Mark 9: 30-37: childlike foolishness

This passage is only seven verses long. However, it holds a message that has really been shaping my faith recently, as well as holding a lot of other lessons on how (not) to behave. In it, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be handed over to men and he will die. How do they respond? They bicker about who is the best out of them.

Now, imagine this. You have just been given a terminal diagnosis. You know soon you are going to die and it is probably a terrifying, daunting, sad prospect. So, of course, you tell your close family and friends. But rather than supporting you and consoling you, a fight breaks out. They start telling each other that they are better than the rest. Imagine how that would make you feel? This is pretty much what is happening to Jesus right now.

Jesus, knowing them pretty well, knows what the argument was about. He tells them that they need to stop worry about who is the greatest but who is the least. In fact, they need to be like children: utterly dependent on their father and having no status away from their family. I wrote about this in a blog post about 2 Peter 1. We often kid ourselves that God wants us to join in his work because we’ve got something important to contribute. Imagine the thought process in that. “Oh, I have been called to this work because God needs me.” I know I often fall for this trap. God does not need me whatsoever. He is wholly able to solve any problem or do any task infinitely better than I am. So, if I start thinking God needs me to do this, I am clearly missing the point.

However, God choose me. He chooses me despite my lack of qualifications, my inability, my sin. It’s like a really bizarre job interview process. My CV is scant and lacking. My references are appalling (God knows all my sin and failings) Yet he gives me the job because I am his son. It is the biggest case of nepotism I can think of.

So, I need to learn to live each day reminding myself, “I am just a foolish, dependent, needy child who is in the care of his heavenly Father.” I need to put aside all thoughts that God chose me because of my abilities and I need to really humble and submit myself into the hands of the Lord.

This may seem like I’m unnecessarily destroying my self-esteem for no reason. But have you ever seen a child play? When they make tea for their dolls or race their cars, they don’t care whether they are good enough to do that. They don’t worry, “Am I adequate enough to stack blocks?” It’s not stifling; it’s freeing! You are not good enough to do God’s work but you still get to do it anyway! It’s through God’s power and help that you accomplish great things. It’s such a privilege that God would use a loser like me.

Mark 7:24-30 – the anti-Karen

This passage is quite difficult to read, sometimes. A woman comes to Jesus, asking for help for her possessed daughter, and Jesus, who we know is kind and compassionate, calls her a dog. It’s really jarring and hard for us to understand.

There are a few reasons why this happened. First of all is the relationship between oppressed Israel and the wealthy Syrophoenician region of Tyre. Essentially, they hated each other. Furthermore, the region of Galilee often lost a lot of its resources and wealth to the Syrophoenicians. So, usually, it was the Jewish bread being fed to the Syrophoenicians. (Thanks Biblegateway.com for the resources to know this by the way!)

Second, was that Jesus was a Jewish religious leader, serving the Jews. She was a gentle who didn’t even believe in God. It’d be a bit like me going to a busy Imam, asking he stopped everything he was doing for his Muslim community to help me. Aren’t those in his community his priority? Would it be wrong of me to assume I should have preferential treatment?

Jesus is basically pointing out that she isn’t really in the position to be asking for his help. Who is she that she should think Jesus would help her? She is the least of his worries. First, he has work to do for his fellow Jews.

It’s a bit of a slap in the face. So, the woman does what any of us would do, argue, storm off and make a fuss, demanding that she deserves to be helped and that it’s within her rights to be listened to. Actually, she does the opposite. She agrees with Jesus. She a agrees, through her clever and witty response, that she is a dog, but even sometimes, the dogs get something, even if it is just a tiny bit. This takes great humility on her part. She accepts her status; she acknowledges Jesus’s priority. She also testifies to Jesus’s power. Even a crumb would do; just something tiny from someone so powerful would be enough. And, because she is willing to approach with humility, she is blessed.

The NIV Application Commentary you get with a Biblegateway.com subscription (I’m not advertising or sponsored, but if I were… looks at Biblegateway.com) has been really helpful. It asks what would Jesus have said to us to challenge our pride. I think, Jesus would have probably said I was stupid or foolish (often like he says to the disciples). And I would have left. I would not have stayed around and accepted the insult. My pride would have prevented me from accepting Jesus’s blessing.

I think that we often see in Western society an inflated sense of our entitlement and status. The internet meme sensation of the term ‘Karen’ perhaps exhibits this. (I think this term should be used carefully, because it could be used to police well-meaning people’s behaviour and is somewhat misogynistic.) However, the woman in this story is perhaps the opposite. She accepts that she has no entitlement, priority or influence. Yet, she is still persistent in asking for her help and realises that the blessings are actually for those in her position. So, in her humility, she is given what she came for.

Mark 7:1-23 – Rules and Regulations

In this passage, Jesus clashes with the Pharisees. That’s not a surprise. However, the subject of the clash probably is: hand washing. The disciples had not washed their hands before eating. Now, to us (especially in COVID days), that perhaps sounds a bit gross. We perhaps imagine that the reason that there was an issue was because the disciple’s hands were obviously dirty, especially as the word “defiled” is used. This is probably not the case. Let’s be honest, how many of us give our hands anything more than a cursory rinse before eating if they look clean?

The disciples hands, if they hadn’t washed them, were probably mostly clean. So, the Pharisees were not questioning the disciple’s hygiene. The Pharisees were questioning the disciples adherence to ritual practices. Before Jews ate, they performed a ceremonial washing of the hands. The worry was that the disciples had come into contact with something that was ritually impure (for example, they could have come into contact with someone that had contact with blood, like a butcher). So, their hands may have been ritually defiled, not literally defiled. This is what they were meant to wash off, the “impurity” of day-to-day life.

Jesus condemned the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. It is not what they have come into contact with that makes them unclean. It is what is in their heart and the outpouring from that which makes them unclean. It is not the purity rituals but their morality that decides what type of person they are. This is why only God can truly judge us; only he can weigh the contents of a person’s heart.

Of course, the church has been so much better at this in recent times, hasn’t it? (We’ve only got to think of the appalling treatment of those on the outside of society by some of the church to realise this is not the case. A particularly harrowing example is the treatment of those born out of wedlock in Ireland, for example.) And although we perhaps don’t have such strong concepts of ritual purity, we’ve perhaps replaced this with social niceties today. These, too, are about the outward but superficial signs of goodness. You can still be malicious but say your please and thank yous.

Here’s a short and interesting video about how the UK church is too middle class. A lot of what we do, without realising, alienates those who don’t know our rules and regulations, our rituals and ways of doing things.

I wonder how then, we go about caring about what Jesus cared about. How do we see people as he saw them and focus on issues of the heart rather than outward and superficial signs of goodness. Truly, I don’t think we can. At least, not without the help of the Holy Spirit in us.

Mark 6:30-56 – Powerful Compassion

There are two evident themes in this part of Mark 6 is Jesus’ power but also his compassion. Jesus’s power reveals itself in a number of ways: his power to provide, his power to control nature, his power to heal. However, his power is always marked by compassion: compassion towards the crowds, compassion towards the disciples, compassion towards the sick. The mix of holy, supernatural power and holy, righteous love here is amazing.

This section comes after the news that Jesus’s cousin John the Baptist has just been killed. This was probably extremely distressing news for Jesus. In the midst of this, huge crowds flocked around him, denying him the chance to rest as Jesus had intended. If I was in that situation, I would be very impatient, grumpy and resentful. Jesus obviously wanted some peace and quiet, but he couldn’t get it. But when he saw the crowd, verse 34 tells us, ‘he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.’ Despite his grief, weariness and own desires being unmet, Jesus still responded with compassion.

In his compassion, he taught them. He met their need for spiritual edification and answers. After this he also provided for their physical needs through the miracle of feeding a huge crowd. Jesus has the power to meet all our needs.

In the next section, Jesus walks on turbulent water, against a strong wind. This is a powerful miracle. He walked into the middle of sea and revealed himself to the disciples. Furthermore, when they were fearful, Jesus had compassion, joined them and reassured them. Jesus can meet us wherever, having the power to overcome every obstacle (including a massive and petulant body of water). In his compassion, he is also able to calm our fears as we encounter the Son of God who was there at the beginning of creation.

Finally, Jesus heals the sick. He has the power to restore the broken in body and spirit. He is so powerful that even the hem of his cloak can restore health. Those that come to him find restoration.

Power and compassion, woven together.

Now, when I read the gospels, I sometimes imagine how I would have reacted if I were there. Or ask, what were the disciples thinking at the time? Surely, they were in joyful, blissful awe. How could you react in any other way than sheer amazement? Well, verse 51 tells us they were indeed amazed. But verse 52 then adds an interesting, startling but also so human twist to it. Mark tells us they do not understand and they harden their hearts to it. It is easy to be confounded at this and ask how could the disciples, witnessing Jesus’ power, harden their hearts. But I know that I am guilty of the same very thing. My cold logic, or my over-familiarity with the stories, means that I am numb to the true power and compassion revealed in this. How often do I not see Jesus for who he is: the compassionate, powerful, Son of God?

Lord God,

I thank you for your son Jesus Christ. He is powerful and compassionate. He has power to provide, to overcome nature, to heal. He is loving and cares for his sheep.

Lord God, I am often like a sheep without a shepherd. I wander, lost and uncertain. May I know Jesus’s guidance and compassion. Lord God, meet with me and calm my fears. May I know your son’s presence in my life. Lord God, there are so many times my heart is hardened to your words and your power. Open my heart so that I may have faith and receive your son.

Lord God, hear my prayer.

Amen

Mark 6:14-29: the Evil of Political Powers

This is perhaps one of the most shocking stories of the gospel. Of course, the crucifixion should be equally shocking, but it’s so familiar to us that sometimes we are numb to it. I think it is also important for setting out a few things.

The time that Jesus lived in was dangerous. First, it was dangerous just in terms of crime. The Good Samaritan story came out of a rather well-known phenomenon of the time; people would get attacked on the roads. A lot of Jesus’s parables in fact made use of some of the violent aspects of his society. Second, it was dangerous in terms of disease and mortality. But in the story of where John the Baptist gets beheaded, we see a third type of danger. Those in power were dangerous. They were capricious, jealous and cruel.

If the partner of a world leader today, let’s say Boris Johnson’s fiancée Carrie Symonds, ask for someone’s head for her birthday, she would be denounced as evil. To actually then receive at a birthday party in front of guests, it would result in a ridiculous amount of scandal, arrests, resignations and global outrage. Moreover, Herod did this because his dancing step-daughter pleased him. That also seems somewhat horrific by today’s standards.

Herod accidentally trapped himself, too. His power did not allow him to escape the political machinery. He did not actually want to kill John the Baptist (out of fear more than anything it seems). But it was fear and shame that made him kill John the Baptist too.

When world leaders are motivated by power, shame, reputation and greed, they are harmful, but especially harmful to those who try to stand for righteousness. Both John the Baptist and many prophets that came before him died this way. Furthermore, it is what ultimately insured that Jesus made it to the cross.

We need to take courage, however, in the fact that we do not actually belong to the kingdoms of this world. Although we may, whilst we are here, end up becoming trapped in its political machinery, we are in fact citizens of heaven. And when the politics of this world seems to be destroying all that is good and right, we need to remember that Jesus never cam for political power. Instead he came to see his kingdom of righteousness, justice and love to transcend and infiltrate through political borders and governments. That is what we pray for and hope for. For God’s kingdom to come, for his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

If you liked this…

Try reading my post Why democracy will always fail us.

Mark 6: 1–6: What are you missing?

If you were to talk to people from different stages of my life, you’d likely get a very different interpretation of my character. These stages don’t have to be particularly far apart. Take two of my friends who I’ll refer to by their initials, K and S. K was a friend during secondary school and college. She knew me at the awkward teenager stage. S was a friend as university. She knew me at the awkward university student stage. (All my life stages are awkward, just at different points and in different ways.) If you asked K and S whether I was organised, the answer would be completely different. K would say not at all: I constantly forget things; I don’t keep deadlines well; I’m a scatter-brain. S would say that I was extremely organised: everything was submitted well in advance; I could handle a wide-range organisational challenges simultaneously; I managed my time well. A part of this is the massive effort I made in my first semester to get systems in place (I had a diary where I wrote everything. The receipts of my book loans were stapled inside. I had a cover-page template for all my reading notes where I kept extensive bibliographical notes so I knew the references to quotation with ease…)

Despite this apparent transformation, I think K would find it hard to believe that I’m considered to be pretty well organised by most people I’ve encountered in my adult life. (I’m still working on the tidy part…) So, when I read the first part of Mark 6, I sort of understand the situation Jesus finds himself in. I also understand the perspectives of those around him. It must be hard for those that knew Jesus as a child and as a carpenter to believe he was indeed the Son of God. In fact, I believe (and may be wrong) that it’s indicated somewhere that his brothers were very hard to convince and only believed after Jesus’ death.

My favourite verse, perhaps, of this part is verse 5: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” The fact that healing a few sick people is seen as unremarkable. Imagine if your complaint was “I only managed to do one miracle today. Yesterday, I could do fifty-six.” (I’m not going to get into the debate as to whether miracles still happen or not. But they do but might not necessarily meet our definition of a miracle—whoops, I got into it.) What is incredible here is that Jesus performing many miracles was the expectation. It just goes to show how incredible he actually was. Also, it makes me think about how Jesus is responsive to the wishes and attitudes of those around him. He doesn’t thrust miracles on people. He graciously allows them to accept them.

The questions it raises for me is what have I been unwilling to accept in my life? How have I stymied Jesus’s untold, unfathomable blessings through a hardness of heart? I am pretty sure that it has happened. Jesus is still good and patient and I am still exceptionally blessed. But, maybe there is more that I could be receiving if only I opened my hands and heart to accept it. I wonder if that’s the same for any of you?

Mark 5: Jesus’s cleansing power

In chapter 5 of Mark, we see what it means to usher in God’s kingdom and the power of the good news. Jesus shows his authority over evil spirits, sickness and even death itself. We’ve also previously seen how Jesus has power over sin. It’s Jesus’s power over all of these things that makes him the only candidate to be able to redeem us all forever. He has dominion over evil, sin and death; being able to irradiate it and free his people from it. Furthermore, this chapter reveals how Jesus removes everything that is impure.

First, we see Jesus remove a legion of impure spirits from the possessed man. The man lived in tombs, which automatically made him unclean, but he was also possessed by unclean spirits, which of course was the bigger issue here. He would have been a bloody, bleeding, dirty, ritually unclean , presumably naked mess. Jesus deals with this by allowing the impure spirits enter animals that were considered impure — pigs. (Note, that Jesus did not drive the pigs off the cliffs, the entry of the demons did.) The drowning of the possessed pigs echoed the drowning of Pharaoh’s army. Jesus was the new Moses, defeating the true enemy: the spiritual forces of evil.

In the second half of this chapter, Jesus interacts with two unclean people: one by virtue of her illness, the other because she is dead. However, Jesus is able to change their unclean states into those of being clean.

Therefore, if you ever feel too dirty, unclean or somehow damaged for Jesus, it is unlikely to be the case. You have to be more spectacularly unclean than someone possessed by a hoard of demons, someone who has been bleeding for years, or someone that is dead. So, it is reassuring that Jesus can restore us to cleanliness, no matter how bad it gets.

Mark 3: Conflict

In this chapter, Jesus gets in to more conflict. First it is with the Pharisees, who disagree with him healing someone on the Sabbath. Then he gets into conflict with his own family. He famously says that those around him are his mother, brother and sisters, rather than those looking for him.

This does make me wonder whether conflict is just a normal part of the Christian faith. Will there always be people who disagree with us, even to the point where they want to kill us. Now obviously this is tricky for a number of reasons.

First, it is discerning whether the conflict is motivated for righteous and good reasons. The conflicts Jesus found himself in were obviously acceptable. He was sinless; it was always the other parties that were wrong. How do we know then when our conflicts are sinful or righteous? This is especially the case when, throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to show unity and love for one another. In fact, unity is one of the most important pieces of evidence that we are sent by Jesus. Therefore, if we are in conflicts with one another then we are not being particularly good witnesses for Christ. So, I suggest, that if the conflict is with another believer, it is wrong. Of course, the fact that we are reminded so often to live peacefully, patiently and lovingly with one another means we are likely to forget this. (You don’t remind someone to do something that comes naturally to them.) It takes effort but it’s an effort we should take.

Then, it is perhaps that we should expect conflict with non-believers. Perhaps not to the extreme shown here, but we should expect it nonetheless. But, we need to check our hearts and be humble. I don’t think we should be antagonistic, frustrating, stubborn or arrogant in this, as this is not a good witness. In fact, our words should be seasoned with salt and our answers should be full of grace. We should not pick a fight the the sake of picking a fight. However, we should not be surprised if opposition comes our way.

3 John: being hospitable

This letter is addressed to a particular recipient, a man named Gaius. This letter to serves to encourage Gaius in what he is doing and to commend him in his role is supporting the wider church.

Whereas 2 John warns against letting false teachers stay in the believers’ homes, this letter praises Gaius for his hospitality towards genuine teachers. Gaius is contrasted against a man called Diotrephes. Diotrephes seems controlling, overbearing and power-hungry. He is not welcoming to travelling teachers.

I suppose the lesson in this letter, who would you rather be: Gaius or Diotrephes. Gaius is remembered for putting others’ needs before his, for opening his home up and accepting fellow believers. He often, it seems, opens his home to those who he has never met before. I’m sure that wasn’t an easy decision, as it can open yourself to being vulnerable. (I imagine it could have been even riskier in those times.) Diotrephes, as verse nine tells us, “loves to be first”. Therefore, he seems to spread rumours about other authority figures and refuse to welcome them.

Of course, we answer, I want to be Gaius! But do our lives actually reflect that? Are we sometimes eager to cling onto our power or reputation? Are we intimidated of those that might be seen as better than us? Do we belittle others in order to bolster our ego and reputation? Or, are we open handed and hospitable? Do we welcome travellers and strangers into our homes? Do we put the needs, reputations and honour of others before ourselves? I wonder what the church would look like if everybody followed this better example.

2 John: love and truth

2 John is a single chapter and it is pretty short. Essentially it is the ancient equivalent of snopes.com or factcheck.com. It is warning the members of a church (who the author – probably the disciple John – calls the lady chosen by God and her children) about false teachers that are travelling around spreading a false gospel.

It essentially says that if the teacher does not teach about Jesus Christ coming in the flesh then they are wrong. He also reminds the church to continue in love.

This short letter is actually quite a helpful lesson in the age of fake news. What are the main criteria of what we consume, post and share? Well, perhaps that it promotes love and testifies of Jesus Christ? I wonder what social media would look like if we followed those rules.