Journey With Jesus, Day 8: A Healing Touch

Mark 8:22-10:52

Today’s long reading starts with a strange story.  As with so many other instances in the gospel, Jesus heals, but this account is a little bit different from the rest.  Instead of healing in one motion, Jesus heals the blind man in Mark 8:22-26 in two stages, which can make some of us uncomfortable.  Why didn’t Jesus get it right the first time around?  A commentator named Morna Hooker is helpful in explaining that we should understand this story and others like it “not only as cures, but also as ‘acted parables’ of the miracle of faith.” (Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005], 197-198.)  This becomes apparent when we look at the story that follows.  Jesus asks his disciples who they say that he is, and Peter answers correctly that Jesus is the Messiah.  It seems that he sees!  But we find quickly that though Peter sees partially, his sight is not yet 20/20.  Directly after this amazing confession, Peter rebukes Jesus for speaking of his impending suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection.  It is as if Peter sees like the blind man: “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” (8:24)  Like the blind man, Peter needs another touch from the Savior if he is to see clearly.  The same can be said for the other disciples as well.  Jesus predicts his death three times in this section, and no one gets it!  First Peter rebukes Jesus.  Second, the disciples bicker over who is greatest.  Third, James and John ask for the best seats in the kingdom, which causes indignation among the others.  Jesus speaks of sacrifice and service, and the disciples fail to understand what this will mean both for Jesus and for those who follow him.  Much of this section is comprised of Jesus redefining greatness around his own example of service and the disciples failing to “see.”

This should give us hope, for we can sometimes be as clueless as the disciples in these stories.  It is as if “the miracle of faith,” as Morna Hooker calls it, has been granted but is not complete.  We need another touch if we are to see clearly.  We can take heart that Jesus never abandons his disciples for their cluelessness.  Instead, he goes out of his way to teach them again and again.  In this we can see the commitment of Jesus to his followers, and we can also see that clear sight is not always automatic.  The mark of discipleship is not that one understands everything in a flash.  No, the mark of discipleship is a continual following of Jesus.  In the end, this continual following makes the single flash of insight unnecessary, for we are allowed to learn along the way.  Jesus leads us faithfully and gives us the miracle of better sight at different points along the way.  The prerequisite is that we keep following and not that we get it all perfectly the first time around!

The section ends with another “acted parable’ as Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus.  This time, the healing is instantaneous: “Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.” (10:52)  In this we see the proper response of the disciple.  David Garland notes, “This miracle takes on symbolic significance as it caps the discipleship theme in this section.  Jesus has told others he has healed to go … Bartimaeus, however, does not choose to go off on his own way.  With his eyes now open, he decides to follow Jesus as every disciple is called to do.” (David Garland, Mark: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], 421).  In the two stage healing we see that there is hope even for us who don’t get everything right the first time.  We are called to follow, and we wait for those healing touches that bring about clear sight.  In the healing of Bartimaeus, we once again hear the call to follow and see it enacted by a new recruit.  May we follow his example, seeking to live faithfully by the light already given.  And may we also ask for clearer sight along the way.  As Paul said in Philippians 3:15-16, “All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.  Only let us live up to what we have already attained.”  What exactly have we attained, and are we living up to it?  Here is a question for disciples!

Journey With Jesus, Day 7: Unclean?

Mark 7:1-8:21

Throughout his ministry, we have seen Jesus again and again defying convention in regard to ritual cleanliness and purity.  This is especially true in view of his healings.  The leper, the woman with the bleeding issue, and the daughter of Jairus who passes away, all of whom are considered ritually unclean, are healed with a touch.  Of these, the contact with the leper and Jairus’ daughter were initiated by Jesus himself.  In the case of the woman with the bleeding issue, she initiates the contact, but note that she is not rebuked by Jesus for doing so.  David Garland remarks, “Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ connection with what is unclean does not render him unclean.  Quite the reverse, Jesus purges the impurity.” (David Garland, Mark: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], p. 225)  In this, we see the power of Jesus to cleanse without fear of contamination.

In today’s passage we see this theme revisited in a different way.  Rather than simply ignoring convention himself by touching untouchables, he redefines purity for everyone else!  This is seen in the account of his confrontation with the Pharisees over food laws.  The idea being challenged is that eating food designated unclean would render the eater unclean as well.  Jesus proposes quite the opposite in arguing, “Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  Here, he completely turns the tables.  Cleanliness is not an issue of avoiding contact with unclean things.  Instead, it is an internal issue.  In this, we are invited to consider what is “coming out” of us (see Mark 7:20-23).  Is it pure or less so?  As we consider this, we can be heartened by God’s transforming grace and pray that we might be cleaned from the inside out.  And we should of course live in accordance with this prayer by seeking purity in practical ways as well.

Note also that after this scene, Jesus once again challenges sensibilities in this area as he ministers to Gentiles.  Garland is again helpful in explaining, “Most Jews in the first century shared without question the prejudice that Gentiles defiled by touch, just like a person with a flux.  They regarded their uncleanness as something innate…” (Garland, 288)  We now see Jesus in the difficult account of the Syrophonecian woman and then healing a deaf and mute man form the Decapolis, which represents Gentile territory.  In the next story, Jesus feeds four thousand, probably in the same region.  All of this stands as ministry to “unclean” Gentiles.  The issue of uncleanness has ballooned from individuals to an entire swath of people, and we see Jesus once again not shrinking back but engaging these people as well.  Jesus is not deterred by prejudice but instead models a radical inclusivity.  In the realm of purity and cleanness, we hear Jesus pointing us to self-examination rather than avoidance and challenging us to radical inclusivity.  May we heed him well.

Journey With Jesus, Day 6: Counting the Cost

6:1-56

In today’s reading, we see yet another example of a “Markan Sandwich.”  This time, the story of the disciples’ mission is interrupted by the grisly tale of the execution of John the Baptist.  At first glance, the two stories seem to have little in common.  One is the triumphant tale of accomplished mission.  The other is the tragic tale of a silenced prophet.  But this difference is actually what pulls the two stories together.  As David Garland argues, “[The death of John the Baptist] foreshadows the suffering that comes to God’s messengers.  What happens to John will happen to Jesus in his mission and to the disciples in theirs.” (David Garland, Mark: The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], p. 246)  There is a cost to following Jesus and ministering in his name.  For some, like most of the apostles, the martyrs of history, and even the martyrs of today, the cost is nothing short of life itself.  We live in a culture in which the threat of martyrdom is far removed, though we do sometimes see Christians singled out for their faith in our own context.  At the same time, we may indeed face other costs for following Christ like being shunned by certain segments of society or having to make hard choices between faithfulness to the teachings of Jesus and success as it is defined by our culture.  These difficulties, of course, pale in comparison to the trials of may Christians around the world, but they are costs nonetheless.  Perhaps this part of today’s reading can help us count the cost of discipleship.  It can also lift our eyes to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are hard pressed for professing Jesus and ministering in his name.  Let us pray for them, asking that God might strengthen them in the time of trial and for relief from trial as well.  And may we pray for ourselves, asking for strength to imitate the faithfulness of our brothers and sisters who stand faithfully in the face of great cost.

Journey With Jesus, Day 5: Faith

Mark 4:35-5:43

In today’s reading, we see the power of Jesus on display.  He commands a storm to be stilled, showing his control over the chaotic elements of nature.  He casts out a demon named Legion (as dictionary.com tells us, a legion was “a division in the Roman army, usually comprising 3000-6000 soldiers), thereby showing his power over the demonic.  Jesus heals the woman with a bleeding issue, displaying his power over sickness.  And he raises a little girl from the dead, showing power even over death.  In these actions Jesus gives a foretaste of the kingdom.  Revelation 21:1-5 describes an amazing scene in which there is no more chaos, mourning, crying, pain, or death.  In the end, God will have the last word, and he will banish all of these negative things from the new heaven and new earth!  We see the beginnings of this movement in Jesus and wait expectantly for him to return, bringing the kingdom in perfection.

As usual, all of these stories cry out for further comment.  Today, I’ll focus on the stories of Jairus and the woman with the bleeding issue.  Here we once again see a “Markan Sandwich,” in which one story is interrupted by another.  In this case, the healing of Jairus’ daughter is interrupted by the healing of the woman, and the two stories should be viewed together.  David Garland astutely observes that the characters of Jairus and the woman are opposites.  He explains, “Jairus is a male, a leader of the synagogue.  As a man of distinction he has a name.  Jairus has honor … By contrast the woman is nameless, and her complaint renders her ritually unclean.  She is walking pollution … She has no honor …” (Garland, Mark: NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996], p. 225)  These characters are very different, indeed.  And yet they are united in on thing: their faith in Jesus.  Both come in faith seeking help.  In this, we see a leveling of the playing field.  Jesus does not play favorites based on who has greater status.  He doesn’t ignore the woman because she has “no honor,” as Garland puts it.  Instead, Jesus responds to the faith of both.  Faith unites us as we come to Jesus regardless of our differences.  It binds us together in mutual need and belief.  And it overshadows both our honor and dishonor, neither of which is determinative of our relationship to God.  As Paul says so beautifully in Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”  Whether we identify more with Jairus or the woman, let us remember that it is by faith that we approach Jesus and receive his blessing.

Journey With Jesus, Day 4: Parables

Today’s reading can be both difficult and frustrating.  In 4:12, Jesus seems to say that he purposely makes his message hard to understand so that “outsiders” won’t get it.  Then he moves into a series of parables that can leave us scratching our heads and wondering if perhaps we are on the outside!  It’s important to note, though, that the distinction between insiders and outsiders is not that insiders get it and outsiders don’t.  After giving the parable of the sower, the twelve and others ask Jesus for an interpretation.  It seems that no one understood straight away!  In this light, the true distinction between insiders and outsiders lies in the tenacity of the listener.  Those who pressed forward, asking for understanding received it.  At the same time, we also stand in the mystery of why some find Jesus compelling enough to pursue, while others do not.  For this question, I am content to embrace mystery.

Looking to the parable of the sower and its interpretation, we see Jesus describing four different kinds of soil or kinds of persons.  The first does not receive the seed of the word.  Instead, the seed is stolen away by Satan.  The second does receive the seed, but only shallowly and superficially.  In the noon time heat of persecution, the seed withers away.  The third receives the seed more deeply but is beset by obstacles to growth.  Ultimately, the thorns of care, desire for wealth, and other desires choke the seed.  And then there is the fourth.  This soil/person receives the seed and produces a crop.  In hearing this parable, we are invited to consider the soil of our own lives.  Where do we fall on the spectrum?  Though we may wish to rush to the fourth option, I would encourage that we take a moment to consider the others, perhaps especially the seed among thorns.  Our culture encourages the pursuit of wealth and other desires.  Though these are not bad in and of themselves, might they be choking the crop that God desires in our lives?  As we consider these questions, we can pray that God will make the soil of our hearts more fertile for the journey ahead.

I would also encourage that we be careful of labeling others negatively with this parable.  Ultimately, it can be argued that the twelve were not representative of good soil.  After all, they all to a man desert Jesus when he is arrested by the authorities.  Peter goes on to deny Jesus three times.  All of this sounds much more like the seed on rocky ground.  Yet the twelve will go on to stand for Jesus and do great things for the kingdom.  They will produce an amazing crop, indeed!  This should give us both hope for ourselves when we feel like less than the good soil and pause before we label others negatively.  No one is beyond hope, and we do not know how God may be working.

Looking back to our own lives, perhaps we can consider our intentions as disciples.  In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  This is a prayer of cosmic proportions as we ask that God’s kingdom may come perfectly to this world, but it is also a very personal prayer as we invite God’s kingdom and will into our own lives and spheres of influence.  In my mind, the heart that prays this prayer and means it represents good soil, for it seeks actively to accept the seed of the word.  Maybe a place to start as we consider the parable of the sower is to pray this prayer and then seek to live it out.  In doing so, we welcome the kingdom into our lives.

A Note on the Fishermen

After reading my post for Day 2, a congregant alerted me to Luke’s account of the calling of Simon, Andrew, James, and John.  In Luke’s version (Luke 5:1-11), the fishermen are partners, and Peter owns his own boat.  Taking this information from Luke puts a big hole in my speculation about the difference in means of the two sets of brothers, with Simon and Andrew being less well off than James and John.  At the same time, this information is not in Mark’s account, where a partnership is not mentioned.  Here we see one of the difficulties of reading the gospels side by side.  Each gospel writer is painting a portrait of Jesus that accentuates different features, and sometimes the details of the stories do not line up neatly.  The challenge is to read these accounts of Jesus together while also letting each stand on its own merit.

In any case, I must admit my thoughts on the social disparity of the fishermen were conjecture following a very brief speculation by David Garland in his commentary on Mark.  As such, they shouldn’t be held too tightly, though they do catch my imagination.  Ultimately, our own experience and other pieces of the gospel (the calls of Levi and Simon the Zealot) bear out the idea that following Jesus can put us in strange company, and speculation about the fishermen is unnecessary to the argument.

Thanks to my congregant and friend for bringing Luke’s account to my attention!  This is part of the beauty of reading the Bible together.  We help one another see things that we otherwise might not have seen.  In this case, I have been challenged to reassess an idea that I enjoy and also to reread Mark’s calling of the fishermen.  Doing so has helped me see that if Mark does mean to allude to a class difference, he doesn’t make much of it.  Indeed, it may be best to rely on Luke to disprove the hypothesis.  For in Mark, the focal point of the story is not about a difference in class.  It is a shared willingness to leave all to follow, regardless of how much is left behind.  And this willingness to follow should not be overshadowed.  For this challenge and correction to my gaze, I am grateful.

Journey With Jesus, Day 3: The Family of God

Mark 3:7-34

I will date myself today in noting that Jesus has become Backstreet Boy famous.  Yes, I did grow up in the 90’s, and I’m not ashamed to admit it!  In the first passage of today’s reading, people are flocking to Jesus from the far north (Tyre and Sidon) and the far south (Idumea).  More than this, the crowds are becoming so intense that Jesus instructs his disciples to have a boat ready in case things get too crowded.  In yesterday’s reading, the Pharisees rejected Jesus and began to plot his death.  Jesus’ reception in the general population is far different.  They come from afar to see and hear this new teacher and healer.  Jesus is making waves.

Jesus’ choosing of the twelve was the subject of my last newsletter article.  Feel free to follow this link if you’d like to see my thoughts on that part of today’s reading.

And now we come to the part of the reading that catches my attention today.  In verses 20-34, we see our first example of a “Markan Sandwich” (I picked up this term in seminary and can’t claim it as my own), a storytelling tool that Mark uses several times in his gospel.  The idea with the Markan Sandwich is that one story is sandwiched in another.  In effect, Story A is interrupted by a Story B and then is revisited after Story B concludes.  When you see something like this in Mark’s gospel, expect the stories to be related.  One will shed light on how to intrepret the other and visa versa.

In this case, the story of Jesus’ family coming to “take charge of him” is interrupted by the story of the accusation leveled by the teachers of the law.  In regard to Jesus’ family, we’re not sure of their motives.  Maybe they are truly concerned about him.  On the other hand, maybe they are concerned with their own reputations.  The fact that this story is tied to what follows, though, paints Jesus’ family in a poor light.  In a moment, teachers from Jerusalem will seek to discredit Jesus’ ministry by accusing him of being demon possesed.  Jesus’ family doesn’t go this far and is not this malicious, but they are nevertheless in route with the intention of putting a stop to Jesus’ activity.  After Jesus discredits the teachers from Jerusalem, we are told that his family arrives, asking to see him.  At this point, Jesus does something dramatic; he redefines family around the will of God.

In his wonderful commentary on Mark, David Garland notes that this would not make a very good text for Mothers’ Day or Fathers’ Day.  Surely he is right!  Jesus seems grossly insensitive to his family!  Remember the situation, though.  Jesus’ family has come with intent similar to the teachers of the law; they are looking to put a stop to his activity and therefore to his ministry.  In response, Jesus points to a new familial bond that has been formed around the will of God.  Rather than a biological family, this is a spiritual family.  Also note that Jesus’ biological family is not necessarily excluded from this fellowship.  Should they rally around God’s will like the others, they too will be included.  In this instance, they stand in opposition to God’s will.  And also note that Jesus does not magically cease to be his mother’s son when he utters these words.  The biological bond and years together still exist.  Perhaps a helpful way of understanding this passage is to say that Jesus’ family has been extended to include spiritual members as well.  Moreover, when the biological family stands in opposition to God’s will, the spiritual family becomes that much more important.  In saying these words, Jesus offers comfort to those who have been rejected to some degree by their families because of their allegiance to him.  These are not left alone.  Instead, a new, spiritual family rises to love and support them.

In light of an ever more connected world, I sometimes wonder about this extension of family.  For instance, it is certain that many brothers and sisters in Christ around the world suffer from poverty.  Others suffer from oppression.  Still others from persecution.  What is my responsibility to these members of my spiritual family?  I know that I would seek to act on behalf of members of my biological family who suffered similar fates.  Can I do less for my spiritual family?  In asking this, I do not wish to paralyze anyone with the weight of these problems.  This would only lead to despair!  Instead, I point to a spiritual familial reality that can work itself out in practical ways.  At the very least, we can pray, and I wonder where that prayer might lead.  Could this be the question that helps us face not only the suffering of our brothers and sisters in Christ but also all of God’s image-bearers around the world?

And one final thought before closing.  Today’s passage includes a hard saying about an unpardonable sin that can throw some of us into a tailspin of doubt and insecurity concerning our standing with God.  Here are two points for thought.  First, Jesus is not vague in naming this sin as if anything and everything might fit the bill.  Instead, he is very clear in identifying the unpardonable sin as blaspheming against the Holy Spirit (assigning the work of the Spirit to the devil).  Second, even a blasphemer is not without hope.  David Garland notes that the Apostle Paul calls himself a former blasphemer (1 Timothy 1:13).  Yet Paul was indeed pardoned by God in Christ and used in mighty ways.  In this light, we should not lose the seriousness of Jesus’ words and tone, but we should also not walk in the shadow of fear.  Our confession is that Jesus saves those who call on his name, and this is cause for joy and confidence.