Life Lessons from Mark's Gospel
Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, and he knows the fate that awaits him there for Jerusalem is the center of religion and politics for the Jewish people. We know by now the establishment hates Jesus and his teachings; his actions and is words threaten their power and their status. We know that governments and institutions will react harshly when confronted with their sins. The disciples are amazed at his bravery, and the crowds are afraid. Jesus again explains to them what happens when you speak truth to power. James and John, however, are too busy worrying about status and rank to be bothered with tales of sacrifice and death, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus raises his eyebrow, “And just what is it you want me to do for you?” They were some of the first disciples to be called and they want recognition for that, “Let us sit at your right hand and at your left hand.” Jesus replies, “Sure, if you are able to suffer and endure what I am about to experience.” They brag that they are more than able and we get the immediate sense they have no sense whatsoever. When the others hear what they have asked for they erupt in anger; no doubt they are mad that they didn’t ask first. Jesus tells them to turn away from the allure of rank and status and simply seek to serve; the greatest in the Kingdom of God are those who can serve the most. That is a far cry from our world where rank and status grants us many perks, and people serve us. In God’s Kingdom those who give their lives for others and to others are the greatest. If we are to be followers of Christ we must forsake the temptation of rank and status, fame and fortune. We are called to serve, and only in service to others do we find the fulfillment our lives seek. Try living a month by placing others first; forego any and all desires to be first and watch how God will transform your life.
A man approaches Jesus and asks an odd question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Sometimes our words and phrases reveal a lot about our priorities, and for this man to use the word “inherit” reveals his preoccupation with money since “inherit” is an odd way to think of eternal life. Jesus asks him, “Why do you call me good?” then continues with a list of the Ten Commandments. The man quickly answers he has kept all of those commandments since a young boy and that makes many of us chuckle in disbelief but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. The key point it the man still feels he is lacking in something he must do; he feels he hasn’t earned his reward. Jesus tries to goad him into one of those spiritual “aha” moments, “Then go and sell all you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me!” The man is so shocked he cries, believing he is beyond hope because he cant imagine parting with his possessions. Jesus glances around at everyone else’s shocked looks and comments, “How hard it is for those of means to enter God’s Kingdom!” He notices the disciples are crestfallen and smiles, “Children, it is easier for a camel to go thru an eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom.” The disciples are not exactly poor, fishermen were well off, and we do have a rich tax collector in the bunch, so they really do despair at this new and shocking revelation. Of course we should focus on what he calls them, “Children.” Where have we heard that term before? Yes, when he teaches us the Kingdom can only be received like a child receives a gift. The child does nothing to earn the gift, but the parent gives it out of love. The disciples are blissfully unaware of what Jesus means and cry, “Then who can be saved?!?” Jesus smiles again and replies, “What is impossible for you and the man earlier is not impossible for God.” By now we know Jesus’ angle, the Kingdom is given to us as a gift, we do nothing to earn it, but the disciples are not that bright. Peter gets angry, “Look, we left everything to follow you!” Jesus answers, “I know, and your work will not be forgotten, but always remember when it comes to the Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” We like to think our spiritual status earns our way to heaven – I pray more than you, give more than you, serve more than you – and then are shocked when the person next to us who never prayed in their life suddenly finds the Kingdom. God’s Kingdom cannot be bought, it cannot be earned or inherited, God’s Kingdom is a gift freely given to those who can receive it like a child.
Divorce was common in the ancient world just as it is today, and in the Roman law courts a woman could sue for divorce too. Some religious folk come to “test” Jesus about his understanding of divorce. Divorce has always been a litmus test amongst church goers to determine one’s appropriate level of faithfulness. “Can a man divorce his wife,” they ask. Jesus responds (of course) with another question, “What did Moses say?” This is a softball question and they swing hard at it, “He said as long as we write out a certificate then we can kick her out!” The softball question has a slight hook, “Yeah, Moses told you folks that because you are so hard hearted!” That response strikes them out. They know the story of Moses and the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh stubbornly refuses to see God as God, clinging to his belief that he alone is the master of his fate. Plague after plague devastates Egyptian power and yet he will not step down. Now Jesus puts them in the place of Pharaoh, “You want the ability to play God and forsake your duties and discard one of God’s children into streets!” In the Ancient World divorce was an immediate sentence of poverty, homelessness, and prostitution for women; the men got away scot-free. Jesus quotes Genesis, “Male and female he made them, and when joined together the two become one.” Marriage and divorce can be simply a legal fiction created by a piece of paper, which is certainly how these religious leaders see it, but Jesus asks us to go deeper and see the spiritual connection that God creates when two people are brought together. The disciples, as always, are dimly unaware of his meaning, “So can we divorce her or not?” “No,” he sighs, unless it has to do with sexual and spiritual immorality.” The Greek word “Porneia” which we translate as adultery, fornication, and a whole host of other words that imply sexual sins also includes acts of unfaithfulness towards God. In fact throughout the Old Testament Israel is often accused of adultery in their relationship with God so we know it is not simply a sexual sin. The vows we make are only narrowly about sexual faithfulness, but include “in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, richer or poorer, thick or thin” we stay there for one another. When one partner can no longer fulfill those vows the marriage is broken, and they shouldn’t remarry since they are incapable of fulfilling the first vows. Some churches take a dim few towards divorce, while others see nothing wrong with it. I think we can see Jesus takes the whole marriage issue very seriously; divorce isn’t just a slip of paper, but a spiritual blessing God calls us to take seriously and if we can’t then we have no business entering into marriage.
The disciples are upset someone not of their tribe is doing things in Jesus’ name – casting out the demonic and healing the sick. John says, “And we tried to stop him but he wouldn’t quit!” Here is a little foreshadowing of Christian history, the faithful draw a circle around their identity, and once that circle is drawn the sin of exclusion abounds. We all have our circles we run in - tribes we belong to - birds of a feather naturally flock together. But with God’s Kingdom such identities should be erased in favor of actions. In the long story of the Christian faith differing religious identities have emerged and competed with one another. In the beginning there were many “Christianities,” and not a single Christianity. Different groups – circles and tribes – held different beliefs and rituals. In the book of Acts we see the friction between these circles as the Jewish Christians worry over the growing power and influence of the Gentile Christians. They, like our friend John, worried that things were being done in Jesus’ name that shouldn’t be done by outsiders. As soon as these Gentile and Jewish Christians were reconciled other groups would emerge and the same complaint would be uttered. Orthodoxy manages to eliminate many of its rivals but they could not hold the center as Coptic, Assyrian, and Armenian Christian branches kept the faith. Soon the world would be divided between Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox, and after that a three way split when Protestantism emerges. All these tribes claiming the other shouldn’t be doing things in Jesus’ name. Today there are over 15,000 different Christian denominations, and as denominations begin sinking they leave in their wake a myriad of independent local churches with their own unique beliefs. The only thing that unites them is their fervent belief that they are part of Jesus’ inner circle and everyone else should either join them or quit doing things in Jesus’ name. What does Jesus say about John’s concern others are doing things in his name that do not belong to the inner circle? “Well don’t stop him John! Whoever is not against us is for us!” Jesus exclaims. This little episode in the life of Christ preaches volumes, and it strikes at the heart of any church or faith that seeks to be exclusive. Faith is about doing the work and will of God, and Mark’s Gospel clearly states such work is about the healing and salvation of the world. When we see other churches – even other religions – doing wonderful things to alleviate suffering and make people whole we should see them for what they are – fellow laborers of the fields working on the harvest God has prepared. That would be the ideal world, but sadly we focus on the things that divide us and make those things to be of utmost importance. What we believe matters less than what we do. The Muslim, Hindu, and Jew working together to solve poverty, provide health care, or simply giving a drink of water, have more in common with Christ than those of us drawing circles around our churches telling the outsider, “Until you look and believe like me then you are not one of us.” For many the “name of Jesus” has become merely a magical incantation that if left out somehow negates your identity, but for so many others the “name of Jesus” is a power that inspires them to devote their lives in service of others.
Jesus offers a prediction, not so much prophecy as it is an apt description of the world, “I will be betrayed and killed, but after three days I will rise again.” The world hates truth and the light causes people to scurry for the darkness. Jesus’ work and message is upsetting the religious establishment and sooner or later they will act to silence him. It is a story repeated throughout history when saints challenge the status quo and the status quo attempts to silence them only to discover they have only spread the message and power. The disciples have no idea what he is talking about and are simply afraid to ask him. They go on and visit Capernaum (home) and when they get to the house he asks what they were arguing about the whole time. They are silent because their argument concerns which one of them is the greatest. While he is trying to teach them the reality of speaking truth to power and the high cost of discipleship they are more concerned with prestige and status. Their self-centeredness clashes loudly with Jesus’ self-sacrifice. The world is in deep need of change and transformation, and love is needed to overcome all that is dark, but these guys are too self-absorbed to be bothered with the urgency of God’s Kingdom. Jesus urges them to repent – turn away – from their self-centeredness and focus on Kingdom work. “If you want be first in God’s Kingdom then your needs, wants, and desires must come last so that you are able to serve all people,” Jesus teaches them, and then adds, “and welcome little children.” The quest for status and rank leaves us little time to be bothered with little people, be they children, or the least, last, and lost. People who seek status are too busy networking with those who do have status to actually notice those beneath them. God’s Kingdom is not our kingdoms, and the way we normally live and operate will not bring us to God’s Kingdom. We must repent – look away, turn away – from our priorities and see the world in a different way, God’s way. Seek to serve. Seek to be last and place others first. Stop and play with a child and soon we will see the Kingdom coming.
Jesus happens upon the disciples and the religious folk arguing, and the argument concerns the disciples’ inability to heal a poor boy. The religious folk seem to be making the disciples look foolish and impotent before the crowds watching. Jesus asks what the commotion is about and someone from the crowd says, “Teacher, my son is taken by a spirit that dashes him to the ground, makes him foam at the mouth, and often tires to destroy him by tossing him into the fire or the water, but your disciples are unable to help!” Jesus equates their impotence with a lack of belief, yet he holds out hope for the father who is able to scream, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief!” Obviously Mark draws a line between the disciples and the father, and when Jesus says that anything can happen when we have faith the father leaps at this hope, wanting to believe. The boy is healed, the father is overjoyed, and the crowds astonished, but the disciples ask in private, “Why could we not cast him out?” The only answer they are given is this, “This kind can only come out through prayer.” Prayer in Mark’s Gospel is an act of self-surrender, an acknowledgment that we alone have no power to do anything, but if we turn to God in humility and emptiness then the power will flow thru us. The disciples are arguing with the religious folk, and that alone gives us a clue as to their failure. Their ego trips them up, and they believe they have the power and are quickly shown just how powerless they are. The father’s profession, “I believe, help my unbelief,” is really an acknowledgment of this humility and powerlessness; he realizes he has no one but God. The faithless generation harkens back to the Exodus when the wilderness generation refused to believe they were anything more than fugitive slaves, “Moses, we cant possibly defeat those giants in the Promised Land.” They had forgotten everything God had done on their behalf, and it would take Joshua’s generation to liberate the land because they relied solely on God. The disciples relied on their credentials, “Well Jesus sent us,” and that arrogance makes them powerless. Return to prayer, Jesus tells them, and remember our hope is in God alone.
Is this a rerun, after all we just experienced Jesus feeding a crowd of five thousand and now he is at it again feeding a crowd of four thousand folks? Why is this here? The setting provides a clue, whereas before he is in Jewish territory feeding Jewish people, here Jesus is the Decapolis, Gentile territory, feeding a Gentile gathering. The response of the disciples also sounds like a retread, “How can one feed these people with bread here in the desert?” Uh, were they not paying attention the first time when Jesus took their meager rations and fed all those people and they went away with twelve baskets of leftovers? Jesus’ compassion is fleshed out in great detail by Mark, “These folks have been with me for three days (symbolism!) and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes many will faint on the way – and some have come great distances!” When he asks how much bread they have the disciples respond, “Seven loaves.” Numbers are symbolic and the number seven usually means “universal,” “whole,” or “perfection.” There is enough. Jesus blesses the bread and breaks it, they distribute it along with the fish they also have and soon the entire crowd is fed and the disciples take away seven baskets of leftovers. I find it hard to believe the disciples can be so dimwitted. They witnessed the first feeding miracle, and no one is that forgetful, and I don’t think they were not so much full of unbelief the first time as they were selfish. They just didn’t want to share their rations out of fear there wouldn’t be enough left for them. Here one gets the impression that they don’t want to share their rations with these filthy Gentiles. Mark, who is sparse with detail, gives a lengthy description of Jesus’ feelings towards the crowd, and this gives us a glimpse into the disciples’ disdain for the crowd. The number seven, repeated so many times, teaches us that God’s purposes are universal in scope and will not be confined to any particular brand of religion. God’s Kingdom is coming to the Jews and the Gentiles and to everyone else, and we, God’s people, must continually be expanding our embrace of outsiders and outcastes. The history of the church is the story of such circles continually being broken so that they may encompass more people – first it was the Jews and Gentiles, then Protestant and Catholic, black and white, male and female, and today the debate rages about gay and straight. Jesus’ empathy for all trumps our prejudices against some. As God’s people our circle of fellowship must continually expand until all the peoples of this world are fed and embraced.
Jesus ventures further into Gentile territory expanding the scope and range of God’s plans and dreams. Here at the Decapolis, where Jesus did the exorcism of demons and sent them into a swineherd and then off the cliff, Jesus meets a man deaf and speechless who is brought to him by some of the locals. They beg him to cure the man, and Jesus takes him aside and does a very ancient healing ritual familiar to most in the ancient world – Jesus stuffs his fingers into the man’s ears and then spits and touches the man’s tongue and commands, “Be opened!” Immediately the man can hear and speak, and despite being told not to tell anyone of this miracle the man and his friends just cannot contain themselves as they “zealously” proclaim to all who Jesus is. There are many allusions to the prophecy of Isaiah within this passage, and these Gentiles even manage to quote the prophet, “He has done everything well; he makes the deaf hear and the mute to speak.” (Isaiah 35:6). This is rather shocking coming from such uncircumcised lips as these Gentiles, but think back to the hometown crowd, the local religious leaders, and Jesus’ own family – they think he is just crazy and worse, an apostate for blaspheming God. What does it say about your religious beliefs when you cannot even see the Kingdom of God, but religious outsiders can? Who is really blind and deaf? And how do these outsiders know the Kingdom of God has come near? Simple, because broken people are being made whole, and that’s the crux of the matter when it comes to true faith and religion – church is not church simply because of high attendance, slick presentations, or generous offerings; church is not church simply because they adhere to the right rituals, dogmas, and doctrines. No, a real church is where the Kingdom of God comes near and broken people find healing. If we would devote as much energy towards the well-being of others as we do towards orthodoxy and entertainment then great things could once more happen.
Jesus’ popularity forces him to find refuge out amongst the Gentiles where the Jews probably would not venture for fear of those folks making them unclean. It is interesting this little episode comes after his speech where he declares all food to be clean, and in fact, his interaction with this woman who is a Gentile is his declaration that the Gentiles are no longer unclean outsiders. He enters the home of a local Gentile, an action in and of itself brings uncleanliness upon him. He tries to hide out but a local woman finds him. Her daughter is very ill, possessed by an unclean spirit (notice how many things are unclean, or not at all kosher?). She begs Jesus to heal her daughter but Jesus rather oddly – and perhaps rudely, to our ears at least –says to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs. Gentiles and Jews would have referred to each other as dogs, and Jesus is explaining to her that his mission is for the Jews only, She is intelligent, quick-witted, though, responding, “But even the dogs get the crumbs from the table.” Here is a woman deeply concerned with her daughter’s welfare and is simply not going to take no for an answer. She believes passionately that Jesus can heal her daughter. Contrast that with the disciples’ lack of belief and understanding; contrast that with the religious folks jealousy and their obsession with self-righteousness. Here is a woman who is an outsider and she believes. She doesn’t believe in clean and unclean, what is proper or not, and certainly doesn’t care about religious rules declaring her and her daughter to be unbelievers. Jesus may come off sounding harsh and unsympathetic to her plight, but in reality he is teasing out her deep faith and love. This is a far cry from his reception in his home-town and how the disciples and religious folk respond to his miracles. Most of the time it is the people outside the church that have the deepest faith because they are willing to embrace a greater, and much more loving view of God.
Jesus always reserves his harshest criticism for the religious folks of his day. We get hung up on “Pharisees,” but really Jesus is referring to the habit of religious folk to obsess over purity and self-righteousness. We elevate our traditions, our rituals, and our doctrines to the level of idols, and we begin to worship them more than we do God. Remember, the prophet Micah reminds us that God doesn’t give a tittle about such things, but cares very deeply whether we are taking care of the orphan, the widow, and the homeless (Micah 6:6-8). Despite all that has happened -- the hungry being fed, the sick being healed -- the religious folk gather around Jesus and begin criticizing him that the disciples do not ritually wash their hands before eating. “Why do you not observe the tradition of the elders,” they ask? In fact, Mark emphasizes their obsession with tradition by repeating the word numerous times, and remember, Mark is the shortest gospel who uses very little details so this is meant to be significant. Jesus accuses them of abandoning God’s commandments and focusing on human traditions, and then gives a few examples of how their strict and literal reading of scripture is a farce, “You say you honor mother and father but then you invent loopholes to avoid such direct observance of a simple commandment.” Don’t we do the same, picking and choosing the scriptures that apply to us while demanding that others follow it strictly? We obsess over homosexuality that is loosely found only seven verses while ignoring the thousands of verses that talk about how we spend our money. Jesus turns away from the religious people to address the crowd, “It’s not what is outside that corrupts but what is inside!” Oh how true, as we blame women and girls for dressing provocatively instead of blaming men for looking at them with lust. We can do all the outward acts of religion – performing the right rituals, adhering to the proper traditions, obeying the right doctrines, but none of this has anything to do with what is really inside our hearts. When religion no longer focuses on the care of the widow and the orphan, the poor and oppressed, or the imprisoned and the lonely then it has grown superficial. We may like to think our rituals, doctrines, and traditions are important, but once they take priority over the commandment to love then they are nothing more than false idols leading us astray.