Thursday, October 22, 2009

Power, Control and Service (Proper 24 Year B)

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

Today, I want to think about the passage from Mark. In Mark we have three passion predictions. Today’s passage follows immediately after the third and most detailed one. Jesus has told the disciples that “the Child of Humanity will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes . . .they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him, and after three days he will rise again” (Mark 10:33-34) (1)

Immediately Jesus is asked by James and John if they could have seats of honour in the coming realm. Jesus does not rebuke them as one would expect, but merely asks if they can stand firm in persecution. After they have replied in the affirmative Jesus told them that they would suffer persecution, but that positions were not Jesus’ to grant. We (and the readers of Mark) know that these two disciples would indeed suffer persecution and that James would ultimately be martyred.

This first section of the passage shows us that suffering does not earn us any rewards. Jt is not exalted as the way of discipleship. It is simply something that happens. A possible consequence of following Jesus. This is a challenge to any Christian (or Jewish) understanding that suffering is pleasing to God and will merit reward. It is worth noting the contrast with Mark 9:41 where giving someone a glass of water will bring reward! We are already seeing that the way of discipleship is service not suffering.

As the story unfolds the other disciples were annoyed with James and John. Markan Jesus uses it as an opportunity to contrast the way of power with the way of servanthood. And not only a servant but a slave! Slave status was despised and thought of as even lower than the poor peasants. Additionally, Jesus said they needed to be a slave to all. Each person was to serve as if they were the lowest of the low.

It is worth noting who Mark had Jesus speaking to here. It was the twelve disciples. Jesus was not speaking to the women disciples, nor to the children, nor to a crowd of poor peasants, servants and slaves. In other words he was not speaking to those whom society already considered should serve, but to the free men, those who already had some status and power.

Then Jesus uses his own life as example of life given in service. Mark does not see the death of Jesus as atonement but as the completion of Jesus life lived in service for others. It is martyrdom not sacrifice. Martyrdom was considered honourable.

Joanna Dewey says, “The disciples are encouraged to follow Jesus not only in preaching and healing but also in faithful behaviour in the face of persecution”1 . The disciples, too, may have to give their lives as they seek to follow Jesus in lives of service to others.

Henri Nouwen in In the Name of Jesus says, "The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led." and “The way of the Christian leader is not the way of upward mobility in which the world has invested so much, but the way of downward mobility ending on the cross. . . . It is not a leadership of power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility in which the suffering servant of God, Jesus Christ, is made manifest." (2)

This desire in humanity to seek power and success, seems to be part of the human make-up. It was present even with Adam and Eve as they sought to ‘be like God’.

As each of us seek to be disciples of God can we lay aside that human need for power and control and use our lives in the service of others?

(1) Joanna Dewey, “The Gospel of Mark” in Searching the Scriptures Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (ed) 495 (I have followed her interpretation of this passage)

(2)Henri Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus (Crossroads: New York, 1996), 60

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Genesis Reflections (Proper 22 Year B)

Genesis 2:18-24
Psalm 8
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12
Mark 10: 2-16

As I read the passages for this week I paused for a while with Genesis. I felt quite sad as I read those very familiar words. What was supposed to be a lovely story about the origin of the human race has been so often used to promote domination and abuse of both human and non-human animals.

Just before reading these verses I opened my e-mails one of which included details of the upcoming Walk for Farm Animals to promote ethical and compassionate treatment for the animals. Unspeakable cruelty is being done to animals every minute to produce food most of which we don’t even need. Nor is it just farm animals who are the victims of cruelty.

How did the human race get from the privilege of naming and caring for the animals to our present day situation?

Women, too, have been controlled and dominated by men who assume that these words give them the authority over them. In my opinion, these verses have been misinterpreted and misused. Partly, it is because of the change in language. Try reading the Genesis passage and substitute human being for man. It gives the passage a very different feel.

For anyone wanting to study the language in detail I recommend God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality by Phyllis Trible. I love her interpretation of the Genesis story. It makes the most sense to me especially in view of her knowledge and study of ancient languages.

Trible talks about how the first human being was “sexually undifferentiated (neither male nor female nor a combination of both)” p.98. Then after the second human being is created the human beings are sexually differentiated.

As Trible says,

“One is female, the other male. Their creation is simultaneous, not sequential. One does not precede the other, even though the time line of this story introduces the women first (2:20). Moreover, one is not the opposite of the other. In the very act of distinguishing female from male, the earth creature describes her as ‘bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (2:23). These words speak unity, solidarity, mutuality and equality.” p99

Perhaps that last sentence of Trible’s is something to ponder as we consider how we treat others.

Another clue as to how we treat others can be found at the end of our final reading in Mark.

Here children are being brought to Jesus. The disciples rebuke those bringing them. It is so sad that discernment is already being made about who can be part of this new, evolving Christianity. Yet Jesus tells the disciples that it is “to such as these the Realm of God belongs”.

In a society where many children died young, where children had no legal rights, where children were considered the lowest of the low. I believe that in this scene Jesus is telling the disciples that the Realm of God welcomes all those who are outcasts and have been dominated.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Revelatory Woman (Proper 18 Year B)

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
Psalm 125
James 2 1-10, 14-17
Mark 7:24-37

Some rich readings this week. James challenges us about our attitude to the poor. Perhaps a very pertinent reading for these weeks. As + Andy and I read it out loud I couldn’t help but inwardly change the last verse . . . ‘if a brother or sister is naked and lacks health care and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; Keep warm and stay healthy; and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that.’
Anyway, that is just a brief thought to ponder.

The verses that really excited me are the ones in Mark. A reminder, once again, of the important part women played in the life of Jesus and, indeed, in shaping the future and development of the newly emerging Christian faith.

I have many times in the past talked about revelatory women in the life of Jesus. Women who seem to challenge Jesus and open up new horizons to him. Here, in Mark’s gospel we meet another.

We meet the unnamed Canaanite (Syrophoenician) woman who came to Jesus asking for healing for her tormented daughter. In Matthew’s version of this story the disciples even begged Jesus to send her away. They did not want to associate with her.

Jesus spoke to her and told her that he was sent only to the Jews (the house of Israel). Then followed it with an insult . . . that the children’s food could not be thrown to the dogs. No cute pugs in this thought, no much loved family pets but scavengers hungry and a nuisance to all. The unnamed woman retorted that even the dogs were allowed to eat the crumbs. In the telling of the story Jesus recognised her faith and her daughter was healed.

We could read this as a nice story of faith. But I think it is so much more. This woman was used to reveal to Jesus that this newly emerging story was also for the gentiles. It was as if Jesus’ had his eyes opened through the prophetic voice of this woman. Forget waiting for Cornelius’ house to include the gentiles . . . this woman opened the door. Now was the time for the ministry to include the Gentiles. It was a gift which included all.

Blessings Jane