Friday, January 10, 2014

"What Makes a Person Unclean?" Mark Chapter 7

According to Chapter 7 of the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus was confronted by a group of Pharisees and legal scholars who demanded to know why he had not insisted that his disciples follow the rabbinical rules regarding ritual washing before eating.  Although various parts of the Torah (such as Leviticus Chapters 13-15) contain various rules regarding purification rituals (especially where people have had diseases or discharges), the rules referred to here in Mark may have been part of an oral tradition considered by the Pharisees to have been handed down from Moses (and later codified in the Talmud).  As in other situations in which authority figures raise objections regarding the behavior of weaker or lower-status people, Jesus responded in defense of those being attacked.  He objected to the legal scholars' tendency to insist on following human traditions that honored God "with the lips," while belittling people who could not be expected to know all the rules.  He also criticized the Pharisees and scholars for using technical legal requirements to avoid broader ethical responsibilities toward their elders.  As in Chapters 2, 3 and 4, Jesus addressed his responses separately to the legal challengers, to the crowd, and to his disciples.  He insisted that a person is not contaminated by anything that goes into his or her mouth, but rather by what comes out of it (in the form of spiteful speech).

It is, of course, easy to criticize the Pharisees and scribes in the story for what appears to be an excessively legalistic approach to piety.  But the author of the Gospel seems more concerned with (a) emphasizing Jesus' unique authority, and (b) raising questions about the natural tendency of all people to excuse their own shortcomings while insisting that other people behave only in ways that seem proper.  For example, it is easy for those of us who have never been tempted to use illegal drugs or alcohol to feel highly critical of those who have found themselves addicted to those substances.  At the same time, we all hope God will forgive our own faults; after all, we know that our intentions have always been good.  All too often in our own time, the Bible is used, not as a proclamation of God's love, but as a weapon for proving that other people are behaving improperly.   Can you think of any ways in which you object strongly to behavior by other people, who have given in to temptations you do not personally share? On the other hand, does Jesus really believe that "anything goes?"  How can we tell what rules are important?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mark 6:45-56--Walking on the Water

According to Mark's account, immediately after Jesus had fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread and two fish, he ordered his disciples to get into the boat and "go on ahead to the other side."  He said farewell and went up on the mountain to pray.  As evening came, while Jesus was alone on land, the disciples strained at their oars "against an adverse wind."  Mark reports that as Jesus came toward them, he intended to walk on past them (possibly to meet them at the destination, because they were making so little headway against the waves).  As Jesus was walking on the sea, the disciples thought they were seeing a ghost and cried out in fear.  Immediately, Jesus called out, "It is I; do not be afraid."  When he joined them in the boat, the wind ceased, and the disciples were astounded, "for they did not understand about the loaves."  Why does Mark mention the loaves that had fed the crowd?  What is the connection between this incident and the feeding incident?  Why does Mark keep saying that things happened "immediately"?  In what sense does Mark suggest that the disciples' hearts "were hardened"?

In all events, when the boat landed, Jesus and the disciples were in the land of Genesaret, where people recognized Jesus "at once."  Wherever he went in the region, people brought sick people to Jesus, begging him to heal them.  Mark reports that all those who even touched the fringe of his cloak were healed.  The reference to "fringe" may refer to a prayer shawl, reminding people of the protection of God's "wings."  Recall that in Chapter 5, a woman had sought to be healed by Jesus by touching the hem of his garment, in a manner that might have been intended to avoid a direct contact that could render Jesus ritually unclean.  In what ways does Mark use these sick and desperate people to compare and contrast to Jesus' disciples?  How might their understanding be similarly limited?

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Not Really About the Bread: Mark 6:30-44

After recounting the death of John the Baptist, the sixth chapter of the Gospel According to Mark describes the return of the disciples Jesus had sent forth earlier.  In keeping with the tone of the rest of the chapter, Mark does not recount any great successes in the mission work of the apostles; instead, they are described as simply reporting what they had done and taught.  Noting that they had not had any time to rest, or even to eat, Jesus invited the disciples to retreat by boat to a place in the desert that would be away from the crowds for a while.

The crowds, though, would not leave them alone.  According to Mark, they followed Jesus and his disciples wherever they went, like stalkers.  Instead of allowing himself to become annoyed, Jesus felt "moved with compassion," and began to teach the crowds again.  As the afternoon wore on, the disciples encouraged Jesus to send the crowds away, so that they would all have an opportunity to obtain food (and perhaps lodging).  Surprisingly, Jesus pushed the issue of food back onto the disciples:  "Give them something to eat." (verse 17).  Assuming that he meant they should go to buy food for the crowd, the disciples began to calculate the practical difficulties.  At that moment, Jesus interrupted them by asking how many loaves they had with them.  "Five loaves and two fish," was the reply.  Ordering the crowd to be divided into smaller groups, Jesus blessed the loaves and fish, and gave the food to the disciples to distribute.  Everyone ate "and was filled," and twelve baskets of bread fragments and fish were gathered back up.  Five thousand had been fed.

This incident is one of the few events that is recounted in all four gospels; it was clearly understood to be very important.  Why would it be more important than the other amazing things Jesus did?  At least one lesson of the story is that when Jesus' followers dedicate whatever meager resources they have, Jesus blesses the effort with great power.  Details such as the crowd size estimate,  the conclusion that everyone had been "filled," and the huge volume of leftovers, all testify to Christ's power.  But how did it happen?  Did food just keep appearing in the bottom of the baskets, like scarves in a magician's hat?  Or did loaves appear suddenly all over the hilltop?  Did the example of generosity inspire people in the crowd to quietly add their own hidden food supplies to the baskets, as the baskets were passed around?

Puzzling as the questions are to us, the mechanism of the feeding of the crowd does not really seem important to Mark.  Without describing how Jesus fed all the people, Mark emphasizes Jesus' compassion, the paltry resources of his followers, Christ's insistence that his disciples should address the issue of the crowd's needs, and the disciples' amazing success when Christ is with them.  Is Mark only interested in demonstrating Jesus' great power, or does Mark's account suggest an additional message to financially or numerically beleaguered churches, in times of mass hunger or disaster?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Mark, Chapter 6: "A Foretaste of Danger"

According to the sixth chapter of the Gospel According to Mark, Jesus left his unwelcoming hometown and ordered his chosen twelve disciples to go ahead into the surrounding villages in teams of two, preaching repentance.  Although he "gave them authority over evil (or "unclean") spirits," he told them not to take anything with them except a staff (perhaps as a reminder of Moses' staff of authority?).

They must have felt woefully unprepared and poorly equipped for the mission.  When have you been assigned a task, either in church or in any other context, in which you felt unprepared and inadequately supported?  It's a lonely, frightening feeling.  But the disciples went--and notwithstanding all warnings about the possibility of rejection, they experienced nothing but success.  At this moment of apparent  triumph for the Gospel message, Mark inserts a detailed and graphic account of the arrest and bizarre death of John the Baptist.  Mark's account blames King Herod's wife Herodias for arranging the death of John.  When Herodias' daughter pleased Herod and his guests with a dance performance, the king offered her "anything" as a reward, and (after consultation with her mother, who held a grudge against the prophet because of his earlier criticisms of her) the daughter requested John's head.  Feeling cornered, the king agreed.   Why does the Gospel report the death of John in such detail?  Why at this point in the story?  It would have been hard to anticipate that the Baptist would be put to death in such a manner.  What are the implications for Jesus' followers--not only his followers in Galilee, but his followers everywhere, today?

Saturday, August 3, 2013


Immediately after three accounts of impressive healings, and just before an account of Jesus' sending out his twelve disciples on their own mission forays, the Gospel According to Mark offers a brief report of Jesus' disappointing visit to his home town (which Mark curiously does not identify).  Matthew and Luke both report the same incident in their gospels, but those accounts offer somewhat different details and emphasis.  According to Mark's brief account, Jesus led his disciples to his home town, where on the Sabbath, he began teaching in the synagogue.  Many who heard him were "astounded." (verse 2).  Although the phrasing recalls the earlier astonishment in Capernaum that Jesus taught "as one with authority, and not as the scribes," here the astonishment in Jesus' hometown seems to have been of a different character.  Immediately, the listeners began asking questions about his credentials.  "Where did this man get all this!  What is this wisdom that has been given to him?  What deeds of power are being done by his hands!"  That seems odd.  Why would Jesus' former neighbors refer to him as "this man"?  Why would they ask such questions, if they had heard about Jesus' earlier miracles and expected something similar to happen in their midst?

The Gospel According to Luke describes the crowd in Nazareth as admiring Jesus, at least at first.  "And all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  Is this not Joseph's son?" (Luke, 4:22).  Mark does not report anyone in his home town speaking well of Jesus or praising his public speaking ability.  What does Mark think was on the minds of the synagogue congregation?

The words Mark attributes to the listeners are fairly ambiguous.  The ancient Greek written language contained no punctuation marks, and so we should remember that all the punctuation marks in modern English translations of the Bible have been inserted by the translators.  In this passage, the text gives very different impressions, depending on which punctuation marks are used.  For example, "What deeds of power have been done by his hands?" may sound like a simple request for information, while "What deeds of power have been done by his hands!" may sound like an exclamation of praise.  Moreover, the comments could have been laced with sarcasm, which is hard to suggest, with any kind of punctuation.  "What deeds of power are being done by his hands?"  "What's with this guy?" and "Where did he get that?"  or "Who does he think he is?" would not be sincere requests for information at all; they would be expressions of annoyance or disbelief.  Mark reports that "they took offense at him."  Why would the crowd have responded to Jesus with such unprovoked hostility?

A possible hint might be hidden in verse 3 of Mark's account:  "'Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him."  Some ancient manuscripts render the opening part of that sentence as, "the son of the carpenter and of Mary..."  Luke and Matthew both include references to a father (Matthew 13:53-58; Luke 4:16-30).  But most ancient manuscripts of Mark contain no reference to Joseph.  In biblical Galilee, identifying any man as the "son of" his mother was very unusual, since the usual formula for a full name in one's home town would be "[name], son of [father's name]."  It is possible that the omission of a reference to "the son of Joseph the carpenter" is simply an accidental drafting or copying mistake.  After all, in the days before printing presses, all books were copied by hand.

Perhaps, though, the unusual reference to Jesus as "the carpenter, the son of Mary and the brother of James..." does not really reflect any accidental omission of something like "the son of Joseph the carpenter, ..."  Perhaps the phrasing reflects instead a local sense of scandal about the circumstances of Jesus' birth.  Maybe the villagers' failure to acknowledge Jesus as the son of Joseph was intended as an insult, because it was widely suspected that Mary had become pregnant before her marriage to Joseph.   Even if the listeners in the crowd were not suspicious about Jesus' parentage, they may have been highly skeptical about the reports from other towns that Jesus was a prophet, or perhaps even the Messiah.  How could Jesus be someone so special?  They had watched him grow up.  How could a mere carpenter, who had even once been reported to be crazy (see Mark Chapter 3), and who didn't even have legitimate parentage, have done the mighty deeds that people claimed he had done?  How could such a man ever be taken seriously as a prophet or possible Messiah?   If that was their thinking, what did the people in Jesus' home town miss, by refusing to give him a chance?

Do you find individuals or groups whose background is so distasteful or disreputable that you cannot imagine them actually doing or saying something admirable?  Can you think of a politician you cannot trust, on any subject?  Are there reports of wonderful accomplishments attributed to particular individuals that you dismiss out-of-hand as totally unbelievable? Why do we tend to "type-cast" people?

Are there individuals you have known for a long time, whom you could not imagine becoming a famous athlete, a movie star, or a Nobel Prize winner?  Would it feel embarrassing or irritating to learn that a younger brother or sister, or someone you had once trained for their job, had been chosen for a great honor, rather than you?

Mark reports in verse 5 that Jesus "could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them."  Was it really not possible for Jesus to do any "deed of power" there, because of the people's lack of faith?  Why does Mark say that Jesus was "amazed" at their unbelief?  Wouldn't he have been able to predict their reaction, having known them all for so long?

In all events, Jesus did not linger, but immediately set off teaching "among the villages." (Verse 6).  He also called the twelve together and began to send them out, two by two.  He instructed them to go to individual houses, rather than synagogues, and whenever rejected, simply to "shake the dust" of that place off their feet.  In what ways could his own reaction to rejection in his hometown help prepare the disciples to deal with the possibility of rejection?  If he could use his own experience of rejection by old neighbors to help train his disciples, was his visit to his home town really a failure?  In what ways should modern disciples expect to deal with rejection (and even failure) in ministry?  How can we avoid becoming timid, in the face of experiences of rejection and embarrassing failures?  How might we use our own experiences of rejection or failure to help others?

Monday, July 15, 2013


While Jesus was still talking with a woman who had just been cured of a chronic bleeding disorder, people came from the house of the leader of the synagogue, to tell him that his sick daughter had already died.  The leader had earlier implored Jesus to come to heal his daughter, but their trip to the house had been interrupted, and now it seemed to late for Jesus to help.  "Why trouble the teacher any further?" the messengers asked.  Undeterred, Jesus reassured the father, "Do not fear, but only believe."  He then pressed on, taking only Peter, James and John with him.  Arriving at the house, he saw a commotion of people wailing and weeping, in the traditional ancient Middle-Eastern manner of mourning.  As he entered the house, Jesus asked the mourners, "Why are you making a commotion?  The child is not dead, but sleeping."  Upon hearing these words, they laughed at him.

Ignoring the laughter, Jesus put the mourners outside, and took the mother and father inside to where the twelve-year-old child was, along with his three accompanying disciples.  Taking the child by the hand, he said to her in Aramaic, "Talitha cum;" that is, "Little girl, get up."  Immediately, she got up and walked around, amazing everyone.  Jesus ordered everyone to keep the incident a secret, and he told them to give the girl something to eat.

At the beginning of the chapter, the child's father had shown great confidence in Jesus' ability to heal his daughter.  How would he have felt, upon hearing the news from the messengers?  Would his confidence in Jesus have been shaken?  Would he have assumed that it was too late for Jesus to help?  Can you recall any times when it has just seemed too late for Jesus to be of any help to you?  Did you then continue to pray for help, or choose not to trouble Jesus further?  If your own problem or illness has not eventually been taken away, in response to your prayers, has that affected your feelings about this story?  Would it seem implausible, or merely mysterious? 

Why did Jesus tell the mourners that the child was "not dead, but only sleeping"?  Was he really suggesting that the onlookers had been mistaken in pronouncing the death of the girl, or was he really suggesting that death was not as serious as it appeared, but only like "sleeping"?   Why did the author make a point of indicating that the girl was twelve years old?  That was the same number of years that the woman described earlier in the chapter had been suffering from her bleeding disorder; could the coincidence suggest a connection between the cases?  Twelve years old was the age when a girl typically left her father's protection for marriage.  Was it significant that her father still sought to protect her?  If she was considered an adult, why did Jesus address her as "little girl"?  Was that the same sort of family-like familiarity he was suggesting by addressing the woman he healed earlier in the chapter as "daughter"?  Why would Jesus suggest that the parents give their daughter "something to eat"?  Was it because she must have been hungry after her ordeal?  Did it indicate that she was "really on the mend," because she was able to begin eating normally again?  Did it prove that she was really alive, and not a ghost? 

Why does Mark's Gospel place so much emphasis on Jesus' healing ministry?  Why do you think Jesus only allowed three of his disciples to see this particular healing/resuscitation?  Why would Jesus insist that "no one should know" about such an amazing event?  How would it have been possible to keep it a secret, in any event? 

How would the girl's parents have felt, upon seeing her alive again?  Would she have felt the same way, upon being revived?  Why is it so hard for us to follow the command Jesus addressed to the father: "Fear not, only believe"?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

ONLINE BIBLE STUDY: "Interrupted on the Way." MARK, CHAPTER 5, verses 11-34.

After Jesus had healed the daemon-possessed man in the land of the Gerasenes, he returned by boat to the more familiar Galilean side of the Sea of Galilee, where he was soon surrounded by a great crowd.  There a man named Jairus "repeatedly" begged Jesus to come to his house and "lay hands" on his desperately sick daughter, so that she might be made well and live.  Jairus was a "leader in the synagogue," and although the exact nature of Jairus' office is difficult to determine, it was evidently a position of some status.  As Jesus followed Jairus toward his house, large crowds followed Jesus and pressed upon him.  Mark's narrative indicates that Jesus' journey to Jairus' house was interrupted by a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years, despite the efforts of many physicians.

According to Mark, the woman had "endured much," at the hands of the physicians, and had spent "all she had" on their unsuccessful efforts to cure her.  Have you known people who have spent almost everything they had on medical care?  It is easy to imagine the frustration and desperation that such efforts could have generated, especially where the treatments had failed to produce any benefit.

In the woman's case, the problems would have been compounded by the fact that chronic bleeding may have left her in a continuous condition of ritual impurity.  See Leviticus 12:1-8 and Leviticus 15:19-30.  Not only was the woman apparently "unclean," but everyone who touched her might also be considered unclean.  According to Leviticus 15:19, anyone who touches a woman during her "regular discharge" is also unclean "until evening."  Leviticus 15:25 indicates that "If a woman has a discharge of blood for many days, not at the time of her impurity, or if she has a discharge beyond the time of her impurity, all the days of the discharge she shall continue in uncleanness; as in the days of her impurity, she shall be unclean." 

This ritual uncleanness also presented a special problem for the woman who now hoped to be healed by Jesus.  She presumably knew that Jesus was on his way to "lay hands" on the daughter of Jairus, in order to heal the girl of her sickness.  Jesus might be able to heal the woman's bleeding condition on the way, but if he "laid hands" on the bleeding woman, he would make himself "unclean" until evening.  In that case, Jesus might not be able to attend to Jairus' daughter in time to save her.  On the other hand, if the woman did not reach out for Jesus' help now, she might never see him again.  Have you ever been in a situation in which the apparent solution of your own problem would apparently cause a problem for someone else?  In which an affirmative answer to your prayers meant a denial of someone else's prayer request?   How would you decide what to do or pray for?

 The unnamed woman in Mark's account evidently decided upon a plan that would attempt to obtain a cure without making Jesus "unclean."  She seems to have rationalized that if she touched only the fringe or hem of Jesus' garment, Jesus would not have consciously "touched her," and he would still remain ritually pure.  Perhaps that minimal, indirect contact would still be enough to provide her some relief from the bleeding condition.  Managing to touch the hem of his garment in the midst of a large and pressing crowd, though, would be difficult and perhaps even dangerous.  She would have hurry her way through the crowd (without angering people by touching them), and she would have to kneel down, reaching out toward his feet, probably from behind.  It would have been humiliating, and she could have been accidentally trampled in the process.  Have you ever known anyone who was willing to do something totally humiliating or dangerous, to gain some great reward? 

In the midst of the raucous crowd, Jesus surprised his followers by asking who had touched him.  Was he kidding?  There were whole masses of people touching him--why would he ask that?  He said he felt his power being used.  The woman came forward "in fear and trembling" and confessed her whole plan.  Had she been secretly trying to "take advantage" of Jesus' power?  Have you ever been caught out, in the midst of a secret plan, worried about how your efforts would be received?  Why did Jesus then address the woman as "daughter"? 

If Jesus knew she was there, why did he not simply turn and heal the woman?  Amazingly, the woman was already healed, apparently without Jesus' having to do anything.  According to Jesus, her faith had resulted in her healing.  Yet he had earlier indicated feeling "power" going forth from him.  Is faith alone ever enough to result in healing?  It is interesting to note that the word translated "healed" also means "saved" or "rescued" or "restored."  Is the story really more about a physical cure, or restoration to social and spiritual wholeness?  Or both? 

According to Mark, Chapter 5, verse 6, before Jesus could continue his journey to Jairus' house, messengers arrived to declare that Jairus' daughter had died.  How would the woman have felt, upon hearing this news?  How should we respond, when it appears that we have been recipients of some great blessing, while others still suffer loss and sorrow?