Saturday, October 3, 2015

Sunday 11 October 2015 - 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Wealth as a hindrance / Following Jesus unreservedly / Seeking justice / The sharp two edged sword of God.

Sentence: Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (Psalm 90:14).


Kind and generous God,
you prepare a feast for all people.
May we prepare for your banquet by putting on the garment of love
that springs from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith.
Help us to bring the lost and lonely, the poor and those in need
to your feast where all are fed.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90:12-17
Hebrews 4:12-16
Mark 10:17-31


Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

We read this diatribe against those who through injustice become wealthy with half an eye on the gospel. There is a hint there, but no more than a hint, that the wealthy man may have gotten his possessions by unjust means. Either way, it is always good to be reminded, including in our world of 'inequality' that God's will is for justice and not for injustice. For people to be treated fairly, for bribes to be refused (12) and for active 'establishment' of 'justice at the gate' (15).

Psalm 90:12-17

Wealth -looking ahead to the gospel reading - appears to satisfy but ultimately does not. True satisfaction comes from knowing God, from realising that God loves us with a 'steadfast love' (14).

Hebrews 4:12-16

The letter to Hebrews, as we opened up last week, is generally a call to Jewish Christians tempted to stray backwards from Christianity to Judaism to reconsider in the light of the arguments put forward by the writer, particularly that Jesus is superior in everyway to all competitors. Last week, superior to the angels, this week to the high priests (14-16) - although this theme will be developed in much greater detail in succeeding chapters. Between last week's reading and this, the writer has discussed Jesus in comparison to Moses (and, slightly, to Joshua, 4:8). In that discussion the theme of 'rest' was opened up. Under Moses, the people of Israel wandering in the desert had, because of grumbling, failed to enter into their 'rest', that is into the Promised Land.

In such a context, ending in 4:11 with 'Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs', we try to make sense of what seems like a change of topic, verses 12-13 on the 'word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.' At the very least the introduction of this topic as a kind of aside relates to what has gone before because it reminds readers whose disobedience may be private (compared with the public grumbling of Israel) that God is able to judge even 'the thoughts and intentions of the heart' (12). The judgment is via the 'word of God' meaning that what distinguishes good from bad, obedience from disobedience, wisdom from foolishness is not arbitrarily determined but rests on the word of God, the word revealed to Moses, revealed through Jesus as 'his powerful word' (1:3).

The theme of high priest has already been introduced in 2:17, in relation to offering 'a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of people.' In our passage this high priest is our example and inspiration. 'Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession' (14). That is, let us not go backwards under pressure of internal false teaching or external persecution.

Our strength to be faithful, to hold fast includes that fact that we have a high priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses, tested in all respects, yet not failing by falling into sin (15). From such a priest we can receive help. Verse 16 is then one of the great promises of Scripture.

There is no comparison explicitly with the high priests of Israel but implicitly comparison is entering into the writer's presentation of Jesus: no other high priest ever offered what offers. Thus we head on into chapter 5 with further talk of high priests.

Mark 10:17-31

Following on from the children coming to Jesus and Jesus saying the kingdom needs to be received as a child would do, we have an 'adult' encounter between Jesus and 'a man' (17). Clearly a sincere and committed man, he 'runs up' to Jesus and 'kneels' before him, addressing him as 'Good Teacher' and asking the adult question, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?' (17) This is, in fact, the question of all religious people willing to live according to God's will.

Jesus' response is not what ours may have been.We might well start in with the list of commendments (19). Jesus begins by turning the address of the man towards consideration of God: 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone' (18). On the one hand Jesus is directing the man towards God who alone can answer such a question, thus bringing into play the commandments which God has given. On the other hand, there is some irony in the response. Later, the church, understanding Jesus to be identified with God, will puzzle over this response: it sounds as though Jesus is denying that he, as the Son of God, is indeed 'good.'

Intriguingly, Jesus lists the 'social' commandments, the ones which impact on our relationships with others in society, rather than the first commandments which focus on our commitment to God. Also, the list is a slight variation on our usual 'Ten Commandments'. Instead of the 10th commandment not to covet, there is a commandment not to defraud. Was Jesus testing the man, who later in the story turns out to be wealthy. Wealthy people have no reason to covet but they may have achieved their wealth by fraud. So, Exodus 20:17 is replaced by Leviticus 19:13. Is Jesus implying that the man has wealth because he has defrauded fellow Israelites (Ched Myers, Say To This Mountain, Maryknoll: Orbis, 1996, 125)? If so, then is Jesus shortly asking of him an act of reparation? (21)

The man is calm in his response. He has kept these commandments since his youth (20). Something about the man - presumably his sincerity and perhaps his humility - draws affection from Jesus: 'Jesus, looking at him, loved him' (21). But what he then says shocked the man. Jesus' spiritual diagnosis means he does not say 'Come on in' or 'You've passed.' Jesus (we imagine) looks the man in the eye and says 'You lack one thing.' At this point the man does not lack earnestness or sincerity. nor does he lack insight because he has, after all, come to Jesus. What he appears to lack is ridding himself of the one thing that is preventing him from following Jesus. 'Go, sell, what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me' (21).

This is too much. He cannot do it. He is shocked. He walks away. Grieving, 'for he had many possessions' (22). There will be a challenge for many hearers today: many of us are fabulously wealthy by global standards. Wealthy to the point where we have possessions we do not think impinge on our ability to obey God's commandments. We may not even think of these possessions as hindering our following Jesus. But, if it came to the crunch - here is a testing question for all - could we sell our possessions and give the money away to the poor? If we cannot answer that question, is there something we need to work on?

Incidentally is it an adult trait to cling to possessions and be unable to give them up? Is the child-like embrace of the kingdom of God (10:13-16) in part an easy attitude to owning things and to giving them away?

If the question is difficult to answer, we are in good company because the disciples themselves were 'perplexed' by what Jesus had to say (23-24). Jesus repeats himself, 'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God' (23, 24). To rub the point in he uses an extravagant metaphor. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God (25). Their perplexity continues: 'Then who can be saved' (26). Presumably they too have a few possessions, perhaps back in Capernaum where their boats were being leased by others and their families remained in their houses.

What then does Jesus mean in verse 27, that this is a situation which is impossible for mortals but not for God? At the least, and in keeping with other things said about salvation: it is God's work which saves us and not our work. It is impossible for ourselves but possible for God. But the question arises why God didn't make 'salvation' possible for the man who walked away. Again, we could surmise that many are called but few are chosen, and the wealthy man is not one of the chosen. But we could also surmise that, while salvation is God's gift to offer and to make possible for us, we have power to resist the work. The man came awfully close to salvation. Jesus 'loved him' and reached out to him. But a greater love compelled the man, love of his possessions.

Verses 28-31 then become a reassurance, both for Peter and the disciples, and for later readers. Effectively his question in 28 is, 'Is it worthwhile giving up everything to follow you, Lord?' Jesus says it is worthwhile when it is done 'for my sake and for the sake of the good news' (29). But the rewards are not - despite initial appearances - about repayment in this life. Mention of 'persecutions' and of 'in the age to come eternal life' mean that the repayments are kingdom repayments. For example those who have left family will have a new and much larger family. Those who have left houses behind will always have a welcome in the houses of kingdom members.

Verse 31, familiar from other parts of the gospels, reminds us all that the kingdom's values are 'upside-down' relative to the world's values.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sunday 4 October 2015 - 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Divorce and remarriage / Marriage from creation / When two become one / Suffer the little children / Compassionate kingdom / Jesus: the exact imprint of God / We see Jesus

Sentence: We see Jesus ... now crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone (Hebrews 2:9).


Loving God,
yours is the vineyard and the harvest.
Help us to recognise the one you send and to follow him.
Make us willing workers in your vineyard,
so that we may offer you an abundant harvest.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-14, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16


Genesis 2:18-24

Due to some deft literary stitching Genesis 1 and 2 are often read as a single account of creation. In fact there are two accounts, 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-25. In the first account there are seven days of creation and the creation of humanity, male and female is the culmination of the creation of the earth, sky, stars, moon, plants and animals. In the second account there is one (long) day of creation with humanity represented by the Human (Adam; Heb. adam) being 'formed' from the ground (Heb. adamah) early in the account (7) and humanity divided into two genders being the end of the account (21-25). Through the account humanity thus takes centre stage rather than being the culmination of it.

Noting that the ending of the creation of creatures in the first account is 'male and female he created them' (27b) with the command, 'Be fruitful ...' (28) we see a parallel account of the creation of male and female at the conclusion of chapter 2: when the single 'Human' becomes man (Heb. ish in relation to woman, Heb. ishah) and the woman is created from the Human (22). These two bone of bones and flesh of flesh then become husband and wife and reunite as one flesh again (24), with the implication that from their uniting in sexual intercourse they will be fruitful according to 1:28.

In the gospel reading we find that Jesus himself stitches aspects of the two accounts together so that what he says about marriage is drawn from Genesis 1:27; 2:20-24 as well as Genesis 5:2.

Psalm 8

As a 'related' psalm, this psalm is undoubtedly related to the epistle reading rather than the gospel reading. (It is a little difficult to think of any psalm which discusses divorce!)

This is a beautiful song of praise to God praising the majesty of God's Name (1, 9). The glory of God is seen 'set ... above the heavens' (1b). So great is God that the psalmist wonders why God is 'mindful' of human beings (4). Yet, with respect to the nature whose beauty inspires this psalm, the psalmist recognizes that human beings are nevertheless esteemed (5) and given roles of responsible stewardship (6-8).

Hebrews 1:1-14, 2:5-12

Having completed James we begin Hebrews. This enigmatic letter has some Pauline characteristics which has led to some in the past ascribing its authorship to Paul but scholars are now agreed it is not by Paul and unsure who the unnamed author is. It is also enigmatic in terms of style: it looks a bit like a letter but reads like a (long) sermon. It certainly is an exposition of many Old Testament texts as it advances its case. To understand that case, let's look at our two passages for this Sunday.


'our ancestors' in the first verse is a clue that this letter is not only addressed to Jewish Christians but also that there is an issue which is best approached by going back into the past. So verses 1-2 set up a contrast: the prophets spoke in the past but in these 'last days' (i.e. in the present era) God has spoken 'by a Son.' If we guess from this comparison that the central work of the letter will be to argue for the superiority of Jesus Christ then we guess right.

Verses 2-3 set out the rank, status and function of the Son, in one of the greatest christological statements of the New Testament with 'exact imprint of God's very being' arguable the most important of the statements made. Verse 4 then notes, almost in passing, that the purification of sins (on earth) and the seating 'at the right hand of the Majesty on high' (in heaven) makes Jesus 'superior to the angels'. In fact this particular superiority becomes the first great theme in the superiority of Jesus (1:5-14).

The argument that unfolds in verses 5-14 weaves texts from the Psalms and Isaiah together to ask questions and make statements all of which nail down, underline and highlight the point introduced in verse 4. There is a little carryover of the argument in 2:5-9.

Why this intense 'competition' between Jesus and the angels? We do not know for certain because we are not told. But it is not difficult to hypothesise that the addressees of the letter were worshipping angels and either counting Jesus among those angels (i.e. as just another angel) or even as less than those angels. Angel worship was not unknown to the first century Christians. Colossians 2:18 warns against 'worship of angels.' Twice in Revelation John is tempted to worship an angel and twice he is told not to but to worship God instead (19:20; 22:8-9). On this hypothesis, the writer of Hebrews strikes his first blow in his message to a congregation misunderstanding some basic Christian teachings: Jesus is superior to angels. A similar hypothesis is that the congregation being addressed have some kind of confused understanding about angels. While they might not have worshipped them, were they overly interested in them, speculating on who they were, what they did and how they could be contacted? If this interest in angels was detracting from clear recognition of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, what we read here makes sense: the writer acknowledges the importance of angels but vigorously and repetitively sets out their relative importance to Jesus. He is completely superior to them. Only Jesus is the exact imprint of God.

(2:1-4: not specified for reading today, nevertheless a brief note may assist the preacher: these verses seem at first to be an aside (they take us from heaven back to earth), but may also be counted as a transition within the overall argument of the letter. The emphasis on angels here falls on their role in the delivery of the Law of Moses, 'For if the message declared through angels was valid ...' (2). We rightly ask where angels figured in the story of the delivery of the Law to Moses in Exodus. They do not, save for a slight reference in Deuteronomy 33:2 to the angels accompanying God at the time,  but there was a popular view in ancient Judaism that the angels played a role when the Law was given to Moses. This view also influences Stephen (Acts 7:38, 53) and Paul (Galatians 3:19). In these verses the writer argues that if the angelic message of the Law charted a future in which disobedience received 'a just penalty' (2) then to 'neglect' the 'salvation' offered by Jesus Christ (who is so much superior to the angels) is to incur (so to speak) double wrath from God: 'how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?' (3) The rest of verse 3 and verse 4 then emphasise the validity through attestation of the gospel 'declared' by the Lord. The theme of 'how can we escape etc' permeates the remainder of the letter).


Before we go any further I need to point out that the inclusivity of language in the NRSV (which generally works fine) does not serve it well in this passage. The passage cites Psalm 8 which includes mention of 'the son of man' and that must be engaged with in respect of what resonance it might have with Jesus as The Son of Man, indeed Jesus as a single/lone human being. Working inclusively the NRSV confines the literal, masculine translation to the footnotes and works with 'human beings', 'mortals' and 'them' in verses 5-7. Thus we might be helped to have the less inclusive but more accurate rendition given here for the first part of the passage (RSV adapted re thou/you, etc):

"5 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking.
6 It has been testified somewhere,
'What is man that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
7 You made him for a little while lower than the angels,
you have crowned him with glory and honour,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.'
8 Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control.
As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
9 But we see Jesus ..."

With verse 5 we are back from the interlude (but important transition) of 2:1-4 to the theme of Jesus' superiority to the angels (5). The 'coming world' is not subject to the angels but will be subject (or is becoming subject to Jesus). For evidence, the writer goes back to the Psalms, this time to Psalm 8 with its enigmatic talk of humanity made a little lower than the angels but after a while they will have everything subject to them. The NRSV is not wrong to inclusively count humanity as made lower than the angels and later to be lord over all things, but the singularity of the RSV (adapted) highlights some elements of wordplay going on. The human being extraordinaire is the now crowned one who fulfils the prophecy inherent in Psalm 8 (Hebrews 2:9).

But humanity is not out of the picture. Jesus is the 'pioneer of their salvation' (10). He goes ahead of us - another great theme in Hebrews - to secure and hold for us what God graciously makes available to us.

The writer makes one other point we should note. The fuller phrase in verse 10 is 'God ... should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.' Perfection here is not ethical perfection: Jesus was understood to be without sin. Perfection here is about the completion of God's purposes. For the purpose of salvation Jesus needed to suffer. By suffering (in particular suffering as the ethically perfect one to become the perfect sacrifice for the sins of imperfect humanity) Jesus completed God's purposes for the world.

Going back to verses 8-9 we find the writer focusing his readers on Jesus ('we do see Jesus'). His 'suffering of death' is for our sake because he has tasted 'death for everyone.' We need to look over to verses 14-15 to see what that might mean: he has destroyed 'the power of death' so that we might be free from the fear of death.

There will be more to say on these matters as we work through the remainder of the letter.

Mark 10:2-16

The topic of divorce remains one on which Christians ask questions. Currently the Roman Catholic church is coming to terms with a fairly dramatic change concerning annulment of marriages, pronounced by Pope Francis recently (see, e.g. here). Some readers here may have intensely personal questions about their own life situation, perhaps feeling trapped in an unsatisfactory marriage or fearful of marrying in case marriage does not turn out well. In what follows I have drawn some wisdom from Tom Wright, Mark for Everyone, London: SPCK, 2001, pp. 129-133 and from Robert H. Stein, Mark (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2008, pp. 453-460. The thoughts expressed here are, of course, my responsibility rather than theirs.

From a narrative point of view, Jesus is drawing closer to Jerusalem and his death. This passage begins with the Pharisees seeking him out 'to test him' (2). These kinds of tests will become more intense as the days go by and the distance to Jerusalem grows shorter.

The fact that a question is asked about the legality of divorce suggests that the matter was controversial then. It would be no test to ask Jesus about a theoretical matter on which little rested of theological or pastoral importance. Presumably people generally were asking under what conditions they might secure a divorce (or, to be more accurate, under what conditions a man might secure a divorce from his wife (2)). As best we can tell the rabbis fell into two camps in their answers to such a question, roughly the 'hard' camp and the 'soft' camp. To which did Jesus belong?

Spoiler alert: what follows is not egalitarian!

The 'hard' camp, the school of Shammai interpreted Deuteronomy 24:1 ('... but she does not please [her husband] because he finds something objectionable about her ...') as restricting divorce to sexual unchastity by the wife. The 'soft' camp, the school of Hillel interpreted it more liberally and 'permitted divorce for such things as a wife spoiling her husband's supper or his finding someone more attractive than her' (Stein, 455).

But there is an even sharper possibility to consider about what lies behind the question. John the Baptist has already been executed for criticizing the marriage of Herod Antipas and Herodias (6:17-20), and Herodias had divorced her husband to marry Herod (note 10:11-12). The test question may have been a specific trap to draw Jesus also into angering Herod and thus into the possibility of his been removed from further public ministry by imprisonment if not execution.

Typically of Jesus, he asks a question of his questioners rather than answering their question. He is not just being 'clever/smart'. He wants the Pharisees to go back to first principles. He also, if the Herodian background to the question is correct, wants to avoid their entrapment. Only later will he reveal to the disciples what he actually thinks about the Herods' dodgy marriage (11-12).

So instead of answering the question whether it is legal for a man to divorce his wife he asks 'What did Moses command you?' (3). Their answer, v. 4, shows that they already know the answer to their question: it is legal!

Jesus goes on to offer a 'hard' interpretation of the legality of divorce (as then understood). Moses had authorised a legal way forward (or 'out') but it was not because of the softness of God's heart but 'because of your hardness of heart' (5). That is, the very pressure of desire for divorce led to Mosaic legalising of divorce. The general principle of marriage, as Jesus goes on to remind his hearers, is that 'what God has joined together, let no one separate' (9) and the theological reason for this general principle is that marriage is intended from creation itself, indeed from the fact that God created humanity 'male and female', to be a unitive relationship, two bodies becoming 'one flesh.' (6-8). The Pharisees want to talk about the grounds for divorce, Jesus turns that to talk of the foundational truths of marriage.

Nevertheless, marriage is challenging and few marriages remain blissful everyday after the wedding day! The disciples understand these things about the difficulties of married life because they themselves seem unconvinced by Jesus' response to the Pharisees. Surely divorce is not forbidden no matter what difficulties a marriage falls into? So we read, 'Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.' (10).

In Matthew's version of this story they say a little more, 'If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.' (19:10) In other words, 'Your teaching on this, Lord, is too tough!'

Jesus responds with words which are brief, blunt and difficult ever since for the church to administer (11). While they may have been - as suggested above - a particular riposte aimed at the Herods, Mark reports these words here without reference to the Herods which implies that Mark felt that what Jesus said about marriage applied generally to all disciples and not just to local celebrities with well known marriage merry go-rounds.

That means that we should hear what Jesus says in these verses as applying to disciples. First, that he envisages that disciples will not have the same hard-heartedness as the Israelites in general had. The work of God in the lives of disciples should enable them to meet the challenges of marriage. Secondly, given the generally high expectations on disciples to live holy lives, worthy of the God who calls them into the kingdom, there should be no surprise that disciples are called to live their marriages to a high standard, the standard set by God in the original institution of marriage in creation.

Incidentally, for some readers Mark 10:9 may appear to contradict Mark 10:11. The former forbidding divorce and the latter acknowledging divorce but forbidding remarriage. In fact on the understanding of the rabbis, divorce implied freedom to remarry, so forbidding divorce and forbidding remarriage amounted to the same thing.

But the question will be in some readers minds, because of their own difficult marriage situation or that of a loved friend or family member, what do these verses mean for my situation? First, these verses do not tackle specific questions of when divorce might be acceptable (at least in the sense of the lesser of two evils, for instance when a spouse is being physically abused). That some exceptions became of concern to the early church is witnessed to in Matthew 5:32, 19:9 and 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 which provide 'exception clauses.' Secondly, we therefore should not read these verses in such a manner that we feel bound to remain in an impossible situation. If we feel we are in that situation we should seek help from a pastor or marriage counselor.

What we - the whole Christian community of disciples - should be clear about from these verses is that God's expectation is that the married remain married, that no spouse hardens their heart against their partner simply because they find them unsatisfactory, that temptations to adultery will be resisted and that the intention in our hearts towards our spouses will be guided and directed by God's Word and not by the values of the world. These values, it seems in the Western world, are determined according to what will make me happy rather than according to what sacrificial love towards our spouse means.

Our final verses, 13-16, funnily enough involve children. Was that coincidence or did Mark deliberately place this incident as a natural follow on from discussing marriage?

On the one hand we can read this story as a mixture of cuteness and compassion: the mean ol' disciples try to shoo the children away and Jesus gets cross about that and says, "Let the little children come to me ..." They come and snuggle into Jesus' arms and he blesses them (16).

On the other hand this is a story, like most stories in Mark's Gospel, about the kingdom. First, 'to such as these ... the kingdom of God belongs.' Secondly, 'whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.' (14, 15). There is something about children which we are being invited to consider. It may not be just one thing. So we think of the innocence of children and their trusting natures, of the vulnerability of children and their powerlessness in society ruled by adults, and (casting an eye ahead to the next story, 10:17ff) their willingness to come to Jesus without negotiating conditions beforehand.

That is, if we are to enter the kingdom of heaven we may need to let go of the cynicism and wariness of adulthood and entrust ourselves to God. We may need to let go of thinking of how strong and sturdy we are and recognize the vulnerabilities within and allow God to speak to those with an invitation to come humbly under the rule of God.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sunday 27 September 2015 - 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Who is for the Lord? / Don't be a stumbling block / Get rid of stumbling blocks to Christian maturity / Discipleship / The urgent importance of obedience / Healing / Practical steps in pastoral care / Delegation

Sentence: 'The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective' (James 5:16b)


God of all authority,
enable us to hear your call and do what you ask of us.
Forgive us for judging others,
help us to embrace the outcast and the downtrodden.
Transform our lives so that everything we do may proclaim your generous love.
We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God now and for ever. Amen

Readings (related):

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19:7-14
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50


Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

At first sight it is not clear why and how this reading as a related reading connects to the gospel reading but perseverance has a reward because we find in the last verses of the reading (26-29) something akin to Mark 9:38-40. Eldad and Medad prophesy when, theoretically, they are not supposed to. A cry goes up to Moses to stop them and Moses refuses to do so. 'Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!' is a memorable sentence which can be aptly used in the life of the church when we wish more of the congregation would do good things.

A fascinating aspect of the Numbers story represented in these passages is that it begins with a grizzle about food - essentially that eating manna everyday was boring (4-6, also 10-15) - and moves on to the load Moses is bearing as Complaints Officer for Israel (10-15). The solution which the Lord gives is that he should delegate responsibility by appointing seventy elders (16). Yet what we then find is that the spirit of Moses which the Lord takes 'some' of (25) leads the seventy to 'prophesy'. It is only one occasion (25) but it sets up an expectation that they are prophesying elders and only these elders will prophesy.

Thus when Eldad and Medad begin prophesying 'out of turn' yet another complaint goes to Moses (27).

Psalm 19:7-14

These verses are part of one of the loveliest of psalms, a paeon of praise to God for that which communicates the glory of God: the heavens (1-6) and, this passage, the law of the Lord (7-14).

Why this psalm in connection with the gospel. I have had to think about it, it is not immediately obvious to my eyes. I think it is this: Jesus in the gospel gives some searching directions in regard to things which cause disciples to stumble. When it may even be, metaphorically, our hand or foot or eye, then it may be something we are so used to that it is a 'hidden fault' (Psalm 19:12).

The psalm is read today in order to include a prayer, verse 12, 'Clear me from my hidden faults.'

James 5:13-20

These verses, we could even say, with verse 13, these 'cheerful' verses are full of practical instructions for church life. All are brief. A kind of "Quick Guide to Pastoral Ministry."

13: are you suffering ... cheerful, then you should pray ... sing songs of praise.
14: are you sick? call the elders. What should they do? Pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord.
15: see below
16: 'Therefore' (what is this 'Therefore' there for?) confess your sins to one another ... so that you may be healed.
16b: a note about the prayer of the righteous
17-18: an illustrative story about the prayer of the righteous
19-20: the importance of bringing a wandering brother or sister back to the truth and away from sin and its deathly consequences.

Verse 15 is challenging because of its certainty: 'the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.' Is this a certainty that the sick will be healed as in restored in this life to physical health (so that 'raise them up' means 'raise them up off their sick beds')?

Or is this a certainty that the sick will be 'saved' through the Lord 'raising them up' with the precise nature of the saving and the raising being left in the Lord's hands, who has discretion to save the sick even through death and to raise them to new life in God's presence?

Our experience as pray-ers of 'prayers of faith' tells us that it is the latter and not the former which is in view here.

Mark 9:38-50

This is a difficult passage if we are looking for a single theme or thread running through it.

Verses 38-41 begin with a report from the disciples about an exorcism by a non-disciple which Jesus counteracts by affirming the relevance and importance of people being committed doing things in his 'name.' That leads to a general conclusion, 'Whoever is not against us is for us.' But we lack clarity as to what precisely Jesus means. Was he making a simple observation about life, that when people are not against you they are effectively for you; that in some circumstances lack of prohibition is permission? Was  he making a claim about the inclusiveness of salvation so that (to put it a little bit provocatively) atheists-who-are-not-against-Jesus are counted as followers of Jesus but atheists-who-are-against-Jesus are not so counted? Verse 41 then offers a commentary on 'the name' of Christ and its importance: those who are not Christians but recognise Christians and honour them for their service in Christ's name will receive some kind of divine recognition for that, 'will by no means lose their reward.'

Verses 42-48 connect with verse 41 by thinking in a different direction: there will be those who do not give a cup of water to Christians, 'these little ones who believe in me,' but instead put some kind of stumbling block in front of them. For these ones a punishment awaits (42b).

Verses 43-48 then work from the word 'stumbling' and are - on the basis of the parallel in Matthew 5:29 - addressed to the disciples themselves. If something about their lives, represented by hand (43), foot (45), or eye (47) causes them to stumble, they should cut it off or tear it out. We should not get stuck on what the hand or foot or eye means but rather think about things in our lives - such as attachments, continuing habits of sin, embedded bad attitudes - which form stumbling blocks to our obedience to the demands of the kingdom of God. Decisive action may be required because Jesus associates the direction to cut or tear bodily parts with avoiding being 'thrown into hell.'

Most readers will find that verses 44 and 46 are missing from this passage. Where have they gone?! You may find, as I find in my NRSV, that these verses are (a) identical with verse 48, (b) 'lacking in the best ancient authorities.' That means that textual scholars deem that verses 44 and 46 are later additions to the earliest manuscripts of Mark. (In turn this means that they do not think the omission of 44 and 46 are late deletions of otherwise early verses). It is not difficult to imagine that a conscientious scribe, copying this passage, thought it should have the same words as we find in verse 48 after each mention of 'hell' at the end of verses 43 and 45.

Finally, verses 49-50 begin with a segue from 'the fire' of verse 48 to a different kind of 'fire', one in which 'everyone will be salted with fire.' Then there is a segue from 'salted' to 'salt' in verse 50. A look at the commentaries suggests many explanations of the enigmatic statement and thus an inherent difficulty if we wish to be sure what this means. One plausible explanation is given by Weston W. Fields (here). He argues that if we translate from the Greek into Hebrew then the word for 'salt' in Hebrew is also associated with destruction, e.g. Judges 9:45, and thus the sense of what Jesus is saying would be, ''"everyone [who is sent to hell] will be completely destroyed (i.e. destroyed by fire)."

Whether we agree with that explanation or not, it does alert us to the importance of the statement as a record in Greek of something Jesus said in Hebrew (or Aramaic). Mark is unlikely to have invented such a difficult saying. Nor did it make much sense in ancient times - some early copyists of the Markan manuscripts attempted to improve on what they read.

The use of 'salt' in verse 49, however difficult to understand, then leads to a further reference to 'salt' in verse 50. This is more readily understood as a reference to the importance of discipleship being kept alive, with zing and zest.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Sunday 20 September 2015 - 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Jesus predicts his death and resurrection / How then shall we live? / Church conflicts: how they can be dealt with and why they never need arise / True wisdom / Asking and receiving / The character of the kingdom / The kingdom of God and its requirements of our character

Sentence: 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.' (Mark 9:37)


God who sees everything,
may we understand true wisdom
so that our lives are both pure and peaceful
and your church is marked by harmony
through the power of the one Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readings (related):

Jeremiah 11:18-20
Psalm 54
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-37


Jeremiah 11:18-20

In the gospel reading Jesus predicts his suffering and death (and resurrection). Here Jeremiah envisages his own fate at the hands of evil men. But he cannot see a resurrection ('his name will no longer be remembered') though he has faith that God will bring retribution upon those who destroy him.

Incidentally, as a detail which is not terrifically important, note that in the Greek version of Jeremiah, 'lamb' is arnion, the word which John the Seer, writing the Book of Revelation uses for 'the Lamb' who appears so often in his visions. By contrast John the Evangelist, writing the Gospel, uses the word amnos for Lamb in John 1:29, 36 when John the Baptist cries out for people to Behold the Lamb of God.

Psalm 54

This psalm, a cry from David's heart when pursued by Saul, fits well with Jesus' situation when he finds 'the ruthless seek my life' (3) but faces that, sure that 'God is my helper' (4). As we find these kinds of psalms linked to the gospel readings such as today's, which speak of the suffering and death of Jesus, we build a repertoire of psalms which cast light on the meaning of the dark days of Jesus' suffering and thus of the explosion of glory which the resurrection represents.

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

Spoiler Alert: you might be troubled by this passage if your life is not in order, outwardly and inwardly!

If earlier we have seen James 'have a go' at those whose faith claims are at variance with their works (2:14-26), here we find him having a go at those who claim to be wise and understanding yet do not show this in the way they live. Moreover, the way these works are done, 'with gentleness born of wisdom' is important, for that will demonstrate the state of one's heart. There is a false wisdom which is 'earthly, unspiritual, devilish' which is represented when our hearts are full of 'bitter envy and selfish ambition' (13-15).

Such envy and selfish ambition leads to 'disorder and wickedness of every kind' (16) - which might explain some divisions and dysfunctions in the church! The contrast, with obvious shades of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) and the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5) present, is 'the wisdom of above' which is 'first pure, then peaceable ...' (17). Different ones among us might usefully reflect on relevant items on the list. To take one, 'willing to yield', how many conflicts inside and outside the church make sad progress (i.e. regress) when parties to the conflict are unwilling to give way to the other. The theme of peace is especially strong through 17-18 (x3). James is right to emphasise this sign that the church understands the implications and application of the gospel of peace.

Chapter 4:1-3 is then a different tack on the same subject of conflicts and quarrels. It seems unlikely that any of James' readers would have been murderers, so does he have in mind the metaphorical murder, when we hate someone, when we cut them dead in conversation and when we exclude them from our social circle?

These verses begin with a kind of 'amateur psychology' approach exploring where 'conflicts and disputes' come from with the answer 'Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? (1) Actually, this is more than amateur psychology because - we know this from our own experience - conflicts and disputes often are about something else going on in our lives, a missing something which desire or crave. For example, we crave more attention and love so we conflict with the one in our group who is the centre of attention. (Looking ahead to the gospel reading and the dispute there among the disciples, Mark 9:33), there was a craving for status!)

But the end of verse 2 takes us from psychology to theology, 'You do not have, because you do not ask.' James doesn't quite spell out what he is saying here. It sounds as though a fuller version would be, 'You end up quarrelling because of things you do not have and you are missing the point that you don't have these things because you haven't asked God for them,'

Incidentally, with those last words in verse 2 we are certainly taken to the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:7-11) and thus verse 3 becomes a commentary on Jesus' own words about asking and receiving. It is an age old Christian question or two that we respond to Jesus with 'Does that mean I can ask for anything at all and expect to get it?" and 'Why didn't I get what I asked Jesus for?' Here James  answers that we do not receive what we ask for 'because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures'. In other words - noting verses 4-6 which are not part of the lectionary reading - when you ask according to your will and not according to God's will, you do not receive.

But we should go back to the end of verse 2. 'You do not have, because you do not ask.' Are there times - I know there are in my life - when you do not have what God wants you to have because you have done everything about your lack except ask God for supply!

Finally (7-8a), kind of summing up the whole situation of these verses, the lives we live, for good or for ill, according to our will or God's will, James draws a series of contrasts &: submit to God/resist the devil; draw near to God/he will draw near to you.

There is an old bumper sticker which proclaimed an important truth, If you are not close to God, guess who moved? (!!)

Mark 9:30-37

Famously Mark has Jesus predicting three times that he will be put to death yet rise again to life. Our passage begins with the second of the predictions as Jesus again speaks to his disciples (30-32). Again we also find, in relation to this conversation, that Jesus is being secretive (cf. discussion in previous posts about 'the Messianic Secret' in Mark's Gospel). In this case Jesus 'did not want anyone to know' that they were passing through Galilee (30) because he wanted to speak to his disciples, 'for he was teaching ... "The Son of Man is to be betrayed ..."' (31). This suggests that Mark is very summarily giving us what Jesus taught, as a walk through Galilee would have take a day or three.

Despite this prolonged teaching session the disciples are, well, thick. 'But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.' (32) There is a bit to ponder here. Jesus was a good teacher, the disciples were following him and generally eager to learn from him. What was the blockage in this case?

Psychologically we can understand that the disciples were unable to comprehend that their beloved leader was going to die. They were, to use an old phrase, 'in denial.' Theologically we can understand that the disciples were unable to comprehend that their Messiah was going to suffer which, in turn, leads us to think that they knew all the stories of David's prowess as a warrior and nothing of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.

But why were they 'afraid to ask him' to clear matters up?

The next verses may give us a clue (as well as telling us of the hopeless depth of incomprehension they were in). In the next scene the disciples are arguing amongst themselves. Jesus calls them out on it and their silence speaks volumes: they knew they were caught arguing something that was displeasing to Jesus.

It all seems pathetic to us as readers! They were arguing over 'who was the greatest', that is, who was the greatest among them, who would be at the right hand of Jesus after his coronation. At once we see the depth of the disciples' commitment to some kind of political interpretation of Jesus' ministry. These healings and feedings were the prelude to taking up power and authority over Israel and booting the Romans out as well. Who wouldn't want to be top dog in the court of King Jesus! Perhaps their fear of asking Jesus to help them properly understand (32) was the fear of a grand fantasy being destroyed!

Jesus takes them to task on this. But, looking ahead, it is to little avail as there is yet another attempt to come to assert top dog status, Mark 10:35-45.

But it is to our avail what Jesus says in verses 35-37. In the simplest and clearest terms he sets out the values of the kingdom, the real kingdom he is king of, the one wishing to be at his right hand should seek to be 'last of all and servant of all' (35). In that kingdom it is the last, the least and the lost - represented by the little child he takes in his arms - who is to be welcomed and given pride of place (36-37a).

When, as ourselves members of this particular kingdom with these 'upside-down' values, we welcome the last, the least and the lost, we welcome Jesus himself. When we welcome Jesus we welcome God who sent him (37b).

In this last verse we find discipleship (what we are asked to do) meeting christology (who is Jesus?) because we find in the chain of welcome, child/Jesus/God are subtle equation between Jesus and God!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Sunday 13 September 2015 - 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Suffering and Vindication / Cost of Discipleship / Taming the Tongue

Sentence: For what will it profit to gain the whole world and forfeit your life? (Mark 8:36)


Holy and eternal God,'
Give us such trust in your sure purpose,
That we measure our lives
Not by what we have done or failed to do,
But by our faithfulness to you. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 116:1-9
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38


Isaiah 50:4-9a

Just as Jesus, in the gospel reading, looks ahead to his suffering at the hands of those who will kill him, so the prophet looks to a time of humiliation at the hands of his persecutors. But later the first Christian writers, reporting to us the suffering of Jesus, will be influenced in their accounts by recollection of these words.

Isaiah 50:4-11 constitutes the so-called 'third servant song', songs with messianic themes which directly or indirectly shape both Jesus' own conception of his purpose and identity and the Christian understanding of Jesus as the Christ/Messiah, a suffering Messiah rather than a militant Messiah.

Psalm 116:1-9

We read this psalm in conjunction with Jesus' predictions - in our gospel reading - of his death (verses 1-7) and resurrection (verses 8-9).

What prayers of ours have been answered so that we want to exclaim 'I love the Lord ... because he inclined his ear to me'? (1-2)

James 3:1-12

We can all get this passage because we all know the damage the tongue causes. Perhaps our caustic tongue has caused damage (I know mine has). Perhaps we have been hurt by the acidic words of another's tongue. It needn't be our enemy, it might be our closest friend or colleague who hurts us with an ill-chosen word, or perhaps even with a well-chosen word but delivered thoughtlessly and without tact. It never does any Christian or any Christian congregation any harm to be reminded to control the tongue, to speak well of and to others and to never forget the power of the tongue, for evil and for good.

What is of interest as we reflect on the passage are a few matters we might rush by.

3:1 challenges all of us who claim to be or who are contemplating being teachers. But we should not let the raw fact that we teachers will be judged 'with greater stricture.' That just makes our task more challenging.

3:2 To what does 'For all of us make many mistakes' refer? Is it a new topic? Does it connect back to teachers (i.e. saying to them, don't worry when you do make a mistake)?

3:2-5 involves a fascinating segue from mistakes to bridles to rudders to rudders being 'very small' to another very small thing, the tongue.

3:11-12 raises but does not quite see through an important point. Can anything be done about 'the spring' in our lives? The general answer of the New Testament is 'Yes' and the fuller answer is the indwelling of the Spirit of life makes for a well of life-giving water to flow out of us. But James leaves us to work all that out. Does he not know of the power of the Spirit or does he know of it but wants us to do the work of recalling that power and realising that we need a fresh in-filling of the Spirit?

Mark 8:27-38

We jump past the Feeding of the Four Thousand (8:1-10) which is sort of a repeat of the Feeding of the Five Thousand but crucially occurs in Gentile territory, so Mark telling this story is saying something about the inclusion of Gentiles in the kingdom of God. We also jump past another dialogue with the Pharisees and an associated dialogue between Jesus and the disciples about the Pharisees and Herod, related to the two feedings (8:11-21). Finally, we are also skipping past the healing of a blind man in 8:22-26. That healing is significant: it is paired with a second such healing in 10:46-52 and the two physical healings of blindness may be contrasted with the spiritual blindness of the disciples in the intervening passages, starting with today's passage, in which Peter is blind to the deepest truth about who Jesus is. At best, like a stage in the healing of the blind man in the preceding verses, Peter is partially sighted.

Verses 27-33 are intensely Christological: "Who do people say that I am?" Jesus asks (27). Verses 34-38 are among the deepest verses we can ever read on discipleship (not just self-denying discipleship but dying to self discipleship). Yet together these verses tell us much about Jesus (who he is in relation to God but also who he is in relation to us, as the One who asks of us to give up our very lives) and much about discipleship (flawed, partially sighted followers asked to give everything, including life itself). The phrase 'on the way' (27) is a clue that this story is about discipleship as much as about Christology.

The initial answers the disciples give to the question Jesus poses are similar to what we have already read in 6:14-16. The disciples readily report what is the range of popular estimations of who Jesus is.
Pointedly Jesus asks 'But who do you say that I am?' Only Peter steps up to the theological plate and bats out the answer, 'You are the Messiah' (29).

Verse 30 is then both familiar and intriguing. Familiar because we have already seen the motif of the Messianic Secret in Mark's Gospel (e.g. last week at 7:36). Intriguing because you might think that 'on the way' to Jerusalem it might be now time to tell the world the truth about Jesus. Why not?

The answer to that question comes in the next few verses. 'Messiah' was a term redolent with nostalgia for the days of great King David and fervency for a new David-like king in warrior mode who would sweep Herod and the Romans before him. The disciples are not to tell people about Jesus being the Messiah because they will take that to mean one thing and one thing only. Jesus the Messiah is of a different calibre and in verses 31-33 he sets out to calibrate the disciples thinking to his way of self-understanding. He will be the suffering Messiah not the warring Messiah. His victory will be over the enemy of death and not over merely human opponents.

But Jesus does not make all this easy for us, nor (as we shall soon see) for his disciples. 'Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering ...' (31) Say who? Why does Jesus discontinue reference to 'Messiah' and replace it with 'Son of Man'? (Already introduced in Mark 2:10).

In part we do not know why, because we argue among ourselves as to what this enigmatic phrase (is it a title, as our capital letters in English signify?) means. But in another part we can reasonably propose that the phrase/title invokes a famous vision, Daniel 7: 13, especially when we notice the end of verse 38.

In this vision in Daniel, an enigmatic figure 'one like a son of man' is presented to the Most High in the context both of the suffering of Israel (under a succession of imperial overlords, see the first part of Daniel 7) and of hope of future victory. That enigmatic figure is enigmatic because we as readers are left wondering whether he is an angel or some other kind of high heavenly being or a representative figure corporately symbolising Israel. Or perhaps a bit of each?

So, we can propose, but others may debate the proposal, Jesus deftly begins his calibration of what 'Messiah' means by first equating the Messiah with the son of man figure in Daniel 7:13, and thus shifts focus away from a figure whose ability to raise a powerful army means a Davidic messiah is in views and towards a figure through whom God works to bring victory by another route.

By speaking specifically of the Son of Man 'suffering' it is likely that Jesus is also aligning 'Messiah' with the Suffering Servant figure who appears through various 'Servant Songs' in Isaiah, including the passage most readily interpreted in the light of the sufferings of Jesus through his trial, mocking and crucifixion, Isaiah 53. Also note the word 'must': what is going to happen to Jesus is going to be according to God's will.

Reading what Jesus says many years later and, of course, after we have received news of the resurrection, we may be somewhat sanguine about Jesus' prediction of his own future. But Peter did not have our advantage and he turns against Jesus (32). Jesus is not deterred. He 'rebukes' Peter in front of the other disciples and uses the strongest possible language to condemn someone who opposes God's plans: 'Satan' (33). This is a crisis or turning point in the narrative. Jesus is heading towards Jerusalem, according to God's plan and not according to human plans. The disciples are being brought in on the plan and they need to grasp it. This is no time for fudging the issues.

At the end of verse 33 we have a terrible scene. Jesus is near the culmination point of his ministry and his leading disciple has just opposed him and revealed at the same time that he 'knows nothing.' So Jesus rams home a key point about discipleship. Never let a crisis go to waste (so some say). The summary of what he says in 34-37 is this: I will suffer and you will suffer too; I will die and you need to be willing to die also.

The terms expressed in verse 35-36 are both stark and inspiring. What kind of life do we want? One that ends or one that continues? What kind of ultimate prize do we aspire to? Owning the world or possessing life eternal?

The final verse, 38, underlines the either/or options at stake, life or death. But the focus shifts slightly. It is one thing, say, to follow Jesus wholeheartedly and life-denyingly within the comfort of the Christian community. But what kind of disciples will we be in the public arena? When we follow a Messiah who suffers, and thus is a weak and pathetic figure in the eyes of the world, will we be a bold witness or an ashamed one?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sunday 6 September 2015 - 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Healing and deliverance / Who is Jesus? / Mission to the Gentiles / The kingdom of God / Equal love for all / No favourites!

Sentence: You do well if you rally fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." (James 2:8)


God, the strength of all who believe in you,
increase our faith and trust
in your Son Jesus Christ,
that in him we may live victoriously
through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Readings (related):

Isaiah 35:4-7a
Psalm 146
James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
Mark 7:24-37


Isaiah 35:4-7a

This passage relates to th second healing in the gospel passage below, where further comments are made about Isaiah 35:1-10.

Psalm 146

We can connect this psalm with the concerns of the James reading (e.g. 3, 7-9). But we can also connect it with the healings in the Mark reading (e.g. 7b-9). Although neither kind of healing is explicitly referenced in these verses, both the demon-possessed daughter and the deaf-mute man were 'oppressed' by and 'prisoners' of their respective situations.

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

Don't read this passage out in any church which (a) rents its pews (b) ushers the better dressed parishioners to the front seats or (c) looks embarrassed when a homeless person turns up!!

James is very focused on good Christian behaviour, but is not restricted to matters deemed 'personal morality.' In several places, James is clearly concerned for the social morality of whole congregations. This passage is one of those places.

Congregations should not show favouritism to the rich nor prejudice against the poor (1-10). It is important to notice that James specifically frames this instruction in terms of 'our glorious Lord Jesus Christ' (1). He asks the question, 'do you with your acts of favouritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?' The implication seems to be that if you do believe in Jesus you won't play favourites and that will be because you understand that Jesus treats each person the same since all are created equally in God's image and in the kingdom of God, all citizens are equal, because Jesus died for all in the same way and loved each in this action the same. Jesus did not die specially for the rich!

Further, verses 8-10: partiality runs against the 'royal law' of 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' Although he does not spell this out, if I love the rich more than the poor, then I am only loving one of those two groups 'as yourself' and that group is not the poor. Thus - noting verse 9 - partiality breaks this royal law and such partial Christians 'commit sin' and are 'transgressors.'

Verse 10 then spells out a point which is especially apt for the subject of verses 1-10, but has implications for other matters of obedience/disobedience (11-13). That point is that we are law-breakers because we break one law, not because we break a majority of them. We cannot keep all the other laws and get a 'Get our of jail' card on showing partiality. If we are partial then we have ruined our law keeping efforts.

With verses 14-17 we return to the question of partiality, but with a different focus. In verses 1-10 the focus was on whether the congregation treated the rich deferentially compared to the poor. In these verses the focus is on how the poor are treated full-stop. When confronted by the poor and their obvious needs for clothing and food, words are not enough. Action is required. We cannot be partial to words and favour them over deeds, for fine words never clothed or fed anyone.

But there is another issue being raised in these verses and that issue continues through the remainder of the chapter (which is not read next Sunday). That issue is the question of 'faith' and 'works'. Scholars seem largely agreed that in the background here is an early church debate in the light of what Paul the Apostle taught about faith and works. In this debate, as known to James, it seems that 'faith' (without works, at least in the sense of good deeds of kindness and mercy) has been exalted  and works deprecated. This is not surprising in a congregation prepared to favour the rich (who need no good deeds shown to them other than where the front seats in the church are).

It would take more space and time than I presently have to work out why a congregation might have drawn this conclusion from the writings of Paul, whether such a conclusion was justified, and, indeed, what Paul's understanding of 'faith' in relation to 'works' actually was. We could, in such a space and time allocation, also consider what various theologians have made of the situation, the most memorable of whom was Martin Luther who dismissed James on the basis that this passage seemed to contradict Luther's newly discovered doctrine of justification by faith in the Pauline epistles.

What we can say, briefly, is that James is absolutely correct to determine that faith is not faith if it is not evidenced by works. He is correct both on the basis that this is something Jesus himself taught in the gospels and on the basis that (whatever we make of 'faith' and 'works' in Paul's writings when he is explicitly discussing both themes) Paul himself always envisages, in the second part of his epistles, the new life of the justified believer in Christ expressing itself in deeds of love.

Mark 7:24-37

We are in a section of Mark's Gospel in which Jesus is ministering in Gentile/Greek dominated territory ('the region of Tyre', 24; 'the region of the Decapolis,' 31). Looking back to last week's reading, remembering that Mark translates some aspect of Jewish life for his (likely) Gentile readers, we therefore note that Mark is bringing stories of Jesus-meeting-Gentiles-and-changing-their-lives to his Gentile readers.

Today we have two healing miracles which we could summarise as 'Jesus heals Gentiles too!' But there is more to the stories than that, and some digging into the detail both yields exegetical rewards as well as raising challenging questions.

Verse 24 rehearses a familiar theme from the gospels, Jesus attempts to be anonymous, to escape the hustle and bustle of his ministry.. Those familiar with Middle Eastern life will not be surprised at the failure of these attempts: everything is noticed and reported around the community!

The woman introduced in verse 25 becomes, in verse 26, someone whom Mark goes out of his way to tell us about. He doubles up on her Gentility: 'a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.'But that definitiveness about her status relative to the Jewish Jesus heightens the exegetical challenge in verse 27.

First, the ever loving and compassionate Jesus seems a somewhat off-handed Jesus, disinterested in helping her daughter. Secondly,  what are we to make of Jesus describing the woman (and, by extension, all Gentiles) as 'dogs'? (Indeed, is there something chauvinist in this ascription being directed to a Gentile woman?) Thirdly, the ever inclusive, globally focused missional Jesus seems focused on mission to Israel and no one else. What is going on?

One explanation is that Jesus is not disinterested in her plight and is not exclusive in his mission but is teasing her or challenging her to move beyond 'begging' (26) to demonstrating (mature?) faith in Jesus. Further, in his teasing or challenging riposte in verse 27, Jesus is not, according to this explanation, deprecatingly describing her as a 'dog' but ironically picking up the everyday language of Jews in relation to Gentiles. That is, effectively Jesus is saying, "So, tell me, given the priority of my mission to Israel, to the Jews, why should I offer to one whom Jews put down with the term 'dog' a blessing reserved, at this time, for them and not ordinarily available to Gentiles?"

Another explanation is that Mark is presenting the church - perhaps unwittingly - with an unvarnished portrait of Jesus which does not fit with a number of christological conclusions we have reached about Jesus (that he loves everyone, that his mission was to the world, to both Israel and to the Gentile nations, that he was gracious and well-mannered to all people). The real or historical Jesus was a man of his context: he was a Jew and shared the Jewish view of Gentiles as second-class citizens (and may have been chauvinist), he was - as a self-conscious prophetic and rabbinic figure within Israel, exclusively focused on the problems of Israel.

Further, and shockingly for our christological assumption that Jesus the Son of God knows everything, on this unvarnished view of Jesus, the Syrophoenician woman taught Jesus something: Gentiles had worth too. They may be viewed as 'dogs' in relation to Israel as the 'children' of God, but dogs get to eat the same food of God.

I am not going to attempt to resolve these opposing views save to note that Jesus himself, according to verse 24, seems determined to head into Gentile territory. So he knowingly placed himself where he would encounter Gentiles. That observation may lean our assessment towards the first rather than the second explanation.

What is Mark doing in this story? Surely, by presenting this story, and in particular the exchange in verses 27 and 28, Mark is warning Jewish readers against viewing Gentiles as second class citizens of the world or kingdom of God. The kingdom of God - whatever Jesus was doing and thinking when the conversation took place - is now the kingdom of Jew and Gentile. All eat the same food at the table of God.

The deaf man with a speech impediment perhaps poses less challenges but raises some questions nevertheless. There is a parallel with the first healing story in this passage. Thus we notice that 'They' brought the man and 'they begged him to lay his hand on them' (32). We recall the woman came on behalf of her daughter, and she too 'begged' Jesus to help her daughter.

When we go on to read that Jesus 'took him aside in private, away from the crowd' (33), we wonder why he did that. We also wonder how Mark knows what Jesus said (34) because reporting the word 'Ephphatha' to us almost certainly means that someone heard Jesus speak in Aramaic and this word in particular was remembered, treasured and handed on from one story-teller to another.

That stories were told and re-told about this miraculous event logically flows from verse 36. The point in verse 36 is that Jesus wants to downplay his significance, almost certainly because he was concerned at that significance being misunderstood (i.e. that is misunderstood in terms of the politics of the day). But - typically for humanity - the more one tries to suppress speech, the more the gossip flows around a community.

The motif of (attempted) secrecy is called by scholars, The Messianic Secret.

Finally, in verse 37, continuing another theme in Mark's Gospel, the crowd around Jesus are 'astounded beyond measure' and praise Jesus. In this case, their saying 'he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak' is multi-layered in its significance.

Layer one: literally, the deaf and the mute hear and speak.

Layer two: prophecy is being fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (see Isaiah 35:5) and thus visions such as Isaiah 35:1-10 which look ahead to a great and glorious day of restoration for Israel are coming into being in the reality of the kingdom of God which Jesus proclaims with words and inaugurates with deeds according to Mark's Gospel.*

Layer three: (this is a bit complicated, and reading Isaiah 6:9-10 with Isaiah 35:1-10 will assist). Already in Mark's Gospel we have encountered Jesus explaining parables and why he uses them in terms which invoke Isaiah 6:9-10 and the resistance of hearers of God's messengers to really hearing what God is saying through prophecies/parables. But the kingdom of God comes about because some people do receive the message and receiving it, they pass it on: their ears are not stopped and their tongues are not constrained. Thus this healing is a further sign of the coming of the kingdom.

(*For those interested in the proposals of Bishop Tom (N.T.) Wright, and, in this case, his proposal that the gospels are best understood in terms of Jesus bringing about the ending of Israel's exile, then the relationship between Isaiah 35:1-10 and this story is intriguing, because Isaiah 35:1-10 is about more than a general restoration for Israel, it is about the return from exile).

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Sunday 30 August 2015 - 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Theme(s): Clean heart versus clean hands / Inward and outward religion / What is true religion? / Avoiding hypocrisy / God's commandments and human traditions

Sentence: Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (James 1:22).


Gentle Father,
show us our sins as they really are
so that we may truly renounce them
and know the depth and richness of your mercy. Amen.

Readings (related):

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9
Psalm 15
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15


We return to Mark - the Gospel of Year C - and dig into a challenging chapter because it takes us into crucial debates between the Jesus movement and those Jews who resisted the advance of that movement, while also raising the question, why does Mark give such prominence to these debates when - in all likelihood - he was writing his gospel in Rome and with a Rome-based audience in view?

Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9

Deuteronomy is a 'second giving of the law'. In this version of the divine Law mediated to us by Moses, the purity and perfection of the Law (as given) is emphasised, along with the importance of obedience to the Law. With respect to our gospel reading today we especially notice verse 2: nothing is to be added to or subtracted from the Law.

Psalm 15

I was once told, and have never forgotten, in my all boys' school, that Psalm 15 set out the character and characteristics of the perfect gentleman!

In the context of today's readings, we note that the person who may fellowship with God (1) is the person who is both walking blamelessly, i.e. obeying the Law (2) and living an outwardly blameless life with a heartfelt motivation to do the right thing (2b, 4b, 4c).

Such a person is stable and solid, a pillar in the household of God (5b).

James 1:17-27

We are moving on from Ephesians to James.

The Epistle of James (the brother of Jesus?) complements the Pauline epistles which emphasise the importance of faith to appearance of neglect of the importance of good works which express that faith. The general problem over the centuries has been the thought that in the James' epistle the importance of good works is emphasised to the point of apparent neglect of the importance of faith in Christ (see James 2:14-26).

In today's passage - after the introduction in verses 1-16, focusing on testing of faith, wisdom, humility, resisting temptation - the writer continues a vein of exhortation which is coherent with the introduction. Our passage would not be out of place in the wisdom literature of the Bible, int he exhortation passages in the Pauline epistles, and is reminiscent of Jesus' own teaching (as, indeed, most of the letter is).

The centrepiece and effective summary of the passage is verse 22:

'But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.'

With an eye on the gospel reading it is not hard to see (so to speak) James' commenting on aspects of the passage: the true state of the heart comes from both being undeceived as to what is really going on within ourselves (26) and being filled with the word of truth (18, 21, 25).

Typically of James' there is a strong emphasis throughout the passage on 'practical religion'. And if for some of us the word 'religion' is something we are not so keen on using to describe 'the Christian faith', then we confront the fact that James' himself uses the word (26-27).

And the note he strikes is sobering and challenging: pure and undefiled religion is practical care ahead of pure practice of worship in the liturgy: 'to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.' (27)

We may need to translate 'orphans and widows' in relation to the world today (migrants and beneficiaries?) but we cannot and must not avoid the challenge to reach out with practical care to those less well off than ourselves. From that perspective, today's passage is an exposition of the commandment, Love your neighbours as yourselves.

Note, incidentally, that the emphasis on 'doing' in this passage is not an emphasis on our actions and practical works in order to elicit God's favour towards us. Verses 17 and 18, for instance, speak of God's initiative in giving to us that which makes us generous and that which makes us 'first fruits of his creatures' 'in fulfillment of his own purpose.' Verse 21 speaks of ridding ourselves of 'sordidness' and 'rank growth of wickedness' so that 'the implanted word' (i.e. given by God to us) may be welcomed, the word which 'has power to save your souls'. We do not save ourselves by our good works but our good works tell the world that God has begun and continues a saving work within us.

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15

We need to read the first verses carefully to discern what Mark's agenda is here.

Recalling our foray into John 6, we see there the sequence of Feeding Five Thousand and Walking on Water followed by an extensive discourse about the meaning of bread. Here Mark frames a quite -different direction: Jerusalem-based Pharisees and scribes gather around Jesus and ask him about ritual cleansing (1-5).

But is the passage about (so to speak) a Christian response to Jewish rites of cleansing or something else?

Note in verses 3 and 4 that Mark takes great pains to explain the issue: there are washing rites which obedient Jews should be observing, but the disciples were not observing them (v. 2). But that only raises the question why Mark bothers to tell this particular story many years later.

One possibility is that Mark is indirectly tackling a current issue of different practice between Jewish and Gentile Christians in his local church community (likely Rome, see also Romans 14-15 for another mode of tackling such difference in the Roman church).

Another possibility is that he is simply building up to a particular point in the teaching of Jesus which has universal applicability, the source of evil in respect of people, from within themselves and not from outside of themselves (17-23).

Along the way (and returning to the passage set down for this Sunday), Jesus makes a different point, about the state of the human heart in relation to worship of God (6-8). That point is that it is possible to act outwardly correctly (e.g. washing hands) while inwardly being wayward and far from God. This is a form of acting out one reality while living another, that is, a way of life which draws the charge 'you hypocrites' (6).

In saying this, Jesus reaches back to Isaiah 29:13 (verses 6b-7), to the scriptures of Israel from one of the great prophets. Thus he aligns himself with the great prophetic critique of Israel's mischievous approach to obedience to the Law, one in which the minimum one needs to do is done.

(Your Bible may have a footnote which tells you that it is "Isaiah 29:13 LXX" which is cited, that is the Greek version of the Old Testament. While it is true that that raises questions about the extent to which Mark is interpreting what he has received about what Jesus said, because Jesus almost certainly did not ever refer to the Greek Old Testament in his own speech, it is also true that we do not know exactly which Hebrew version of the Old Testament Jesus used. What we call the Hebrew version of the Old Testament (i.e. Masoretic text) is one version of the Old Testament. There may have been other versions in Jesus' day, reflected in the Greek translation which Mark uses.)

Verse 8 is just a little bit puzzling (especially if we do not go on to read the next verses). On the face of it, there are plenty of regulations in the Mosaic Law about washing rituals which are commandment' and not human tradition. But verse 8 is a pivot from the general problem in verses 5-7, whether one pleases God by outward obedience or by inward attitude and desire for fellowship with God, to another problem, whether the commandments of God in Scripture are being diminished in importance by the development of later custom endorsed by the scribes and Pharisees, i.e. by 'human tradition.') Verses 9-13 then set out an egregious example of such tradition trumping God-given commandment.

If we go back to the starting issue, washing hands or not before a meal (5), verses 14-15 then become the definitive response of Jesus. (This response, we should note, was not one which biologically considered whether or not it was necessary hygiene to wash hands before a meal). In that response Jesus justifies his disciples' ritual slackness. People are not defiled by lack of ritual cleanliness but the state of their hearts. An unwashed hand may place both food and something else alien in the mouth. But this is not defiling. What is defiling is what comes out of the mouth by way of words which give expression to the state of the heart. His disciples might be technically ritually unclean but their hearts were good.

Lessons for ourselves in a different time, place and context are not hard to find.
(1) Do we honour God with out hearts? Or are we going through the outward motions of pleasing God? (6)
(2) Do we by teaching, whether with words or by example, encourage people to follow human custom/entrenched tradition which - on closer examination - is unsupported by the commandment of God? (8)
(3) Have we heard ourselves speak lately? Does our language express a defiled heart? (14-15)