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The Hypocritical Christian

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Read Mark 4:35-41

Jesus has just finished a long day of teaching near the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The time has come for them to head to the opposite side of the lake and begin healing and teaching in the communities there.  We are told a couple of pertinent details about the journey.  A significant storm began as they were making there way across the 7 mile span and Jesus was taking a well deserved nap.

I grew up around lakes in Texas and I can tell you that storms on a lake are no small thing.  Apparently, this is particularly true of the Sea of Galilee because of the unique topography around it.  All of Isarel, west to east, is a series of radical changes in elevations in a comparatively short distance.  As a result the Sea of Galilee is in a basin of sorts that channels the wind across the water when a storm rages through the region.  A similar dynamic can be experienced when the wind is channeled through office buildings in a modern city or even apartment complexes in a smaller town.  The point is that the storms on the Sea of Galilee can be nasty and we need to remember that these guys are not in some modern style watercraft, but a homemade boat designed for fishing and not much else.

Have you ever napped on a boat?  It’s glorious! The boat rocks back and forth and if you are sleeping directly on centerline it is the closest thing to being in a cradle that you can experience.  When you consider the crazy compacted schedule that Jesus has been keeping and the incredible amounts of physical and mental energy he has exerted it is no wonder that he is “dead to the world” in the back of the boat.

We are told that when the disciples, all of whom are experienced fishermen, decide to wake Jesus they are worried about dying because the boat was already taking on water.  I think it is important to pause here and really put yourself in the moment.  The storm is wicked, perhaps there was rain and perhaps there was just wind and waves.  Even without rain the waves alone could be devastating and frightening.  The image above is described as one of the “mountains of water” that form on Lake Erie during a storm.  A fishing boat in those days would have had a very low side to make it easier to haul a net of fish onto the boat.  It wouldn’t take much for a series of significant waves to begin filling the hull up.  Water is coming into the vessel, each wave striking the boat would have began to feel like invisible fists pounding the side threatening to capsize her or worse break her apart. If the worst happens it is several miles to shore in storm driven waters.  Every one of these men grew up around these waters and every one of them likely has known someone who has drowned there. No wonder they were afraid!

That last point about the deadliness of the sea is pretty crucial for really understanding this story.  In the ancient Jewish tradition, the sea represents evil and chaos.  The sea is unpredictable and kills.  You see this in the very first verses of the scriptures.  God’s spirit hovers over the waters of the void and begins to bring order out of chaos.  The sea is given its limits but is always there as a symbol of the forces that are opposed to God.  You see it in the final pages of scripture when the beast rises up from the sea in Revelation and when the new creation is finalized we are told that the sea is no more.  So while the story is about the day that the disciples nearly died on a boat trip across the Sea of Galilee it metaphorically means so much more.

The disciples rouse Jesus from his deep sleep and level an accusation against him, “Do you not care that we are perishing!

Jesus stood and rebuked the wind and commanded the sea, ” Be silent” and the lake became calm.

calm lake

Take a moment and meditate on the two images.

How would you feel?

Try to imagine the feelings of fear and dread of the waves and the storm replaced with the feelings of relief and dread at what just happened.  The fellow next to you in the boat just told the weather to stop and it did.  Not impressed? Try it yourself sometime.  You won’t get very far.   As I write this it is 80 degrees Fahrenheit before 10 AM in Texas.  You don’t think I want to make it cooler with the sheer power of my will?  How many brides would kill to be able to control the weather before their outdoor wedding?  Each of us is powerless against the forces of heat, cold, wind and rain.  Each of us except Jesus.  That is by the way I think Mark’s point in his retelling.  Recall that Mark is a gospel bent on guiding every reader / hearer into making a decision about who Jesus is and in this moment he wants you to realize that Jesus commands the forces of nature and they obey.

In verse 41, the disciples ask “who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  They would have had the benefit of growing up hearing the dozens of references in the psalms, proverbs, Job and prophets that YHWH does this very thing.  They would have grown up being told to remember how YHWH had delivered their people from Egypt by commanding the sea to part and allowing them to cross over on dry land.  This is what they were dealing with and why we are told a great fear (literally a mega phobia) gripped them in the wake of Jesus action.

“Who is this guy?”

That is the question with which we must wrestle.

Now some of you will respond to this with a ho-hum.  Maybe you are a life-long Christian and you settled on the answer “who is this guy?” a long time ago.  You may ask, what about the storms of my life?  My boat is floundering.  Where is the word for me the reassurance that Jesus will calm my storms?  I have come to this post wanting to know that Jesus can stop the storms in my life.  I have job trouble.  I have debts.  I have addictions.  I have marital strife.  I have cancer.  What about me?  Doesn’t Jesus care that I am perishing?

The very same accusation that the disciples leveled against Jesus is on our own lips many times.

And Jesus said to them,  “Why are you so cowardly; do you still have no faith?”

It is not two questions as most translations put it but a single question.  The nature of Jesus question, condemnation really, is to link the fear with the faith.  In other words, if you had faith you would not fear but rather trust.  I know this because the Greek word used is particular.  It is not, phobos, from which we get the word phobia.  Phobos is the word used in verse 41 to describe the awe struck fear that has over come them.  Phobos is the word used throughout the New Testament (Phillipians 2 for example) to render the “fear of the Lord” that is the beginning of wisdom as the Old Testament (proverbs 1) so succinctly summarized the journey of faith in YHWH.  Here though, in verse 40, the word is deilos, a word that used in ancient Greek to describe the cowardice of soldiers who desert in battle and the inaction of the farmer who is paralyzed by fear of the future.  Deilos is always used negatively and connotes a paralyzing fear.  Incidentally this seems backwards for English speakers because the word phobia was picked up in psychology to describe the rational and irrational fears that effect us.

We are also used to thinking of faith as a matter of the mind alone.  To many of us, having faith is having the correct belief.  In linking faith and cowardice Jesus is linking faith with action.  The person who has faith is the person who trusts.  The person who does not have faith is the person who is paralyzed by fear.  It is not simply understanding (mind) who Jesus is but knowing (heart and mind) who he is and allowing that deeper knowledge to guide our actions and our responses.  Jesus is surprised that after watching him cast out demons and healing people that the disciples are still so timid when the storm comes.

Think back on your life and recall the times that God has provided for you what you needed: the doors that have opened, the healings that have occurred, the resources that were given. The life of faith is not simply understanding who God is but allowing that understanding to put you in a place of trust where you can live in a relationship towards God that is a life marked by the expectation that God will provide.

The accusation was “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  The answer is if you trust me then you know that I care and that you matter.

I do not think that the life of faith means that there is never a reason to fear.  There are scary things out there: violence, war, famine, disease, divorce, unemployment, snakes… it is a long list.  There is nothing wrong with the instinct to fear but faith calls us to get past the fear to trust that the Lord will carry us through all things even death when that day comes.

So how do we live it?

Be assured.  Fear not.  The Lord knows your circumstance and your need before you ever vocalize it.  Use the Lord’s prayer as your guide and pray that pattern daily: Praise God, ask for your needs, seek forgiveness and grant forgiveness, ask for deliverance from the evil that is out there, expect and look for the will of God to be done more than your own solutions, and finish reminding yourself that all glory and honor will forever belong to God.  Doing so will train your heart and mind to trust in God’s provision and in God’s timing. When in doubt recall what God has done and know that God will do what is necessary.

Amen.

Questions:

  • What makes you afraid?
  • Are there areas of your life where you are not acting because of fear?
  • When was the last time you prayed the Lord’s prayer?
  • What is one thing you could do today to trust God more?

Are you enjoying the Hypocritical Christian? If you are please share the website with someone else and encourage them to try it out. If you receive it through email and choose to share it with some else let them know where they can find new posts for themselves. Also note that you are welcome to ask questions or even “argue” back through the comments.  Dialogue is always encouraged.  I ask that you suggest the website to others because knowing that people are going to the website encourages me to keep posting.

As always the above reflection is given freely. If you choose to share it in a group bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it.  It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

 

Be Patient for the Kingdom Comes

Read Mark 4:26-34

Christians are always concerned about the Kingdom of God and how long it seems to be taking to arrive. Do you suppose it has always been this way?  Could it be that Christians in the West have become so conditioned for instant gratification that they more impatient for the Kingdom of God than their predecessors?  The anecdotal evidence is that every generation of Christian from the beginning have been anxious for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom just read Acts 1:6-7.

In North America, denominations are very focused on the Kingdom of God albeit in very separate ways.  The more conservative a Church / Christian the more focused they seem to be on teasing out the signs of the imminent return of Christ. Like “Preppers” storing up for the downfall of civilization, their bug-out-bag is their zippered, handle-covered Bible and instead of a sign indicating they reserve the right to shoot trespassers they warn the trespassers that will be “left behind” that their cars will be driver-less in the event of the rapture through a thoughtfully placed bumper sticker.  Their counterparts in the more liberal arms of the Church have seemed to forgotten that Jesus promised to return at all, focused instead on doing all this hard kingdom work themselves through political rallies for the justice issue du jour. In case your curious they often decorate their car with bumper stickers encouraging coexisting religious faiths / sects as though the true arrival of the Kingdom of God will look like a joint summit meeting.

These two short parables in Mark suggest where the Kingdom of God is concerned patience is required.

Jesus told them that the Kingdom of God was like a man who cast seed on the ground.  At first we may naturally think of the parable of the sower we recently looked at but here the emphasis is not on the action of the sower but rather on the seed itself.  Jesus says the  Kingdom of God is like the person who casts seed on the ground and while they sleep the seed sprouts and grows “– HOW; he himself does not know“.

Maybe this parable has lost some of its strength in a world where so many people have looked at pictures of a bean sprout plant growing in schoolbooks.  There are even a select few people who really do understand how it all works.  But it seems the point Jesus is trying to make in his pre-scientific method world is that it just happens over time and it seems almost magical.

Coupled with the Parable of the Sower, we have been given some simple instructions. We are to scatter the Word of God and then let the Word do its thing.   Apparently even while we are sleeping the Word of God is at working sprouting and developing into a great big crop ready for harvest.  When the harvest comes there is more work to be done.

This parable although short works on two levels.  On the one hand it is a reminder to Christians that their efforts do not end with the sharing of the gospel but that they also need to be ready when the harvest is evident.  So if you have been demonstrating the truth of Christ through words and actions you need to be ready when the one with whom you share is ready for the next step be it accepting Christ, attending worship, or being baptized.  The parable also works on the cosmic level.  Jesus will return when the harvest is ripe some day in the future.  Patience fellow Christ-followers, the Ancient of Days, like a seasoned farmer, will know the right time.

The second parable is another call to patience.  Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like a Mustard Seed though it is small it grows into a tremendous plant.  There are some critics out their that mock Jesus because as they point out  the mustard seed is neither the smallest seed nor is the mature plant the largest on Earth.  C. S. Lewis once commented that it was incumbent upon us to read the scriptures like adults and this is the sort of ill-conceived criticism he was referencing.

Allow me to update the parable imagery so that anyone can understand Jesus’ point.

 

Sequoia-Seed-on-Fingertip

Then Jesus said, “How can we picture the Kingdom of God or to what can we compare it to? The Kingdom of God is like this seed on my finger that breaks off from the seed pod on the ground and although it is so tiny and insignificant grows to become an awesome and amazing tree like this: 

sequoia

a tree so large that it can’t be captured on film in its entirety and it would take more than a classroom of children to encircle its trunk. 

The point of the parable isn’t about the literalness of the seed or the plant, but the fact that the Kingdom is growing all the time, slowly, unseen into something massive and beautiful and only God knows when the harvest will be complete.

The mustard seed, or Sequoia seed, is Jesus.  A poor builder, a crucified criminal, in the furthest reaches of the Roman Empire two millennia ago couldn’t be more small and insignificant; yet, the 2.2 billion Christians alive today all trace their lineage back to this one man and his Resurrection around 34 C.E. (AD).  Not only that, but the estimated 13 billion confessing Christians of the past 2000 years — a Giant Sequoia indeed!

And the Kingdom of God is still growing at its own divinely ordained pace until that promised day when every knee will bow and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is the LORD to the glory of God.

What to do between now and then?  Well, one don’t smugly look for signs of THE RETURN and forget to do the work of sowing the gospel.  To do so is to risk a self-righteousness that awaits the judgment of the neighbor without practicing the love of neighbor God requires.  Two, don’t go about trying to rework the whole world into the Kingdom of God as you think it should look because the outcome is guaranteed to be a vision of justice viewed through sinful eyes.  Third, focus on living out Romans 12:9- 13:11  as best you can individually and collectively seeking guidance always first and foremost through scripture, prayer, and confession.

And be patient for the Kingdom is both growing and coming.

Questions:

  • Do you pray regularly for the return of Christ? If so, why? If not, why?
  • When you pray for THE RETURN are you secretly hoping that it come so others will face their comeuppance? 
  • What is the kingdom working balance in your life between prayer and study and good works? 
  • Do you read the Bible regularly? Pray daily? Are you looking for the chance to spread the gospel? 
  • How are you harvesting the growth that is ready until THE RETURN?
  • What are you or your faith community doing to serve God by serving others?

As always the above reflection is given freely. If you choose to share it in a group bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it.  It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.

Are you enjoying the Hypocritical Christian? If you are please share the website with someone else and encourage them to try it out. If you receive it through email and choose to share it with some else let them know where they can find new posts for themselves. Also note that you are welcome to ask questions or even “argue” back through the comments.  Dialogue is always encouraged.  I ask that you suggest the website to others because knowing that people are going to the website encourages me to keep posting.

 

The Parable of the Sower

Read Mark 4:1-20

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“Behold a Sower went out to sow…”  thus begins one of the more famous parables of Jesus and the only one that is given a full explanation by the man himself.  Ironically, this parable is often interpreted by theologians and preachers independently of the explanation Jesus gives when the most complete explanation that we can give someone is read verses 13-20 if you have any questions.

Instead we are given sermons where people are asked “what kind of soil are you?”  We get messages about not worrying about those who are yet to believe because they are just not as fertile a soil as you the faithful listener here this Sunday morning. I almost fell back into that trap myself by very nearly writing a blog post where I intended to ask myself and you how our actions and decisions were impacting the soil of other people’s hearts.

Why are we so quick to try and add to or change the meaning Jesus gives this parable? The cynic in me says that some people want to avoid the fact that Jesus flat out mentions Satan in the explanation.  While I do think that the notion of Satan is disturbing to a great many “modern-minded” Christians, I suspect that the real reason efforts are made to come up with clever extensions of the parable or outright changes in the meaning is because we want the parable to be about us.

The parable is not about us.

The sower sows the word.  The word is the gospel and the gospel is thus: in the person of Jesus, God has initiated the Kingdom of God.  If you are still struggling with that being the fundamental truth of the gospel please reread the first three chapters of Mark, or review this blog post.

In this point in Mark, Jesus is sharing this parable to explain to those who believe in him (presumably the disciples) why some folks, like the pharisees, are so unbelieving that they wish to have him eliminated and other folks, like his immediate family, think that he is bonkers.  “Bonkers” is a technical term in this instance that theologians use so we don’t have to conjure up a confusing word like egotheistical.

There are a lot of reasons why people fail to believe in Jesus. Some are hard soil and there is no way for the truth to take root before the birds and such eat it. Some are rocky and there is an initial taking hold but the plant doesn’t survive the heat and the wind, like the flowers that I put on my west facing apartment balcony. Others get choked out by the weeds. Finally there are those who are the good soil and the gospel takes root in the heart and grows strong and true and yields fruit.

That’s the meaning plain and simple.

sower images

I am not going to try and change that interpretation, but I am going to try and draw a couple of interpretative lessons out of that explanation.  Personally, I come from a family of farmers although I admit I know more or less nothing about farming.  I only know a little about gardening.  When I was a kid I wanted to help my mother plant a garden so she showed me how. We bought some seeds and we created a pretty good sized garden in the land next to our house. It had several rows that we had created with a tiller that mom borrowed for the purpose.  By the time we were done it was that classic Norman Rockwell style garden with little posts on the end to mark the rows and the seed packet stapled to them so we could remember whether that row was radishes or corn.  What I learned over that weekend was that gardening is hard work.

The first lesson that I would point out to from this sower story is this: the Word is not an annual. This gospel is not a one time yield sort of crop here today and gone tomorrow.  You will note that most of the times that Jesus gets all horticultural on us it is about vineyards or trees.  The Gospel when it takes root is going to be a perennial plant.  This is important because whenever we try to make the parable about us (focusing on the soil rather than the sower /seed) we can become fixated on whether or not we are good soil.  If we are good soil, then the yield can become a way for us to qualify ourselves among the other good soil out there i.e. am I yielding 30 times or 60 times? We can either compare ourselves this way to make ourselves feel like we are better Christians or we can get down on ourselves because we aren’t bearing as much fruit as someone else.

Stop it.

Sometimes the vineyard has a bumper crop.  Some years are lean.  Some years a fruit tree will produce more fruit than you know what to do with and some years there aren’t any fruits at all.  When I lived in Corpus there was a grapefruit tree in the backyard that produced far more grapefruit than I could have ever consumed.  Truth be told, even one grapefruit is generally more than I want to consume. Right across the fence in the neighbors yard, not even 10 feet away there was a grapefruit tree that was a perennial disappointment.  So much so that the neighbor always made sure I knew that he didn’t want me to prune the limbs that stretched over the fence from the superstar tree because he wanted to harvest those grapefruits.

It is like that with Christians.  We have seasons when we produce much fruit in our own lives or in the lives of others and there are seasons when the pickings are slim.  Both are OK.  Both bring glory to the Father because throughout it all we are good soil.   Jesus says, “they are the ones that hear the word and accept it” meaning that the good soil are those who have begun to orient themselves around the truth of Jesus Christ.  What does that mean?  Read Romans 12.  Most people think that the gospel is doing all those things, but those things flow out of understanding the truth about Jesus (Romans 1-11) not the other way around.

In short, if you want to be bear more fruit, then double down on your understanding of who Christ is and the fruit will follow.

Why is that? Because the word is being sown haphazardly all the time.  I mentioned earlier that when it came time to plant the garden my mother and I prepped the plot of land.  We tilled and readied the soil for the seed.  Not this sower named Jesus, this guy is chunking that seed all over the place. I once thought that this was really silly and not the most effective way to plant anything but I recently learned that this was common practice in his day.  A sower would sow the seed and then go back and till the ground turning over the dirt, rocks, weeds, etc whatever with the seed.  They did this for two reasons.  One, they didn’t always have the best soil to work with in the first place.  Let’s face it, Israel ain’t Kansas.  Two, there wasn’t a place down the road to buy potting soil and fertilizer and Weed-B-Gone.  You turned over the dirt and everything in it good and bad to have whatever nutrients you could get in the soil for the plant and you hoped that the Lord would bless you with rain and the right combination of stuff to find out where the good soil was and grow you some produce.

And therein lies the second take away from the parable for the believer: you WILL BE tilled.

Far too many Christians think that the after accepting Christ into their hearts life is going to be a long period of perfect.  When the tough stuff happens they ask themselves “Why is the Lord doing this to me?”  They ask themselves why God is punishing them.

“We rejoice in our suffering because we know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint because God has poured out His love for us through the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 5:4)   

 

parable-of-soils

Ignore every preacher you hear (most of them are on TV) that try to sell you this Pollyana notion that the life of the Christian is smooth sailing.  Do your best to ignore your well-meaning Christian friends who try to tell you the same.  As my good buddy Sam used to say “It is hard to be a Christian”.  But when the stuff happens keep in mind that you are being tilled, the Sower is working His soil to make you produce fruit.

I will speak for myself.  Too often I have asked myself what does God want me to learn from this experience.  Too often I have listened to other people ask me that same question to which I have had very little in the way of answer.  What if our question became “God, how do I bear fruit in this moment?”   Don’t hear what I am not saying.  I am not suggesting that there is never a lesson or a pruning of the vine where we need to get ourselves aligned with God more closely.  What I am saying is that always asking the the first questions is putting the focus on us and our experience, pain, and hurt rather than putting the focus on God and asking how we can grow and bloom.

Questions:

  1. Have you found yourself focused more on the soils (you) in the story than on the seed (word)?
  2. Have you ever judged yourself for the amount of fruit your life is yielding for the Lord?
  3. Have you asked yourself recently “Why me Lord?”
  4. How would your walk of faith be different if you asked God to help you bear fruit in times of trial and suffering?
  5. What can you do to focus more on the word during this season of your life?

Are you enjoying the Hypocritical Christian? If you are please share the website with someone else and encourage them to try it out. If you receive it through email and choose to share it with some else let them know where they can find new posts for themselves. Also note that you are welcome to ask questions or even “argue” back through the comments.  Dialogue is always encouraged.  I ask that you suggest the website to others because knowing that people are going to the website encourages me to keep posting.

As always this is given freely and if you choose to use it in a bible study of your own or as a devotional before a small group meeting, etc. please let folks know where you got it.  It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is just trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

To the Moon and Back Again… Why The Believer Shouldn’t Fear Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit

Read Mark 3:20-30

 

to the moon and back

I Love You to the Moon and Back is a popular book for little children.  My guess is that it was written by someone inspired during a reading of Do You Know How Much I Love You? given that the latter ends with this very phrase.  It is a fitting sentiment of parental love and has inspired a cottage industry of wall art like the image above and posters and wedding invitations and coffee mugs and who knows what else.

The moon is officially 238900 miles away from the Earth.  Imagine how large the moon must be to be so visible in the night sky? Interesting fact, at apogee, the moon is over 250000 miles away from the earth. So when someone says they love you to the moon and back they are saying a lot. In fact you would circle the earth’s equator 7.5 times to equal the distance to the moon and a total of 15 times to go there and back.  So, I guess when a person says that they love you to the moon and back they are saying that they would chase a you around the world 15 times to woo or save you.  Most parents have felt like they have chased their children that far at one time or another.  No one ever says I love you to the Sun and back (186 million miles) probably because the Sun is not out when you are trying to get a child to go to bed; except in Texas where the sun is seemingly always out!

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This image is from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at CalTech.  The larger dot is the Earth and the smaller dot is the moon seen from 900 million miles away! In case you are wondering that is a picture taken from a spacecraft near Saturn. Brief conspiracy note: I have no way of proving that this is a picture from 900 million miles away. It could be zoomed out capture of a light bright with a pinprick in the paper for all I know.  Still if Saturn which I have seen through a telescope is 900 million miles away then why don’t we start saying “I love you to Saturn and back”?

Since we are going for hyperbole of the highest order here, the furthest known visible distant “object” from earth is a galaxy, MACS0647-JD, that is 13.3 billion light years away. If you are curious how many miles that is it is 13.3 billion multiplied by 5.87 trillion or 7.81 e+22 miles.

“I love you to MACS0647-JD and back” just doesn’t have the same appeal as the Moon or Saturn; nor does it lend itself easily to wall art you can find at Hobby Lobby.  Truth be told 7.81 e+22 miles only makes sense to like 2% of the population.

Thus far in Mark’s gospel, Jesus has been healing folks, casting out demons, preaching and sharing the truth about the arrival of the hour of the Kingdom of God.  Demons have recognized him.  People have begun following him.  The powers that be in Jerusalem have taken notice and especially since he has healed people on the Sabbath.  Now, in these verses, we learn the smear campaign that has begun.

Jesus is possessed of some sort of unholy spirit or is using the power of Beelzebub to perform magic and seduce the people.  In fact, the presence of the Scribes may very well be a sign that the Sanhedrin are conducting an official investigation into whether or not Capernaum has been seduced by evil.  This was a very real thing in first century Palestine.  We also know from documents in the second century that the idea of Jesus as sorcerer and seducer of minds was still a charge leveled against him by Jewish authorities and pagans in their arguments with Christians.

Jesus answers the charge here with a simple parable: a house divided against itself can not stand.  If I am empowered by Satan then how can Satan succeed if the things you see me do are actively working against the demonic powers in the world? This is the question that Jesus asks.  It is sound logic.  After all, an army never turns its guns on itself and shoots half the troops before engaging in battle.  There are lots of places we can look for examples of this wisdom.  If a husband and wife are struggling we sometimes see the symptoms in the children. If the offense unit and defense unit of a football team do not respect each other or the coaching staff the team is seldom successful.  Abraham Lincoln famously applied this saying to the competing sides of the War Between the States. Even today, we see it in the struggles of the Democratic and Republican parties not to mention the Congress as a whole. Indeed, when a house struggles against itself it cannot stand. Thus, it was ridiculous to consider that Jesus might be invoking the power of Satan to attack the demonic forces in the world.

Jesus goes on to talk about the inability to plunder the strong man’s house without first binding the strong man. For years I could not follow this notion because I did not know who the strong man was.  I always supposed that the strong man was God and that no one would be able to enter into his kingdom and bind him up and pillage.  Sometimes I even wondered how to apply it to the life of a believer.  How can we be the strong man and avoid the binding and the robbing?  Now I am older and hopefully a little wiser and I have come to realize that the strong man is Satan.  Jesus is not describing what Satan is trying to do to God or us, as I always thought; rather, Jesus is describing what he is doing while on Earth.  He is the one who is entering into the realm of the strong man where he will bind him up and loot the house.

Recall way back in chapter 1, specifically verses 7 and 8 where John the Baptizer says that one is coming who is greater than he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit. Jesus is this greater than.  Not only is the bringer of the Holy Spirit greater than John the Baptizer, he is greater than  the strong man, Beelzebub.  The mission of Jesus includes His entering into the house of the devil, binding him up, and spoiling his house.

What are the spoils of Jesus work of binding Satan?   Read his next statement, the beautiful sublime truth about what Christ does in his spoiling of the Devil’s domain.

“Truly,  ALL sins shall be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter…”  I realize that this is half the verse but it is so crucial that we linger here for bit.  Three little letters (only 5 in Greek) but so complete and full.  ALL.  Think of the ways that word is used in our own language:  All expenses paid.  All-inclusive. Open all the windows. Deal all the cards.  The team won all of their games.   It means every.  It means completely.  It means in-totality. ALL means ALL and it never means less than every last thing that it references.

ALL SINS shall be forgiven (sons of men is a colloquialism for people) and whatever blasphemies they utter.  What does Jesus plunder from the strong man’s house?  Our guiltiness.  Satan is the accuser.  He is the district attorney who brings the charges against people before God. Jesus enters into the house and takes from him the power of sin over us by providing for the forgiveness of ALL our sins.  As the great hymn puts it “my sin not in part but in whole.” ALL.

Whatever you are doing right now, stop.  Stop and let that truth sink in and devastate your heart.  Give the Holy Spirit the silence to work and reveal and wash.

 

 

Every single sin you can think of from your past or present is forgiven.  

The sins you are yet to commit, for the believer they too are forgiven. 

ALL

This is what Christ has done.  Here in this moment he is foreshadowing, but when he utters “it is finished” on the cross, the work is done. His death the atoning sacrifice for your sins. The only sacrifice that you will ever need.  The only work that will ever suffice for your sin.  Done!

Praise God for his love for you.  Confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord and believe in your heart that He has completed this mighty work for you and for all who put their faith and trust in Him. This is the gospel.  This and nothing else.

but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin!”

This is why I asked you to stop and ponder the beauty of all your sins being forgiven, because if you read too quickly you will become afraid of this half of the verse.  There is but one unpardonable sin and that is blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Unpardonable means that it cannot be forgiven.  The inability to forgive it is what makes it an eternal sin.

The gospel of John tells us that the work of the Holy Spirit is straightforward.  The Holy Spirit is tasked with convicting the hearts of people about sin and with the truth about who Christ is.  To make it simpler, it is to reveal your guilt before a just and Almighty God and then reveal the pardon that is available to ALL who believe that Christ has died and risen to secure that pardon.

This is why blaspheming the Holy Spirit is unpardonable because it literally means denying the truth of who Christ is and what he has done.  When a person rejects this truth, that person has placed themselves at complete antagonism to God’s will.  So, if you are a believer in Christ, be encouraged for you have already avoided the one eternal sin.

The scribes with their claims that Jesus was an operative of Satan were treading very dangerous ground.  They were at risk of the ultimate blasphemy.  For rejecting Jesus is to reject God himself.

If you are reading this then you are most likely a believer in Jesus Christ; therefore, fear not blasphemy of the Holy Spirit.  Embrace the profound love of Christ that would forgive you ALL of your sins.

  • What are you holding onto that is sinful?
  • What guilt from past action or inaction do you still feel?
  • What sins of other believers are you still holding against them?
  • If God has forgive you much shouldn’t you forgive others?

ALL

The universe is suspected to be 46 billion light years across or around 2.6 sextillion miles, with the visible expanse of space a mere 13.3 billion light years.  I sometimes like to ponder the expansion of the universe from the Big Bang as the creation of the universe rocketing way from its source, God.  My head cannot completely picture that and I have absolutely no reference for the exceptional distance the universe is from one side to the other.  What I know (and I use know in the sense of deepest truth not just in my mind) is that the Divine Author of all that is exists outside of the limitations of time and space.  What I know is that before all was created Jesus was meant to happen.  I mean, Jesus knew when the creation began that there would be a cross and a death. God chose to create all that is from love.  Jesus chose to love by agreeing to create and therefore to die. The Holy Spirit chose to love by binding the hearts of people and the glories of creation to the Creator.  So, Jesus traveled those sextillion miles that all of your sins might be forgiven.

Or in other words, “God loves you to MACS0647-JD and back!”

And then some.

 

 

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

AI, Eden, and Noah: a Post Easter Reflection

Note: This post is not a part of the ongoing Bible Study in the Gospel of Mark so there is not a recommended scripture reading.

Last week I read a short but interesting essay about the upcoming challenges associated with the current development of AI (artificial intelligence) published by MIT.  A.I. is undergoing a massive change that will no doubt continue through the next century and will truly transform the world with which we interact.  Not just driver-less cars and really fast, smart computers, but a world that looks a whole lot more like the worlds of science fiction as we have computers that are capable of truly independent thought. This is pretty exciting stuff because those computers, assuming that they are either altruistic or ambitious, will be able to tirelessly work on problems like cancer, climate change, and black holes.  Hopefully they will do so without determining that the extinction of homo sapiens is the best answer for the problems that ail us.

In all seriousness, as a Christian I do not believe in a future where machines eliminate people, but the advances in AI does make HAL and Skynet seem more plausible.  For those of you who miss the references recall 2001 and Terminator respectively.

The article suggest that the “dark secret” at the heart of cutting edge AI work is that programmers and researchers are starting to develop algorithms that teach themselves.  This means that they are achieving a true form of intelligence that mirrors human thinking.  After all, our own brains are effectively low-energy, self-programming machines. What Will Knight points out is that these machines are increasingly capable of making decisions that their creators are unable to explain the process by which the decision was made.

Now let be clear if you read the article linked above you will know as much about AI and deep learning algorithms as I do.  But as I read this article I was struck by the notion that engineers and scientists are now developing processes and apps that function independently and they cannot always explain the outcomes.  As a theologian, I am struck by the parallel with a Creator God who sets loose a self-programming machine that ultimately makes decisions that the Creator doesn’t understand.

In the third chapter of Genesis we are told in the aftermath of the decision to eat the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve hid themselves from YHWH.

“Adam where are you?”

“Who told you that you were naked?”

These are the questions YHWH asks as he tried to unravel what has happened with his thinking creatures.  Later YHWH will ask Cain where Abel is and what he has done that the spilled blood of Abel cries out from the ground.  The efforts of the engineers at Babel will astound YHWH yet again.

A creation that thinks for itself and makes decisions that puzzle the creator.

YHWH settles on an explanation that will in truth become a theme throughout the entirety of the Bible.  YHWH decides that the machinations of the human heart are evil (Genesis 6:5) and he regrets having created these self-willed creatures.  A lot of ink has been spilled over the millennia to explain the presence of evil. Genesis 6:5-6 is the Ockham’s Razor approach: we make self-centered decisions and cause the evil that we experience.

But I digress.

You are likely familiar with the next step in the story.  YHWH choose to start over with one family Noah and a bunch of animals destroying all the rest of life in a tremendous flood.  This is where many readers of the Bible get bogged down worrying about details of which animals were in the Ark, how big was the Ark, where is the Ark, and could you really flood everything, everywhere?  Do not fall for the trap.  The key idea of the story is the evil of people and the choice by YHWH to act in a violent, retributive manner against that evil.  You could call it in modern terms the nuclear response by YHWH.

If you stop there you also make mistakes.  Instead of getting caught up in minutiae about the Ark and the Flood, here the reader who stops with the action of YHWH to correct the problem will only know an angry, vindictive God.  For this reader, YHWH is not to be trusted but only to be feared because the YHWH who floods the earth destroying all life could turn on any of us because of our own selfish actions.

The story does not end with the flood.  The story ends with a rainbow as a sign of promise by YHWH to never again try to use such destructive force to correct the problems of humanity.  This has always seemed really important to me.  Supremely important in the Old Testament as a matter of fact.  YHWH does not do humanity 2.0 or even humanity 1.1 but simply makes a pledge to work within the bounds of this self-programming often self destructive machine we call homo sapiens. YWHW promises that from here on out he will fix what has gone wrong without a complete reboot of the system.

Yesterday was Easter.   Around the world, millions of Christians gathered to worship the unbelievable, inexplicable truth that Jesus of Nazareth, rose from the dead and that people found his tomb empty.  “He is not here” the Angels told the women, “he is risen.”

This came on the third day after Jesus hung on a cross and died.

See the connection?

YHWH will never again use mass destruction to fix what’s wrong with humanity and the creation.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually”

“Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do” Jesus says from the cross.

And so it is a promise fulfilled as the God-man makes the inexplicable decision to die. His one death over against the deaths of everyone ever guilty of self-centeredness (sin).  YHWH will die and be judged rather asking for the death of anyone else, ever.  Resurrection will demonstrate the power of YHWH over death and a second life can belong to any and all.  Sometimes the created cannot explain the action of the Creator.  The mystery doesn’t change the outcome which is simple and beautiful. Love poured out into the world and into human hearts is the forever response of YHWH perfected in Christ and his resurrection.  Love will be the answer for all that ails us.

Love and second life can be yours if you will simply trust that the tomb was empty.

Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.

As you live out the months ahead from yet another Easter Sunday remember that that empty tomb is the greatest example of YHWH keeping a promise to never destroy again.  As you live out the months ahead remember to not live in fear of the future for it is filled to the brim with love.  It is not perfected yet, but perfect it will be.

 

Dig Deeper

Read Mark 3:1-6

a_boulder

I don’t know if this is true of all kids but it certainly was true of me.  Some times I dug up rocks in the ground.  Whether I was looking for “skipping stones” or just goofing around I sometimes went looking for rocks. More than once, I started digging out a rock and soon realized that the rock was actually much bigger than the part that I had seen at ground level.  Now I live in the Texas Hill Country and if you dig at all in this area you soon learn there can be all sorts of rocks beneath the surface and even the seemingly smallest rock can suddenly be huge!

If you never start digging though the rock always just seems small and small rocks are manageable. Scripture can be the same way. You read a passage from the Bible and it seems simple and straightforward and small.  After doing a little more digging you figure out there is a lot more to it and it is heavy!

In the first three verses of Mark 3, we read a straightforward story. Jesus goes into a synagogue on the Sabbath and ‘yawn’ he is going to heal someone.  Simple, straightforward, nothing complicated: a man needs healing, it is the Sabbath, Jesus is going to do it, and its going to upset those pesky Pharisees all over again.  Really, Mark? we think, can’t you move on we have seen all this before already.  Blah, blah, blah Jesus heals on the Sabbath.  Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath.  We get it.  This story is a pebble.

That impulse isn’t limited to everyday readers of the gospel.  It happens to well-educated trained readers of scripture too.  In fact, you can probably already hear the sermons written from this passage in your head:

“Jesus was a radical who upset the political and religious authorities of his day by disregarding the rules in favor of caring for people in their time of need.  What rules do we need to flaunt today to continue the good work of our political revolutionary Jesus?”

“How are we like the Pharisees allowing our traditions to keep us from doing good or making worship a more inviting place for the weak, the weary, and the downtrodden.  Is not our emphases on music and liturgy a modern expression of the legalism of Pharisees?  How must we change to ensure that the grace of Christ is first and foremost?”  

“The Pharisees felt there power slipping away at the hands of this Jesus who did what was right in a moment when everyone else would not.  This is why they sought to kill him.  Fortunately, we would never make that mistake today as we would welcome Jesus and his miracles into our midst.”

O.K.  That last one is less likely to be preached, but you know you have heard the others.  And they come from a superficial reading of this passage.  Some Christians, mostly progressive, never get farther than considering Jesus to be a better Caesar Chavez.  Other Christians, mostly conservative, never get any deeper in these scriptures than judging the Pharisees for there legalism and failure to recognize the Messiah when he showed up.

Dig a little deeper, sweep away some dirt, find the bigger rock buried in the ground.

Jesus follows his habits, he is in worship on the Sabbath. (For modern Christians there is a whole sermon in the first sentence!) Mark tells us that there was a man with a withered hand present and that “they” were watching Jesus to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus asks the man to come forward to the middle of the synagogue, the center of attention.  Here is where we get confused, because the man has been brought front and center we assume that the healing is the big deal.  But this man will remain anonymous throughout and Jesus is never going to comment on his faith.  This latter point is how we know Mark is telling us something different from the previous arguments about the Sabbath or healing events.  So much for the meaning of the text to be about the poor and needy.

Similarly Jesus begins addressing his detractors and he does so using the common parlance of the rabbis of his day: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save a life or to kill?”  The first clause was a common interpretive argument of Rabbis predating Jesus and after.  It is a rhetorical question the answer to which must be: “Of course it is lawful to do good the Sabbath.”  Many rabbis had debated these things and it was determined that saving a life must take precedence over inaction in the law of God.  If we are to love our neighbors first and foremost then doing good is part and parcel of the Sabbath.  To put a modern spin on it, you naturally would have surgeons and EMTs work on the Sabbath.  It couldn’t be unlawful to aid an accident victim.  It would be appropriate to defend a lamb from a wolf on the Sabbath.

Christ-heals-the-man-with-a-paralyzed-hand-610x353

Back to the text: the Pharisees do not say anything.  Their silence upsets Jesus greatly.  Of course they don’t argue with Jesus because the question is rhetorical.  Naturally the Sabbath allows for life saving and other acts of good.  Of course, Jesus doesn’t stop with the basic question.  He has brought the man forward.  Between his question and the presence of the man he is implying that healing the withered hand is the equivalent of “saving a life” and failure to heal the withered hand is the equivalent of killing.  What?

Let’s be clear, Jesus is nobody’s fool.  He knows as well as anyone that the withered hand could wait a day or even 12 hours.  This is the key to understanding that the story is not simply about the perils of legalism or about the way that people become so rigid interpreting right from wrong that they fail to see the effect of such legalism on others.

Here is where the buried rock is revealed.

If you have been following this blog you know that I feel that scriptures are best understood in the broader context of the chapter / book that they are found in.  The Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc) promoted the notion that scripture should be used to interpret scripture.  That is a great principle and scripture should be used to interpret other scriptures.  That said, it is also important that a reader of scripture first looks to the rest of the current book before jumping to other books in the Bible.  If you have been reading Mark (or this blog) then you know that Jesus is making a claim about the arrival of the Kingdom of God.  According to Jesus, the hour is now that God is acting.  In the healing of the paralytic there was the tacit claim that Jesus (as the Son of Man) has the authority to forgive sins (something that is YHWH’s purview) and in the conversations about Sabbath-keeping the implication is that Jesus is the Lord of the Sabbath (also the purview of YHWH). Throughout Mark, Jesus is saying look at this; see by what I do that what I say is true.

So many people describe the Gospel of John as Christocentric, but how can you miss the fact that in Mark the center of every story thus far and the focus of every point has been Jesus and who he is.  This gospel is extremely Christocentric.

Back to the paradox that healing the withered hand is not a matter of life and death. Robert Guelich, NT scholar, writes, “‘To do good’ and ‘to save a life’ takes on an eschatological ring of the coming of the day of salvation, the fulfillment of God’s promised activity in history.” God is acting, breaking into the world with the arrival of the Kingdom.  The kingdom is present wherever Jesus is present. I think that Jesus before the man in the synagogue is a moment where Mark wants us to recognize ourselves present in the presence of God. For Jesus to do good  / heal meant to give life and to refrain from good / not heal was to kill, meaning depriving another of the benefits of the redemptive / restorative power of God.  Failing to act would be cheating the man and all the gathered community of the right now benefits of the Kingdom of God even as they would have to wait for the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom. But the key is that the presence of Jesus brings life and changes things.

This is what we have seen throughout the Gospel of Mark.  A demon possessed man comes before Jesus and is made whole–saved–and Jesus demonstrates power over the forces of evil.  A paralyzed man is brought before him and made whole and Jesus demonstrates the power to forgive sin. A tax-collector is called into his retinue and redeemed from a sinful life and Jesus demonstrates the need for God’s Anointed to be amidst the sinners. Hyper-religious folk judge the followers of Jesus for not following the law more closely and Jesus proclaims an authority over the law itself.  Every aspect of Mark so far has been an effort to nudge the reader to make a decision about the true nature of Jesus. Is he the embodiment of the rule of God among us or not?

Every encounter from the demon possessed to the disciple; from the physically deformed to the self-righteous has been at its core a question of life and death because this is the moment that they have encountered Jesus. How each responded to that encounter is what has mattered most.

So how have you responded?  Have you acknowledged the truth of who Christ is?

How has your limited idea of Jesus prevented another from encountering Christ? If Jesus is just a great teacher why should anyone care? If he is a social radical then why should anyone make a decision for him rather than just see him as another Ghandi or Malcolm X?

Maybe you have chosen for Jesus and welcomed the encounter for yourself and your salvation.  Have your actions and your efforts encouraged others to know who He is?  Have you expressed forgiveness and grace to those whom you see as sinners? Or are you silent in the face of this life and death moment for others?

Maybe you have called out to God in your hours of need, a cancer diagnosis, a child who is sick, or a loss of  job. Upon restoration have you turned your heart over to the Lord or just thanked God glibly for granting your wishes?

Let’s be clear, Jesus is not just healing a man with a withered hand, rather, he is restoring a life.  Just as Jesus does when he brings the alcoholic to sobriety, the addict to wholeness, or reunites estranged family. Jesus acts and the proper response is deeper faith, deeper trust, and deeper praise of who God is for each of us.

Jesus never touches the man.  He tells him to reach out his hand and the as the man does so his hand is restored.  We are not told how the man responded to this act.  We are told that the Pharisees in seeing this incredible moment of life-giving miracle went from that place conspiring to end a life.

A final thought: if Mark wants us to see ourselves as the man with the withered hand, in the presence of God with nothing to account for but our limitations then Mark also wants us to ask ourselves how often are we like the Pharisees.  How often do we see the restorative work of God (an addict finding sobriety, a tax cheat attending worship, a murderer released from a prison sentence, the list is exhaustive) and question the wisdom and grace of God perhaps even to the point of considering the need to stop this radical love rather than celebrating that someone has experienced the overwhelming healing power of Christ?  There are really only two places to be in those moments.  One of them deepens our own salvation and the other leads to rejection of Jesus.

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

 

Ahem, Please Direct Your Attention…

Read Mark 2:18-28

Note: Did you know that you can follow the Hypocritical Christian blog?  At the bottom of the page simply click follow and you can even have the latest blog post delivered to you via email. 

the word jesus

It was a slow day today at the dealership. Eh, it happens.  When it happens there are opportunities to talk with fellow suffering sales colleagues or strike up an argument on Facebook.  Today, I did both.

A colleague of mine came out complaining of the proposal of New York City’s mayor to allocate $10 million in taxpayer’s money for aiding those newly released from New York City prisons in finding employment.  “How Stupid is that?” we were asked.  Being sometimes inclined to cause problems I responded with “why do you let them do that to you?”

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Well, I mean, you let the people on the news get you all ginned up over things that do not make any difference to you whatsoever.  If NYC decides to spend their tax revenues in that manner it has absolutely no impact on you in Boerne, Texas in any way, shape or form.”

“Well I just think it is stupid.”

“Sure.  It may be but it doesn’t make any difference for you. It is not your money.  It isn’t your time.  I mean if it were the Governor of Texas or the Mayor of Boerne, sure, but this will not impact you at all.”

We sometimes get upset over stuff because we think we should or because it doesn’t follow how we understand things to be best done.  The Pharisees were apparently good at getting upset at how other people were choosing to conduct themselves or live out their faith.  In this they are not alone.  The above is a story from contemporary politics but I could have just as easily referenced the recent kerfuffle at Princeton Seminary over their decision to first award the Kuyper Prize to Tim Keller and then to rescind the same award under complaints from some of their current students, professors, and alumni.

The Facebook argument I got involved in was one about interpretation of the U.S. Constitution of all things.  Like I said it was slow today.  That all started from a reaction to a tweet that Trump made about the Freedom Caucus and the relative constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act and the right of the Federal Government to be involved in health care at all. Seems each of us can get bent out of shape over things that have little direct impact on us.  In the midst of that argument the person I was debating with and I got so caught up in minutiae that I think we both lost the point of the original argument.  We lost the forest for the trees as the saying goes.

I mention these two events as a strange segue to the last 10 verses of Mark.  Pharisees indeed seem throughout the gospels to be really concerned about “the how” of others’ living and in the process lose sight of the forest for the trees.  New Testament scholars sometimes get so caught up in details that they lose sight of the broader point that either a Biblical writer or Jesus is trying to make.

Case in point.  Mark gets a detail completely wrong.  The event of David and his colleagues feasting on the temple showbread did not happen during the tenure of Abiathar as the High Priest but rather occurred when Abiathar’s father was the High Priest.  Liberal Critical scholars and folks who like to undercut Biblical authority (not always the same people) will use this sort of “mistake” to suggest that the Bible is in error.  I think this is being picky. Mark may have gotten this wrong. A copyist may have messed this up (the High Priest at the time was Ahimelech). I think that the “mistake” is original to Mark because both Matthew and Luke rework the episode in their gospels to not include the name of the High Priest at all.  This implies they were cleaning it up if you hold to the theory that they had Mark’s gospel as a source document for their own work.  If you are interested in a reasonable explanation for this “mistake” by Mark, theologian Wiliam Placher provides one.  He suggests that it isn’t an error by the normally very careful Mark but an actual rendering of the words of Jesus. What? Blasphemy you say?  How could Jesus have made the error? Well, Placher suggests that Jesus is intentional in his saying the wrong name to highlight the poor scriptural knowledge of his critics.  Before you roll your eyes, think about the number of people who tell you something that the Bible says that the Bible doesn’t say.  To this day there are a lot of people who believe that “cleanliness is next to godliness” and “God helps those who help themselves” are found in the pages of scripture.  Memory tells me that they are both from Ben Franklin although the latter may very well only be the work of erstwhile nuns. I like Placher’s clever Jesus answer.  I enjoy picturing Jesus appreciating the irony of his critics nodding in agreement as he mistells the story.

No matter, none of this is the point of these 10 verses!

Notice what Jesus does in response to the question about fasting and Sabbath.  He directs the attention to himself.

In the response to fasting it is apparent that Jesus intends for us to realize that he is the bridegroom.  John the Baptist and his disciples fasted in preparation for the arrival of the messiah, but in Jesus, the Messiah is arrived.  The pharisees were fasting to perpetuate an interpretation of the law that did not include the purpose of the law but rather was following the law solely for the sake of the law.  Example: why is there a set belt law or a helmet law?  To encourage safety of motorists and motorcyclists in the event of an accident. The law exists to develop and encourage a habit that is good for the individual and the community.  The Mosaic Law serves a similar purpose, it promotes practices and ways of interaction that are healthier for the spirit of the individual and the community.  Together the practice of the Mosaic law instructs the individual in the manner of Godly living and empowers the community to be a witness to God in the world.  This is precisely what Jesus means when he says that the Sabbath was created for people rather than people being created for the Sabbath.

Fasting in the manner of the Baptizer’s disciples made no sense now that the Kingdom had arrived, but fasting in the manner of the Pharisees was senseless as well since it was not for the purpose of deeper spiritual commitment to God but following the law only to follow the law.  The former is fasting to make ready a way for the Lord (literally building a road) even after the Lord has already arrived on the way created.  The latter is forgetting why the way (road) was being built in the first place!

Jesus focuses the attention on himself and if you think back he did that throughout this whole chapter.  When it came time to heal the paralytic he called attention to his authority to forgive sins. When asked why he was in fellowship with sinners he called attention to his purpose to bring healing to the sinner.  When asked about fasting he asks why fast when he is present and when asked about the Sabbath he claims authority over the strict interpretation of the Mosaic law by saying the Son of Man, he himself, is Lord of the Sabbath.  With this Son of Man comment the chapter comes full circle with Jesus claiming the authority understood to belong only to YHWH.

Do you see what Mark has done?  He is building the case that this Jesus is the one whom the Baptist foretold.  He is establishing step by step that Jesus is whom the demon in the first chapter said he was: “The Holy One of YHWH”!

  • Do you know Jesus to be these things, to be more than a great teacher?
  • Do you ever find yourself following the rules of church all the while losing sight of the why of the rules?
  • How often do you in the midst of controversies take your eyes off of Jesus?
  • Have you ever found yourself, like the pharisees, judging the piety of your neighbor because they aren’t following the law correctly?
  • Do you forget to keep Jesus in the center and in focus?

I suspect that for most of us an honest answer to these questions will give us pause.  Take heart fellow hypocrites, the only answer that matters at the end of the day is how you answer the first question.  And if the answer to that first question is negative then I encourage you to keep reading the gospel of Mark and to pray specifically that the Holy Spirit will convict you of the truth of whom Christ is for you and indeed for all.

And if you answered yes to the first question but struggled with the subsequent questions then I commend to you the words of a well known hymn:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus

Look full in his wonderful face

and the things of earth will grow strangely dim

in the light of His glory and grace.

Feel free to use this Bible study for your own groups or discussion.  It is freely given. If you do I merely ask that you acknowledge where you got it and if you find it useful that you encourage others to seek it out. It is freely given and written with fear, foreboding, and prayer by a fellow hypocrite who is simply trying to figure out the road ahead.

 

 

What the Church /Christians Get Wrong

Read Mark 2:15-22

There are a couple of ambiguities in these few verses in Mark.  One, is whose house is this meal taking place in? Two, when Mark writes “there were many of them, and they were following him” who is Mark referring to?  The house in question might be the house of Levi whom Jesus has just called to follow Him.  The house could also be the same house that “the four” tore the roof off of to lower down the paralytic; in other words, we could be at Jesus’ house again.  The many either refers to the number of tax collectors and sinner present or it refers to the number of disciples that were following Jesus.  Neither of these ambiguities has any significant bearing on the story but I think that it is appropriate to point out these things because the decision is often made for you in the Bible translation that you read. For myself, I like to think of it as Jesus’ house and I like to think that Mark is saying that there were a lot of tax collectors and sinners following Jesus. The latter is particularly important to me because I am a SINNER and I am trying to follow Jesus.

Of course all Christians are sinners; trouble is too many Christians forget that they are sinners.

Let’s be clear that in the New Testament when you see that word “sinners” scholars agree that it means people with a bad reputation in the community.  In a lot of church settings people will say ooh I am a sinner, but often times they mean things like:

  • “I’m so bad, I had chocolate cake for breakfast.”
  • “Oh no, I cut some one off in traffic today and I broke the speed limit.”
  • “Woe is me I said a naughty word today when my boss gave me extra work.”

But New Testament scholars are pretty convinced that the sinners Jesus was eating with were people who had jobs that folks didn’t agree with (like the tax collector) and people who were known to have done horrible things (like assault, theft, adultery, or murder)! You know the people that other people judge.

Let that sink in for a minute.

Jesus is eating with bad people.

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Now, let me be clear, I am a card carrying SINNER. I’m not talking about the things that we consider to be little sins.  I have done the stuff on the big-boy list, you know the stuff on THE LIST: the ten commandments.  In fact, I have blown through way more of the list than I care to remember.

Funny thing is that most everyone I know has too. Go ahead, refresh your memory here.

Jesus is eating with bad people.

People like you and me.

The ambiguities end when we look at the next portion of the text. Mark is very clear about who is also present at this meal and how those people feel about the company that Jesus keeps. “When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”

Sitting down to eat with someone is a big deal.  Most of us do not eat with just anyone.  We eat with the people we like.  We break bread with the people we want to be around.  When was the last time you hosted a dinner party and just invited the entire town? Do you ask everyone at work to join you for drinks after work? Do you have people in your home that you really don’t like?  For most people the answer will be at best not very often.  This is another reason I like to think of this as being at Jesus house because it prevents our easy escape from the implication of Jesus having those sorts of people over.  You see if it is Levi’s house well then Jesus can’t help it that Levi’s friends are a group of ne’er-do-wells. What would you expect he is a tax collector after all? But, if it is Jesus house and Jesus is the host than these “undesireables” are his guests!

This is the first mention of Pharisees in the gospel of Mark.  Pharisees were a popular religious group in first century Judea and Galilee. They believed that the common folk could experience the joy of living the disciplined life of faith.  They expected themselves and others to follow the teachings of God, to keep the Law of Moses, and be blessed and righteous.  Because of their understanding of the faith they find Jesus’ dinner habits distressing.  Eating with these people who are in clear disregard of God’s righteousness because of their jobs and lifestyles puts Jesus at risk spiritually because he is in fellowship with them.  God apparently judges folks guilty by association.

Christians like to think of the Pharisees as a group of hypocrites.  Trouble is that they are not being hypocrites.  The Pharisee reaction is totally in keeping with their understanding of how to please God.  The Pharisees are not being hypocrites; they are being totally consistent!

When Christians and the Church act like the Pharisees we are the ones being hypocrites.

Here are just a few examples that spring to mind:

  • most of the people who get invited to worship are folks who look like the people already there
  • Youth who have hard time staying still, use vulgarities, or wear inappropriate clothes don’t stick around long because of the subtle ways that they are made to feel judged
  • Families with ill-behaved children are made to feel unwelcome
  • Little children are welcome at Vacation Bible School but their working-class parents are judged for not making it to worship on their one day off a week
  • People are judged for only coming to worship at Christmas and Easter

Oh but you know what that’s the collective equivalent of the list of sins from above.  How about this list:

  • A woman at a small group admits that she is Christian and gay and someone else at the table gets up and walks out
  • The church learns that a woman has committed adultery and a Church Elder sends a letter to her saying the elder hopes that she and her children will not be coming back to church
  • A group of men at a Bible Study discuss the lifestyle of one of the Bible Study members when he is not present and all agree that he isn’t really a very good Christian man
  • A family decides to leave a congregation and its members stop talking to them at the grocery store
  • A church member is judged because their teen is in trouble with the law or struggling at school

And neither of these lists speak to how we Christians handle the persons in our midst that we know are sober alcoholics, struggling with addiction, sexual sins, xenophobes, gossipers, tax-cheats, following political idols, or unbelievers.

 

It is Christians and the Church,  not the Pharisees, who are the hypocrites when it comes to how we treat tax collectors and sinners.

We are good at making excuses: We do not want to be seen as condoning the sin.  We do not want our children and teenagers to have bad influences around. We worry about what people will say if they knew _______?

What we are not good at is hanging around sinners

At the end of the day we are all too likely to be guilty of judging our neighbor or fearing the judgment of our neighbors more than the judgment of God.

sinners judge sinners

Jesus responds to the question that was asked of his followers: “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

This is a pretty famous Jesus quote and it would be a good idea for us to unpack it a little since this is his answer to the charge of being a friend of sinners.  Grammar time: note that the English translation links the two sayings with a semi-colon.  This is not two separate thoughts but two sentences that will function as clauses that will interpret the other.  This is crucial because people like to separate them a little more than that and that leads to a misunderstanding.  The correct reading would render the following logical conclusion:  healthy= righteous; sick = sinners.

When you separate them out and make each sentence stand alone you get the following conclusion.  Sick people are the ones that need a doctor; so, if you are well you have no need of a doctor.  Read this way there are people who do not need Jesus just as there are those who do not need a doctor.  If you think that that is true, go back up and click on the link to the Ten Commandments and read it for real this time!  People like to read this saying in this manner because it allows them to dodge Jesus the same way the person with 101 degree fever blowing snot on everything that moves can deny that they need to make a doctor’s appointment and get drugs.  Even better, they can make the entire comment from Jesus a statement against the self-righteous pharisees and by extension about how Jesus doesn’t like self-righteousness.  Naturally, when read this way the self-righteousness can be whatever you want that makes you feel righteous for not being like those sorts of people.

But when you read the two statements together, there is no escaping the meaning of Jesus. Recall that part of what Mark is trying to teach us about Jesus is that he has come to deal with the sin problem.  Sick people need a doctor and Jesus came to call the sinner.  If we are all sinners then Jesus has come for us all.  This is what makes Jesus inclusive.  It is not that Jesus welcomes those on the outskirts and the margins of society, although this is true; Jesus is inclusive because he welcomes ALL.  When we only emphasize Jesus reaching out to those the society cast off in our own sense of justice what we do is minimize the impact of the sin problem, minimize the scope of Jesus work, and we set ourselves up to be on a different insider vs outsider dichotomy that coincidentally allows us to judge those who are not as “Jesus-y”as we are.  Jesus is inclusive because he is come to call the sinner. Jesus wants the tax-collector to know him.  Jesus wants the sinner to know him.  Yet, the beauty of Jesus is that he wants the pharisee to know him, too.

This is what the Church /Christians gets wrong time and time again.  Jesus welcomes everyone.  Jesus eats with everyone.  Not so the Church.  No so the Christian. Every generation of Christian in every context has sins that are beyond the pale, and people that are not welcome. Denominations split and form out of these outsiders vs insiders distinctions. The Church globally and the church locally fails to be a welcoming place for everyone.  Individual Christians gossip and judge their neighbors, believers and unbelievers, but seldom seem consistent in judging themselves. Christians individually and collectively confuse loving someone through their sin struggle with condoning sinful behaviors. Grace, true grace, as exhibited by a God that will sit down and eat and drink with those who disappoint is in short supply. Grace, true grace, that is exhibited by a God that will enter fully into humanity in order to redeem all of humanity and is experienced in the forgiveness of sin is forgotten rather than shared.

In the movie Excalibur, which has nothing to do with Jesus or the Church, there is a moment when Arthur has united all the various clans and become the true and rightful King of England. Everyone is celebrating and Merlin, the magician, is asked to say something on this great occasion.  In a deep, mellifluous voice, Merlin enjoins those present to remember well the feelings they have, their camaraderie, their shared sense of purpose, the things that bind them altogether because he adds menacingly “it is the doom of man that he forgets.” And so it is.

Jesus eats with bad people.

People like you and me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark 2:15-22 (NASB)

15 And it *[a]happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and [b]sinners [c]were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him.16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and [d]sinners?” 17 And hearing this, Jesus *said to them, It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

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