James 3 — Blessings and blasphemy

Reading: James 3

Last month I started talking about James, and if you recall, one of the things that I brought up was that James really is talking about the practical implications of our belief that humanity is created in God’s image. On April 30, I talked about that images still have, and I gave the example of how people respond to our national image, the flag. When I review what I said on the 30th, I realize that I could many of the same things all over again; but, this is not surprising. The practical implications of humanity as God’s image is a theme throughout James so as we read James 3 we come to the part where James is really taking his congregation to task over the way they speak about human beings.

When we read this, we are reading something that very much speaks to a failing in our own culture. With the tongue, we bless God and curse those made in God’s image, from the same mouth comes blessings and cursing. I don’t know how many of you use Facebook; but I know if you do, you likely have no shortage of friends who will post blessing and cursing almost continuously.

Honestly, I’m not sure if it was a good thing for me to form a Facebook account and reconnect with old friends. I’ve looked at so many people who I’ve respected and who can quote scripture better than I can; and I have seen posts recommending genocide against Native Americans, suggested that murdering people based on ethnicity is appropriate, and suggesting that a class of people are rats, or cockroaches, or even poison.

I see the same people posting praise Jesus, and posting Bible verses, calling for prayer and showing that they are people of deep faith. I’ve learned that American Christian culture sees nothing inconsistent about this behavior. Indeed, I’ve even seen examples of blessing God and cursing God’s image posted by church leaders and on rare occasions even on official church pages. Until I’ve been on Facebook, I’ve not been aware at how much cursing and blessing comes from the same mouth. A person literally blesses and blasphemes God in the same sentence. If I burned a flag, nobody would think me a patriot — why would anybody think a person who cursed God’s image a Christian?

One thing that scares me is that no matter how much people say that words are just words, I know what it looks like when words become actions. We know how powerful words were when spoken by a charismatic German leader in the first half of the 20th century. Words that dehumanized lead to one of the most famous of all genocides, the Holocaust.

I’ve always found propaganda interesting; I wonder how somebody can present an argument in a way that leads to such extreme actions. I’ve watched or read World War 2 propaganda produced by Disney, by Mel Blanc, Dr. Seuss and by others; I’ve also seen and read some Nazi propaganda. One of the books I read is a children’s volume titled, in translation, “The toadstool”. “The toadstool” compares a Jew to a poison mushroom that is accidental gathered and is chopped up and cooked in with the food and poisoned the whole family. The moral of the story was that it only took a single Jew, just as it only took a single poisoned mushroom, to kill an entire nation. The Nazis also had political cartoons that compared Jews to a terrible rat infestation, and compared the Jewish solution to getting rid of the rats. These were just words and images that suggested that one population was not human like the rest of us, and we all remember what that lead to.

Shockingly, I’ve seen people make exactly the same arguments that the Nazi’s once did. I’ve seen political cartoons suggesting that a class of people is a rat infestation. We at one point had an image comparing a class of people as poison that might destroy our nation. I’ve seen Nazi propaganda recycled as people who bless God freely curse those made in God’s image. I know from the Holocaust what it means that the tongue stains the body, sets on fire the cycle of nature and is itself set on fire from hell.

This has been a rather unpleasant news week. As you might know there was a suicide bomber at a concert in Manchester England. After this happened somebody asked the question: “How do people get radicalized so that they would do these kinds of things?” I’ve been thinking about this question, about the passage that I read, and about the other news stories that have come by me these days. Words are powerful. People are radicalized by words. These words that suggest that a group of people are less than human, that they deserve extermination is really what leads to such extreme acts. We talk about radicalization of some other group — but we forget what it looks like when people in our own culture are radicalized.

This weekend, I saw examples of what happens when our own people are radicalized — not extremists, not crazy people, but normal good Americans. As you might know, Friday was the special election for congressman in Montana. On Thursday one of the candidates, according to a witness, put his hands around a journalist’s throat, threw him on the ground and punched him. The journalist described it as: “you just body slammed me and broke my glasses.”

Having heard this news, the election suddenly became interesting to me — I wondered if a person could openly commit assault, without any apparent reason and still be elected for public office. The Gianforte campaign first claimed that the reporter grabbed Congressman Gianforte, but the altercation was observed by a Fox News team who reported that the campaign lied about it, and that the attack came without provocation.

The last day of the campaign, Congressman Gianforte received $100,000 in online donations — most of these donations were after, and apparently because he punched a reporter. He was never arrested for committing assault; though he will have to appear before a judge, and answer for his actions. When the votes were counted, Gianforte won the election, and in the victory speech acknowledged that his actions were wrong, and said he would not do it again.

That apology is all well and good, but I notice two things: people donated money because he punched a journalist, and a number of people gave this as something that made them eager to vote for him. He apologized before his trial, but after the election was over. The election showed that the good people of Montana find it acceptable to elect a man who openly assaults people. How could a pillar of society such as Congressman Gianforte, and so many of the good people of Montana become radicalized and decide that violence against a person because of his constitutionally protected profession was a right and reasonable thing to do?

Again, this is something that comes from the power of words. In February, the President named the press as the enemy of the American people. Now, this is alarming, not only because the first amendment guarantees the freedom of the press, but because I’m perfectly aware that freedom isn’t what a nation gives to its enemies — no, a nation works to protect itself from its enemies. These words are alarming, because they lead to fighting the enemies.

This phrase actually came up during Gianforte’s campaign — and when it did, the congressman pointed to a reporter and said: “We have someone right here, it seems there are more of us than there is of them.” The congressman said that this was a joke, but this joke was a public suggestion that a mob attack a reporter as the enemy of the American people. These words are alarming, because they are a call to violence that cannot help but lead to violence.

We must watch our language — the first reason is the theological one; that speaking of others in a way that does not recognize that they are God’s image is blasphemy against God. The second reason is a practical reason, words are a fire that spreads and brings more evil. Words lead to actions that will embarrass us and our communities.

James 1:19-27: Pure vs worthless religion

Reading:  James 1:19-27
Reading this, I have to admit that my religion is sometimes pretty worthless. Sometimes, no matter how righteous my cause is — I am able speak before I listen. I was angry just a few days ago, and I spoke out of that anger. This week I am reading and talking about the passage that says: “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness,” and later “If any think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless.

This is not an easy passage for me, and I have met few who would say that it is as easy passage for them either. When I speak in anger, without listening, I want to say that I spoke for the right reasons. I want to say that I am on the side of righteousness — or that God is on my side. I want to say that my anger is justified, because I am right. I even want to defend my anger by insisting that my anger is about the right things — but, James tells me that my anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

The words of Jesus really are not any easier. In the sermon on the mount Jesus speaks on anger saying:

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
(Matthew 5:21-26 NRSV)

Jesus’ advice is to place reconciliation even above religious practice. God tells us that we face judgment for our anger, and that if somebody has a grievance, make it right, make reconciliation, even if it means leaving the temple. Making our relationships right is more important than going to worship.

What is religion? Religion is something grounded in a faith in something or Someone much larger than ourselves — it is a faith that causes us to live differently. People who are religious do things to practice their religion; they take time out of their schedules to go to a place of worship, they read scriptures, they pray, they fast, they give to support their religious institutions. I hate it when people say they have a relationship and not a religion — I have a relationship with a lot of people who I would ignore if they told me how to live my life, or what my relationships with my family should look like. The relationship does not give these people permission to change the details of my life — but, religion does just that, religion asks me to change the way I approach life, and even habits of thought and attitude like what I do with anger. Yes — my religion is about a relationship with Christ, but it is more than just another relationship; it is something that permeates and changes my life.

What is hard here is the reminder that as important as those acts of piety that I am used to are, there are some much more basic things that are far more important. It is hard for me to imagine bringing a sacrifice to the temple, and when it is my turn to offer the sacrifice, I remember that I need to reconcile with my brother — so I run out and do it; fix relationships first.

The New Testament makes the importance of loving your fellow human beings very clear. The first thing that comes to my mind is the passage in 1 John 4:20 tells us that if we cannot love our brother, who we see, than we do not love God who we do not see. Jesus talks about loving others, including the other on multiple occasions — the story of the good Samaritan where that man is made an example stands out, as does his direct command to “Love your enemies.” Jesus gives the explanation that there is nothing noble about loving those who love us back.

If I am to give a theological explanation I would look back to the creation narrative, and how it tells us that God created humanity in God’s own image — both male and female. I would point out that images are important, and that almost every temple you walk into holds an image that represents the god of the temple — but, for the followers of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, making an image to represent God was forbidden. Now, I’m not going to go down the rabbit trail of Christian images, nor the argument about what is appropriate and what isn’t. I am going to say that Torah both rejected images made by human hands to represent God, and informed humanity that God personally crafted an image.

Now, think about what this means — think about how important images are to us. We might think that we are too modern to connect an image with the thing that it represents — but we do it constantly. For those of us who use a computer, we click on `icons’ all the time, with no thought of separating the action the computer does with the icon that has come to represent the action.

Think about how angry people get if somebody burns a flag in protest. There are all sorts of calls of criminalizing this extreme action. Does this not sound like an extreme reaction to what a person does with a small piece of patterned cloth? How is it different from any other piece of cloth? If the protester burned the flag where nobody could see it burn, nobody would get angry, and the fire would not harm anything — as long as it did not spread, so why is the flag more than a piece of cloth?

The flag is different because of the value we put on it. We take a very big concept — that of a nation of over 300 million people that is built on a philosophy of what it means to be a free people who are ruled justly, and a system of laws that tries to to be consistent with that philosophy; and we attach all our complex feelings to a piece of cloth with a specific pattern. When we see that cloth, we feel about the cloth the same way we feel about the nation — if we are angry with the nation, we are angry with the flag; and if we see violence done to the flag — even though the nation is unharmed, we feel anger as if our nation, and not a piece of cloth was burning. This is the power of an image.

God commanded that there be no image of God, but there were still images. The best known was the Ark of the Covenant, and to a lesser degree the Temple. These were images that declared God was present, but there was no Idol, no statue of the most high God.

There is also symbol that God’s law was the sovereign law of the land — and the sovereign law of a person’s home; Jewish custom was to put a few verses of scripture into a small box, and nail that box to the entryway. Nobody will open a mezuzah to read the scripture contained inside; but it sits there as a symbol that Torah is sovereign — including the commandment in Deuteronomy 6 to write the commandments you hear today on the doorposts of your houses.

These symbols however are not the image of God; Torah teaches that God made God’s own image in humanity. When we read that Jesus tells us to leave worship if we need reconciled with our brother, and do that right away — think about what the images mean. The person we need reconciled with is God’s image — how can we love God, and hate God’s image? This question should make as much sense to us as: “How can we love our country, yet hate its flag?”

One thing religion has always been about is images — and if we despise the image of the God we claim to worship; is it not obvious that our religion is worthless? The reason that this would be a priority — even a priority above pious acts such as participating in worship should seem clear. To quote a later part of James, about the need to control the tongue: “With our tongue, we bless God yet curse man who is made in God’s image — this should not be”. If we do not bridle our tongue — if we curse God’s image, we symbolically curse God.

The first chapter of James ends with telling us that pure and undefined religion is to care for orphans and widows in their distress. This is a natural result of humanity being God’s image — the most religious thing to do is, if one sees an image defiled, to try and clean it up, perhaps even to repair minor damage. The society that the early Christians lived in did not treat the vulnerable people as God’s image; no, it treated God’s image as so much garbage. True religion sees God’s image for what it is — and works to honor it.

James 1:1-18

Reading:  James 1:1-18

My relationship with James is kind of odd — out of all the books in the Bible, I’m most familiar with it. It takes just over 10 minutes to recite, and as a teenager I think I was able to do so. I know the text of James very well, but I’m not always very sure what to do with it. James is hard; and if you don’t think it is hard then think of the last time that you had to go to a hospital, or your car broke down; or the money ran out before the month and you had a moment when you didn’t know that everything would be all right — did you experience this as joy? My teenage self redefined the word `joy’ to mean those things I didn’t want — I knew the words, but I’m quite sure that entirely missed the point.

James is also hard because we really don’t know much about the epistle. Tradition tells us that it was written by James the brother of Jesus — and, ancient tradition has three competing traditions on what this means, one is that James was one of Joseph’s children from a previous marriage; and there are ancient writers who believed that they were Joseph’s children by Mary the mother of Jesus. Jerome’s theory is that James is the son of Cleopas, Joseph’s brother, who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus (and thus Mary the mother of James, mentioned in Mark, is Cleopas’ wife, and Jesus’ aunt.)

What tradition agrees on is that after Jesus was taken up into heaven, James became the head of the Christian community in Jerusalem, and he remained there until his death in either 62 AD or 69 AD depending on which source you use — James was killed by Jewish leaders by being thrown off the temple, then beaten to death with a club.

Tradition tells us very little about the book of James, other than who wrote it. I cannot look at the great ancient preachers and read their sermons on James; I cannot even say that James meets the description used for scripture that it was “accepted everywhere from the beginning”, because it is missing from several of the “local” canons, and according to the 4th century church historian Eusebius James was a disputed book.

This, and a few internal issues causes many scholars question the tradition that James wrote the epistle of James, and suggest that it might be the last book of the New Testament, written as late as the 2nd century. They have the idea that James is either an ancient sermon, or perhaps a piece of wisdom literature that somehow had “James, a servant of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” added to the beginning.

The scholars who accept the tradition that James was written by James the brother of Jesus, and the head of the Jerusalem church obviously date James before the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. One of the proposed dates is before the council of Jerusalem described in Acts 15, which would explain why this letter is only addressed to Jewish Christians; the decision that a person could be Christian without becoming a Jew had not been made yet. This is my favorite theory.

If I go with this theory, then this epistle would come between the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7 and the council that decided to accept Gentile Christians in Acts 15, sometime before 50 AD. When the Jewish leaders persecuted the Jewish Christians; many left Jerusalem for safer places. The church didn’t spread when everybody was content to stay in Jerusalem, but it did spread under persecution — and, James would have had people under his spiritual care who had left Judah for safer places. I like to picture this as a letter to religious refugees, and as the oldest book in the New Testament.

One reason I like the early date is that it makes James very interesting because James quotes Jesus a lot, and when not quoting, there seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus. An early date for James is interesting because this would make James the earliest extant source of the teachings of Christ. I can read “Consider it pure Joy” and notice this is a lot like the sermon on the mount which begins:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. Matthew 5:3-12 (NRSV)

To put the first words of James into the formula of the sermon on the mount:  “Blessed are you when you face diverse trials, for the testing of your faith brings endurance and leads to maturity.”  This sounds a lot like Jesus.

James jumps from this to telling those of us who lack wisdom to pray for it, and to trust God to give it to us. Following this, James tells the poor to talk about how they are raised up, and the rich to talk about how they are brought down — Christ is an equalizer, and in Luke’s gospel Jesus says: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven… but woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”

James follows this by reminding everybody that when we are tempted, we are tempted by our own desires. I know it is an old joke, but I smile at the person who prays the Lord’s prayer, and when he gets to “Lead me not into temptation”, adds: “for I already know the way.”

Today’s section ends with the verse that tells us every perfect gift comes from the Father; I tend to see this as God is the source of generosity and the generous spirit — so, even if I give, it is God who gave and give the desire to be generous, so our generosity, as well as any wisdom we receive is ultimately a gift from God.

Mark 16:1-8 “They were afraid”

Reading:  Mark 16

I’ve told you before that one of the challenges of reading Mark is that we fill in the details from other gospels. Matthew and Luke contain almost all of Mark — but both give much more detailed accounts. For this, and likely other reasons Mark is likely the least read gospel. Whenever a person chooses a reading from one of the events in the gospel, Matthew or Luke generally has one that seems more complete. There are, for this reason, very few ancient sermons on Mark.

Mark is however the most interesting gospel to those who speculate on how the gospels were written. It is generally accepted that Mark is the first gospel to be written down — tradition tells us it was written down by Peter’s companion and interpreter Mark, from memory, after Peter died. Mark is interesting, because Matthew and Luke both follow Mark, and when one disagrees with Mark the other will agree with Mark; Mark is clearly not only the oldest, but the authors of Matthew and Luke clearly had a copy of Mark on hand while they wrote their gospels.

Mark’s account of the resurrection is extremely interesting to those people who study old handwritten gospel texts, compare them, and try to decide which reading belongs in our Bibles. I first learned about this in a class where I was assigned to compare Mark 16 according to various translations, and what I found is that Mark 16:9-20 is not in everybody’s Bible. I learned that there are four different ways that Mark ends; The oldest copies of Mark end with verse 8 “They said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.” There were other copies that had a “Shorter ending.” which reads “And all that had be commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter, And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Of course, the majority of ancient copied approved to be read in church contained our traditional verses 9-20 which ends with Jesus being taken up into heaven; of these some contained the shorter ending as well, but most did not.

If you look at your Bible, you will find one of three things; If you look at a King James Version, you will find Mark 16:1-20 with not even a note. If you look at a Revised Standard Version, you will see that it ends at verse 8, verses 9-20 might or might not be in a footnote. If you look at a New international version, or the New Revised standard Version, you will find a note that the oldest copies have nothing beyond verse 8, and you will find both the shorter and the longer ending of Mark. If you look at the English Standard Version, you will find a note that “Some early manuscripts do not include 16:9-20″, but you will not find the shorter ending.

The work done to decide which of these 4 options to print in a Bible is known as “Textural criticism”. Personally, my favorite choice is providing us with both the shorter and longer endings — of course I’m also the sort of person who likes critical editions of just about anything, especially when they are full of editor’s footnotes.

What I personally think is going on here is that the original ending was: “They were afraid.” We all know the story did not end there — we also know that it is not a very satisfying ending — but, in a real way it is the right ending. On Thursday, the disciples scattered, of the 12, only Peter followed Jesus to the trial. In Mark’s account of the Crucifixion, only the women were there — and the women were the ones who figured out where Jesus was buried so they could embalm the body on Sunday. I imagine Peter ending the story here, with the women while Peter and the disciples are still scattered and confused.

Two things that I want to point out — the first of which is a product of culture, and the second something in the phrasing. The first thing I want to observe is that from Thursday to Sunday, if there is any action that requires courage or strength of character the disciples don’t do that action; but the women did. While the disciples abandon Jesus, the women are there, all the way to the cross. Greek culture did not have a flattering view of women if you say somebody is womanlike, you would be calling that person a coward and possibly suggesting that the person had other moral weaknesses as well. If this gospel were accounted to a Greek audience, the point would be that Peter and the disciples were even more cowardly and morally inferior to women.

The second point is that when the angel spoke to the Mary’s and told them to tell the disciples and Peter. What stands out here is that Peter is named as somebody separate from the disciples. The last we saw of Peter — he was denying that he was a disciple — and, now we have the women sent to tell the disciples, and Peter who is at this point outside the number. In my mind I hear Peter telling this story, and I know Easter morning this is how things really were — Jesus was risen, but the disciples were still scattered, and Peter still had denied being a disciple and Jesus still had not restored him. I like the idea that Peter may have stopped telling the story here.

The thing is, we all know that this isn’t the end of the story — if it were, Peter would not be standing there telling it — there is much more to be said; shall we say, there is an epilogue. You see, the story does not end at the cross, nor does it end at the graveside — nor even with the angel telling Mary to tell the disciples. There is a reason why most Bibles have an Epilogue — because the story went on. Jesus met the disciples, specifically restored Peter, gave them a mission to spread the gospel to the ends of the Earth, ascended into heaven and put the story into the hands of the Disciples.

As you can see, I’m here speaking about this grand story of the gospel — the epilogue we read still does not go to the end of the story. The story continued after Peter and the others died, it continued after everybody who they taught died, and for generations following. The story of what Jesus is doing in the world is continuing today. The story of Easter is not just that Jesus was raised from the dead, but that Jesus became truly present. The end of the story is that not even death can keep our Lord away; even when we are unfaithful, Christ never abandons us.

Mark 10:46-52 Bartimaeus the last disciple

Reading:  Mark 10:46-52

The healing of Bartimaeus is unique; there is nothing like it in the book of Mark. I know, it seems familiar; Mark has three stories of Jesus healing blind people, and there is a way that it strongly resembles when Jesus healed the man blind from birth in Jerusalem — but as far as Mark goes there is only one healing like it. I found three things unique in the gospel account: How the Blind man was introduced, how he addressed Jesus, and how he responded once he was healed.

If you notice, Mark’s gospel tells us that Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus was sitting by the roadside. Now, you’ve likely noticed that when Jesus heals people in Mark, a very common description is: “And Jesus healed many who were sick.” Sometimes, there is a longer description of the healing — such as the paralyzed man who was lowered through the roof when Jesus had a chance to go home, but it is rare that we can identify who was healed from the passage. Even when Jesus healed Peter’s mother in law, or Jarius’ daughter, the person who was left unnamed. Bartimaeus is the only person Jesus healed who was significant enough to be given a name.

As you might know, name-dropping is generally something you do with names that are familiar to the group. When this story was originally told, it is fairly safe to assume that people hearing the story when Peter told it in person would know who Bartimaeus was; this lead me to an observation that I find curious; I have no idea who this man was outside of the Biblical text. Usually when I see a name in the New Testament, I can find what Christian tradition has to say about the person; but as far as I can tell, Christian tradition is silent on this man. While Peter named the blind man healed in Jerusalem, Luke apparently edited the name out. Bartimaeus was important enough to name when the apostles were still preaching the gospel, but the reason has been forgotten; then again, perhaps the other two unique things in this story may offer us a hint.

The second unique feature of this story is when Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus, He cries out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” When we see this, we see the blind beggar publicly saying something about Jesus that nobody else says; that he is the son, and perhaps the Heir of David. Peter might have recognized that Jesus was the Messiah privately, but this blind beggar publicly proclaimed who Jesus was while he was calling for mercy. He wanted to be healed, and he asked for healing — but he knew that Jesus was more than just a healer.

The final feature of this story that is unique is how the blind man responded to the healing. I’m going to get back to this idea in a little bit, but first, I want us to consider what happened when Jesus healed people. Generally, when Jesus healed people, after they got what they needed they went home, and presumably went on with their lives. Perhaps the best example is Luke 17, where Jesus heals ten lepers — he tells the ten to go and show themselves to the priests (so they can be accepted back into society.) All ten of them are healed, but only two return to Jesus to say “Thanks you.” While Jesus asks where the other 8 are, if I look at all the stories of healing, I get the idea that even 2 out of 10 coming back to say thank-you was an extraordinarily rare event. Once people get what they want, they go away.

Now, I know that this is much like the experience that we have in real life. If you talk with people who work with soup kitchens, or food pantries, or any number of aid charities, you will learn that you don’t get very many thank-you notes for your work. People know that you are there for those who need something, and they take what they need and go home. Whether we like it or not, this is the nature of things — the relationship is purely one of providing a service to someone who needs the service.

Many of us also know somebody who only calls when he or she needs something, but who is never there for us. This was the relationship Jesus appears to have had with almost everybody that he healed. Bartimaeus was different; he got up from where he was begging, and followed Jesus on the way. This is exactly what the disciples did — they left their familiar old life and followed Jesus. If I were to guess why Bartimaeus was named, I would guess it is because he was one of the disciples.

After this, there are no more stories of those Jesus healed in Mark’s gospel. We are now in the last week of Jesus’ life; immediately after Bartimaeus follows Jesus, Mark moves on to the triumphal entry. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way, but at this point the cross is only a week away. Bartimaeus knows something about who Jesus is, he does what disciples do right at the time when it was hardest to be a disciple and even the 12 were scattered. His story is one that I wish were not forgotten.

Mark 8:1-21 — Yeast of Herod and the Pharisees

Reading:  Mark 8:1-21

Like last week, the story of the feeding of 5000 does not stand in isolation — but, if you skip forward a couple chapters you read the story of the feeding of the 4000. The feeding of the 4000 sounds very familiar, so familiar that it is tempting to guess that it is another version of the same story.

There is a pattern to this as well. You might have noticed that last week in Chapter 5, the Sunday school lesson talked about Jesus healing the demon possessed man in the country of the Gerasenes — and the feeding of the 4000 follows the healing of the Canaanite woman’s daughter and the Greek deaf-mute that I spoke of last week. Chapters 5-8 have important elements that are repeated — whether it is the healing of those the Jews consider enemies, or the feeding of large crowds.

When something is repeated like this, there is a hint that there is something that we are supposed to learn. When Jesus talks to the disciples about what they are supposed to learn from a teaching or an event, it is something that we should pay attention to as well. I imagine that everybody who listened noticed something. I will briefly share what came out when I read this text.

First, I notice that the motivation for feeding the crowds is compassion. At the feeding of the 5000, the disciples had compassion, and encouraged Jesus to send the people to the city where they could buy food. In the feeding of the 4000, Jesus had compassion because they had been with him for three days saying: “If I send them home hungry, they will faint along the way.”

The next thing I notice is that the disciples never expect a miracle. We read any of the gospels, and it appears that Jesus is constantly doing miracles — but, even when it is something the disciples have seen before they still seem surprised. The second time, when Jesus tells the disciples he wants to feed another crowd, the answer is: “How can one feed these people in the desert?” This is all the more remarkable as the writer of Mark goes out of his way to tell the reader that they have seen this before. Mark 8 begins telling us that “there was again a great crowd without anything to eat.” Later when Jesus talks to the disciples and mentions this miracle, Jesus asks specifically about feeding both the 5000 and the 4000, asking: “How many baskets are left over.”

The final thing that I notice is that the disciples never seem to learn. The disciples hear every sermon Jesus preaches, they hear every parable, and they even have Jesus to privately explain what they never understood — yet they never understand. Sometimes, I wonder if Peter and the others didn’t exaggerate their cluelessness, because it is hard to believe that they could have missed everything Jesus said and taught and did while they were standing there and studying under Him.

After Jesus teaches and feeds the people, he leaves, and the next place he goes he has the Pharisees calling for a sign. I find it remarkable that “no sign will be given to this generation,” because it seems like there are huge signs everywhere that Jesus goes. Remember what Jesus told the disciples of John when John asked if Jesus was the messiah? “The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and Good news is proclaimed to the poor.” Everywhere Jesus goes, there are signs unless one chooses to ignore them. How can there be a sign for somebody who refuses to read any signs?

When Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, Jesus tells them to beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod. The disciples asked each other if this was because they didn’t bring enough bread, and Jesus reminds them that a lack of bread isn’t the problem because of miracles.

In Matthew, Jesus compares the kingdom of heaven to yeast — just a little yeast works it’s way through all of the dough. Yeast is, you might say, like mustard or salt, or light; it fills the space it is given. Apparently, the kingdom of heaven isn’t the only thing that one can be full of. Do we not understand what the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees is?

Now, if I were to guess, I would guess that it would be the same yeast. Herod was a puppet king of Rome. The Pharisees were a powerful political party. One of the reoccurring themes in the gospel is that Jesus does not take a place as a politician, nor does he take an Earthly throne — indeed, he insists that his Kingdom is of another place. When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, the final temptation was political power, if he would worship Satan.

Christian leaders have compromised their faith and Christ’s teachings for the promise of political power on many occasions. I don’t want to fall into the trap of saying: “primitive Church good, Constantine bad”, because I don’t believe that the leaders of the Roman empire embracing Christianity was a bad thing at all; but in some ways having a worldly kingdom as a nominal ally makes Christianity more complex. When Rome was an enemy, Christians were only concerned with how to be a citizen of God’s kingdom. With Rome as an ally, Christians also had to consider how to be a good Roman. No man can serve two masters — even when a kingdom of Earth is friendly, it still isn’t the same thing as the kingdom of God. Because of Constantine, we must be careful that the temptation of political power does not change the mission of the Church.

I do want to observe that this change made Jesus’ final temptation, the temptation to seek worldly power instead of the Kingdom of God became very real at this point. In many ways, a hostile empire would have been easier — the yeast of worldly power can have a way of working it’s way through the church. If we are not careful, we might become more identified with a political position than with a gospel that heals and saves those around us. We risk choosing the kingdom of the world when we choose which master that we serve.

The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but beware of the yeast of Herod and the Pharisees. May we choose our yeast wisely, and may the right yeast work its way throughout the dough.

Mark 5:1-17; 7:24-37 — Healing enemies

Reading:  Mark 5:1-17, 7:24-37

When we read the how Jesus went to the land of the Garasenes, many things stand out. There is the fact this encounter took place in a graveyard, that the Demons were named Legion, that these demons went into pigs, and killed the entire herd of pigs, and that when they saw the formerly demon possessed man healed and in his right mind, they were afraid and asked Jesus to leave.

When I think of this, I notice that the land of the Garasenes is a place, so I look at a map. Looking at the map from this time period, I see on the coast of the Sea of Galilee is a city named Hippus, then after that you walk about 6 miles crossing the river Yarmuk and arrive at Gadara. Gerasa is deep inland, located at the same place as the modern Jordanian city of Jerash — which is more like a 40 mile walk. There is some variation in manuscripts however — some appear to refer to Gerasa, other appear to mention Gadara. Either way, to get to his destination, he had to cross the territory of at least one city state, and at minimum he had to walk a couple hours inland and cross a river.

Hippus, Gadara, Gerasa are all cities in a region know as Decapolis. Decapolis was a group of 10 Greek cities founded in the 4th century BC. These cities controlled a relatively large region of land, creating a region that was colonized and largely populated by Greeks. Decopolis used the Greek language, Greek Architecture, and was culturally Greek in a larger region that used the Aramaic language and was culturally Hebrew and Canaanite. Decapolis is a large Greek colony that supplanted those who were indigenous to the region.

Now, I know that for the most part our ancestors were colonists — we know what that looks like. Jerusalem also knew what it looked like to turn a city into a Greek colony. You might know about the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah. This is the celebration of the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. One of the Cities that the Greeks tried to colonize and make culturally Greek was Jerusalem. One of the things they tried to do was to Hellenize the Jews — or, one might say de-Judize them.

The grievances the Jews had against the Greeks were pretty significant. They tried to force them to eat pork, and otherwise violate the Torah so they would better conform to Greek culture, and perhaps the most significant offense was that Antiochus entered Jerusalem and the temple re-dedicated to Zeus. He had an alter of Zeus placed at the alter, and scarified a pig to Zeus in the temple. The Temple was also looted, and copies of the Torah were destroyed.

There was a revolt, and Judas Maccabees and others drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem, rededicated the Temple, and started a new Jewish kingdom — this Jewish kingdom remained independent until it was replaced with Herod’s kingdom; under Herod, they were a client-state of the Roman Empire; meaning they were not colonized but they were not independent either.

Here is the thing, this is a story of Jesus going somewhere uncomfortable for him and his disciples, and there is no obvious reason why he goes there. The city named in Mark implies he walked from morning to dusk into territory run by historic enemies; the last great enemies that the Jewish people fought and drove out of Judah.

His destination was also a place that would have caused discomfort; Jesus goes to a graveyard where none of his own relatives are buried. As you might know there is a taboo of dead bodies, so it violates this taboo for Jesus to enter a foreign graveyard. The Demons introduce themselves as Legion, the Roman equivalent of a modern Brigade — but most important, the demons introduced themselves with the name of what oppresses the Jewish people. When he cast out the demons, they went into a herd of unclean animals — pigs. Everything about Decapolis was something that was foreign to Jesus and his disciples; and the people there begged Jesus to leave when the man was found in his right mind.

What strikes me the most about this story is how one of its elements is not unique, but instead a theme that is repeated. This is not the only time that Jesus goes into a place that makes Jews uncomfortable — it is not the only time he visits historic enemies. The Sunday School lessons skip Chapter 7; in Chapter 7, Jesus goes to Phoenicia, specifically to the region of Tyre; Phoenicia was the last enclave of Canaanites — an ancient enemy of Israel. While Jesus is in Phoenicia, he speaks to a woman and casts a demon out from her daughter. The following miracle has him returning to Decapolis to heal a deaf man.

The pattern I see in this story, and in those following is that Jesus, with no clear reason why, travels to visit Israel’s enemies. Jesus finds a person who is in need of healing, and he saves that person; whether it is a Greek man who is a danger to himself and others, or a Canaanite girl, or a Greek man who is deaf and mute.

In Matthew, I would point to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus tells those who hear to love their enemies. In Mark, instead, I see this in a series of stories, very close to one another where Jesus leaves Jewish country to deliberately visit the nations that are historic enemies; and while he is there he offers healing and salvation to those who need it. The first time, there is fear and Jesus is asked to leave, but the second and third time people seek Jesus to ask him to heal somebody they know who needs it.

Sometimes it is easy to think about love for one’s neighbor as something passive. Sometimes we think of it as merely trying to get along. There are many times when I think of things this way — I want to be silent and invisible. I don’t want to make peace so much as I want to avoid conflict. I certainly don’t want to go somewhere uncomfortable. Jesus showed me another way though. Jesus shows me that sometimes loving enemies means going where they are and giving them what they need.

When Peter told these stories of Jesus going to the lands of the Gentiles, and even going to places that were unclean, he told a story that prefigured something in his own life. Peter was the disciple who had the vision that told him that the Church was to accept the Gentiles, without asking them to adopt the customs of the Jews. Peter was also the first apostle to go specifically to the Gentiles — he headed up a mission to Antioch, and he was the first to speak on behalf of the Gentiles to the Church in Jerusalem.

When Jesus went to Greek cities, or Canaanite cities he personally demonstrated that His gospel was of a wider scope than just the people of Judah. Yes, Jesus eventually gave a great Commission that called for the disciples to make disciples even at the ends of the earth — but He did more than speak this, he demonstrated that his mission went beyond the boundaries of his own country and his own people. Jesus saving a Greek man in a Greek graveyard from demon possession is more than another miracle story — it is a story that shows that the gospel is for everyone.