Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 10

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

The story of the rich young ruler, one of the meatier parts of today’s chapters, is one of the texts of the Gospels–along with the whole Sermon on the Mount–that most gets written off as hyperbole. Jesus is just being extreme here for rhetorical flourish. He can’t possibly mean what he says when he tells the rich man to sell everything he owns and then laments that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.

All of us are frustrated by this dismissive interpretation, in part because all of us try to take very seriously the hard teachings in the Sermon on the Mount. This teaching too, while hard, should be taken with an appropriate measure of seriousness, one that acknowledges that as long as we are more attached to our possessions than to our eternal souls (which, frankly, essentially all of us are in practice) then we have fallen short of the high ideals to which Jesus has called us. When Jesus tells his James and John a few verses later that they will drink the cup that he will drink and be baptized with the baptism with which he is baptized, no one imagines that they aren’t really going to suffer as Jesus will suffer. When Jesus talks elsewhere about taking up a cross, we all know he means a literal cross. Unless something other than our existential discomfort at these teachings requires a more rhetorical interpretation, perhaps it is time we started taking them seriously as they are.

One feature of the rendition in Mark–that is left out of Matthew’s version–struck us as particularly critical in this regard. The man comes to Jesus in faith asking how to be good, and Jesus (knowing human nature for what it is) changes the question: only one is good, so instead ask what you must do to “enter life.” For this, the man must live a moral life, free from murder, theft, adultery, etc. When the man confesses he has been faithful in these things since childhood, Mark says (and here’s where it gets interesting): “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him.”

This is not some glory seeker, here to brag about his greatness whom Jesus rebukes. This isn’t someone Jesus is trying to prove a point with by throwing a stumbling block in front of him. This is a righteous man on whom Jesus has pity in love as he has so many times before in Mark when people come to him with sickness or demons or deaths. When the man cannot accept Jesus’s hard teaching, Jesus is not exultant or condemnatory. He laments how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God, especially for a rich man. Jesus wants clearly wants the man as a disciple, and it breaks his heart that the man cannot take the last step.

The takeaways are  twofold (at least). First, money is a real problem. The text of Scripture is clear about that over and over again. We should not, in our relative wealth, excuse ourselves from this knowledge. Greed drives our lives, our careers, our marriages, and our churches more than we care to admit and often more than love of God does. Our love of money imperils our souls in a very real way. This breaks Jesus’s heart–and this is the second takeaway. Our unwillingness to chose him when it gets hard (and the man only struggled to give away wealth because he had it; it could have been something else–sex, violence, deceit) is a source of frustration and anguish for God.

It doesn’t mean rich people won’t be saved. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” It also doesn’t mean that we don’t need to worry about our wealth impeding our access to God. Jesus does not rebuke the rich man for failing to give up his wealth but he does praise the disciples, saying “there is no one who has left house or brothers…for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time…and in the age to come eternal life.” We need to find a way to balance both truths. We must work toward perfection without despairing of our imperfection.

Jesus, we believe; help our unbelief.

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Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 9

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

One of the best lines of Jesus’s ministry in Mark appears in chapter nine–“I believe; help my unbelief!”–though it really works well as the culmination of themes explored more fully in the previous chapter (but also throughout the book to this point). More discussion at our devotional was inspired by this pericope:

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name,[a] and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. “

The question arose, does a verse like this apply to those who claim the name of Jesus and perhaps do some good works but who are also doing active harm to the kingdom and its cause? Does it apply to the head thumping televangelists, the faith cure peddlers, the Westboro Baptists (not that they do any good to my knowledge)?

The surest answer is, “No.” Jesus does not say that we should excuse anyone doing works in his name regardless of what else they do. He specifically points out that no one would be empowered by God to work miracles if that person were not already right with God. This is an extension of the basic logic that has been driving Jesus’s ministry (and claim to legitimacy) throughout Mark, that the power of God manifest in the world marks the people who are sent by God. The opponents of Jesus see it as well, constantly fretting over from whom Jesus gets his power–once in Mark 3 where they accuse him of casting out demons by Beezebul and again in chapter eleven when Jesus refuses to answer questions about the source of his power. The power of the Spirit of God is a mark of authority.

This power does not belong to all who claim nor do claims of power or special righteousness entitle those people to our deference. A better lens through which to view those issues is by looking at the story of Simon Magus in Acts 8. Here we have someone displaying a false power who claims to be a Christian only as a way to try to buy access to real power. It is evident that his behavior does not line up with Christian truth, and the same apostles who were scolded by Jesus still rebuke Simon. Simon is not one who does “mighty works” in Jesus’s name, and we can know this because his actions serve as an ‘evil word’ about the faith.

The lesson here in Mark 9 therefore is not that we must take every professing Christian at face value but that we must not let our boundary policing interfere with the work of God on earth. Where it is genuinely being done, God is working. When it is being used as a guise for profiteering, political activism, or sin of any kind, then the rebukes can and should come. Jesus will live out this tension in a few short chapters when he clears out the temple. We are not called on, therefore, to be uncritical, only to serve the mission of Jesus above our own pride and self-interest.

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W/e Poetry Slam: Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Pity)

The second poem, another by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was inspired directly by the first and shares its title. Ferlinghetti updated the language of Gibran’s poem eighty years later and gave it a bit more wry wit (Ferlinghetti’s hallmark), but the basic message in 2006 is much the same as it was in the 1930s.

Pity the Nation

BY: Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
And whose shepherds mislead them

Pity the nation whose leaders are liars
Whose sages are silenced
And whose bigots haunt the airwaves

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
Except to praise conquerers
And acclaim the bully as hero
And aims to rule the world
By force and by torture

Pity the nation that knows
No other language but its own
And no other culture but its own

Pity the nation whose breath is money
And sleeps the sleep of the too well fed

Pity the nation oh pity the people
who allow their rights to erode
and their freedoms to be washed away
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

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W/e Poetry Slam: Khalil Gibran (Pity)

In the interest simultaneously of variety and tradition, I’m taking another break this weekend (UN holiday or not) from the Mark devotional to share some more poetry. This weekend, I’d like to pair together two poems with a common title. The first is by Lebanese-American poet Khalil Gibran, published after his untimely death from liver disease in the 1930s.

Pity the Nation

BY: Khalil Gibran

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

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Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 8

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

Mark 8 gave us still more to challenge not only our modern sensibilities but our lazy conceptualizations of Jesus. It was not so much the apparently redundant feeding of the four thousand or the inaugural predictions of Jesus’s death and resurrection that troubled us but the too often glossed over story of a blind man being healed…a little bit at a time.

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

The “wonky” way that Jesus heals people bothered some in our group–this story of needing a mulligan to heal blindness, the spit on fingers stuck into the mouth to heal muteness, and power suck healing of the bleeding woman. I admit, in the past, this story had made me a little uncomfortable too, such that explaining it became a way of dismissing it rather than understanding it.

Reading Mark in this concentrated way, however, encountering this story took on a new and mostly unchallenging tone. With fewer sermons and parables than the other Gospels, Mark provides focused attention on healing and is remarkably consistent in the way he presents it. Everywhere in Mark, there is an apparent contingency to Jesus miraculous power. Healings take place based on faith. Sure, most Christians are familiar with the standard benediction “your faith has healed you,” but in general we tend to think that Jesus by his power is really the sole source of healing power.

Mark tells a different story, and it is one centered on the critical importance of faith–for the characters in the narrative and, by implication, for the readers. In that “wonky” story of the woman stealing power from Jesus, Mark does a great job (arguably better than the other Gospels) foregrounding the role her faith plays in that healing. Like the readers of the gospel, the woman had merely heard of Jesus, but the story of him was enough for her to believe that merely reaching out to touch him would be sufficient to heal her. It’s telling that Mark declares she is healed not after she touches the garments but after he describes her belief. Jesus reinforces the point when he declares “Daughter, your faith has made you well.” Meanwhile, in the very next chapter, the absence of faith seems to impeded the miraculous ministry of Jesus in Nazareth. “He could do no mighty work there” because of the marvelous lack of belief around him.

It is hard not to read the story of the halfway healing in Mark 8 then as yet another instance in which our faith, not Jesus’s power, determines the measure of blessing we receive. This is particularly true in the more immediate context of a chapter that seems wholly about the lack of faith surrounding Jesus. Mark tells the story of yet another miraculous feeding, and the very next incident is the Pharisees demanding a sign. What has Jesus been doing since the first chapter of Mark except giving signs? Jesus responds to their demand by saying (I like to believe with righteous sarcasm) “no sign will be given to this generation.”

But of course the Pharisees lack faith. They’re the villains in the Gospels. Jesus warns his disciples in the next passage not to be like the Pharisees, but the disciples are too busy worrying about whether or not they have enough bread. Jesus, exasperated, is forced to remind them that they have twice seen him miraculously feed crowds. The disciples are hardly any better than the Pharisees. Sure, Peter will confess that Jesus is the Messiah just a few verses later, but only to be rebuked moments later as Satan. Jesus is beset on all sides by lack of faith.

It is in the midst of this that Jesus is confronted with the blind man at Bethsaida, a city he condemns in Matthew for its lack of faith in spite of his great works. Situated as it is right before the confession-rebuke of Peter, the two stories seems to operate as a bonded pair about the still-incompleteness of our faith. Jesus already knows as he is healing the man that his faith is not ready for a full healing. He doesn’t spit in his eyes, clap him on the back, and say, “Look, you can see now” only to be surprised when the blind man’s vision isn’t restored. No, Jesus knows to ask him, “Do you see anything” and, presumably, knows the answer as well. It takes time and effort for faith to do its work.

Like Peter–and like us–the blind man in Bathsaida is only halfway there. He is brought to Jesus as an act of faith, but that faith is not yet complete. Jesus takes him by the hand and leads him forward to the completion of his faith and its reward. Together the stories of this chapter preview a climactic moment in Mark 9, when the father of a young boy declares with perfect clarity, “I believe; help my unbelief!” That is the cry throughout Mark, for the people, for the disciples, and for readers like us. Jesus comes to bring healing to those who have faith. Help us God to have faith.

 

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Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 7

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

Mark 7 has a wonderfully liberating message that continues to develop themes discussed in Chapters 2 and 3 about the supersession of the law. When Jesus declares that it is not what goes into us but what comes out of us that defiles us, he radically recenters the locus of religious belief and practice from how most Jews understood it at the time (though not, most Christians would argue, from where it should have been in an appropriate reading of the Old Testament). Mark 7 also continues to work through the recurring motif of Jesus’s failed attempts to hide his identity, with the disciples once again being “so dull” they didn’t get it but in the next passage the author declaring flatly that “[Jesus] could not keep his presence a secret.”

Our devotional discussion didn’t touch on any of these fine points, though. Instead, we focused on those parts of Mark 7 that challenge our modern, scientific notions of the world. One challenge came with the healing of the man who “deaf and could hardly talk.” Healings have not, in themselves, generated much controversy in our discussions, but this one raise some eyebrows. Jesus cures the deafness by placing his fingers in his ears and the muteness by placing his spit-on fingers in the man’s mouth. (Just because Jesus ignores the CDC, doesn’t mean we can.) The special actions made sense in the context of Mark, where special words and actions seem to function as symbolic gestures that ratify the real source of healing, faith. (This is made nowhere clearer than in Chapter 6, when it says “[Jesus] could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.”)

The problem arose in the way the story treats the man’s inability to speak. The old, disparaging stereotype of the deaf-mute (or “deaf and dumb”) is based on an antiquated understanding of the relationship between deafness and speech. Rather than the inability to speak being a concurrent malady, many deaf people cannot speak because people learn speech through hearing other speak it. It is not a malady that needs curing but a “side effect,” as it were, of deafness. (For the record, many deaf people also can speak and choose not to either because of the stigma that comes associated with their different speech patterns or as an affirmation of the culture of deafness and its own [sign] language.) What then are we to make of this “curing” of muteness? Did this man have an actual concurrent condition that prevented him from speaking (even though could evidently talk some)? Did the “healing” amount to Jesus essentially uploading a lifetime’s worth of speech learning into the man, who then went on “to speak plainly”? We didn’t settle on an answer, except that if we believe Jesus can raise the dead, it would be inconsistent to assume he couldn’t also teach someone to speak a language by touching their tongue with dirty fingers. (Though we didn’t realize it, we would come back to this idea of miraculously speaking languages.)

Already primed to bring our modern prejudices to bear on the text, we turned to the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was rid of a demon at a distance by Jesus (again, in response to her very humble declaration of faith). This prompted each of us to give in turn our understanding of demons. One person gave the naturalist stance that “demons” was the only way the biblical authors had to describe mental illness, so that “demons” as such have never existed and never needed to be cast out. We should treat, in this view, demon stories as healing stories like any other. We discussed as well the common cessationist position in the Churches of Christ that demons existed and possessed people, but the time for this and other miracles had passed now. (No one was actually willing to claim this stance though.) The supernaturalist perspective was offered, however, as one person shared a belief that demons existed then and now and that on rare occasions she had encountered people who, by their behavior or by her intuition, she believed to be afflicted by something above and beyond simple illness.

For my part, I incline more to the supernaturalist position than the naturalist or the cessationist one. It costs me nothing, intellectually, to affirm the existence of demons (while it requires a suspension of good sense to adopt the standard textual justification for cessationism). Meanwhile, it resonates powerfully with my own sense of the significance of epistemological humility to admit that there are things which both exist and are incomprehensible. I have never seen or read a modern account of anyone I believe to have been genuinely demon possessed, but I believe possession is real. I have never seen or read a modern account of anyone I believe to have been miraculously healed, but I believe healing is real. I have never seen or read a modern account of anyone I believe to have genuinely been speaking in tongues, but I believe in tongues-speaking. Rather than possibly doing violence to the text to make it comprehensible in my worldview, I would rather let a belief in these things serve as a check on my worldview so that it never closes me off to the flaws in my way of thinking.

In expressing this, I struck an unrelated nerve: what is tongues-speaking and does it still exist? A spirited debate arose about, first, whether speaking in tongues exclusively meant other existing language and, second, whether or not tongues speaking had ceased. One member of our group was insistent that the “glossolalia” was something unrelated to the speaking in tongues at Pentecost (incidentally, in Greek, “lalein heterais glosssais“). She’s not alone in this position, arguing that glossolalia is specifically a speaking in angelic tongues. She believes (and I hope I am representing this faithfully) that this gift still exists but that the gift of interpreting those angelic tongues has passed away, rendering glossolalia moot as a spiritual gift.

Setting aside the question of why one has ceased and the others have not, I cannot agree with the suggestion that tongues speaking in the New Testament refers exclusively or even usually to speaking in angelic tongues. The reason is pretty simple and textual. Only once in Scripture, to my knowledge, is there a references to “speaking in tongues of angels.” It appears in in 1 Cor. 13 right after Paul has castigated the church for trying to sort each other based on the quality of spiritual gifts rather than coming together in love. When he references angelic tongues, he does it as the climax of this argument:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

At first blush, it appears unequivocally that Paul affirms the existence of a glossalalia of angels (in addition to the glossalalia of men), but he uses a three consecutive rhetorical flourishes here to make his point. We can evaluate the nature of the first if we can agree on the nature of the second two. First Paul talks about a scenario in which he had prophetic powers that allowed him to understand everything without exception and such faith that he could literally move mountains. Should we conclude from this that are people in the Corinthian church who in fact do have such comprehensive knowledge and are in fact casting mountains into the sea? I don’t. Then he offers a similarly hyperbolic scenario where he gives away everything he owns and voluntarily surrenders himself to be burned by the Roman authorities. We know that Paul does not himself court persecution by the government, and we can with some certainty presume his audience doesn’t either (or else, they’d be too busy lining up for execution to be his audience).

Both of the other lines in this passage are self-evidently arguments from hyperbole. Paul takes an actual spiritual gift practiced in the Corinthian church and stretches it far beyond their actual giftedness. Even in the most extreme situation you can imagine regarding spiritual gifts like prophecy or charity, the absence of love negates their value. If we take that perspective and read the first verse, “even if I speak in tongues of men and angels,” the hyperbole there is clearly the idea of speaking in tongues of angels. If angelic tongues-speaking was common practice (as we can infer from chapter 14 that speaking in human tongues is), then there would be no hyperbole here, no superlative extension of the spiritual gift into a realm far above what anyone in the Corinthian church actually practiced. Angelic tongues speaking operates as extremity, the absurdity beyond the real. It’s the only way the rhetorical structure of this passage makes sense.

To me, anyway. No progress was made on the specific issue at our devotional, and that’s fine because Mark doesn’t have any interest in tongues speaking. I appreciated the “iron sharpening iron” that a good disagreement can bring, but I look forward to Mark 8 and the beginning of the narrative’s turn toward Calvary.

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Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 5

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

Mark 5 brought us two very familiar stories: Legion being cast out of the Gerasene man and the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. Both involve incredible displays of power by Jesus, exceeding what even those who believed in him thought he was capable of. Mark goes to great lengths to explain that the demoniac not only could not be freed of his demon by anyone but that no one else could so much as bind him. He broke any shackles and chains that had been put on him. Yet when Jesus arrived, the demons did not even pretend they could resist him. They proclaimed Jesus the “Son of the Most High God” (and, for once, Jesus did not rebuke them for naming him), and they pleaded with him not to do to them what they knew was well within his power. Jesus was already famous as a healer and as one who casts out demons, yet when people saw this man healed, they were afraid.

So too with Jairus and his daughter. Jairus and his household clearly believed that Jesus could heal his daughter of an illness, but when news came that she had died, the messenger said, “Why trouble the Teacher any further?” Jesus goes anyway, commands the dead girl to rise again, and once again everyone is amazed. In fact, in these stories, the only one who has true faith, the only one who harbors no doubts about the awesome power of Jesus is the bleeding woman whose story gets folded unceremoniously into the narrative of Jarius and his daughter. She believes wholeheartedly that Jesus doesn’t even need to know she’s there for his power to work miracles for her.  If she could “touch even his garments,” that would be enough. This one Jesus calls “daughter”–hearkening back to chapter three and his statements about his true family–and tells her to go on in peace.

He gives her no other instruction except to go in peace and be healed. To Jairus and his wife, he gave the familiar command to tell no one what had happened. (One can only imagine how the bystanders who had laughed at Jesus only moments before must have felt when the daughter emerged alive.) The command to the Garasene man is perhaps the most significant though, as it illustrates just how completely the truth about Jesus seemed to be leaking out in spite of his efforts to keep it quiet. To the formerly possessed man Jesus gave the command: “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” It seems unlikely that Jesus means himself when he says “the Lord” here, if not because it would strike hearers as a particularly haughty claim then because it would be an uncharacteristic revelation of his identity. Yet the man understands the truth anyway, and in the next verse “he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” The parallel in between tell “how much the Lord has done” and proclaimed “how much Jesus had done” makes clear for the reader what Jesus’s ministry has been making clear since the opening lines of Mark: Jesus is Lord.

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Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 4

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

The disciples have it rough in the Gospel of Mark. They are often the most exasperating figures, constantly with Jesus and enjoying the benefit of special explanations of his teachings and yet constantly missing the point entirely. This theme gets an especially rigorous treatment in chapter four, right after Jesus had specifically commissioned the apostles. In this chapter, there are a series of parables (a term Mark uses for any teachings that might be hard to understand, not just for stories), none of which the disciples understand, sometimes even with explanation.

After the parable of the sower, Jesus pulled the twelve aside where they immediately asked him about the meaning. Jesus immediately expresses his frustration, “Do you not understand this parable? How then will you understand all the parables?” I can imagine it must have been especially frustrating that this parable had failed to resonate, given that it would be the twelve who were tasked with sowing the seed of the gospel in the years to come.

So Jesus explains it to them before giving them three more: the lamp under the basket, the seed growing, and the mustard seed. Each of these is also a missionary parable. Do not hide your lamp; let it shine. Do the work of sowing the seed, and God will make it grow. Do whatever you can because your efforts can have outsized consequences. Each parable seems specifically designed for the disciples, but each time Jesus speaks a parable in public he must then explain it to the disciples in private.

You would imagine with all that special after class tutoring, the disciples would be making progress, but the chapter ends with a dramatic manifestation of their ignorance. A storm arises on the lake, and the disciples go to Jesus to tell him that everyone is going to die. So Jesus tells the storm to be quiet–something we might imagine he really wanted to tell the disciples. Then follows a truly baffling moment where Jesus chastises them, and it sails right over their heads.

 He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Jesus pointedly asks–after all the miracles and all the wise teachings, specially explained to them–do you still have no faith in me. The disciples answer (among themselves) is that it is not a matter of having faith or not having faith in Jesus; they’re still confused about who he even is. At this point, they’ve heard the demons say it. They’ve heard the Pharisees stumble backwards into the answer. They’ve heard Jesus allude to it countless times. It still isn’t registering.

Later, in Mark 6, in the midst of another nautically-themed miracle, the disciples will once again be afraid when Jesus (among other things) calms a storm. There Mark will say they did not understand because “their hearts were hardened.” That’s a difficult phrase, and it isn’t clear if God is hardening their hearts for his purposes or if they had hardened their own hearts. Whatever the case, Mark’s harsh depiction of the disciples gives me hope. I mentioned in chapter one that Mark gives me hope that Jesus can turn our weakness to God’s purposes. The disciples are the paramount example of that, for me and for Mark’s readers at the time as well. If the disciples, presumably still alive at the writing of Mark, were so obtuse, so imperfect, then there is hope for those of us who must hear about Jesus rather than hear him directly. Praise God for that.

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Hunker Down with Jesus: Mark 3

In part to create a sense of ritual and schedule in the midst of our “hunkering down” and in part because any excuse is a good excuse to fortify your faith, my household has begun a daily read-through devotional of the Gospel of Mark. Though perhaps not daily and perhaps not every chapter, I’d like to record and share our observations here.

In chapter two, we watched Jesus through the eyes of the Pharisees and began to see just how total the scope of Jesus’s ministry was. The Pharisees saw this with horror, mirroring the response of the demons more than the amazed crowds. With verse seven, the story resets, and Mark gives readers a kind of recapitulation of everything that came before: great crowds follow Jesus from place to place, he withdraws to escape them, many are healed, unclean spirits are silenced.

What follows is a kind of chiastic quartet aimed at making sense of the two types of people who are following Jesus–and implicitly encouraging the reader to be in the right category. On the one hand, there are those whom Jesus has called to be his apostles, whom Mark refers to as “those whom [Jesus] desired.” Our little study group observed that God has a penchant for renaming people. Simon, James, and John are all mentioned as being re-branded here, but there are plenty of other examples–Abram to Abraham, Jacob to Israel. In calling these men, investing them with power, and changing (some of) their names, Jesus draws them out of old identities, old kinship ties and invites them into the incredible ministry that was previewed in the previous set of stories.

Jesus doubles down on this new vision of his community of faith, shorn of old interfering loyalties, by modelling the behavior himself at the end of the passage. When Jesus’s mothers and brother come looking for him, Jesus asked, “Who is that?” Jesus obviously knew who he meant, and in other Gospels it is made clear that he shows great care for his family (especially his mother). Yet Jesus takes this opportunity to make an important point. The new community of his ministry takes precedence over all other loyalties, all other identities. It is a family not of blood but of action: “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Between these two positive affirmations of the community of Jesus’s ministry are two negative depictions of those who see what Jesus is doing and harden their hearts to it. The transition between the two modes is conveniently provided by Judas Iscariot, listed last among the called disciples as the one “who betrayed him.” Jesus then, foreshadowing the statements about family to come, is forced to reckon with his own family’s repudiation of him when they go out to try to force him to stop his ministry because “they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.'”

This is only a slightly more generous assessment than the one given by the scribes in the next verse when they declare “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” Jesus dismantles this argument by laying out precisely what his opponents already confessed and what the demons must constantly be stopped from revealing: that the power to drive out evil comes from God alone. Paul will elaborate on this principle as a feature of Christian ethics later in Romans 12, and the same point is implicit in the statement about the true family that follows. First though, Jesus uses it not as an exhortation for his followers to do good but as a rebuke to the scribes for harboring evil in their hearts.

Here then is the culmination of this group of stories, a passage that has caused no small amount of frustration among readers for generations. In it Jesus declares the blessings available to those who choose him and the consequences for those who do not: “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

There are, in the simple logic of this passage, two kinds of people–a simplified and less symbolic analogue to Matthew’s sheep and goats: those who, when confronted with the self-evident truth of Jesus (not through reports or down across the centuries but with their very own eyes), choose to embrace him as family and do the will of his Father and those who, see with clear eyes Jesus as he was and yet reject him anyway.

For all the fear and theological hand-wringing produced by a reference to an “unforgivable sin,” this passage really ought to give us hope. Mark makes clear for us here that the dividing line between forgiveness and damnation lies wholly in how we respond to Jesus. It is not, as is often wrongly concluded from this text, in avoiding a particular transgression but in the affirmation of Jesus as brother, of God as father and the actualization of those truths in our lives. The message of this passage and of Mark so far is not that Jesus condemns (if anything, the scribes condemn themselves); it is instead that Great Physician has come to cure what ails us, to forgive every sin and blasphemy and to love us as true brothers and sisters.

The message of the “unforgivable sin” text is the message of the gospel: hope not damnation.

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W/e Poetry Slam: Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Underwear)

Still on a break (here, not in real life) from our regularly scheduled devotional on Mark and in continuing recognition of World Poetry Day, here is the second half of the tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who turns 101–God willing–on Tuesday. In just a couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing my favorite Ferlinghetti poem, as well as the one below, with my modern American history classes. Poems like these help give students a window into how Americans–and especially subcultures outside the mainstream–made sense of a rapidly changing world. It’s a particularly timely lesson now, as is Ferlinghetti’s message in the final injunction:

Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don’t shout

Normally, I would get to read “Tentative Description” before having them read “Underwear;” Ferlinghetti’s poetry is meant to be read aloud. This term, they’ll have to make sense of the world through silent reading instead. I offer the same experience here, minus the homework that goes with it.

Underwear

BY: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I didn’t get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
Everyone wears
some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
wears underwear
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women’s underwear holds things up
Men’s underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can’t do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing—
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
Help!
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults
in the geological sense—
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I’d keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don’t shout
                                  ——–
Find more Ferlinghetti poems and a biography of the writer at the Poetry Foundation.

 

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