Tuesday, August 20, 2019

By what authority are You doing these things? And who gave You this authority to do these things?


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 into 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, 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, 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."  Here is the important question for the religious authorities, the one that they have asked Christ numerous times already -- but it is especially pertinent here in Jerusalem, the day after Jesus has cleansed the temple (see yesterday's reading, above):  "By what authority are You doing these things?  And who gave You this authority to do these things?"   Everything hinges, for them, on questions of this authority.  My study bible remarks that since Christ is not a Levitical priest, the chief priests, scribes, and elders challenge His authority to cleanse the temple.  It notes that as He is careful not to reveal Himself to scoffers, Jesus stumps them with a different question of His own, about the baptism of John the Baptist.  Both Jesus' question and the one posed by the religious leaders command the same answer -- therefore it would lead a person to confess that Christ has come from heaven, and His authority derives from there.  It's interesting for us to note how the religious leaders fear the people, as John was widely revered as a holy man.  Let us contrast John's fearless criticism of King Herod and his unlawful marriage to Herodias with the behavior here of the religious leaders, who are afraid of the people.  My study bible suggests that by not answering the chief priests, scribes, and elders 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 into 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, 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."  My study bible explains that in this parable, the man represents God the Father, and the vineyard refers to God's people.  The vinedressers are those leaders who are entrusted to care for the people.  Each servant who is sent by the owner stands for an Old Testament prophet who comes to call people back to God, and the son refers to Christ Himself.  When the Son is killed and cast out of the vineyard, interpretation understands this on at least two levels:  first, that Jesus was killed outside of Jerusalem (at Golgotha, which was at that time outside the city walls), and second, that He was crucified by foreign soldiers, and not by those of His own vineyard.  The others who later receive the vineyard are the Gentiles, brought from all over the world into the Church.

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.  The stone is Christ, and the text clearly tells us that the leaders have understood that He has spoken the parable of the vinedressers against them -- and so does the crowd, whom they fear.

Questions about authority have been all-important throughout Christ's ministry.  They have been most important to those "in authority."  How does Jesus have the right to speak with authority when He teaches (as in this reading)?  How does He have the authority to cleanse the temple (see yesterday's reading, above)?   Where does He get this authority that the people recognize when they received Him into Jerusalem waving branches, and chanting the verses fit for the coming of God's promised Kingdom (in this reading)?   Jesus answers this question in His own roundabout way, with a question about John the Baptist.  John, known to the multitude as holy man and prophet, and considered by the Church to be the last and greatest of the Old Testament-style prophets, clearly is considered authoritative not by declaration of religious authorities, but rather through the work of God in the world, through the Holy Spirit.  And this authority is recognized among the people.  How were the Old Testament prophets recognized?  Where did their authority come from?  Those false prophets who served the kings had a kind of formal "authority," but the prophets to whom Jesus refers as "servants" in the parable of the wicked vinedressers received no formal authority, but were later recognized as prophets.  They spoke the truth to kings, as did John, and for the most part received the kind of fate which John received as well.  Matthew and Luke report Jesus' lament over Jerusalem:  "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing" (Matthew 23:37, Luke 13:34).   In the eyes of the Gospels, it is of such relevance to us that "no prophet is accepted in his own country" that this saying by Jesus appears in all four (Matthew 13:57, Mark 6:4, Luke 4:24, John 4:44).  Indeed, in the Church, saints -- who often embody prophetic action, among other gifts -- are seldom, if ever, formally recognized in their own lifetimes.  So the question of authority becomes tinged with an even greater importance than we might consider even from reading this passage.  On His way to Crucifixion, when Jesus prophesies to the women of Jerusalem regarding the devastation to come, He asks, "For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?"  In other words, the cost of abandoning or spurning the authority that comes "from heaven" may be much higher than we can calculate, if we have given ourselves over to that which does not know God's love (in this case, the Roman army in the Siege of Jerusalem, carried away in the frenzy of war and the seeking of gold and other loot).  Ultimately, we are told, all authority comes from God (Romans 13:1).  As Christians, we are members of a Kingdom, given the gift of grace, the help of the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of the Trinity.  And as those who declare ourselves a part of this faith, we cannot afford to misunderstand where authority comes from, to have an apprehension of the solemnity of our own consciousness of God's work in us and in the world, including the presence of that Kingdom.  We must be aware of questions of authority, and especially of that ultimate resolution.  It still holds for us to follow solemnly Christ's teaching of "greatest commandments" -- to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and to love neighbor as oneself (Matthew 22:35–40, Mark 12:28–34, Luke 10:27).   For this is what it means to truly understand "authority" and where it comes from, and we must, as faithful, retain our own healthy reverence for such authority and keep it uppermost in our hearts, minds, souls -- as Christ teaches us to do.  Without this awareness, how will we recognize God's work in the world, even when others don't?  Will we simply follow the rules, making outward appearance of piety -- or whatever code of conduct or social construct deemed for the moment, "correct"?  Our faith is supposed to mean something, lead somewhere, teach us discernment.  For we follow Christ who taught us that we are to remain alert to the end, and to endure in our awareness and consciousness of what we are to be about.  We are to be those "good servants" who are always prepared for our Master's return, for it is ultimately His authority which we serve.




Monday, August 19, 2019

Have faith in God


 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

On Saturday we read that when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, Jesus 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 and 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.   That it was not the season for figs means that this fig tree had sprouted an early fall foliage, according to my study bible.  The early foliage would indicate a first crop, but there is no fruit borne on the tree.  Jesus doesn't find a single fig, and it results in a vivid symbol of condemnation.  In Scripture, my study bible comments, a fig tree is often a symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10).   At this time of the Triumphal Entry (Saturday's reading, above), Jesus enters His last week of life as human being and earthly ministry, and this is a comment on the lack of fruitfulness under the present leadership; the Kingdom will be taken and given to another people, called out of the whole world to bear spiritual fruit (see Matthew 21;43, Galatians 5:22-23). 

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 in the temple were trading in live animals for sacrifice.  The money changers would trade Roman coins for Jewish coins.  Roman coins bore the image of Caesar, and were considered to be defiling in the temple.  It is particularly noteworthy that the text specifically mentions those who sold doves, as these were the affordable sacrifices of the poor.  My study bible comments that the cleansing of the temple points to the necessity that the Church be kept free from earthly pursuits.  As each one is considered to be a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16, 6:19), it is also a sign that our hearts and minds must be cleansed of earthly matters that do not reflect the loving nature of God.

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."   The disciples remark upon Christ's prophetic act of cursing and withering of the fig tree.   It is an image they won't forget, as they go out into the world as apostles after Christ's death, Resurrection, and Ascension.  The old covenant is becoming "obsolete" and will "vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13).  They will go on to establish Christ's Church, which will be filled ultimately with both Jews and Gentiles, and they will need assurance that they are following His will.  The image of the fig tree will remain significant to them in this way.

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."  Jesus uses this occasion to teach once again regarding faith, and it is important that this teaching on prayer and faith is couple with the admonition to forgive in prayer.  This is because it cements in the notion that all prayer is couched in the hands and will of God.  Prayer and faith go hand in hand simply because of this understanding that all things are given up to God for reconciliation, including whatever it is that we have against anyone.    Forgiveness is the act of giving up our hurts to God for God's will and adjudication; it does not mean excusing harm done to us or even necessarily reconciling in full with others, unless this, too, is something we find we are drawn to do through prayer.  But we are asked, rather, to put all things in God's hands, for God's will, including our own will.   The prayer given to us by Christ (Matthew 6:9-15) includes both of these understandings, that we give our will to God's will, and that we give up all "debts" and "trespasses" to God for God's reconciliation in our lives.  Therefore, the faith with which we pray becomes powerful in that will.  My study bible comments that while it is not recorded that an apostle literally moved am mountain, Church tradition is clear that the saints had this authority if the need has arisen (in certain stories of the saints they did make crevices appear in mountains).  Moreover, not everything the apostles accomplished has been written down.  Beyond the literally meaning of Christ's words, the promise is also an illustration, my study bible says, of the power of faith and prayer in all areas of life.  It quotes Theophan:  "Whatever we ask, without hesitation and believing in God's power, we shall receive" when we ask for spiritually profitable things.

What makes prayer powerful?  This is a question all kinds of people throughout history and the ages would like to ask.  But what makes prayer effective and powerful?  I think it could be understood that God hears every prayer.  Whether or not that prayer is necessarily good for us, effective, or profitable in a spiritual sense makes little difference.  God's messengers are everywhere and uncountable, and each has an angel who hears.  Within that system of messengers (for messenger is the root meaning of the word "angel" -- and even most likely why the visions of angels given to us have wings) we are all certain to have had our prayers heard.  The question becomes, then, what prayer is effective, and how it is so.   My belief is that we can be certain that our prayers are answered even when we don't think they have been.  Often, prayers are answered instead in ways that we need them to be answered for our own highest good.  An unanswered prayer in my own life has meant that I had further issues to deal with, to resolve and reconcile, new understandings to gain in my own spiritual life which would not have been possible if my prayers were simply answered as I had requested them in my own ignorance or lack of knowledge and understanding.  Sometimes an unresolved issue goes a long way to giving us new revelation about God's work in our lives and even the nature of God's love for us.  In this context, St. Paul's own experience is particularly enlightening.  He prayed several times for relief from a "thorn in the flesh" but was eventually told, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness."  "Therefore," concludes St. Paul, "most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."  (See 2 Corinthians 12:7-9).  This new way of thinking was a message to St. Paul which opened up a new understanding of God's grace at work in the world.  Seemingly paradoxical, it teaches us about our own struggles and our own lives.  As human beings, we may be called upon to struggle with particular difficulties and obstacles, even so that God's grace may shine out from us.  We may consider Beethoven, the great composer, who wrote groundbreaking music through all manner of personal pain and illness, and even through deafness, completing and performing his "Ode to Joy" when he was completely deaf.  We may think about these twelve men, Christ's apostles who will go out into the whole of the known world of their time spreading the message of Christ's gospel.  The Gospels teach us all about their own personal flaws.  They are for the most part unlearned in a formal sense of educational institutions of their time.  None of them are a part of the institutional hierarchy of faith or national leadership.  And yet, what they do will -- in a very short span of one generation -- revolutionize the world.  It seems clear that God's grace works through our own imperfections.  The Cross of Christ -- as well as our individual crosses which He teaches each of us to bear (Luke 9:23) -- functions to give us an image of struggle in which each of us is bound by our very natures to engage.  That very struggle is for God's grace to work through us, imperfect as we are, bringing even greatness possible through each one.  This greatness is born of a struggle not necessarily known to the world, but is between ourselves and God -- and found especially through heartfelt and honest prayer.  If we are open to God's grace, placing ourselves and all of our lives in God's hands, then we are on the right track for answers to our prayers -- but most especially for that particular grace which might be known only to ourselves.  Let us be good disciples and find His way, for this is the true substance of life within us, and something we cannot predict or calculate.  But we can put trust in His promise of the power of our faith.  We just need to place faith in the answers we find.   The story of the cursing of the fig tree is couched in Mark's Gospel on either side of the cleansing of the temple.  Let us understand there is also a message for us there, about seeking God's will in all that we do and learning to set aside our own impulses for selfishness or corruption.  We give all things to God, but most especially the fullness of ourselves.  In this is our greatest expression of faith.




Saturday, August 17, 2019

The Lord has need of it


 Now when they drew near 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 and 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

Yesterday we read that Jesus and the disciples 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.


 Now when they drew near 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 and 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.   Today's reading marks the event known as the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem.  It is celebrated in the Church on Palm Sunday.  My study bible notes that by Christ's time, Jewish nationalism had led to the expectation of a political Messiah, who would deliver them from Roman control, and reestablish the kingdom of David.  But Christ's ministry has throughout its three year duration always expressed a surprising nature, expressive in His mission of God's loving and saving nature.  Additionally, Jesus has been teaching the disciples all about how power and authority are to be used in His Church, emphasizing humility and service -- and occasions for these teachings have been found throughout the readings that deal with Jesus' travels as He left Galilee for the last time and began what is now understood as His approach to Jerusalem.  The expectations for a political Messiah who would become a great king would be for one with a vast army of horses and chariots, himself riding atop one or the other, symbolic of military might.  But Jesus chooses a the colt of a donkey, humblest of animals, on which to ride into Jerusalem.  My study bible says that this shows He has not come to establish an earthly kingdom.  The donkey is a sign of humility and peace (see Zechariah 9:9).  It is an animal used for every day work and for common travel.  My study bible says that this entrance into the Holy City is a declaration of the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  Moreover it is a promise of Christ's final entry into the heavenly Jerusalem with all believers, and of His accepting the New Jerusalem as His pure Bride (Revelation 21:2).  

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.   My study bible notes that the people spread their clothes before Jesus as paying reverence to a King.  The spiritual interpretation of these acts is that it expresses our need to lay down our flesh, and even the whole of our lives, for Christ.  See also yesterday's reading (above), in which Bartimaeus throws off his garment as he approaches Christ. 

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 shout of the people is taken from Psalm 118:25-26, and was associated with messianic expectation.  At the Feast of Tabernacles (or Feast of the Coming Kingdom) it was recited daily for six days, and then seven times on the seventh day as branches were waved.  So, we can easily see all the symbolism the people understand in what they do.  Hosanna means, "Save, we pray!"

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.  The first thing Jesus does is to go into Jerusalem and directly into the temple.   Like a king and heir who has ascended a throne entering His Father's house, He looked around at all things.  

What are we to make of Jesus' humility, entering in Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey?   It's a very humble travel or pack animal, used for daily tasks and the travel of the common people.  It's as if He is truly going to work, and is being about His Father's business (Luke 2:49).  This is Jesus' outward show, just as He appears to the world as a humbly born human being, when His true nature we know is also divine, as the Son of God.  Nothing about Jesus is a declaration of human greatness.  And yet, His manner is always one of the greatest authority.  So much so, that it always astonishes people when He teaches.  The scribes don't dare assume that authority or primary voice when they teach about Scripture (Mark 1:21-22).  When Jesus opens His mouth, He speaks with authority, His voice issues forth commands of authority, as when, in yesterday's reading (above), He commanded that Bartimaeus be called.  This voice of authority is the unmistakable Logos that Christ is.  It is "the Word" (see John 1:1-5, 14-16).  It is this Word (or Logos in the Greek) that spoke all of creation into existence, this voice of whom we read in Genesis that "God said" (see, for example, Genesis 1:3).  Christ is the Word, and His commands are unmistakable.  What He utters even with His human voice is the call and command of authority, the voice that teaches us what is what: what is good, and what is not good.   He is the Teacher, and those who can recognize what is uttered with His voice hear the voice of God and will eventually recognize Him as Lord, the Son of God, the Christ (Matthew 16:13-20, Mark 8:27-30).  Perhaps there is a clue to our own lives when we come to understand how appearances can fool us and things can be not as they seem, and that we have to listen with particular ears to hear God speaking to us, and to recognize God's intervention in our lives.  Why does God come disguised as a humble human?  Moreover, He instructs those who will be His servants that theirs, too, is a mission of humility, obedience, servitude.  They are not to "lord it over" others as do the "great ones" of the Gentiles.  And yet, it is His Church against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (Matthew 16:17-19).   2,000 years later, despite heresy of every king, division, corruption, foolishness of all sorts, the Church still stands and still contains her truth.  We can read it in the Scripture, and the holy things still dwell among us, His Kingdom present.  The Holy Trinity is present to us, and the Spirit still "blows where it wishes" in newborn saints and martyrs, and in the conversion of believers, even in each of us as in the disciples, an ongoing process of salvation (John 3:5-8).  Let us consider God's great mystery, hidden behind human flesh, hidden in the presence of believers (Matthew 18:20), hidden among us and within us (Luke 17:21), hidden in our worship services, and in and among those objects through which we may find a contact with this Presence that is yet with us and the holiness of prayer -- even of everyday saints of whom we have no knowledge.  This life continues to live among us and within us -- but it is here in the Triumphal Entry that He reveals His presence most clearly and explicitly.  It is up to us, as believers, to know and recognize the truth He offers, the authority He purveys, the commands we must follow.  And that is the deepest mystery of all, hidden in us, where even the Father reveals truths in our hearts (Matthew 16:17). 



Friday, August 16, 2019

And immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the road


 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 Jesus and the disciples were 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 said 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.  My study bible comments on this passage that the restoration of sight to the blind was a sign expected to be performed by the Messiah (Isaiah 39:18; 35:4-5).  This was a power God had reserved for Himself (compare John 9:32).  Son of David is a messianic title, an expression by Bartimaeus of his faith that Jesus was the Christ. 

The text tells us a certain process that happens in Bartimaeus' encounter with Jesus.  First, he repeatedly cries out, showing his faith that Jesus is the Messiah by calling Him "Son of David."   He not only shows faith, but also persistence in his pleas to Christ, despite the fact that he's told to be quiet by the crowds.  The text says that Jesus stood still and commanded Bartimaeus to be called.  This is an interesting image of Jesus, and one that has an imperial quality to it.  He stood still and took time out to issue a command to call Bartimaeus.  It gives us a kind of icon of Christ commanding angels to respond to a plea or prayer.  In the Greek, the word for "call" has an indication of shouting with a loud voice.  This verse gives us a sense of the crowd echoing with loud voices toward Bartimaeus after Jesus tells them to "call" him, a way in which a message comes across a long distance.   It's as if Bartimaeus is far removed from Christ in distances that span much more than merely space, and yet Christ hears and gives the command through multiple messengers that he be called across that distance.  We may be spiritually far from Christ, but in this sense of the crowd relaying the loud calls toward Bartimaeus, Christ's response may be relayed to us through hierarchies of messengers, angels and saints, or perhaps those more spiritually wise than we are, that He has heard.  Even in His great distance from us, Christ may "stand still" for us and respond.  Perhaps most interesting of all that as Bartimaeus rises and comes to Christ, he throws aside his garment.  A garment is frequently meant to indicate persona or role, something we "put on," and Bartimaeus casts off the "old man" (Ephesians 4:22-24) as he comes to Christ.   He's ready to leave his current state, his whole identity behind, to come to Christ to be renewed and healed.  Like an emperor willingly hearing the plea of a subject, Jesus asks Bartimaeus, "What do you want Me to do for you?"  The power in this picture is clear:  it all rests with Jesus.  Bartimaeus is granted his desire, and given his sight.  And it is affirmed by Christ that it is Bartimaeus' faith that has made him well.  What does the new man Bartimaeus do?  He joins the crowd of disciples who follow Christ on the road to Jerusalem.   Jericho was a rather notorious town which was associated with sin -- a form of blindness.  Bartimaeus leaves this place where he is a blind beggar, and because of his faith and Christ's response, he continues -- now seeing -- on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus and the disciples.  Can we presume that in Jerusalem, Bartimaeus will see everything?  That is, all of Christ's Passion?  Will he now become a witness to the Crucifixion in Jerusalem?  To the cleansing of the temple, the disputes with the leadership, the pronouncement of Pilate, and the crowd that shouts for Jesus' death?  If we are to understand the implications of this healing, Bartimaeus is, in a certain sense, the old Israel, who cries to the Son of David -- and who will now witness what will happen with the Messiah and what is to come.  He will presumably remain with the disciples in Jerusalem and come to know of the Resurrection and the story of the empty tomb.  Perhaps he will even be present at one of the occasions when Christ appears, such as at the Ascension.  All we can do is guess -- but the text leads us to an interesting place.  Surely for these details of Bartimaeus and  his story to appear in the Gospel, he must have been known to the early Church.  Bartimaeus may be, in some sense, the whole of Israel, formerly blind but now seeing, and witnessing -- like the disciples -- what is done to the Messiah, and the fullness of what is to come.  He gains his sight in order to become a witness to this extraordinary story of Christ, a new covenant being born, a revelation for the ages and fulfillment of all the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17).  Like Bartimaeus, let us pray that our blindness be healed, and be prepared to become someone new for this incredible process of grace we can witness, and the transformation and changes it brings.  Let us note that to receive sight is not the end of our story, but only the beginning.



Thursday, August 15, 2019

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to Him, saying, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask"


 Now they were 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 said 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 man who are first will be last, and the last first."

 Now they were 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."   The time has come, and Christ and the disciples are now really and truly on the road, going up to Jerusalem.  And Jesus is leading the way.  This is the third time Christ deliberately informs the disciples of His coming Passion.  My study bible tells us that His repeated predictions of His Passion were meant to encourage and strengthen them for the terrifying events they will be facing in the future.  They also confirm that Christ goes 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 said 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."  My study bible comments that this quest for temporal power and glory is unfitting for a disciple.  It also shows an earthly misunderstanding of the kingdom of God.  Jesus calls His Crucifixion a cup and His death a baptism.  My study bible explains that the Cross is a cup because Christ drank it willingly (Hebrews 12:2), and that His death is baptism, as He was completely immersed in it, while it cleansed the world (Romans 6:3-6).   It is also noted that Christ's prophecy of John and James participating in the same cup and baptism reveals the life of persecution and martyrdom they will lead after Pentecost.  Jesus also declares that the places of honor in the Kingdom are not His to give, but that does not mean that He lacks authority.  It means that they are not Christ's to give arbitrarily.  Instead, my study bible says, He will give them to those for whom God has prepared them.  St. John Chrysostom comments that no one could possibly occupy a position of equal on the right and left hand of Christ in His Kingdom.  As to the highest places of honor given to human beings, the icons of the Church depict the Virgin Mary (most blessed among women -- Luke 1:28), and St. John the Baptist (greatest born of women -- Matthew 11:11) in these two places.

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."   Throughout the past several readings (and particularly beginning with Saturday's) we have read of Jesus' repeated emphasis to the disciples regarding issues of greatness and their connection to a capacity to serve -- and in particular, to serve the others.  Here on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus contrasts the power and authority of the "great ones" of the Gentiles -- that is, the kings and emperors of the world and those who serve under them -- with the greatness He wants in His Church and those who serve Him, and to whom He will grant authority.   These are very stark images He gives to emphasize the need for service and humility among them, and that this confers greatness.   He addresses all of the apostles when He says that whoever desires to become great among them has to be their servant -- and the one who desires to be first shall be slave of all.  When He speaks of Himself, He speaks of service, and even giving His life as a ransom for many.  In Aramaic, my study bible explains, the expression for many means "for all."

It is quite remarkable when we consider that the Gospels give us not very flattering pictures of the fallibility of the disciples.  This is particularly so when we consider which disciples we read about whose flaws are so evidently and explicitly depicted.   Perhaps no one comes in for more criticism than St. Peter.  We know of his denial of Christ in the courtyard of the high priest -- even after Christ predicted to him that he would do so, after Peter swore he would even face death first with Jesus.   This is made so explicit in Scripture that it appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 26:33-35, Mark 14:29-31, Luke 22:33-34, John 13:36-38), as does His three-time denial (Matthew 26:69-74,Mark 14:66-72,Luke 22:54-62, John 18:13-27).  There are other occasions when St. Peter comes in for extreme criticism, such as when He rebukes Christ for teaching that He will be killed.  Christ's response to Peter is sharp, indeed: "Get behind Me, Satan!" (see Matthew 16:21-23, Mark 8:31-33).   In today's reading, it is James and John Zebedee who come in for the criticism and displeasure of the rest of the disciples.  But it was only recently that we read that all of the apostles were disputing among themselves who would be greatest (Saturday's reading).  Perhaps after Jesus announces that it is time to go toward Jerusalem, they have assumed He will be coming into a worldly kingdom, as was expected of the Messiah.  And there was an earlier time when James and John were rebuked by Christ, for not knowing "what manner of spirit you are of" (Luke 9:51-56).  These two, also named "Sons of Thunder" by Jesus, asked if they should command fire to come down from heaven upon a village of Samaritans who would not receive Him.  It's John who asks Jesus about others, not of their group, whom they saw casting out demons in Christ's name, and were forbidden to do so by the disciples -- only to be corrected by Jesus (see Mark 9:38-39, Luke 9:49-50).  What is really remarkable about the reporting of these incidents in the Gospels is that they concern those individuals who form Jesus' closest inner circle at special times, such as the healing of Jairus' daughter, and also the Transfiguration.  These men who are distinguished in the Gospels through the explicit recounting of their faults, are also those of the greatest faith among the apostles.  That seems like a strange paradox.  Moreover, Peter, to whom Christ exclaims, "Get behind Me, Satan!" and whom we know as the one who would deny Christ three times, is the leader among them.  Why would the Gospels reveal to us weaknesses and flaws of these men who would be greatest in His Church, greatest among the apostles?  Indeed, if we simply began to consider their roles in the context of the Church, we might find it even more remarkable.  The Bible is not simply a book that appeared out of nowhere as a revelation from God, intact and whole.  It is the "Book of the Church."  That is, the texts we call Holy Scripture were selected and chosen by the Church as canonical and inspired.  Therefore, what we read in the Gospels does not contain anything that sort of "slipped in" or is contrary to what is understood to be necessary for our total understanding of our faith, given by God as the word which we need.  Moreover, St. Peter would go on to be leader among the apostles in the early Church, St. James would be the first martyr among the Twelve, and St. John contributing (at least in attribution) one Gospel, three Epistles, and the Revelation.  So what are we to make of the revelation of the flaws of these greatest among the apostles?  It tells us an important story about ourselves and about discipleship.  Jesus emphasizes to each of them the need to understand humility and service as hallmarks of greatness among them and in His Church.  One important understanding of humility is our familiarity with our own flaws in the context of discipleship over the course of a lifetime.  That is, flaws and failings are to be revealed in the course of discipleship, and correction is the key.   Discipleship is most clearly a process, as we witness the evolution of these men into the greatness that Christ asks of them.   Their flaws in the Gospels are neither celebrated nor are they condemned as that which denies them the capacity to move forward in discipleship.  They are, instead, times for correction from the One who loves them and has chosen them for this role of disciple and apostle, and even those who will be greatest among them all.  Note the difference between correction and condemnation; this is something we all need to learn, especially in the context of modern misunderstandings of the benefits of true and good discipline and loving correction.  As Christ replies to John when questioned about others who cast out demons in His name:  "You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives but to save them" (Luke 9:56).  If only more of us would understand this gift of loving discipline and how, exactly, we may best exemplify it among ourselves.  It is given to save, and not to destroy or to condemn.  And this is what the Gospels teach us:  that discipleship is a process, meant for us, as we are meant for better things than we know.  Proverbs 3:12 tells us, "For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights."  James and John come to Christ and say, "Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask."  So often, we do the same, and assume that love means simple indulgence of all that we desire.  But God has other, grander, better things in mind for us than we are capable of knowing.  Through a loving God, Christ becomes human and gathers disciples to Himself.  Through them, we are meant to follow and learn this kind of love as well.  Let us consider all that we are shown through the Scripture, and how love comes into play as that which refines, edifies, teaches, corrects, and above all seeks to save -- and not to destroy.



Wednesday, August 14, 2019

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


 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 man 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 comments that this man does not come to test Jesus, but rather to seek advice from a person whom he considers to be a good Teacher.  Jesus' response is not one that denies that He is God, but is meant to lead this rich young 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."    This young man has formally kept all the commandments.  But my study bible comments that formal observance of commandments alone does not make a person righteous before God.  This young man had a true desire for eternal life, but he sensed that he still lacked something.  Therefore, he continues to pursue the answer from Jesus.

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.  My study bible makes an important statement here, for all of us.  Our dependency upon Christ also depends upon the sacrifices we make to follow Him.  That is, what we freely and willingly give to make room for Christ in our lives.  This man lacked only one thing.  My study bible says that the specifics of how one follows Christ will be different for each person.  Because wealth had such a strong hold on his identity, his only hope was to sell and give his possessions.  St. John Chrysostom comments that to give away his possessions is the least of the instructions Christ gives to this young man.  But it is a preparation.  To take up the cross, and follow Him 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."   My study bible tells us that through the centuries, there have been many interpretations suggested for this impossible image of a camel going through the eye of a needle.  Some suggest that the word is not camel, but rather "rope" which sounds similar in Aramaic.  Others suggest that there was a city gate called the eye of a needle which was so tight that a camel could barely squeeze through if it were first unloaded of all of its baggage -- symbolic of wealth or possessions to which we are "tied" or "attached."  In the Talmud there is a similar expression used:  "for an elephant to go through the eye of a needle."  But whatever it is that the original phrase refers to, it clearly conveys the impossibility of salvation for those attached to riches or possessions.  The disciples' astonished response, "Who then can be saved?" tells us the impact of Christ's statement, and the scandalous impossibility of salvation that is suggested.   But even for things that with men are impossible:  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 man who are first will be last, and the last first."    My study bible says that Christ is not commanding believers to divorce spouses and abandon children here.  Rather, according to St. Chrysostom, this indicates the struggle to keep faith under persecution even if it means to lose one's family.  It may also indicate the need for acceptance that unbelieving family members might cut off ties because of the believer's faith (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16).  My study bible adds that believers are promised a hundredfold of houses and relatives not in an earthly sense, but rather in a spiritual sense.  This includes the fathers and mothers of the Church, all our brothers and sisters in Christ, and houses of worship and fellowship.  Again, Jesus repeats His words to the disciples about what it is to be great, and how greatness is connected to notions of sacrifice and service (see Saturday's reading).

What is sacrifice?  Why does it matter?  In the theology of the Church, to grow in the likeness of Christ also depends upon our willingness to sacrifice.  In the past several readings, Christ has been speaking about the notion of greatness among the apostles.  He has repeatedly emphasized that to be great -- or "first" -- among them, one must be prepared to be "last."  In order to truly assume positions of great responsibility and authority in the Church, each one must be prepared to sacrifice impulses that would lead to abuse of power and corruption.  Jesus gives illustration of the difficulties of this process by using metaphors of bodily mutilation:  a hand, a foot, an eye.  These stand in for those impulses of selfish abuse and exploitation and personal passions (see Saturday's reading).  They stand in for examples of impulses to abuse power over others.  In today's reading, Jesus calls upon a rich young man to make sacrifices and to give to the poor.  This calls us to the heart of what is understood as "righteous" behavior.  But it cuts even more deeply into the truths of who we are.  St. John Chrysostom, early father of the Church and the one whose name is borne on the liturgy that shapes all traditional worship services, is acute enough to teach us that this is not a question of simple justice, but that, in fact, it is the path we all must go to perfection in Christ.  This young man is asked to do this not for the sake of the poor, but for his own sake.  His attachment to his riches is too strong; he is unable to truly "follow Christ" without first making such a sacrifice.  We can see how devastatingly difficult it is for the young man, who goes away disappointed.  Perhaps our greatest clue here is the explicit statement in the Gospels that Jesus loved him.  This is a strong, active statement, and is borne out in the command Jesus gives to him that follows:  "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."   It is giving this command that is the action of divine love in Christ for this young rich man.  So it is with each of the disciples who have left all and followed Him, and so it is with us.  As St. Chrysostom, in his understanding and wisdom, points out, we may not be given the same commands.  We each will have different things to which we are so fully attached that such attachment stands in the way of a deeper identity we will find in our communion with Christ.  Nevertheless, to give away or cut off from ourselves such attachments may feel like cutting off a hand or a foot or an eye.   It may be that we are asked even to leave family members behind, or other relationships that we hold dear, should they prevent us from a fully loving communion with Christ in the heart, an understanding of ourselves as a follower or disciple of Christ.  The things or even people we find ourselves deeply attached to may be pulling us away from the direction Christ wants us to go toward.  Our own beliefs and choices or habits may do the same.  The way of the cross that Christ proposes for each of us (in His command to the rich young man) is a way of giving up what stands in the way of this depth of identity in Christ.  In this context, we may sacrifice what the world thinks is good, but it is in order to receive what Christ thinks is good for us, a true greatness that bears Christ into the world through us.  Is there something standing in your way of making such a choice?  Do you find yourself at the crossroads of a difficult decision?   Let us note clearly that the sacrifice Jesus calls for from the rich young man seems dramatically nonsensical on strictly worldly terms.  So may it be in our own lives.  But it is in the following through of those choices that we find ourselves and come to ourselves.  It is the way of the cross for each, and in doing so we find substance that doesn't exist for us otherwise.




Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Of such is the kingdom of God


 Then He arose from there and 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.

- Mark 10:1-16

Yesterday we read that Jesus taught (following upon His earlier teaching here), "But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched -- where 'Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'  And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off.  It is better for you to enter life lame, rather than having two feet, to be cast into hell, into the fire that shall never be quenched -- where 'Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'  And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.  It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire -- where 'Their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'  For everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.  Salt is good, but if the salt loses its flavor, how will you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and have peace with one another."

Then He arose from there and 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.  Jesus has come nearer to Jerusalem, and here across the Jordan the Pharisees come to Him to test Him.  The question of divorce was an important one in Jesus' time, and it was highly contested among the different influential parties of the Council.

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."  Jesus immediately asks, "What did Moses command you?" and quotes from the Scriptures to frame His answer with a particular understanding (Genesis 1:27, 5:2; 2:24).   In Christ's time the Sadducees were in favor of easy divorce, but the Pharisees actually were closer to Jesus' position, and there were also complications regarding divorce and money.  It wasn't a simple matter.  But my study bible notes that in contrast to the easy access to divorce under the Mosaic Law, and because of the misuse of divorce in His time, Christ repeatedly condemns divorce (see also Matthew 5:31-32, 19:8-9, Luke 16:17-18).  Instead, Jesus' emphasis is on the eternal nature of marriage.  In private, His emphasis to the disciples becomes even more starkly clear on the matter.  In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus includes the possibility of divorce on ground of sexual immorality, which my study bible notes means that the true nature of marriage can be destroyed by sin.  The early Church would expand grounds for divorce to include threats to a child's or spouse's life, and desertion.

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.  My study bible cites Theophan, who comments that the disciples rebuked those who brought little children to Christ as they were "unruly" and also because they presumed that children "diminished His dignity as Teacher and Master."  But Christ plainly shows that His thinking is completely different on the subject, and instead sets little children as an example of those who will inherit the kingdom of God.  Therefore, in the Orthodox church as well as other denominations, children are invited (even as example to adults) to participate in the Kingdom through prayer, worship, baptism, chrismation, and Communion. 

 It is plainly of note that immediately after a teaching on the eternal spiritual nature of marriage, there is a teaching about children.   For the Orthodox, children are not seen as the purpose of marriage -- rather it is this depth of union that is emphasized, and understood as the layperson's way of sanctity or theosis.  Children, on the other hand, are blessings.  As the disciples are taught that it is their sacrifice and service that makes them truly great (see the past two readings here and here), so the same is true for those who are married in the Church.  It is important to understand that this is in the context of a spiritual nature of marriage emphasized by Christ, and that we are not alone in struggling to make marriage good.  Marriage in the church comes in the context of everything else in the Church, and we should not see it as a separate "secular" struggle, but as relationship and communion that always needs and has spiritual help in the context of love of God and the presence of Christ and the Holy Spirit.  As we struggle in marriage, so we are to understand the need for spiritual discernment and help.  In this context, we must also view that which destroys marriage, and understand that the true nature of marriage can be abused and destroyed.  Violence of any kind comes into play here, as does abuse or exploitation.  Moreover, Christ frames His answer to the disciples on particular grounds, quoting from Genesis.  Let us note there is no partiality in this answer toward who does the "work" of making a good marriage; we are formed male and female according to the quotes Jesus gives us from Scripture.  Moreover, as Jesus is apparently addressing men (and certainly that would include the Pharisees), He tells them, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."   Let us note, this is a clear command for loyalty not to a man's own understanding from his home and family, but rather to the woman to whom he is joined -- and that this union is as one flesh.  The emphasis is on union and loyalty; in this image, whatever may harm one party also harms the other, and to treat the other with care for their "good" is to receive good as both are one flesh.  Moreover, how would the concept of "one flesh" be possible except within a spiritual understanding and dynamic to marriage?   This metaphor of one flesh cuts to the heart of the understanding that each must be acutely conscious of what is good or bad for the other, and to live accordingly.   Abuse comes in the form of what harms this union based on such an understanding of what one flesh entails, and thus destruction through sin.  Let us consider the depth of help present to us on spiritual terms for marriage, and how marriage is "communal" in nature and based in the broader communion of saints of the Church.  Without this understanding -- that we are not merely two individuals thrown together who must learn how best to live with one another, but rather were made for mutual love and the respect that goes with that -- then we fail to grasp the true spiritual concept of marriage and also the help in prayer and faith present to us.  Moreover, if divorce becomes necessary, then that also must be in the context of the spiritual welfare of the parties involved.  It makes it clear that abuse is not a spiritual value.  Indeed, for Christ, all of the law and the prophets are summed up in two commandments:  to love the Lord our God with all one's heart and spiritual and soul and strength, and to love neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:30).  Marriage is meant to be the intimate proving and testing ground for love and communal respect, a place of shelter and nurture for the little children of whom Jesus says "of such is the kingdom of God."  Of course, children as blessings are the product of what is meant to be a spiritual union.   Let us consider our roles as those who participate in and share the love of God through worship with one another -- and let us consider what constitutes abuse of that communion and of the depth possible through marriage.  Elsewhere Christ offers us a choice between love of God and love of mammon; He also calls mammon "unrighteous" (see Luke 16:9-13).  What is unrighteous is a picture of life as merely material and pure competition.   So should it be with our understanding of marriage and its significance:  we're offered a rather stark choice between the love characteristic of God, shared with us and among us, and a picture of injustice (unrighteousness).  Everything depends on our priorities, what we choose to put first.  Let us consider our unions with one another and what they truly mean in terms of their significance on spiritual terms.