Saturday, February 18, 2017

Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury


 Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, "How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?  For David himself said by the Holy Spirit:
'The LORD said to my Lord,
"Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool."'
Therefore David himself calls Him 'Lord'; how is He then his Son?"  And the common people heard Him gladly.

Then He said to them in His teaching, "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  These will receive greater condemnation." 

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury.  And many who were rich put in much.  Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans.  So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood."

- Mark 12:35-44

It is now Holy Week in our readings, and Jesus has been teaching in the temple.  Yesterday we read that one of the scribes came, and having heard Jesus reasoning together with Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?"  Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is:  'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  This is the first commandment.  And the second, like it, is this:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."  So the scribe said to Him, "Well said, Teacher.  You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He.  And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."  But after that no one dared question Him.

Then Jesus answered and said, while He taught in the temple, "How is it that the scribes say that the Christ is the Son of David?  For David himself said by the Holy Spirit:  'The LORD said to my Lord, "Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool."'  Therefore David himself calls Him 'Lord'; how is He then his Son?"  And the common people heard Him gladly.  All the questions posed to Jesus seem to have as their aim to prove that He is not the Messiah.  From the beginning of His stay in Jerusalem for Passover Week, immediately after He cleansed the temple, questions have been put to Him, starting with queries about His authority.  Here, after others have questioned Him, Jesus goes on the offensive, so to speak, and asks a question Himself.  My study bible says Jesus asks to lead them to the only logical conclusion:  that He's God incarnate.  The leadership supposed the Messiah to be a mere man.  But Jesus makes it clear that the Messiah, as Son of David, would not be called "Lord" by King David himself.  The only one David as king would address as my Lord is God, as he does here in Psalm 110:1.  (The first LORD is God the Father.)  The conclusion to Jesus' "riddle" is that the Messiah is a descendant of David only according to the flesh, but is also truly divine, sharing Lordship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.  The text tells us that the common people heard Him gladly.  This is perhaps because the authorities in the temple can make no answer to Jesus, as in realizing the implication of the Scripture and Jesus' question, they are afraid to confess Jesus to be the Son of God.

Then He said to them in His teaching, "Beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows' houses, and for a pretense make long prayers.  These will receive greater condemnation."  Jesus' next subject is hypocrisy -- the "false front" that passes for piety but loves its own authority and prestige.  We can imagine how the common people heard this gladly

Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury.  And many who were rich put in much.  Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans.  So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood."  We can see how this observation is linked to the teaching on the hypocrisy of the scribes just before it.  Her gift is greatest, because it is made from her poverty.  That is, she herself lacks, but she still gives.  My study bible says that the Lord accounts the value of a gift not by how much is given, but rather how much is kept back.  It cites the conversion of Cornelius (Acts 10:4), where we learn that God takes note of our giving. 

In thinking about the gift of the poor widow, we must consider all the conditions she seems to present.  We do so particularly in contrast to Jesus' warning about the scribes and their love of the best places, and also of widows' houses, and their long prayers made for a pretense.  My study bible cites Acts 10:4, in which we're told that the centurion Cornelius has been told by an angel, "Your prayers and your alms have come up for a memorial before God."  Let us take note that not only alms are mentioned, but also prayers.  It denotes, as does the gift of the poor widow, a deep devotion and love of God.  This isn't giving for the sake of giving, it's giving from love and devotion in the heart.  A gift isn't about the object given, it's about the truth in the heart, and the love that is there.  This is really the fullest gift possible, one that comes from giving of the whole self.  That is love and true devotion.  We're reminded of the woman who will anoint Jesus before His burial, with an expensive alabaster flask of perfumed oil.  This will be met by indignation on the part of the disciples (most specifically by Judas, John's Gospel tells us), because it could have been sold and the money distributed to the poor.  But Jesus tells them, "You have the poor with you always, and whenever you wish you may do them good; but Me you do not have always. . . . Assuredly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is preached in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told as a memorial to her" (Mark's version will come in 14:3-9; see also John 12:1-8).  Jesus always reaches into the heart of people, and maybe most particularly we're given in the Gospels several examples of women whose full heart He sees into.  Here, the poor widow is another such woman.  Her great gift made even out of her need and want denotes a full heart -- one of complete love and devotion to God.  We should not overlook the depth of giving that comes not from material goods, but from a heart that gives itself fully to God.  Thus, the angel notes both Cornelius' prayers and alms.  When we think about giving, I think the heart should be the first place we go.  It is there that we learn what to give, how to give -- there we discern what love is, and ask in prayer how to help heal any circumstance.  This is the fullness of the soul giving itself to God, and thereby whatever else is at one's disposal for God's purposes.  It is when only that which "shows" matters (as in Jesus' description of the scribes) that we may lose track of the true depth of giving.






Friday, February 17, 2017

You shall love your neighbor as yourself


 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?"  Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is:  'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  This is the first commandment.  And the second, like it, is this:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."  So the scribe said to Him, "Well said, Teacher.  You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He.  And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."  But after that no one dared question Him.

- Mark 12:28-34

Yesterday we read that some of the Pharisees and the Herodians went sent to Jesus, to catch Him in His words.  (It is Passion Week, two days after His Triumphal Entry, and Jesus has already been questioned by the chief priests, scribes, and elders.)  When they had come, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?  Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?"  But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test Me?  Bring Me a denarius that I may see it."  So they brought it.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  And they marveled at Him.  Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him; and they asked Him, saying:  "Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man's brother dies, and leaves his wife behind, and leaves no children, his brother should take his wife and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers.  The first took a wife; and dying, he left no offspring.  And the second took her, and he died; nor did he leave any offspring.  And the third likewise.  So the seven had her and left no offspring.  Last of all the woman died also.  Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be?  For all seven had her as wife." Jesus answered and said to them, "Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God?  For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.  But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  You are therefore greatly mistaken."

 Then one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, perceiving that He had answered them well, asked Him, "Which is the first commandment of all?"  Jesus answered him, "The first of all the commandments is:  'Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.'  This is the first commandment.  And the second, like it, is this:  'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  There is no other commandment greater than these."  So the scribe said to Him, "Well said, Teacher.  You have spoken the truth, for there is one God, and there is no other but He.  And to love Him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one's neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices."  Now when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, He said to him, "You are not far from the kingdom of God."  But after that no one dared question Him.   The Pharisees had found 613 commandments in the Scriptures, and debated about which one was central.  Here, one of the scribes comes to question Jesus about the first commandment, or the greatest in the Law.  (In Matthew's Gospel, he's called a lawyer, giving us to understand his expertise in the Law.)  We can see that he is already impressed by the answers that Jesus has given to the earlier questions posed to Him.  Jesus quotes here from Deuteronomy 6:4-5.  This is the greatest Jewish confession of faith.  It is called the shema' -- which means "hear," the first word of the confession.  But Jesus once again (as with the earlier questions) does not simply answer what He is asked.  He adds another commandment, Leviticus 19:18.  My study bible says that Jesus thereby combines what is already present in the Old Testament to create a new understanding:  that love of neighbor is an expression of love of God.  Of the second commandment Christ states here, we are to understand it as written, a note tells us:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.   More clearly stated, it's "as being yourself."  If we understand it to mean "love your neighbor as you love yourself," we miss the true form of the commandment.  How much we love ourselves is not the standard by which we're called to love ourselves.  Rather, we're called to love neighbor as being of the same nature or image as ourselves -- being created in God's image and likeness as are we.  The tradition of the Church Fathers tells us we may find our true selves in loving our neighbor. 

Jesus' teaching here echoes an earlier teaching to the disciples, when they were taught about the little ones.  The reflection of Christ's image in others is another kind of statement of this same message, that love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand and are reflections of one another; that they are inseparable from one another.  Jesus taught, "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me."   Little children in this case stand in for the humble, for any who come to them in faith.  In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus teaches about those whom He calls lost sheep:  "Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 18:10).  We may believe that we can understand such commandments apart from the love of God, but that isn't really the case with experience.  As my study bible says, "as we love ourselves," simply isn't the right formula.  Often, our understanding of love is deficient, and perhaps particularly so when it comes to loving ourselves.  Arrogance is the wrong kind of self-love, a selfishness that is blind to what is truly best for us and the need for correction of flaws.  Self-hatred or neglect is another form of an inverted arrogance, where the image we hold ourselves to is a false one.  In neither case do we understand what love is in the first place.  And there we truly get to the heart of why love of God is so important.  It is in that communion that we allow ourselves to be taken in hand to grow in learning how to love, and what love is exactly.  We grow in learning to be "like God."  We grow, in fact, in learning what we can be, in becoming less selfish and more understanding of love and service itself.  The world can't truly teach us such things properly.  Only that which can stretch us beyond ourselves and our own concepts can do that, take us beyond what we know.  Our faith teaches us that God is love; it is there everything begins for us.  It is there we begin to understand even what it is to be human, and to be created in the image of God.  There only do we find the communion that teaches us what Jesus is talking about.




Thursday, February 16, 2017

He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living


 Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words.  When they had come, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?  Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?"  But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test Me?  Bring Me a denarius that I may see it."  So they brought it.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  And they marveled at Him.

Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him; and they asked Him, saying:  "Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man's brother dies, and leaves his wife behind, and leaves no children, his brother should take his wife and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers.  The first took a wife; and dying, he left no offspring.  And the second took her, and he died; nor did he leave any offspring.  And the third likewise.  So the seven had her and left no offspring.  Last of all the woman died also.  Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be?  For all seven had her as wife." 

Jesus answered and said to them, "Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God?  For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.  But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  You are therefore greatly mistaken."

- Mark 12:13-27

Yesterday we read that Jesus and the disciples came again to Jerusalem (it is the day after His Triumphal Entry).  And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him.  And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things?  and who gave You this authority to do these things?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men?  Answer Me."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed.  So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things."  Then He began to speak to them in parables:  "A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went to a far country.  Now at vintage time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers.  And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated.  And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.  Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But those vinedressers said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.'  So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.  Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do?  He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others.  Have you not even read this Scripture:  'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"  And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them.  So they left Him and went away.

  Then they sent to Him some of the Pharisees and the Herodians, to catch Him in His words.  When they had come, they said to Him, "Teacher, we know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth.  Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?  Shall we pay, or shall we not pay?"  But He, knowing their hypocrisy, said to them, "Why do you test Me?  Bring Me a denarius that I may see it."  So they brought it.  And He said to them, "Whose image and inscription is this?"  They said to Him, "Caesar's."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."  And they marveled at Him.  The Herodians are those who are Jewish political supporters of the ruling house of Herod the Great -- and therefore willing servants of Rome.   This question is designed as a trap for Jesus, and once again calls us to notice His tremendous power of testimony, as a witness.  Here in the temple, even the Roman coins bearing Caesar's image are considered to be defiling (and we recall that Jesus' first act in Jerusalem was to cleanse the temple of the money changers).  A "yes" answer will brand Him as a collaborator with the Romans.  A "no" answer will bring a charge of treason from the Romans.  Jesus offers instead His own testimony.  All things belong to God, but that does not stop us from rendering the state its due while serving God.   As the coin bears the image of the emperor and is properly paid to him, so each person bears the image of God and therefore belongs to God, says my study bible.  Conflict arises when the state demands that which is contrary to God.  (See Romans 13:1-7.)

 Then some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Him; and they asked Him, saying:  "Teacher, Moses wrote to us that if a man's brother dies, and leaves his wife behind, and leaves no children, his brother should take his wife and raise up offspring for his brother.  Now there were seven brothers.  The first took a wife; and dying, he left no offspring.  And the second took her, and he died; nor did he leave any offspring.  And the third likewise.  So the seven had her and left no offspring.  Last of all the woman died also.  Therefore, in the resurrection, when they rise, whose wife will she be?  For all seven had her as wife."   The Sadducees are another party of the council, and they represent landowners and other wealthy families in Jerusalem.  My study bible says they held many high offices in Israel.  They controlled the temple and the Sanhedrin.  They were different from the Pharisees in that they were politically prudent and adapted to the presence of the Romans.  They interpreted the law more rigidly than the Pharisees, and unlike them, they rejected any belief in angels and in the resurrection from the dead at the end of the age.  Therefore this question is designed as another sort of trap.  The Sadducees completely disappeared after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus answered and said to them, "Are you not therefore mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God?  For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.  But concerning the dead, that they rise, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the burning bush passage, how God spoke to him, saying, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'?  He is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.  You are therefore greatly mistaken."  Jesus confirms that there will be a resurrection, but not the kind the Sadducees have dreamed up in this imaginary scenario.  What they consider the resurrection to be is merely a continuation of earthly life (including earthly marriage).  Their mocking question is based on ignorance of the Scriptures, which reveal a transfiguration of life in the resurrection.  This knowledge would make their questions irrelevant.  They also fail to understand how Abraham and his sons can be alive in God even if they are physically dead (St. Paul calls them a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us).  My study bible says that it is the clear teaching of Christ that the souls of the faithful who have departed this life are sustained before the face of God in anticipation of the final joy of the resurrection.

Once again we see Jesus as a great witness (see also yesterday's reading and commentary).  His testimony is accurate and truthful, as even the Herodians attest:  "We know that You are true, and care about no one; for You do not regard the person of men, but teach the way of God in truth."  This is a great key to Jesus' character:  He doesn't pay attention to the things most people find impressive.  His is the most acute form of discernment.  We're told repeatedly in the Gospels that He knows the hearts of all people.  This is what holiness does and is; it is "set apart" and "not of this world."  When Jesus is asked for an answer to a question designed to trap Him, He never gives the scoffers what they want.  He refuses to be trapped.  This is the toughness of an expert witness, of someone who knows what is His cause, His truth, and what He is to be about.  Jesus, instead, offers answers that stick to the truth, without giving what the false questioners want.  He will not give them an opportunity to trap Him in a falsehood He doesn't believe.  His answer to the Pharisees and Herodians using the Roman coin teaches the truth He believes.  (And we note that others in the temple who witness these exchanges will ensure these teachings find their way into the Gospel for His followers of all the future).  The question as posed offers Him two choices, of which neither is appropriate.  He refuses to be trapped between these two parties and the two answers on offer.  He finds and poses His own question and answer instead.  It's also important to note that when the Sadducees question Him about the resurrection, He not only refuses to accept their premise of what resurrection is and will be like, He steers them to the Scriptures.  He tells them, in fact, that they are ignorant of the Scriptures.  They have not studied them closely and they do not understand them.  This is another important teaching for those of us who follow Him.  It should not be lost on any of us.  Ignorance of what is taught leads to error, to misunderstanding, to a depth of mistaken assumptions regarding the most profound questions of God and of our own communion in faith and with one another.  In this way, every question, regardless of how ill-intentioned, becomes a kind of opportunity for witnessing, for testimony.  Jesus' very refusal to accommodate false questioners is, in fact, another kind of testimony.  Let us take notice and learn from His wisdom in all things.






Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Have you not even read this Scripture: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes"?


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

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

- Mark 11:27-12:12

Yesterday, we read that the day after Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, when they had come out from Bethany where they had stayed night, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again."  And His disciples heard it.  So they came to Jerusalem.  Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple.  Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'?  But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'"  And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.  When evening had come, He went out of the city.  Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.  And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.  But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."

Then they came again to Jerusalem.  And as He was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to Him.  And they said to Him, "By what authority are You doing these things?  and who gave You this authority to do these things?"  But Jesus answered and said to them, "I also will ask you one question; then answer Me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things:  The baptism of John -- was it from heaven or from men?  Answer Me."  And they reasoned among themselves, saying, "If we say, 'From heaven,' He will say, 'Why then did you not believe him?'  But if we say, 'From men'" -- they feared the people, for all counted John to have been a prophet indeed.  So they answered and said to Jesus, "We do not know."  And Jesus answered and said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things." As we read yesterday, Jesus has just cleansed the temple -- He drove out  those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders come to Him as He walks in the temple the following day.  We remember this is Passover Week, and it is the practice for pilgrims who've come for the feast to be at the temple.  These men are religious authorities, responsible for regulating and performing the practices of the temple.  Since Jesus is not a Levitical priest, they challenge His authority to cleanse the temple.  My study bible notes that Jesus is always careful not to reveal Himself to scoffers.  As such, He confounds them with a different question about John.  The question posed by the elders' and the question posed by Christ require the same answer, that both are from heaven.   It would amount to a confession of faith in Christ.  My study bible says that by not answering these men directly, Christ teaches us not to answer people who come asking about holy things with a malicious intent.

Then He began to speak to them in parables:  "A man planted a vineyard and set a hedge around it, dug a place for the wine vat and built a tower.  And he leased it to vinedressers and went to a far country.  Now at vintage time he sent a servant to the vinedressers, that he might receive some of the fruit of the vineyard from the vinedressers.  And they took him and beat him and sent him away empty-handed.  Again he sent them another servant, and at him they threw stones, wounded him in the head, and sent him away shamefully treated.  And again he sent another, and him they killed; and many others, beating some and killing some.  Therefore still having one son, his beloved, he also sent him to them last, saying, 'They will respect my son.'  But those vinedressers said among themselves, 'This is the heir.  Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.'  So they took him and killed him and cast him out of the vineyard.  Therefore what will the owner of the vineyard do?  He will come and destroy the vinedressers, and give the vineyard to others."   Earlier in Mark's Gospel, Jesus has told the disciples, "To you it has been given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God; but to those who are outside, all things come in parables" (see Mark 4:11-12).  Here Jesus gives the unbelieving chief priests, scribes, and elders a parable.  In it, the man who owns the vineyard represents God the Father.  The vineyard represents God's people, Israel.  The vinedressers are the religious leaders who are entrusted to care for the people.  Each servant sent by the owner stands for an Old Testament prophet who comes to call people back to God.  The beloved son is Christ Himself.  The others to whom the vineyard will be given are the Gentiles who will be brought into the Church.  As they seek to cast out Christ the beloved Son, so will they be cast out.

"Have you not even read this Scripture:  'The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.  This was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvelous in our eyes'?"  And they sought to lay hands on Him, but feared the multitude, for they knew He had spoken the parable against them.  So they left Him and went away.  Jesus quotes from Psalm 118:22-23.   This is the Psalm that tells of the coming Kingdom, ironically the one from which the people shouted verses welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem as King (118:25-26, see Monday's reading).  He affirms through the words of the Psalm that the One who is rejected ("cast out," above) will become the chief cornerstone.

We must admire Jesus' toughness.  This is the kind of toughness that doesn't come from physical power and might, but rather from faith.  It is the courage of One who stands in the truth, who loves the truth.  Jesus tells us, in fact, that He is the truth:  "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).  He will not reveal Himself openly to those who scoff.  But nevertheless the parable tells the story, and these men recognize that He speaks of them as the wicked vinedressers.  Earlier in the reading, He refuses to directly answer their question, but asks instead a question of His own, which they can't answer.  Jesus' "toughness" is that of an expert witness, One who testifies for a cause.  He knows what He is about.  He does not bend the truth and does not stretch His words into territory extraneous to His message and His focus.  He gives us an example of what good testimony really is and means.  He stays focused on the message, and He does not expose Himself to those whose only concern is to ridicule, condemn, and tear down.  He shows us also that He knows full well what is in the hearts of these leaders who find Him inconvenient, questioning their authority, not a part of their own circle.  He doesn't suffer fools and He doesn't waste words.  We recall that in front of Pilate He will say nothing.  Neither will He testify before the Sanhedrin.  Where there is no one to hear who may truly "hear," He does not bother to speak.  This is also witnessing, a testimony to the falseness of those who demand His answers.  Can we understand Him?  Can we be like Him?  Let us remember there are those who hear Him speak in the temple who are also witnesses, who have given us His testimony written for us to read in the Gospels.  So it is with our faith and our own witness.  We never know who may be listening, we are always in community.  Let us remember His brilliant example for us.





Tuesday, February 14, 2017

I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them


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

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

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."  So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.  And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.  But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."

- Mark 11:12-26

Yesterday we read that when Jesus and the disciples drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, "Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it.  And if anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord has need of it,' and immediately he will send it here."  So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it.  But some of those who stood there said to them, "What are you doing, loosing the colt?"  And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded.  So they let them go.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.  And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:  "Hosanna!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!"  And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple.  So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again."  And His disciples heard it.  This fig tree had sprouted an early full foliage, indicating a first crop of fruit.  But it had not borne any fruit.  Jesus' condemnation is for this lack of bearing fruit, and is considered to be a spiritual teaching.  The fig tree in Scripture is often a symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10).  This is the image of a spiritually beautiful appearance, but without fruitfulness.  The Kingdom will be taken away from Israel and given to another people, who are called to bear spiritual fruit (see Matthew 21:43; Galatians 5:22-23).  It is related to Christ's Triumphal Entry in yesterday's reading, His welcome into Jerusalem as worldly king:  nationalism as determiner of the elect will not be the key to this Kingdom.  Rather true spiritual fruitfulness will be its currency.

So they came to Jerusalem.  Then Jesus went into the temple and began to drive out those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves.  And He would not allow anyone to carry wares through the temple.  Then He taught, saying to them, "Is it not written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations'?  But you have made it a 'den of thieves.'"  And the scribes and chief priests heard it and sought how they might destroy Him; for they feared Him, because all the people were astonished at His teaching.  When evening had come, He went out of the city.  Those who bought and sold are those trading in live animals to be used for sacrifices in the temple.  The money changers would trade Roman coins for Jewish coins -- since Roman coins bore the image of Caesar and were therefore considered to be defiling in the temple.  My study bible says that the cleansing of the temple points to the necessity that the Church be kept free from earthly pursuits.  As each person is considered a temple of God, it tells us (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19), it is a sign also that our hearts and minds must be cleansed of "earthly" matters; that is, life and choices absent our commitment to God.  This is Jesus' first act as "Messiah" in Jerusalem.  He quotes from the prophets:  Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11.

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."   Jesus' cursing and withering of the fig tree is a prophetic act.  It signifies the judgment of Israel.  It's a sign that what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13) -- the old covenant.  These apostles will establish Jesus' Church, which will ultimately be filled with Gentiles and Jews; they need assurance that they are following His will in doing so.  The vivid image of this fig tree will be indelible in their minds.

So Jesus answered and said to them, "Have faith in God.  For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, 'Be removed and be cast into the sea,' and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says.  Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them."  Jesus ties prayer and faith together.  My study bible says that while it's not recorded than an apostle literally moved a mountain, Tradition is clear that they had this authority if the need had arisen (there are stories also of certain saints making crevices appear in the mountains).  Also, all the things done by the apostles was not written down.  Beyond the literal meaning here, this promise is an illustration of the power of faith and prayer in all areas of our lives.  Theophylact says, "Whatever we ask, without hesitation and believing in God's power, we shall receive" when we ask for spiritual profitable things.  The tie with faith is irreversible:  it is faith that teaches us also to seek the will of  God, a humility that puts our own will subservient -- in that spirit, effective prayer becomes part of the life of one who wants what God seeks of us.  Thus, the Spirit may pray in us, teaching us "what we ought to pray for."

"And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.  But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses."  Jesus deliberately adds this note on prayer to accompany His statement about prayer and faith.  It is also, we must note, a statement about humility.   Mutual forgiveness between people is a requirement for God's forgiveness.  We who do not forgive are not forgiven.  This is the condition of our minds and hearts in prayer, a requirement that sets the tone for the image of faith.  We give up, in effect, all things to God.

Prayer becomes a key issue immediately following Jesus' entrance into Jerusalem.  Here, on His first day in the city after the Triumphal Entry, He cleanses the temple.  But among the disciples, the discourse is focused on what their lives and His Church must be about, and what is happening during this Passion Week.  The old is giving way to the new, and the new covenant is determined by faith.  Prayer and faith are inseparable in practice and in fact.  One shores up and is an expression of the other.  Each "blooms" inside and with the other:  prayer blooms with faith, faith blooms with prayer.  One writer on contemplative prayer, Fr. Thomas Keating, calls prayer that which deepens "the pool of grace."  Jesus links prayer and faith here for us, and also His call for forgiveness as a part of prayer.  In teaching us about forgiveness, there are a couple of things we notice.  The first is that it is not necessary to wait for someone else to forgive us to take action.  It is not necessary for another person to change their minds, to mediate their behaviors, to ask for our forgiveness, or even to become a friend in any sense.  Forgiveness is about giving things up to God, even people and their behaviors.  When we practice this sort of forgiveness, we are saying that God mediates all our relationships, and we are leaving judgment to God.  Of course, as Jesus is addressing the disciples, He's also speaking about discipline within the Church -- our relationships with one another as faithful.  Thus, there is connected to prayer an even deeper sense of the pool of grace; that is, of communion in God's love.  As such, our relationships to are to be mediated by the love of God.  (Jesus will also give instructions for formal forgiveness and correction within the Church, but this addresses our action in prayer.   Forgiveness does not need to wait for correction of behavior; however, it does depend on discernment for how best we react to the offending party.)   The second thing that Jesus' teaching on mutual forgiveness teaches us is that we are always in the process of receiving and participating in an exchange.  This, in some sense, is what faith is truly all about.  It cuts to the heart of things.  We are either worldly (that is, living in some way with a sense of separation from God), or we are faithful -- living our lives within such connection or communion.  This is the tension in which we live as human beings.  When we forgive -- that is, when we give up situations and people to God for God's will and discernment in navigating our lives  -- we exchange the "worldly" for the a life of faith in which even our worldly lives are governed by this communion.  We may need to forgive a person who has done us a terrible wrong, a great injustice, even grievous injury -- but we also need to pray for guidance as to how best to live our lives with respect to that person.  To forgive does not necessitate contact, and for that matter, neither does love.  But to give up vengeance to God is always possible, to ask God's discernment for proper conduct in light of a difficult situation is always necessary.  Forgiveness does not call us to self-harm; it calls us to true sanity, discernment, and awareness.  It is the beginning of learning how to put our faith into practice and relying on God to teach us how to do that.  This becomes part and parcel of the faith that moves mountains.  It is a key component to the humility that true prayer calls us to, where we put all things before God.  It does not condone all things done to us.  Rather, it sets us free to serve God in our response, and to understand ourselves as faithful.  This is our covenant.  It is the power to make all things new.








Monday, February 13, 2017

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!


 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, "Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it.  And if anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord has need of it,' and immediately he will send it here."  So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it.  But some of those who stood there said to them, "What are you doing, loosing the colt?"  And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded.  So they let them go.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.  And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:
"Hosanna!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'
Blessed is the kingdom of our father David
That comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest!"

And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple.  So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.

- Mark 11:1-11

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

 Now when they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, "Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat. Loose it and bring it.  And if anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord has need of it,' and immediately he will send it here."  So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it.  But some of those who stood there said to them, "What are you doing, loosing the colt?"  And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded.  So they let them go.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.  Jesus arrives in Jerusalem as was prophesied of the Messiah, coming from the East, the Mount of Olives.  This is known as Jesus' Triumphal Entry, which the Church celebrates on Palm Sunday.  And although the people expect a triumphant king who will restore the fortunes of Israel at this time of political turmoil and furious nationalism, Jesus comes into Jerusalem on a colt; that is, a young donkey.  This is a humble domestic animal, not the cavalry of imperial military power.  It fulfills the prophecy of Zechariah:  "Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey" (Zechariah 9:9).  It is a sign of humility and peace.  My study bible says that this entrance into the Holy City declares the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  Tradition tells us it is a promise of Christ's final entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem with all believers -- and of His accepting the New Jerusalem as His pure bride (Revelation 21:2). 

And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:  "Hosanna!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!"  The people spread their clothes on the road before Jesus in paying homage to a King.  This is spiritually interpreted to say that we must lay down our flesh, even our lives, for Christ.  The people shout particular verses from Psalm 118.  These were associated with messianic expectation -- they were recited daily for six days during the Feast of Tabernacles (that is the Feast of the Coming Kingdom), and seven times on the seventh day as branches were waved.  Hosanna means, "Save, we pray!"  (see Psalm 118:25-26). 

 And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple.  So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.  Jesus' first act is to go directly into the temple.  This is appropriate as Messiah.

It's interesting to note that Mark tells us Jesus went directly into the temple.  Like a king inspecting the kingdom he's just conquered or inherited, we may think, He looked around at all things.  The following day will come the cleansing of the temple, and a curse on a fruitless fig tree on the way -- with a teaching on prayer and faith to the disciples.  These immediate acts, the curse on the fruitless fig tree and the cleansing of the temple, make negative suggestions to us.  They are uncharacteristic of the overall "positive" nature of Jesus' ministry.  But perhaps we may assume that in looking around at all things inside the temple, Jesus is unhappy with what He's found in this kingdom and among His people -- especially those who are to care for His people, their spiritual leaders.  He will let them know what has displeased Him here in this place of His house.  But of that we will learn further in tomorrow's reading.  Everything in His ministry has led up to this point, this entry into the temple in Jerusalem in triumph as a king.  We know what will happen from here.   It is the beginning of Passion Week,  and only a few days until another crowd shouts to crucify Him.  The Cross will be an entry into His true Kingdom, an opening for all the rest of us who wish to truly follow Him.  For today we take note that Christ comes willingly to Jerusalem, and enters immediately into the temple.  He is not afraid; He does what He has to do.  Three times He has already warned the disciples what is to come.  But everything He does is for the faithful -- those who are with Him and all those who will follow.  His descent into Jerusalem on the young donkey, even His humiliation and suffering:  it's all for us, so that we understand this story and know what kind of King He is -- and how much He loves us.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

What do you want Me to do for you?


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

- Mark 10:46-52

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

Now they came to Jericho.  As He went out of Jericho with His disciples and a great multitude, blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, sat by the road begging.  And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  Then many warned him to be quiet; but he cried out all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  So Jesus stood still and commanded him to be called.  Then they called the blind man, saying to him, "Be of good cheer.  Rise, He is calling you."  And throwing aside his garment, he rose and came to Jesus.  So Jesus answered and said to him, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  The blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, that I may receive my sight."  Then Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your faith has made you well."  And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road.  Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem, coming from east of the Jordan.  Jericho was considered a place associated with sin (it's where the story of the Good Samaritan takes place, see Luke 10:30).  Tradition gives us a spiritual understanding of this story; in this context Jericho symbolizes a fallen humanity.  Christ passing through gives us an image of the Incarnation.   Bartimaeus is thereby humanity restored to glory.  Having been made whole, human nature can now follow Christ on the road to the Kingdom -- just as Jesus is on the road to His entrance into Jerusalem.

One thing we notice about this story -- Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question He's just asked John and James Zebedee:  What do you want Me to do for you?  The two disciples wanted to be the greatest in His kingdom, to sit at His right and left hand.  Those things He could not do for His disciples, nor did they understand what it would mean to be great in this Kingdom.  Their request then became an opportunity for teaching.  That was what they needed.  Here, Bartimaeus request is met with the answer, "Go your way; your faith has made you well."  In a certain sense, they're both the same answer.  That is, faith is the real answer in both cases.  John and James Zebedee will fill their own "gloried" shoes with martyrdom and persecution.  They will come to drink the cup and be baptized with the baptism that Christ is.  Here, Bartimaeus has the faith that has restored him, and he follows Christ on the road to Jerusalem.  Each one has their own way in which they must follow Christ, and this is something we also come to understand from the stories of the Gospels.  In the end, it's a matter of faith.  Although we may walk the same road, and we all follow Christ, for each of us that road may be quite different.  For each one Christ prepares the way, through faith.  Blind Bartimaeus called Jesus by the title, "Son of David."  This is a Messianic title, and it tells us he understands who Christ is.  The cry, "Have mercy on me!" is one of complete abandonment to Christ.  It lets us know his understanding of his dependency, he's ready to surrender all claim to greatness in the face of the Messiah.  It gives us a contrast with the request of John and James for the two places of greatness on either side of Christ.  Blindness is often a metaphor for spiritual blindness, for sin.  To be "illuminated" is to truly see -- and we see Bartimaeus' choice to follow Christ on the road to Jerusalem after he receives his sight.  There is still further to go -- the restoration of his sight isn't the end, it's a new beginning for him.  As we review these choices and these requests, we might ask where we are today.  Are we Bartimaeus on that road crying out "have mercy on me"?  Or are we John and James, who need their own enlightenment on what greatness will mean for them?  Either way, faith leads us down the road we need.  When Jesus asks, "What do you want Me to do for you?" we must be ready to accept the true answer to our request.


Friday, February 10, 2017

Whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all


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

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

- Mark 10:32-45

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

 Now they were going on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them; and they were amazed.  And as they followed they were afraid.  Then He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them the things that would happen to Him:  "Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles; and they will mock Him, and scourge Him, and spit on Him, and kill Him.  And the third day He will rise again."  In the face of open hostility from the religious authorities, Jesus leads the way to Jerusalem, the center of their power.  We recall that Jesus and the disciples are currently in Judea "on the other side of the Jordan."  This is the third time Jesus predicts to the disciples what is going to happen to Him.  My study bible says that His repeated predictions of His Passion were intended to encourage and strengthen the disciples for the terrifying events they are going to face.  And these repeated prophecies of His Passion confirm that Christ was going to His death of His own will and choosing.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask."  And He said to them, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  They said to Him, "Grant us that we may sit, one on Your right hand and the other on Your left, in Your glory."  But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you ask.  Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"  They said to Him, "We are able."  So Jesus sad to them, "You will indeed drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized; but to sit on My right hand and on My left is not Mine to give, but it is for those for whom it is prepared."   James and John Zebedee are two of the closest disciples to Jesus.  With Peter, they form the inner three who've accompanied Jesus in critical points of the Gospel journey, such as the healing of the daughter of Jairus, and the Transfiguration.   It seems the disciples have been interpreting Jesus' predictions of His Passion and death and rising on the third day to mean He will then come into a physical and eternal kingdom on earth.  In an earlier reading -- and just after an earlier prediction of His death and Resurrection -- the disciples were disputing "who would be greatest."  Here as they are on their way to Jerusalem, the presumed place from which the Messiah would rule, the brothers Zebedee decide they will ask Jesus directly about their places in this kingdom they imagine.  Jesus' question, "What do you want Me to do for you?" is one He asks of others who wish Him to heal them.  But this time the request is one He must correct, because they fail to understand not simply the nature of the Kingdom, but the nature of its leadership and authority.  My study bible says that this quest for temporal power and glory is unfitting for a disciple and shows an earthly misunderstanding of the kingdom of God.  Christ calls His Crucifixion a cup and His death a baptism.  His death is thereby a gateway to something.  He calls it a cup because He drank it willingly (Hebrews 12:2).  Like baptism, He is completely immersed in death, but it cleansed the world (Romans 6:3-6).  In His response to them, Christ makes another prophecy here:  that James and John will also participate in the same cup and baptism.  He correctly shows the life of persecution and martyrdom they would lead after Pentecost.  Christ cannot give these places of authority arbitrarily; they will be given to those for whom God has prepared them.  St. John Chrysostom teaches that no one could possibly occupy such a position of equal authority to Christ on His right hand and His left.  But by tradition, the highest places of honor in the Church have gone to the Virgin Mary (most blessed among women, Luke 1:28) and John the Baptist (greatest born of women, Matthew 11:11). 

 And when the ten heard it, they began to be greatly displeased with James and John.  But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, "You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all.  For even the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."   Jesus explains what leadership means in His Kingdom and His Church.  He is the prime example of that leadership, and His sacrifice of His life is for all; the Aramaic expression for many means "for all."

The Gospels go to great lengths to let us know that the disciples are very slow to grasp the nature of what is coming, of Jesus' life and His Passion, His suffering and death on the Cross.  Earlier Mark's Gospel taught us that they didn't understand even about two miraculous feedings in the wilderness, when Jesus asks the question, "How is it you do not understand?"  It illustrates for us how strongly our own expectations play a role in defining our faith and understanding of life itself and the things we experience.  In today's reading, the disciples clearly expect a Messianic kingdom such as was widely prophesied among the Jews at the time of Christ.  It's not only the disciples who have such anticipations, but rather the whole of Israel seemed to be awaiting delivery from their predicament.  We can see this, for example, in Simeon, whom Luke's Gospel tells us was "waiting for the Consolation of Israel," and to whom it had been revealed "by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ" (see Luke 2:25-35).  The disciples, therefore, being sons of Israel and steeped in such expectation, were awaiting a worldly kingdom.  As such, their notions about leadership and service also fit the model of a worldly kingdom.  It's important that Jesus notes how those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  By this time in Israel's history, it had been over 400 years since Israel had seen a prophet (until John the Baptist).  Kingdom had fought against kingdom for approximately three centuries, with warfare only getting more intense as the time of Christ approached, including a civil war, until Israel was a part of the Roman Empire.  At the time of Christ, of course, there were those planning military insurrection against the Romans.  Into this pageant of warfare and worldly kingdoms and power comes Christ, an entirely different figure indeed.  No wonder the disciples are ill-prepared to understand the way that He is preparing for them.  The unfathomable thought that a king -- and not only king, but Messiah -- would sacrifice His life and be crucified in the most brutal form of Roman punishment reserved for the worst criminals, is completely outside of any understanding of what a kingdom was.  This is self-sacrifice, the opposite of grasping for worldly power.  Jesus, in making this once-and-for-all-time sacrifice of Himself, shows us the fullness of the exchange of worldly power for the holy.  His Resurrection will bring the kingdom of God, open to all who choose to enter.  But its rules differ from worldly rules, its notions of service and authority must be understood on their own terms.  This is how we must treat each other.  As Messiah, His own "baptism" will give birth to a Kingdom that is "not of this world," as He will say to Pilate, representative of the Roman Empire.   Jesus' lengthy prayer to the Father (immediately before His betrayal) which is given us in John 17, is filled with multiple references to "the world" and His Kingdom not of the world.  He says of His disciples, "They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.   Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.  As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world." (John 17:16-18).  Here we are given a picture of the time in which we, too, live.  We as faithful dwell also within a kingdom that is not of this world.  We seek, as Jesus prays, to be sanctified by God's truth, God's word; that is, a part of what is holy.  As such, we take up His cross, and follow Him.  Our lives are to be a part of this same exchange and understanding, that we are guided in the ways of the Kingdom just as the disciples are.  We may often find ourselves in this complex sort of "battle," where we are called one way but our understanding has taught us another.  Let us not conflate the two.  Let us be guided in our faith to discern His Way.  He has prepared the same for each of us.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God


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

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

- Mark 10:17-31

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

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call Me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God."  My study bible tells us that this man seeks out Jesus not because he tests Him (as do the Pharisees in yesterday's reading above, for example), but because he seeks advice from someone whom he considers no more than a good Teacher.  Christ doesn't deny His own divinity, but rather His answer is designed to lead this man to that knowledge.

"You know the commandments:  'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not steal,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Do not defraud,' 'Honor your father and your mother.'"  And he answered and said to Him, "Teacher, all these things I have kept from my youth."  The formal observance of commandments does not make one righteous before God.  The man has come this far and recognizes he still lacks something, so he continues to press Christ.  His desire is earnest.

Then Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "One thing you lack:  Go your way, sell whatever you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, take up the cross, and follow Me."  But he was sad at this word, and went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.   We note that Jesus' word to this sincere man comes because He loved him.  To follow Christ means to let no obstacle remain in the way of such faith.  My study bible says that nothing is gained unless this sacrifice is given freely.   However, the specifics of how one follows Christ will be different for each person.  In this case, the man's wealth had a great grip on him; his hope is to give away his possessions to follow Christ.  My study bible cites St. John Chrysostom, who says that giving away possessions is in fact the least of Christ's instructions here.  To follow Christ in all things is a far greater and more difficult calling.

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"  And the disciples were astonished at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at them and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."   The expression "easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle" has been given many suggested interpretations -- that the word wasn't camel but similar to an Aramaic word for "rope," or that the eye of a needle was referring to a city gate through which a camel might squeeze only if it were unloaded of all its baggage, which symbolizes wealth.  The Talmud contains a similar expression:  "for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle."  Whatever the phrase may refer to, it shows the impossibility of salvation for those attached to riches.  When the disciples ask, "Who then can be saved?" they express the difficulties all understand.  But God's grace makes the surmounting of any obstacle to faith possible, even what is impossible to man.

Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."  My study bible says here that Christ is not commanding believers to divorce spouses and abandon children.  Again it cites Chrysostom, who says that Christ's words here refer to keeping faith under persecution, even if it means to lose one's family.  It also means to accept that unbelieving family members may cut off ties because of a believer's faith (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16).  Believers are promised a hundredfold of houses not in an earthly sense.  Rather it is in a spiritual sense; we have fathers and mothers of the Church, brothers and sisters in Christ, and houses of worship and fellowship. 

We may consider from this reading that wealth is indeed an obstacle to faith.  But that's not really the way that Tradition teaches us to interpret Christ's words, nor is it, in fact, consistent with the Gospels.  There are those who are wealthy and also in positions of power or authority who become a part of Christ's story as those who are faithful.   There is the centurion of whom Jesus says, "I say to you, I have not found such great faith, not even in Israel!" (see Luke 7:1-10).  There is Joseph of Arimathea, whom Mark's Gospel will call "a prominent council member" and Luke tells us is a wealthy man.   He is in a high enough position of authority to go before Pilate and request Christ's body, a very dangerous thing to do, and wealthy enough to provide Christ's tomb, which was new and hewn from a rock and therefore quite expensive (see Mark 15:42-47, Matthew 27:57-61).  John's Gospel also teaches us about Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night to be taught by Him -- in one of our most important teachings on baptism and the Holy Spirit and the rebirth in spirit.  He further stands up for Christ in the council, as he is a Pharisee and a prominent member.  Finally, he also contributes to Christ's burial with Joseph of Arimathea, providing what must have been an extremely costly mixture of myrrh and aloes (and John's Gospel tells us it was in quantity "about a hundred pounds").  See John 3:1-21, 7:50-52, 19:39.  These people from the Gospels give us important examples of wealthy, powerful men in authority who are important members of the faithful, key figures in the life and ministry of Christ.  Let us not also forget Matthew, a tax collector, who no doubt profited from his position, and was wealthy enough to give a large dinner in his home (Mark 2:13-17). The Gospels also give us the story of  Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, who is specifically called by Christ on His way to Jerusalem (Luke 19:1-10).  Each of these men is in position of authority, power, and possesses great wealth.  None of these things are therefore an obstacle to faith.  But they all have in common one thing:  that their faith came first.  Their devotion to Christ initiated in them the willingness to give up anything else if it was necessary to serve that faith.  The centurion seeks out Christ and understands absolute obedience, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus not only use their wealth to serve Christ but also risk their positions and even their lives in service to Him.   Levi becomes Matthew the disciple, and Zacchaeus declares his repentance and the means whereby he lives his repentance.   This is the hard thing, to give up one's trust in riches to faith in Christ.  Through these stories we come to speak of attachment, and to understand that there is no object or thing that is evil in itself:  rather our faith declares that everything we are, everything we have, everything we do is in service to Christ.  We put all things second to this love.  When St. Chrysostom teaches that in fact it is giving up wealth that is the easier command than to follow Christ in all things, he knows the wisdom he teaches.  He also would give everything in his life for his love of Christ, a long journey of faith and service.  Jesus speaks to the disciples of houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, and also of persecution.  And there are countless others who no doubt also fill the same shoes.    Christ shifts our thinking about holiness.  It is not one of simply following commands or rules.    There are not objects or substances that are evil in and of themselves.  Rather, the things we possess, our entire lives, must be put into the service of Christ.  Each of the men who form the examples given above are called to serve Christ, and to help all the rest of us to know the story of Christ, in different ways.  There is no "cookie cutter" faith offered to us here, but rather the simple and profound truth at the heart of the Gospel:  that each of our lives depends on seeking the discernment to understand how we are called, to place our lives in service to Him, and in so doing develop the virtues and discipline God's love will make possible.  There are no obstacles, save those we put before love of Christ.  Faith is open to all.   For with God all things are possible.    To teach anything less than this is to limit God, and God's work in us.