Friday, January 30, 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 then 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

Yesterday, we read that, having returned from their first mission, 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 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 then 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.   My study bible points out that this is the second time that Jesus permits the disciples to be caught in a storm.  (See the reading Where is your faith? for the first time this happened, as they set sail across the Sea of Galilee.)  In the first storm, Jesus was with the disciples in the boat; He was sleeping on a pillow.  This time the disciples are alone.  My study bible says that "in this way, Christ strengthens their faith that He will always be with them in the midst of the storms of life."  "It is I" is translated literally as "I Am" which is the divine Name of God (see John 8:58).  In this way Christ - as He exemplifies power over nature - suggests to the fearful disciples the absolute and divine authority over their lives that is in Him as Son of God.

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 says that "knowing Christ is a matter of the heart, not merely the intellect.  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 says that Christ permits miracles through touch in order to show that His very body is life-giving.  We refer also to the story of the woman with the twelve-year blood flow, who touched His garment in the crowds and was immediately healed  (Mark 5:25-29; see Your faith has made you well).

In today's reading we have several extraordinary displays of Christ's divine power:  He walks on water to the disciples (as they have been instructed to set off ahead of Him in the boat while He remained behind in prayer), and people are healed through even by touching His clothing.  There's an implication in the first story in today's reading that Jesus was walking toward the disciples' goal across the Sea of Galilee, and would have passed them by, as if He wanted to go ahead before them in order to be able to be there waiting for them on the other side.   It's an interesting thing to picture and to think about:  suppose we all understood that on every journey we take that's inspired by the Word, He's already there ahead of us, traveling on our course, and we'll find Him waiting wherever we're going?  That's a good way to think about God, about the Source of all that is, about the Presence that always was, always is, and always will be.  That's what we enter into relationship with when we become children by adoption, and when we engage in the dialogue of prayer.  It's a hint about our understanding of Scripture and the famous places in which we read the phrase, "In the beginning."  We can turn to Genesis and read, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."  But, we need to understand that Creation is not really "the beginning."  God was already present before the beginning, in order to begin the Creation (of the heaven and the earth).  We can turn to John's Gospel, and read it even more explicitly, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."  "In the beginning was" tells us literally that Christ already was before the beginning.  This is eternal reality, before what we understand as Creation, in which He was, is, and will be.  To my mind this is what is illustrated for the disciples in this story.  Wherever they are sent, whatever they are sent to do, however they go, and wherever they are going, He was there for them, He is there for them, He will be there for them.  It's my belief that this is the way we must consider any "new beginning" that we make in life, if we make it prayerfully and in faith. He's was with us before the "new beginning," is with us in the midst of that new page in life, and will be there in the future beyond.  That is, it's a guideline for how we go through all times in our lives, how we make plans, and what we set as goals.  Most importantly, and perhaps really the whole point of this passage, is that this doesn't mean we're completely free of bumps in the road and fearful travels.  In fact, one ancient commentator, Origen, says that this repeated "testing" of the disciples (remember, they have already gone through a storm when He was in the boat with them) is precisely to strengthen their faith:  that without some form of risk there's no exercise in the capacity to grow in faith.  The picture we get here, therefore, is one of our own spiritual journey in life as disciples of Christ:  we're not going to have a simply easy road, without risk and without our own fears to deal with.  But He is always there, before we begin, with us where we are, and waiting where we're going.  This is the eternal reality of the Christ, the God who is with us.  It's a strange thing to consider, but Jesus' domination of the elements of the earth here is precisely what illustrates the divinity that somehow mingles with us in our lives, even as we remain human beings who have our weaknesses to deal with although we have His help and guidance always leading the way, literally "before" us anywhere we may go.  And this is the relationship we really enter into in discipleship, a life with Christ.  It's the meaning and purpose of the Eucharist, wherein elements of the world that we use to nurture ourselves become His mystical body sacrificed for us, which we take into ourselves.  We are meant for this union, this reconciliation, this cooperative work -- even as we still have our own vulnerabilities and imperfections to experience with Him.   In the healings by those who touch His clothing, we can see a similar statement of the divine with us and working with us:  those people first make the effort to come to Him, run to Him, just as did the people who were fed in the wilderness in yesterday's reading.  Together with their effort, Christ works in His divine way.  And all of it is about faith:  starting with a mustard seed's worth, and God's work strengthening that faith in us as we seek the further journey with Him:  before, during, and always.  Can we understand what this divine reality is?  And that it is always present to us and always was and will be?  A great thing to try to understand, a greater thing to rely on and experience for oneself.  Perhaps more importantly, we must understand how our human experience and struggle will always be present with us even as we walk with Him, as He leads us through to places we never thought we could go.  Let's remember His question to the disciples in their first frightening crossing of the sea:  "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  Let us remember He is working also to strengthen that faith in us, via our own experiences as disciples.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

You give them something to eat


 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 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 of the success of the first apostolic mission:  they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.  Now King Herod heard of Jesus, 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 it to you."  He also swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, 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.  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.  The apostles have returned now from their first mission (see Tuesday's reading, in which we read of Jesus' choosing and conferring power on them, and sending them out).  My study bible says that Christ gives rest to His disciples to show those engaged in preaching and teaching that they must not labor continuously, but must also take rest.  We note the great concern for healing that accompanies all of these things:  their apostolic mission was one of preaching and healing (Jesus had given them power over unclean spirits, and they healed by anointing with oil).  Upon their return, Jesus' concern is also for their healing.  He takes them to rest, to a deserted place.

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.  More emphasis on healing:  the people will not leave Jesus alone, their need for what He offers is something they understand.   Jesus' compassion in this case is directed toward their lost and directionless state, for they are like sheep without a shepherd.  Their need is for His teaching, and this is another part of healing.  His teaching is a compassionate response to their need.

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 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.  What do we feed those whose need is around us and we seem to have nothing?  We start from where we are, and what is at hand.  But before that, and at all times, we have Christ with us to whom we turn with what we have.  Of course, this is as much a teaching for the apostles or disciples as it is for anyone else.  It's also a reflection of the Eucharist:  Jesus' blessing of what is on hand -- the five loaves -- and its distribution by the disciples is a picture of what happens in the sacrament.  The twelve baskets remain, one for each disciple.  It's again an occasion for teaching and healing:  and who knows which need is greater?  In the distribution of the blessed loaves, the suggestion of Eucharist also reminds us that He is our food.  So important is this image that this story appears in all of the Gospels.  My study bible suggests that the gathering of leftovers by the apostles shows that the teachings the faithful are unable to grasp are nevertheless held in the consciousness of the Church.

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.  Eventually, it is time again to rest -- healing is always a concern, on every level and for every person, and rest is a part of healing.  We never forget the facts of human life and the care we need for it.  We remember Jesus' teaching, earlier in Mark's Gospel, that "the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath."  Jesus' need is to pray, it is for His communion with the Father, something that is never apart from our story of Christ.  If we will, this is His food.  See John 4:32-34:  "I have food to eat of which you do not know" . . . "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me, and to finish His work."

Let us think about feeding, and what that means in the texts of the Gospels.  This story is the most pertinent to that consideration.  As we've said, it's so central to the gospel message that all four Evangelists write about it.  To feed others in a deserted place, without sources for provision, but using whatever is on hand, is to find oneself in need for the sake of others.  But there's nothing here that is divorced from the power and person of Christ.  It's important that we understand this feeding to be more than merely providing physical nourishment, but working hand in hand with that which ultimately heals:  Christ Himself.  The reflection of the Eucharist in this portrait of feeding five thousand men (and more women and children) in the deserted place is in the power of healing, feeding, and blessing that is in Christ.  His teaching is His first response to the needy crowds, who have followed Him and gained His compassion because they are "like sheep without a shepherd."  There are many times in life when I find that what someone needs from me is much more than what they are looking for.  We might think that more money will solve a problem we have: "if only" one were in this position or that. But so often we forget how important faith and love are, how important spiritual realities like hope itself are.  The cynical will say that this is some kind of rationalization, but the feeding of the 5,000 here in the wilderness is a testimony about the power of Christ to multiply and bless whatever is on hand.  It isn't just about physical feeding, but about the wholeness of persons and what many things go into healing our lives, no matter what the problems may be.  There are times when I can't deliver a full healing of an illness, or purchase whatever someone else may want for themselves, but I can offer what is and may be distributed through each of us by the power of Christ:  I can offer compassion and love, I can offer hope, a word, a kindness, and genuine care.  And one would be surprised by the effectiveness of this addition to any situation and how it may start movement toward resolution of a problem.  We neglect faith when we think that such a spirit of hope and love cannot help others cope with their problems.  Often it may be the one thing necessary to make the connection between what other options are available and the despair over a particular concern.  It may be the spark to help adjust a way of thinking that closes off all other considerations but dire need, the one thing necessary to put a situation in the proper perspective.  Most of all, Christ adds grace to all things, and the power of prayer can create powerful insights and coping capacities we don't know are available to us or to others.  Christ's help may get us thinking about priorities and how exactly we best use what we do have at hand.  I would like to suggest, as today's reading does, that all of this is food.  All of this is something we can use to feed others in any situation or circumstance.  It is up each person to choose whether or not to receive what is available through the power of Christ, but God works with and through all things.  A loaf of bread is blessed and bears the mystical person of Christ in the Eucharist, just as Jesus multiplies all that is available in this feeding in the wilderness.  We simply don't know what our own spiritual gifts will offer to those in need around us, nor whether or not others are capable of receiving them.  But we remember that "with God all things are possible."   As a caregiver for an elderly parent, I can say that the power of prayer is the one thing necessary that has helped me to think of resources I might not have found otherwise, to keep going and looking for what will help a problem that overwhelms me when I don't have the answers, and refreshes the mind with a "food" that serves God and gives me the energy to continue to do so as best I can, even in the form of what service I can render to others.  It is Christ's healing, nurturing grace that is the great thing necessary, even giving strength to make do with what is on hand, and courage and love to find peace and joy even in the present time of need or "imperfection."  It is surprising how that power can help a struggling friend, or anyone you know (even oneself) who may be like a sheep without a shepherd.  It is often the one thing I have to offer, but it is the true gift of love.  This gift is the fullest basis of healing, for any problem and ailment -- and anything else may be added unto it.  It is really the one thing truly and always needed, and so often we overlook it in our blindness to what we are fully and truly all about.







 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead!


 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."  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 it to you."  He also swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, 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 6:13-29

Yesterday, we read that Jesus 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.

And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.  Today's reading begins with the same verse that ended yesterday's.  We understand where we are in Jesus' ministry at this point, a very important step -- this power has been conferred on His apostles.  My study bible says that anointing the sick with oil has not only medicinal value but that it's also of sacramental value.  God's healing power, it notes, is bestowed through creation (Mark 5:27; Numbers 21:8-9; 2 Kings 13:21; John 9:6-7; Acts 5:15, 19:11-12).  In this same way, oil becomes a vehicle of God's mercy and healing in the Church (James 5:14).

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."  This King Herod is Herod Antipas, the son of the king who slew the infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).  My study bible says, "Though he was technically a governor, he was popularly called king.  Knowing that John the Baptist had worked no miracles while living, Herod now believes John was raised from the dead, thinking powers are at work in him.  Thus, 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."  Again, my study bible explains that Elijah was expected to return and to work signs before the second coming of the Lord (Malachi 4:5).   It says that "the Prophet is interpreted by some to be a reference to the Messiah, One whom Moses foretold (Deuteronomy 18:15), while others interpret it as simply meaning a new prophet had arisen."  Both statements are ironic, given that it is Christ who will say that John the Baptist himself was Elijah returned in spirit, and also that of all those "born of women" until then, none was greater than John, the last and greatest in the line of the Old Testament prophets (see Matthew 11:10-14).

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 it to you."  He also swore to her, "Whatever you ask me, 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.    This section is a sort of parenthetical remark, given by Mark to explain Herod's wariness and fear that Jesus is John returned from the dead.  My study bible says that as part of God's plan of salvation, John's martyrdom allowed the coming of the Messiah to be announced to souls in Hades -- thereby John was forerunner of Christ both on earth and to the souls of the dead.  In the Eastern Orthodox hymn to John, it is sung, "Your tongue, which constantly speaks of God, has preceded Christ into death and is sent to preach Him to those in Hades."   It's also important to note in Mark's story the great power held by John the Baptist while he lived.  He was a great figure among those of his time, widely revered as a holy man and a spiritual leader -- many of the apostles were first disciples of the Baptist.  My study bible points out how Herod with his great wealth and military command of many soldiers, feared John, a man who lived in poverty and clothed himself in camel's hair as part of a radical humility (Mark 1:6).  A note calls this a testament both to the power of personal holiness and integrity, and also to the people's perception of John, who was held in highest esteem (11:32).

It's hard not to notice the contradictions in Herod, or at least the ones that seem to hold sway with him emotionally somehow.  He does fear John; there is a part of him that has some kind of respect for the power of this holy man and fears that power which Herod doesn't really understand.  He knows John's intimidating reputation also; someone of such intense personal integrity -- even clothed in camel's hair -- is a figure of authority that has nothing to do with military might but rather the power of holiness.  We read that Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just and holy man, and he protected him.  Herod also seems to be very glad of the opportunity to hear such a man, and takes a sort of delight in this possibility.  Given what we're told, then, we have to stop and think about what would make a man with such power as this king do something he really didn't want to do.  Let's keep in mind that Herod Antipas is a ruthless man, known for injustice and cruelty, and he also comes from a family particularly known for such behavior.  His father, Herod the Great, was particularly known as an extremely ruthless and cruel man even among his contemporary rulers.  So, that in itself is nothing new.  The question is why Herod, who feared John and even enjoyed John's presence, would accept to have John beheaded.  I find it intriguing, because it asks of us questions about public life, about what we're willing to put on the line, and what we're not.  Herod has sworn before everybody who is at this particular festive occasion that he'll give the girl whatever she asks.  We can imagine he's had quite a bit to drink and to eat; it's a public occasion for ostentation and indulgence, and both are going to be signs of his power in this particular setting.  He's also sitting before his other nobles, those of the attending aristocracy and the important individuals who support him in power.  So his indulgent and ostentatious promise is made in such an environment, and it becomes a trap -- an opportunity for entrapment.  Is he going to live up to such a word, and this display of lavish behavior, or not?  And there's the choice.  It's made in front of "everyone who's anyone."  And I think we can find ourselves in a similar place whether or not we are kings or we are those who wield such great power in life.  We might not have comparable lives in any other sense, or duties, or histories.  But really, if you think about it, this kind of conflict between personal conviction and public image can come to sabotage us and tempt us at almost any time.  One can easily imagine a bullying situation, for example, where there is public pressure to go along with victimizing one person, even if our consciences tell us something different and we feel strongly that it's wrong.  We might be persuaded by a relative or friend to hurt even a just person.  There are all kinds of situations in which we can imagine some sort of conflict like this, and it's not right to minimize the temptation.  But this story, despite its excesses that glare at us so garishly, tells us something important about how essential it might be to prepare ourselves to meet such occasions, and also how important our own integrity really is.  Herod Antipas is a despised figure in the Gospels.  There is no room for understanding his act as some sort of tragic flaw of character.  It's an act of great evil that he's willing to go along with, and even command.  What is it specifically about holiness that is so often at odds with public life, and especially public power?  In the end, it's a spiritual paradigm, in which the power of God must be respected as something that has priorities unto itself and will be at odds with the dictates of "worldly power."  This isn't a black and white kind of question:  Jesus' holiness becomes a kind of public matter, not hidden from the world.  But to be "worldly" has a different connotation, and to set a worldly public life in order with the call of God is a great calling indeed. It's one that might ask us for sacrifices of what might sound good and appealing and impressive in order to follow what's really essential for personal integrity and love of God.  As Jesus would put it, Herod loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.  Even though Herod feared and protected John, and even understood him to be a personal holiness and just character, it wasn't enough.  In some sense, it's a position similar to Herod's when he was judging Jesus, when Herod knew Jesus to be innocent.  Both Herod's and Pilate's choices in exercising their authority set them further on the road to condemnation in the Gospels; in the end they bonded over the execution of Christ.  In a time when so much is of a public nature, and social media plays a role in how we interact with one another, let us consider the social pressures public life conveys.  It would have been far better - spiritually - for Herod to rescind his grand promise.  To "lose face" (or position) in a public sense is the sacrifice we might need to make at times, in order to preserve the integrity that gives us inner strength and quality, and a life lived with faith before God.  Let's consider what we're asked to choose, whatever the consequences, in a time when we face so many complex social pressures. 



Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house


 Then He went out from there 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.

- Mark 6:1-13

Yesterday, we read that when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea.  And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name.  And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death.  Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live."  So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.  Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians.  She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse.  When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment.  For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well."  Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.  And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched My clothes?"  But His disciples said to Him, "You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'"  And He looked around to see who had done this thing.  But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.  And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction."  While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the Teacher any further?"  As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe."  And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James.  Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly.  When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying.  Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.  And they were overcome with great amazement.  But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said that something should be given her to eat.

 Then He went out from there 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.  My study bible points out that this double response of being both astonished and offended occurs frequently with those who encounter Christ -- see Luke 11:14-16 and John 9:16.  It adds that Christ's rejection in his own country foreshadows His rejection by the whole Jewish nation at His trial before Pilate (John 19:14).  The references to brothers and sisters we've discussed recently in an earlier encounter with Jesus' relations (see this reading and commentary).  "Brothers" and "sisters" can refer to extended relatives (such as cousins, for example, or step-brothers and sisters) both by Jewish tradition at the time,  as well as in typical usage today all around the Middle East. 

 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.   The disciples are sent out two by two on their journeys.  In Matthew's list of the Twelve, names of the first apostles are given two by two, perhaps indicating who went with whom on this first journey.  Jesus has given them power in the ability to heal spiritually, and we note the humility with which they've been dispatched:  taking nothing for the journey, and commanded to remain in the first welcoming lodging, no matter how humble. An "apostle" is literally "one sent out" in the Greek.

In today's reading, we can observe something about the power of faith, as it works (or doesn't, as the case may be) in both "stories" in today's verses.  Jesus travels to His hometown of Nazareth, and the neighbors are both astonished and offended by this change that's come over this man they know as the carpenter's son.  Where did this wisdom and this healing come from?  How can these things now come from Him, the one they know (or perhaps, thought they knew all about)?  They're offended in some way because He's risen above the person they knew Him to be; or perhaps more truly what they are offended at is His holiness.  How could such power and wisdom come from this man?   And it's this holiness and power that is shared with the apostles as they are sent out two by two on their first mission.  He's given them the power to heal and to restore, to cast out unclean spirits.  Elsewhere we're told that what they preach as they go out is that "the kingdom of heaven has come near."   This power bestowed by Christ upon them is the presence of the Kingdom; hence the testimony of rejection in shaking the dust off their feet where they are not welcomed.  In complete humility this Kingdom comes via its apostles, its emissaries.  The one thing necessary is faith.  Faith connects everything; it connects us with this power and with this Kingdom.  It makes the manifold works of Christ's ministry possible.  Even Jesus marvels at the unbelief He finds in His hometown of Nazareth, and there, in contrast to all of the extraordinary works that have spurred throngs of people everywhere He has gone, He can do no great works.  In the absence of faith, there is no connection to the power of the holy.  We look at yesterday's reading, at the woman with the twelve years' blood flow, and her touch that made this connection with Christ and His power, because of her faith.  And the message becomes clear:  the compassion of Christ is always present, it is inexhaustible, but it is somehow channeled into our lives via our faith, and holiness can be at work in us through that open door, that connection of faith.  One wonders, therefore, what may be the condition of life where there is no faith.  Without it, there may be no indication of the power of the holy, the capacity for transformation and healing possible within the body of faith and the gifts of the Spirit.  Via this connection with one another, such as through prayer, we also see faith at work on behalf of other people, as we pray even for the world around us.  But it is a strange and sad thing to contemplate what it is to miss the benefits possible via a "connection" of trust.  In the end, faith is an act of trust.  In the Greek, it is "trust" that is the root of the meaning of the word for faith.  It becomes a question of putting our faith in some-one, this person -- the One who has come to us incarnate as Jesus.  That is the connection, a person-to-person connection, like shaking hands with someone with whom you have a kind of instant depth of recognition.   Can you put your trust in Him?  And how does He return that faith?  Our trust is like an invitation, like making a place for the seed in our hearts that grows to produce great fruits.  Let us remember it is this power of faith that, once again, works throughout the Body of Christ, through others who share it and bond in that same connection, and the great cloud of witnesses who are all alive and present for one another.  It's important to think about prayer in this sense, and its enlivening quality that works from any distance.  We just don't know what power our faith taps into.  It is devastating to think what life would be without that, and without all the capacities for hope, and strength, and life in abundance that faith can bring.






Monday, January 26, 2015

Your faith has made you well


 Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea.  And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name.  And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death.  Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live."  So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.

Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians.  She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse.  When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment.  For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well."  Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.  And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched My clothes?"  But His disciples said to Him, "You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'"  And He looked around to see who had done this thing.  But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.  And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction."

While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the Teacher any further?"  As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe."  And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James.  Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly.  When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying.  Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.  And they were overcome with great amazement.  But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said that something should be given her to eat.

- Mark 5:21-43

On Saturday, we read that Jesus and the disciples came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes.  And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains.  And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.  When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him.  And he cried out with a loud voice and said, "What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I implore You by God that You do not torment me."  For He said to him, "Come out of the man, unclean spirit!"  Then He asked him, "What is your name?"  And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.  Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains.  So all the demons begged Him, saying, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them."  And at once Jesus gave them permission.  Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.  So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country.  And they went out to see what it was that had happened.  Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine.  Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.  And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.  However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."  And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.

  Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea.  And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name.  And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death.  Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live."  So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.  My study bible says that authority over life and death is in the hand of God alone (Deuteronomy 32:39; 1 Samuel 2:6).   Jesus is back on home territory here, where His ministry has been centered, and the crowds throng Him again.  My study bible adds, "Being of one essence with the Father, Jesus has this authority (John 5:21)."

Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians.  She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse.  When she heard about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment.  For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well."  Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.  And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched My clothes?"  But His disciples said to Him, "You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'"  And He looked around to see who had done this thing.  But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.  And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction."   Here again we have a demonstration of Jesus' power to cleanse and to heal.  My study bible says that in the Old Testament, hemorrhage caused ceremonial defilement, and imposed religious and social restrictions, because contact with blood was strictly prohibited (Leviticus 15:25).  This woman thinks of herself this way, as unclean, but she approaches Jesus secretly and with great faith.  It is this faith that makes her well, as Jesus says.  She may "go in peace" -- she couldn't hide her touch from Him, nor is she excluded from Him because of her illness.  My study bible suggests that He exhibits her as an example of faith to all the multitude, so they might imitate her.  One historical spiritual interpretation of this event is that the woman symbolizes all of humanity, and her blood symbolizes a suffering human nature -- our vulnerabilities to all kinds  of things.  That is, the doctors can't cure the depth of what ails us spiritually, and neither could the Old Covenant, but with faith and Christ's power there's nothing that can't be "healed" or "cleansed."

 While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the Teacher any further?"  As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe."  And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James.  Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly.  When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying.  Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.  And they were overcome with great amazement.  But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said that something should be given her to eat.  My study bible notes that this is one of three resurrection stories in the Gospels (besides of course the Resurrection of Christ) -- see the stories of the widow of Nain, and of course the resurrection of Lazarus, Luke 7:-11-17 and John 11:1-44.  My study bible suggests that these stories confirm the promise given to Ezekiel that God will one day open the graves and raise all the dead (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  It says that many people have exercised authority over the living, but only the Son of God has power over both the living and the dead.  Again, it is the touch of Christ that heals, and an act of His compassion, as He takes the little girl by the hand and speaks directly to her.

Today's reading has a remarkable sense of the compassion of Jesus.  He's so far outside of the normal range of "allowable" expressions of men in His time and place.  Normally speaking, He should have nothing directly to do with either this woman or this little girl (for example, a touch).  But Jesus goes so far beyond the norm in His actions that we can't help but be impacted by the extraordinary message of compassion -- and strength -- in His ministry.  This isn't a weepy kind of compassion, it's a compassion that acts from authority, from power, an invincible kind of personal dignity.  That's an important thing to identify.  A woman "defiled" by bloodflow (twelve years, at that!) that no doctor can help, stealthily touches Him in a way that He doesn't see, but perceives.  Think of it, in this story we are given a glimpse into Jesus' internal perspective:  we're told that He knew in Himself that power had gone out of Him.  And this is such an important thing to think about:  it's her faith that made her well, He tells her, and us -- because we're all a part of that crowd.  It's something wild to think about, that He would be seen to defy convention so strongly, bringing this woman out with a public confession, and then embrace her faith as an example in front of everybody there, and of course, for us as well.  This is a radical compassion, with great and unimpeachable strength.  This woman is also someone on the outskirts of the society, being ritually unclean, and also destitute.  On the other hand, we have a little girl, just on the verge of becoming mature, daughter of the ruler of the synagogue.  But again, Jesus' strength in compassion is so great in this example:  He's subject to ridicule by this particular crowd at the house of Jairus, and His way of healing is to personally go to the child, take her by the hand, and speak to her directly.  That's a kind of attention not to the ruler of the synagogue himself, but rather immediately and fully to a little girl, someone who of herself really has no standing at all.  How can we strive to be like Christ in these pictures of healing?  He's someone above any form of ridicule or embarrassment.  He's not just assured in His own authority but rather in His identity; it's a kind of humility in Christ (if we can use that word for One who is divine) that just sets straight out to be only the person He really is.  As Creator, His time and attention are for each person -- the woman and the girl.  Moreover, there's never a pretense with Him.  He defies convention with both compassion and strength, but not a hint of arrogance or self-exaltation.   Rather, He's the opposite:  He tells the woman, "Your faith has made you well" and He forbids the witnesses to the girls' resurrection to speak of it.  Everything He does is in service to God the Father or to the world, to us, to humanity.  And that's the strength of His power; it is always used in service of truth and the reality of God who is love.  It is always to honor God the Father.  I wonder if we can hold this picture of the One who heals, who touches the unclean and insignificant with His personal touch and permits miracles, and the One who works together with our faith?  We note that He put the "ridiculers" outside the room, and allowed in only His particular inner circle of disciples.  Let us remember our faith, even tiny like a mustard seed, and what it can spark in the power and mastery of Christ, His strength and His compassion, which is shared with us.




 

Saturday, January 24, 2015

My name is Legion; for we are many


Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes.  And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains.  And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.  When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him.  And he cried out with a loud voice and said, "What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I implore You by God that You do not torment me."  For He said to him, "Come out of the man, unclean spirit!"  Then He asked him, "What is your name?"  And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.  Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains.  So all the demons begged Him, saying, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them."  And at once Jesus gave them permission.  Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.

So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country.  And they went out to see what it was that had happened.  Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine.  Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.  And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.  However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."  And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.

- Mark 5:1-20

 Yesterday, we read that, after teaching the multitudes from a boat as they stood on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (see readings here and here, in which Jesus preaches using parables), when evening had come, Jesus said to His disciples, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"

 Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes.  Here in today's reading, Jesus and the disciples have crossed a stormy sea (seemingly in great peril) to get to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  This is a territory where many Gentiles live among the Jews.  My study bible says that Gentile influence on the Jews caused many of them to take on Gentile practices, such as raising swine, as we'll see in today's reading -- a practice which is forbidden by the Law (Deuteronomy 14:8).

And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains.  And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.   It always strikes me as important to look at the extreme forlornness of this man, to see how abandoned and isolated he is.  Bound with shackles and chains, uncontrollable (and one presumes, he's not able to control himself in his weakness), he's frightening -- he's broken his shackles and chains and he lives among the tombs, among the dead.  He can't be a part of the social fabric of any living community, and he's also highly self-destructive:  night and day, crying out and cutting himself with stones. He's like a hopeless case, to all intents and purposes, from our perspective.

When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him.  This word translated as worship literally means to fall down before someone, to bow down, prostrate.  In many cases it has been used to mean to kiss, as to kiss the ground before a superior, to adore in worship.  It's important to recognize that something in this man sees Jesus as a savior, despite whatever burdens and afflictions he has.

And he cried out with a loud voice and said, "What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I implore You by God that You do not torment me."  For He said to him, "Come out of the man, unclean spirit!"  Then He asked him, "What is your name?"  And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.  Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains.  So all the demons begged Him, saying, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them."  And at once Jesus gave them permission.  Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.    My study bible says that the demons, who recognize Jesus as the Son of God, are surprised that their power is being terminated before the time of the last judgment -- hence their fear of torment.  My study bible adds that though the malice of the demons is great, they can do nothing against the will of God and thus can only enter the swine at Christ's command.   The destruction of the herd shows that the man was protected by God's care; the demons did not manage to destroy him as they did the swine.  It adds that since swineherding was not lawful for the Jews, it shows the incomparable value of human beings whose salvation is worth every sacrifice.  For the Jews, the fact that this man lived among the swine would be a further indication of his perilous state.  In that sense, the "unclean" are permitted to enter the "unclean" but are commanded to leave the man.

So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country.  And they went out to see what it was that had happened.  Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine.  Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.  My study bible points out here that because of the presence of the swine, many assume this is a purely Gentile population, but given Jesus' repeated statements through the Gospels about going first to the Jews, it's likely that these were Jews engaged in a sinful occupation.  Given the utter desperation of the demoniac's situation, such a scenario really isn't unlikely.  It further cements our understanding of what kind of Jews these are, as they reject Christ because they've lost their possessions, and care nothing for the tremendous spiritual healing of this human being.  My study bible adds that the economic loss would remain as a sign for the hardhearted people who fled that region.

And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.  However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."  And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.  This healed man, who had a legion of demons, is sent out by Christ as a witness to all the Decapolis.  The Decapolis was a Greek-speaking region of mixed Gentiles and Jews (Decapolis means "ten cities" in Greek).

The question of whether or not this man was Jewish, or whether the swineherds were Jewish, is an intriguing one.   From my point of view, it serves as a way to juxtapose the purpose of this journey.  In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus says, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel," and also, when the Twelve are sent out on their first mission (in Matthew's Gospel, again) He tells then that they are being sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (see Matthew 10:5-6 and Matthew 15:24).   Both Matthew and Luke give us Jesus' parable of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep in the herd in order to find and retrieve the one stray.  In this sense, perhaps we can look at this reading (a story also found in Matthew and Luke), as a mission illustrating just how far the Shepherd will go to find His lost sheep, even this single one, so afflicted, and living in a community with swine.  In this sense, the swineherds may be Jews who have lapsed, and who cannot receive Him nor the salvation He offers for human beings; they prefer their economic properties to the healed man.   But I think there may be an even more important way to read this passage, a more universal message that applies to all of us.  Regardless of how lost, how unclean, how untouchable this man is, Jesus has come across the sea, putting Himself and His disciples through a dangerous storm, to come here to find him.  We read this compelling and touching account about how this man who calls himself Legion immediately falls down at Jesus' feet, despite the mire of his affliction and surroundings.  This is a story of love, and how it just doesn't matter where that sheep is, Jesus will come to find those who love Him.   We can't forget that in Mark's Gospel, we were immediately informed that Jesus' ministry was revolutionary in several ways, but perhaps the most striking way early on was the fact that He touched the unclean.  In fact, all through our readings so far we find this great emphasis on the fact that the intricacies of custom built up around the Law, and even in some ways the Law itself, must be allowed to encompass compassion, to embrace the unclean in order to render them clean.  It is in this sense that the new wine needs new wineskins to embrace this New Covenant.  Whether it is touching a leper to heal him, or sitting and dining with tax collectors, or healing a man on the Sabbath, Mark's Gospel has immediately led us to this conclusion about the great compassion that is the massive hallmark of this ministry, of the Gospel, the good news.  In our next reading on Monday, we'll have another such occasion where touch of the unclean isn't only accepted by Jesus, but embraced, in the story of the woman with the twelve years blood flow (Mark 5:24-34).  In this sense, the question of whether or not the swineherds are Jewish comes second to the great message of His compassion, just as His ministry will state over and over and over again.  Whatever it is we take from this reading, we know that the people of God will include many Gentiles in this Covenant He offers, but more importantly, it will include even these who were considered unclean under the Law but who love God and love Christ and come to Him for healing.  That's where the real story is.  My study bible had a comment on the reading of the leper who asked Jesus to make him clean.  It said, "To the clean, nothing is unclean."  The message here is about the value of human beings, of all creation (even the demons could not enter the swine without permission), and that great value realized in the redeeming power of Christ, who sees through all things no matter how "unclean."  The picture illustrated here in suggestions of swine and mud give us an idea of metaphor that relates to situations in which we find ourselves covered in some kind of "unclean," a kind of shame.  Let us remember this message of the great and abiding value that hides everywhere under all kinds of covering, and the power of Christ to bring that value out from under any sort of affliction or burden, any "unclean" thing from which there is a need for healing and liberation.





Friday, January 23, 2015

Where is your faith?


On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"

- Mark 4:35-41

In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued to speak regarding parables of the kingdom of God. He said to them, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."  And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed, on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."  And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.

 On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then He arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"  Of today's reading, my study bible has various notes.  It's important to examine that in Mark's Gospel, this is the time that Jesus' power becomes manifest over nature, over creation.  We see something essential in this:  that as a divine person, He has mastery over the cosmos, creation.  In the readings surrounding the events of Jesus' nativity, which we blogged here through the Christmas season, all of the cosmos participated in the event of His birth, including the star by which the wise men came to Jesus.  There's a unification of all things in Him here; it's another sign that He is Messiah and divine.  My study bible says that commands to the sea and waves can only be issued by God (Job 38:8-11; Psalm 65:5-6, 106:9).  It adds that Jesus was asleep because, as a man, he needed rest.  In His Incarnation, He assumed all the natural actions of the flesh, and that includes sleep.  This image of Jesus and the disciples in a boat traditionally refers to the Church as a whole, it's an image or illustration of the Church.  My study bible says, "God both permits storms and delivers us through them, so that we can see His protection more clearly.  Christ's rebuke of the storm is also an illustration of His calming the tempests in the human soul."

While the commentary from my study bible points out this parallel to the Church as a whole, we can also observe the working of the Kingdom, and of faith, through this episode in the story of Jesus' ministry.  One other thing is new here also, besides the revelation of Jesus' power over nature, over creation.  They are now crossing over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  He and His disciples are venturing out together into new territory; up until now the ministry has focused on Galilee and, in a sense, "home ground."  This is new direction, outside the familiar for these men, even though we know several are experienced fishermen on this particular sea (really, a very large lake).  When we start off in new directions, even as blessed or "sent out" by God, there are bound to be things that come to us that give us frights.  We confront our own fears in the new, we're breaking barriers (psychologically or otherwise) we haven't thought about or had experience of in the past.  And let's remember this is a journey on which they're sent by God; it's not a selfish move toward a long-cherished possession or feather in one's cap.  This is truly a mission into the unknown, for the purposes of God "whose ways are not our ways and whose thoughts are not our thoughts."  It's in that kind of territory that we really experience our own "boundaries," our fears, and barriers God asks us to cross and expand into (like the new wine that needs new wineskins that will stretch with the process of change in the wine).   Tumultuous waves, fierce winds, and stormy seas have long been symbolic of great emotion, with good reason, and we can also see in this reading a kind of allegory to all of our lives in faith -- when the going gets rough.  Jesus has just given teachings in parables to the great crowds, notably the parable of the sower, in which tribulation for the sake of the word, or the cares of the world, may choke out the growth of the seeds of the word in a person's heart.  Here, traveling to strange places in Gentile territory for the sake of the word is met with a kind of tribulation, a fear of perishing, natural danger.  But Jesus' word these fishermen is, "Where is your faith?"  Holding fast to the sense of mission and our close relationship to Christ becomes the one thing we can cling to sometimes when such matters overwhelm us in our own limitations and understanding.  I can't say that every idea we get into our heads is a great or perfect one, or one sent by God.  But the best thing to bolster faith, to understand where Christ wants to lead us, is constant prayer, a dialogue with God.  We must keep our faith strong by setting ourselves in the place where we can center in the depths of God's love, of Christ's nurturing and constant care.  It's there where we come to terms with what we can do, what we need to do, and what we don't need in life.   Let's remember His question, "Where is your faith?" and remember the one place in which it is always called to be rooted:  in relationship with Him, He who is the Word.