A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: October 21, 2018: Mark 10:35-45

Mark 10:35-45
10:35 James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

10:36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

10:37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

10:38 But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

10:39 They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;

10:40 but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

10:41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.

10:42 So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them.

10:43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,

10:44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.

10:45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Right hands.  Left hands.  My grandfather, a carpenter, was fully ambidextrous.  I am not.  Before going to grad school, I was a butcher, and I’m good with a knife in my right hand.  My left hand is a good place to keep my watch.  It gives me a place to keep my other glove.  Many people are more like me, and less like my grandfather.

This was also true, I imagine, in the ancient world.  Left hands are the “other hand,” and this becomes more important when you use the “other hand” for personal hygiene.

This recognition makes the request in this scene a little awkward.  James and John want to sit on the right hand and the “other hand” of the anointed king in the Messianic Age.

They use the word for “right hand” (δεξιῶν, from which the word “dextrous” derives: it implies expertise).   When it’s time to talk about the “other hand,” they say ἀριστερῶν.  The word means “noble,” or “worthy of honor,” or “excellent,” or “best.”  It is a euphemism that allows them to avoid thinking about personal hygiene.  With this circumlocution, James and John reveal what they are really asking.  They want to be recognized (in front of the cosmic audience of the Messianic Age) as being dextrous experts, supremely honored.

Probably every preacher knows that, or something like that.  And surely everyone knows that Jesus is having none of it.  Sitting at his right and left hand is for those for whom those places are prepared, whatever that means.

What is interesting, though, is that Jesus changes the euphemism.  He refers to his right hand the usual way,  δεξιῶν.  But he walks around the issue of personal hygiene by a different path.  He calls that hand εὐωνύμων.  This word means something like “lucky.”  

Why shift from talking about honor to luck?  Maybe it is a (not-so) subtle shot at the pretension displayed by James and John: “You want to be publicly honored?” Jesus says, “Good luck with that.”

I think that there is more here.  Jesus asks if they can drink the same cup he drinks, if they can be washed just as he is.  They assure him that they can.  “Drinking the cup” is a regular image used to talk about taking on the challenges that a person faces.

The matter of the “washing” is a bit more complicated.  The Greek word is βάπτισμα, which opens our imaginations to Christian baptism.  It may be a useful way to imagine what Jesus means, especially if we decide that Jesus is quoting Paul, who wrote (some 30 years after Jesus’ career ended) that when we are baptized, we are “baptized into [Jesus’] death.”  That may well be something like what Jesus means in this scene, but it is a bit awkward.  Jesus would be talking about his death in Roman hands that he has now announced for a third time, the death toward which this story is going.  Christian baptism is generally more religious, and sanitary, than Roman torture.

Whatever Jesus means, this “washing” is not sanitary, nor is it safe.

At the beginning of Mark’s story, John appears in the wilderness, announcing that Isaiah’s old promises were on the verge of coming true: Creation was going to be rectified, and all life would be brought to healing and wholeness.  Rome had no interest in allowing Jewish hope to turn the world right-side-up.  The struggle would be real, not sanitary, and not safe.  People came out to washed in preparation for the struggle that would precede this healing.

This was the washing that Jesus had undergone.  In Mark’s story, he came to join that struggle, he just like all the others who had been waiting too long, whose hopes had been withering.  If this is the washing to which Jesus refers, he is asking James and John to be sure that they know what they are signing up for.

They do.  They actually do.  They know that there is a terrible struggle coming.  They are right.  But they seem a little too ready to imagine themselves safe on the other side of that struggle.  They seem to imagine, as green recruits are too prone to do, that they will emerge on the other side of the struggle untouched, unchanged, essentially the same people they were before they enlisted.  They are wrong to imagine this.  They may not emerge at all.  Not everyone does.  Green recruits do not know what this means yet.

And there are people who avoid the fight because they can’t be bothered, because they imagine that the change in the world will happen in any case.  They imagine that they can slide through it all, wrapped in their comfort.  Such people have no idea what Jesus is talking about.

I read an editorial in the New York Times the other day.  The writer, Thomas L. Friedman, looked hard at the nature of public life in the United States, which he judges (along with many others) to have moved beyond partisanship to tribalism.  He wrote, “In a tribal world it’s rule or die, compromise is a sin, enemies must be crushed and power must be held at all costs.”

You can draw any political conclusions that you choose.  It’s not as if I could stop you, in any case.

But I think that the struggle we face in public life (and not just in the United States) is a struggle related to the struggle Jesus is talking about.

Perhaps you agree.  Perhaps not.  In either complicated case, read Friedman’s editorial.  And read Jesus’ words in this scene.  This is the cup that we must drink.  This is the struggle that we have to prepare for.  It is not clear how we will come out of this.

A Provocation: Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost: October 14, 2018: Mark 10:17-31

Mark 10:17-31
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

10:18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

10:19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'”

10:20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”

10:21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

10:22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

10:23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

10:24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

10:25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

10:26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?”

10:27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

10:28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.”

10:29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,

10:30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age–houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions–and in the age to come eternal life.

10:31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

A Question or Two:

  • Can you read this scene without attacking the young man?
  • Try.  Seriously.  Try.

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus said to the young man, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor….”

Interpreters generally spend their time  on the impossibility of this demand.  That makes sense: the storyteller has Jesus acknowledge that such things are impossible for people, but possible with God.

But the danger of taking this scene to be about an impossible demand is that this makes it simply an illustration of how God’s grace does what human effort cannot do.

That’s fine.

But what if Jesus mean what he says?  (What a concept!)

What if Jesus actually means that God is intensely aware of the state of people who live in poverty?

Jesus’ demand reveals something important: the needs of people living in poverty unsettle us.  We expend considerable effort to defend ourselves against their needs.  Sometimes these defensive actions involve accusing people living in poverty of “making poor life choices.”  Unlike us, of course.  Sometimes these defensive actions involve arguing that doing what Jesus commands in this scene would actually be bad for people living in poverty.  “Bad” in a Darwinian sense: if the young man were to actually sell his possessions and actually give them to poor people, he would actually weaken them, since it better for people to have their children educated in schools with tattered books and catastrophically bad conditions because this will spur them to become neurosurgeons and move to the Upper East Side.

Or something.

What if Jesus means what he says?  What if we (all of us) actually have a responsibility to make it possible for all people to look at God’s Creation and say (with God), “Oh, how good!”?

The young man asked about living as an inheritor of the life of the aeon.  He wasn’t asking how he could earn his way into heaven.  You don’t earn what you inherit, after all.  And the reference to inheritance is significant for another reason: those who inherit the family fortune are those who have been raised in the family.  They show themselves, by every deed and every attitude, to be members of the family.

The young man is asking what sort of a life goes with being a member of the family that inherits the “life of the aeon” (a phrase that refers to the life of the “messianic age,” the age when everything is turned right side up).  He is asking how to live so that anyone looking at him would see the family trait (as deep as genetics) that works to turn the world right-side-up.

Jesus says that a sure sign of sharing the life of the aeon would be that the rich do not even imagine that we ought to defend ourselves against the needs of people who are poor.

Think about that slowly.




A Provocation: Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost: October 7, 2018: Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16
10:2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

10:3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”

10:4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

10:5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.

10:6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’

10:7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,

10:8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.

10:9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

10:10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.

10:11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;

10:12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

10:13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.

10:14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

10:15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

10:16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why do the Pharisees ask this particular question?
  • Are you sure?  Think further.

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is strange and complicated, not least because it has been the favorite of heartless people who needed to hurt divorced people in the name of God.
A friend asked me to make sure I poked at this scene in an effort to make some sense.

So, here’s a try:

  • The first thing that matters is that marriage now is not the same thing as marriage then.  That is at least mostly a true and significant statement.
  • Second, reading the prohibition of divorce and/or remarriage as SIMPLY a prohibition of divorce and/or remarriage misses the point almost completely.
  • A warning: there will be some crude language in this Provocation.

I think the task, first of all, is always to figure out the aim of such ancient prohibitions.

This is complicated by millennia of reading and interpreting these texts, but that only makes it more important to discern the purpose.
In the deep ancient world, marriage was an alliance between clans.  The woman and the man may not even have met before they were married.  Even when they were well acquainted, still marriage was a clan affair, not an individual love story, or even an individual survival story.  Paying attention to the role of clans answers some questions and creates a whole bunch of others.  Divorce was, from this point of view, a matter for diplomatic negotiation between powers with a stake in the stability of the relationship.  Not necessarily a stake in the health or safety of the relationship, but the stability, since the relationship was itself the result of negotiation.

And sometimes this wasn’t exactly the case.

It’s complicated.  even when clans had negotiated the relationship, still it seems to have been common for men to divorce their wives.  The halakhic standard was: “a wife may be divorced if her husband finds some indecency in her.”  Some schools of thought read this as meaning a woman who was unfaithful could be divorced.  Other schools said that “indecency” meant only that the husband was displeased with the woman.  When those schools went on to specify what counted as grounds for such “displeasure,” they said that, for instance, if a woman burned supper, her husband could divorce her.

Of course, the thing to hear in this is that male privilege is more important even than clan stability.

Clans (governed by men) found ways to reinforce the patriarchy.  The ancient texts chuckle at the whole matter, and thus make it clear that “boys will be boys” is not a modern innovation.
And, behind all of this hangs the fact that in most ancient Mediterranean cultures women could not own property.  Thus a woman who was cut off by her husband was placed in existential peril.  Women in such a position sometimes found themselves needing to marry anyone, on any terms, just to stay alive.  Some women in such a position found themselves forced to accept living with a man who refused to marry them, but was glad to sleep with them and eat the food they had to prepare (think here of the woman at the well, who is not an “adulteress”.  She is a person forced to accept such shelter as she could get on any terms the patriarchy set.).  And other women in such a position could only survive through prostitution (this situation is not unique to the ancient world: read Sula by Toni Morrison).  Patriarchy is pleased with this situation, since men seem always to have worried about those poor, poor men who can’t get laid, and so the system is glad to create social conditions that guarantee that there will be women who must allow them to masturbate in their vaginas (please excuse the crude language, but it seems appropriate: that kind of abuse surely isn’t “making love.”  It isn’t even sexual intercourse, since there is no equitable intercourse, just self-gratification at the expense of the woman).

Against that social background, the prohibition of divorce isn’t a “blue law” at all: it is an attempt to counteract some of the abuses of free-range patriarchy.

In some circumstances, adultery was an allowable grounds for divorce since it was understood as a breaking of faith.  Under such circumstances, it was accepted that women could be exposed to the very real danger of life without a patriarch to protect them.

While I can make some sense of this last practice, it is still nasty, and tilted in the favor of patriarchs.

But none of this deals with women who escape abuse through divorce.  The ancient world does not seem to have imagined that women could do this.  When this matter is considered at all, it comes out the way it does in the Tamar story: her first and second husbands “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and God killed them.”  That recognizes the reality of abuse, and it condemns it.  But women are left waiting for Divine thunderbolts, which are rare in the best of times.

So, some tentative conclusions:

  • I think that this passage in Mark only makes sense as a prohibition of abusive structures that leave women defenseless so as to take advantage of them.
  • And I think that this passage has no idea of what modern marriages are.  It simply doesn’t apply.
  • And I think that the scene ends with little children to make it clear that the real principle that matters is that we ought to care tenderly for each other.  Anything else is dangerous and abusive.
That’s a start, anyhow.

A Provocation: Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 30, 2018: Mark 9:38-50

Mark 9:38-50
9:38 John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”

9:39 But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.

9:40 Whoever is not against us is for us.

9:41 For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

9:42 “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.

9:43 If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.

9:45 And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.

9:47 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell,

9:48 where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

9:49 “For everyone will be salted with fire.

9:50 Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”


Another short Provocation (during the second week of the run of Real as Air).

Jesus says something surprising in this scene.  Religion is often used to separate Us from Them.  Even Jesus uses it like that, and even does so in Mark’s story.

But not in this scene.

The disciples are glad to defend the border between Us and Them.  They see it as being marked by whether or not people follow Jesus the way they do.  Anyone who does is one of Us.  Anyone else is one of Them.

It is easy enough to understand this.  In tough times, external pressure pops the seams that had stitched us all together.  People start asking, along with the Labor organizers in the 1930s, “Which Side Are You On?”

That is a good question, and understandable.  Those with power and the advantage of position apply pressure that aims to anger and isolate their opponents.  Those who have little power and no advantages recognize that this pressure drives people apart.  At such times, people sing songs that ask which side you are on.  Are you with Us, or are you one of those people who hopes, weakly, that people with power are interested in reason?

It is a necessary question.

But in this scene, Jesus (who understands pressure exerted by cynical power very well indeed) says: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”

He is not capitulating to power.  Quite the opposite, he is noting something that people with power and position know, and fear: their power is temporary and, in part, illusory.  That is why people who can see political reversals on the horizon become more cynical and less interested in good process and sound arguments.  They see that their efforts to fragment the opposition by applying pressure sometimes has the opposite effect.

Cynics with power know in the pit of their stomachs that there are more of Us than there are of Them.  We do not agree on all things, and we often do not even imagine cooperating.  But sometimes external pressure pushes Us together and we discover that what Jesus said is right: Whoever is not against us is for us.

This might be a good time to consider this.  Cynical power is getting nervous.


A Provocation: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

No text this week.  No text, and no regular Provocation.

This is the week that my play, Real as Air, opens on the main stage at Augustana University.  This play grows out of things my wife, my sister, and I wrote to each other during the two years my sister lived with ALS.

Yes, we wrote about the disease that was stealing my sister’s muscles, one by one.  And yes, we wrote about death.

But what we discovered that seemed important was that the pressure of an invariably fatal disease intensified our experience of joy and beauty.  When fresh tree-ripened peaches came into season, the thrill of sharp delight shot through us with an intensity that surprised us.  We knew that this might be the last time we tasted peaches together.

We discovered that our intensified awareness of the shortness of life clarified some things.  We learned that dumb jokes are just as dumb, and that goofy laughter is always in season.  We learned that you should never waste an opportunity to tell someone you love them.  We learned never to squander an occasion to thank someone.

On the day that my sister died, we were still in the midst of life-long conversations, still savoring the last fragments of the exploratory arguments that we had begun years before.  By this time, my sister could scarcely speak, and she was trying to write notes to me, since writing was still barely possible.  In the middle of our last conversation, our last attempts to plan her funeral together, the hospice nurse arrived.  My sister’s last words were spoken to the hospice nurse who brought her the morphine that allowed her to relax as her gasping became choking.  Each word required it’s own breath, sometimes two, and sometimes she had to wait for the choking spasms to subside before she could go on.  She fixed the nurse in her gaze and said, slowly and with careful effort, “Thank you for coming.”

That was what we learned from those two years of coping with ALS.

That was a lot to learn.

(For any of you who might be close enough to Sioux Falls to come see the show, you can get tickets online at http://www.augie.edu/arts   Just go to that URL and scroll down to the Box Office link.  It should make sense from there.  Or, if you wanted to become a virtual member of our team in the Walk to Defeat ALS, go to http://www.tinyurl.com/kathyscircle   From there, you can follow the links to join our team, which is called “Kathy’s Circle.”)


A Provocation: Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 16, 2018: Mark 8:27-38

Mark 8:27-38
8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”

8:28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.”

8:29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.”

8:30 And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.

8:31 Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

8:32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.

8:33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

8:34 He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

8:35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

8:36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?

8:37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?

8:38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

A Question or Two:

  • Who carried crosses?

Some Longer Reflections:

There is a lot going on in this passage.  There is plenty to explore in the matter of identifying Jesus, and even more to explore in the way the Passion Predictions shape and form the story that Mark is telling.

Those are matters for another time.

This week, a friend asked me about the word, “ashamed.”

At first look, there is nothing too interesting here, but the Greek does have its roots in our reaction to ugliness. 

This is an interesting link: shame is a shudder reaction in the face of ugliness.  On the one hand, I am tired of the casual acceptance of the way we react to things not classically beautiful, but on the other hand, this rootage imagines that we should shudder when we encounter unworthy action, action of which a person of quality ought to be ashamed.

Though shame has been used to silence people, especially women, still there is something here worth considering.  There are actions (all too common actions, to tell the truth) that ought to make us shudder.  I am not just referring to the sorts of things that the current president brags about having done, though that is an appropriate provocation for a shudder of rejection.  I am thinking these days of other actions, as well.  People of worth and honor ought to shudder at the notion that our only duty in our life together is to secure the best advantages for our own children.  We ought to shudder at the suggestion that all people in Flint need to do to get better water is to move somewhere else.  We ought to shudder whenever an executive claims a massive increase in salary and simultaneously argues that the financial times are too constrained to pay workers a living wage.

We SHOULD be ashamed of such behavior.

In the passage for this Sunday, however, the issue on the table is crucifixion

And that was both ugly and shudder-inducing.

So maybe what is at stake historically is the way following a crucified messiah linked people to all those who had been crucified, all those who were set up as ugly reminders of what happened to you when Rome singled you out.

So maybe this is more about solidarity with the outcasts who have been made ugly, and less about not being loud enough in your public Christianity, which is often how this text is preached.

If all Jesus is saying is that Christians should blow their own horn louder, and thus demonstrate that they are not ashamed of him, I will put my trombone quietly back in its case and move on to the company of people less sure of their own divine rightness.

But I think Jesus is making the fact of his crucifixion an index for our reaction to other people we consider to be “ugly.”  My sister lived two years with ALS, a disease that took her muscles one by one, and left her with what she called “an uncooperative skin-bag.”  She worried that people would shudder when the saw her.  Some did.  I listen to the way political trolls paint the victims of “officer-involved” shootings; I watch the way some news outlets tar those same families; and I recognize that they make their money by playing off the public “shame” that goes with being shot by a police officer.  Those trolls and their on-air stooges are trying to train us all to shudder at the victim, not at the act of unjustified violence.

Jesus says, I think, “Anyone who is ashamed of me will also be ashamed of the “least of these,” of my sisters and brothers” (to borrow a parable from the gospel of Matthew).

The crucifixion links Christian faith to people who get called “ugly,” who are “hard to see that way,” who are taught from childhood that they are targets for the anger of the larger society.  We may not find this linkage comfortable.

That just might be the point of Jesus’ words in this scene.

A Provocation: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 9, 2018: Mark 7:24-37

Mark 7:24-37
7:24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,

7:25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

7:26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

7:27 He said 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.”

7:28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

7:29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go–the demon has left your daughter.”

7:30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

7:31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

7:32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

7:33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.

7:34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

7:35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

7:36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

7:37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

A Question or Two:

  • Would the woman in the first scene have said that Jesus “has done everything well”?

Some Longer Reflections:

These scenes (there are two scenes, and they are rather different from each other) are generally seen to offer evidence that God is in the process of turning the world right-side-up.  The promises are old, as old as the prophet, Isaiah, and his promises of return from Exile.  That means the promises were old when Jesus’ great-grandmother was born, and that they had thus shaped the world in which his family had raised their children for generations.  This matters.  We feed our children on breast milk and baby food, but even more important, we feed them on the hopes and dreams that give us life.  We raise our children to hope and dream and work and watch.  We raise our children to see what is wrong with the world, and to expect it to change.  We raise our children to demand that change.

Jesus will have been raised on these hopes.

By the time Jesus was born, the expectation of a messiah had become attached to these old hopes.  The notion had helped gather the various hopes; it had helped focus the way Jews looked at the world and expected change and healing.  By the time this story of Mark’s gospel was told, the stories of Jesus healing people were taken as stories of the messianic correction of the world.  The conditions that separated people and isolated them were being corrected: deafness, blindness, any condition that prevented people from living and working and sharing in the responsibilities of the community.

It is worth noting at this point that these stories do indeed see deafness and blindness as problems to be removed.  The notion of deaf culture, or community amongst blind people was millennia away in the future; braille and ASL haven’t been imagined yet.  The world of this story is not yet able to imagine such things.  We are able, and it changes the way we watch this scene.  But from the point of view of the hopes and dreams that Jesus shared with his great-grandmother, we are all hoping and working for similar goals: we all share the goal of removing the conditions that separate and isolate people.

Which brings us to the scene that begins the preaching text for this Sunday.

Yes.  It is a miracle story.

Yes.  It is important that the healing takes place at a distance.  (You can read my detailed discussion of this factor, and of the entire text, in my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary.  AmazonPrime could deliver it by Thursday, or something.)

And yes.  The contest with evil spirits is worth thinking about slowly.

But there is something else in this scene that needs careful attention.

Jesus calls a woman, a mother with a daughter in danger, a dog.  Some interpreters (even good friends of mine) seek to soften the scene by imagining that Jesus’ use of κυνάριον (little dog) makes it better than if he had called her a big dog.  I just leave that there.  I like dogs just fine, and puppies are cute.

But Jesus just referred to a woman as a dog.  He does not get a pass.

I work with actors to explore the inside of stories.  Many years ago now, we were working on this scene.  We were getting nowhere.  Everything we tried was less useful than the thing we tried before.  I had a conference with the actor who was playing Jesus.  I told him about an old, prominent interpreter of the gospel of Mark who said that the scene demonstrates Jesus’ tender love for the mother.  I told him that this interpreter went so far as to say that he thought that, when Jesus said these words, “a wistful smile didst play across his lips.”  I asked him to smile when he told the mother that he didn’t do favors for dogs like her.

He did.

I should perhaps mention that the woman playing the mother is a person who does not suffer fools gladly.  She heard the words.  She saw the smile.

And she slapped Jesus across the face.

And, for the first time, the scene worked.  All of a sudden, we had a motivation for the violent words that the storyteller used (now translated into oblivion by the NRSV) at the end of the scene.  When the mother returns home, she does not find the daughter lying on the bed.  The original Greek says that she was “thrown across the bed.”  And Jesus does not dismiss her calmly, telling her (in the NRSV) that she “may go.”  The original Greek has him command her to go, to go away now, to get out of his presence.

But most important of all, all of a sudden the women in the room recognized a scene that all of them had experienced, some of them many times.  Casual disrespect is common, accepted, even.  Women grow up learning to look at the man who dishes out this abuse, and thank him for his kind attention.

We were asked to perform this scene for a women’s group in a church.  We were afraid, but they insisted they wanted to see what we would do with this scene.  We played the scene.  The mother slapped Jesus.  The women applauded.  One woman, somewhere near 80 years old, told me that she had always hated that text.  “Today,” she said, “is the first time I didn’t hate it.  I would have hit him, too.”

The woman in this scene teaches Jesus a lesson.  It appears to have been a lesson that he needed to learn, and that he was not altogether glad to learn.  We all learn such lessons.  It is part of turning the world right-side-up.  It is what our great-grandmothers waited for and demanded.

After this scene, Jesus never treats a woman like this again.

He learned his lesson.  He went on to remove the things that separate and isolate us.  He went on to do the work of messiah.  Because the woman taught him a lesson he needed, if he was going to turn anything right-side-up.  This is what the messianic correction of the world looks like.  This is how it works.

A Provocation: Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost: September 2, 2018: Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
7:1 Now when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him,

7:2 they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them.

7:3 (For the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders;

7:4 and they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles.)

7:5 So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, “Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of the elders, but eat with defiled hands?”

7:6 He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;

7:7 in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

7:8 You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

7:14 Then he called the crowd again and said to them, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand:

7:15 there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

7:21 For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder,

7:22 adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.

7:23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why do people engage in ritual washing after coming from the market?
  • No, really.  Why is this important?

A Few Longer Reflections:

This is a scene to be careful with.

There is an obvious danger: the storyteller takes shots at the “tradition of the elders,” and since the elders in question are Jewish, it is too easy to read the scene and engage in bargain-basement anti-Semitic interpretation.  That is too easy, and too-easy interpretation makes for too-dull preaching.

But you already know that.

The other danger that catches my eye is the temptation to watch the storyteller criticize the “tradition of the elders” and take it as authorization to take shots at elders, any elders, Jewish or not.

There IS something like that going on in the scene, and it is worth exploring what it is that elders contribute to communities and cultures.  Again, the list contains obvious things: elders contribute a memory of the past, and a commitment to old ways of doing things; elders contribute balanced judgment shaped by decades of experience, and a propensity for paralyzing caution; elders contribute an ability to identify the heart of the problem, and this allows them to solve problems without floundering about with trial and error.  They also bring to every effort at problem-solving a certain “arthritis,” of the hands and of the mind, that makes them stiff when limberness is needed.

The list probably ought to go on to include things like: elders listened to the best music, etc.

Or we could analyze it from the other angle: young innovators hit upon new solutions, which are mostly new to them; young innovators bring vigor and fresh energy to a task, which they promptly waste in running around in circles.

I could go on.  You could, too.

Lurking under the surface of this scene is a narrative structure that begs to be read as a generational conflict.  But if we read it that way, the key will be to preserve the complexities that arise when the old and the young solve problems together.  In fact, for all the difficulties, we need each other, and we are stuck with each other.  We need each other, if only to solve the problems we create for each other.  George McGovern sharpened the point when he said, “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”  The problems are real, and sometimes deadly.

Maybe it is smartest to read Jesus as being on the side of the young innovators.  But maybe it is because I am not young, or maybe it is because I think the problems in front of us at present are themselves deeply complex, but I think we need the traditions of the elders AND all the innovation we can muster.  It is my conviction (and experience) that innovation and improvisation are strongest when they are carried out by artists with the deepest experience and the most solid awareness of how the old forms and traditions work.

The old traditions in this scene involve ritual washing.  The disciples, who are common people and direct, eat when they are hungry and work when it is time to work.  They do not perform the ritual of washing.  The ritual preserves the boundary between a safe and dangerous, between inside and out, between Jews and Roman oppressors.  The tradition of the elders functions to remind Jews that they have an obligation to stand apart from oppressive systems.  If this is what the young innovator, Jesus, is opposing, then he is wrong.

But Jesus has a more interesting idea than this.  He argues that resistance to oppressive systems requires inner resistance.  Ritual washing fosters the practice of standing apart, roots the reminder in everyday life.  Jesus’ words do the same thing, only he puts a sharp edge on it, one that the elders would also have approved.  Jesus cites a usual list of common offenses: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”  Some of these are crimes, some destroy people and trust, some waste the wholeness of a human being.  Jesus reads them all as ways that oppressive forces break into community.

Stop and imagine that.

These are not just private sins, to be taken care of by pious individuals.  Because they break community, they are the real sources of defilement.

Ritual washing supports the effort to stand apart from the forces that oppress the Creation.  Jesus just linked this list of common offenses with the effort to resist Roman power.

This kind of innovation is worth slow reflection, I think.

A Provocation: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: August 26, 2018: John 6:56-69

John 6:56-69
6:56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

6:57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

6:59 He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

6:60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”

6:61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you?

6:62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

6:63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.

6:64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him.

6:65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”

6:66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

6:67 So Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

6:68 Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

6:69 We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.”

A Question or Two:

  • What if this scene, which seems to say that the Exodus was not enough, is not about Christian supersessionism?
  • What if saying that “the flesh is useless” is an expression of impatience with God, not of Christian exclusivism?

Some Longer Reflections:

So, I’m assuming you can find all the resources you’d ever want regarding bread.

I want to think about life this week.

This string of passages talk about life almost as much as they talk about bread, and John’s storyteller focuses on life over and over again.  The storyteller uses bread to link Jesus’ career to the Exodus and manna.  The storyteller uses the images of life and breath (πνεῦμά, translated by the NRSV as “spirit”).  These words tie this scene to the beginning of John’s story, and ties all of it to Genesis 2 and the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel.  In all of those cases, breath brings life.  In all of those cases, bodies lie inert until πνεῦμά is blown into them.  These ties mean that this scene imagines bodies lying lifeless and being returned to life.  This scene, therefore, is a reflection on resurrection, and not just of Jesus.

Resurrection enters Jewish thought in the ancient world as a way to hope for justice and wholeness in a world where everyone dies, where everyone is vulnerable, and everyone has to wait too long for God’s justice.

That is why “the flesh is useless.”  Or, at least, that is one reason.  In a world constituted as this one is, bodies often fall down dead before they see justice and equity enacted.  This is true even for people who live very long lives, and even for families that have very long memories.  Even when your memory stretches back as far as the Exodus, the flesh is useless.  Justice will require a resurrection.

So when Jesus ways that his words are “spirit and life,” he is promising that the entry of the Logos into Creation creates the possibility of ζωῆς αἰωνίου, which is generally translated as “eternal life,” which would be cold comfort since it could promise only that you would have to live forever if you really wanted to see justice done.  

But ζωῆς αἰωνίου comes closer to meaning “life of the aeon,” life that is charged with the energy of the new aeon, the aeon of the Messiah, the aeon in which justice will be a normal fact of life.   Read this way, Simon Peter’s words at the end of the scene have an interesting force.  He is not declaring some kind of Christian exclusiveness so much as he is agreeing that it will take a resurrection for justice to be the norm that regulates life.  HIs words, read this way, twist realism and hope around each other in a way I think is necessary if we are ever to hope for justice, not just good luck.  

In any case, I recognize the impatience.

A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 19, 2018: John 6:51-58

John 6:51-58
6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

6:52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

6:53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

6:54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;

6:55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

6:56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

6:57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the Exodus so important to John?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus.  And bread.  And Jesus.  And bread.  Again.

You likely know all the things I know about Jesus and bread, week after week, year after year.

I work with a text study group: strong pastors, gentle people, kind colleagues.  I was rehearsing all the usual paths through this scene: bread is the “staff of life” (especially for ordinary folk in the ancient world who surely could not even imagine the kind of diet we think is normal); so Jesus is the living bread that everyone can afford, not just the wealthy; the word translated as “eat” actually means “gnaw,” which is worth thinking about; more shocking than that is the line about drinking Jesus’ blood, which runs contrary to any imaginable teaching; etc.  It was going okay.

And then one of the pastors (John Hansen, actually, a strong and insightful person) wondered what the Greek word for “food” was.  “What if this scene isn’t about the Sacrament?” he wondered.  “What if it is about the Incarnation?”

That is a terrific thing to wonder.

What if Jesus means to say that, having come down from the sky, his body is now wormfood?  That is an essential characteristic of human being (and being human).  It also fits strikingly well with the word the storyteller uses for “food.”  The word,βρῶσις, means food, that which can be eaten.  But it also refers to rust and the quality of being liable to be “eaten into.”  In other words: wormfood.

Our imaginations reach to the stars, and our inventions travel to them.  Our creations are stunning, both in their beauty and in their destructive power.  Our hopes reach beyond all limitations.  And we are wormfood.  That physical fact does not reduce our soaring imagination or creative ability.  And our simple mortality energizes our spirit.  If the Deity truly shares our human being, then Jesus’ body has to be wormfood.

This is a short provocation, but it is a strong one.

The notion that the Creator (apart from whom was nothing made that was made) becomes fully subject to the limitations of that Creation is a strange notion, and a strong one.  There is a deep stream in Christian theology, going back at least as far as Irenaeus, whose explorations of the Christian imagination I find amazing.  He reflected on what the Incarnation did to human being, and his imagination soared to the notion that Jesus brought us to share Divinity.

This is a powerful idea.

But this provocation goes in the other direction.  What does the Incarnation do to God?  Our limitations, our unshakeable mortality mean that we can break things that cannot be fixed.  We can lose things that can never be recovered.  We learn that our best creations can be lost and forgotten.  And we learn this together.  It teaches us how precious life is, and how transient.  It teaches us how precious we all are.

In our short time together, we grieve and we rejoice.  We give birth to ideas and to each other.  As we huddle together, we discover love.  We discover love because we are mortal.

That puts an interesting spin on John 3:16.  “Thus God loved the Cosmos: God gave the son as a firstborn.”  Perhaps mortality (discovered in the fact of Incarnation) gave birth to the mutuality of ἀγάπη.  That might be worth thinking about slowly.

It all starts with being wormfood.