Tuesday, January 26, 2021

He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff

 
 Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him.  And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue.  And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, "Where did this Man get these things?  And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands!  Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon?  And are not His sisters here with us?"  So they were offended at Him.  But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house."  Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.  And He marveled because of their unbelief.  Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.

And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits.  He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff -- no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts -- but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.  Also He said to them, "In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place.  And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"  So they went out and preached that people should repent.  And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.
 
- Mark 6:1–13 
 
Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea.  And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name.  And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death.  Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live."  So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.  Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians.  She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse.  When hears about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment.  For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well."  Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.  And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched My clothes?"  But His disciples said to Him, "You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'"  And He looked around to see her who had done this thing.  But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.  And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction."  While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the Teacher any further?"  As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe."  And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James.  Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly.  When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying.  Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.  And they were overcome with great amazement.  But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said to that something should be given her to eat.  

 Then He went out from there and came to His own country, and His disciples followed Him.  And when the Sabbath had come, He began to teach in the synagogue.  And many hearing Him were astonished, saying, "Where did this Man get these things?  And what wisdom is this which is given to Him, that such mighty works are performed by His hands!  Is this not the carpenter, the Son of Mary, and brother of James, Joses, Judas, and Simon?  And are not His sisters here with us?"  So they were offended at Him.   But Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house."  My study bible comments here that the double response of being both astonished and offended is a frequent occurrence with those who encounter Christ (Luke 11:14-16, John 9:16).  Christ's rejection in his own country is a foreshadowing of His rejection by the entire nation at His trial before Pilate (John 19:14-15).  Jesus' brothers are either stepchildren of Mary by a previous marriage of Joseph, or extended family -- as it was common to call cousins "brother" and remains so today in the Middle and Near East.  Jesus' saying regarding a prophet's lack of honor in his own country appears in all four Gospels (see also Matthew 13:57, Luke 4:24, John 4:44).

Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.  And He marveled because of their unbelief.  Then He went about the villages in a circuit, teaching.  My study bible says that Jesus could do no mighty work there, not because He lacked power, but because of the unbelief of all but a few in Nazareth.  My study bible comments that while grace is always offered to all, only those who receive it in faith obtain its benefits.  For more on the connection between faith and healing, see yesterday's  commentary.  Note here that even Jesus marveled because of their unbelief.
 
 And He called the twelve to Himself, and began to send them out two by two, and gave them power over unclean spirits.  He commanded them to take nothing for the journey except a staff -- no bag, no bread, no copper in their money belts -- but to wear sandals, and not to put on two tunics.  Also He said to them, "In whatever place you enter a house, stay there till you depart from that place.  And whoever will not receive you nor hear you, when you depart from there, shake off the dust under your feet as a testimony against them.  Assuredly, I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than for that city!"  So they went out and preached that people should repent.    Jesus has already chosen the twelve, and here they are sent out on their first apostolic mission.  They are to take nothing for the journey except a staff; that is, there is no special preparation but a walking stick.  Let us note metaphorically that Greek word for "staff" can also indicate a scepter, a be a sign of authority.  But clearly, the emphasis is on moving from place to place with no fixed abode.  Jesus gave them power over unclean spirits, a clear sign of authority and an extension of His own - so not personally that of the apostles themselves.  They are "traveling light" so to speak, with an emphasis on humility but also that they are sojourners on a mission, with one aim in mind.  They are to stay wherever they are first welcome, not to "trade up" for better lodgings.  They are to shake off the dust under their feet as testimony against those who will not receive nor hear them. 
 
And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick, and healed them.  My study bible comments that to anoint the sick with oil hasn't only medicinal value but also sacramental value as well.  It says that as God's healing power is bestowed through creation (Mark 5:27; Numbers 21:8-9, 2 Kings 13:21; John 9:6-7; Acts 5:15, 19:11-12), so oil also is a vehicle of God's mercy and healing in the Church (James 5:14).  

It's interesting to ponder the detail that the apostles -- being sent out on their first mission -- are told to take nothing for their journey except a staff.  As we said above, a staff is a walking stick.  This is a tool meant for use as one who walks on long journeys, it helps with the long going and the varied terrain one will encounter.  It suggests that the primary experience of this journey is simply that:  to be a journey.  The other details Christ gives -- that they are not to be taking on a great deal of baggage and extras for preparation with them -- indicates the same.  They will not stay in one place for a long time.  The conditions they encounter will keep them moving, not rooted in one place or another.  In some sense, they take on the mission of the Sower.  They will be planting seeds where they go, but not staying to watch them take root and grow nor to nurture and water them.  They will be carrying on the mission of the One who has sent them.  Much later on, in the development of the Church, some of the earliest apostles, including among the Seventy, will themselves become bishops, and thereby working to plant and grow churches in various locations.  But for this first journey, there is a different mission, and it frames the whole of our lives in the world in that it sets down for us priorities and meanings as to the reality of the Church in the world.  We are here temporarily; we will all someday face death.  But our journey through life and its meaning and quality really depend on one thing, and that is our dependency upon God, and the faith that can challenge us to spread seeds, to reach out to the world in testimony, to follow Christ.  Our "mission" does not consist in our accumulation of wealth and other things we possess; it is about framing our lives as a journey for a time, and within which we are offered a choice to carry the living Church into the world.  That is the framework given to us by this first commission of Christ, in which He shares His own power with the apostles so that they may carry that power within them and among them --  on their shoulders, so to speak, into the world.  This is what is given the primary emphasis.  Let us keep in mind, also, that this word in Greek for "staff" also can indicate a scepter (see, for example, Hebrews 1:8), as in an image of authoritative power.  In addition, it brings up and echoes the images and uses of staffs in the Old Testament, most notably the staff of Moses which was turned into a saving instrument of power for the Jews when they were bitten by serpents (Numbers 21:4-9).  In turn, this image of the staff of Moses was referred to by Jesus when He gave a prophecy that He would be lifted up on the Cross, thus teaching us that the image in the Old Testament was a prefiguring of Christ's power of the Cross, and also fulfilled in the Cross as instrument of salvation for the world (John 3:14-16).  In a similar sense, we might view these staffs of the apostles going out upon their first mission as those instruments whereby Christ's power is going out into the world, sent by Him but carried and distributed by those with whom He has chosen to share that power.   Of note in this context is also the response Christ has taught the disciples when they encounter those who neither will receive them nor hear them:  to shake the dust from under their feet as a testimony.  And this calls upon other associations with this word for "staff," namely that this same word is also commonly translated as "rod."  In varied contexts, a rod refers to a rule, and also to justice (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:27, 12:5, 19:15).  The image of righteousness or justice in their staffs plays out in the testimony against those who refuse to hear; in that testimony is also another function of the power Christ has distributed to them.   They are simply to shake the dust from their feet and use their staffs to walk on to another place and continue with their mission.  But that power also works in response to the refusal, and to the testimony of the apostles.  This power works in the same way that the image of the serpent is turned against the serpents, and the power of the Cross (the instrument of death) is used to trample down death as the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26).  The remarkable meanings of Scripture come to us in these varied ways, and yet they tell us of the power of Christ.  Possibly one of the more remarkable images dealing with a staff or rod is the story of the flowering of the rod of Aaron into blossoms and the fruit of ripe almonds (Numbers 17).  In this image we may see the whole of the Old and New Testaments, as God's power is allied with the elements of the world and working through the faith of human beings.  Let us consider how we are to walk through this world, traveling "light" except for the faith we place in the One who calls us on our journey.  On whose staff will you lean, in whose word will you trust?  With what "life" is your life endowed to give meaning, to flower and blossom, to bear fruit, and to guide your way?






 
 

Monday, January 25, 2021

Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction

 
 Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea.  And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name.  And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death.  Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live."  So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.  
 
Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians.  She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse.  When hears about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment.  For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well."  Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.  And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched My clothes?"  But His disciples said to Him, "You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'"  And He looked around to see her who had done this thing.  But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.  And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction."  
 
While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the Teacher any further?"  As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe."  And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James.  Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly.  When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying.  Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.  And they were overcome with great amazement.  But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said to that something should be given her to eat.
 
- Mark 5:21-43 
 
On Saturday we read that Jesus and the disciples came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes.  And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains.  And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.  When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him.  And he cried out with a loud voice and said, "What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I implore You by God that You do not torment me."  For He said to him, "Come out of the man, unclean spirit!"  Then He asked him, "What is your name?"  And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.  Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains.  So all the demons begged Him, saying, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them."  And at once Jesus gave them permission.  Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.  So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country.  And they went out to see what it was that had happened.  Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine.  Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.  And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.  However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."  And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.
 
 Now when Jesus had crossed over again by boat to the other side, a great multitude gathered to Him; and He was by the sea.  And behold, one of the rulers of the synagogue came, Jairus by name.  And when he saw Him, he fell at His feet and begged Him earnestly, saying, "My little daughter lies at the point of death.  Come and lay Your hands on her, that she may be healed, and she will live."  So Jesus went with him, and a great multitude followed Him and thronged Him.  As we can see from the text, and quite contrary to Jesus' immediate "adventure" in the country of the Gadarenes in yesterday's reading (above), here back in Capernaum His reception is entirely different.  His reputation is known as a healer, and He is sought out even by one of the rulers of the synagogue for help for his little daughter, who is at the point of death.  Jairus believes that Christ can heal her, and she will live.
 
 Now a certain woman had a flow of blood for twelve years, and had suffered many things from many physicians.  She had spent all that she had and was no better, but rather grew worse.  When hears about Jesus, she came behind Him in the crowd and touched His garment.  For she said, "If only I may touch His clothes, I shall be made well."  Immediately the fountain of her blood was dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of the affliction.  And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, "Who touched My clothes?"  But His disciples said to Him, "You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, 'Who touched Me?'"  And He looked around to see her who had done this thing.  But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth.  And He said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well.  Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction."   My study bible gives us varied commentary on this healing miracle.  First, it tells us that Christ's healing of this woman demonstrates Jesus' power to cleanse and heal (see Matthew 8:1-4).  But also of importance, in the Old Testament, hemorrhage (her flow of blood for twelve years) caused ceremonial defilement.  This would impose religious and social restrictions, as contact with blood was strictly prohibited (Leviticus 15:25).  This suffering woman, who accounts herself unclean, nonetheless approaches Jesus secretly and with great faith.  In Jesus' words, "Go in peace," He is expressing that she has done well to come to Him in faith.   There is another, spiritual interpretation give in patristic tradition.  That is that this woman symbolizes human nature in general.  Humanity is in constant suffering and subject to death (symbolized by her flow of blood).  The physicians who could not cure her stand for the various religions of the world, including the Old Testament Law, all unable to grant life to humanity.  But it is through Christ that human beings are freed from suffering and bondage to sin.

While He was still speaking, some came from the ruler of the synagogue's house who said, "Your daughter is dead.  Why trouble the Teacher any further?"  As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken, He said to the ruler of the synagogue, "Do not be afraid; only believe."  And He permitted no one to follow Him except Peter, James, and John the brother of James.  Then He came to the house of the ruler of the synagogue, and saw a tumult and those who wept and wailed loudly.  When He came in, He said to them, "Why make this commotion and weep?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  And they ridiculed Him.  But when He had put them all outside, He took the father and the mother of the child, and those who were with Him, and entered where the child was lying.  Then He took the child by the hand, and said to her, "Talitha, cumi," which is translated, "Little girl, I say to you, arise."  Immediately the girl arose and walked, for she was twelve years of age.  And they were overcome with great amazement.  But He commanded them strictly that no one should know it, and said to that something should be given her to eat.  My study bible reminds us that there are three resurrections performed by Christ which are recorded in the Gospel:  the one in today's reading, that of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), and the resurrection of Lazarus (John 11:1-44).  It says that many people have exercised authority over the living, but only the Son of God has  power over the living and the dead.  His command, "Little girl, I say to you, arise" is in some sense reminiscent of the one given to Lazarus, "Lazarus, come forth!" (John 11:43). 

Today's reading is, in some sense, a great illustration about faith.  But let us note that faith isn't really just about ascribing to a belief in Jesus.  It is much more than that.  Faith, if we take a closer look here, is an active, living connection to Christ.  It constitutes something powerful in a spiritual realm.  It activates a divine power at work in and through the faithful and their circumstances, and even on behalf of others.  It is a living thing, a kind of energy -- something not seen, and nevertheless known and perceived by those who share that faith, by Christ, and through the effects (or "fruits") it produces.  If we look closely at the healing of the woman with the blood flow, we find an interesting observation.  Jesus has just returned from the "far away" place across the Sea of Galilee, and a strange encounter with a truly forsaken man, a man who was occupied by a legion of demons (in yesterday's reading, above).  We commented in yesterday's blog post how this man mirrored what we might call social abandonment, but it's all magnified through the abandonment of faith in the context of the reading, and the apostate Jews who were herding swine.   "God-forsaken" would seem to truly describe the place.  Even the people who come to see the man healed and in his right mind beg Jesus to leave, because they've lost their swine, and that was what they cared about.  But here, we have the seemingly opposite scene, where Jesus is crowded round by a great multitude of people who throng Him.  In the middle of this great multitude is a woman who is essentially alone and forsaken.  She's spent all her money on doctors who can't help her, so by now she is not only in a chronic condition of hemorrhaging, she's also without funds.  But more deeply is the spiritual state of herself as she cannot be in community; being there in the crowd she takes a great risk as she is ceremonially unclean due to the blood flow, one who can bring "uncleanness" to others who might inadvertently touch or be defiled by her blood flow.  She, too, like the legion demoniac, is alone, but in a crowd of people.  Giving us a true taste of what faith can do, Jesus asks the disciples, "Who touched My clothes?" because He has felt power go out of Him.  On her part, she feels the healing take place internally.  Faith hasn't just made some sort of magic happen, it has made a connection, like a circuit of healing energy, between herself and the Lord.  It has healed much more than her affliction, it has taken her into communion when human community has shunned her and she has been excluded for her defiling condition.  The Healer and Teacher is also the One who restores us to community, and it really doesn't matter how excluded we might be from social and community rules.  We should also observe what happens with Jairus' daughter at his home, for there is a society there, too, that has decided that she is dead and there is nothing that can be done -- and so, they ridicule Jesus when He proclaims that she is only sleeping.  It is Jesus who must, in turn, exclude and throw out those who ridicule, because what they are doing is damaging or destroying faith, and faith is the key here that makes the healing, restorative connection.  A family is restored to wholeness through Jesus' work and especially His efforts to teach Jairus as head of this household, what he needs to do on behalf of the rest:  "Do not be afraid, only believe."  Note also that Jesus permits only Peter, James, and John to come with Him, as these are the ones strongest in faith.  (They are the same disciples whom He took up to the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13).  Faith in Christ creates a kind of healing circuit, a communion, one that is inclusive of those otherwise left out.  It happens for the woman with the blood flow, and it happens for the household of Jairus.  If we wish for good reasons to protect our faith, to be proactive about upholding it and putting up proper boundaries against damaging it, then we have to come to terms with the fact that it is faith that creates the proper communion we seek, the one with Christ, and through Christ, the rest of the created order of life and in the world.  We look to this magnificent grace that extends itself to and through all things to give us a sense of proper order, and what it is to live in proper communion with God and by extension with the world.  Let us consider all that it means when Jesus tells the healed woman, "Go in peace."



Saturday, January 23, 2021

Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind

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

And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.  However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."  And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.
 
- Mark 5:1–20 
 
Yesterday we read that, on the same day Jesus preached with many parables, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then he arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"   

Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes.   My study bible tells us, first of all, that we should understand that the country of the Gadarenes is still in Galilee (although Jeus and the disciples have crossed the Sea of Galilee to get here), which means this is an area with many Gentiles living among the Jewish population.  

And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains.  And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him.  And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.  When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him.  And he cried out with a loud voice and said, "What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I implore You by God that You do not torment me."  For He said to him, "Come out of the man, unclean spirit!"  Then He asked him, "What is your name?"  And he answered, saying, "My name is Legion; for we are many."  Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.  Let us take a good look at the state of this man, and his complete alienation from human society.  It's an important clue that he had his dwelling among the tombs, with the dead.  He's not capable of living an ordered life.  Although bound with shackles and chains, the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces -- no one can tame him.  He is beyond human help to be able to live in community.  Night and day, he's crying out in the mountains and the tombs, and cutting himself with stones.  Does this give us a picture that we can relate to in modern society?  And let us note the human impulse that operates in the man, despite the presence of the legion of demons, as when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him.  Just as we have already read in Mark's Gospel, the demons speak through this man, as they recognize Jesus, calling Him Son of the Most High God.   My study bible suggests they are surprised that their power is being terminated before the time of the last judgment (see Matthew 8:29), hence they beg "do not torment me."  
 
 Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains.  So all the demons begged Him, saying, "Send us to the swine, that we may enter them."  And at once Jesus gave them permission.  Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.  So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country.  And they went out to see what it was that had happened.  Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid.  And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine.  Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.   As this is in a region mixed with Gentiles, these swineherd are likely apostate Jews, who raise swine (either having adopted Gentile practices or possibly in order to sell them to the Gentile community) -- something which is forbidden in Jewish Law (Deuteronomy 14:8).  My study bible comments that since our Lord forbade His disciples to go to the Gentiles (Matthew 10:5), and was Himself reluctant to seek out the Gentiles (Matthew 15:24), it's more likely than not these are Jews who plead with Him to depart from their region.  Their preference is for the money they have lost because of the death of the swine who've drowned in the sea, and not for the healing of the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, who is now sitting and clothed in his right mind.  This simply fills them with fear at the power of Christ.
 
And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him.  However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, "Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."  And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.  Let us observe Jesus' response to this man who knows he has been saved, and so begs Jesus that he might be with Him.  He is to go home to his friends, "and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you."   The healed man dutifully goes out to the Decapolis (a union of ten Greek-Roman cities in Galilee) and proclaims all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.  

This man healed from a legion of demons begins a new life, going out to the Decapolis, where he proclaims his salvation and the compassion of the Lord.  Let us look at the place from which he starts in our story, not only as the man completely lost to the merciless occupation of a legion of demons, but also living among the dead, and those who cared nothing for him, as they had also given up the laws of their own faith.  If we are going to look at this carefully, it is a full picture of abandonment, of a world gone over to rebellion against God.  This one human being struggles in a world dominated by violence and thievery, where human beings have given up on the Law given by the Lord, the God of Israel.  There is no guarding of community here, only the rule of exploitation and selfishness, one of hardened hearts which care nothing for the restoration of humanity, and thereby, for salvation.  It is a picture of a world where the struggle for faith is abandoned, and with it the God of mercy, healing, and compassion.  This demon-possessed man, "occupied" by a foreign legion of the army of the enemy, can only live among the dead in the tombs, crying out, unable to contain himself or be tamed.  He is, in a sense, tortured night and day by those who simply wish for him to suffer and surrounded by a heartless and uncaring world.  The swineherders clearly show themselves to be people given up to what is called hard-heartedness in the Gospels.  It is a picture of a world where God is given up and abandoned, and the thoroughly destructive results that are attained by so doing.  We could possibly see in it a picture of the results of war that is "all hell" in the words of a famous American Civil War general.  In 20th century history, we can look at the results created when a regime steeps itself in the throwing off of all religious restraint, and military pursuit of endless power and sheer might; we have examples of that on both the far right and far left.  But it's also a warning for our own future, because it gives us a picture of a life in which we have forgotten that the good teachings of God are given out of love, and that those laws are meant to save and to create community, taking in even the least among us, the strays, the strangers, the broken, even the despised, all who know they are in need of healing.  When we find ourselves in a world where ideology supplants the faith in something greater than a political party or social theory, then watch out, for from there insanity arises in double-speak and triple-speak, words and laws lose their meaning, and the result is in this picture of the abandoned uncontrollable and untamable man among the tombs, possibly a familiar sight to those who witness the problems of the homeless and modern "disordered" among us.  There are those who say that the sickest among us mirror to us the problems of the family and society, and they wouldn't be far wrong if we take a closer look at what we have so frequently left behind in the name of an ideological and even purportedly scientific progress.  "What is truth?" Pilate will ask, when it is standing in front of him.  For the root of truth is much deeper than our theories and even our proofs, based on so many assumptions.  We have only to look where hypocrisy covers a multitude of selfish sins.  But the One who is above it all remains Christ, the Truth, the One who comes to this seemingly God-forsaken place to save this remnant of humanity beset by a legion of demons.  My study bible notes that although the malice of the demons is great, they can do nothing against the will of God, and therefore can only enter the swine at Christ's command.  It adds that the immediate destruction of the herd shows humanity's protection by God's care, because even though so sorely afflicted, he nevertheless did not perish.  And so, we also persist even under affliction, beset by unnamed and irrational demons, and we look to the "stronger man" who can combat a legion of thousands and seeks only to protect us and heal us, and who comes as Liberator and Deliverer.  Let us look to Christ and all those saints and angels in the great cloud of witnesses who protect and defend, whom this healed man -- previously beset by a legion of demons -- now joins in testimony of the great things the compassionate Lord has done for him.  May we all be joined to this communion as was he.



Friday, January 22, 2021

Why are you so fearful? How is it that you have no faith?

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

- Mark 4:35–41 
 
Yesterday we read that Jesus said to His disciples, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."   And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."  And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.
 
On the same day, when evening had come, He said to them, "Let us cross over to the other side."  Now when they had left the multitude, they took Him along in the boat as He was.  And other little boats were also with Him.  And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling.  But He was in the stern, asleep on a pillow.  And they awoke Him and said to Him, "Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?"  Then he arose and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Peace, be still!"  And the wind ceased and there was a great calm.  But He said to them, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"  And they feared exceedingly, and said to one another, "Who can this be, that even the wind and the sea obey Him!"  My study bible comments on this passage that it shows Christ's mastery over creation, and thus gives another sign that He is the Messiah and divine.  Commands to the sea and waves, it notes, can only be issued by God if we take a look at Scripture (Job 38:8-11; Psalm 66:5-6, 107:29).  Jesus shows His human in being asleep, as He needed rest.  In the Incarnation, He assumed all the natural actions of the flesh, and sleep is a human need.  This image of Christ with His disciples in a boat is a traditional one used to illustrate the Church.  My study bible says that God both permits storms and also delivers us through them, so that we can see God's protection more clearly.  Christ's rebuke of the storm is also an illustration of His calming the tempests in the human soul.  The Church has also traditionally seen Christ as permitting this windstorm to arise while He sleeps in order to perfect the faith of the disciples and to rebuke their weaknesses, a part of their learning and preparation for their future as apostles, so they won't be unshaken by the temptations or trials of life.  Here the disciples' faith is mixed with unbelief.  They showed faith when they awoke Him, but unbelief when they said, "We are perishing."

There is a particular blog that I like to read on occasion, written by a priest of the Orthodox Church of America.  Recently I was asking in a comment forum about the state of anxiety I seem to feel and detect all around myself and in many people from all walks of life and perspectives.  It is an uneasy feeling of instability, a worry about what is coming next.  The father reminded me that we are repeatedly told in the Gospels "Do not fear" and "Do not be anxious" in one form and another.  Today's reading is one of those times, as Jesus asks the disciples, "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"   A friend reminds me that, in fact, we are to focus on the state of our souls first, for this is the real life Christ emphasizes -- and then "all these things [about which we worry] shall be added to you" (Luke 12:31).  God knows we have needs, God knows our lives and our necessities.  God became one of us, as illustrated in this story, and lived among us, so that God could teach us what it is to become more "like God."  Faith is possibly the most necessary ingredient in achieving this "God-likeness."  It becomes the key to setting forward on a path that is dictated not simply by our own simplistic point of view in which our fears may sway us at any time, but rather one in which we are also led forth by grace, setting forth a way to grow and to transcend and to walk in the ways He takes us.  In this story, Jesus deliberately sets out across the Sea of Galilee into unusual and strange territory.  The story reads almost like a passage out of the myths of Homer, in which these men set forth across a story sea to an unknown destiny (where indeed a strange and unusual sight awaits them).   These seasoned fishermen, now frightened on their own known Sea of Galilee as they cross over to the other side in the windstorm, are being trained to become fishers of men.  As apostles they will eventually be going out to the whole world of strange lands in which to preach the gospel.  It serves us as an example of how life is lived in a state of prayer, if we but pay attention.  God will build up our capacity for learning how to live God's way through various tests and trials.  It is not that there won't be things that shock us, make us fear, or severely test our capacities and resources.  But our own capacity to face ourselves and our fears and shortcomings is something that is gradually drawn out through a prayerful life.  There will always be our own fears we need to discard, to work past, and ways of thinking we need to exchange for new ones on this journey.  Thus, the image of Christ and the disciples in a boat on uncharted waters  as a perennial image of the Church.  So as we, also, embark in uncharted, unexplained, and unpredictable waters ourselves, let us think of this picture.  There will be times when we consider the Lord to be sleeping and unresponsive to our own fears when we're surrounded by and facing the unknown.  But we should look to Christ's question:  "Why are you so fearful?  How is it that you have no faith?"   And emphatically our response must be to seek out that faith, to seek Him, and find the way He wishes us to carry on through it all, and whatever may come in life.  Let us have faith that He will provide us with His way, that our lives are not meant to be without pitfalls, the unknown, and times in which we are tested.




Thursday, January 21, 2021

Take heed what you hear. With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given

 
 Also He said to them, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."  

And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."

Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."  

And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.
 
- Mark 4:21–34 
 
Yesterday we read that again Jesus began to teach by the sea.  And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.  Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:  "Listen!  Behold, a sower went out to sow.  And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.  Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.  But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.  And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  And He said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"  But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And He said to them, "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, so that  'Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.'"  And He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown.  When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.  These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time.  Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.  Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.  But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."   

 Also He said to them, "Is a lamp brought to be put under a basket or under a bed?  Is it not to be set on a lampstand?  For there is nothing hidden which will not be revealed, nor has anything been kept secret but that it should come to light.  If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear."  Then He said to them, "Take heed what you hear.  With the same measure you use, it will be measured to you; and to you who hear, more will be given.  For whoever has, to him more will be given; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him."   This saying about the lamp and lampstand is found elsewhere in the Gospels in different contexts:  in the Sermon on the Mount following the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:14-16), and in Luke again after the same parable (Luke 8:16-18) and also in speaking of faith as the eye which illumines the whole of the body, the mind (Luke 11:33-36).  Clearly it is a metaphor used often by Jesus.  Here it is a reference to how we perceive, how we hear.  My study bible calls Jesus' warnings about how we hear a call to attentive listening and discriminating response.  It says that we must not only hear, but hear properly.  More will be given to those who respond to Christ with open hearts, it says, and they will grow in understanding.   There is a quotation of St. Mark the Ascetic:  "Do the good you know, and what you do not know will be revealed to you."  As St. Mark the Ascetic understands, this is a call to a future of discerning "hearing" and Christ is the door by which we enter for more, or refuse and lose what we have (John 10:7-9).

And He said, "The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground, and should sleep by night and rise by day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he himself does not know how.  For the earth yields crops by itself:  first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head.  But when the grain ripens, immediately he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come."  This parable occurs only in the Gospel of Mark.  In keeping with the forward projection in the promise of the earlier verse, the kingdom here refers to the entire span of God's dispensation or plan of salvation, my study bible explains.   The man is Christ, and the seed, as in the parable of the Sower in yesterday's reading (see above) is the gospel.  His sleep, my study bible says, indicates Christ's death, from which He will rise.  That the man does not know how the seed grows shows that Christ doesn't manipulate the response of human beings to the gospel.  Each person is free to receive it and to let it grow in one's own heart.  The harvest is the Second Coming, when all will be judged on their reception of the gospel.   If we look at the parable, it also indicates a growth of the seed, and the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit deep in us which accompanies our acceptance of the gospel.

Then He said, "To what shall we liken the kingdom of God?  Or with what parable shall we picture it?  It is like a mustard seed which, when it is sown on the ground, is smaller than all the seeds on earth; but when it is sown, it grows up and becomes greater than all herbs, and shoots out large branches, so that the birds of the air may nest under its shade."   Here is another parable describing the mysterious growth of the seed once it has been sown on the ground of our hearts.  The tremendous growth which is possible we understand to be the work of the Spirit.  This is true on many levels and in many circumstances/settings.  Theophylact comments that the disciples began as just a few men, but "soon encompassed the whole earth."  The mustard seed can also stand for the faith that enters a person's soul, and causes an inward growth of virtue.  The birds of the air may nest under the shade of those large branches, an allegory for the soul which becomes "godlike" and can receive even angels.

And with many such parables He spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it.  But without a parable He did not speak to them.  And when they were alone, He explained all things to His disciples.  My study bible comments that to unbelievers, the parables remain bewildering.  To those with a simple faith, these stories which use common images reveal truth in ways they can grasp, as they were able.

 What does it mean to grow?  These parables, so central to our understanding of Christ's teaching that is given to us, reflect the deepest aspects of promise, of hope, of expectation.  And, possibly ironically or even seemingly strange, they are the promise and hope and expectation of Christ Himself regarding the seeds He plants on earth, among us.  Of course, the promise and hope and expectation are also dear to us and meaningful for us.  But that all depends, really, on whether or not we recognize what great things the Lord has done for us (as did the demoniac who was named Legion; see Mark 5:19).  Growth, in Jesus' terms, indicates spiritual growth.  In the letters of St. Paul, we are given an explicit naming of the fruits of the Spirit, the very literal image of what it is to bear good fruits:  "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law" (Galatians 5:22-23).  It may seem odd to us, in our present state of so much emphasis on activism and even image in that context, that St. Paul and Jesus of the Gospels place such focus on the soul.  That is, on cultivating the virtues of the soul and personal character.  To be godlike (or should we say, "like God") is not to be all-powerful, almighty, dictating policies to others who should follow, to rule over others in a position of authority, or even to follow and implement rules for conduct that require an outward signal to be regulated and communicated in society.  No, the revolutionary nature of Christ and His revelation of grace takes us entirely to another place:  to our own reception of the seed that grows in us via grace and produces the fruits of the Spirit, expanding our soul and how we interact with others in the world.  Do we show compassion?  Can we get beyond appearances?  Are we capable of forbearance, long-suffering, patience -- or do we need to go out and fix what's wrong with everybody else today, or even better yet, tomorrow and yesterday?  Are we going to decide that fixing the plank in our own eye today is the only way we can even be capable of discerning with any authority just what the speck is in the eye of another? (Matthew 7:3-5).  Unfortunately in an increasingly appearance-related world, we seem to be traveling further and further away from this understanding of the benefit of humility as a virtue.  If our true virtue is simply a kind of activism or even an appearance of belief in what others approve of, then we are far away from a culture which can accept the virtues based on humility that St. Paul names, which very seldom result in public applause.  These are inward virtues, in the same way that Christ's compassion is expressed in the Gospels as a truly inward virtue.  The Greek word telling us that Jesus "had compassion" on someone or was "moved with compassion" literally is rooted in the word for "spleen," or we might say, in modern American parlance, His "guts."  It is truly an inward dynamic, a virtue of character and the soul.  We are socially long on do's and don'ts in our highly social media-saturated world, and far away from kindness and compassion.  Bullying is okay for what is perceived as unpopular or outside of a code of conduct.  Stereotyping has become good under some guises and circumstances.  Hatred of all "X" (whatever one wants to label "X" as a universally condemned element) is acceptable.  Without the truth of the emphasis on personal internal character, we may see a world that is increasingly resembling societies of the past in which a public ducking stool or stocks might be appropriate, and even good.  Let us consider our own need for our faith and its internal emphasis on personal character and our relationship to Christ that makes it possible for us to measure ourselves by something other than our own good feelings about who we are.  Without that true measuring stick, we enter into a recipe for hate.  Let us consider the internal practices of prayer, our openness to the places these seeds wish to root in us, and especially to the fruits they draw out of us, the path Christ sets from there.  It is all about our "yes" to something that makes us grow, takes us far beyond our comfort zone, and the ego that tells us that to please the world is to be "good."  Let us take heed what we hear, for with the same measure we use, it will be measured to us.  As Jesus says in yet another context in conjunction with this phrase, the same applies to how we judge (Luke 6:37-38).  Let us listen generously to what He says.




 

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow

 
 And again He began to teach by the sea.  And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.  Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:  "Listen!  Behold, a sower went out to sow.  And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.  Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.  But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.  And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  And He said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"

But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And He said to them, "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, so that 
'Seeing they may see and not perceive,
And hearing they may hear and not understand;
Lest they should turn,
And their sins be forgiven them.'"
And He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown.  When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.  These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time.  Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.  Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.  But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  
 
- Mark 4:1–20 
 
Yesterday we read that, after Jesus and the disciples went into a house, the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and, "By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons."  So He called them to Himself and said 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 cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.  No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.  And then he will plunder his house. Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."  Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother." 

 And again He began to teach by the sea.  And a great multitude was gathered to Him, so that He got into a boat and sat in it on the sea; and the whole multitude was on the land facing the sea.  Then He taught them many things by parables, and said to them in His teaching:  "Listen!  Behold, a sower went out to sow.  And it happened, as he sowed, that some seed fell by the wayside; and the birds of the air came and devoured it.  Some fell on stony ground, where it did not have much earth; and immediately it sprang up because it had no depth of earth.  But when the sun was up it was scorched, and because it had no root it withered away.  And some seed fell among thorns; and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no crop.  But other seed fell on good ground and yielded a crop that sprang up, increased and produced:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."  And He said to them, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!"  Today's passage marks another shift in Jesus' ministry, and it also reflects His growing popularity as a preacher.  He begins to preach and teach in parables.  This is significant because, as we read a little further along at the end of today's reading, Jesus is conscious now that a lot depends upon how people are hearing Him speak; that is, upon people's own perceptions and capacity to grasp to truth He's teaching.  Everything does not depend only on the One who delivers the message.  My study bible tells us that the Hebrew and Aramaic words for parable also mean "allegory," "riddle," or "proverb."  These are images drawn from daily life to give us deep truths of God.   But it points out that the truth communicated by Jesus' parables is not evident to all who hear them.  The listener needs spiritual ears to hear, and even then not everyone has the same degree of understanding.  

But when He was alone, those around Him with the twelve asked Him about the parable.  And He said to them, "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, so that 'Seeing they may see and not perceive, and hearing they may hear and not understand; Lest they should turn, and their sins be forgiven them.'"  Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6:9-10.  My study bible comments that, according to St. John Chrysostom, Isaiah's prophecy does not mean that God causes spiritual blindness in people who would otherwise have been faithful.  This is rather a figure of speech which is common to Scripture, and indicates God giving people up to their own devices (as in Romans 1:24, 26).   

And He said to them, "Do you not understand this parable?  How then will you understand all the parables?  The sower sows the word.  And these are the ones by the wayside where the word is sown.  When they hear, Satan comes immediately and takes away the word that was sown in their hearts.  These likewise are the ones sown on stony ground who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with gladness; and they have no root in themselves, and so endure only for a time.  Afterward, when tribulation or persecution arises for the word's sake, immediately they stumble.  Now these are the ones sown among thorns; they are the ones who hear the word, and the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.  But these are the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred."   Christ reveals Himself through the parable as the promised Messiah.  He is the sower foretold in Isaiah 55:10-13. My study bible remarks that while some might teach that one is permanently saved at the moment a person professes faith (a view which has never been held by the historic Church), in Christ's parable it is clear that it is possible for someone to believe for a while and then fall away.

In the fullness of the parable Jesus offers of Himself as Sower, we can come to understand several things.  First of all, there is no "one size fits all" here.  That is, He fully expects that those in His audience will receive His words (which are the seeds of the Sower) in different ways.  Just like the ground on which seed might be scattered, the condition of the ground makes a difference.  It's not just the quality of the seed that matters.  For a modern Western audience in a country filled with suburban homes, there are those who might understand this very well if they consider their own gardens and lawns.  No matter where we might scatter even the most expensive and best quality seed, the ground it falls on and all the environmental conditions make a difference.  (In an extended consideration of that metaphor, we might also think about cultivation, pruning, mowing, watering, pests, sunshine, rainfall, and so on!)  So each person not only receives and understands (or fails to) through their own capacity, but Christ also gives a kind of timeline of development here.  That is, once a seed is received -- if it is received -- there is a history awaiting, a story that has to unfold.  So much depends upon the conditions of life and how that person responds to those conditions.  Jesus gives a good description of stumbling when tribulation or persecution arises.  Let us note that to stumble is to fail to stay on the right path, to fall down rather than going forward.   He speaks of those ever-with-us thorns, the "cares of this world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things entering in" as those things that choke the word in us, and so it fails to grow and produce.  The sowing of the seed is just what the Sower does, but He is counting on and hoping for so much more, which is purely invested in us and how we respond to what we're given and what we have.  Not to give in to the cares of the world, the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things is part of the work of producing a harvest, being or becoming abundant, and yielding fruit.  All of these things are with us always, they just come in different forms, and we are clearly expected to discern what those are.  But the ones sown on good ground, those who hear the word, accept it, and bear fruit:  some thirtyfold, some sixty, and some a hundred, are the ones who endure through all things.  They are the ones who continue to protect and to nurture the word so that it can take root and grow within them and through their lives.  And so, what we learn from the parable is that this is expected to be a lifelong journey, and not without its pitfalls, difficulties, and struggles.  And yet, we are called upon to endure.  I know many people right now who feel that life has become a struggle in a more complex way than in the past.  The difficulties of Covid pandemic multiply as we're cut off from friends for longer than we expected, life doesn't really quite go back to normal, lockdowns might increase, and a whole host of other difficulties including fears about loved ones and sadness regarding those who've been harmed and lost those dear to them.  Political instability also seems to be a strange part of this picture, and in some sense that means, also, that the world is affected in any number of ways.  War rages in places, with devastation and terrible loss, all made worse in the time of pandemic.  And yes, there are those who take advantage.  It may help to perceive that things we're talking about and witnessing are elements of the problems of this world that have always been with us.  We might be experiencing them in different ways and new forms that come with the time of technology or other features of our moment in history, but life in this world and the meaning of the parable have not changed.  Jesus still profiles our situation with remarkable insight even in the simplicity of His parable built on the prophecy of Isaiah and the Sower who is the Messiah.  He has planted a seed, and more seeds, and you and I both have ground for it to grow, a struggle for that seed to be nurtured and to produce, and especially to endure, for the story of our faith -- at least when one looks at the Gospels and Jesus' teachings -- is one of endurance.  We hang in there.  Let us do all we can to endure and be persistent when there are obstacles, thorns, stony ground, tribulation, persecution, choking cares and concerns, and any number of things Jesus names here in the parable for us, so that we are prepared to deal with life His way.  We will persist and endure, for there is nothing that is not expected, and there is joy always to celebrate, as we give thanks for what we've been given and for the beauty in life that is good.  Let's not forget that Jesus tells us there will be those who don't hear it and don't understand, also those who fall away.  But His concern is with those with the capacity to stick with it and be productive, and it's time to plant seeds of prayer and faith, even in seemingly unstable times of the world -- and maybe especially then.







Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation

 
 And they went into a house.  Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and, "By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons."  So He called them to Himself and said 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 cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.  No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.  And then he will plunder his house. 

"Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."
 
- Mark 3:19b–35 
 
In yesterday's reading, we read that Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the sea, after the Pharisees and Herodians began to plot how they might destroy Him.  And a  great multitude from Galilee followed Him, and from Judea and Jerusalem and Idumea and beyond the Jordan; and those from Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they heard how many things He was doing, came to Him.  So He told His disciples that a small boat should be kept ready for Him because of the multitude, lest they should crush Him.  For He healed many, so that as many as had afflictions pressed about Him to touch Him.  And the unclean spirits, whenever they saw Him, fell down before Him and cried out, saying, "You are the Son of God."  But He sternly warned them that they should not make Him known.  And He went up on the mountain and called to Him those He Himself wanted.  And they came to Him.  Then He appointed the twelve, that they might be with Him and that He might send them out to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses and to cast out demons:  Simon, to whom He gave the name Peter; James the son of Zebedee and John the brother of James, to whom He gave the name Boanerges, that is, "Sons of Thunder"; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite; and Judas Iscariot, who also betrayed Him.  And they went into a house.   

And they went into a house.  Then the multitude came together again, so that they could not so much as eat bread.  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."  And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebub," and, "By the ruler of the demons He casts out demons."  So He called them to Himself and said 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 cannot stand.  And if Satan has risen up against himself, and is divided, he cannot stand, but has an end.  No one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man.  And then he will plunder his house."  My study bible comments that Beelzebub, or Baal, was the prince of "the dung heap" or lord of "the flies" in what is probably a Jewish corruption of the Philistine name for their god, which was meant to ridicule  (2 Kings 1:2-16).  Here, this god of the Philistines is called the ruler of the demons.  Jesus alludes to a spiritual war going on behind the scenes, a battle for the plunder which is human beings, for which exorcism means routing the "occupying" demons.   Only a stronger man could take away the "plunder" from Beezebub the "strong man."  My study bible comments that the impossibility of demons fighting against themselves illustrates the irrational pride and envy of the Pharisees in their opposition to Jesus.

"Assuredly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they may utter; but he who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is subject to eternal condemnation" -- because they said, "He has an unclean spirit."  To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to blaspheme against the Spirit's divine activity.  My study bible describes this as a blasphemy against pure goodness.  A sin against the Son of Man, my study bible explains, is more easily forgiven because the Jews did not know much about Christ.  But blasphemy against the Spirit, whose divine activity was known from the Old Testament, will not be forgiven as it comes from a willful hardness of heart and a refusal to accept God's mercy.  However, the patristic tradition is clear:  such blasphemy is not an "unforgivable sin," nor does Jesus call this sin "unforgivable."  St. John Chrysostom comments that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit would be forgivable if a person were to repent of it.  Jesus makes this declaration, my study bible remarks, knowing that those who blaspheme the Spirit are calling pure, divine goodness "evil," and that they are beyond repentance by their own choice.

Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But He answered them, saying, "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."  My study bible comments that Christ's relatives have not yet understood His identity and mission.  Christ points to a spiritual family, which is based on the obedience to the will of My Father.  My study bible also explains that in typical Jewish usage of the time, brother can indicate any number of relations.  Abram called his nephew Lot "brother" (Genesis 14:14); Boaz spoke of his cousin Elimelech as his "brother" (Ruth 4:3); and Joab called his cousin Amasa "brother" (2 Samuel 20:9).  Jesus Himself had no blood brothers; Mary had one Son, Jesus.  The brothers which are mentioned here were either stepbrothers (that is, sons of Joseph by a previous marriage) or cousins.  When Jesus commits His mother to the care of John at the Cross (John 19:25-27), it is an act that would have been unthinkable if Mary had other children to care for her.

As Jesus' fame grows, so do -- in some sense, at least -- the impacts of His ministry upon His family.  In the first instance remarked on here, we're told that there are so many people crowding into the house where Jesus is, that no one could so much as eat bread.  At this time, His family comes for Him:  But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, "He is out of His mind."   In some sense, the text seems to say to us, all of this public attention is not good for them.  Possibly they are even responding to the fact that by now the religious authorities (the Pharisees) are plotting with the state authorities (the Herodians who support the Roman rule of the house of Herod) to destroy Him.  This might be a way to try to save Jesus from what is happening, and what they fear will come to Him.  At any rate, by now we're told that they are getting involved, and the effort is to stop what is happening if possible.  In the next instance, we're told that His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him.  They clearly want to speak with Him.  Everybody tells Jesus, "Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You."  But here is Jesus' response:  "Who is My mother, or My brothers?"  And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, "Here are My mother and My brothers!  For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother."   We should be careful to note that Jesus isn't really criticizing His family.  Rather, He's emphasizing what is of most importance, and that is communion between those who truly love God.  And that nothing must get in the way of that practice of doing the will of God -- even if the family is terrified or worried.  In Jesus' case, He is called by God on a mission and He's fulfilling that mission, and no matter how much He might love, respect, or revere His family, He is called first to that mission, and so is everyone else -- including other members of His family.  This goes hand in hand with the power of the Holy Spirit to which Jesus refers earlier.  To condemn the will of God -- and the work of God in the world -- as somehow not good, or as evil, is to blaspheme the Holy Spirit.  This is a far more serious sin than anything one might say about Jesus as a Man.  It is, in fact, just that work of the Spirit that we are to understand is evident in His ministry -- just as it was the Spirit who "threw" Him into the wilderness for temptation and trial before He began that ministry, and just as it was that Spirit which rested upon Him at Baptism.  See Mark 1:6-14; Mark makes it clear from the beginning of his Gospel that the Holy Spirit is central to everything that unfolds.  In the Creed, we say that Christ became man, incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.  And by what power is it that the demons are cast out of human beings?  Surely Christ has power of His own, but we must also not leave out what cannot be separated from Christ the Son:  the Father and the Holy Spirit.  In Luke's Gospel, in the passage which tells the same story of accusation by the religious leaders, Jesus responds by saying, "But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Luke 11:20).   The finger of God is a reference to the Holy Spirit.  So we are to understand that to label the work of the Holy Spirit "evil" is a serious sin.  To sin against another, as all human beings seem to routinely do all the time, is something Christ sets apart from the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, for the Holy Spirit is a power indeed in this world.  The Creed tells us also that the Holy Spirit is the One "who spoke through the prophets."  And in that statement we must remember that Jesus also tells the religious leaders, "Therefore the wisdom of God also said, 'I will send them prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute,' that the blood of all the prophets which was shed from the foundation of the world may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah who perished between the altar and the temple. Yes, I say to you, it shall be required of this generation" (Luke 11:49-51).  All of these things combine to emphasize not the power of human beings, nor the conventional understanding of sin and consequences, but the power of the Holy Spirit in the world, and why it is so important that we seek to know the will of God and do it, as Christ says.  For it is the Spirit working through human beings that becomes the true force to be reckoned with, the One who works against the demons in ways we can't see, the One who can work through us, to give true life and true prophetic voice.  We should note that the power of the Spirit is something that works in and with and "in between" (if you will) all things in this world -- and also in spite of them.  The power of human might and empire does not delay it and may seek to work against it, but ultimately it is our own work against the Spirit that has effects we can't stop, and serious spiritual consequences that have a way of working themselves out even in this world when we go down a wrong path too long.  Let us consider the power of Christ and His ministry, a power that supersedes the loyalty of even our deepest ties in this world.