Monday, August 31, 2009

I am

They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” ’ But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, ‘Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?’ But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am; and

“you will see the Son of Man

seated at the right hand of the Power”,

and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.

- Mark 14:53-65

Jesus faces his first "trial" in this assembly before the chief priests, elders and scribes. They question many witnesses - but the witnesses are so poor, and so many of them give false testimony, that their testimony contradicts one another. I find this to be symbolic of the logic of evil. When we recall that Christ himself is "Logos" we come to understand the centrality of both truth and reason to this kingdom. That which is against it contradicts itself, it is built of parasitical power, not having real power of itself. There will always be a big lie at its center - but by its fruits we shall know it. I feel that this type of contradiction is a sign or symptom, if you will, of evil; there is no truth in it. Of itself, it cannot stand.

The high priest finally asks Jesus directly, 'Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?' In Mark's gospel, Jesus answers directly, 'I am.' Jesus goes on to cite references to the manifestation of the Messiah (from Psalms 110:1 and Daniel 7:13), to refer to his Second Coming. ' “You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”, and “coming with the clouds of heaven.” ’ Jesus is being judged, and yet Jesus refers to the day when He will Judge. This is a direct answer, there is no disputing.

The high priest tears his mantle, which is symbolic of a charge of blasphemy. Under Jewish law, this would require a sentence of death (Lev. 24:16). However, under Roman domination, the priests cannot enforce such law: there will be no mention of blasphemy before Pilate.

We end this passage with the abuse of the prisoner, the agreement to the sentence without dispute and without witnesses. Jesus testifies of himself, John the Baptist has testified of him, and the works he has done testify of him, including those done through his disciples. Is it possible he is the Messiah? This is never discussed. But he is spat upon, blindfolded - he is hit and told to prophesy as to who hit him. Then the Roman guards take him and beat him also. Sometimes it's possible that though we tell the truth, we have no witness to stand up for us, and no one who believes what may be self-evident, nor who opens the door wide enough to the possibility that we just might be telling the truth, hard as it is to hear.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Betrayed by a kiss

Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, ‘The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.’ So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, ‘Rabbi!’ and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.’ All of them deserted him and fled.

A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

- Mark 14:43-52

A sad passage, made more sad by the lonely place occupied by Jesus in his time of arrest. He is treated as if he is a thief or a lawbreaker, as if his teachings were in secret or what he did was done in stealth.

My study bible notes the character of the mob that has come to take him. The chief priests, scribes and elders have sent a crowd of servants to get Jesus. They do not even know who he is, although Jesus has taught openly in the temple all the time he has been in Jerusalem. The people arresting Jesus are armed Jewish servants, usually confined in the temple area to maintain order under the authority of the chief priests. According to John's gospel, a band of Roman soldiers collaborated with them. It is necessary for Judas to identify Jesus with a signal, because the people arresting Jesus have no idea who he is. He is betrayed by a kiss.

As Jesus is taken, we are told that "all of them deserted him and fled." Jesus' prophecy is fulfilled, that the sheep are scattered, just as the scriptures are fulfilled in his arrest. Betrayed by a kiss! Such a sad and lonely moment! We have to remember the tremendous ironies in this story, the depth of promise and despair mingled into one event. Transcending all experience, the story of crucifixion is much more than a simple narrative; it brings together the depth and height of experience, expectation, disappointment and tragedy. There are all things mingled here: as Deity Itself is in all things, made up of all dimensions of Being, so this story encompasses sublime triumph and terrible abandonment. Jesus' human experience encompasses every height and depth. It is all here for us in every word. But there is one small exception in the scattered flock we are told here, one young man followed Jesus. Most likely this is the author of this gospel himself, as he mentions the incident, but does not give his own name - a traditional way of talking about oneself.

In our own times of disappointment, betrayal or abandonment, we may feel this acute sadness and loneliness. We may remember that those who've come before us, especially the example of Jesus himself, have faced this time of abandonment and yet retained faith. Sometimes in the depth of that kind of aloneness, one finds God, and faith, as if the world's abandonment leaves us finally to rely on what is inside of us in relationship, "closer than our heartbeat." We take our example from Jesus' intimacy with God whom he called "Abba, Father" in his prayer before his arrest. We remember that strength comes out of this relationship - and watch Jesus conduct himself in faith as our brother who shares all of life's disappointments with us.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times

And Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters; for it is written,

“I will strike the shepherd,

and the sheep will be scattered.”

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ Peter said to him, ‘Even though all become deserters, I will not.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ But he said vehemently, ‘Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.’ And all of them said the same.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I pray.’ He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, ‘I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.’ And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, ‘Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.’ He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’

- Mark 14:27-42

If I let myself really feel the emotional weight of this passage, it's perhaps the saddest of all in a certain sense. This is the reality, not just of human weakness, but of disappointment. We will be let down by our own natures, we will be let down by our friends and those closest to us, and the heartbreaking pain is really in the nature of our weaknesses. As Jesus says, "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

My study bible notes an important distinction in Peter's statement. He swears his allegiance, saying, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." But we all know what is going to happen, and Jesus foretells it exactly. My study bible makes the distinction here that Peter is unaware of the need for spirit in the assistance of faith; by ourselves, we don't have the full power of faith that we think we do. Or, at least Peter doesn't. Our own strength is not what it is coupled with divine help. Rather, the source of that strength is not of ourselves. And that, in my opinion, is a very important understanding of what faith does in our lives. It is the relationship to the Divine that helps us to retain faith and strength, and shares with us these gifts of the spirit.

After swearing this great allegiance, the apostles - those closest to Jesus - disappoint him merely by being unable to stay awake and watch with him. Jesus, in fully human revelation of this part of his nature, goes through his emotional turmoil about what is to come. 'Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.' 'Remove this cup from me,' I read, is the fully human nature of Jesus speaking. My study bible notes, "His divinity cannot suffer; his humanity can and does."

In my small way, I can so relate to this, and I imagine so can many other people. How many times have I prayed for an outcome, for something terrible not to happen. Or, even more closely to the point, I feel that if I stand for something that it seems I'm asked to through repeated prayer, others' response around me will be terrible. And yet, it seems, God's will is different from my own, God's perspective different from my own. Time and again, human nature will fail us, human corruption and weakness will disappoint. But through that great struggle that is the center of our lives and faith in some way, there are always lessons to be learned. The crucifix is somehow at that great center, or crossroads, of this reality, squarely in its midst. 'The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.' We are all here in this blinding spotlight of choice, and we must remember that our strength is not just of ourselves. We are all on a learning curve; God's plans and intentions for us may be something quite different from what we think is important. Certainly from Jesus' human perspective, we can imagine all the worries about what will happen to his flock if he perishes. Human beings have free will; it is up to each person to choose how he or she responds to this crucifixion, as to everything else. Nevertheless, our fully human Son of Man immediately agrees to the Divine Will.

And, to top off the heartbreak, at this moment Jesus is let down by his friends, who cannot keep awake and watch with him. To "watch and pray" is an echo of what we have read in the recent readings, about keeping alert and being vigilant. It is the way in which we avoid entering into temptation: to help us with our weakness, to stay on the good path.

'Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand.’ We know that betrayals and weakness will come; emotional dependence upon ourselves alone will never give us the strength of patience, faith, forbearance. We are to "watch and pray." And we are to understand, from Jesus' great example, that we accept life as it is, in its full reality, and move in faith. Human free will means that weaknesses and disappointments in their myriad form will always be with us and around us. We stand at that crossroads of choice, and we pray to make the right ones, knowing that God's goals may be hidden from us and our perspective; and yet, we are included as essential to those plans.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many

On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, ‘Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?’ So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.’ So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’ They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, ‘Surely, not I?’ He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.’

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

- Mark 14:12-26

This is the first day of the Unleavened Bread. The Passover lambs are slaughtered at noon on this day. The Passover and the feast will begin on this same day, at sunset (the time from which the new day was considered to begin in the Jewish calendar). As on the day he rode into Jerusalem on a colt, Jesus gives precise instructions predicting in detail what will happen for the disciples when he plans their Passover dinner, expressing his omniscience. My study bible has a note that I quite like, saying that it is a gift to man to have a Son of God use something of his; this room is forever set apart as holy. The note goes on to read, "Whatever gifts God asks of us today are similarly sanctified."

One gets a sense of the tremendous tension that is building up in these moments. Sure all the disciples are aware of the conflict between the authorities and their master Jesus, even if they have not grasped how soon and how drastically this conflict will end. While Jesus declares that his time is soon to arrive for the Son of Man "as it is written of him," he also notes the condemnation awaiting the person from whom that betrayal comes. My study bible again has a very helpful note here: "Jesus says this not in deprecation of this man, His own creation, but in deprecation of that man's choice and rashness. For it was the rashness of Judas' own will that made the Creator's gift of goodness useless to him. Divine foreknowledge of the betrayal takes away neither Judas' moral freedom nor his accountability. For God all things are a present reality. He foresees all human actions, but does not cause them."

Finally, we come to the first Eucharist. We recall as noted in yesterday's commentary, that this unleavened bread is symbolic not only of the haste with which the Hebrews left Egypt to be saved, but also of something holy and unmixed with evil. To this unleavened bread, Jesus adds wine, which he calls his blood. We must understand that his sacrifice is to be for everyone; his blood is shed for all. The Eucharist, being called the body, is representative of his entire Person. He gives his ALL to us. It is a gift that is always and forever made to us and for us, for all of us, always available through this sacrifice he will make. His sacrifice is his covenant for each of us.

To sing a hymn is to sing a psalm from a group of psalms (Ps. 115-118) which are traditionally sung after the Passover meal. Psalm 22 tells the story of the crucifixion, and we will hear it from Jesus' lips. Ps. 22:22 reads, as translated from the Septuagint in Hebrews 2:12, "I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You." On the night of his arrest, Jesus will do so at the assembly.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

What she has done will be told in remembrance of her

It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, ‘Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.’

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’

Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.

- Mark 14:1-11

Mark tells us it is two days before the beginning of Passover and the festival of the Unleavened Bread. It's important to think about these great feasts; they both commemorate Israel's liberation from Egypt. The Passover is the celebration of the "passing over" of the Jewish homes by the angel of death, when the firstborn of the Egyptians were killed (Ex. 12:12-20). The unleavened bread is a reminder of the haste with which they left Egypt. Jesus has used leaven or yeast as a metaphor for influence within a given group or society: the unleavened bread symbolizes a bread made of innocence or holiness unmixed with evil. As we move into Passover week and the Passion, we must keep this in mind.

The great love and devotion with which the woman at Bethany breaks the bottle of nard is a representative action of "the better part" to which Jesus referred in the story of sisters Martha and Mary. The disciples themselves are indignant at her failure to sell this costly ointment and give the money for distribution to the poor. My study bible notes that those who are angry with her know more about religion than she does. But her act is a gift to Christ, her devotion at his feet reminds us of the devotion of Mary in the story noted above (whom the gospels say performed a similar act of devotion). I think this important story at this time is not just about Jesus' acceptance of an act as he is so close to his death, some type of exceptional occurrence, but of the reality of the centrality of worship. We don't know what acts which stem from this love will eventually come to mean or to effect. But everything starts from this love and devotion: discernment, practice, and the gifts of spirit (including love, mercy, forbearance, patience, etc.) that we share with others come from this central love and devotion. Jesus accepts her love and admonishes the others for criticizing her.

As we practice good works of any kind, I think it's important to remember this story. The reason I say so is because so often, it seems to me, that losing sight of this central personal relationship, this devotion and love, even while practicing good works, leads to forms of what has been called by at least one theologian "abstract life." No ideology, in my opinion, can substitute for this mystery of worship and relationship in terms of creating the effects of love, however myriad and deep they may be. The reason I say so is because ideology - no matter how well-intentioned - always stands in danger of becoming an abstract way of life, of boiling down to the rules, without mercy. I feel that we either center our worship on the Person who is love or we worship something else. An ideology cannot substitute, the rules cannot substitute. When we become vociferous critics in the name of rules, we lose our sight of mercy, our relatedness and our humanity. We lose our empathy and compassion. If the God of love and mercy is the One whom we choose to worship, then no rules, no matter how well-intentioned, can stand before that love. Her simple act of devotion is a great example of this power of love; Jesus' criticism of his disciples for criticizing her is the power of the Lord to teach us what is the "better part."

The gospel of John specifically names Judas Iscariot as one of those critics whom Jesus chastises in front of the rest. Perhaps in this understanding, we become more insightful into his reasons for betrayal. At any rate, I choose to read it this way: Judas is reprimanded for his outspoken criticism. He is personally humiliated and does not accept this criticism and teaching as an act of love. And, I think, we must also see this as a case where "the rules" - even those rules made from concern for the practice of love and mercy - are rigorously followed without room for human love, for the practice of mercy in direct relationship. For me, this is a central key to my faith. The rules must support those realities that happen in the moment, when we are face-to-face with questions of relatedness and mercy, when it is the person whom God has placed before us and the immediate reality that asks us to choose love is concerned.

To my mind, this story and this teaching cement Jesus' own opinion on this matter. The far-reaching effects of this act of love and devotion, and others' response to it cannot be estimated. This woman, in what seems a spontaneous act of love and devotion, may or may not have known that she was anointing his body for burial. Nor could she have known that those who responded with anger at her love would be the instrument of his death. What we do for love may disrupt and disturb; how others respond to love and devotion may become the very substance of Judgment.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Keep awake - watch and pray

‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

‘But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.’

- Mark 13:28-37

Jesus continues his discourse on his Second Coming and the end of the age. This particular talk to his disciples has continued through the previous two readings (see Saturday and Monday). It has (as in other gospels) mingled discussion of the destruction of the temple with the end of the age and the Second Coming.

In this particular selection for today's reading, Jesus gives us the parable of the fig tree. He has described the events to come including the desolation of the temple, and the eventual second coming in the earlier parts of this discourse. In this parable of the fig tree, he teaches us about being watchful and alert. We are to watch for the signs he has described. He gives a certain guarantee that this will indeed come to be: 'Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.'

Jesus continues, 'But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.' This event is so magnificent an occurrence, so tremendous, that Jesus signifies to us that only the First Person is aware of when it will happen. Church fathers have disagreed over what this signifies about the omniscience of Christ, and his role as Son, both human and divine. But clearly, Jesus gives to us the message that this event is of the most tremendous mystery, involving Judgment. It is of a kind of depth of mystery that we cannot be privy to. Significantly, he continues with another parable about how we are to await this great event.

'It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.'

We are to remember that while our master is away he expects us to fulfil our duties and do our work. Each of us has something to do. We have been taught what that is, we know what his teachings are. We are to seek God's love, to worship, to pray, to share the gifts of the spirit and especially to practice mercy, to grow in love. To seek the wisdom and discernment as to how best to do all of this work we are left to do. Here, he takes it another step forward as well - we are to watch. (The original Greek of the gospel says that we are to "watch and pray.") We must keep awake and alert, to await this great event. In expectation, we continue to practice what we have been taught. We don't know when the master will return, but we keep watch, we pray, and we remember.

On my bed I remember you;

I think of you through the watches of the night.

- Psalm 63

Monday, August 24, 2009

Be alert; I have already told you everything

‘But when you see the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down or enter the house to take anything away; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that it may not be in winter. For in those days there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, no, and never will be. And if the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he has cut short those days. And if anyone says to you at that time, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “Look! There he is!”—do not believe it. False messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. But be alert; I have already told you everything.

‘But in those days, after that suffering,

the sun will be darkened,

and the moon will not give its light,

and the stars will be falling from heaven,

and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

- Mark 13:14-27

We continue with Jesus' discourse standing outside the temple (begun in Saturday's reading). One of Jesus' disciples has remarked on the beauty and majesty of the temple. Jesus began speaking of what was to come. He continues in today's reading.

Verses 14-23 seem to speak directly of the destruction of Jerusalem, culminating in the burning of the temple, which would occur in A.D. 70. The "abomination of desolation" (translated as "desolating sacrilege" in our quotation) is a reference to scripture (the book of Daniel). This would occur when the Roman general Titus defiled the temple by first entering into it and "standing where he ought not" - in the Most Holy Place. I read that, heeding prophecies, the Church in Jerusalem fled before this great tribulation (v. 19, translated "suffering" in our excerpt above). This time of tremendous suffering was recorded by an eyewitness, the Jewish historian Josephus. My study bible goes on to recount that Christians have suffered many tribulations throughout history. Even in the 20th century alone, there were millions martyred for their faith. The photograph on my blog, of a genocide orphan, was taken during the Armenian genocide of 1915, in which 1.5 million people were killed essentially because they maintained their Christian faith, in addition to tens of thousands of Christian minorities of other ethnic origin at that time. This is but one example.

Jesus goes on to quote Isaiah, and we are given to understand that he continues to speak of both the destruction of Jerusalem (and the temple) and the end of the age. If we are to comprehend that we enter into a period of the "end of the Age" after his death and resurrection, that indeed the "wars and rumors of wars," the shortening time (see Saturday's commentary), the false messiahs, violence and upheaval, and repeated tribulation and suffering will continue, then we come to a perspective that we have been in this period all along these past 20 centuries and continue to be so. Jesus' preparations for us include an admonition for endurance and faith. Clearly they also include the instruction that we really will not be able to predict the ultimate end of this age nor how it happens, and neither will be unaware when it happens. It will be known when it is experienced. As faithful, neither will we avoid periods of tribulation and suffering.

So what can we conclude from this discourse? I think it is important to maintain a sense that we are not to focus on predictions, but rather to focus on the now, to do what we must do, to be "alert" (v. 19). We study, we think, pray and worship. We seek the Spirit. And we do what we must do to follow his teachings. If we are to endure unto the end, surely it is in faith and in increasing our understanding and practice of mercy as we are taught; most assuredly to hope to know and to share God's love and to develop and grow and share the gifts of the Spirit. This is how we endure to the end, if we follow what He has taught.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Many will come in my name

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

‘As for yourselves, beware; for they will hand you over to councils; and you will be beaten in synagogues; and you will stand before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them. And the good news must first be proclaimed to all nations. When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.

- Mark 13:1-13

After the discourse in yesterday's passage on the importance of humility and the depth and knowledge of the heart that is the true measure of faith, Jesus walks out of the temple with his disciples. The temple was a marvelous building. It had been rebuilt by Herod the Great and measured a sixth of the city of Jerusalem, dominating the city. According to my study bible, the temple was an architectural marvel that included porticoes, courtyards and colonnades. Some of the stones measured 10x40x20 feet each. It is no wonder that a disciple would remark on the majesty and beauty of these buildings.

Jesus' prediction, that "not one stone will be left upon another" was to come true in A.D. 70, when the Roman general Titus retook the city. He leveled everything on the Temple Mount. Because of rumors that this beautiful temple included gold between its stones, not one stone was left unturned. Only a retaining wall remained, now called the Wailing Wall, after Emperor Trajan (c. A.D. 135) allowed Jews to return once a year to mourn the destruction of the temple. This mourning continues today.

Jesus' discussions of the end of the age are tied together with a discussion on the destruction of the temple and the prediction of what is to come in Jerusalem. The immediate effect is dramatic: who can imagine that such a great and wonderful building is to be so utterly destroyed? In an important sense, it is a note asserted into the beautiful and majestic surroundings that we are not to be taken in by appearances. Humility is all: we are to focus on the affairs of faith in the heart and not outward appearances. False rumors, false messiahs, great destruction, violence and upheavals - all of these things are to come. They are called "birth pangs" and compared to childbirth. We are in for a time where great security and certainty is unreliable except through faith. Accompanying all of this as part of the birth pangs of this age and of the kingdom will be persecution for believers. Even family ties will suffer upheaval and violence: 'Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.'

We are taught about the great upheavals of history, ages and time - and they are tied in with the events in the individual lives of believers and what they will go through, how they will be hated and persecuted for their faith. Of all of the apostles, only John did not suffer a martyr's death. 'But the one who endures to the end will be saved.' Nothing is reliable; these birth pangs will be a time where faith cannot be put into appearances and rumors but must be maintained through an inner integrity, a watchfulness and discernment. 'He who endures to the end will be saved.' If those times of rumors, of wars and conflict, of false messiahs, confusing and conflicting varieties of teachings regarding the end of the age that Jesus describes sound familiar to us now, perhaps we should consider his words of endurance and faith, and remember that it is ours to be watchful, to ask for discernment and to follow his teachings in good faith. I think it is also important to remember his teachings about the unreliability of appearances: the last thing we are to expect for our faith is a perfect life in this world, according to these words. Instead he asks of us to be wise, to understand that difficulties may come.

Underneath it all, I feel there is this great pull of humility. We've been warned not to rely on appearances, not to "Lord it over" others, not to puff ourselves up - that it is the heart that is the measure of who we are. On every scale, here in this passage about the end of the age and the birth pangs of the kingdom, we are reminded again to focus on what is real and true, and that is within us in our center. Prayer and worship will ever remain the place where we need to "get real" - to find what is in our hearts and to understand that this is the measure of who we are and what we do, that a full and abundant life rich in gifts of the spirit comes from that center, that faith. We ask for wisdom and discernment. We study and think and learn. We seek the Holy Spirit, especially in times of crisis.

2,000 years later I feel these words are still utterly important. Time seems to go so fast; such great changes come in our lifetimes! Such tremendously powerful and astonishing marvels of technology make the world ever smaller, faster, and increasingly subject to the potential for upheaval, transition, rumors, on a tremendous scale - for good or for ill. In all of that, the words about vigilance, faith, humility and what is real must not be forgotten. Perhaps in some ironic and important way, they apply to us now even more clearly than they did to the disciples at the moment they were given.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Lord said to my Lord

While Jesus was teaching in the temple, he said, ‘How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared,

“The Lord said to my Lord,

‘Sit at my right hand,

until I put your enemies under your feet.’ ”

David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?’ And the large crowd was listening to him with delight.

As he taught, he said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

- Mark 12:35-44

In yesterday's passage, Jesus answered a scribe's question about the first commandment, and then said that the scribe was 'not far from the kingdom of God.' That scribe appreciated and approved of Jesus' answer; and we note the irony in Jesus' reply about the nearness of the kingdom of God. This phrase is reflective of the apostles' phrase to the people as they went out to teach, that 'the kingdom of God has come near to them.' But today, Jesus goes after the scribes as a class, in contrast to the one who actually managed to have a good dialogue with Jesus in yesterday's reading.

The tables are turned now. It is no longer the authorities who are quizzing Jesus. Today's reading shows us that Jesus has become the one who quizzes them. Jesus asks, "How can the scribes say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself, by the Holy Spirit, declared, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet." ' David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?"

It's interesting to me that Jesus spurs on the confrontation directly. After a good reply and dialogue with the scribe, Jesus goes head on into confrontation with the general class of the scribes, and criticizes their way of interpretation and practices under the Mosaic law in which they are the experts. Although he is a peaceful Messiah, he does not shy away from conflict, and neither does he shy away from telling truth and making his criticism, directly in front of all the people. He defends himself and his authority, and he truly asserts his perspective and his teaching, before everybody. We are told that the crowd loves this display of open talk, open teaching, and the turning of the tables so that the scribes themselves are questioned now.

The scribes cannot answer. Jesus' answers display his authority and wisdom; his interrogators cannot reply to the questions that he poses to them. The answer to this question that we receive from the gospels is that David calls Him "Lord" in His divinity, but Jesus is also David's son in his humanity.

And, Jesus goes further in front of these crowds. He levels his criticisms directly, perhaps because he knows from the previous conversation (see yesterday's passage) that the scribes understand very well what Jesus is talking about. We all (the authorities, the crowds and all readers of this gospel) get a message about the heart and outward forms of worship: ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’ His condemnation of hypocrisy, of those who do not love their neighbor (the second commandment) as an expression of God's love, is thorough. It is significant, something of which we must take note. Jesus goes out of his way to condemn this behavior immediately upon the understanding arrived at with regard to "the greatest commandment." The greater condemnation falls on those who profess to worship and fail to follow these greatest commandments, on those who hold the highest responsibility for this understanding and practice. This is Christianity at its heart, the message of Jesus at its most direct and profound impact. What we worship and what we believe carries with it this responsibility. Those who bear that responsibility the most will receive the greater condemnation for our failure to take these words "to heart." It is the acts of the heart that are "much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices."

Jesus goes even further to illustrate his point. Far from the wealthy who offer goods and gifts to the temple out of their abundance, he points out to his disciples, the poor widow. Jesus renews to them, after his criticism of the public behavior of the scribes, his teachings about "He who would be greatest among you." ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’ She has put in two copper coins, called "mites" - the least valuable coins. She is "the least of these" and yet she has given more. Jesus' wisdom is displayed in his knowledge of this woman, another expression of divinity and the sense in which we are all known in our hearts. This is where we love and worship, the center we give to God, the center of our selves. It is the center of Jesus' teaching to us, the sum we must remember for ourselves as His followers. This is the lesson of humility. Do we give with our whole heart to God? This is "greater than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices," greater than all the carryings-on that Jesus cleansed in the temple. How do we remember this today? It is so central to the Christian teaching, and its central place remains for each of us who would follow today.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Which commandment is first of all?

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, ‘Which commandment is the first of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The first is, “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” The second is this, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” There is no other commandment greater than these.’ Then the scribe said to him, ‘You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that “he is one, and besides him there is no other”; and “to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength”, and “to love one’s neighbour as oneself”,—this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.’ When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question.

- Mark 12:28-34

Jesus' questionings continue by the authorities in the temple. He has already been questioned by chief priests, scribes, temple elders, Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees. In this passage, a scribe comes upon the dispute from yesterday's passage, and asks Jesus about the commandments.

"Which commandment is the first of all?" The first commandment Jesus quotes is the beginning of the confession of faith, called the shema (after its first word, meaning "hear"). "Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." (Deut. 6:4,5) Jesus then names a second, quoting from Lev. 19:18: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” In this way, Jesus ties two commandments from Jewish scripture: to love one's neighbor is an expression of the love of God.

It is an essential understanding of Jesus' teachings that all good things come from God. His own qualities, his identity, his power - all are given to him by the Father. We come to an important understanding here about spirituality and relatedness: when we pray, when we worship, we seek dialogue and participation with the great source of Love, of all good things, of that which is love. It is through the first great commandment that we seek to receive the blessing, the grace, of right-relatedness. The love we find through that commandment teaches us how to practice the second: worship and prayer must lead to fruits of the spirit and to right-relatedness, teaching us to love our neighbor - and how to love our neighbor. When we seek discernment, when we seek not our own judgment but to find good judgment, we are seeking wisdom not merely in an intellectual sense, but to grow in how we practice love, in how we understand and know love. To worship God makes all of these concepts and ideas inseparable. As discussed in yesterday's commentary, to live a God-centered life is to take our very identity - as does Jesus - from this relationship. Jesus links these two great commandments from different books of the Old Testament because to know God, through grace, must lead to the practice of the love of neighbor and to grow in understanding of what this means.

The scribe who has asked the question approves of Jesus' answer. The scribes were a professional class of experts in Mosaic law. The scribe replies to Jesus that "this is much more important than all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices." So, he has understood that the depth of the heart - the embrace and practice of love via this central relatedness to God - is to worship well and properly. The outward form is secondary to these two central commandments of what it is to worship and to love God. The text tells us then that "when Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, ‘You are not far from the kingdom of God.’ After that no one dared to ask him any question." Even in the midst of questioning and hostility, confrontation produces this important understanding. To teach is also to love, to speak the truth is also to love. The scribe seems to be a sincere seeker, and in the midst of confrontation there is still relatedness, and the door is open to relationship.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. And they came and said to him, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? Should we pay them, or should we not?’ But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, ‘Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.’ And they brought one. Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’ They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him.

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, saying, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; and the second married her and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.’

Jesus said to them, ‘Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”? He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’

- Mark 12:13-27

The confrontation continues for Jesus and the authorities. My study bible tells me that the Herodians are Jewish political supporters of the ruling house of Herod the Great, and thus willing servants of Rome. So, in this passage, we have new groups representing different authorities coming to confront and to test him in an attempt to discredit Jesus' authority with the people. Considering their ties to Roman rule, it is fitting, then, that their question centers on paying taxes to Rome. Jesus, we are told, knows their hypocrisy in this respect. So, once again, his answer (just as in yesterday's passage) is tailored to the one who is asking and the motive behind the question. His quick wit answers once again in a riddle for those who seek to discredit and to trap him. "'Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it....Whose head is this, and whose title?' They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.’ And they were utterly amazed at him." Jesus is a tremendously gifted speaker, his wit and even the charm of his answer amazes those who are trying to trap him. He is an excellent defender of himself and his position - he gives nothing away until he himself is ready to give it away. His power and his authority remain his own, and this is conveyed through his speech as well. Of course, for those of us who read this story in scripture, we understand that we are dealing with God as man; the Son of Man who is Lord of the Sabbath. But the things that do not conflict with our duty to this Lord are the worldly things in which we freely participate; there is an important lesson here about righteousness and worldly life and how we are to view and to live them both.

In that sense of the worldly and the spiritual duties of life, we are told about the next question that is to put Jesus to the test. This time they are Sadducees who ask him the question. The Sadducees represented landowners and other wealthy families in Jerusalem. They differed from the Pharisees in varying ways. They were politically prudent and adapted to the presence of the Romans. They held many high offices in Israel and controlled the temple and the Sanhedrin. Also in contrast to the Pharisees, they did not believe in the resurrection at the end of the age nor angelic life. Their focus was an even more rigid interpretation of the law than the Pharisees. After the destruction of Jerusalem, they completely disappeared. Their question to Jesus about a childless woman who is wife to seven successive brothers reflects their particular perspective.

To answer the Sadducees' question, Jesus reflects on scripture and once again gives us (and them) a teaching. At the resurrection, our lives and even our sense of life and experience of time is changed, transformed. We "become like angels in heaven" - it is an eternal life that is entered into. There is no marriage nor childbearing. Most importantly, he cites the passage of the burning bush for a correct understanding of this spiritual reality. Quoting the voice at the burning bush, Jesus repeats: "I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” ... He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.’ The present tense use of the verb: "I am," so central to our understanding of God and the nature of God, conveys timelessness. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are not passed in a worldly sense of life and time, but living in this eternal reality. And we cannot help but remember again, that Jesus himself is both man and God, as Logos he is also present in the burning bush. He is giving us a sense of the eternal reality, the nature of God, and the nature of time and life in that resurrection. Neither can the Sadducees reply to Jesus' interpretation of scripture: he flatly tells them that they are wrong.

Our peaceful messiah once again engages in confrontation and he is tested by new representatives of the powers that be. He gives away nothing, but instead defends his position and his authority - and displays that authority by his understanding. His authority is not given to him by others, not a reflection of a place in society in some narcissistic sense, but rather a reflection of true identity within himself. It is an authority borne of himself, his internal reality, as Son to Father. The central place of God in identity is evident in Jesus just as it is also an example to us of how we are to live our lives, and take our identity from our relationship to this central source of all Reality. True to himself and his identity, all of his answers also serve as teaching tools - not only for those who ask and try to entrap him, but for us as well.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone

Again they came to Jerusalem. As he was walking in the temple, the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders came to him and said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’ Jesus said to them, ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ They argued with one another, ‘If we say, “From heaven”, he will say, “Why then did you not believe him?” But shall we say, “Of human origin”?’—they were afraid of the crowd, for all regarded John as truly a prophet. So they answered Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’

Then he began to speak to them in parables. ‘A man planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower; then he leased it to tenants and went to another country. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants to collect from them his share of the produce of the vineyard. But they seized him, and beat him, and sent him away empty-handed. And again he sent another slave to them; this one they beat over the head and insulted. Then he sent another, and that one they killed. And so it was with many others; some they beat, and others they killed. He had still one other, a beloved son. Finally he sent him to them, saying, “They will respect my son.” But those tenants said to one another, “This is the heir; come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours.” So they seized him, killed him, and threw him out of the vineyard. What then will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others. Have you not read this scripture:

“The stone that the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone;

this was the Lord’s doing,

and it is amazing in our eyes”?’

When they realized that he had told this parable against them, they wanted to arrest him, but they feared the crowd. So they left him and went away.

- Mark 11:27-12:12

Jesus clearly must be quizzed by the authorities in the temple at this time, because in yesterday's passage he has cleansed the temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and the seats of the dove sellers; he also would not allow any more wares for sale to enter the temple. This is their turf, and it is their authority that is openly challenged in this act. It's important, also, to recall that Jesus acts from the time of his entry into Jerusalem are all messianic in nature - and therefore the questions asked by the temple authorities must be asked, logically, on those grounds as well. So, in that light, the questions of the chief priests, scribes and elders are reasonable: ‘By what authority are you doing these things? Who gave you this authority to do them?’

But in Jesus' answer, we must once again remember the wonderful personality of this man who is Jesus. His human personality is vivid and strong, with a gift for words that has continued to grip those who care about these scriptures for 2,000 years. And beyond that gift for expression, the persona of Jesus the man (or should we say, Son of Man, as he calls himself in his worldly life?) is one of tremendous wit and alacrity, seasoned with life of the Near East, a life lived in the crossroads of the world's great classical civilizations at that time. Although a man of peace and non-violence, Jesus is also a tremendous defender of his faith and his teaching mission as he ministers throughout the times of his teaching recorded in these gospels. This man of peace, vivid and strong, is no pushover. He knows the answer to their question, of course. But he also is aware the question is a trap - and he chooses not to fall into it. So, he ingeniously replies by posing a question of his own: ‘I will ask you one question; answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin? Answer me.’ He has turned the tables on the questioners.

It's important to remember that this dialogue takes place in front of the crowds at the temple. After the cleansing, the authorities must defend their territory, and the stage is truly set for an inevitable confrontation. But they are also afraid of the crowds. Because of the way that Roman rule was structured (in later centuries to be imitated by other conquerors of history such as the Ottoman Empire), the religious authorities were often seen by the people as collaborators with the Romans, seeking to maintain their positions. Therefore, charismatic figures like John the Baptist and Jesus himself were tremendously popular with the crowds. Knowing this, the authorities cannot reply that John the Baptist had no authority. Undoubtedly, John the Baptist's reputation as a prophet was sealed by his martyrdom at the hands of Herod Antipas. So the authorities answer Jesus, ‘We do not know.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.’

So, the chief priests, scribes and elders are left stumped by Jesus' question; they are confused and cannot answer. And Jesus goes on to tell a parable clearly directed at them. By referring to himself as the "son" in the parable of the wicked vinedressers, he answers their question. His authority comes as the Son of God; this is a clear reference to his messianic status. But in the reference to the "stone the builders rejected" (Psalm 118:22,23) Jesus has also made it clear that his criticism is leveled at his questioners. Thus the confrontation is deepened. Jesus has defended himself against the authorities of the temple, and they can do nothing in front of the crowds who favor himself and John the Baptist. But it is a stage set for conflict: unless the authorities shore up their own power, they will lose that power. They fear an insurrection by the crowd, so they withdraw at this time.

We cannot forget the importance of fruitfulness, emphasized so deeply in the past two daily reading passages: first in the story of the fig tree without fruit, and now in the parable of the wicked vinedressers. Both the fig tree story and this parable in today's passage emphasize fruitfulness as the result of how we go into prayer, how we practice worship and relate to God - and most especially our own responsibility to watch ourselves and how we live. Do we practice forgiveness? is the number one question raised in yesterday's reading. Here we see the link between forgiveness, peacefulness and practicing good judgment. Nothing must stand in the way of our relationship with God, not pride, not our position, nor any worldly concern or matter. We seek good judgment, God's wisdom and the gift of discernment through God's grace. When we enter into prayer and worship, we are dealing with a tremendous power that shoulders us with the responsibility of that relationship and how we bear ourselves within it. Are we willing to give our own stumbling blocks up that stand in the way of that relationship, or do we approach it with a kind of selfishness, a quest for personal greatness (another form of idolatry that stands in the way)? Where does forgiveness - and good judgment - come from? These are all questions raised for us as individuals in these passages. We mustn't forget that the point of studying these scriptures is to find where they are meaningful to us today, and to each of us as individuals practicing our faith.

Monday, August 17, 2009

My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations

On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. Seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see whether perhaps he would find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. He said to it, ‘May no one ever eat fruit from you again.’ And his disciples heard it.

Then they came to Jerusalem. And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,

“My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations”?

But you have made it a den of robbers.’

And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching. And when evening came, Jesus and his disciples went out of the city.

In the morning as they passed by, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots. Then Peter remembered and said to him, ‘Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered.’ Jesus answered them, ‘Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, “Be taken up and thrown into the sea”, and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you. So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

‘Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.’

- Mark 11:12-26

Upon first reading of this passage, I must confess I become greatly perplexed. Why should a fig tree be withered so? What does this teach us? But then one must look carefully at the scripture and ask questions. Why should the story of the fig tree be juxtaposed with the cleansing of the temple?

My study bible points out that the tree is in full foliage - indicating fruitbearing - although it's not the season for figs. So, symbolically speaking, we have a tree that appears to be full and yet has no real fruit, in other words, just an image of a fruit-bearing tree, a false image. It could also be that, as Jesus seems to have been muttering to himself, he saw in this image a symbol of something he may have had on his mind. My study bible also reports the fig tree to have been a scriptural symbol of Israel itself (Hos. 9:10). This may appear to make some sense out of this passage and its clear juxtaposition of the story of the fig tree and the cleansing of the temple. We are talking about a kind of fruitlessness that has the appearance of abundance. So, as Jesus goes into the temple, we could consider these thoughts to have been on his mind. Therefore, the cleansing of the temple comes to us as a story - or as an act - in light of this tree that feigns abundance yet is not bearing fruit.

Jesus of course cleanses the temple in this famous story, so vivid in its images. Jesus turns over the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of the dove-sellers; he won't let anybody bring more goods into the temple. Although no person is hurt, these images are those of violence, of real confrontation, and they are kind of shocking to us. After all, the image of the peaceful messiah has just occurred prior to this one: Jesus has ridden into Jerusalem not on a war-horse but on a donkey. We must recall also, that he went to the temple to find it deserted. So, although the fig tree appears full, there is no fruit. There was no one in the temple after his ride into Jerusalem, and yet today it is full of the hustle and bustle of people preparing for the Passover, with all the things for sale in this preparation. And yet for Jesus, it is not a temple, not a house of prayer, but a den of thieves. The analogy to the fig tree, then, becomes more clear.

And there is an important message there also for us as individual believers, about our own "fruitfulness" and our own need for cleansing, and how the two are linked. It seems to me that this passage teaches us that the two go hand in hand: if we find ourselves unfruitful we must look to that which we need to take care of within ourselves and pay attention to our own business. Is there something we're practicing that we need to take a look at? Some form of idolatry - of all the myriad forms that this can take - which we're practicing that we spend our time and energy on instead of the things that are truly spiritually fruitful? What is it that preoccupies us? Remember that the money-changers are exchanging the Roman currency for temple currency because of the image on the coin. And yet, Jesus is accusing them of practicing another form of idolatry. This great concern for commerce is hurtful to the poor who cannot afford the better sacrifices.

As they pass again by the fig tree, it has withered. His disciples point this out to Jesus. His words have had their effect! So, we have the violence in the temple and violence also in the image of the withered fig tree! What Jesus points out to them in response to the withered fig tree before them is the great power in prayer. I think this is a great key to this passage. When we practice prayer and relationship, we are linking with a tremendous power. We must not forget that. Prayer is not something we repeat by rote as we attend a service, or say a prayer in order to do a duty of some sort or simply participate in a liturgy as a valued "task" of some sort. Prayer is powerful, it links us with that which is most powerful, which can create something of nothing. Therefore how we enter into that prayer is probably the most important thing we have to think about.

Jesus points out that the temple is to be a "house of prayer" for all nations, and yet it has been made into a den of thieves. He curses the fig tree and it withers; and then in the sight of it proclaims to his disciples the great power of prayer and faith, that it can move mountains. When we enter into prayer, we are linking with a power that is unlike what we know in the world. This power is the ultimate creative power; it can create substance from nothingness, essence from non-existence. Therefore how we approach that power is the most crucial element of our reality as spiritual beings who seek a link with our Creator. Is there some form of idolatry we practice, that gets in the way of this relationship and serves as a stumbling block? Have we lost our focus? Are we failing to do as we should do and seek to practice forgiveness? I think that the practice of forgiveness is little understood if it is not taken as something which teaches us to bring our grievance to God and ask for good judgment. All things must be taken to God in prayer in order to place them in the position of "right-relatedness" or righteousness within us. We wish to be free of the stumbling blocks that would do us harm in this prayer, and keep us from right-relatedness with God, and the rest of the world around us as well. Whether we are individuals who act in our own lives to create or not to create fruitfulness, or we are talking about the great spiritual movements that history - and the scriptures - teach us about, the message is the same. Is there an obstacle in the midst of your fruitfulness that keeps you from bearing the fruit you could bear? What stands in the way of prayer? A full heart open to God? Right-relatedness? In the power of prayer, we risk losing that which we have if we fail to bear the spiritual fruits asked of us. And for that, Jesus says, we must be aware of what we need to cleanse within ourselves, and hold nothing back.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, “Why are you doing this?” just say this, “The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.” ’ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, ‘What are you doing, untying the colt?’ They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,


Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

- Mark 11:1-11

As Jesus enters into Jerusalem, the stage is openly set for confrontation with the leaders of both the Jews and Gentiles. We must remember that we have been preparing for notions of humility and power recently until this moment. Jesus has been teaching his disciples about "he who would be greatest among them" - about notions of service and greatness. He has made expressions of gentleness and loving care to the least among them and taught about how the most meek followers must be treated, Jesus has also made open loving references to small children. As Jesus rides into Jerusalem, and greeted as Messiah, there are references at once to messianic signs and inheritance of King David's kingdom, and yet he symbolizes deliberately humility and peace.

I read in my study bible that riding on a donkey specifically symbolizes peace. Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (where David took sanctuary and prayed). The Mount of Olives was, significantly to my mind, the crossing place for the scapegoat. But most significantly for our passage, it is the expected place of the Messiah's entry into Jerusalem. So, Jesus is sending specific signals of messianic nature, openly as he enters into Jerusalem. He is greeted with the phrase using the word, "Hosanna," also a Passover greeting or blessing with messianic significance. It means, "Save now" from Psalm 118:25.

But there is also something different and unexpected about this messianic entry into Jerusalem. Jesus has commanded his followers to find him a donkey to ride. He does not enter triumphantly as a kingly ruler in a chariot, nor as a warrior or conqueror on a horse. The donkey is not a symbol of worldly power. Jesus enters as a man of peace, a messiah of peace if you will. Also, an animal that has never been ridden is one fit for a messianic act. Jesus has specifically taught his disciples in recent acts, that they are not to "Lord it over" others as do Gentile rulers, and here his symbolism in his act of confrontation also includes deliberate humility and overtures of peace, not war and not nationalist or political ends.

The people respond, we note, appropriately to a messianic entry into the city. Their cries of "Hosanna" make it clear that Jesus is being welcomed with great expectation, indeed, from the crowds. So, the stage is set for confrontation, and it is the beginning of his last week. Jesus enters the temple as his first act, but it is late and the temple is deserted. So, with great fanfare, and with people responding to his disciples' command that "the Lord needs" a donkey's colt which they willingly accept to give, Jesus' acclaimed entry into Jerusalem begins. But when this particular Messiah arrives at the temple it is deserted, empty. Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem is symbolic of a deeper spiritual act - not that of the triumphal military conqueror or ruler, but rather the entry into the celestial Jerusalem of a spiritual messiah, a man of spiritual peace. That empty temple, deserted, is an anti-climactic end to this day and Jesus goes out to his friends at Bethany. The temple's emptiness seems to ask the questions: Who will be there for him? Who are the faithful? It is like a riddle that is waiting to be solved, and continues to wait for its answer. It is always an open question for all of us. Who will enter that temple?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Have mercy!

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

- Mark 10:46-52

The first question I asked myself when I read this passage was why it would be placed where it is. Why is the story of Bartimaeus placed on the road to Jerusalem, as Jesus journeys toward his fate? In my study bible, the question is answered at least partially: Bartimaeus, unlike others who have been healed previously, is not told that he should keep silence about the restoration of his sight. Rather, he becomes a follower of Jesus. His good news will be shared. My study bible says that this is an indication that now that Jesus is heading toward open conflict with the leaders at Jerusalem, the veiling of his secret (messianic identity) is no longer necessary. The word written here in Greek for "way" (as in, "he followed him on the way") is hodos. Still commonly used in Greek to refer to a street, it is the same word that will be used to describe the "Way" of early Christian believers.

But there is more to the placement of this passage. The phrase, "Have mercy on me!" is perhaps the most frequently used phrase of prayer. Sometimes we shorten it to "Have mercy!" and there are all sorts of variable ways to phrase this prayer. It is used frequently in liturgy and in all forms of worship as well. So, in this passage we have a structured message for those of us who will follow on the Way after Jesus as Son of Man is no longer with us as in human form in the world. We are given, through this story, specific instructions on prayer and relationship.

In the tradition of the Eastern church is a prayer method titled "The Jesus Prayer." This tradition is also called "Prayer of the Heart." It is becoming popular in the West as well. It's a very simple repetition of this phrase "Lord, have mercy" or a variation of it. It is used as a phrase repeated throughout the day to "remember God" - to focus on any moment and ask the presence of the Lord be with us. It is also used as a focused form of concentrated prayer as one sits in silence, and repeats the phrase to draw attention back to the prayer and let thoughts go - the earliest form of Christian meditation, stemming back to the Desert Fathers, the earliest monastics. I practice this method myself, and I would recommend it to anyone. Newer forms of this prayer are developed all the time and regaining popularity among Western believers; one modern representative type of contemplative prayer is "Centering Prayer." But the simple repetition of this phrase, drawing our attention to the Lord, and asking for his lovingkindness is always available. Many have transformational results in their lives through the repetition of this simple prayer over the years.

My study bible also says that prayer must be specific: Jesus invites Bartimaeus to tell him what he wants Jesus to do for him. So, we remember that prayer is a communication, a dialogue. When I pray, "Lord have mercy" it allows me to focus on whatever I wish to include in that mercy. So, this simple prayer functions to include my concerns and the people I wish to pray for. Bartimaeus also calls Jesus "my teacher." I think this is very significant, because once again it is indicative of those who would choose Jesus' "Way." So, we have three important factors established here for prayer after Jesus is gone: we think of him as "our teacher," the faith, worship and prayer practice we follow is his "Way," and when we pray, we communicate with him and ask for his mercy - lovingkindness and grace, as we practice repentance and seek to turn away from whatever becomes a stumbling block on that Way.

As Jesus walks toward Jerusalem, the ground is being prepared for all those who will follow when he no longer dwells among us in the flesh. We understand what it is to follow in that Way, to pray and to continue to consider him our teacher. We ask for his lovingkindness, we wish to communicate with him. We come to understand his teachings and the depth of our relatedness to him and through him as we continue, hopefully, in the life of prayer and worship. It's important to "keep it simple" when we need to: even the name "Jesus" alone is a form of this prayer. To "remember God" - to take a moment and focus in the midst of all of our lives to say to ourselves a simple word or phrase reminding us of this relatedness, to ask for mercy or love, is all it takes. Remember that love is what we ask for, what we pray will deepen in us, "mercy" is the energy of that love.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many

They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ They replied, ‘We are able.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

- Mark 10:32-45

As Jesus continues along the road toward Jerusalem, he further explains to his disciples what is going to happen to them. From their deeds of power, they have begun to be initiated into the sacrifices for the kingdom, notions of humility and rank and right-relatedness given to them. Here Jesus speaks clearly about what is going to happen to him: ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’

But John and James focus on the glory that is coming after three days. They wish to be granted positions within that 'new realm' initiated by Jesus' resurrection. Jesus asks them if they are able to take the cup he is taking, to be baptized as he will be baptized. ‘You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ He first of all must press on them the sacrifices he is making, that it is his very life he gives for this kingdom. They agree that they can do this, and Jesus says that this is so. However, Jesus also explains that to sit at his right or left hand is not his to grant - this depends on the will of the Father. Once again, he is elaborating on themes begun in yesterday's passage, in which he reminded his listener that what is Good is of God.

The rest of the disciples come to hear what they are discussing, and they get angry with James and John (brothers who are called Boanerges or "Sons of Thunder"). Jesus must then explain to them, first of all, that greatness in his particular kingdom is not the same as a worldly sort of greatness. Greatness in the realm which Jesus seeks to build and to initiate into the world through his work must be achieved through service to all. ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’ Jesus must explain, as he did regarding the young man with many possessions, that his worldly life is in fact one of sacrifice for this kingdom. The wealthy young man was taught that his detachment from his possessions was the one thing that remained necessary for him to enter the kingdom. But Jesus in fact will give up his life as a ransom for many, in order to serve this kingdom in the world. Not only are the disciples asked to give up their personal ambitions of greatness to this kingdom and its reality and its way of working, but Jesus himself will serve as the greatest example of what it means to serve and to be great.

Can they do what he is doing? Can they take up that cup? Can they willingly drink the cup he is to drink, as he will do? Jesus "baptism" will be the full immersion in death, of which baptism by water is symbolic. So, in this passage, the disciples - and we - are introduced, more fully immersed so to speak, into notions of sacrifice, detachment and what the kingdom may ask of us as followers or disciples. Our very lives are to be transformed through this cross: we give up who we are and all we are to this kingdom. This becomes the service for which one is recognized as great. It is not so much about what precisely we give and we do, as it is that we accept to serve that will of God in this respect. But the baptism into which we are all baptized in this kingdom is a baptism unto our deepest depths, a full immersion of our whole lives. The point is, I believe, that we must allow it to take in all of our lives, all of who we are, what we want, etc. Its greatest member - and many others that would follow - went to their very deaths in voluntary service.