disclosing new worlds

weekly reflections on the revised common lectionary readings

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Written by Lawrence

27 October, 2006 at 1:16 pm

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pentecost 21 Year B

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Job 42: 1-6; 10-17
Psalm 34: 1-8; 19-22
Hebrews 7: 23-28
Mark 10: 46-52

This is the second occasion in a short space of time on which Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The first is in response to a request from James and John (10:35-6); the second is in response to the desperate call of blind Bartimaeus: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” (10:47). The location is important: it’s the last significant stopping place before arrival at Jerusalem. Mark, remember, uses geography symbolically. The steep ascent from the Galilee to Jerusalem – the occasion for Jesus teaching his disciples about the Way of the Cross – mirrors the climb up Golgotha to crucifixion and death. These stopping places are the stations of the cross: time to pause and enter into the enormity of what is happening. It is the road of discipleship – the place of following. The further they travel it, the more the discipleship narrative unravels. The closer they draw to Jerusalem, the stiffer the resistance of The Twelve to the Way of the Cross becomes. And here, in the last stopping place before Jerusalem, the nature of true discipleship is shown, not through Jesus’ teaching, but through an encounter with a man who has become blind.

From the gutter-dweller to hero of faith
Here’s Mark at his subversive best: a marginalised, blind beggar, sitting in the dust, unnoticed by the excited crowd, is heard by Jesus. In the hubbub of excitement, the excited chatter and the shouts, the voice that Jesus hears is the one the crowds are trying to silence.

Look at v48. The people “sternly ordered” (epetimōn autō) Bartimaeus to be quiet. That’s the same word that is used when Mark describes the disciples’ attempts to prevent the people bringing their children to Jesus (10:13). See the pattern? The would-be door-keepers around Jesus – the “bouncers” –try to decide who is worthy to approach Jesus. In each case, the incident follows a discussion about greatness. Earlier in the chapter, Jesus has used a child to deconstruct notions of greatness. Here, immediately after James’ and John’s request, we find a blind beggar – someone isolated socially, spiritually and, in this incident, physically. He’s literally sitting behind a wall of people who stand between him and Jesus, unable to “see” Jesus on two counts: the crowds block his view, and, of course, because he’s blind! He’s voiceless too – not because he cannot shout, but because the people do not allow his voice to be heard. They address him with a “stern rebuke” to be quiet – just as an exorcist would address a demon.

Just as Jesus has earlier told the would-be gatekeepers to allow the children to come to him, and told them (shockingly) that the kingdom, in fact, belongs to them, and that any would-be disciple (as opposed to gatekeeper!) needs to become like them, so now Jesus “stands still” and calls Bartimaeus to him.

What is the significance of Jesus “standing still”? The point is that he has stopped – on the way to Jerusalem. This is a “station of the cross”. It’s a clue for the readers: Jesus is about to teach us more about the nature of discipleship and the Way of the Cross. What is shocking is that Jesus’ “teaching” here consists in hearing the voice the crowds are trying to muzzle and demanding that they make visible the very person they are trying to make invisible (“Call him here”). What is Jesus teaching his disciples? Actually, nothing! This is not an instance of Jesus drawing The Twelve aside and teaching them about the Way of the Cross! 10:42-45 is the last time that Jesus teaches his disciples about the Way. Here, Jesus doesn’t teach. He heals. And the healed blind beggar ends up “following Jesus on the Way” (10:52).

What’s going on here? Jesus’ teaching on the Way of the Cross finishes with “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45). Bartimaeus shows two things: firstly, he shows clearly that the disciples have not understood what Jesus is on about! Bartimaeus is one of the people they try to exclude. He isn’t reckoned to be among “the many” for whom Jesus will give his life. Yet his is the voice that Jesus hears. He “stops” in Jericho only for this man – in response to the cry for help. The Way of the Cross is “bad news” for those who, like the rich man, have everything invested in the status quo. To those like Bartimaeus, excluded and unwanted, the Son of Man comes as a servant. The message of the kingdom is a gift, to be accepted with joy.

Secondly, we’re clearly supposed to understand that Bartimaeus is a true disciple of the Way of the Cross. Jesus doesn’t call him – in fact, he sends him on his way. Bartimaeus chooses to follow him. At the same time, the disciples whom Jesus has called have failed to understand. They will accompany Jesus to Jerusalem, but their abandonment of him shows that they are not “followers”. Mark, in other words, portrays Jesus as having “stopped” on two levels: he has (literally) “stopped” on his journey, and he has “stopped” teaching The Twelve about the Way. There is nothing left to say. The disciples have “seen” the Way, but remain wilfully blind to it. There is nothing left for Jesus to teach. He is not going to change their minds. So, rather than have Jesus say more about the Way, Mark portrays this as incident in which true discipleship is enacted – by a blind man who yearns to see.

Mark portrays Bartimaeus, therefore, as a role model; a summary of all that Jesus has being trying (unsuccessfully) to teach The Twelve. He belongs in the same category as the children whom the disciples try to keep from Jesus: the marginalised, excluded people whom society considers worthless and who are “the first” in kingdom terms. In contrast to the rich man who cannot abandon his possessions, Bartimaeus throws aside his only possession (his cloak) in order to get to Jesus (10:50). He does so gladly! And, unlike the disciples who are wilfully blind to the Way of the Cross, he desperately wants to see.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Look at where Mark places this pericope in the narrative. On the one side it is bounded by the request of James and John for power. On the other, Mark places the Triumphal Entry. It’s important to look the implication of the narrative structure here.

“My teacher, let me see again”
Jesus asks both the brothers and Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” The brothers ask something that Jesus is unable to give: power. Power is not Jesus’ to give, because Jesus has renounced the way of power in embracing the Way of the Cross. Their request shows that the brothers are blind to who Jesus is. Bartimaeus, by contrast, asks for what Jesus can give: mercy and sight. “Have mercy” is answered by Jesus’ “Call him here.” “What do you want me to do for you?” “Let me see again” is answered by Jesus’ pronouncement: “Your faith has made you well”.

Note, too, that both the brothers and Bartimaeus address Jesus as “teacher”. This isn’t accidental. Jesus has been teaching them about the Way of the Cross. The disciples, however, haven’t been learning! That is why they ask for something Jesus cannot give. Bartimaeus addresses Jesus as “my teacher”. It’s very personal. Bartimaeus has learned from Jesus. But what has he learned, and how? He has heard about Jesus – about the healings, exorcisms and the shocking stuff Jesus has been saying about the least being first. And because he is one of the least, he has “learned” about the God Jesus is revealing. Jesus’ God is a God of love and mercy. Hence he understands that Jesus has come, not to condemn him, but to serve him, and give his life as a ransom for him. He recognises the gift.

“Son of David, have mercy on me”
In the following pericope, the people hail Jesus as the Son of David. The title’s right, but they’ve got the content wrong. They see “Son of David” as a designation of power. Bartimaeus sees it as affirmation of grace – that God’s messiah comes bearing the kingdom as an undreamed of gift! Even though everyone else thinks Bartimaeus has no right to try and involve Jesus in his life, Bartimaeus knows that it’s okay to call out to Jesus – because Jesus is the King of Mercy! Bartimaeus, in other words, is here not only as an example of discipleship: it is his acclamation of Jesus as king that is the true reception of Jesus. Jesus is going to Jerusalem as king – but the people do not recognise what sort of king. Bartimaeus does!

Jesus and the God of mercy (Job 42: 1-6; 10-17/Hebrews 7: 23-28)
What are we to make of this week’s other readings? In and of themselves, they each conclude and important section of the book. The passage from Job is the conclusion to the story. The verses from Hebrews conclude the author’s section on Jesus as High Priest. He will change gear in the next verses and look at the implications for the new covenant. Today’s readings are all about summaries and conclusions.

In the context of the Lectionary readings, there is a clear link between the story of Bartimaeus and Job 42: 5 – “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you”. Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus, but his encounter results in seeing him. Job had not understood what he had heard from Yahweh and about Yahweh; his encounter (such as it is!) with Yahweh provokes an “Ah! Now I see!” reaction. And significantly, Job’s response of faith “heals” him: his fortunes are restored.

There is a parallel, too, in Job’s “priestly” role vis-a-vis his friends. Job. Job prays to Yahweh for his friends, asking Yahweh “not to deal with them according to their folly” (v8). They, like the disciples and the Jerusalem crowds, have “have not spoken of Yahweh what is right” (unlike Job). Yet Job understands their “folly” because he is a human being like they are – and because they are his friends! This is precisely the picture of Jesus as High Priest that the writer to the Hebrews has painted. Jesus is “like us”. He knows us and loves us. He knows our weaknesses and is therefore sympathetic rather than condemnatory. His “instinct” is to plead on our behalf rather than for his own vindication and our condemnation. And, like Job in the story, he alone is “true”. He is “perfect”. He has no need to plead on his own behalf but can devote all his energies to our cause!

Yet there is a strong contrast as well as a parallel. Job’s response to “seeing” Yahweh is given in verse 6: “Therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes”. There’s an “Old Testament/New Testament” thing going on here (and I use the terms “Old” and “New” quite deliberately, because we are supposed to understand something entirely “new” about God through Jesus). Bartimaeus doesn’t “despise himself”, but responds joyfully! What Bartimaeus understands about Jesus is that Jesus is primarily about mercy! This section of the gospel has been about power. Jesus has power – but it isn’t the sort that the disciples are after. That sort of power is annihilative. The power of love and mercy is transformative and Life-giving.

Job is confronted with Yahweh’s “naked” power, and his response is the “worthless worm” sort of spirituality and theology. “I am a miserable wretch, a filthy sinner, utterly unworthy etc”. Now, these things may indeed be true, but what we are supposed to understand in Jesus is that God doesn’t see us in these categories! That is a projection of our own attitudes on to God – the attitudes that bar children, menstruating women and blind beggars from Jesus because they are apparently “unworthy”. Yet God in Jesus welcomes them joyfully! In terms of the Parable of the Lost Son, God sees people in terms of “lost children”, not “filthy sinners”! God looks through the eyes of love that grieve and weep for the lost, not through the eyes of power and self-vindication that despise and condemn. We have much to learn from Jesus about he spirituality of grace!

Not missing the point …
Today’s gospel passage is saturated in symbol. It’s a brilliant piece of narrative construction, and once you start seeing the links, it’s difficult to stop! However, the cleverness of the narrative mustn’t be allowed to distract from the fact that this is also an intensely human drama! This is a story of a blind man who has given up all hope of seeing again. He is in reduced circumstances: he has lost his sight, and with it his place in the order of things. He is a nobody. It’s easy to imagine how hard he has had to fight against “If only …” – in that way lies bitterness and despair.

But he has heard about Jesus of Nazareth. Like a starving man, he has wolfed down the stories of Jesus’ healings and extraordinary care for people – people like him! And now he hears that Jesus is in town – is about to pass the very place where he’s sitting! The “if onlys” come in full flood! If only he can get to Jesus! If only Jesus will hear him … and stop … and …”

We ought to imagine his desperation – the desperation that makes him flout convention, risk angering the very people on whose handouts his life is utterly dependent, and which makes him just keep on shouting louder and louder, “Jesus! Son of David! Please! Over here – have mercy on me!”

And we ought to imagine being Bartimaeus – being led to Jesus; being told to take courage because he’s calling … for him! And then hearing those words from the lips of Jesus: “Tell me, what is it you want me to do for you?” Those words from the lips of the only man who can actually do what Bartimaeus wants with all his soul!

And let’s imagine him opening his eyes – seeing again for the first time in God knows how many years – and seeing Jesus. Yes, let’s look at the narrative and see how cleverly constructed it is; how deep; how it articulates so much of what Jesus is teaching. But let’s hear the story with our hearts, because it’s meant to be heard like that. Let’s, with Bartimaeus, open our eyes and “see” Jesus! And let’s respond with the same abandon and joy.

Amen.

Written by Lawrence

27 October, 2006 at 1:09 pm

Posted in evangelism, hebrews, job, mark, year B

pentecost 20 Year B

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Job 38: 1-7; 34-41 NRSV text
Hebrews 5: 1-10 NRSV text
Mark 10: 35-45 NRSV text


Poor Mark! He goes to all the trouble of carefully constructing a great story, only to have it sabotaged by the Lectionary compilers. They’ve only gone and left out the third passion prediction from today’s gospel reading, so that it appears as though the account of James’ and John’s request is a direct continuation of last week. It isn’t. We have already learned that we need to pay close attention to the narrative symbolics of geography and movement in Mark’s gospel. This section (10:32ff) opens with an interesting picture: the group is on the move again, going up to Jerusalem. Luke, you will recall, makes the journey to Jerusalem a central narrative motif to emphasise what Mark is telling us here. Ever since Caesarea Philippi (8:27ff), Jesus has been trying to impress upon an increasingly resistant group of The Twelve that this is not a journey to glory but to death. It is the Way of the Cross.

The passion predictions are a three-part “set piece”. Each adds further detail, provokes further resistance, and is the occasion for Jesus to spell out more and more clearly the implications of the Way of the Cross as the only road of true discipleship. Mark’s point is simple yet vital: the Way of the Cross is also the disintegration of the discipleship narrative. The self-sacrifice demanded by the Way means that Jesus will end up abandoned by his followers. He will face the cross utterly alone – abandoned not only by the disciples but by God! We need to look more closely at how Mark constructs his narrative at this point.

The passion predictions, resistance and the demands of discipleship

First passion prediction: Mark 8: 27-38

The first passion prediction follows immediately upon the heels of Peter’s confession of Jesus as “Messiah”. “Messiah”, you will remember, is a code word in Peter’s language for glory. Jesus says, “No, this is the way of death”. Peter’s response is to say, “No way, Jesus! Let’s stop that sort of nonsense right now!” and leads to the saying about losing one’s life in order to save it. There is no other way than through self-sacrifice and death. Everything must die precisely in order for something new to rise from its ashes.

Second passion prediction: Mark 9: 30-49
Note that each passion prediction is demarcated geographically: in 9:30 they “move on” and come to Capernaum. These stopping places are landmarks on the way to Jerusalem. The closer they get, the more the conflict between the Way of the Cross and the disciples’ expectations are thrown into sharp relief.

The second passion prediction leads to the debate about greatness, as we saw (Pentecost 16). Jesus uses the example of how the disciples rate the greatness of a child to show the contrast between “greatness” in God’s economy and his contemporary society. It’s about power – which leads immediately into the story of the unknown exorcist. The section ends with the sayings on cutting off offending parts of the body – a reference, I suggested, to child abuse, which is about precisely the wrong sort of view of the value and importance of the child that Jesus uses as an example (Pentecost 17).

The second and third passion predictions are linked by another stopping place on the way to Jerusalem: the occasion for teaching about the new family arrangements in the kingdom, receiving the gift of the kingdom as a child and the story of the rich man (Pentecost 19).

The third passion prediction: Mark 10: 32-45
This section opens with the dramatic picture of Jesus striding ahead of everyone else, being followed by crowds (including The Twelve) who, significantly, are amazed and fearful (v32). Their unease is supposed to tell us something: they are beginning to have second thoughts about following. They are dragging along behind, unwillingly. There is a sense of impending disaster that quite properly causes fear. This is the Way of the Cross – and they don’t like it one little bit!

In this context, Jesus takes The Twelve aside and is absolutely explicit about what is going to happen to him (v32b-34). There can be no doubt about what is ahead. Significantly, Jesus says that he will be handed over to the Gentiles. In other words, all of his support base will melt away. He has spent time in both the Jewish and Gentile regions around the Galilee. Yet none of the support he has found will be able to save him. Importantly, Jesus doesn’t want saving – at least in the sense that he knows that this is his mission, and is deliberately choosing the Way of the Cross. This is his purpose. This is why they are heading inexorably towards Jerusalem.

And what is the disciples’ reaction? It is to behave as though their script was the one operating! They are blind to what Jesus is telling them – wilfully blind. That is why, at the next stopping point (Jericho), Mark records the healing of Bartimaeus. Here was a blind man who anted to see; the disciples see but wish to be blind to the demands of the Way of the Cross.

“We want power”
This brings us to today’s gospel passage. James and John come to Jesus with a straightforward request: we want power. If this is about the kingdom, and Jesus is the king, then it makes perfect sense to check out the availability of key court appointments with the man himself!

What is at issue here? It’s the blindness of the disciples to the Way of the Cross! As before, the passion prediction leads on immediately to a discussion among the disciples about greatness. They’ve spectacularly misunderstood – or misheard – Jesus previously (Mark 9:35): instead of taking seriously what he had said about the first being last, and the greatest being the servant, James and John make a request to be the first! The anger of the other disciples (10:41) is not outrage at such naked bids for power, but at being outflanked: James and john beat them to it! That is why Jesus calls The Twelve to him (rather than just James and John) and explained yet again how wrong-headed their notion of power is.

In the kingdoms of the world, says Jesus, power is used to impose one’s will on others and to gain influence and respect. It is “power over”. Jesus’ power – as defined by the Way of the Cross – is the power of servanthood: “power on behalf of”. The messianic community, like the kingdom, is not hierarchical. It is a community of servanthood, love, mutual care and provision.

Why do we instinctively hiss and boo the brothers? If we’re honest, we all love power – and tend to love the powerful! That is why we are so fascinated by the detail of the lives of the rich and famous. It’s why we are motivated by promotion in the workplace and in the Church. Even in “flat”, non-hierarchical Church structures like the United Reformed Church, the lure of key positions is as strong as in more rigidly hierarchical forms of Church government. We live in a world of just deserts and rewards – the world, in other words, of “the Gentiles”. True, our best rulers are not tyrants, but the principle remains the same.

Jesus, in other words, is being radically subversive here. The contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world happens on two levels. There is the structural level – the way in which power is distributed in society. Power in kingdom terms is non-hierarchical. It is consensual and democratic. Yet the emphasis here in the gospel is not on the structural but on the heart. It is about intention and ambition. James and John are honest about their intentions and ambitions. They want power, and they assume Jesus wants it too. It is that common-sense, unexplored assumption that blinds them to what Jesus has told them. They may hear what Jesus says about powerlessness, but the unconscious move is to accommodate it, rather than to hear the radical departure from the norm: Jesus dos not want that sort of power! The contrast here is between their attitude and that of Jesus (as Paul writes in Philippians 2: 5-11). Jesus is “striding ahead” in a quite deliberate embrace of the powerlessness of the cross: he is going to “give his life as a ransom for many”. But this is “powerlessness” defined in terms of “power over”. There is a real power to what he is doing. It is the power of resurrection – the power that is stronger than death itself. It is the power of love. And it is power that saves!

The problem of God … (Job 38: 1-7; 34-41)
There’s a theological conflict here which we tend to duck. This is all about the kingdom of God. Yes, Jesus is clearly key here, but nevertheless, it is ultimately about Jesus’ vision and proclamation of God. The problem is that the notion of power that is involved here cuts directly across our theology of God as “Almighty” and “king”. Power is directly linked with God. The desire for power is the desire to be like God. It was Lucifer’s desire and, in the story of the Garden, the bait with which he enticed Adam and Eve: “Don’t you want to become like God?” The bible is rich with such powerful images of God – images that compel and entice.

Jesus asks the brothers if they are able to drink his cup and share his baptism (a reference to the Passion). In other words, he’s saying, “Following me is becoming like me. Are you up for it?” Yet we can’t stop there. Jesus is not only saying, “Become like me”. He assumes that the values he is espousing and the Way he is embracing is also God’s way. And if that is true, we need to feel the force of the way in which Jesus is deconstructing notions of God’s power!

Job 38 is part of Yahweh’s response to Job’s demand to meet him in court and explain God’s ways. Job, you will remember, has suffered terribly at Yahweh’s hands. His four friends have tried to explain that it can only be construed as punishment; that Job must have done something wrong. Job, however, protests his innocence. He is prepared to face Yahweh with it, and take Yahweh on. He challenges Yahweh to show where he has failed. But Job is neither spectacularly egocentric nor blinded to his own failings. Job is right! That is the whole point of the book. Job’s sufferings are presented as a result of divine whim, not divine justice.

Yahweh’s response is a massive restatement of divine power. It boils down to this: “When you can do what I can do, and understand what I understand, then come and we’ll talk. Until then, I’m not going to demean myself by answering you!”

Job is right – but so is Yahweh! Yahweh is indeed so powerful and beyond understanding. It is impossible to fathom what it must be like to have such power and knowledge. The book leaves us deep within the divine mystery: God is God. This is enough for Job. Yet it is a profoundly unsatisfactory response for those of us who do not find that answer satisfying, not least because it is terrifying. Such a God indeed has power to do whatever God wishes and wills. But that means that God may be capricious, cruel, unjust or uncaring – and there is no one who is able to call such a God to account.

Do you see the problem? How can we be sure of God? What can we do, other than to grovel before such a God as helpless slaves, totally dependent on his (and surely such a God must be male?) good will? Almighty power reduces human beings to slaves – and yet Jesus says absolutely that this is not how it is in God’s kingdom! Rather, he says that, if we ought to be slaves, it is because God is a slave! When Jesus says, “I’m like a slave; become like me”, he’s not saying, “I’m God’s slave”. God is not exempted from Jesus’ reconfiguration of greatness!

God’s power, God’s love and Jesus the High Priest (Hebrews 5: 1-10)
Job alone doesn’t give us enough. We haven’t said enough when we say that God is “Almighty” – but neither can we say that God isn’t! This is, of course, only to land ourselves firmly in the problem of theodicy – of how God can be both all-loving and all-powerful, given the presence of suffering in the world. But the gospel passage and the epistle to the Hebrews give us a different slant on the issue.

God’s power is indeed as great (and greater!) than depicted in Yahweh’s speech to Job. But, Jesus tells us, it is power that is deployed “on behalf of”. God’s power doesn’t immunise God against human suffering, or protect God from it. God’s power is not “naked”, sovereign power, to be deployed in a crushing exercise of divine will. Rather, it is the power of passionate love that actively seeks the beloved out, regardless of cost

The story of Jesus tells us two things here: firstly, that God suffers with us and on our behalf. The cross involves God in suffering and loss, and it is voluntarily embraced for us. But secondly, as the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, God enters the human condition in Jesus. The writer to the Hebrews portrays Jesus as the High Priest who is “not unsympathetic to our weaknesses”, but is “like us”. God, in Christ, “knows what it’s like”. This is the story of God’s solidarity with humanity, rather than condemnation and abandonment. It is a story lived out in radical identification with all that God is not. This is how we are to understand the power of God.

It is redemptive power. The New Testament uses the images of God’s power (the power of creation, flood and exodus) to speak about God’s power to liberate us from all that enslaves. This is power exercised on behalf of the least: the poor, the dispossessed, the bereaved, the oppressed. It takes on the systems of economic , social, spiritual and political power that are death-dealing and destructive – even that of the Strong Man – and wins! It is resurrection power; the power of Life. And nothing can stand against it.

It is also the power of forgiveness. It is the power that suffers the effects and consequences of human sin, and then speaks the word of forgiveness that frees, transforms, converts and makes possible a new start. It is the power by which human beings, terminally trapped in the cycles of sin, death, guilt and despair, can be born again into God’s new creation. It is the power of Life. Hallelujah!

Amen.

Written by Lawrence

21 October, 2006 at 11:22 pm

pentecost 19 Year B

with 2 comments

Job 23: 1-9; 16-17
Psalm 22: 1-15
Hebrews 4: 12-16
Mark 10: 17-31

What does God “look” like through your eyes? If you’re Job, God’s pretty terrifying – someone who’s basically “out to get you”. If you’re the property owner in today’s gospel story (note: it’s only Matthew who calls him “young” and Luke who calls him a “ruler”!), God gets you where it hurts most. For the writer of Hebrews, God’s frighteningly incisive – cuts to the heart of the matter – but it’s okay, because God does it not to play on our weaknesses, but to lead us deeper into truth.

I ask about what God looks like because the gospel passage is about Jesus’ “gaze” – how things look from his perspective. Three times Mark talks about Jesus “looking”:

  • v21: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him …”
  • v23: “Then Jesus looked around and said …”
  • v27: “Jesus looked at them and said …”

Mark wants us to “follow Jesus’ eyes”, or rather, to be met and held by Jesus’ gaze. Mark uses “looking” to indicate the penetration of Jesus’ gaze: that Jesus “sees things as they are”. What he then says is something we ought to make a point of listening to! And today, the object of his gaze and the subject of his speech is wealth, and its relationship to discipleship.

Not as innocent as he seems!
We mustn’t lose sight of the fact that this is the concluding pericope in the section on “Who is the greatest?” That is why it concludes with a restatement of the first/last inversion (10:31, cf 9:35). In this section, Jesus confronts the notion that wealthy people have the power and influence that goes with wealth because they are blessed by God. Instead, he suggests that the accumulation of wealth is a problem. Its origins is fraud and the absence of compassion, and its effect is to keep would-be disciples of Jesus from following, because the cost is too great.

On a first, “innocent” reading, Jesus does three things that have kept good bourgeois exegetes guessing for years: firstly, he refuses the designation, “Good Teacher” (something that has really worried them), secondly, he answers the question about inheriting eternal life by quoting the Decalogue (when he’s gone to extraordinary lengths to demonstrate that citing bible verses is not the way to discern what God thinks/wants!) and thirdly, he seems to be unnecessarily harsh towards the man – not because Jesus doesn’t love him, but because he refuses to compromise on the cost of following. The demand to sell all and give to the poor sounds like hyperbole. Jesus couldn’t have meant this other than metaphorically, could he?

The point here is that we ought not to read this “innocently”. This isn’t about a conversation that goes inexplicably wrong, but is about a deliberate and direct confrontation between discipleship of Jesus and the accumulation of wealth and privilege. What Jesus says shocks not only the property owner, but the disciples, too – hence all the very serious “gazing” that Jesus does in the passage.

Exposing flattery
The action of kneeling and calling Jesus “Good Teacher” has far more to do with flattery than with worship! Convention demanded that the man kneel. He was quite properly acknowledging Jesus’ authority. However, calling Jesus “Good Teacher” is a calculated act of flattery. Jesus would have been expected to respond in kind with a similarly flattering description of the man, thus establishing a certain equality. That was how it worked among influential people – and Jesus refuses the game.

There are two points about his apparently strange reply that make perfect sense once we recognise that Jesus chooses to confront the whole question of power that is associated with wealth. The first is that Jesus exposes the hollowness of his title: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone!” Now of course, there is an irony here: we know that Jesus is both good and God! So why does he apparently rebuke the man? Surely this rich man, kneeling at his feet, has recognised something in Jesus that others have failed to spot?

The second point to note here is that the title the man gives Jesus is hollow! Jesus knows this, because he “knows the heart”. But, if there is any doubt, look at the exchange:

“Good Teacher” (v17)
“No one is good except God” (v18)
“I have kept every commandment since my youth” (v20)

Do you see the point? Jesus says, “Only God is good”; the man responds, “I am blameless”! In the Talmud, Abraham, Moses and Aaron are believed to have kept the whole Law. It is into his exalted company of saints that the young man blithely and calmly places himself! Of course, one point of the exchange is that the man is supremely unaware of his own shortcomings. And significantly, Jesus does not condemn him for it. Jesus “looks at him and loves him”. Jesus sees what is blinding him to his own motives and preventing him from following. Nevertheless, what the exchange does is to expose the title” Good Teacher” as empty. This is someone who has no purchase on “goodness”.

Wealth and fraud
Why does Jesus uncharacteristically respond to the man’s question by citing the Decalogue? What is interesting here is what Mark includes and both Matthew and Luke omit: “Do not defraud”. This doesn’t appear in the Decalogue, but was part of the teaching about theft. Matthew and Luke deliberately omit it, and Mark strangely appears to inject it clumsily and unnecessarily into the narrative, putting it on the lips of Jesus. Why? “Defrauding” in the bible refers to deliberately withholding wages that are due. It is associated with the abuse of power by property owners – employers – and, as Mark tells us, “he had much property” (v22).

In other words, Jesus is doing two things. Jesus is deeply suspicious of wealth. He finds it difficult to believe that the accumulation of conspicuous wealth can happen without fraud – and fraud committed against the vulnerable and the exploitable: the workers! Jesus, therefore, is contradicting the equation of wealth with God’s blessing. It isn’t “The rich man at his castle/the poor man at his gate/God has made them high and low/and ordered their estate”. It’s “The rich man in the castle is the direct cause of the poor man’s poverty! God doesn’t like it!” And secondly, Jesus is saying (gently) to the rich man, “Just stop and listen for a moment. You’re not actually blameless. You have what you do because you have exploited your workers. You’re a thief.”

Cutting to the heart of the matter (Mark 10: 21-22/Hebrews 4: 12-16)
“The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces to the heart of things until it is even able to divide soul from spirit and joints from marrow! It is able, in fact, to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

Pretty terrifying stuff, eh? Which of us can face having our thoughts and intentions exposed – to ourselves, let alone more widely? The writer doesn’t let up: “Before God, no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the One to whom we must render an account”. Ouch! I don’t know about you, but I probably spend a lot of time subconsciously trying to “fool” God. I (subconsciously) marshal my arguments to throw my thoughts and intentions in the best possible light. In fact, I tell myself I’m grateful that God can see “the thoughts and intentions of my heart”, because I so frequently find myself doing things that I oughtn’t, or failing to do what I ought, even though my intentions are different! Human nakedness before God on the intimate scale spoken about here, though, makes me feel uncomfortable rather than reassured. I know that even my best intentions are ambiguous, compromised and problematic, so to stand in the presence of the God “to whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hidden” is embarrassing at best! I also resent it, to the extent that it uncovers the games I play to keep me from having to confront myself.

This is the experience that the rich man has with Jesus. His intentions appear good to himself. He sees in himself the genuine desire to be careful – scrupulous – about keeping the commandments. Yet Jesus’ response is to tell him: “There’s still something missing. Go and sell what you own, give the money to the poor and then come back and join me on my journey” (v21). Jesus sees his heart. He is not yet ready to follow Jesus on this particular journey – the way of the cross. His possessions are in the way. And so Jesus’ response is to say, “You need to be ruthless. Your wealth is the eye that needs plucking out; the hand or the foot that needs amputation!” The man is shocked. He looks at Jesus, willing Jesus not to be serious … or to relent … or to compromise .. or to negotiate. Anything that will let him off the hook. You can sense from Mark’s narrative the hushed expectancy of the crowd – including the disciples! This is totally unreasonable of Jesus! Why does he ask this of this good man, when he has made no similar demand before?

Losing the world and gaining the kingdom: the problem of wealth
Jesus turns to his hearers – the crowds – and, rather than putting them at ease, confirms the shock value of what has just happened. Then he takes the disciples aside and explains further. He is unequivocal. “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”. The characters in this gospel story aren’t the only ones to have had their world rocked by this statement! He is using a humorous illustration: camels don’t go through the eyes of needles, and rich people don’t enter the kingdom! The history of exegesis is littered with attempts to make Jesus say less than he clearly means. Remember the medieval exegesis about a narrow, low gate in the Jerusalem city wall, called “The eye of the needle”? A camel can only go through this on its knees, the exegetes said! Well, if Jesus’ point is only that it is difficult for rich people, the reaction of disciples is curious.

The disciples are “perplexed” (v24) and “greatly astounded” (v26). Remember the opening question: “What must I do in order to inherit eternal life?” The logic of what Jesus says means, indeed, “Who on earth can be saved?” It is, indeed, impossible!

Jesus clearly sees wealth as a particular problem. It has a uniquely pernicious power to keep people from the kingdom. Why? Look again at Jesus’ response to the original question. Isn’t it striking that he cites the Decalogue but misses out the first commandment? And isn’t it striking that he inserts the expansion of the prohibition against theft, but omits the second commandment to love neighbour as self? When the lawyer in Luke 10:25ff asks the same question, both he and Jesus agree that the Law is summarised by the twin commandment to love. The point here seems to be that Jesus wants to emphasise the very things that he has deliberately omitted. Precisely by omitting them, the reader is forced to recall them and puzzle over them.

Jesus sees a direct, causal connection between wealth (ie having more than we need) and poverty (ie having less than we need). There’s a zero-sum equation at work in Jesus’ thinking: there is enough to go round, but not enough for everyone to have much more than they need. There’s enough daily bread for everyone, but not enough for some to gorge themselves on it. Some people have less than they need because others have more than they need. The wealthy have their own share – and the shares of the poor, too!

In other words, the accumulation of wealth produces a ruthlessness to acquire at the expense of others that kills compassion. It stifles love of neighbour. If we truly loved our neighbours as ourselves, we would not countenance seeing them in need while we could do anything about it. Poverty, for Jesus, is the irrefutable evidence of the hard-heartedness of the wealthy.

That’s how the world is. We’ve made it that way. But the kingdom is different. The community that Jesus is calling into being is the community of the cross – the community that is selflessly generous in its provision of need and tireless in its vigilance on behalf of others – particularly the for “the last”. This is a kingdom of sharing and mutual care.

Shockingly, to those of us in a consumer society, Jesus is not a capitalist. Not only that, but he actively thinks that it’s a thoroughly bad, inhumane system that keeps people from the kingdom. Does that mean Jesus is a Communist? Of course it does! That doesn’t make him a Marxist. As the Marxist theologian Jose Miranda remarked, “Marxism is a mere episode in the history of the communist project” … begun by Jesus! Communism – the “community of goods” – is indeed the “project” begun by Jesus and which he called the kingdom of God! The uncomfortable truth is that the Marxist expression wasn’t radical enough in its attempts to make the communist vision a reality. It was a betrayal and failure of the communist vision – but it was still far, far closer in intention (that word again!) to Jesus than our baptised capitalism! We use “communism” as some sort of antithesis to Christianity. Remember the words of Dom Helder Camarra? “When I ask for bread for the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist!”

Of course, good western capitalist Christians have sought to deflect the moral power of the communist vision by pointing out that Marxism was atheistic. Yet, as Moltmann pointed out, atheism is a protest against a particular conception of God. Karl Marx saw the sort of Christianity which taught that the wealth of the owners and the poverty of the workers was God-ordained as “the opiate of the masses” – the means of keeping people quiet in conditions that were a living hell. He didn’t want anything to do with that sort of God. And neither does Jesus! This is precisely the point of conflict here, and which so shocks his hearers: Jesus is denying that wealth can be seen as a sign of blessing from God! God is not the God who orders that some dwell in castles, while others live in terminal poverty at the castle gates, hoping for a few scraps that will enable them to exist for another 24 hours.

The Make Poverty History campaign was predicated on fact that the eradication of global poverty is easy. At least, it’s not expensive! 1% of the global product will do the trick! It’s not lack of money that’s the problem: it’s lack of love and compassion! Our deep resistance to the plain sense of what Jesus says is an indication of the truth that Jesus expresses: wealth and possessions have remarkable spiritual power. They have the power to blunt and extinguish the passionate love for neighbour that will not let us rest while we can do anything to alleviate their need.

Jesus loves rich people!
Here’s the thing: even though Jesus can see straight into our hearts, he is, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, “utterly sympathetic to our weaknesses”. He’s been here. He understands. He recognises the chains that bind us. He knows the paralysing power that wealth and possessions exert over us. He wants to free us from it. He looks at the rich man and loves him. It isn’t only the man who goes away grieving: we ought to sense Jesus’ grief. Jesus doesn’t say that the kingdom isn’t for rich people. Remember, he invites the rich man to follow him! This is a gospel call – an invitation to discipleship. And it is genuinely extended.

The point we ought to note – and that Jesus’ hearers fail to “get” – is that this is the same gospel call as Jesus offers to lepers, prostitutes and beggars. It just sounds different! It is no less loving and gracious. The difference is in the material circumstances of the hearers. The poor hear the invitation as pure gift. As Dylan says, “When you ain’t got nuthin’, you got nuthin’ to lose” (mind you, he also said, “When you think that you’ve lost ev’rything/you find that you can always lose a little bit more”!). All they have to do is respond. But the way of the cross is about loss. It’s about losing everything in order to gain even more! Yet that loss is hard, the more that one has to lose.

How are rich people saved? (Mark 10:23ff/Job 23: 1-9; 16-17/Psalm 22)
The Book of Job is connected with today’s gospel in the form of a contrast. In the gospel passage, the rich man is invited to give up his riches because God is a God of love. Job has all his possessions wrenched from him by a God whose ways he finds utterly inscrutable and unfair! In today’s passage, Job is the example of a rich, righteous man. He is faithful to God. Satan is the one who prosecutes the Jesus-like case here: “Take away his possessions and then we’ll see how much Job loves Yahweh!”

Job is the flip side of the theological coin in today’s gospel: not only is wealth not to be viewed as evidence of God’s blessing; neither should suffering be viewed as sign of God’s punishment. Job’s friends are as shocked and as offended as Jesus’ disciples. Neither Jesus nor Job share the “gaze” of their friends and hearers. God “looks” very different! Now the Book of Job is an astonishing portrayal of human bewilderment in the face of God’s inscrutability. Job longs to argue with God – but God isn’t playing! Job remains faithful despite fearing that God may in fact turn out to be some sort of cosmic sadist who delights in toying with us creatures. And, as the disciples are promised that they will receive more than they have given up, Job ends up better off than before. Psalm 22 could well be a psalm on the mouth of Job. Read the whole Psalm through – the movement from feeling abandoned, through a stubborn holding on to faith, and on to life and restoration.

What the gospel and Hebrews tells us is that God is a loving God, who wills Life and not death. God is not a harsh deity, but has shared the darkness, despair and bewilderment of humanity in Jesus Christ. The way of the cross – the way of loss – is not a one-way ticket to crushing oblivion, but an invitation to the very life of God. It is extended to all humanity – rich and poor alike.

Yet the gospel is always contextual. It addresses the lives of people, rather than speaking in spiritualised generalities. Jesus is calling into being a community. He starts with the least first. They’re in. They’re the basis of the community. That means the participation of the poor is non-negotiable. But it further means that if the rich are to become part of that community, and if their wealth is the cause of the poverty of the poor, then that has to be sorted out. You can’t create a community of love; a community centred around the Good News, when part of that community is directly responsible for the Bad News that governs the lives of the people. Something concrete needs doing for genuine community to happen. And that “something” is the community of goods that Jesus calls his followers to – a community based on an entirely different set of economic criteria and power that shares rather than exploits.

Riches enslave. They blunt compassion and they distract from following. The rich man has too much to keep him at home. He has business to attend to – business that will keep him from following Jesus and poor people from enjoying the life for which they were created. If he is to follow, he will have to find the strength to break free of the chains that bind him to his world. He will need to be ruthless. More importantly, he will need to be loving. He will need to allow God in Christ to open his eyes to the need and suffering of others, and to draw the necessary strength from that compassion. And, in giving to the poor – in using what he has to give life to others – he will share in the work and blessings of the kingdom. It will be hard. Humanly, it’s impossible. But it is possible with God because God’s love is more powerful than the chains that bind him … if only he will let it do its work.

Amen.

Written by Lawrence

13 October, 2006 at 4:17 pm

Posted in hebrews, job, mark, poverty, psalms, year B

pentecost 17 Year B

with 3 comments

Esther 7: 1-6; 9-10; 9: 20-22
Psalm 124
James 5: 13-20
Mark 9: 38-50

 

Phew! Not the easiest set of texts this week, by any means! Commentators seem to struggle as much as the general reader. There’s the whole business of why Esther is in the canon at all (other than because the instigation of the Feast of Purim – thanksgiving for deliverance from Israel’s enemies, which is echoed in Psalm 124). James speaks about healing as a sort of “daily reality” in ways that sit very uncomfortably with our experience. Jesus speaks about extreme measures to avoid hell – and in what context, exactly? What is the meaning and context of the injunctions concerning “causing these little ones to stumble”? The passages are connected as much by their difficulties as by their interrelated themes!

There are connections, of course. There’s the connection between Esther and Psalm 124, and between Esther and the dispute over the exorcist from outside the community of faith in Mark 9: 38-41. James is linked to the gospel passage through a shared context of persecution and questions over how to treat those who have fallen away under its pressure. Yet the difficulties remain – and these are the questions that will probably be uppermost in people’s minds when they read or hear the passages.

 

Community boundaries: the “Good Outside” (Mark 9: 38-41/Esther 7 & 9)
Jesus has just been attacking the disciples’ concern for power with his example of a child to illustrate the radical status –reversal in the kingdom. In this pericope, Mark goes on to show how little the disciples understand Jesus and the Way of the Cross. The issue is about boundary control. Who’s “in” and who’s “out”? Very particularly, who has the right to patrol those boundaries and create the rules?

Look at what happens. The group of disciples encounters an exorcist and try to stop him. Interestingly ironic, isn’t it – they try to stop him? Does Mark mean that they had as much lack of success in stopping the exorcist as they had had in exorcising the demon from the boy in 9:14ff? What is most interesting, though, is their reason for trying to stop him: “… because he was not following us” (9:38). The exorcist is using Jesus’ name to exorcise the demons (with apparently conspicuously more success than the disciples enjoyed!), but the disciples’ objection is not that he wasn’t a follower of Jesus, but of them! In other words, the disciples have taken upon themselves the role of “owning” Jesus. Their attitude is “To follow Jesus is the same thing as belonging to our group. You can’t follow Jesus unless you do it our way! We make the rules!”

Isn’t this a story repeated daily by the Church? In the minds of so many people, there is no difference between discipleship of Jesus and church membership; between faith in Jesus and belonging to the institutional Church. This is precisely the assumption that Jesus challenges here in the passage. Just as Esther – a “foreign” book about “righteous foreigners” (in which Yahweh doesn’t even get a mention!) is an example of Yahweh working outside the covenant community, so Jesus refuses the disciples’ attempts to draw confessional boundaries around him. It isn’t about “right theology” but about “right practice”! The exorcist who is using Jesus’ name but is not part of the community of disciples is sharing in the liberative, healing and saving power of Jesus’ ministry.

Of course, it is extremely unlikely that these were the exorcist’s motives! In all likelihood, what we have here is the case of a wandering exorcist who made a livelihood out of exorcising demons. The reason he used Jesus’ name was probably because Jesus already had a reputation as a successful exorcist, so that using his name was effectively saying, “I command you by the same power as that bloke Jesus of Nazareth uses to come out …” Jesus’ name worked. It was an effective – and therefore lucrative! – technique. The disciples’ outrage isn’t as self-seeking or obviously wrong as it may sound. They were effectively saying, “Hey! Jesus’ name isn’t some sort of charm! He’s not just a “miracles-for-hire” merchant! He’s the Messiah – and you should be following him!”

This makes Jesus’ response all the more startling: “Do not stop him!” Why not? This is a strange response, made all the more so by the fact that Jesus is in the process of making following him more costly and more difficult! The disciples, as we well know, are battling more and more to “follow Jesus in The Way”. Even their best theological attempts to “get Jesus right” meet only with a stern, “You shut up about this!” This exorcist isn’t even trying to understand Jesus or follow him!

Look at Jesus’ reason for not stopping him: “No one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me”. There is a real irony at work here. We’re in the throes of the narrative of the progressive disintegration of the discipleship narrative. It is precisely John’s “us” who will end up denying and abandoning the person they follow – because he doesn’t conform to their picture of messianic power! They want Jesus’ power, but not on Jesus’ terms. The disciples want to be followed rather than be followers.

That leads to his second reason: “Whoever is not against us is for us”. Elsewhere in the gospel tradition, Jesus says the opposite: “Whoever is not for us is against us”. In Mark’s context of persecution, not to strive actively on behalf of the oppressed Christian community – not to challenge the status quo – is to be instrumental in that oppression. Jesus here makes a different point: to be engaged actively in the same sort of liberative ministry of compassion is to be “for” Jesus. That same compassion will be manifested in instinctive acts of caring and provision for the persecuted community: they will “give you a cup of cold water to drink because you bear the name of the Messiah”. To act compassionately to the disciples is the same thing as acting compassionately towards Jesus. It is to share in God’s character (compassion) and mission.

Interesting, isn’t it, that this is the only time (apart from 1:1) that the term “Messiah” appears on Jesus’ lips outside the context of confessional struggle. Jesus is happy to own the title! It’s significant because he wants to draw the parallel between being Messiah and liberative acts of compassion. “Following”, proper messianic confession and being part of the kingdom have far more to do with being and doing (praxis) than “believing” (theology). Being part of Jesus is about following – but it has less to do with immediate proximity and institutional relatedness to Jesus than it has to do with the shared practice of mission! If the Church could only spend less time and energy making enemies out of those who are not against it, and recognise in a shared practice of liberation a genuine fellowship in Jesus and the kingdom, just imagine how different the landscape would appear. Oh – and there would be the added benefit of being where Jesus is on the matter!

 

Messianic acts of compassion: Healing – a sign of the kingdom (James 5: 13-20)
Let me tell you my own story about this passage. Between the ages of 20 and 21I served as an Assistant Pastor in a small Baptist church in South Africa. The Pastor (a theology professor) was away for a year, lecturing in the US, so I was it. One Sunday morning the phone rang. It was Arthur James. He had been involved in the Wooden Horse breakout during World War II. Arthur is one of the most wonderful, godly people I have ever known. But he was dying. He’d suffered 3 heart attacks in quick succession. The doctor had told him that a fourth was inevitable and imminent. It would also be fatal.

Arthur told me he’d been preparing (to die) and had been reading James 5: 13-20. Having read it, he wanted me to bring the deacons, anoint him with oil, lay hands on him and pray for his healing. I calmly told him I’d be round before the service that morning and replaced the receiver … and panicked! I had no idea what to do. I certainly didn’t think it likely that God would heal him. And I was terrified of failing Arthur – for his own sake. So I rang the oldest, wisest deacon, and told him what Arthur had asked. He panicked! “How do you anoint someone with oil? What do you say in that sort of prayer?” he asked. “I haven’t a clue!” I replied. “Why do you think I’m ringing you?” “Well, I’ve never done it before!” he said. “I suppose we’ll use the oil to make the sign of the cross, and pray! We can all lay hands on Arthur”, I suggested. So that was decided upon. We duly assembled, complete with some cooking oil from the kitchen, all of us pretending we were on top of the situation. I dipped my finger in the oil, made the sign of the cross on Arthur’s forehead, we laid hands on him, and I prayed a prayer for healing with plenty of “Get out of jail free” clauses (“If it be thy will” etc) to cover ourselves when nothing happened.

The doctor was due to see Arthur the next morning. Instead, Arthur drove down to see him. There was nothing wrong with his heart. Arthur went on to live to a ripe old age and eventually died “full of years”.

That was 26 years ago and at least 26 different theories of healing! I’ve had one other similar situation, praying for a friend who was dying of cancer and who was also healed. But I’ve had many, many more experiences of instances where God doesn’t heal. Does God heal people when we anoint them with oil, lay hands on them and pray for their healing in Jesus’ name? Heck yes! Is there healing power in the name of Jesus? Heck yes! Does God do it every time? Heck no! So what’s going on? Whose faith is rewarded? How much faith do we need? Why doesn’t God heal more regularly? I haven’t a clue! But I do know that we ought to do far more anointing, laying on hands and praying for healing – not because there are any guarantees, or to prove something about God, or for any reason other than that it is a sign of the kingdom of salvation, liberation, wholeness, justice and peace proclaimed by Jesus. What happens then is ultimately up to God. At the end of the day, God is God, like it or lump it. The Lord healeth and the Lord healeth not. Blessed be the name of the Lord!

 

The “Bad Inside”: Stumbling blocks and amputations (Mark 9: 42-49)
Jesus moves from affirming the reality of kingdom things happening outside the messianic community to the reality of non-kingdom things happening inside that group. It seems to me that Mark’s account has two different contexts: what is happening in Jesus’ ministry at the time, and the situation of persecution faced by his own community. The passage says different things in these different contexts, and each is valuable in its own right.

(a) Sexual abuse of children
On the level of Jesus’ ministry, this reads as a passage about the sexual abuse of children. The context, you will remember, is about abusive use of power, and Jesus has stood a child in their midst. The obvious sense of “these little ones”, therefore (9:42) is a reference to children. “Hand”, “foot” and “eye” are traditionally the seat of wrongdoing: “hand” refers to theft, fraud and forgery, “foot” to robbery, persistent theft and runaway slaves, and “eye” to sexual misconduct. Commentators have drawn attention to the fact that the injunction to amputate the offending members of the body are a liberalisation of the laws on capital punishment: rather than put the offender to death, amputate the offending piece of the body! This is how the Islamic laws about cutting off a thief’s hand, for example, were intended.

But Jesus appears to be doing more than making a very general point about legal arrangements within society – however strongly we (or he) might want to draw parallels between the laws of a society and the kingdom. He’s talking here specifically about children. Children were powerless. They were “property”. They could be used by the “owner” for the owner’s benefit without much comment. We ought, therefore, to note the unmistakeable sexual connotations of hand, foot and eye. “Foot” in the bible is frequently used as a euphemism for a penis; hand and eye are far more obviously relevant to a context of sexual abuse. The process of “seeing, coveting, taking and using” is about the exercise of power, and sexual abuse is all about power. It is the power differential in sexual relationships that constitutes abuse: it prevents them being equal and therefore truly consensual. Jesus, then, is talking about an issue that was disturbingly prevalent in his own society – the sexual abuse of children. It would seem that neither Jewish society nor the Church was an abuse-free zone!

I don’t know what you believe about hell. To be honest, I’m not sure what I believe about it, either! That isn’t quite the point here, though. Jesus refers to the valley of Hinnon – the rubbish heap outside Jerusalem where the rubbish continually smouldered. Traditionally, it had been the place of child sacrifices (Hmmm! Accidental in this context, or not???) and was used as a metaphor for God exacting a fitting sort of revenge against the terrible suffering inflicted upon the Jewish people through the ages. It was an affirmation that God cared! The sufferings of people at the hands of the powerful – sufferings that couldn’t possibly be put right or “made better” – were of concern to God. It was the promise that God was just – that, in the end, the last word belonged to God, and not to the torturers and murderers. Those whose lives were made living hell were not abandoned by God. And just as sexual abuse is frequently, for its victims, a life sentence to emotional and psychological destruction, so God’s vigilance on behalf of the victims is eternal. God’s memory will not be dimmed by the passing of time. God will not forget!

If we instinctively shy away from reading this passage as a reference to the sexual abuse of children, we do only what has been done for generations. In the information age, we have become only too painfully aware of the extent and frequency of child abuse within religious institutions, and the ways in which institutions like the Church move instinctively to close ranks and protect reputation. Folks, it happens! It happens time and again. And because it is so horrible, we find ourselves continually shocked and ill-prepared for it when it emerges. That’s when we make all the wrong moves – moves that only perpetuate the awful damage that has been done to the victims. The book, Time for Action – a new dawn for the survivors of sexual abuse is a timely publication. It’s something that should command instant welcome and application within churches, and yet it is proving disturbingly controversial. Christian – human! – realism demands that we actually expect it to happen, rather than treating it as an inexplicable and unimaginable horror. The Church is no less a part of society than the wider context is. Christians are no more immune to the seduction of power than other human beings are – at least, according both to Jesus and experience! And when you put together a cocktail of sex and vulnerability, you have a potent brew!

It isn’t that we ought to become paranoid about the issue. We simply need a gritty, unflinching realism about it. It happens. People will do it because they want to and have the power to do so. They will go to extraordinary lengths to keep it hidden. We know both its nature and its power. The power of the servant – “power-on-behalf-of” – is the power to face its reality and deal openly and wisely with it. Pray God we find that power!

(b) People who mess up
If we take the passage at the level of the persecution of Mark’s community, a different emphasis comes into play. The issue for the Church then was how to deal with people who “fell away” – who renounced faith in Christ under torture and threat of death. Even more importantly, there was the question of how to deal with informers within the communities – the Judases who sold out their brothers and sisters to the authorities.

In this context, we ought probably to read “hand”, “foot” and “eye” within the metaphor of the Church as a body (as Paul does). Jesus, on this reading, is saying that people who are apostate and who betray the covenant community ought to be “cut off” (excommunicated) for the sake of the whole body. This will better enable the community to keep the faith under persecution (the “fire”). The fire of persecution is the proving ground for the Church (9:49: “Everyone will be salted with fire”). The community will need to be ruthless about “amputating” offending parts of the body if it is to survive.

Church discipline is not in vogue much anymore! Many mourn its passing. On the other hand, Amish communities practise “shunning” – the casting out of offending members, and point to this and other passages in support of what appears to be an extraordinarily heartless way of treating even close family members. It’s important to note that this is not some sort of general rule about our treatment of people in the Church who mess up. It is very specifically about the context of persecution and two categories of people who damage the community by a sort of creeping poison that threatens to infect everyone: apostates and traitors. The point is that these people were deemed worthy of capital punishment for these crimes. Jesus is saying (at the very least) “No, don’t kill them. Cast them out – for the sake of the body – but don’t kill them”. It is difficult to find contemporary parallels in the situations of most churches. Most are at threat of ridicule and irrelevance, rather than persecution and death. This isn’t a mandate to excommunicate or shun those who mess up.

In fact, the opposite is true, for those of us whose very existence is not under constant threat from persecuting authorities. For us, the challenge is to take the image of “body” more seriously! Note that Jesus talks of “amputation”. Amputation leaves the body disabled and mangled. This is a very different image from casting people out as though they were never part of the community in the first place! If we took seriously our deep, intrinsic connectedness in Christ; our inability to be whole without one another and one another’s ministries, then we would be looking for every reason to keep fellowship with one another. That is why the Church ought to be a place of peace (v49) – not because we’ve got rid of the awkward squad, but because we’re a living sign of forgiveness, restored relationships and peacemaking.

Indeed, the much-disputed v49 can be read as Jesus saying, “… but in spite of all the damage that people do, you ought always to be looking out for every opportunity to make peace and restore fellowship!” That was a hot potato in the New Testament Church. It isn’t ours. Our hot potato is more the fact that we (unofficially) shun people who mess up; that the word on the street is that it is easier to mess up and be forgiven in the pub than it in the Church!

Boundaries of in and out. We love ‘em! They keep us safe. They make sure that following Jesus also means following us! They give us chance to flex our muscles – to be the kingdom’s gate-keepers. And history is littered with the corpses of the millions who have died at the hands of the Church in an effort to patrol those boundaries in the conviction that people who didn’t play “our” way deserved to die! How tragic. How obscene! And how far from the Jesus who meets us in today’s gospel!

 

Amen.

Written by Lawrence

27 September, 2006 at 11:37 am

pentecost 16 Year B

with 3 comments

Proverbs 31: 10-31
Psalm 1
James 3: 13-4:3; 7-8a
Mark 9: 30-37

 

Power is a spiritual issue. The question of who has it and who hasn’t, what sort of power it is, how it is used and who are the victims in the power relationship is a theological issue and a gospel question. It’s an extremely uncomfortable question. We would much rather pretend to ourselves and others that power questions are for people “out there” – for “secular” society rather than for the community of faith. And if we do engage in the question, we tend often only to ask it as a question about what is happening “out there” in the wider world of politics, in order to be “prophetically critical”. That’s simply not true.

Leonard Cohen makes this point clearly in his song, Democracy. Democracy, he says, is “coming to the USA” – but from unlikely places! “It’s coming from the sorrow in the street/the holy places where the races meet/From the homicidal bitchin’/that goes down in every kitchen/to determine who will serve and who will eat”. Racial justice, he is saying, is an issue that has to be solved in the power relationships that “go down in every kitchen”, as well as on the macro level of government legislation. It’s actually a question for home – in the most common sense of that word! It affects what happens behind the closed doors of our houses and within our churches.

That’s what today’s passages make clear. Mark tells us about a conflict within the group of disciples about power: who will be the greatest in the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is coming. Proverbs raises the question of power relationships within marriage and therefore of the power relationships between women and men in society. James speaks about power struggles within the Christian community and the conflicts that arise. It is precisely because faith is relational that the question of power is so important: power configures relationships. It shapes the possibilities and interactions. Think for a moment about the phenomenon of “power dressing”. Power dressing is a means of claiming and exercising authority. It puts the other person at a disadvantage because it proclaims, “This is not a conversation between equals”, without this actually having to be stated. All forms of power and authority are about inequality. That is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Parents have power because they have particular responsibilities and need power – inequality – in order to exercise those responsibilities. A boss needs power in order to manage a business effectively. Groups need leaders in order to thrive – and the Church is no different. Power is necessary, inevitable and appropriate. The question, then, is what sort of power, and how is it exercised? That is what makes power a moral and a gospel issue.

 

The cross, power and servanthood
The cross deconstructs power and reconfigures it in terms of servanthood. Note vv30ff: Jesus is passing through Galilee secretly. He wants to stay out of the public eye because he is using the time to teach his disciples about the way of the cross. This isn’t a quick “saying”: it’s a sustained attempt by Jesus to tell them about the path on which he is set. As before, the disciples fail to understand. But why? It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it? The clue is given in the private discussion among the disciples about who will be the greatest. This is the second passion prediction in Marks gospel. The third prediction will be in 10:32ff and, as here, it is immediately followed by a discussion about power and influence in the kingdom. In other words, Mark is trying to tell us that what the disciples cannot understand is the absence of power in what Jesus is telling them! They cannot and (more importantly, refuse to) conceive that what Jesus is saying might be literally what he means!

If we read it in this way, then the ensuing discussion makes sense as an immediate response. It’s easy to imagine: the disciples are talking over their unease and puzzlement. “Jesus is the Messiah! We’re going to Jerusalem – and then we’ll see it all happen! Can’t wait! Just imagine what it will be like – Jesus, recognised as the Messiah! I don’t know what all this stuff is about being killed – doesn’t sound right at all! I wish he’d tell us more about what’s in store, glory-wise. Oh, and talking of glory, who do you think is going to get the most important offices?”

Being the greatest is about wielding power. It’s “power-over” – the power to enforce will and decisions. It’s about being able to say what goes, and about how many people each will have “under” him. It’s about the power that goes with rank and status. This is precisely what Jesus is trying to say it isn’t about! Greatness is about servanthood. Greatness will be defined by the cross.

 

Deconstructing and reconfiguring power (Mark 9/James 3-4)
What is so significant about the cross? In terms of greatness (as understood by the disciples), it is abject failure. It is about powerlessness, not power! This is the moment of deconstruction. If power is about force and lording it over people, then Jesus is powerless, not powerful. Is Jesus, then, powerless? No! Paul speaks about the power of the cross, not its powerlessness. There is a naiveté about power that suggests that Christians should neither have it nor exercise it. When that happens in Christian communities, there is a vacuum which is filled by more invisible forms of power: it is exercised, for example, by personal charisma or other forms of manipulation. “Powerlessness” should be kept in inverted commas as a sign that what it means is a denial of common notions of power as “power-over”. Jesus is telling his disciples that his power is not the power of the warrior-king.

What, then, is the nature of the power seen in the cross? Not “power-over”, but “power-on-behalf-of”. This is the power of servanthood – the power to put the interests of others first. It is important not to mistake this as some supposed “power of the doormat”! There is no power in being a doormat, because a person who is a doormat is no longer a person. Selflessness – the sort of power Jesus is talking about – is not about the annihilation of self and personhood. It is something far more difficult: the conquering of selfishness and self-aggrandisement.

James talks about this in today’s texts. He speaks of “bitter envy and selfish ambition” (3:14,16). This is what motivates the disciples. It leads to conflict. It springs from “craving” and “coveting” (4: 1-2). He’s talking about the craving for things (possessions) and for power. It is the desire for “power-over” – ultimately exercised in murder (4:2). The “disputes and conflicts” he talks about are “turf wars” – conflicts over power and possessions. “You do not have”, he says, “because you do not ask” (4:2). “Power-over” is about the power to take. Asking is an apparent sign of weakness. It means acknowledging that what you want or need is within the gift of someone else to give or withhold. In other words, it means being “powerless”. “Resist the devil and he will flee before you!” says James in 4:7. The devil was the Lucifer, the angel of light, who refused to acknowledge Yahweh as God. He tried to “take”. To ask requires humility. And so, says James, we ought to humble ourselves (4:10). “Humbling ourselves”, in this context, is not about grovelling! It is about asking rather than taking. It is about conquering the self – about exercising a new, godly power: the power seen in Jesus.

That is part of Jesus’ reason for setting a child in their midst to make his point. For Jesus, a child is an exemplar of the kingdom because a child was powerless within his society. With no ability to take by force, a child could only receive what Jesus had to offer (the kingdom) as a gift. This is what he tells his disciples in 10: 19. But here his main point is a different one. It’s about the way in which a child is received. If power is “power-over”, then it would be utterly beneath any grown man’s dignity (in Jesus’ society) to kneel before a child. In a family structured on hierarchical terms, the father had the greatest power, followed by the mother, then children on the bottom with no power. In other words, a household servant would be expected to show particular honour to the adults in the household, but not to a child, other than to give formal recognition to the fact that the child belonged to the master’s household.

Jesus has just explained that greatness in the kingdom is measured by servanthood. By using the example of the child, he says, “I want you to give this child the same honour and service that you would me (“welcome a child in my name”)”. Jesus’ own power is seen in his identity with the least. It is “power-on-behalf-of” – the conquest of self and the consequent freedom to serve without abasement. But where exactly is the world-transforming power in this (apart from the individual conquest of self)? The answer lies in the cross. It results in crucifixion – which, ironically, unleashes the power of resurrection! This is God’s power – the power of the One whom the disciples will welcome if they welcome the child (9:37).

 

Power and the battle of the sexes (Proverbs 31)
The Ode to a Capable Wife makes difficult reading. On the one hand, it is extraordinarily and unacceptably chauvinist and sexist. On the other hand, though, if we read carefully, we will find the seeds of deconstruction and reconfiguring of gender roles.

No wonder Jewish men thanked Yahweh that they had not been made women! It would have meant a busy, difficult life. Instead of spending their days at the city gates in the company of the other men (v23), he would instead have had to run the household, trade, get up at all hours of the night to make sure that everyone has what they need, buy and sell land, spin, sew, give to the poor, bring money in by selling what she’s made, teach the children … no time here for “eating the bread of idleness” (v27)! Now, only a man could have written that with no sense of irony! Idleness? This regime would hardly give the poor woman any sort of break at all! And all hubby has to do is to get up and go spend his days chatting with his mates! Oh – and bask in the admiration of his fellows for having such a capable wife!

This is the sort of “praise” that simply reinforces female slavery. And yet, reading it through 21st century eyes, we notice three things. The first is that the woman is more than capable of doing any task to which she sets her mind – far more capable than most men! It is difficult to imagine what sort of Ode to a Capable Husband might consist of for such a wife – there’s virtually nothing left to do! Imagine what would happen to the husband if this capable wife died – he’d be lost and helpless. Yet if the husband died, one can’t help feeling that the greatest loss for his wife would be the chores on her list that pertained to looking after him!

Secondly, the picture of this woman is not of a helpless doormat – a Cinderella figure who spends her nights weeping at the hearth because she is a virtual slave in her own house! This is a self-assured woman – a capable woman, whose “servanthood” is chosen freely. She has a strength of character and self-assurance which is as attractive as it is enviable. It is impossible to sustain any fiction that this sort of woman is clearly inferior to a man! By what possible standard?

Thirdly, though, there is the final verse of the book of Proverbs: “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates”. To give her a fair share of the fruits of her hands means, in practice, nothing less than the dismantling of the patriarchal system! It exposes patriarchy for what it is – the subjugation of women for the benefit of men. The husband here benefits for no other reason than that he is a man – and the benefits he enjoys are excessive and entirely separate from his contribution to the family and to society. It is this recognition that has led to the emancipation of women. On what grounds, for instance, would you refuse this woman a vote? Or suppose her less capable than a man of work, and therefore pay her less?

And look at the final sentence: “Let here works praise her in the city gates”. Not, “Let her husband bathe in her reflected glory”, but let her works praise her. This is about proper respect. She should be able to stand in the place associated with power, respect and influence in her own right – as an equal (at least!) of her husband.

I’m not suggesting that this was what the writer of Proverbs 31 had in mind. This is not a text of liberation for women. In fact, it has played quite the opposite part and is beloved among people who want to argue that the traditional gender roles in a patriarchal society somehow reflect God’s will (well, they’d have to, wouldn’t they, because that’s the only compelling reason for maintaining something so obviously unjust and destructive!). Yet, as so often happens, the biblical texts that reflect and apparently endorse unjust systems carry within them the seeds of the destruction of injustice. “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands! Let her works praise her in the city gates!” might well be a (not particularly catchy) rallying cry of a proto-suffragette.

Jesus chose a child as a test-case for the sort of selflessness he was advocating as the power of the cross. If he wanted an example of Christ-likeness (other than himself), he would have struggled to find a better one than the woman in Proverbs 31 – not because she was a “good wife”, but because she was godlike. It’s time we stopped hearing disparaging remarks in churches about “political correctness” when we talk about women and oppression. We inhabit a faith that has consistently oppressed and abused women in the name of God for millennia. We still haven’t got it right. Even within the URC, one finds pockets of residual suspicion that women are God’s “second best” – particularly when it comes to positions of leadership. Chauvinistic prejudice can find an awful (literally) lot of support within the bible and the Christian tradition. Yet today’s gospel reminds us that Jesus is acutely interested in power and how it works. “Power-over” creates victims – and Jesus stands with the victims of that sort of power. He challenges us to welcome the victims as we would Jesus himself – and in so doing, welcome the God of Resurrection.

 

Amen.

Written by Lawrence

19 September, 2006 at 1:49 am

Posted in james, mark, proverbs, year B

pentecost 15 Year B

with 2 comments

Proverbs 1: 20-33
Psalm 19
James 3: 1-12
Mark 8: 27-38

 

There are lots of words and their relation to truth, wisdom and community in this week’s readings. Plenty of “tongue-use”! Running through all the readings is something important about both the power and the ambiguity of words; about how what we say relates to what we believe and how we do and don’t live. Proverbs challenges us about listening to the right words – about following in the way of wisdom. Psalm 19 celebrates the Law – words which delight the heart and shape life for flourishing. James focuses on the ways in which the tongue can run away with us, with words that have both the power to build up, to praise and to shatter and destroy. And, at the midpoint of Mark’s gospel, we have Peter’s confession, the passion predictions, and Jesus’ startling response to Peter.

The incident at Caesarea Philippi is often seen as a turning point in the gospel – the moment when Peter “gets it”. “You are the Messiah, the Christ!” he proclaims. This is portrayed as Peter’s epiphany. Midway through his ministry, when his disciples have been with him and experienced the healings and miracles, when they have heard him and spent days and nights with him, month after month, Jesus says, “Ok guys. You’ve seen it all, heard it all, shared it all; now, what do you make of it? Who do you reckon I am?” And Peter, on this reading, gets it right. He “sees” – just like the blind man Jesus healed in the previous verses at Bethsaida.

If only that were true! Wouldn’t it be nice? Wouldn’t it be good to know that Jesus, just beginning to face the way of the cross ahead, is surrounded by staunch allies – people who share his ministry and mission, his understanding of God’s kingdom and his priorities? Wouldn’t it be good to know that he was among friends – even if there were only twelve of them?

Yes, it would be – but that’s not what Mark gives us! Why do we actually even expect that? Well, probably because we more easily remember Matthew’s version of the confession (Matthew 16: 13ff). And probably because we want it to be like that. Most of all, though, because it’s the way we operate: “Get our theology right, and that’s it!” As long as we get the technical terms right (in this case, recognising that Jesus is the Messiah), then we’re being faithful followers.

But then we’re really shocked when Jesus turns to Pete and calls him “Satan”! How can Peter go from saint to Satan in 4 short verses? That’s precisely the sort of shock Mark intends to administer, because he wants to startle us out of our complacency that we “know” Jesus and that it’s enough to “get our theology right”. We should have been prepared for it. Our antennae should have gone up the moment we saw that Caesarea Philippi follows immediately on the heels of the healing of a blind man. We should know Mark’s style by now: he’s ironic. We should expect precisely the fact that the disciples will fail to “see”. And that is what happens.

Far from presenting Jesus surrounded by friends as he begins the journey to the cross, Mark begins the narrative of the disintegration of the disciple group. This is the group who will have abandoned and denied Jesus; who will have turned their backs on their friend and master in his greatest need. This is the group who will be Jesus’ closest opponents of the way of the cross and who will do most actively to dissuade him from his course. The point is that the disciples can neither understand nor accept Jesus’ version of messiahship because it involves the cross.

 

“Messiah”, “Son of Man” and the way of the cross
“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples. They’ve already reported the word on the grapevine: Jesus is John the Baptist (come back to life); or Elijah. The point here is that John is presented as an Elijah figure – the great prophet who was expected as the herald of “the great and terrible Day of the Lord” (Malachi 4:5). Peter says more than that: he calls Jesus the Messiah – the culmination of all that God planned and promised. And he’s right. Jesus is the Messiah. So why is Jesus’ immediate response to shut Peter and the others up? He “sternly ordered” them not to tell anyone about him. “Sternly ordered” is very strong. Think Mafia threats to keep quiet and you’re at the right sort of level of seriousness (though not, presumably, right about the content!).

This is the “messianic secrecy” motif, a narrative device identified by Wrede. That is not to suggest that its roots do not go back to Jesus himself. The point that Mark makes is that Jesus is in the business of redefining messiahship. He is the messiah, but the dominant messianic categories – political liberator of Israel, royal Davidic figure and/or spectacular miracle-worker – don’t fit Jesus’ mission. That is a different “way” of being messiah – a different path and a different destination. Jesus’ way is the way of the cross. That is why, in the very next verse, Jesus goes on to teach them about the forthcoming passion. It follows perfectly logically from the command to silence when we understand it as an explanation for his concern that the disciples don’t go around saying, “Hey! Listen up! This is the messiah!”

The passion predictions lay out Jesus’ messianic agenda: suffering and death. This is not a “way” calculated to win friends and disciples! “He said all this quite openly”, Mark tells us. In other words, he’s saying, “Jesus couldn’t have been clearer. He laid it out clearly – on the line. There could be no mistaking what he was saying. There was no “wriggle-room”!” Peter doesn’t even try to wriggle! He grabs Jesus, takes him aside, and lays the law down. Imagine the conversation. It’s at least, “Look, Jesus, just forget all that death and suffering stuff! What’s wrong with you? You’ve got power! You’re a hit! You can feed crowds of people, cast out demons, heal people. Just imagine how they’ll flock to you! You want followers? Jesus, you could raise a standing army at the click of your fingers. We’re with you! Israel – no, the world! – is just yours for the taking! Think of it, Jesus: king of the world! What couldn’t you do? And how much good couldn’t you do? Why, these people will worship you as a god! So cut this other suffering and death” nonsense!”

What we are meant to hear, in other words, are echoes in Peter’s rebuke of the Matthean material about the temptation narratives. Let’s not be precious about this: Peter tells Jesus something that Jesus desperately wants to hear! It’s got power and pull. Its power is to distract Jesus from his chosen path – the path that he actually desperately fears and wants to avoid. Here is a reprise of Jesus in the wilderness, and a preview of Jesus in Gethsemane. He is being faced with the way of the cross and every fibre of his soul and being resists. How much better to be a kingly, powerful messiah! How much easier to have “all the kingdoms of the world” than the kingdom of God, which is reached only by way of the cross!

This is the reason for his sharp rebuke to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” He immediately calls the crowds and explains that this is the way his determined to travel, so that any who wish to follow must travel the same route. There are two ways: the divine way and the human way. The human way is an option for the path of glory, adulation, miracle and power. It is an option to save its own life. The divine way is the way of the cross – of humility, scandal, and incomprehensible self-sacrifice.

This is the parallel to the “Two Ways” passage in Proverbs. There are two choices: the way of foolishness, or the way of Wisdom. Wisdom – the way of Yahweh – is portrayed as a woman wandering the streets, calling out almost in vain to the heedless crowds that throng the busy streets and squares of the city, blind to their own folly. The way of Wisdom is the way to avoid calamity. It belongs to an early tradition in the Wisdom literature of the bible, underwritten by the belief that troubles and disasters are a result of abandoning the ways of Yahweh and thereby cutting oneself off from Yahweh’s provision and blessing. It is only later in the developed tradition – supremely in the book of Job – that we see a shift: following the way of Wisdom is no guarantee of an easy life. Job raises acutely the question of incomprehensible suffering, and the crumbling of any easy equation between wisdom (faith in Yahweh) and a trouble-free life.

What we see in the juxtaposition of the gospel and the book of Proverbs, therefore, is what Paul will call “the foolishness of the cross”. There is an irony here: fidelity to God requires that Jesus walk a road that is manifestly “foolish”! It is a way of suffering, failure and self-destruction. Small wonder, then, that Jesus – from the very outset of the passion predictions here in this chapter – recoils so thoroughly from it! There is indeed a “wisdom” to it – the wisdom of resurrection. There is no way to resurrection other than through the cross. So Jesus is right when he says that the only way to save one’s life is to lose it for his sake, and for the sake of the gospel, is to lose it. There is no other road that leads there. But it is not a road to be taken lightly, enthusiastically or joyfully. It’s time we stopped being sentimental about the cross, because that sort of sentimentality disguises its awfulness and its “foolishness”. The call to the way of the cross – to discipleship – is a fearful call, and if we hear what it really means, we will resist it as strenuously as both Peter and Jesus do!

This is why Jesus refuses to be known as “messiah” at this point. Yes, he is the messiah – but the messiah whose messiahship is via the cross. To hear “You are the messiah” as Peter meant that is to mishear. It is to get Jesus radically wrong, and therefore to get Christian faith radically wrong. Jesus is no wonder-working, would-be royal!

The kingdoms of the world – that was the most seductive version of messiahship on offer. But the way of God – the kingdom of God – is different. It takes a different route. Ironically, just as Jesus is the messiah (though not as others understood messiahship), so too he is king – ruler of the kingdom of God – though not as kingship was commonly understood. This is the point of the title, “Son of Man”.

“Son of Man” has become a christological title because it was Jesus’ self-description. He chooses “Son of Man” as a way of speaking more truly about himself (before the cross) than “messiah”. But it was not a title circulating in the thought and theology of the people of his day. “Son of man” in his day was a Jewish colloquialism for “a human being” – “a bloke”. It literally means, “I as a man”. Jesus’ hearers would have taken it as insignificant. Yet there is an irony to Jesus’ use of it. There is a hidden meaning. He uses it in reference to the heavenly figure of the Son of Man in Daniel 7: 13-14. Here the Son of Man is a human being-like figure who becomes king of the whole earth and ruler of an everlasting dominion. Daniel is apocalyptic literature. This type of literature presents everything in “code”. This is the “mystery”. The point is that only those “in the know” have the “key” to interpreting the code. Here Jesus takes up the title – in such a way that those outside of “the know” would hear it as insignificant and everyday. But to us – readers “in the know” – it plays as a statement: “I am a king. I am a ruler. But not one like you’ll imagine! I am king and messiah – but am both only by way of the cross!”

 

Truth, correlation and consistency (James 3: 1-12)
“It’s not just what you say that matters, but what you mean!” That’s what we see clearly in the conflict over words and titles between Jesus and his disciples. It’s no good getting the theology right if we mean something different. We behave often as though what is most important is getting the words right. We think that if we craft fine-sounding and worthy Church statements, we’ve “dealt” with an issue. But saying correct things is not the same as saying true things!

That is the whole thrust of James’ letter. He says in 2:1 (referring to the practice of favouritism) “When you live and act like that, can you really claim to believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” James doesn’t ask them for their church position paper on Christology – or, indeed, on how to treat people of different rank, class and income levels! He simply says, “Listen. I look at Jesus, and how he behaved. And I look at you, and how you behave. And I struggle to find the correlation! It doesn’t add up!”

What we say is important. But it isn’t the same thing as making clear what we believe! It is the correlation between words and actions that reveal the truth or otherwise of faith. Peter can say “You are the messiah!” – and then, with the same mouth and in the next breath, try to dissuade Jesus from being the messiah! Similarly, James points to the ways in which the believers in his church use their tongues both to bless one minute and curse the next.

I’m glad I’m not part of James’ church! It sounds as though they had real problems with the ways in which people used their tongues and spoke to one another! If the gospel passage in one sense pointed to the way in which actions shape words (by giving them their content), James is alive to the power of words to shape actions, relationships and personalities! It is not true that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me”! Words can wound, scar and remain in the psyche long after bones have healed and bruises faded. John Bell starts off music workshops by asking how many people have been shaped by being told that they can’t sing. He then tells them that they can – and proceeds (in most cases!) to work to undo what people have come to believe about themselves – the words they use to describe themselves.

Of course, James is concerned more about the words we use to each other and about each other than about “theology” – words about faith. But the two are intimately related. Like Jesus, words, for James, express what is “inside” – what is in the heart. He clearly believes that faith in Jesus issues in some sort of discernible transformation of people. They change character – become more like Jesus. And this is seen not only in actions but in the ways in which words are used to create or destroy relationships.

Words! Jesus is the Word – God’s self-disclosure in human form. Jesus, in other words, shows us what it is to be human, as well as what God is like. We are flawed and damaged, broken and needy. That is not to say that we are as bad as we could possibly be! Nor is it remotely to say that we are therefore unlovable as far as God is concerned! But it is to say that what we find in Jesus is not just a wonderful example to inspire us. We don’t need “reforming”, as human beings: we need “recreating”. And that is what Jesus does for us (as Paul reminds us in 2Corinthians 5:17). We have the chance to become a new creation – part of the new life of resurrection and salvation that God yearns to pour out. But that involves the death of the old, and the rising to life of the new. That is what we are given in Christ. It is above and beyond all that we can imagine or think. But it lies on the other side of the cross. And Jesus says, “There isn’t any other way, folks! I’ve looked – believe me, if there were, I’dve found it. So that’s the way I’m going. Want to follow?”

 

Amen.

Written by Lawrence

14 September, 2006 at 10:28 pm