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A Healing, Demons, and Fear Abound

Read Mark 5: 1-20

 

22.4.2010: Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

Way back in my very first post about Mark, themes were laid out and one of those themes was “Jesus has authority.”

The end of Mark Chapter 4 and the beginning of Mark Chapter 5 is about demonstrating the breadth and power of that authority.  If you have read the Gospel of Mark before or even just the first few posts on Mark in this blog then you are aware that Jesus has the authority to cast out demons.   We have seen this already.

A quick word about demons.  Some times modern readers of the Bible are put off by the appearance of the supernatural.  Being scientifically minded they cannot find the wisdom in the account because they are too busy worrying about the validity of the concept of demons. I personally do not know if demons exist.  I do know that the world is full of many strange and wondrous things and I am not willing to say that the supernatural doesn’t exist.  If you want to chalk demons in the Bible up to primitive understandings of mental illness and the like that is your choice.  It is one of those things that cannot be proven beyond all doubt.  The choice you make will change the story some and will limit the range and power of God but it is at the end of the day your choice to make.

Jesus and the disciples arrive in the land of the Gentiles on the other side of the Sea of Galilee some time in the morning.  We are told that they encounter a man who lives in the caves that serve as tombs; a man who is crazed and who cannot be bound or controlled by anyone or even held by chains.  Wow!  We are told that he spends his days and his nights crying out and cutting himself with stones.

I do think it is useful to spend a moment empathizing with the man.  Have you ever felt outcast from the group?  Have you ever seen fear in the eyes of other people when they encounter you? I do not suspect that he chose to live in the tombs but rather had to because that is where the people allowed him to be.  Children were probably warned to stay away from him.  Older brothers probably threatened to turn their younger siblings over to him.  He probably had a host of unflattering nicknames.  Clearly, he has no community.  He has no positive interaction with others.  They fear him and shun him.  He lives in the ancient equivalent of the cemetery.  The community has left him for dead.

We soon learn the reason for this man’s isolation.  He is tormented by something greater than himself that seeks to destroy him completely.  When he sees Jesus in the distance he immediately closes the gap and falls at his feet.  Some translations say worshiped but the context means that he likely just went prostrate before Jesus; it is the same word in Greek for both.  The man speaks “What is it that you want from me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you by God leave me alone.”

Again we learn from context that this wasn’t the man speaking but rather the demonic entity that has possessed him.  In the beginning of Mark the only ones who know who Jesus is are the demons, they address him by the title Son of God.  They also seem to know that the purpose of Jesus is counter to their own purposes because their response is always one of fear.  As the letter of James says, the demons believe and they tremble.

There is an irony here that the demon seems to pray to God that Jesus would be gracious unto them.  Jesus will not answer that prayer because they are at cross purposes.  The demonic, in so far as it is real (remember, you get to choose), has a singular purpose to destroy that which God has created.  More specifically to destroy the image of God present in this human being.  This is the purpose of the torment and the cutting and the driving the man out of the community.  God is love.  As such, God is relational.  In effecting the isolation of the host the demon has been working on destroying him physically as well as mentally through self-inflicted wounds.  The presence of Jesus introduces the purpose of the Holy One to effect salvation and redemption, not just for individuals but for all of creation.

And so the battle is enjoined.  Christ demands that the spirit comes out and that the demon reveal his name.  Legion is the name because they are many and they make a request of Jesus that they not be sent out of the country but rather be allowed to infest a neighboring herd of pigs.  Jesus allows it and immediately the demons leave the man, enter the pigs, and drive them all headlong into the ocean drowning them some 2000 in total!

The pig herders report to their bosses what has happened and people from the neighboring town come out to see for themselves.  They find Jesus and with him the man that had been crazy seated beside him.  He is right-minded, calm, and clothed even! For emphasis, Mark says the very same man that had been possessed by Legion just so there is no mistake for us. And a curious thing has happened the people are afraid.  So afraid in fact that they demand that Jesus and his friends leave at once.

Here is another good place to camp out and reflect.  Fear?  Anger would be the more likely response.  2000 pigs killed is a lot of money and the people may not have seen that as a good trade, one crazy man made well at the cost of 2000 pigs.  By modern standards the loss of that many pigs could have been a price tag of half a million dollars or more! Even at the cheapest level you would be looking at a hundred grand for a herd that size.  Is the peace of mind of one person worth the economic output of the community?  Praise the Lord in the eyes of Jesus the answer is yes.  Perhaps the fear is related to the power of Jesus to compel the demon in the first place.  Forget the pigs, let’s be afraid of the exorcist!  It makes sense to a point although you would like for someone to be happy for the formerly demon-possessed man.

I think the fear is reflective of something deeper within us as sinners.

The people were comfortable with the way things were.  Sure there was the demon possessed guy, but he lived away in the tombs where the evil people belong. He was avoidable and that meant no one had to deal with the reality that they were powerless to help him. They didn’t have to admit to themselves that they didn’t care about him.  they didn’t have to wrestle with the truth that they were too much like him and could have easily been him had the demons chosen differently.  He had his place and so long as he was out there they didn’t have to wrestle with what it meant.  He was darkness personified, but a darkness contained, and that is what people want is the darkness contained — categorized and prioritized; this sin unacceptable and outside the community but these other sins normalized and accepted.  People fear the devil but the devil can be avoided or explained away.  Recall that the demons were afraid because they knew they were at cross purpose with God.  The power of God invokes a greater fear and far too many of us want nothing to do with it because it exposes us as those who also are at cross purposes with the Lord.

Jesus knows when he isn’t wanted and leaves.  Before he goes however, the man who had been possessed, who now has been healed and restored to fullness of life, wishes to come along.  In fact the language that is used is the language of discipleship.  He wishes to follow Jesus.  Who can blame him for wanting to get way from the place that is filled with such ugly memories. Why wouldn’t you want to rid yourselves of the community that is more concerned about the loss of pigs than they are about what has happened to you?

Jesus refuses.  Not the offer of discipleship, but rather the change of venue; instead of allowing him to leave Jesus tells him that he is to stay and share with others what the Lord has done for him.  And we are told that he does this.

When you think about all that has befallen this man it can seem cruel that Jesus makes him stay amidst a people who must have mistreated him and labelled him.  I think the lesson to all of us that follow Jesus is that sometimes Jesus bids us stay in the very place that caused us pain, albeit pain that we were rescued from because that is where we will make the most difference.  It is a difficult place to be.  It couldn’t have been easy for this man but I cannot help but think that a few years later in the aftermath of Resurrection and Pentecost that his seed-sowing bore much fruit.

  • Where do you find yourself in this story?
  • Have you ever wanted to run when you felt the urge of Jesus to remain?
  • Are you afraid of the power of God to bring light into your heart? your community? your church? your world?
  • Are you afraid to admit that you are at cross purposes with the Holy One of God?
  • What sins are you too comfortable with and which sins do you ignore because they are over there?
  • Is there someone you have left for dead amidst the tombs?

As always this reflection is freely given. Use this Bible Study for your own groups or discussion.  If you do share it with a group 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.

the-freak-liquid-mountains-of-lake-erie_880

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?

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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.

 

 

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!

we_are_so_tiny-100047037-large

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

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Call of Levi

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This is Carravagio’s painting depicting the Call of Matthew / Levi.

Caravaggio was a Baroque period painter who lived a relatively short life, even in his day, of 38 years.  He was a renowned belligerent drunkard.  He was not the first choice of the church officials to paint a three painting series of St Matthew on the walls of  Contarelli Chapel in the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.

In the painting, forget for a moment that Caravaggio contemporized the clothing and the setting to be more like 16th century Italy, we see a man showing Jesus where to find Levi (Matthew) amidst the rest of the tax collectors. It is not clear if the man who is seated and pointing is pointing at the fellow next to him or at himself.  This was probably by design by Caravaggio, the ambiguity suggesting that Jesus could call almost anyone at any time. But, like a lot of people, I prefer to think of the fellow pointing as being Levi, who is pointing towards himself as if to say “Wait! you mean me?”

Calling is an interesting thing. Because the Bible includes so many dramatic stories of calling we sometimes get trapped into thinking that we have to experience a burning bush or a whale story to be called.  We forget that Samuel was asleep and a boy.  We forget that Levi was hanging out at work.  Steven the Cyprian was just travelling through Jerusalem and was asked to carry a cross. The four whom we saw rip up the roof and lower their paralyzed friend down were just doing that.

Yes, all too often, we get caught up thinking that calling always entails: “When Christ calls a man he bids the man to come and die.”  That’s a quote from The Cost of Discipleship by Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer is not wrong, there is a systematic death to self that must take place in the following of Christ; but, Bonhoeffer, is a tad over-dramatic. Sure, Peter, whom Bonhoeffer uses as his example ultimately was called to be martyred as was Levi/Matthew and therefore were both metaphorically and literally called to die. The truth is that the vast majority of followers of Jesus are never asked to do such things.  We should never forget that many are and it is the potential cost of all our discipleship; however, we should also never forget that many more are not called in that way. Bonhoeffer was writing at a very dangerous time in a very particular context.  If we aren’t careful we misjudge our own time and the sinfulness of pride can lead us to look for the “good fight” every where and in all times. But I digress.

Verse 15 says that after Levi responded to the call  (You know, after he said “who me” and Jesus likely responded with “well, yeah” or “and why not you?”) that he and Jesus were at a meal together where lots of sinners and tax-collectors were present with Jesus disciples. The sentence is a little ambiguous.  The verses ends with this clause “for there were many of them and they were following Jesus.”  It is unclear if the many refers to the sinners and tax-collectors or if it refers to the disciples.  Either way there were many of them and they were following Jesus and the concepts of many and following are more important than the identities. This is precisely what I think Mark is intending for us to hear.  Sure we all know about famous followers like Levi or St Paul or Bonhoffer or C.S. Lewis or Mother Theresa or Beth Moore but there are always many more anonymous followers of Jesus. Hordes of them in fact.

Sure there are those of us who are called by God to follow Jesus into big jobs and life changing / life threatening work.  Most of us though are called to the other kind of discipleship: quiet, consistent witness every day exactly where we are.

  • Have you delayed your own urging to follow Jesus because you are afraid of where he will send you?
  • Perhaps you have fallen into the pride trap of wanting to be picked for something big for the Lord?
  • Maybe you have forgotten how important just being a witness in the everyday is to the work of the Kingdom of God?

Stop waiting to follow.  Be like Levi: arise and follow.  Be like the unnamed many and spend some time around the table in fellowship with Jesus. Go to worship.  Pray each morning; you always have something to give to God in prayer. Be kind.  Don’t judge. Find some ways to give back to the community.  Even the quiet disciples are welcomed with “well done good and faithful servant” when it is time to cross the Jordan.

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.

 

Mark 2:14-17

Sourced from Bible Gateway (www.biblegateway.com)

Mark 2:14-17

New Century Version (NCV)

14 While he was walking along, he saw a man named Levi son of Alphaeus, sitting in the tax collector’s booth. Jesus said to him, “Follow me,” and he stood up and followed Jesus.

15 Later, as Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and “sinners” were eating there with Jesus and his followers. Many people like this followed Jesus. 16 When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw Jesus eating with the tax collectors and “sinners,” they asked his followers, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”

17 Jesus heard this and said to them, “It is not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick. I did not come to invite good people but to invite sinners.”

Faith that Heals

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Take a moment to reread Mark Chapter 2, 1-12.

In the very first post on the Hypocritical Christian, I suggested the following themes for the gospel of Mark:

  • Origin of the Good News of Jesus Christ
  • Christ is the messiah for the purpose of salvation
  • Christ has authority
  • Repentance is about believing whom Christ is
  • The specific work of Christ is dealing with the sin problem.

Now in the first 12 verse of Mark 2, we see all of this playing out.  In fact at least one commentator has suggested that the entire Gospel of Mark is found in these 12 verses.  Of course that is a little bit of hyperbole, but the point is that in this one story the broadest themes and the major point that Mark is communicating is present in action.

You may recall that the paralytic has been lowered into the presence of Jesus and even though the friends clearly want a healing miracle for their pal what Jesus actually says is pretty astonishing.  “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

So astonishing in fact that there were present some professional religious folk (scribes) who were thinking to themselves, “Wait, what?!?  You can’t do that!”   They knew their Old Testament scriptures quite well and that told them that only YHWH can forgive sins. If you are not familiar with YHWH it is the four consonants of the sacred name of God.  The name given to Moses from the burning bush.  If you have ever heard the phrase “the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Issac” then you know what we mean when we say YHWH.  So the scribes know that only God can forgive sins.  Exodus 34:6-7; Isaiah 43:25 and 44:22 are just a few of the places that make this clear.

Mark tells us that the scribes believe Jesus to be blaspheming.  Blasphemy is a technical term and in Jesus day a religious crime.  Anything that discredited THE NAME (YHWH) was punishable by death through stoning. In the scribes’ minds claiming the ability to do something that only the ONE GOD can do was a serious act of discrediting God. It is hard to think of something that we have in our culture that is the equivalent of this.  Maybe using the parking space of the CEO or drinking from the Admiral’s private liquor cabinet, but these infractions are minor compared to the way they viewed blasphemy.  The closest thing I can think of is identity theft, but identity theft of someone enormously powerful like the President or the Queen of England or OPRAH!

Here is where it gets interesting. Jesus knows what they are thinking and calls them out on it. He issues a challenge for himself to them.  He starts by asking them a question: “Which is easier to say ‘Your sins are forgiven’; or to say ‘Get up.  Take your pallet and walk’?”

Note what is going on here in the question.  Sins are an intangible thing while paralysis is not. If I say to a person who can not walk get up and they do then I have clearly healed them of their paralysis.  If I say to a person that your sins are forgiven there is no way that anyone can prove it just by looking.  On the one hand, it is easier to say the first because no one can disprove you with empirical evidence unlike saying stand up because in the second case the person either gets up or they do not; on the other hand, the latter is the easier of the two because it is not something that only God can claim authority over.  Everyone had seen a faith healer work this sort of miracle before. Even if we only thought in terms of modern science the latter would still be easier because it is both prove-able and there are medical procedures for healing some forms of paralysis. Try and get a prescription for your sins filled at Walgreens!

But Jesus is not stopping with the rhetorical question, he is actually cleverly setting up the scribes because he follows the question up with the following statement: “but in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins — he said to the paralyzed one ‘I say to you, Rise, take up your pallet and go home.'”

See both the challenge and the set up?  If the paralytic stands up then the Son of Man has the authority (power) to forgive sins on earth. If the paralytic stands up the scribes will have to admit that the sins were forgiven and that no blasphemy took place.

(Note: “Son of Man” is a term that Mark uses about 2 dozen times in his gospel. Another time we can discuss what this title means, but please make note from the bold type above there can be zero question that Jesus means for it to refer to himself.)

Mark makes it crystal clear what happens next.  The paralytic, to the absolute astonishment of the crowd, stands up, picks up his pallet and left this time out the door and not the hole in the roof. Jesus proved his point spectacularly and everyone gave praise to God.

So what does this mean that Jesus claims an authority that the Old Testament scriptures clearly indicate is the sole purview of YHWH? What is the implication? It is pretty inescapable, if Jesus makes the man walk in the way he structured the challenge then he also forgave the paralytic’s sins.  Don’t get caught up in the tortured discussions about how they viewed sin and illness as interconnected in those days and this is Jesus giving them some good old post-enlightenment sensibility about these matters of illness and the separation of the physical from the spiritual.  That is smoke and mirrors and clearly not the intent that Mark has here.  Mark wants to demonstrate here the key points that his Gospel is seeking to share: Jesus is the Christ (Messiah) and uniquely appointed by God to be God’s agent, the presence of the Kingdom on Earth. Jesus has authority.  Jesus is going to correct the sin problem.

Mark is sharing this story to persuade everyone who reads / hears it of the truth of who Christ is.  Remember the demon in the first chapter: “you are the Holy One of God.” Mark is asking all of us to ponder what it means that this Jesus can do something that only God can do.

Consider this.  When the the four bring the paralyzed one to Jesus we are told that when Jesus saw their faith he spoke to the paralytic.  I said in a previous post that what they did in action was demonstrate their faith that Jesus could do what they desired.  In New Testament Greek faith is the word pistis (this is the transliteration of the Greek letters) and it means assurance, conviction, etc. all those synonyms in English that you would expect.  What is interesting is that it is derived from the Greek word peitho which is strictly speaking “to win over; persuade.” With this information we can come to understand that faith is a demonstration of having been persuaded.  It is a confiding belief in the truth, veracity, reality of any person or thing.  In the case of the four, their actions demonstrated a belief in the truth of whom Jesus was and the authority that he possessed.

I think that Mark is trying to persuade us. In the last post I wrote: “faith that heals is faith that trusts.” A careful reader will note that the only difference in the title of the last post and this post is punctuation. Faith that heals is faith that trusts; faith that heals comes from having been persuaded about who Christ is.

I encourage you to spend a little time this week asking yourself what it truly meant that the paralytic got up and walked.  Is it not more than a miracle? Is it not more than the forgiveness of sins?

Mark seems to think so.

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.

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