that it's good that we not seek acclaim or praise when we do good for others.  But it cites the commentator Theophylact as praising the actions of those who disobey Jesus in this story:  we should proclaim those who've done good to us even if they do not want us to.

Here's a tie to today's stories that doesn't often seem noticed:  that is Jesus' upholding of the virtue of communication and expression.  The Syro-Phoenician woman "wins the day" with her wit and engagement of Christ, responding clearly to His comment that even the little dogs under the table eat from the children's crumbs.  This is real engagement:  she's got to be paying attention to His every word to respond in this way.  It gives us a taste of the persona of Jesus, and what it is that He responds to and praises in human beings.  She's smart and using her intelligence in order to communicate with and to the Lord.  I don't really think there are coincidences in the Gospel, and in that sense, it's no accident that the next healing He does is to heal a man from deafness and the inability to speak.  These are two essential facets of communication:   hearing spoken word and expressing spoken word.  Where the Syro-Phoenician woman is expert, this man is deficient.  The qualities in her that enable her to convince Christ to help her are completely lacking in this man with such a serious impediment.  In this context, Jesus' sigh of compassion to heaven becomes even more eloquent, telling us how deeply He feels this impediment or handicap.  Communication is essential to right-relatedness, and above all else, it is relatedness that is important, how we engage with God and with one another.  It puts us in mind of the positive view of Jacob who wrestled with God for his blessing.  The final note here is the praise that can't be stopped, even if Jesus wants it stopped -- and Theophylact's upholding of those who praise.  That's also a positive notation for communication and expression.  We come to see how central it is.  The whole of the Gospel is all about expression:  the "good message" is the essence of the Book we're reading.  It's the "breath of God," the communication to us that is essential to our salvation.  The word angel comes directly from the Greek for "messenger."  How often does Jesus cry, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"?  None of this is accidental or coincidental.  We have to take very seriously the importance of communication and dialogue, and know what a gift this is to human beings.  We have to understand what it is for and how essential it is to salvation, the nature of what it is to be saved and to be a part of this Kingdom.  Communication is the act of interaction with others, dialogue is a give-and-take.  This is not about isolation, but about being drawn into a Kingdom, being part of a great communion, being in relationship to God and thereby to neighbor.  It's about the use of the intelligence with which we're created, the capabilities with which we're endowed.  What is a truly healed state of such capacity like?  How healthy is our praise?  How monumental is it that Jesus heals this Gentile woman's daughter because He commends her mother's wit, tenacity, and response to His words?  Let's remember what health looks like in this picture, and what it is Jesus praises, what impresses Him.  Let's remember what He sighs over, and think about our own use of our ability to express, to use language, to interact -- and why it's important to our true nature as human beings.  What do you communicate today?  How do you interact with God, and with God's creation?  How do you use the gift of language, with which human beings are so graciously endowed?  Let us note His praise of a foreign woman, who -- in the custom of the time -- shouldn't even be speaking with Him!  How far away is His response from what we might expect from another in a position of authority?






Thursday, July 30, 2015

What comes out of a man, that defiles a man


 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem.  Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.   For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.  When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.  Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?"    He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:
'This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far from Me.
And in vain they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.'
For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men -- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do."

He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.  For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.'  But you say, 'If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban" --' (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.  And many such things you do."

When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand:  There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"  When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable.  So He said to them, "Are you thus without understanding also?  Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?"  And He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within and defile a man."

- Mark 7:1-23

Yesterday, we read that when evening came, the disciples' boat was in the middle of the sea; and Jesus was alone on the land, where He had stayed to pray on the mountain.  Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them.  Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by.  And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled.  But immediately He talked with them and said to them, "Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid."  Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased.  And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled.  For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.  When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there.  And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was.  Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment.  And as many as touched Him were made well.

 Then the Pharisees and some of the scribes came together to Him, having come from Jerusalem.  Now when they saw some of His disciples eat bread with defiled, that is, with unwashed hands, they found fault.   For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands in a special way, holding the tradition of the elders.  When they come from the marketplace, they do not eat unless they wash.  And there are many other things which they have received and hold, like the washing of cups, pitchers, copper vessels, and couches.  Then the Pharisees and scribes asked Him, "Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat bread with unwashed hands?"    He answered and said to them, "Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:  'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me.  And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.' For laying aside the commandment of God, you hold the tradition of men -- the washing of pitchers and cups, and many other such things you do."   He said to them, "All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition.  For Moses said, 'Honor your father and your mother'; and 'He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death.'  But you say, 'If a man says to his father or mother, "Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban" --' (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down.  And many such things you do."   My study bible carefully tells us that the real issue here isn't at all the observation of Jewish customs or traditions -- which Jesus does not prohibit (see Matthew 5:17-19; 23:23).  At issue, rather, is putting human tradition contrary to the tradition of God.  My study bible says that the tradition of the elders is a body of interpretations of the Law, "which for the Pharisees and scribes was as authoritative as the Law and often superseded it."  Corban were a type of offering that could be promised to God in a way that property or earnings could still be used by oneself, but not for anybody else, including parents.  That would be, thereby, a secondary tradition which, in effect, obscures the primary aim of the Law, contained in God's commandments.  Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13.

When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, "Hear Me, everyone, and understand:  There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!"  When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable.  So He said to them, "Are you thus without understanding also?  Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?"  And He said, "What comes out of a man, that defiles a man.  For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within and defile a man."  My study bible simply puts it:  "Food cannot defile a person because it is created by God and is therefore pure.  Evil things are not from God, and these are what defile a person."

There's a kind of thread here going through the gospel that we have to take notice of.  It's related to the last note quoted from my study bible:  that what is created by God is pure, and what's evil isn't from God and so is impure, defiling a person.  It's tied to the notion that the things created by God are meant to contain God's glory, reflect God's truth and beauty and power.  It's related to the concept that people simply wanted to touch Jesus and were healed by His power, even from touching the hem of His clothing.  It's linked to the idea of anointing with oil in order to heal, as natural things can be imbued with the grace of God, just as human beings can.  In that context, what we have to see is that the point of view of the gospel is that what is evil is not natural.  We may think of all kinds of petty, selfish, "evil" behavior as natural to human beings, but that's not the point of view of Scripture.  In Scripture, this "unnatural" evil is our fallen state, not our true "natural" state.  Our true natural state is that which Jesus comes to give us, to heal us toward, to restore us to.  Our natural state is in communion with God, just as it is natural that all the things created by God should be endowed with God's glory, meant for grace.  When we seek to do things that block the action of grace in ourselves, it's not really something natural, but unnatural.  I wonder how we can get further into this way of thinking.  Perhaps we can take a look at the trouble stirred up by things we know are evil:  lying, malice, manipulation, slander, scapegoating.  We could use Jesus' examples of the things that come out of the heart that really defile a person:  evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness.   All of this is to point out that what's "unnatural" in this sense is a lot of trouble, causes so much difficulty and pain, isn't really natural to us at all.  These things are in some way learned and used by those who feel they get something by cheating at life, one way and another, and cheating others.  We need God's help for working through such problems, for being really and truly healed.  But let's take a careful look at who we are and what we're made for, and what healing really and truly looks like, at least in the perspective of Christ.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Be of good cheer! It is I; do not be afraid


 Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land.  Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them.  Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by.  And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled.  But immediately He talked with them and said to them, "Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid."  Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased.  And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled.  For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there.  And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was.  Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment.  And as many as touched Him were made well.

- Mark 6:47-56

In yesterday's reading, we were told that the twelve disciples, having returned from their first apostolic mission, gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught.  And He said to them, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while."  For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.  So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities.  They arrived before them and came together to Him.  And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd.  So He began to teach them many things.  When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, "This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late.  Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat."  But He answered and said to them, "You give them something to eat."  And they said to Him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?"  But He said to them, "How many loaves do you have?  Go and see."  And when they found out they said, "Five, and two fish."  Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties.  And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all.  So they all ate and were filled.  And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish.  Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.  Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away.  And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray.

  Now when evening came, the boat was in the middle of the sea; and He was alone on the land.  Then He saw them straining at rowing, for the wind was against them.  Now about the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea, and would have passed them by.  And when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were troubled.  But immediately He talked with them and said to them, "Be of good cheer!  It is I; do not be afraid."  Then He went up into the boat to them, and the wind ceased.  And they were greatly amazed in themselves beyond measure, and marveled.  For they had not understood about the loaves, because their heart was hardened.  My study bible points out here that this is not the first, but the second time that Jesus has let the apostles cross the sea in the middle of a fearsome storm.  The first time, He was with them (asleep in the stern of the boat).  But this time, He sends them off on their own.  It's a way to strengthen their faith, so that even in the direst of circumstances they depend on Him.  His statement, "It is I," is literally "I Am" -- the same statement of divinity that we find in John 8:58 ("Before Abraham was, I AM"), echoing the name of God given to Moses at the burning bush.  Only God would have power over forces of nature in order to walk on water; He reminds the fearful disciples, says my study bible, "of His absolute and divine authority over their lives."   Regarding their lack of understanding about the loaves, and their "hardened" hearts, my study bible tells us that knowing Christ is a matter of the heart and not the intellect alone:  "When our hearts are illumined by faith in God, they are open to receive His presence and grace.  In the ascetic writings of the Church, the heart is known as 'the seat of knowledge.'" 

When they had crossed over, they came to the land of Gennesaret and anchored there.  And when they came out of the boat, immediately the people recognized Him, ran through that whole surrounding region, and began to carry about on beds those who were sick to wherever they heard He was.  Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Him that they might just touch the hem of His garment.  And as many as touched Him were made well.  My study bible notes here that Christ permits miracles through touch to show that His very body is life-giving. 

It's interesting to note how Christ and especially the disciples seem to go from feast to famine -- or rather, from famine to feast (and quite literally so in yesterday's reading of feeding the five thousand).  One evening Jesus stays alone on the mountain to pray and sends them off across the Sea of Galilee, and they are caught fiercely trying to row against a terrible storm, alone in the middle of the sea.  It's a great test of the faith even of these experienced fishermen.  But the next day, saved by Jesus who walks on the water to them, they are in a place where they are surrounded by people who demand what they have to offer, and Jesus is immediately recognized by all the people who run through "that whole surrounding region."  He is inundated with the sick who are brought to Him.  Life can be like this experience, where one minute we seem to be totally alone and isolated and fearful, and the next surrounded by people who seem to clamour for whatever it is we have to give, so that we don't seem to have time to rest.  It's interesting to look at the name of Gennesaret, which comes from a word that means "Garden of Riches."  It was a very fertile place, with both an abundance of fishing resources and an abundant agricultural plane next to it.  The plain is called "Paradise of Galilee" for its beauty and fertility.  But rather than being feted with riches in a traditional sense of abundance, what we have here is an abundance of faith in Christ, those who so want what He has that they bring the sick to Him from all over, even to touch the hem of His garment.  How we know there was active faith is simply that so many were made well through the power of Christ that links with our faith.  We know that in Jesus' hometown of Nazareth, He couldn't do many works, because of the lack of faith in that place.  In this sense, the Gospel teaches us about real abundance -- it contrasts fear with faith.  And the importance of faith is the great emphasis that we take, that even in times of our greatest fears, our deepest sense of abandonment and loneliness, faith has an essential role to play.  If we look at our darkest times as those which are testing and stretching us, we may have the right idea, the right way to carry on through it.  I have often had this experience where there seems to be a kind of conspiracy of abandonment, things that must be left behind, a frightening future prospect not envisioned -- and a kind of test of faith so that I am strengthened that comes through it.  We remember the experience of Jesus and the disciples:  a kind of famine one day, and feast the next, and we can see this experience also reflected in our own lives.  Whatever we are experiencing right at this moment, let us recall the abundance of faith, the great and deep need expressed for Christ, in this paradise of Galilee, the garden of riches.  This is the meaning we take in reliance upon God, the great gift of our faith, and all that it can bring us beyond our immediate experience.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Five loaves, and two fish


 Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught.  And He said to them, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while."  For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.  So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves. But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities.  They arrived before them and came together to Him.  And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd.  So He began to teach them many things.  When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, "This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late.  Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat."  But He answered and said to them, "You give them something to eat."  And they said to Him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?"  But He said to them, "How many loaves do you have?  Go and see."  And when they found out they said, "Five, and two fish."  Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties.  And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all.  So they all ate and were filled.  And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish.  Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.

Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away.  And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray.

- Mark 6:30-46

Yesterday, we read that at this point in Jesus' ministry, King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known.  And he said, "John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him."  Others said, "It is Elijah."  And others said, "It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets."   But when Herod heard, he said, "This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!"  For Herod Himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her.  Because John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."  Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him.  And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.  Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee.  And when Herodias' daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, "Ask me whatever you want, and I will give you, up to half my kingdom."  So she went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?"  And she said, "The head of John the Baptist!"  Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."  And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.  Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought.  And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.  When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.

 Then the apostles gathered to Jesus and told Him all things, both what they had done and what they had taught.   In Saturday's reading, we learned that Jesus sent out the Twelve, two by two, into their first apostolic mission, preaching the Kingdom and with the power to heal and cast out unclean spirits.  Yesterday's reading was a kind of parenthetical explanation given by Mark of the death of John the Baptist.  Today's reading picks up where Saturday's ended, with the disciples returning to Christ and telling Him about their mission.

And He said to them, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while."  For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.  So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves.   My study bible makes note of the fact that Christ gives rest to His disciples.  This shows those engaged in preaching and teaching that they mustn't labor continuously, but also take rest.   We note also their withdrawal to a private, "deserted" place.  There are times for outward work, and there are times for withdrawal and seclusion.

But the multitudes saw them departing, and many knew Him and ran there on foot from all the cities.  They arrived before them and came together to Him.  And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd.  So He began to teach them many things.  Jesus' popularity is so great now that many follow Him wherever He goes.  His compassion allows Him to teach to those who so desire His word.  Let's note that Jesus has withdrawn here with the disciples, but has been "interrupted" by the crowds, despite His intention.  To my mind, it teaches that Christ had to balance His own preferences with the demands of the crowds, using His discernment in response.  We note that His first act of mercy or compassion is to teach.  They are like sheep without a shepherd, they need His guidance.

When the day was now far spent, His disciples came to Him and said, "This is a deserted place, and already the hour is late.  Send them away, that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy themselves bread; for they have nothing to eat."  But He answered and said to them, "You give them something to eat."   This seems to be a kind of "test" or stretching of the disciples.  They've just returned from their first mission, and now He's giving them more responsibility by saying, "You give them something to eat."  What will follow will be a teaching experience for them.

And they said to Him, "Shall we go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?"  But He said to them, "How many loaves do you have?  Go and see."  And when they found out they said, "Five, and two fish."  Then He commanded them to make them all sit down in groups on the green grass.  So they sat down in ranks, in hundreds and in fifties.   We remember that on their apostolic mission, the disciples were taught to take practically nothing with them, basically the clothing on their backs, and to develop a kind of reliance on God throughout the mission.  Here, it's a similar teaching:  Jesus throws them back on whatever resources they can come up with -- five loaves, two fish.  From what is on hand, we give to the Lord and rely on God's word for the rest.

And when He had taken the five loaves and the two fish, He looked up to heaven, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples to set before them; and the two fish He divided among them all.  So they all ate and were filled.  And they took up twelve baskets full of fragments and of the fish.  Now those who had eaten the loaves were about five thousand men.  Tradition has it that this is a mirror of the Eucharist, a kind of preview.  And this "scene" is central to all of the Gospels.  Jesus blesses the loaves, and gives to His disciples to distribute, an image of the Eucharist which will be done in His name.   The twelve baskets reinforce this understanding:  they are symbolic of the twelve apostles through whom the gospel will be spread to the world, the Eucharist will be given to all, as long as the Church exists.

Immediately He made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, to Bethsaida, while He sent the multitude away.  And when He had sent them away, He departed to the mountain to pray.  It's interesting to observe the use of time in Mark's Gospel.  There are parts of the Gospel in which events happen at a very quick pace, but today we're given a "full day."  Now it is evening; the disciples are sent away to Bethsaida, a busy commerce and fishing area.  Jesus departs to the mountain to pray, again enforcing our periodic need for withdrawal.  He will be alone with the Father in prayer.

This piece is the central story of the Gospels, the feeding of the five thousand men (with more women and children present).  Of course, as noted above, it prefigures the Eucharist.  But when something is so central we have to ask ourselves questions about it.  What else is there in this picture we're given in today's reading that is of such essence to all the gospel message?  We can suggest the obvious, that Christ feeds all of us.  If you think about it, everything He does is a type of food for our health -- whether we are talking about physical or spiritual health, it's all one.   The first thing He does with these crowds, whom He likens to sheep not having a shepherd, is to teach them many things.  This is what they need, as sheep without a shepherd.  They need someone to teach them, to guide them, to give them wisdom and instruction on how to live their lives.  When the day is spent, this crowd is hungry and has been with Him all day.  They have nothing to eat.  Jesus instructs His disciples that they will provide.  But this is food beyond bread and fish.  It's a story about the "daily bread" we ask for in the prayer He has taught us, the Our Father (see Matthew 6:5-13).   As we've commented before on this blog during the readings in Matthew, the word translated as "daily" really has a meaning that implies it's for the new day of Christ, the eternal day, the day of the Kingdom.  As such, Christ feeds us with a bread that isn't only for our common understanding of daily nurturing, but a daily nurturing of the things that the sheep need, the bread that is more than just bread, a "super-substantial" bread (as the word literally implies).  These are ordinary loaves of bread, and common fish, but blessed and multiplied by Christ they give us the meaning of this ministry in our world, the human Jesus who is also the divine Christ.   They add everything to our lives that we need on so many levels of where we truly live.  We're not just body, not just what's visible to the eye:  we think, we feel, we have souls, we make choices, and we can live in communion with God.  We as human being can share and develop attributes of God.  We are capable of so much more, and of the fruits of the spirit:  joy, love, peace, forbearance, and so much more that makes life full and blessed.  These are the things we're given in this feeding by Christ.  And let's not forget the example of rest when we need it, and especially one-on-one private time in prayer with Him.  All of it is essential to our well being.  All of it is necessary for the sheep who need a Shepherd, who are not just those who live by instinct, but those with rational minds, with self-consciousness, capable of pondering meanings and values, and understanding the values that are added to their lives through all that Christ gives.  Those are the kind of sheep that we are, and He's the kind of Shepherd we all need.  Let us remember this story of feeding, and consider the so-much-more with which we're fed than the images of loaves and fish.  Christ's blessing and interaction in our lives is an eternal blessing, an abundance that is inexhaustible:   "all the fish in the sea" makes a good symbol for the bread that keeps on giving, the supersubstantial food we're given, not only for a life perceived of flesh alone, but for a life in which flesh and blood host an infinite variety of human capacities, love for the good, manifestation of what is good and true and beautiful.  In Christ, the image of what makes a human being contains all these things, not separate from one another, except by our choices and our neglect.  That's what this food feeds and sustains, and why we need it and are dependent upon it.  Let us never forget, even in our "daily" lives devoted and compounded through the great day of eternal and abundant life in Him.



Monday, July 27, 2015

John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him


 Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known.  And he said, "John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him."  Others said, "It is Elijah."  And others said, "It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets."   But when Herod heard, he said, "This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!"  For Herod Himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her.  Because John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."  Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him.  And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee.  And when Herodias' daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, "Ask me whatever you want, and I will give you, up to half my kingdom."  So she went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?"  And she said, "The head of John the Baptist!"  Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."  And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.  Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought.  And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.  When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.

- Mark 6:14-29

On Saturday, we read that Jesus went out from Capernaum and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him.  And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue.  And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, "Where did this Man get these things?  And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands!  Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon?  And are not His sisters here with us?"  So they were offended at Him.  But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house."  Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.  And He marveled because of their unbelief.  Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.  And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits.  He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff -- no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts -- but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.  Also He said to them, "In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place.  And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"  So they went out and preached that people should repent.  And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.

 Now King Herod heard of Him, for His name had become well known.  And he said, "John the Baptist is risen from the dead, and therefore these powers are at work in him."  My study bible tells us here that this King Herod is the son of Herod the Great, the one who had slain the infants of Bethlehem in an attempt to kill the infant Christ, whom he had heard about from the Three Wise Men, or Magi (see Matthew chapter 2).  He is known also as Herod Antipas.  He's technically a governor working with the Romans, but he's popularly called king.  He knows that John the Baptist worked no miracles while he was alive, but Herod now believes John was raised from the dead, thinking that powers are at work in him.  Thus, my study bible says, he fears John more dead than alive.

Others said, "It is Elijah."  And others said, "It is the Prophet, or like one of the prophets."  Here we're given evidence of the times; people live in expectation of the Messiah.  Elijah was expected to return and work signs before the second coming of the Lord (Malachi 4:5), and Jesus will say Himself that John the Baptist is Elijah returned in spirit The Prophet is interpreted by some to be a reference to the Messiah, my study bible tells us; he is the one foretold by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15).  Others simply interpret it as meaning that a new prophet had arisen.

But when Herod heard, he said, "This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!"  For Herod Himself had sent and laid hold of John, and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife; for he had married her.  Because John had said to Herod, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife."  Therefore Herodias held it against him and wanted to kill him, but she could not; for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him.  And when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.  Here begins a sort of "flashback" in the story.  Jesus puts Herod in fear that John has returned, and the text begins to explain to us why, and to give us the story of John's beheading.  My study bible notes that Herod, with all his wealth and soldiers, feared John -- a man who lived in poverty and was clothed in camel's hair (Mark 1:6).  This is a testament, a note tells us, "both to the power of personal holiness and integrity, and also to the people's perception of John, for they held him in the highest esteem (Mark 11:32)."

Then an opportune day came when Herod on his birthday gave a feast for his nobles, the high officers, and the chief men of Galilee.  And when Herodias' daughter herself came in and danced, and pleased Herod and those who sat with him, the king said to the girl, "Ask me whatever you want, and I will give you, up to half my kingdom."  So she went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask?"  And she said, "The head of John the Baptist!"  Immediately she came in with haste to the king and asked, saying, "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."  And the king was exceedingly sorry; yet, because of the oaths and because of those who sat with him, he did not want to refuse her.  Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded his head to be brought.  And he went and beheaded him in prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.  When his disciples heard of it, they came and took away his corpse and laid it in a tomb.  We get the whole story as a reason why Herod fears John -- a graphic, gruesome tale of corruption and blood.   The Church views this story in a very distinctive way, however, and that is about John's mission.  He is the Forerunner, the one who heralded the coming of the Messiah or Christ.  But this holds true even for John after death, when the Church traditionally considers him herald also to the souls in Hades -- John's martyrdom becomes a vehicle whereby the coming of the Christ may also be made known to those who have come before.    Salvation is for all.

We can make a lot out of this horribly gruesome tale.  Even Herod fears the holy power of John the Baptist, although the Baptist did not do the signs and wonders that Christ Himself has produced.  Herod's fear is that John has returned from the dead.  We look at the awful story:  a king's birthday party, a lavish promise to the daughter of his wife, made in front of all the nobles and the "great people" of his kingdom.   All the important and influential people are there.  Think about it, this girl could have asked for anything.  But she goes to her mother, and the mother's one desire is for a whole kingdom and the marriage it depends on.  All she thinks about is the death of John the Baptist, and demands a horrible "proof" to that effect.  So we get the drastic picture of imprisonment and beheading, but we also get the understanding of the gospel:  what really matters is John the Baptist's role in the plan of salvation.  He will go first to the souls of the dead, who await Resurrection also, and they then are able to receive the "good news" of the coming of the Christ.  God's salvation plan isn't just about us -- we who live in this world.  It's a salvation plan for an entire cosmos, without end or limits.  It's also for those who've come before, or all those who never had an opportunity otherwise to hear about the Christ.  Our faith isn't just about those whom we know, but also about so many multiple possibilities of those whom we know nothing about.  Christ is for everyone -- truly, everyone.  This is the way the Church sees this story, it is the way the Church has always viewed any martyrdom:  what is better for salvation, for the plan of the Kingdom?  In this, we are given an important understanding of the power of the gospel, the good news.  Its healing impact isn't only for those we know about, but for those of all times and places, living and dead.  In the communion of saints, we consider the Church -- the Body of Christ -- to be truly universal.  There is no one left out of the good news, and every single thing -- no matter how gruesome or horrific -- may in some way serve that salvation plan.  We see and know one thing:  the evil we can witness in the world.  But we shouldn't lose sight of the work of the Kingdom which is deterred by nothing, and the work of the Kingdom that can come about even through the darkest of circumstances.  This is an important reality to grasp; it is right at the heart of the Cross, the power of real holiness, the saving power of God.  Let us consider, in our own darkest times, the story of John the Baptist, the perspective of the Gospel, the present help for salvation in all ways, at all times, for all human beings.   In a very real sense, Herod may be quite right:  John the Baptist is "risen from the dead" and the power of the holy is at work in him, to bring news of the light to those in the tombs as they await the Christ and His power of life and resurrection as well.  How ironic that the death of John the Baptist takes place on Herod's birthday; the Gospels give us accounts of what people do, what their lives mean, what their works and fruits are.  John works for salvation even by his death; Herod's celebration of his life is an occasion for death of the holy.  Let us consider the ways of God and the truths the Gospels teach us.