Friday, July 31, 2009

Even the dogs underneath the table eat the children's crumbs

From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into 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.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’

- Mark 7:24-37

Reading Mark's gospel, one gets the impression of a young man who has witnessed Jesus' preaching career, his ministry. Over and over again, we seem to be told of the awe-inspiring power that comes from Jesus, infuses all that he does, all that he teaches, every word, and makes such an impact on his audience. Mark's gospel continually takes us back and forth between the Jewish and Gentile regions to which Jesus went. His startling healing of the demoniac named "Legion," whom Jesus sent out to tell of the good news, was in a Gentile region. And so, today, we find ourselves back in Gentile territory. Only this time we start off with the notion that Jesus, who cannot be left alone anywhere and has repeatedly tried to avoid the crowds that follow him, really wants to be in a place where no one has heard of him. In the feeding of the 5,000 he also started off with the intention of withdrawing with his disciples to a lonely place - yet finished as host to thousands. So we begin in the region of Tyre with today's passage.

Jesus enters a house and doesn't want anyone to know he's there. I'm continually reminded - as are others - of a popular "star" who wants to be left alone. I don't know in what literary form this "type" first appeared, but we certainly have it in some sense in Jesus. Although this "star", Jesus, usually wants to be left alone for a purpose - most of the time he wishes to pray. Before the feeding of the 5,000 it was so he could discuss with his disciples and apostles what was happening with their first missions. It's often, also, out of concern for his humility and honesty - his revelation of himself is to be done properly in the right time, with God's will and perhaps most especially with the proper understanding of his teachings. He does not want popular notions of Messiah as a political leader or king to be projected onto him. But, seemingly everywhere he goes, he's recognized and followed. So, even here in Tyre, the Syrophoenician sees him and begs him to heal her daughter, who has a demon. Again, there is this constant picture of a humanity that is so deeply in need of help all the time. The demands are endless. Jesus is one human being, but what he has to offer is something - according to this gospel of Mark - that is deeply responded to in the hearts of people wherever he goes. That is, with the exception of his own home country and kin ("a prophet is not without honor...") and of course the majority of the religious leadership.

So it is here, where he does not wish to be recognized, that she comes to him and asks for healing for her daughter. Jesus' response is startling to us: ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ And then we're told that her witty response comes next, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ I find this exchange really interesting in the first place because I think of Jesus as a classic Near or Middle Eastern speaker: his parables are vivid word pictures, sometimes with something in them exaggerated to make this image stronger for us; he uses great colorful language even when he's chastising and criticizing at his fiery best; and here he's boldly speaking to the woman who asks him for help. (The Greek word here for "little dog" is a diminutive form of "dog" that is also used metaphorically to refer to someone who is "impudent.") But the great part about this, for me, is his response to the fact that she comes right back at him with his own metaphor and stands up for herself. He may be Lord, healer, teacher and the one with the help she so desires, but she comes right back at him with a witty response, and Jesus loves her spirit. She has responded to his challenge with tenacity and persistence - she will argue with the teacher. Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel, (Gen. 32, Hos. 12) our Syrophoenician woman is ready to be persistent in her engagement with the Teacher - and for that she is rewarded. This teaches us about engagement - our Teacher wants us to be engaged with him, to wrestle with these difficult ideas and concepts, to struggle and to think and to try to understand - and to communicate, through prayer, who and what we are. Just as with Jacob, this struggle is most of all about the tenacity and persistence and sincerity with which we desire what the Teacher has to offer. It is through relatedness that these teachings work and function; through the every day human story of daily struggle to gain in faith and spiritual acceptance. It's there in that "wrestling" that the real struggle for faith goes on and through which we grow and come to terms with who we are and how we worship. As human beings, we are not meant necessarily for cool and detached perfection; rather, this Teacher is with us in our struggling, our ups and downs, highs and lows - as is evidenced throughout these gospels in his wonderful, colorful speech and all of his own experiences and engagement with those like us.

In light of this engagement, I find it of no little "coincidence" that the next paragraph is about healing a man who is deaf and cannot speak properly. What could be more symbolic, a better metaphor, of our need to engage with the teacher? For that we need both ears to hear and a tongue that can speak and express itself well. Jesus also tries to do this in secret, in private, and forbids that newly freed tongue to speak about it along with the witnesses. But this is Mark's gospel, and everywhere Jesus goes his fame grows, despite himself and his teachings. The Messianic signs, here, are unmistakable. I think that the signs that he wishes our engagement with him are of the greatest importance. Worship and praise is in church everywhere, every Sunday, everywhere there is a service. But the spirit Jesus embraces is of those who do well to speak up, to engage, to question, to communicate with him - who sincerely desire what he has to offer. This happens "in private" in prayer. It is relationship, relatedness. We should never forget this great, powerful gift and the specialness of that embrace of all that is human in Jesus with the great love and grace that accepts who we are, and challenges us to grow, with Him.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The human heart

Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.) So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, ‘Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?’ He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written,

“This people honours me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me;

in vain do they worship me,

teaching human precepts as doctrines.”

You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’

Then he said to them, ‘You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition! For Moses said, “Honour your father and your mother”; and, “Whoever speaks evil of father or mother must surely die.” But you say that if anyone tells father or mother, “Whatever support you might have had from me is Corban” (that is, an offering to God)— then you no longer permit doing anything for a father or mother, thus making void the word of God through your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many things like this.’

Then he called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’

When he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about the parable. He said to them, ‘Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?’ (Thus he declared all foods clean.) And he said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’

- Mark 7:1-23

This is an interesting passage, because Jesus is talking about human traditions that obscure or are used to override the commandments of God. The tradition of the elders, to which Jesus refers in vs. 3, is an oral tradition handed down by the scribes and the Pharisees. It is an interpretation of Mosaic Law to which they clung as if it were equally authoritative. So, according to this tradition of the elders, washing oneself by an outward ritual of purification was the way to purify oneself from contact with Gentiles or sinners. There was also included in this tradition of the elders the idea that money or possessions could be given over to God, reserved for God, so to speak, through a promise: this was called "Corban." In this way, property and possessions could continue to be used, and one's parents or other relations were not allowed to share in them. So, in this sense, these traditions - raised up as equal to the written Laws of Moses - could be used to override the Mosaic command of "honor thy father and mother." My study bible points out that the Mosaic command to honor father and mother is the first command that deals with human relationships - so, in this sense, the tradition is used in order to disrupt human relatedness. The implication is that right relatedness to others is a core value of spiritual law; if human tradition obscures law that is understood to be a part of the wisdom of God, then it is overriding the true spirit in which the law is to be given, and tradition upheld. This does nothing to bring people closer to God.

Furthermore, Jesus points out something of essential importance here, and that is our own awareness of our weaknesses. He says on the one hand that all the things God has made are good: in essence the ritual cleansing of foods has nothing to do with what truly defiles us. The over-emphasis on the physical purification is really not compatible with an understanding of what sin is and where it comes from. We run the risk of such "contamination" from our own hearts. We freely choose to do evil or good, to harbor greed or selfishness or envy or the myriad of other things that truly "pollute" us spiritually. These are the things which we choose to guide ourselves in our own hearts - whatever it is that we choose to make our treasure, so to speak. So, the Christian notion of sin or defilement really has to do with what it is that we put our faith into, what we choose to keep as our own possession of the heart, because there we are the keepers of whatever "law" we choose.

So, from this passage we are given some significant teachings about Christian spirituality. Our "defilement" does not come from the things we do on the outside, but from what we guard as our treasure on the inside. This doesn't mean that one doesn't take care of physical health - but that this is not a substitute for spiritually understanding what it is that makes one a "good" or "bad" person in spiritual terms. An outward appearance may simply mask hidden greed or other values that defy the true nature of the spirituality that comes from the true wisdom of grace. Right relatedness is one of the teachings we understand to be a gift of God. Should I steal from my relatives and promise it to the church? Would this make me a sainted or holy person? No, it is a guarding of the heart that is essential that is taught here: an emphasis on the internal reality of the person. This is one reason to turn to God in prayer - an acknowledgment of the fallibility of our human person, an understanding that we turn over whatever we are to grace. Repentance is the necessary willingness to change, to "cleanse the inside of the cup." It is the practice of humility before God, in this primary form of relatedness, that establishes our willingness and acknowledgment of what it is to accept Jesus' notion of cleanliness and true spirituality expressed here. We establish a relatedness in prayer in order to create a deeper awareness within ourselves of what our choices are; so that we do not remain unconscious of what it is that is in our hearts.

All tradition is useful when properly practiced with this understanding in mind. It is when tradition or human practices meant to uphold true spiritual or religious values become instruments of obscuring this understanding of spirituality that they do harm. If we do not practice whatever tradition we follow - be it forms of charity or good works, religious devotional practices, it doesn't matter what we're talking about - with this understanding of the internal dynamic of personal spiritual choice, this notion of guarding of the heart and humility before God, an awareness of how we are constructed exactly as beings capable of choosing for evil or good, then we may be blinding ourselves to what we do. Right-relatedness in this sense means first being "right-related" to God, establishing the understanding that this comes from the place of our hearts, and not the outward appearance we make to the world.

I see this teaching as establishing the "great commandment" first: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and all your strength." And the second: "Love your neighbor as yourself." It examines the primacy of choice that is within us, the heart as the center of where it is that we choose for good or evil. When we practice spirituality, it is with the understanding that we seek in our hearts to establish a right-relatedness first to God, to grace, in order to choose wisely - because in our heart is where we keep our treasure, for "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." Repeatedly, Jesus asks us to examine our inner lives. He withdraws into solitude for prayer himself at regular intervals, he always asks for guidance himself even as he teaches and establishes himself as a holy person in the eyes of his fellows, those he helps and teaches. The necessary humility to understand our own fallibility is the first necessity on this road of spiritual choices. What is your treasure?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid

When evening came, the boat was out on the lake, and he was alone on the land. When he saw that they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind, he came towards them early in the morning, walking on the lake. He intended to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the lake, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret and moored the boat. When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.

- Mark 6:47-56

This scene seems to me to be strangely put into this gospel - the scenes on the water have a different sort of quality to them than the scenes on land. Perhaps it's because water is so metaphorical in the sense that it is so frequently related to emotion. A stormy sea is always reminiscent of the idea of emotional turmoil. This passage also reminds us of a similar one in the same gospel, when Jesus commanded the storm: "Peace! Be still!"

This scene appears just after Jesus has fed the 5,000 with the loaves and fishes. He has sent his disciples away across the lake, and has gone by himself into solitude on the mountain. Evening falls, and the disciples are still on the lake while he is alone on land. Very early in the morning, Jesus sees them struggling against the wind, and one imagines, choppy waters. The narrative tells us that he intended to pass them by. So, we have an understanding that he is going to be on the other side of the lake when they arrive - as they struggle against the wind, Jesus' walk is faster. The disciples are terrified - they think it is a ghost. Jesus' reply, 'It is I' is literally "I am." It is the same phrase in Greek (ego eimi) that is used to denote an eternal presence in the phrase "Before Moses was, I am." It reflects God's name given to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). My study bible notes that this is therefore Christ testifying of himself.

This mystically-tinged vision remains for us the perfect metaphor for our spiritual struggles. Life offers obstacles and difficulties in this struggle. Sometimes we seem to be straining against ourselves, against life itself to follow in this path. And yet into our midst comes this presence of spiritual reality, a timeless "I am." As Jesus goes off in solitude for prayer and communion with the Father, so we pray in the midst of our struggles for this same "I am" to be with us, to make its presence with us in all of our turmoil. Jesus does not pass the disciples by, but gets into the boat with them. Wherever they are, he is there with them - and so, we infer, wherever we are, he is here with us. "I am" is an eternal Presence that is always there for us. Walking on water signifies that this is true no matter where we are and what is happening in our lives. Our emotional states do not prevent us from experiencing this communion and help, which rises above our emotions. There is also the distinct understanding of his omnivision: Jesus' awareness of his disciples' difficulties, and his compassion, his willingness to accompany them in their difficulties and at their own paces, is a metaphor for his presence available to us at any moment in our lives, through prayer.

Jesus gets into the boat and immediately the wind is ceased: the adverse conditions are quieted and calmed. The apostles understand next to nothing: the miracle of the loaves and fishes remains for them a mystery, for we are told "their hearts were hardened." This language that speaks of the heart is the way that ascetical writing indicates knowledge of God: the illuminated heart is the one that understands this presence and grasps spiritual reality. A heart that is hardened, therefore, is one that is not open to grace, wisdom, spiritual presence. In the Eastern church, the heart is known as the "seat of knowledge."

Jesus' popularity when they reach the other side of the lake is an indication that the great mass of the people themselves recognize the capabilities in Jesus. He cannot go anywhere without crowds who seek only the touch of his cloak to heal (once again, mirroring a previous passage, in Mark 5, and possibly because of their knowledge of the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage). But to his disciples there is a special relationship of love which belongs in their heart of hearts. As we deepen this relationship. we go forward in a spiritual understanding of relatedness. This is something which can be with us at all times, which can accompany us through life - hopefully with wisdom and grace, regardless of whatever else we may be feeling. It is not always easy to be a disciple: we must recall that it was Jesus who sent them across the lake. But, he is with them. If we choose to become like his disciples and a part of this family, we also choose to go forward within this level of relatedness, with the one who accompanies us on the journey.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Feeding the five thousand

The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.’ But he answered them, ‘You give them something to eat.’ They said to him, ‘Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?’ And he said to them, ‘How many loaves have you? Go and see.’ When they had found out, they said, ‘Five, and two fish.’ Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Those who had eaten the loaves numbered five thousand men.

Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he dismissed the crowd. After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.

- Mark 6:30-46

One gets a sense here of tremendous movement, hustle and bustle; business is happening, a buzz is everywhere. Jesus' teaching is by now quite famous, and his apostles (those who have been sent on a mission) have now returned with news of all they have done. Jesus suggests that they go off together to a deserted place, where they can all rest and discuss what has been happening. But there is no rest for the teacher nor for his apostles and disciples. They are followed by the crowds who recognize them and are thirsty and hungry for the good things they have to offer. So great by now is Jesus' reputation that the crowds arrive before he does and greet him as he steps off the boat.

But his compassion is stirred by the crowds - they are described as "sheep without a shepherd." This phrase is an interesting one: these are individuals who need something - as if they are lost and wandering, in deep need of guidance, leadership, someone to care for them properly. And Jesus, of course, is that shepherd. I think it's important to remember, to recall to ourselves, this image of Jesus as shepherd, because we have in Mark's gospel recent passages contrasting images of what it is to be a leader. Yesterday's passage was about Herod Antipas, and we are to understand his conflicted nature, his manipulating environment, his deep cowardice. We also understand the capacity of John the Baptist to speak the truth. Prior to that we see Jesus mocked in his own country by contrast and his response of humility and respect for the nature of spiritual power - he cannot perform great feats merely to convince others of his power and authority. And above all, we have this sense of obligation to feed, to be the shepherd for those who need him and want the guidance he has to offer. In these passages we are given an understanding of what it is to truly lead; the difference between heroism and cowardice.

Jesus' response to the needs of the crowd is to feed them with his teachings: he responds to those who need leadership with guidance. Then the crowds who have followed to this deserted place need something to eat, and Jesus directs his disciples to feed them, just as they have been directed to teach. This incident of feeding the crowds is reported in all four gospels; it is clearly a messianic sign (a replication of the feeding of the Jews with manna in the wilderness), and a prefiguring of the Eucharist itself. Jesus blesses the bread and tells his disciples to distribute the pieces. Everything we have to give is sufficient, via grace. Nothing is wasted. The compassion Jesus has is for those who seek, those who truly hunger and thirst for what he has to offer. All of us participate in that grace, whether we are fed or help with the feeding; this grace confers relatedness among all who participate in it. And there we find another spirit, another notion, of true leadership: it is inclusive and participatory. It shares and distributes its power and grace and what it has to give. It is reflective of care and of service to the Good of all, to the One who is loving Father of all. It seeks not mere personal gain, but rather to act in the spirit of that which is the guiding principle of love and care: he who would be greatest among them is the servant of all.

Finally, Jesus sends off his disciples after he dismisses the crowd which has been fed. After saying farewell, he goes to the mountain, in complete solitude, to pray. We have another lesson here about what it is to lead: Jesus always seeks solitude in order to pray and to find his own guidance for his leadership. Without the Father, without seeking the Father's will, Jesus does nothing. We have here the great example of humility, and what it is to lead in Jesus' terms. It still serves as an example of leadership today. It is a kind of power of grace that is shared as we each participate in this circle of relatedness, and seek Its guidance for whatever job we have to do, for whomever needs our wisdom or grace or help - or leadership, as the case may be, no matter how small our "crowd" is.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Give me the head of John the Baptist

King Herod heard of it, for Jesus’ name had become known. Some were saying, ‘John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; and for this reason these powers are at work in him.’ But others said, ‘It is Elijah.’ And others said, ‘It is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he said, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.’

For Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because Herod had married her. For John had been telling Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ And Herodias had a grudge against him, and wanted to kill him. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. But an opportunity came when Herod on his birthday gave a banquet for his courtiers and officers and for the leaders of Galilee. When his daughter Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will give it.’ And he solemnly swore to her, ‘Whatever you ask me, I will give you, even half of my kingdom.’ She went out and said to her mother, ‘What should I ask for?’ She replied, ‘The head of John the baptizer.’ Immediately she rushed back to the king and requested, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’ The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her. Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

- Mark 6:14-29

A flashback is included here in the gospel of Mark, so that we understand Herod's fear of John's return. The early Christians had an extremely high regard for John the Baptist; here we are given to understand John's fearlessness in speaking the truth even to Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great), governor of Galilee - popularly called "king." One can imagine with what fear Herod now calculates that John the Baptist is resurrected.

In this flashback, we are given to understand the events that led to John the Baptist's beheading. The king's banquet, on his birthday - he's invited no doubt all his highest ranking guests in his kingdom that are possible for him to invite. Before everyone, he makes a gesture of largesse - he will give to his daughter anything she desires, because her dancing has so pleased him and his guests. So - the woman to whom Herod is married in the marriage denounced by John the Baptist plots a cunning plot. She tells her daughter to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Herod himself is aware of John's righteousness - he fears him. But he cannot go back on a promise he's made before all of his kingdom, so to speak - the courtiers and officers and leaders, all the great of Galilee. It is too much of a social debacle in his calculation of what is important for his status and his position. So he gives in and has John the Baptist beheaded.

Somehow in this story of Herod we find something rather pitiful in this "worldly" great man. He knows that John is holy and righteous. There is something inside of Herod that responds - he is perplexed and yet he likes to listen to John. We could consider this Herod's "true self" - his heart of hearts. Like his counterpart in Judea, Pilate, Herod is of "two minds." He has a worldly life to live of power, and yet in his understanding within himself there is something tugging at him which causes him to respect - and fear - John the Baptist. But because of appearances, that worldly self that is hostage to our own image in the eyes of others, for worldly status and power, he nevertheless commits what he knows to be a sin: he has John beheaded.

The result of this act is no doubt the tremendous fear and guilt that will accompany his thoughts about Jesus: that John the Baptist has been raised. We know that after Jesus is crucified - against the better understanding of Pilate as well - this will seal the friendship between Herod and Pilate. They are two competing Roman rulers in the region who will then become friends based on a pact sealed by mutual guilt, by what remains hidden in the face and use of worldly power and expediency.

In this story we can come to understand notions of "true self" or what it means to live a spiritually committed life and so live a life of authentically chosen actions which stem from our heart of hearts, or the soul that is loyal to its Source. We also come to understand guilt and its accompanying that layer of "false self" that lives for the surface, for gain, for our image in the eyes of others and so often accompanies rank and worldly power - although of course the bible is filled (even in these same gospels) with images of those with worldly power who also live righteous lives. So, we understand these choices to be optional. Rank or position does not confer the need for such behavior but rather offers the opportunity for choice. Leadership requires hard choices, no matter what the case may be. But those who are enslaved by image, by possession, by fear of loss are weak and cannot make the difficult choice.

In some way, we all have this choice. We all - at all times - have the choice of being true to our souls, our "heart of hearts," and thinking about our image in the eyes of others. Which do you serve? This is always our question we must answer for ourselves.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The least of these

‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’

- Matthew 25:31-46

This passage is interesting to me for a number of different reasons. There is first of all the quality of mercy that is stressed here. We are not alone in the world; there are those around us who may have need. It is quite obvious that the world around us is always in need of mercy; there are inequalities, emergencies - no life is without its need for help, for love or care, for compassion.

But there are other things that run a little more deeply under the surface in this passage. There is first of all the notion that Christ is speaking of compassion on the "members of his family." From Mark 3:35 (see passage of July 18) we understand Jesus to teach us that "whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother." So we immediately have understood that Jesus is speaking of a spiritual connection that unites members of his family. They are all related through the Father of all, by seeking to do his will. This is a spiritual connection of kinship, and it confers a relatedness that determines where and how he shares His Person, and in that sense, what is done to or for them is also done to or for him.

There is also something to read into this passage that reminds me of the issues of jealousy and competition raised in yesterday's. There is a sense in this passage of the notion of competition as it works in its negative form. When Jesus speaks of the least of these, he's referring to a social rank. People who are strangers, hungry or thirsty, sick or in prison, we can think of as pretty likely to also be of low rank in a society. If we are good only to those whose rank is high in the society then perhaps there is something quite different from charity going on. I'm not really speaking of people we respect necessarily for their character or good qualities, but there is a notion reflected here that we care about or notice those of a particular rank. The people questioned in this judgment are shocked to understand that they could have neglected the king. But this king refers to those whom he considers his kin that may go unnoticed, are insignificant in social status, of little or no rank. And so Jesus once again in some sense introduces the idea of rank - and, it seems to me, introduces a notion of rank based upon a spiritual connection of faith, of the choice for good, for God who is love. There is a spiritually unhealthy form of competition which invites jealousy, and demeans those who are not of a particular status in a social hierchy, and there is the notion of doing the best one can. I think Jesus' "equalizing" notions lead us to this understanding that separates the two different ways in which we may look at life and how we live it and what guides our choices. I've seen such "rankism" alive and well in churches as well as anywhere else. But I think it would do us well to understand Jesus' notion of relationship and significance and think about how it would teach us to live our lives. May mercy and blessings be yours today, as well as the insight to be gleaned from all His teachings.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

A prophet is not without honor

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

- Mark 6:1-13

In this passage, we get a taste of what jealousy does. Jesus goes to his hometown. He teaches on the sabbath in the synagogue. And lo and behold, his own neighbors and the people who seem to have known him and his family all of his life are simply astounded. Where did he learn all this? How did he become this person? They even are aware of the great deeds of power he's done. Don't we know his family? Isn't this the guy we always knew who was the son of Mary? The neighbors and townspeople are simply astonished.

But - their astonishment awakens in jealousy. They're offended by the gifts he has, the wisdom he has, the healing power he displays. They are offended by his authority. Whatever it is that he has now, which is truly a part of his person and character, they don't like it. In my study bible, a note says that "jealousy affects faith." Well, I think we can read this as a sort of vision of what it is to possess a gift that others can't necessarily account for, a gift from God. Although Jesus freely shares what is his by nature - this grace and power of God - he is no longer one of them, and this simply stirs their resentment. I think that we can take this as kind of unfortunate human characteristic that it is possible we all could experience if we change because God has graced us as well.

When people change in a way that is positive, often their old friends, family and acquaintances aren't necessarily happy about it. There is a sense in which someone who's made a great change for the better, through faith, through grace, is rocking the boat. The traditional balance everyone is used to, the identity and even character of the person has shifted. This can happen in many types of instances, whether someone be healing from a bad habit, an addiction or negative behavior, or perhaps changes due to insight, a gift of wisdom, develops even a gracious helpful nature: rocking the status quo and even growth is sometimes an upset to the way things are so that it results in a form of rejection, offense, due to jealousy.

Jesus declares that ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ He can do none of his tremendous acts of power there that have astounded everyone, because of their unbelief. He's simply able to do a few healings. We're told "And he was amazed at their unbelief." Even for Christ himself, it is astonishing what jealousy will do. We recall the archetypal sin of envy as the root of rebellion in heaven, and it is important to come to know its significance in our relations at all times. I have found it amazing to me, as well, at times when I least expect it. We know what modern sensational crimes it leads to, as we read in the newspapers of children bullied and harassed to suicide. A competition that encourages one to do their best is one thing, a competition that must destroy others or belittle them is something else altogether, and deeply spiritually unhealthy.

But Jesus' response is to send his apostles on their first mission. This is a great undertaking of faith: they are to take no preparation with them - only one staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. As he resumes teaching among the villages, he begins to send them out two by two, and he has graced them with power. He gives them authority over unclean spirits. Their instructions are careful: they're not to change the first accommodation they're offered for another, and if they are rejected, they are to shake the dust off their feet in rebuke and move on. This is an action of sending out (apostolos means "sent" in Greek) in complete humility. Perhaps it is not by accident that we are given the incidents of jealousy and refusal of recognition of Jesus in his hometown in the previous paragraph. One reason to practice humility is to avoid the competition of jealousy that stands in the way of honest understanding and faith. What is important is that their message, and the power that Jesus shares with them, be heard. This is a message of repentance, of preparation for the kingdom. It is also a form of mercy and healing merely that they are sent to begin with. Those who do not wish to hear are rejecting them for their message, and the rebuke therefore is given in honesty, in fair judgment, and not because of their jealousy.

When we open our hearts, it's important that we understand that within ourselves there, too, we may find obstacles to this healing nature. The fear of envy is one thing: if we change, the wrath we may experience from our friends who are used to us one way may be fierce. Faith develops in an absence of such fear and envy, but we, too, can be plagued by the actions of fear and envy nevertheless ourselves. It's part of human nature. One way of practicing repentance is to be aware of ourselves and our weaknesses when we encounter wisdom or a gift that's come from grace, and to watch our own responses.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Little girl, get up!

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered round him; and he was by the lake. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.’ So he went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her haemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?’ But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, ‘Do not fear, only believe.’ He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, ‘Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.’ And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum’, which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

- Mark 5:21-43

In this passage, we have a case in which Jesus addresses the healing needs of two women: one older and infirm for twelve years, the other a very young woman indeed - she has been alive for as long as the other has been ill, she's twelve years old. Repeatedly, we're given to understand that Jesus' compassion is for everyone. Just before this passage, we were given yesterday's, in which Jesus healed the demoniac named "Legion," and then sent him on his way to proclaim his good news of healing into the Decapolis. In our passage today, Jesus has crossed back into Jewish territory, where he is met by the leader of he synagogue, Jairus.

It's important, I think, to understand that not all the religious leaders opposed Jesus. Here, Jairus comes to him and begs him to heal his daughter. This young woman is merely on the brink of womanhood - eligibility for marriage or betrothal and childbearing - and therefore has not yet attained any social status. Yet her father loves her deeply. He petitions Jesus to come to his house.

On his way to Jairus' house, there is a woman in the crowds who is ailing from a haemorrhages. Since we know how long she has suffered, we can consider her beyond childbearing capabilities. Her haemorrhage at any rate would have made her unclean and thereby ostracized from the society, perhaps she has also been divorced by her husband. Any man touching her would have been considered defiled. She has suffered from many treatments which have done nothing to help her, but rather made her worse. So she is, in so many ways, of no social status at all - and worse. In the pressing in of the crowds, she touches Jesus' cloak, thinking it could possibly help her. The reaction of God's mercy is automatic: there is an energy, a healing grace, that makes a connection with her through faith. Jesus at once understands this energy has gone out from him, and at the same time the woman can feel that her body is healed. There is a kind of instantaneous communication of faith that happens at once; Jesus is on his way to help Jairus' daughter who has been on the point of death for days, the crowds are pressing in so closely no one can even see who touches him. Yet the healing power that happens through this grace is instantaneous. Nothing stands in its way or delays its power and its completeness. Jesus stops and takes time to find out whence this answered need for healing has come. Who touched me? The woman herself comes to confess, and Jesus congratulates her on her faith, her healing. All of the narrative events take time, her seeking treatment has taken twelve years, Jesus is trying to see Jairus' daughter and make his way through the crowds, but there is no rush. The woman's healing is in an instant. Faith makes this connection in this moment of healing at the right time.

Some people come from Jairus' house at that moment to tell him that his daughter has died. There is no need to trouble the teacher. But Jesus overhears, and tells Jairus to "only believe." They continue to Jairus' house. Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him - his inner circle. The wailing and mourning of the young girl has already begun at the house. Like the demoniac and the haemorrhaging woman, this young girl of no social rank is now numbered as one beyond the reach of the living, of the society, and also unclean. Yet Jesus takes her by the hand. "Little girl, get up!"

The Law works one way, and Jesus - and healing grace - work another way. Healing is instantaneous. It always happens in the right time. Nothing deters it. A connection is immediately, instantly made through faith. There is an energy that is sparked. Most of all, we have seen repeatedly, Jesus' touch makes clean - he is not defiled by anything called "unclean." Everywhere this healing grace goes, there is transformation and healing: whether we are speaking of healing our brokenness on any level - sin and evil, physical ailments, despair of hope. We call upon this power to heal our brokenness in so many ways, and we should remember all of its characteristics and qualities. It needn't matter that we cannot see Jesus for ourselves, nor touch his cloak. The power that worked through him is still with us, within us, among us, in our world. This grace, this energy should be at work always and through our prayers. These examples teach us that no matter who we are, or where we are, or what we are doing or how anyone else looks at us, we are there in the presence of healing grace when we have faith, when we pray and make contact. Sometimes that grace will lead us to the right help and treatment, sometimes it will lead us to faith and understanding, and give us hope when we have despair. But we call on it and ask for help and it asks for our faith and trust in return. Let us remember the nature of this connection, this healing energy and grace and how its connection happens with us in an instant, at the right time. We are never beyond hope or too far outside of its reach for that healing instant to be made real in us.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

My name is Legion

They came to the other side of the lake, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain; for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.’ For he had said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion; for we are many.’ He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding; and the unclean spirits begged him, ‘Send us into the swine; let us enter them.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the lake, and were drowned in the lake.

The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighbourhood. As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed by demons begged him that he might be with him. But Jesus refused, and said to him, ‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you.’ And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

- Mark 5:1-20

In March, I wrote another commentary on this passage, which can be read here. I'd like to point out much the same things here today -- this man is consigned to the tombs, to live among the dead. He's not fit for dwelling with living human society, as far as the judgment of his society goes. This reminds me of the way that those with deeply disturbing mental illness must still live separate from the society - and how in years past they were shut away, with horrible or cruel treatment often the result. We somehow still have with us those who, for one reason or another, are not allowed to function within the society - and who are in deep need of healing. I have a good friend from childhood who is one such person. Mental illness can be as utterly devastating to the person as the worst physical affliction. In some way, just as we may view this story of the demoniac, I feel that mental illness of all kinds is very closely linked to the need for a grounding spirituality that teaches love.

My study bible points out that the man worships Jesus (he "bowed down" in verse 6), but the demons fear Jesus; they fear torment. Neither can they escape confrontation with Jesus. Although the demons have power over the poor man, Jesus has absolute authority over the demons. He casts them out - what chains and shackles could not accomplish over these demons, Jesus' word has power over.

In the view of Jewish law, the swine are unclean - so the fact that the demons occupy them and send them to their destruction is appropriate from that perspective. The men who tend the swine do not understand Jesus' power; they fear it. Again, my study bible points out that these individuals are more concerned with animals and property rights - while Jesus' concern is about healing the man.

Finally, the healed man wishes to follow Jesus. This is understandable in several ways: not only has Jesus the power to heal and so possibly to prevent another attack and keep him healthy, but this man has already been cast out of his own society where they know him only as one possessed and subject to violent illness. The man is a Gentile, of course. We are in the country of Gentiles here among he Gadarenes who raise swine. It is most notable that with this healed man, Jesus allows a great exception to the messianic secret: the healed man is sent to tell others what has happened to him. He becomes the first great bearer - authorized and commanded by Christ - to bring the good news to others. He goes and spreads the word in the Decapolis - among the Greek-speaking cities of the Gentiles. My study bible points out that perhaps this was not so much of a problem, because there would be no pre-conception or particular expectations of the Messiah. So our healed demoniac, with a legion of demons, too violently ill for the society, becomes the first great evangelist. We know that the gospels are written in Greek - our healed demoniac goes to the Greek-speaking cities of the Decapolis, becoming a forerunner, the prototype in a sense, of the great evangelists that we study who will follow.

There's something tremendously poetic about the strength to heal, our capacity for renewal and regeneration. It also must be noted that this is a battleground - a spiritual battleground. By what shall we be held, kept hostage, made unfit to participate in the living society? This man is afflicted with something that steals his life from him; it is through no fault of his own. Within himself, he immediately bows down before Jesus; it is his faith that saves him, because in that bowing down there is already a plea and a desire for wholeness and healing - which is granted by Jesus with his power over the demons. We should not forget that this is a spiritual battleground - that inside of ourselves we fight a good fight too. Just as Jesus, when he was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, pointed out that it takes a stronger man to bind a strong man and take away the goods of his house, so we are taught by this passage of Jesus' great strength and power which allies itself with us when we call upon it. I think it's very important to remember this healing power and grace, and its tremendous strength, as something which is shared with us, which comes to our assistance, and heals us of our ills. Our enemies may be those thoughts and fears or things which torment us in some way, but by the strength of this healing power which can be allied with us, we can call for help. The transformation of the demoniac is so complete that Jesus sends him out to proclaim the good news as the "first evangelist" to my way of thinking. May we be so bold as to call upon this healing power to ally with us and save us from everything from which we ail.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Peace! Be still!

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

- Mark 4:35-41

In yesterday's passage, we read several of Jesus' parables regarding the description of the kingdom, and what it is like to have faith. These word-pictures vividly describe the action of faith and its growth, and tell us about its unfolding and revelation for us.

But faith isn't just about the wondrous growth, and our moments of joy. Faith, I find, also involves confronting one's own fears. I don't think I can make this journey of faith without a kind of self-confrontation that goes on all the time. As a practitioner of contemplative prayer, I find that I am constantly coming up against my own experiences, my own past and its residue of response in me. That means I encounter a lot of fears. Faith is constantly asking me to go forward, to make decisions that are different from in the past. This is, in my opinion, the way repentance works. It needn't be a terrible sin one repents from in the sense that a wiser decision can be made to change one's way of thinking as we grow. Maybe there is a better way. If, through prayer, you find yourself urged to reconsider the ways you've always thought about things, or perhaps traumatic and harsh past experiences that still have an emotional residue within you, this too can be the action of the Holy Spirit creating repentance, or metanoia, "change of mind."

The action of the Spirit is to always heal, to ask us to grow and to progress. We know, again, from Jesus' parables yesterday, that this kingdom is like a lamp set on a lampstand, that sheds its light everywhere. So, in the prayer process through time, that lamp will shine its light in all of our dark corners and ask us about changing something we may have chosen long ago. This is a form of healing. As we grow like the mustard seed in our faith, that "large shrub" must include gifts of the Spirit that augment our characters. We see in the gospels, for example, this transformation in St. Peter. But that naturally means that we confront our fears of changing, of embarking on the new place that faith leads us. And often, the journey of faith asks us to confront real fears of loss and departure from the familiar. The apostles and early believers left family, home, everything for this faith. They faced martyrdom and persecution.

So, after Jesus has told us wonderful parables about faith and the kingdom in yesterday's daily reading, today we find his apostles confronting a storm. We could think of this storm as a kind of parallel to what they will eventually encounter as apostles in their difficulties in establishing the church. But we remember that we have something and someone with us who helps us on this journey. And that is the key to this gospel passage. Jesus commands the storm to Be still! In the original Greek, the word used here is the same word with which Jesus commanded the demon to be quiet in Mark 1:25.

Just as our faith sets us out on the journey, it also accompanies us through the difficulties of that journey. I believe this sort of confrontation is all part of the effects of the transformational reality of that kingdom, its power and its reality. We don't live in a world where life is always charmed; we need a faith that gets us through its difficulties, just as our example in Jesus has taught us.

Have you still no faith? We are being given yet another example here, in addition to yesterday's parables, of what it is to have faith, how faith works and what it does. We encounter difficulties on this road, and it is faith itself that must get us through. We call on the One in whom we have that faith when we need help to keep it strong on this journey.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

- Mark 4:21-34

I find it really interesting to observe Jesus' teaching style. The parables are not exactly allegorical. By that I mean they're not exact comparisons that match up in every instance or angle of interpretation. Rather, he is illustrative. He gives us a vivid picture of something. Here we have three different illustrations, or pictures, of how the kingdom works. Each illustration has its own point, its own image to make. He gives us an idea of different ways in which the kingdom works by giving us a picture, so to speak. But none of these pictures work in precisely the same way; it's not an exact allegory. In an important sense, the gospels work the same way. We read and hear the same stories, but they are not all identical. Rather we're given pictures, from witnesses, often of the same event with just a slightly different perception or perspective, depending on the author. From all of these angles - whether we speak of Jesus' parables or the separate gospels - we draw a picture, get a full idea, of our subject. And that in turn acts as a seed for further revelation and knowledge later. After all, the gospels end with John's words: And there are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written. There is always more to be learned, to be revealed, about this kingdom.

Our first illustration about the kingdom, above, is the lampstand and the lamp. Everything will be revealed, light is to shine for a reason and purpose. These truths will not remain hidden. If you have the ears to hear, you can understand. And yet more is there to be revealed. Again, just like the gospels themselves. The measure you give will be the measure you get: draw yourself into this mystery with open heart and more will be revealed.

Jesus goes on to elaborate on the growth of this knowledge of his revealed mysteries, this understanding of faith and the kingdom, by giving us a picture of someone going to sleep after he's planted seed. We don't watch and know every moment of growth in the ground, but we are witnesses to that growth. We see creation as a work of God; we see how it works but we're not its author. So it is with this kingdom and its mysteries: the seed is planted in us, we do the watering, but by God's power it grows. We don't and can't force this or make it happen. But it happens by its own nature.

The tiny mustard seed that grows into a great and sturdy shrub is an illustration of how this kingdom grows, how the word multiplies within us - most especially of the growth of spiritual reality for us. Take a seed and plant it, and through God's power it grows. Through its own nature it grows and spreads - we don't control that, we don't make it happen. Humble beginnings may bring forth a great and strong bounty.

These illustrations taken together give us a sort of full picture of what it is to be a part of this kingdom, and of how it works, how it grows, what is its nature. It can work through the humblest of beginnings - whether we are speaking of Christ's own beginning of his church or the seed within ourselves, our hearts. One thing is certain, it is destined to grow if we nurture it, keep our hearts open to it, "water" it through prayer and discernment - and just the desire within us for more and our willingness to hear. From Jesus' parables we gain an understanding of completeness, and yet, taken together, it is not an end. There is always more: more to be revealed if we but have the patience and the care. All will be revealed - but there is always more in this journey, always something new waiting to be found, waiting to grow and sprout its branches. Where will it lead you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

The parable of the Sower

Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that

“they may indeed look, but not perceive,

and may indeed listen, but not understand;

so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” ’

And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’

- Mark 4:1-20

What does it mean to accept the word? What does it mean that the sower sows the seeds? Indeed, what does it mean, even, that Jesus chose to speak in parables - and that we come to understand them? These are all important questions to think about.

To sow the word is to spread the word of the kingdom. But the reality of that kingdom and its presence is something else altogether. We may accept the word, we may hear it in church, and read about it, and have parables examined and explained. But to accept the word in our hearts requires perhaps something else altogether. This is a question of what is in our hearts and how receptive we are to the nature of that word - to spiritual reality. Jesus repeatedly seems to say, in these gospels, that his very presence and the presence of his apostles and disciples who preach the word, is an indication of the kingdom at hand, the kingdom that has "come near." To understand, to grasp spiritual reality requires more than an intellectual assent or understanding. We comprehend truly with much more than merely our intellects. Love is more than a choice to weigh something and its merits. Faith, spiritual reception and understanding, and love all go hand-in-hand. Their natures must be intertwined because we know that God is love.

So Jesus illustrates himself through this story which is about sowing the word. The passage, when taken altogether, is a sort of parable about parables. So the evangelists are opening up to our eyes what it is to understand, how parables work, and what is expected of us. We are to have hearts prepared to receive. To receive this word is obviously much more than just mere comprehension. Jesus' parable of the Sower illustrates what it means to keep the word in our hearts: there is much resistance here to temptation of all kinds, and to keep it means that we resist not only temptation but great difficulties. This is more than understanding: it is, in fact, love. It takes a great deal of love to retain that word and bear its fruit despite temptations and through great difficulties.

In yesterday's reading from Matthew, we also read of the importance of bearing fruit. That was the parable of the Talents. In both today's and yesterday's readings, we read Jesus telling us about the importance of bearing fruit, producing more good from the good that has been invested with us, entrusted to us. Without the great love of this mystery, this reality invested in us, how do we bear fruit? The entire understanding here is of a great love, a treasure, in which we place our faith and live our lives, sometimes giving up enormous other possibilities for this life of the Spirit. We know that Jesus' apostles did so. This is a treasure we possess that lives in us and lives through us, and in so doing, we bear fruit, we multiply those talents.

But it all starts with the heart. Repeatedly, we are given to understand that our lack of hearing, lack of perception, is through hardness of heart. So, especially, the quotation above from Isaiah would tell us. We start with the heart, where our treasure is, where our love is. What we're asked, over and over again, is what do we love? I think that the Christian spiritual struggle refers us constantly to this question. We choose our faith, but as indicated by the parable, that's just the first step. Every day there is a challenge to make this pledge of faith again - and to choose to continue to bear fruit and make a choice. What do we love? Not an easy task. But then again, what we do for love is not always about what's easy!

When we reach into prayer, we open up our hearts. We link in relation to God, to this kingdom, to the Person that we know as Jesus. And there we seek love - to live it and to know it, to shape our lives with it.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

To all those who have, more will be given

‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

- Matthew 25:14-30

A note in my study bible says that a "talent" (from the Greek) was a great sum of money, and came to designate a special gift or endowment. Our use of this word in English derives from this origin, and so, this particular parable.

So, in Jesus' use of this word as allegory, what do we understand? In Friday's reading (Mark 3:7-19a), we come to understand Jesus as investing in his disciples. Jesus chose the Twelve and called them apostles, investing in them the future of his kingdom. In this parable, we can see another kind of allegory to investment. Talents, as used here, indicate gifts from God. Just as Jesus chose his apostles and invested in them the spiritual care-taking of the kingdom, so God invests in each of us with spiritual gifts.

Therefore, we are to consider what these gifts are and how we may use them. I think of this parable as particularly important in spiritual terms. We have the capacity for understanding scripture, for example. We all share in the ability to pray. From this relationship to God flows the rest of whatever spiritual gifts are ours to develop and to use.

It's my opinion that the Christian perspective on spirituality itself is one of constant movement. We're not to rest on our laurels. It doesn't matter what we've already done or achieved in the sense that today is today; spirituality is living in a constant "now." What are you doing today? What is God calling on you to do today? Is there a need to be addressed right now? Is there something you need to do right now? It doesn't matter, in that sense, what you have already done or achieved. The gifts that are within you are waiting to be used and developed.

It's a great gift, truly, to be able to help others to faith. A great gift to give someone else hope. Another to be able to help someone else to pray, to find their own reason for continuing forward in their lives. When we share and develop such gifts, we are acting in the spirit as, hopefully, it leads us in our own lives. Yesterday (in the passage Mark 3:19b-35), we read that Jesus pronounces that 'whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ So, as we use our spiritual gifts, or rather put them to use, we do so by seeking to follow in faith what we believe God asks us to do. This comes through prayer, through a relationship in faith.

It's quite a remarkable understanding to think that, in terms of spiritual life, we never stand still. We are always making decisions; either we are developing these "talents" (or gifts), or we're not. One thing is for certain: Jesus' parable is meant to teach us that when we stand still, or sit on these gifts, we're not doing what he wants us to do with them. We don't just congratulate ourselves on being good Christians, or that we're in the good church with the right faith, or that we're good people, or good whatevers and think of all the things we've already done to help others, or some other task with whatever gift we have that we've already done. Today is today. We must think of what we are to do today. And that, in my opinion, is the key to understanding Jesus' description of relatedness ('Who are my mother or my brothers?') - we act on what we think God asks of us today. In this way, we develop our talents.

Spiritual gifts work hand in hand with use and with following, as best as we can discern, how we believe God asks us to use them. I believe that these 'talents' are far more than spiritual gifts, but that they are also the type of spiritual values that Jesus referred to when he spoke of treasures in heaven that neither moth nor rust can destroy nor thief take away. When we make the decision to follow, in faith, to act as loving stewards of such gifts, we build values that become not simply stored in heaven but a part of the world as well. Do we act as a neighbor? So we build such spiritual treasure in the world, and our talents in ourselves. Do we pray to heal something or someone? Do we ask God in prayer what to do with our own gifts? All of these, I believe, are ways of building up spiritual treasure. And with each such act, our talents will multiply. 'For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance.' But if we congratulate ourselves on where we are and what we've done, and forget that today there is something we're called to do, and stop searching for just what that call is, then we're sitting on our gifts - and this is not the way that spiritual treasure works. Sit still in this stream of spiritual life and it passes you by; if these gifts are not used they are not being valued properly as the gifts they are: 'but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.' The 'outer darkness,' to my mind, is the place of nothingness, the place where, finally, we are ostracized - because we are not participating in that kingdom, we are no longer a part of it.

The talents invested in us, the gifts of God, don't work as treasures that we store up and hold as some great possession and keep them locked up and away from everyone else. Most closely paralleling, in my opinion, the action of these gifts is the nature of love. And, of course, the evangelist John tells us that God is Love in the first place. So, it's natural that Love would be the perfect parallel for the action of these spiritual gifts. Love works by never standing still, by reaching out and sharing itself. Love works best when it is a gift we try to understand as of the spirit, and to share as we believe God wishes us to learn to share it, by deepening our wisdom as to what it is, what it looks like, and how God wishes us to be like Him in its expression and the use of this gift. This isn't merely a chain of works, but depends on faith. Sometimes love means we speak out and correct, sometimes just to give an embrace, and sometimes by sitting quietly. Sometimes it means getting away from those who don't value what we have to give at all. All of this depends on how it is best used - and this is what we ask in prayer to learn. None of this is easy, because it's the journey of a lifetime. It's something we must work at, not a possession we own one day and then keep locked up for the rest of our lives. Our "hard taskmaster" expects that this is a journey where we're bound to learn and to grow ourselves - the gifts, after all, are a part of who we are.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How can Satan cast out Satan?

and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’ And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.’ And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.

‘Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’— for they had said, ‘He has an unclean spirit.’

Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’

- Mark 3:19b-35

In this passage, we're given a taste of what the reality of the Kingdom is all about. This is a spiritual reality. One cannot escape from this.

Jesus is casting out demons - his reputation for healings and exorcism has gone so far abroad that even going home the crowd follows him. But it seems that this action of the crowd disrupts everything at home. And his family are rather beside themselves. They don't seem to understand what is going on. They, too, have not seen him in his role of public preacher, healer, exorcist. Everybody begins speaking about Jesus as if he is a crazy person. His family tries to restrain him, because, we're told, people are saying that he's out of his mind. The scribes who've come from Jerusalem - obviously because of Jesus' reputation, to see for themselves - pronounce that he casts out demons by Beelzebul (in other NT versions, "Beelebub"). Beelzebub/Baal translates "prince of the dungheap" or "prince of the flies" and refers to a god worshipped by the Philistines. Here he's called "the ruler of the demons."

But Jesus makes the point that the demons do not cast one another out - they do not fight one another, otherwise the demonic power could not stand. It is only by binding up the ruler (whom Jesus calls Satan) of the house that one can destroy it and plunder his goods. Jesus works by divine power of another kingdom. Jesus is making very clear that this is a spiritual reality to deal with. The Kingdom to which he refers and to which he invites all through the good news he's preaching is one that rules through the power of the Spirit. We worship for a reason. Indeed Jesus goes so far in defending this kingdom and its power that he makes a very strong pronouncement: that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. In other words, the work of the Spirit, which these people already know through scripture (indeed, the scribes are the experts), must not be impugned by claiming it is something other than what it is. To label the work of the Spirit as that of evil is blasphemy.

So, we are given an understanding here that it is a particular spiritual reality that we are to perceive in the work of this kingdom, and that we are responsible for this understanding ourselves. We worship for a reason, we approach a spiritual life for a reason. It is not just a question of intellectual or philosophical decision for "good." It requires discernment: the Pharisees and scribes also believe they are doing good by defending their practices, and fighting Jesus. Furthermore, judgment is based upon how we approach this reality of the kingdom, and whether or not we choose to participate in it and receive its good news. My study bible says this is a question of, more than anything else, "hardness of heart."

Finally, Jesus' mother and brothers are trying to see him. The crowds are so great who've come to listen to him preach that they stand outside, trying to get in to see him. When Jesus is told of their presence, he replies, referring to the crowd, 'Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.' This is not an insult to his family, but rather a further validation of the reality of the Spirit and the relationship that it confers to those who choose to participate in this kingdom. For Jesus, his brother and sister and mother is anyone who choose also to accept that Spirit, to live as a part of that kingdom. Everyone is gathered around this spiritual reality, and all that is done in Its name creates relatedness, His family. We are joined in that place where relatedness becomes the vine and its branches.