Monday, August 21, 2017

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


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

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

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

- Mark 11:12-26

Yesterday we read that when 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 said to them, "What are you doing, loosing the colt?"  And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded.  So they let them go.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.  And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:  "Hosanna!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!"  And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple.  So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.

 Now the next day, when they had come out from Bethany, He was hungry.  And seeing from afar a fig tree having leaves, He went to see if perhaps He would find something on it.  When He came to it, He found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs.  In response Jesus said to it, "Let no one eat fruit from you ever again."  And His disciples heard it.  This fig tree has sprouted an early foliage, as if there is going to be a first crop of figs -- but it's not the season for figs yet, so it hasn't borne any fruit.  In Scripture, my study bible notes, a fig tree is often the symbol of Israel (Hosea 9:10).  This fruitless fig shows promise, but is empty.  Jesus is in Jerusalem, and has been welcomes as king and Messiah (Saturday's reading above), but the Kingdom He brings will be taken away and given to other people who are called 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 included those seller animals for sacrifice.  Doves were a more inexpensive sacrifice, perhaps the only affordable to the poor.  The money changers were those who traded Roman coins for Jewish coins.  Roman currency bore the image of Caesar, and so were considered defiling in the temple.  My study bible suggests that Jesus' cleansing of the temple points to the necessity that the Church be kept free from earthly pursuits.  And, as each person is considered a temple of God (1 Corinthians 3:16; 6:19), it's also a sign that our hearts and minds should be cleansed of "earthly matters" -- particularly where materialistic outlook substitutes for the perspective of faith.  If our souls are nourished by prayer, then we must take care how we either nurture the soul or deprive it of life.   Jesus quotes from Isaiah 56:7 and Jeremiah 7:11. 

Now in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.  And Peter, remembering, said to Him, "Rabbi, look!  The fig tree which You cursed has withered away."  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."  My study bible calls the cursing and withering of the fig tree a prophetic act, which signifies the judgment of Israel.  It says that the disciples need to learn that the old covenant with Israel is becoming "obsolete" and will "vanish away" (Hebrews 8:13).  These disciples will establish His Church, which will ultimately be filled with both Gentiles and Jews -- and they need assurance that they are following His will.  The image of this fig tree with be unforgettable.  Jesus focuses, however, not on the cursing and withering of the fig tree, but once again on faith and the power of faith.  This is the pillar of the Church and the ground for the disciples.  We note how immediately Jesus couples the power of faith in prayer with forgiveness.  The connection in prayer with the Father goes hand in hand with offering forgiveness.  This pillar on which we rest our  faith is a three-way bond:  the Father is the center and mediator of both our prayers and our forgiveness.  It is a constant practice.   My study bible quotes Theophan's commentary:  "Whatever we ask, without hesitation and believing in God's power, we shall receive" when we ask for spiritually profitable things.  This applies to the power of faith and prayer in all areas of life.

What is the power of prayer?  I think we could tie in Jesus' teachings on prayer with both the cleansing of the temple and the symbol of the withering and the cursing of the fig tree.  That is because the unassailable power of faith is based on the power of God.  Jesus' symbolic cursing of the fig tree shows an aggrieved Lord who is rejected by those whom He loves and for whom He has come to sacrifice all, to endure pain and suffering and death as one of us.  The cleansing of the temple is again another type of symbolic cursing:  God's people -- even in His house -- show a disrespect, a lack of love for all the teachings brought through the prophets, for the love God has shown God's people throughout a spiritual history of shepherding and nurturing, by turning God's house of prayer into a den of thieves.  It is finally the Son who has been sent, as suffering servant, who voices the complaint and drives out the money changers and those who sell animals for sacrifice to the poor, for whom this house of prayer is refuge.  We look to the power of prayer to establish God's presence in us and among us, just as Jesus quotes from the prophesy of Isaiah:   "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations."  It is in the power of this bond that the temple is cleansed, the power of this bond that the fruitless fig tree is cursed, for God's power at work in the world isn't without its effects, depending on how we respond to it.   There are those who would say God is simply a far away being, a Creator who began the universe and then left it to run on its own.  But a witness to the Gospel sees something quite different:  a God who not only gives us life and sustains the world, but cares even for the number of hairs on our heads, or the life of a single sparrow.  The God we know from the Son who has been sent to live and suffer and die for us is the God who is involved in the minute details of our lives, who loves us with a passion we couldn't contain nor comprehend because God is the absolute of love.  And this God, we learn from Jesus, lives within us and also among us.  It is there we go to prayer, indispensable for faith and the power of faith.  And this prayer, says Jesus, must also be offered with our forgiveness:  both at the same time given to the Father, given to the God who loves us and knows us better than we know ourselves, to the God who knows our faults and weaknesses and even sins of which we are as yet unaware.  It is in this bond that we create the power of faith, this synergy of love with the power of God at work in the world.  It is that bond of which Jesus says, "Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them."  It is that bond to which we give up all things -- even the hurts and grudges and slights we know in the world -- through which God establishes God's temple and power at work in us.  

Saturday, August 19, 2017

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


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

 Now when they drew near Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany, at the Mount of Olives, He sent two of His disciples; and He said to them, "Go into the village opposite you; and as soon as you have entered it you will find a colt tied, on which no one has sat.  Loose it and bring it.  And if anyone says to you, 'Why are you doing this?' say, 'The Lord has need of it,' and immediately he will send it here."  So they went their way, and found the colt tied by the door outside on the street, and they loosed it.  But some of those who stood there said to them, "What are you doing, loosing the colt?"  And they spoke to them just as Jesus had commanded.  So they let them go.  Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their clothes on it, and He sat on it.  And many spread their clothes on the road, and others cut down leafy branches from the trees and spread them on the road.  Then those who went before and those who followed cried out, saying:  "Hosanna!  'Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!'  Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!"  And Jesus went into Jerusalem and into the temple.  So when He had looked around at all things, as the hour was already late, He went out to Bethany with the twelve.  Today's reading tells us of the events we commemorate as Palm Sunday.  This is called Jesus' Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, in which He is welcomed as a king.   By Christ's time, my study bible notes, Jewish nationalism had led to the expectation of a political Messiah to deliver them from Roman control and to reestablish David's kingdom.  Clearly this is the expectation of the people as they welcome Jesus to Jerusalem.  We observe the careful and deliberate preparations that Jesus makes.  The donkey's colt is an image from Scripture (Zechariah 9:9), but it is also an image of humility and peace.  Rather than a horse or a chariot, the donkey's colt is a symbolic message of what kind of kingdom Jesus is ushering in.  My study bible says that this entrance into the Holy City declares the establishment of the Kingdom of God.  It's also a promise of Christ's final entrance into the heavenly Jerusalem with His people (all believers) and of His accepting the New Jerusalem as His pure Bride (Revelation 21:2).   The people spread their clothes and cut down leafy branches to spread on the road before Jesus, welcoming Him as king.   He enters Jerusalem from the east, as was expected of the Messiah.  Their cry comes from Psalm 118:25-26, associated with messianic expectation.   During the Feast of Tabernacles, it was recited each day for six days, and seven times on the seventh day as branches were waved.  Hosanna means "Save, we pray!"    It is a call to a deliverer, a redeemer.  We note that Jesus behaves in some sense like a king entering Jerusalem:  the first thing He does is to enter into the temple, and He looked around at all things.

The people clearly expect a world king to come and re-establish David's kingdom, delivering Israel from its conquerors and occupiers.  But Jesus' kingdom is not going to be like that.  It is a kingdom based on faith, and one established in order to usher in the kingdom of God on earth.  As He taught us to pray, in the "Our Father" or the Lord's Prayer, the faithful pray to our Father in heaven that "thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven."  This is the essence of the Kingdom, Christ's kingdom:  that via faith we can live and participate and dwell within the kingdom of heaven.  It is hard to imagine that task that Christ has set for Himself:  to turn the understanding of the Messiah from one of expectation of a worldly kingdom to one of a kingdom of faith.  But this is the paradox in which we still live.  How is the kingdom of God a kingdom?  He has been preaching and teaching to His disciples, ever since they recognized Him as Christ, what this Kingdom must look like, and what kind of leadership He is asking for from those who would be great in His kingdom.  He has taught that His hierarchy demands that "whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant.  And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all."  Above all else, here in Jerusalem He will set the example of a voluntary sacrifice for love.  How can a king sacrifice Himself and retain a kingdom?  This is the great mystery He brings, a living reality in which we are all to participate, "for in Him we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28).

Friday, August 18, 2017

"What do you want Me to do for you?" The blind man said to Him, "Rabboni, that I may receive my sight"


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.  Jesus is on His way toward Jerusalem, toward His Passion.  To restore sight to the blind was a sign that was expected to be performed by the Messiah (Isaiah 29:18; 35:4-5), considered a power God had reserved for Himself (compare to John 9:32).  Bartimaeus calls Jesus Son of David, a messianic title, displaying that he has faith that Jesus is the Christ.  My study bible adds a traditional spiritual interpretation to this miracle.  Jericho was a low-lying city that was associated with sin (Luke 10:30; 19:1).  Here it becomes symbolic of fallen humanity.  Jesus passing through Jericho is an image of His Incarnation in the world.  He restores sight to Bartimaeus in an act that parallels restoring humanity to glory -- both are connected with images of light.  Bartimaeus, having been made whole, stands in for a human nature that can now follow Christ on the road to the Kingdom, symbolized by the Lord's later entrance into Jerusalem.

What is it to receive light, to know light, to become as the light?  These questions are important as we think about the story of Bartimaeus.  Images of light and darkness teach us about sight and our own capacity to see.  Jesus often uses such images about blindness and darkness.  For example, He tells says, "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness!"  (Matthew 6:22-23).  The concept comes from the light which enters the eye, enabling vision.  A blind eye was considered to be "dark."  What He is saying is that those whose "eye" of perception is darkened, truly live in an overwhelming darkness that captures all things in its net.  He also uses light as a metaphor for Himself:  "I am the light of the world: he that follows me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life"  (John 8:12), " As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world" (John 9:5), "I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believes in me should not abide in darkness" (John 12:46).  Tying in the images of light with truth and salvation and eternal life, He says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).  All of these images give us better insight into the story of Bartimaeus as a spiritual example.  We should note that he even throws aside his garment to run to Christ, symbolically leaving everything else of himself behind.  His faith connects Him with Christ, and restores his sight, as affirmed by Jesus when He says, "Go your way; your faith has made you well."  Bartimaeus, having sight, is free to follow the Light on the road to Jerusalem.  He knows where He is going, and whom He needs to follow.  Our sight is similar -- we need to let light in to see properly and well.  We need the reflection of light even to see objects for the truth of what they are.  To cast light on a subject, or to bring it to the light, is to find the truth of it.   All of these metaphors of light apply to Christ.  We need His enlightenment all the time, and in all circumstances.  How will we make decisions?  Against what do we measure our own standards?  How do we find ways to greet our world and to respond to what we see?  Bartimaeus recognizes his Messiah.  He is an example to all of us, even when we cry out in the dark for sight.



Thursday, August 17, 2017

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 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 then and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."  Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

Now they were 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."   This is the third time Christ has predicted His Passion to the disciples.  My study bible says that these predictions are intended to encourage and strengthen them for the terrifying events they were going to face.  It also confirms that He goes to his death of His own will and choosing.  Each warning has come with more details of what is going to happen.

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."  My study bible says that the question for temporal power and glory is unfitting for a disciple -- and that it shows an earthly misunderstanding of the Kingdom of God.  Here Christ calls His Crucifixion a cup, and His death a baptism.  The Cross is a cup because He will drink it willingly (Hebrews 12:2).  His death is a baptism in that He will be completely immersed in death, yet it will cleanse the world (Romans 6:3-6).  When Jesus tells John and James that they will both "drink the cup that I drink, and with the baptism I am baptized with you will be baptized,"  He speaks of their lives of persecution and martyrdom after Pentecost.  Acts 12:2 tells us that James was the first apostle to be killed (when Herod began persecuting the Church).  John lived a life of exile and persecution to great old age (see Revelation 1:9).  And once again, Jesus begins to teach about what humility is and means in practice, especially for those who would be leaders in His Church.  He tells them that the positions they seek are not His to give arbitrarily; they will be given to those for whom God has prepared them.  With regard to the "highest places" given to human beings, the tradition from the time of the early Church depicts the Virgin Mary (most blessed among women - Luke 1:28) and John the Baptist (greatest born of women - Matthew 11:11) holding such honor. 

Once again, as He has done throughout Mark's Gospel from the time of His first prediction of His coming Passion, death, and Resurrection, Jesus emphasizes humility to His disciples as the chief virtue that leads to all the rest for them.  Even with regard to the use of His own power and authority (bestowing the places of honor on His right and His left), Jesus tells the disciples that these are not His to give; it will depend upon the Father's preparation.  It is interesting that as He makes His third prediction of His betrayal, Passion, death, and Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples that He will be delivered to the Gentiles.  And then, when He once more begins to teach them about power, authority, and humility, He mentions the Gentiles in reference to the use of power:  "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."   Certainly the rulers of the state, the emperors and kings of His time, can be put into this category that Jesus defines by saying they "lord it over them."   By this time Jesus is no doubt aware that His Church will go among the Gentiles, and be established among "the nations."   To lord it over another is to have absolute power and possession over them.  Jesus contrasts this idea of leadership with the idea that those among them who desire to become great must be their servant.   The impact of this address in the plural you -- that whoever would be their leader must be also their servant -- seems to be extraordinary.  Note that He doesn't address those who would be leaders, but rather those who would accept a leader and what quality such a leader must have.  And then He does address directly whoever would desire to be first:  "And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all."   Such a person must make an effort so as to be render themselves the slave of all.  Quite an incredible teaching to hear, either way!  But Jesus has a way with words that conveys His messages with distinct flavor.  We who are in the Church must seek to make sure we understand what our leaders are to be.  But for those who seek such leadership, the task is presented even more arduously in terms of the effort required in the true mastery of leadership.  Each one of us should take His teachings to heart in terms of how we live our lives and set our goals.  It is, as He says, His own life that sets the standard for all the rest of us:  "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many."   It is with His help and God's work in us, our participation in His baptism and cup, that we learn His way and make the changes He asks of us.  This itself is the great gift that changes our lives and makes leaders of any of us.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Many who are first will be last, and the last first


 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 then and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."  Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

- Mark 10:17-31

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

Now as He was going out on the road, one came running, knelt before Him, and asked Him, "Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?"  So Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good?  No one is good but One, that is, God.  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.  My study bible notes that this man doesn't come to test Jesus, but rather to seek advice from one He considers no more than a good Teacher.  Christ doesn't deny His divine identity as Messiah, but gives an answer designed to lead this man to knowledge of Himself.    We notice how the conversation evolves:  formal observation of commandments does not convey full righteousness before God.  The man senses he still lacks something and presses Jesus for an answer.  I think it is most important that we note what the text tells us, that Jesus loved him, and in this spirit of love gives him the answer about what he lacks.  This rich young man with great possessions is given the answer that is necessary for him:  it is this that he is most attached to, and that stands in the way of finding what he seeks.  St. John Chrysostom's commentary on the story of this rich young man in Matthew's gospel tells us that to give away his possessions is the least of Christ's instructions.  To follow Christ in all things is a far greater and more difficult calling. 

Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"  And the disciples were astonished at His words.  But Jesus answered again and said to them, "Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."  And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, "Who then can be saved?"  But Jesus looked at then and said, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible."  Then Peter began to say to Him, "See, we have left all and followed You."  So Jesus answered and said, "Assuredly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands, for My sake and the gospel's, who shall not receive a hundredfold now in this time -- houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions -- and in the age to come, eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first."  Jesus speaks to His disciples of the difficulties of detachment and sacrifice, themes that have run under the surface of His teachings from the time the disciples were disputing among one another who was the greatest.  About His words to the disciples, my study bible says that He's not commanding believers to divorce spouses or abandon children.  Once again, St. Chrysostom's commentary on the similar passage in Matthew is cited.  St. Chrysostom comments that this refers to keeping faith under persecution -- even if it means to lose one's family.  It also means to accept that unbelieving family members may cut off ties because of the believer's faith (see 1 Corinthians 7:12-16).  The promises of hundredfold returns are traditionally interpreted to mean in a spiritual sense:   fathers and mothers of the Church, brothers and sisters in Christ, and houses of worship and fellowship.    He also speaks of persecutions that will accompany blessings.

Just prior to Jesus' Transfiguration, and the beginning of His teachings on leadership and humility to the disciples, He began to teach them about the way of the Cross in connection with His predictions of His own suffering, death, and Resurrection.  He taught, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?"  All of the lessons included in our readings since then seem to emphasize this way of the Cross, and the understanding of appropriate sacrifice.  Jesus does not ask this young man in today's reading to give up his possessions merely because the concept of sacrifice is good in and of itself.  He is offering him an exchange, teaching him what is better for him:  the gift of eternal life in exchange for that which stands in the way which we hold dear.  In some sense, as the "follow up" discussion with His disciples makes clear, this is the offer and the teachings He gives to all of us.  It is the way of the Cross, and the way in which we each must take up our own crosses in life.  What do we give in exchange for the fullness of relationship and participation in the life of Christ that is offered us?  The giving up of his possessions for this man is akin to the sacrifice Jesus said might be necessary for us as we seek to grow in participation in the Kingdom, when He spoke of giving up a hand or a foot or an eye in Monday's reading.  What we may be called to give up may feel as deeply essential to our identity as those things, and as this rich young man's many possessions.  But the fullness of life He offers in return is incomparable.  We return to His question, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?"  Our sense of our selves and our world can only expand -- even a hundredfold -- through the kind of life He offers in return.  Jesus ties in the teachings in today's reading with the ones on humility in leadership from Saturday's reading, in which He said, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."   He reminds His disciples once again, "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."   When we consider the challenges of discipleship and their difficulty, we remember that He has also included the work of God in us that makes it possible.



Tuesday, August 15, 2017

And the two shall become one flesh


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

In yesterday's reading, Jesus continued His talk to the disciples after they were disputing who would be greatest in His kingdom:  "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.  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."   The Pharisees come to challenge Jesus on questions of divorce, a contested topic of its time.  Under the Mosaic Law, divorce was easy, and therefore easily misused.  It required only a certificate of a complaint by a husband against a wife -- women could not obtain divorce.  Jesus condemns divorce, and instead emphasizes the eternal nature of marriage.  In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus includes the possibility of divorce on grounds of sexual immorality, leaving us to understand that marriage -- like other relationships -- can be destroyed by sin.  The early Church would expand certain grounds for divorce.  But Jesus' emphasis is on the relationship of man and woman, in contrast to the easy dismissal of a woman for failing to please.  He puts it to us clearly:  such easy divorce was given "because of the hardness of your hearts."  This is an entirely different footing for true relationship; that the two shall become one flesh is an even deeper understanding of the mystical reality of marriage than the word "relationship" can convey. 

 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.   Theophan comments on this passage that the disciples rebuked those who brought the little children to Jesus because their manner was "unruly" and also they thought that children "diminished the dignity of the Teacher and Master."  As in the recent readings of yesterday (Monday) and the reading before (Saturday), Jesus once again emphasizes the love and humility that must be present in the Church -- setting these little children as an example of those who inherit the kingdom of heaven.  My study bible says that therefore, children are invited (even as an example to adults) to participate in the Kingdom through prayer, worship, baptism, and other practices in the Church.

In recent readings Jesus has emphasized to the disciples the important nature of relationships in the Church.  It all began with His second declaration and prophecy of His suffering, death, and Resurrection (see Saturday's reading).   After this, the disciples responding with a dispute among one another as to who would be greatest in the establishment of the worldly kingdom they imagined would be imminently established by Christ as Messiah.  Not only must they learn about the Messiah and the nature of our salvation and how it will work, but they also must learn leadership in His Church.  The whole basis of our salvation is in an important respect based upon the nature of our relationships, as Jesus teaches all throughout this section of the Gospel, in various lessons for the disciples and for us.  If God is love, then it becomes the power of that love by which we are truly saved -- and that means that we become "like God."  Jesus explains what that means when He tells the disciples (after their dispute about who would be greatest) that the one who would be first among them must be last of all and servant of all.  In order to achieve this reality, even if it is necessary to cut off a "hand" or "foot" or "eye" one must do so, because it is better to be saved while missing one of these, than for the whole of the self to die.  He warns of the all-encompassing woe that will betide one who causes one of the "little ones" to stumble.   It's not by accident, it seems to me, that this is the time in the Gospel when we encounter the discussion on marriage and divorce, which must once more be seen in context of the type of relatedness in His Church and among His people.  Can women be discarded so easily?  Is a wife merely a thing that must please?  Jesus displays the true text of marriage by quoting Genesis, and sets the tone for relationship not merely as a bond between two people, but one incurring a mystical depth in which the two become one.  It is the marriage itself that becomes bigger than both partners.  As with the leadership in the Church, this entails sacrifice, and certainly a change in the notion of hierarchy and relationship as "useful."  Finally, He gives us the depth of love for the little children themselves, which runs the depth of love through all things, all structures, and all hierarchy.  The quality of love is not something strained or diminished by the stature of the person.  This is the basic reality that He teaches us, the footing He wishes to establish for the meaning of God as mediator, Christ as arbiter of our lives and our relationships with one another.  This is what His Church should look like.  It may be an ideal, but it is a heavenly reality; it is the gift He gives us.  Marriage as sacrament is all about the grace to change and adapt, to discard that which diminishes us and makes us incapable of the growth He's asking for.  It is the power to give up even things that are dear in exchange for what is better, richer, deeper, greater.  The entire notion of sacrifice must be understood on these terms, for this will also exemplify the sacrifice He will make for the love of the world.  We exchange what we give up or "sacrifice" for His way, His gifts which are so much greater than what we already know and have.  The icon called Christ the Bridegroom, above, is one of His suffering and humiliation, and His great love for His people, His Church, and for the life of the world.  The Greek lettering on the right tells us to "Behold the man."  This suffering servant, overwhelmed by love for the world in His sacrifice, is our judge.  The icon is traditionally viewed as an image of marriage.  We can see His crown of thorns given by the soldiers who mocked and spat on Him, and His scarlet robe, and the scepter made of a reed.  In the Orthodox Church, a crown is the symbol of marriage.  In nearly all the world, the ropes that bind Christ's hands together form another symbol of marriage.  The reed as a mock scepter is a sign of the one who does what Christ taught the disciples:  to bend in service to others in all ways possible.   This is the love He showed us and the love He gives as an example for us, of which we are also capable.  It is how "two become one flesh."  There are all kinds of ways, married or not, Christ calls us to to expressions of sacrificial love in our lives.  More fully beyond, by this image He gives us the true nature of our salvation.



Monday, August 14, 2017

Everyone will be seasoned with fire, and every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt


 "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." 

- Mark 9:42-50

On Saturday we read that Jesus and the disciples departed (from a place of confrontation with scribes) and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it.  For He taught His disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him.  And after He is killed, He will rise the third day."  But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.  Then He came to Capernaum.  And when He was in the house He asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?"  But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.  And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."  Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them.  And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me."  Now John answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us."  But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him, for no one who works  a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me.  For he who is not against us is on our side.  For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward."

 "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."  Jesus continues the discussion of the service that makes one first (see Saturday's reading above).  Little ones, my study bible says, include all who have childlike humility and simplicity, all who are poor in spirit.  We must remember that He is directly addressing those who will be the leaders in His Church, the Apostles.  He tells us what His version of leadership is all about.  Clearly, His words also apply to all the rest of us.

"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.'"   My study bible says that the reference to mutilation is an illustration of decisive action to avoid sin.  It applies as well to harmful relationships that must be severed for the salvation of all parties (see Luke 14:26; 1 Corinthians 5:5).  If we remember that He is teaching the spirit of true leadership and the care of the little ones, we can view a hand as that which seeks to grasp what does not belong to it, a foot which can render violence, an eye that looks with envy and desire for power or materialistic perspective.  There are so many more ways, also, that we can understand that He is speaking of casting off habits, values, and ways of thinking that are abusive to His Church and relationships in it.  Jesus' repeated quotation is from Isaiah 66:24.  The fact that it is repeated three times tells us that this is a dire warning against abuses (see also Luke 17:1).

"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."  My study bible says that to be seasoned with fire means being tested to see if one's faith and works are genuine (see 1 Corinthians 3:11-15).  Jesus quotes Leviticus 2:13 when He says that every sacrifice will be seasoned with salt.  In that case salt stands for the remembrance of God's covenant with God's people.    We sacrifice the things in ourselves that stand in the way of real faith and living that faith; the sacrifice seasoned with salt is the one made in affirming the depth of that faith.

What does it mean to make sacrifices?  Have you ever had to let something go that was dear to you because you realized that your own growth depended upon it?  Faith will call upon us to change and transform ourselves as we agree to participate and be changed by the energies of grace.  We will find that there are things we treasured for one reason and another become errors or mistakes with new knowledge, and things we must discard.  There is a sense of higher purpose, and of something much greater and beyond ourselves that must take priority.  We sacrifice in order to be better citizens, so to speak, of something better than we know and bigger than we have understood before.  It's a question of what we love that determines what comes first.  It's like a child being born into a family, or a marriage.  Sooner or later an individual is faced with a decision that calls them to something bigger, broader, grander than their individual understanding and goals of the past.  A habit of nasty critical remarks must be discarded to help a marriage, perhaps.  Or a child demands our time and attention because it is helpless and completely dependent upon us -- we then must decide what kind of care and attention that child will have under our care.  An elderly parent, perhaps, needs care and decisions to be made for him or for her.  Then the child becomes the parent and must think about the sacrifice of time, attention, and wealth and what kind of care the parent will have when they become the one responsible.  All of these things ask us to grow into something bigger than we knew before and grander than ourselves alone.  Jesus is speaking to His apostles about what kind of leadership and responsibility He wants in His Church.  Those who would be first of all must be the servant of all.   To discard an arm, or a foot, or an eye is an indication to us of just how deeply our personal habits and ingrained ideas run within us.  He gives us a sense of how hard it might be to tackle parts of our own selfishness that we never stopped to think about, but have to come into question when better responsibilities and points of view are assumed, when we grow.  Christ calls us all to support His Church with a willingness to discard that which hinders our capacity for good relationships, and especially responsible leadership.  We recall that He is responding to the fact that the apostles were disputing on the road about who would be greatest, and He is setting them straight about what greatness is in His Kingdom.  It is time for each one of us to consider what that kind of citizenship means and what it calls on from us.  As Jesus Himself indicates, sacrificing a hand or a foot or an eye is worth the cost, considering all that we have to gain or to lose in that choice.  The faith we enter into us will plunge us into a kind of purifying fire where we will be asked to make choices of sacrifice.  As we grow in that faith, it becomes more incumbent upon us to consider the "little ones" and how what we do may cause them to stumble.  May we all know what it is that we gain in return.




Saturday, August 12, 2017

Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward


 Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it.  For He taught His disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him.  And after He is killed, He will rise the third day."  But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.

Then He came to Capernaum.  And when He was in the house He asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?"  But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.  And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."  Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them.  And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me."  Now John answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us."  But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him, for no one who works  a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me.  For he who is not against us is on our side.  For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward."

- Mark 9:30-41

Yesterday we read that when Jesus came to the disciples (returning with Peter, James, and John from the mount of Transfiguration), He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them.  Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him.  And He asked the scribes, "What are you discussing with them?"  Then one of the crowd answered and said, "Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit.  And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid.  So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not."  He answered him and said, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you?   How long shall I bear with you?  Bring him to Me."  Then they brought him to Him.  And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.  So He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?"  And he said, "From childhood.  And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.  But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."   Jesus said to him, "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes."  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"  When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!"  Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him.  And he became as one dead, so that many said, "He is dead."  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?"  So He said to them, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting." 

 Then they departed from there and passed through Galilee, and He did not want anyone to know it.  For He taught His disciples and said to them, "The Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him.  And after He is killed, He will rise the third day."  But they did not understand this saying, and were afraid to ask Him.   This is the second time in Mark's Gospel that Jesus predicts His death and Resurrection to the disciples.  My study bible says that through doing so, He shows He is going to His passion freely, and not being taken against His will.  We once again note the hidden quality of this "secret" of the Messiah, that He will suffer and be killed, and rise the third day; He does not want anyone to know He is passing through Galilee.  It is necessary to teach without fanfare the truth about the nature of this saving mission and how it will unfold -- that which will later be called a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.  And once again, we note the measures Jesus takes to protect and nurture faith, beginning with His disciples.

Then He came to Capernaum.  And when He was in the house He asked them, "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?"  But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.  It may seem to us that this dispute as to who would be the greatest of the disciples comes out of nowhere.  But the disciples all have strong cultural and historical expectations of the Messiah and the kingdom that will be ushered in with the advent of the Messiah.  They most likely expect that after rising on the third day, the Messianic kingdom will be established -- and they dispute among themselves who is going to get the greatest position in that royal kingdom. Considering that Jesus has just told them about the suffering and death He will experience, it is altogether a rather petty dispute.  But it teaches us something really extraordinary, that when we are faced with a crisis or some kind of earth-shattering news, we may well need to learn new lessons about how we live in response to it.  As followers of Christ, our learning (the meaning of the word disciple in Greek is "learner") never stops with each new challenge.  Our known reactions may be entirely inadequate for the new place we've come to. 

And He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all."  Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them.  And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, "Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me but Him who sent Me."   Jesus addresses a selfish interest in worldly power, the understanding of authority and position.   To be last of all and servant of all is a quality of humility, the greatest and first ranking virtue of discipleship.  And in terms of position and rank -- they are to receive even each little child as if they are receiving Christ.

Now John answered Him, saying, "Teacher, we saw someone who does not follow us casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he does not follow us."  But Jesus said, "Do not forbid him, for no one who works  a miracle in My name can soon afterward speak evil of Me.  For he who is not against us is on our side.  For whoever gives you a cup of water to drink in My name, because you belong to Christ, assuredly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward."  Christ Himself is the great dividing line of power in the world.   All acting in good faith are not excluded, even if not currently numbered among the disciples.  Theophylact comments on the similar passage in Luke, "See how divine grace is at work even in those who are not His disciples."  This grace extends even to those who give so much as a cup of water to drink in His name to those who belong to Him.

Christ is the dividing line, the measure of all things, the plumb line, the lode star.  It is the Person of Christ by whom all things are judged.  This truth runs through all things and people in a mysterious depth we can't quite touch nor always fully grasp.  But in today's reading, we're told that one who so much as gives a cup of water in His name to another that belongs to Him shall by no means lose his or her reward.  What we find is a kind of spiritual dividing line that acts in concert with His power, the mysterious power of the energies of grace at work in the world.  Sometimes this plumb line may not have an obvious name or affiliation, but rather it works as a guidepost to someone who may never have heard His name, but is reaching within themselves for the truth which they deeply desire to find.  Sometimes the depth of this plumb line is understood as love.  I believe there are times in life where one may follow an instinct without even knowing that the One who calls at the other end is Christ Himself.  But nevertheless, He is the knower-of-hearts, even when we don't even understand ourselves.  What we do to shore up faith in ourselves must serve this depth, this ultimate goal of whoever it is we are in His image, in His name.  That is the basic choice that is left to us.  It is the depth of discernment, the root of how our lives will go.  Whatever god or principle or goal or popular idea we put before that is always a diversion from what's truly best for us, from His guiding light.  Sometimes even what seems like a diversion from our course, or something negative, like an illness, a seeming setback, a delay, or a crisis of some sort, can be God's hand giving us time to pause and rethink and reset our goals and values.  There is no time like the present to invest in the power of prayer to ask that He keep us in His name and on the course He sets for us to be with Him, or to pray for others for the same.  The depth of love that runs beneath all things is more reaching than any other value or belief -- but only we can let our own pettiness stand in the way.  Let us note also that it is He who brings the reward -- and not the world we're dependent upon -- when we but offer so little as a cup of water.









Friday, August 11, 2017

Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!


 And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them.  Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him.  And He asked the scribes, "What are you discussing with them?"  Then one of the crowd answered and said, "Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit.  And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid.  So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not."  He answered him and said, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you?   How long shall I bear with you?  Bring him to Me."  Then they brought him to Him.  And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.  So He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?"  And he said, "From childhood.  And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.  But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."   Jesus said to him, "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes."  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"  When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!"  Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him.  And he became as one dead, so that many said, "He is dead."  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?"  So He said to them, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting." 

- Mark 9:14-29

Yesterday we read that after six days (from the confession of Peter, and the revelation that the Christ would suffer, and be killed, and rise after three days) Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.  And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles:  one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid.  And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son.  Hear Him!"  Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.  Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.  And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"  Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things.  And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?  But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him."

And when He came to the disciples, He saw a great multitude around them, and scribes disputing with them.  Immediately, when they saw Him, all the people were greatly amazed, and running to Him, greeted Him.  And He asked the scribes, "What are you discussing with them?"   Once again, as in other readings (this one, for example), we first notice Christ's protectiveness of His disciples in front of the multitude.  He will put Himself between the scribes and the disciples who are disputing with one another.  But in private, He gives rebukes to the disciples when necessary -- teaching us also to first correct people in private (see Matthew 18:15-17).

Then one of the crowd answered and said, "Teacher, I brought You my son, who has a mute spirit.  And wherever it seizes him, it throws him down; he foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth, and becomes rigid.  So I spoke to Your disciples, that they should cast it out, but they could not."  He answered him and said, "O faithless generation, how long shall I be with you?   How long shall I bear with you?  Bring him to Me."  This rebuke is meant for all present, the crowd and the man whose son has a mute spirit.   However, it does not include "the pillars" of faith:  Peter, James, and John (Galatians 2:9), as they had been on the mountain with Christ at the Transfiguration from which they have just descended with Him.  Sickness in Scripture, my study bible notes, is often connected to demonic activity. 

 Then they brought him to Him.  And when he saw Him, immediately the spirit convulsed him, and he fell on the ground and wallowed, foaming at the mouth.  So He asked his father, "How long has this been happening to him?"  And he said, "From childhood.  And often he has thrown him both into the fire and into the water to destroy him.  But if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."   Jesus said to him, "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes."  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"  When Jesus saw that the people came running together, He rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, "Deaf and dumb spirit, I command you, come out of him and enter him no more!"  Then the spirit cried out, convulsed him greatly, and came out of him.  And he became as one dead, so that many said, "He is dead."  But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he arose.  The sincerity of the man in seeking faith is evidenced by his tears, even if his faith is little or partial.  We note also that Jesus works as He saw that the people came running together;  He has had the man and the child brought to Him away from the multitude, in order to strengthen faith so that His healing power can work.

 And when He had come into the house, His disciples asked Him privately, "Why could we not cast it out?"  So He said to them, "This kind can come out by nothing but prayer and fasting."   My study bible says that this kind refers to all powers of darkness, not simply those that cause a particular illness.   It adds that the banishment of demons requires faith, prayer, and fasting.  Spiritual warfare and healing require all three.  Starting with the Didache, it has been taught that both the person in need of healing and the person performing the healing must believe, pray, and fast.  Interestingly, as noted in a recent commentary, some modern studies on intermittent fasting have concluded that among its effects on the body is to increase production of brain cells and the growth of neurons, giving us a glimpse of even a biological component which may indeed help to "deepen prayer" and focus on faith when all are practiced together.

Over and over again, Jesus focuses on faith as the key to participation in the Kingdom, so that God's spiritual power can be at work in us, particularly for all forms of healing.  Mark's Gospel especially seems to make this point repeatedly.  We observe signs in the Gospel that taking all measures to shore up and strengthen faith is important and necessary.  Time and again Jesus will take those who need healing (and their loved ones upon whose faith healing also matters) aside from crowds who scoff or ridicule or dispute, so that faith can be strengthened.  Even at the Transfiguration, we observe along with St. Paul that it is only "the pillars" of faith among the disciples -- Peter, John, and James -- whom He takes with Him up the high mountain.  What Jesus seems to "have faith in" Himself, so to speak, is the efficacy of faith and not only its necessity.  That is, even if it means limiting the number of people who are immediately involved in the working of His spiritual power, His confidence is in the very presence of the Kingdom.  From there, His ministry and the Gospel will spread.  It seems to teach us something counter intuitive to our predominant cultural impulses -- as is so often the case -- that the quest for popularity is not of prime importance or significance.  What is truly of prime importance is faith itself, and the need to strengthen it often includes taking people aside to be healed, outside of a town, inside of a house, and excluding crowds.  It also seems to contraindicate the popular notion that constant clash in debate is a good thing for advocacy; this isn't so when it come to Christ and the message of the presence of the Kingdom (Mark 6:7-13).  He instructs His disciples to simply shake the dust off from their sandals in rebuke when they're not received in a town.  Once again, what really takes root is faith:  where the disciples are received, they are to remain in that house until they depart the town.  Even on a personal level, the constant message we're given is that what makes a difference is the depth of faith, and the importance of building that depth rather than a focus on the surface attention level of those whose faith doesn't take root (see the parable of the Sower).  Jesus, of course, has given the Great Commission to His Church, and I would suggest that "to make disciples of all the nations" is to actively seek those people everywhere with this capacity for faith and its growth.   But the tearful prayer of the father in today's reading remains simply so poignant in light of the emphasis on faith Jesus always reminds us about:  "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!"   It's a good prayer for any of us, at any time.



Thursday, August 10, 2017

He was transfigured before them. His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them


 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.  And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles:  one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid.  And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son.  Hear Him!"  Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.

Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.  And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"  Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things.  And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?  But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him."

- Mark 9:2-13

Yesterday we read that when Jesus had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, "Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it.  For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?  For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels."  And He said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that there are some standing here who will not taste death till they see the kingdom of God present with power."

 Now after six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and led them up on a high mountain apart by themselves; and He was transfigured before them.  His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them.  And Elijah appeared to them with Moses, and they were talking with Jesus.  Then Peter answered and said to Jesus, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles:  one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" -- because he did not know what to say, for they were greatly afraid.  And a cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, "This is My beloved Son.  Hear Him!"  Suddenly, when they had looked around, they saw no one anymore, but only Jesus with themselves.   The Transfiguration is a central event in the ministry of Jesus for a number of reasons.  We first understand, in light of our discussions about faith in recent readings and commentaries, that Jesus takes His "inner circle" with Him up the high mountain:  Peter, James, and John.  This is an indication that an event requiring great faith is to happen.  In Jesus' transfiguration is seen by tradition a light such as no launderer on earth can reproduce its brightness.  In icons, the Transfiguration (which is called Metamorphosis in Greek) is often depicted with a blue tinge to depict its whiter than white quality of extraordinary light which has a spiritual origin.  Peter's seemingly incomprehensible response is one that comes from the Feast of the Coming Kingdom, the Feast of Tabernacles or Sukkot, in which tabernacles (or tents) are built such as those in which the Israelites dwelt on their way to the promised land, and recalls the tent of meeting which was overshadowed by such a bright cloud.  In Luke's Gospel, the three figures of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah discuss His "exodus" -- meaning His death on the Cross. 

Now as they came down from the mountain, He commanded them that they should tell no one the things they had seen, till the Son of Man had risen from the dead.  So they kept this word to themselves, questioning what the rising from the dead meant.  And they asked Him, saying, "Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?"  Then He answered and told them, "Indeed, Elijah is coming first and restores all things.  And how is it written concerning the Son of Man, that He must suffer many things and be treated with contempt?  But I say to you that Elijah has also come, and they did to him whatever they wished, as it is written of him."  Matthew 17:13 tells us that the disciples understood at this point that Jesus was speaking about John the Baptist as Elijah.

The Transfiguration is by tradition connected with the Crucifixion.   But first we must understand the elements that constitute a theophany, a revelation of God:  the light of God transfigures Jesus and everything about Him, even His clothing becomes an intense white so bright it's like nothing on earth.  This is a sign of the extraordinary presence of God, the energies of God that transfigure all things, and the light of the Holy Spirit.  There is the voice of the Father who declares, "This is My beloved Son.  Hear Him!" giving us a revelation of the Holy Trinity.  The bright cloud is similar to that which surrounded the tabernacle of Moses (Exodus 40:33-35).    Moses represents the law and all those have died, while Elijah represents the prophets, and (since he did not experience death) all those who live in Christ.  Both also manifest the communion of the saints.  My study bible says that Christ's death is intimately connected to the glory of Transfiguration, for Christ is glorified through His death (John 12:23).    In many churches, the Feast of the Holy Cross is celebrated forty days after Transfiguration.  The Cross is the ultimate instrument of transfiguration by Christ and His life and ministry, in which death itself is "trampled by death" -- making the dreaded cross of Roman crucifixion an instrument of eternal life for all.  The glory of Christ revealed at Transfiguration also tells us that this death will be voluntary.   Christ's glory could easily have prevented arrest and detention if He had not consented to this gift of love.  The discussion in Luke of Jesus "exodus" (in the original Greek text) also gives us the remembrance of the Old Testament Passover.  As my study bible puts it, the true exodus from enslavement into salvation.   As we consider the Transfiguration, we remember also that our faith teaches us that we participate in His life and ministry.  And so we ask ourselves how this singular event is reflected in our lives.  How does God transfigure you?  Have you changed as a result of your faith?  We may be surprised at the outcome of God's energies and love; sometimes the strength of the change isn't what we expected at all.  But then, we are in this for a new point of view, too.