Lent Day 41: Mark 14:27-42

Mark 14:27-42

Unkept promises

It is perhaps somewhat telling that, at least according to tradition and a few ancient sources, John Mark, the so name author of the Gospel of Mark (though there is no named author for any of the Gospels within the text, nor throughout the New Testament), wrote his Gospel from listening to, and working with, Simon Peter. Peter, in particular, does not come across well here. Perhaps Peter had learned to make himself low in order to bring Christ high.

Specifically we have two incidents. The first, Peter brashly tells Jesus he will never deny him, and Jesus predicts that not only will Peter deny him, but that he will do so three times. Thanks be to God, though, that being a disciple, being welcomed by God, is more dependent upon who Christ is than who I am.

The second incident involves Jesus praying in Gethsemane. Jesus calls out Peter, James and John specifically and asks them to “keep watch.” While Jesus pours out his prayers to God, he returns only to find them asleep. The sleep of Peter is highlighted. It happens twice more. Jesus is both frustrated and also understanding (the spirit wants to, but the flesh keeps giving in). Personally, I can relate to Peter and the others here. How many times do we have a “go, go, go” mentality in our world today? How many times do we lose out to sleep? I cannot tell you how often I would plan to get up to study the bible and either stay asleep, or fall asleep while reading. Again, I am thankful that my physical failing (i.e. falling asleep), is not a condition of my salvation. This is not to say that a willing spirit is all that is required. The actions and words of Jesus clearly indicate that a willing spirit must be paired with real physical action. Perhaps if I learned to rest more in God when I need to, I would have the strength to stay awake when it is more difficult. I don’t have a simple answer to it all, only to note that this struggle is a common one.

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Lent 2019 Day40: Mark 14:12-26

Mark 14:12-26

A Proposal

Much of what occurs in this passage follows the traditional Jewish Passover meal of the time. Due to a quirk of history (providence), there were two traditions of Passover at the time Jesus came into Jerusalem. One would have celebrated Passover on Thursday, the other on Friday. So Jesus is able to both celebrate the Passover Seder on Thursday and be offered as the sacrificial lamb on Friday. Toward the end, however, Jesus deviates from the Passover traditions.

First is the bread he takes and gives to the disciples. Likely this was the afikomen or that which is saved (or that to be eaten later). Depending on tradition this was either reserved for Elijah or simply meant to symbolically be saved for next year. It is possible that his taking of that bread would have been indicating his declaration that Elijah has come, that is the new Kingdom, the one that wouldn’t end, was present.

Next he takes the cup of wine. The blood of the covenant, poured out for many, is clearly the establishment of a new promise and commitment. It is somewhat debated what this language would have meant, and how closely it follows Jewish betrothal custom. Irrespective of that, Jesus’ declaration that he will not drink it again until he drinks it in his newly built home (the Kingdom of God), is a reference to this betrothal custom. At a betrothal, the bride and groom would drink a cup of wine, and then the groom would not drink again until the wedding ceremony (whether symbolic or literal is up for debate, the message remains). This is at the heart of the communion.

Jesus asks us to enter into a new covenant, a marriage covenant. The Church accepts her role as bride, and every time she drinks the cup, she declares again to the world that she is spoke for, she is wanted, and she is faithful to another. As the brides awaited patiently for the bridegroom in the middle of the night, so too do we await our groom coming for us.

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Lent 2019 Day 39: Mark 14:1-11

Mark 14:1-11

Anointing

Jesus is anointed at the house of Simon the Leper. This is a familiar passage, but there are three things I’d like to highlight in it.

  1. The alabaster jar/box carries deep significance related to a woman’s wedding. As part of the dowry, or possible just before the ceremony itself, the woman would receive an alabaster jar filled with perfume. These are fairly tiny jars and meant for a single use. They represent all of the hopes and expectation a new bride would have going into a marriage. We never get her full story, though another Gospel writer indicates she had a bad reputation, by which we should probably understand this to be sexual in nature. Whatever the case, her marriage, likely either right before or shortly after it began, fell apart. That or her family had long placed expectations of marriage upon her and she was unable to fulfill those. All those hopes and dreams were gone. Whatever the case, she no longer had those future hopes. Then she hears that Jesus comes, and she anoints him with oil. All those dreams and expectations were now placed on Jesus.
  2. Those who are not Jesus feign an interest in the poor. This continues even today. Jesus’ reference that “you will always have the poor” is not meant to be taken as an excuse to avoid helping poor people today. It is not an argument against social programs (though I have seen many use it that way). Quite the opposite. It’s a reference to Deuteronomy 15:11. Jesus is indicting those who pretend to care for the poor. He is critiquing those who would pass the responsibility to maintain an “open hand” to others. The chief priests who hear of Judas’s desire to betray Jesus are delighted, offering money to him. Quite the contrast.
  3. Jesus takes the whole scene and incorporates it into his passion narrative. She is preparing his body for burial. Jesus knows that he will soon die and this person, poor and needy as she was, plays an integral role in that preparation. It is only through his burial that he can come back to life. The only way to defeat death was to pass through death, and so Jesus is helped by this woman as he is prepared for this fate.
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Lent 2019 Day 38: Mark 13:1-37

Mark 13

Buckle up, it’s a long one

Abomination unto Desolation

The last time I wrote or spoke about this passage, my words were largely misunderstood. That being the case, though, I do not think that I should somehow avoid talking about such a passage. With that in mind, I’m going to dive right into it, just note that I would ask you read this charitably, dear reader.

The first thing we need to do as readers is understand the eschatological context into which Jesus is speaking. Eschatology is anything that references the end of the world or “the day” of judgment. Jesus walks out of the temple and immediately begins talking about the end of the world. The entire chapter is a discussion of what the end of the world looks like and how to see it.

The second thing we need to understand as readers is that the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached was an eschatological Kingdom. That is, it was a kingdom that would only truly come about at the end of the world. Yet, throughout the gospels, Jesus speaks of it both coming (future) and already here (present). This is one of the hardest of the foundational concepts in Christian theology to grasp, but it is key to understanding much of Jesus’ message about the Kingdom. The Kingdom is both here and still coming. It is both inaugurated in Jesus and yet coming to fulfillment at the end of history.

The third thing we need to examine is how the Gospel writers, indeed the early church as a whole, understood Jesus’ death and resurrection. They understood it in many different ways, and with many different impacts, to be sure, but one thing I want to highlight is that they understood the death and resurrection of Jesus to be an eschatological event. Indeed this is behind much of the early church’s expectation (as you can read in various letters) that Jesus would return soon and the end of the world would come with it. It was only after some years, when the world did not end, that many of the authors had to reexamine their beliefs (and this may have resulted in 2 Thessalonians and the Revelation of John. There are a few key characteristics, beyond Jesus’ words, that would lead them to come to that conclusion. The first was that the sky would be darkened at the end of the world (and this happened, as recorded in other gospel writers); even Jesus makes mention of this belief. The second was that there would be earthquakes, which happened at the resurrection as well. Jesus does warn, however, that these two things by themselves are not a direct sign of the end of the world (but rather, birth pains).

The big piece, however, and the one convincing aspect, was that the dead would be raised to a new life at the end of the world. In Matthew’s account, the moment Jesus died, not only did the temple curtain split, signaling a new era, not only was there an earthquake, but lots of other people came out of their tombs. Matthew mentions, and then has absolutely no follow up on these other people, prompting us to wonder. But, if the death and resurrection of Jesus was an end-of-history event, then surely this would be expected. Yet history continued on.

The broader understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus became that this event was like a lightening bolt in history. It was like the end-of-history broke through in a quick glimpse at the resurrection of Jesus, but offered only a glimpse. The raising to life of others were like the riplings of thunder as God temporarily splint space-time asunder to call forth his Son. This is why we can have ultimate confidence. We’ve caught a glimpse of the end. God showed us the last page. And on that page we see Jesus standing triumphant over death. We need not fear death too much, for it is only temporary, and Christ has already defeated it. This is is all part of the background.

The last thing we need to examine is what is meant by the “abomination unto desolation.” It’s an odd phrase. To be sure, many contemporary “end times” preachers have sought to give a wide variety of interpretations of what this is. What is consistently missing from most of these accounts, though, is a recognition that Jesus did not speak into a vacuum. That phrase “abomination unto desolation” already had a specific reference in the Jewish mindset before Jesus ever spoke it. It was mentioned first in the book of Daniel as a clear reference to the desecration of a holy place (i.e. the corruption of the temple by some specific act).

In the book of Maccabees, part of the “apocrypha” or “deuterocanon,” it describes (in part) an historical episode in the life of the Jewish people. The history, in broad swaths, is that, following the return to Jerusalem under Cyrus and the Persians, Persia was taken over by Alexander the Great (and with it, all of that territory). Once Alexander died, the territory was split up between his four generals. Two of them, or rather the mini-nations that resulted from this split, Ptolemy and Seleucus, fought over the area containing Jerusalem due to its strategic military and economic position. The Seleucids eventually won control and Antiochus IV Epiphanes banned ritual sacrifice in the Jerusalem temple. Instead, he went into the temple and offered a pig as a sacrifice to his pagan gods. That act was the “abomination unto desolation” and it set off the Maccabbean revolt (that resulted in relative independence until the Roman general Pompey came on the scene). From then on, throughout the early centuries for Jewish thinkers and authors, “abomination unto desolation” referred to that specific act.

With all of that background, we should now revisit the words of Jesus. Jesus declares that when you (e.g. the audience there that day) see the “abomination unto desolation standing where it does not belong” (e.g. you see the horrific atrocity of a pagan group through their sacrifice) you will know that the end of the world has come. Jesus is referencing, in other words, himself. His own sacrifice will be seen as such an abomination.

The Romans were known for being a blood thirsty people. They loved the torture of others and used execution like crucifixion as a tool to demonstrate their superiority as the Empire. Caesar was in charge, and all who dare to argue for another ruler or another Kingdom would be executed in brutal fashion. While Jewish leaders may have played a role, ultimately the execution of Jesus was carried out by the Romans. He was executed for one charge and one charge only: sedition. This is the abomination. Later, Paul reminds the early church that “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree“. The Romans took the Holy One of God and crucified him, thus securing his fate as cursed.

Yet God took that instance and, in that moment, it was Christ taking on our curse. And as Christ, dying with our sin and curse, was on the cross, so our own curse under sin and the law was killed with him. When Christ was raised, following the abomination, the curse stayed dead. So Christ’s words here are not a guidebook to the end of the world, but a way for us to read his own death and resurrection. What Caesar intended to use for the destruction and desolation of Israel, God used to redeem the world. As when Antiochus was subject to a revolt for his actions, so too would the death of Christ inaugurate a new Kingdom in opposition to the Kingdoms of this world. Unlike the previous one, this would be a Kingdom without end and would include all nations. If any die with him, we will also live with him.

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*Note: when I originally spoke about this, and wrote about it, I was unaware of any other interpreter who had reached a similar conclusion. I have since come to be aware of at least two New Testament scholars, Professor David P Scaer and Professor Peter Bolt, have reached the same conclusion. My work was done independent of theirs, and, as far as I can tell, their work was independent and unaware of each others. So while I did not rely upon either, it is nevertheless encouraging to note that there have been numerous, more learned scholars than myself, who have reached the same conclusion.

**Extra note: this should not be misinterpreted in any way (as was, unfortunately done to me previously) to mean that Jesus is the anti-Christ. That is a ridiculous statement. Of course the Christ cannot be the anti-Christ. Discussions of the anti-Christ deserve their own separate post, but, suffice it say, anyone who acts against the cause of Christ assumes the role of anti-Christ.

Lent 2019 Day 37: Mark 12:35-44

Mark 12:35-44

First will be last and last will be first

In today’s passage a contrast is set up between the teachers of the law and a widow.

The teacher’s of the law act like they have an absolute knowledge. They believe they have a corner on the market, yet Jesus begins (in today’s reading) with demonstrating how little they actually know. Not only does he use this passage to demonstrate how the teacher’s of the law had incorrectly pointed to the identity of the Messiah, believing that he would come as a secular King in what they recognized as the line of David inaugurating a second age of the Maccabees (the Jewish revolt between the rule of the Greeks and the rule of the Romans), but Jesus chooses one of the most difficult to understand of the psalms to make his point. By revealing their own ignorance, he demonstrates that those who would use their intellect to Lord it over people know nothing still when compared to the LORD.

Jesus also notes the hypocrisy inherit in this group. They demand to be treated with honor, they wear clothing that indicates they are somehow holier than all others. They give lengthy prayers, and make sure others see them. Yet they think nothing of taking the life, property and being from the poor and vulnerable of society.

Speaking of the poor and vulnerable, a widow, much like the one Jesus was previously referencing, comes into the temple. Jesus commends her as the one who gave the most because she gives “out of her poverty.” People commend large donors. They like those who give millions or billions of dollars. A lot of respect has been given, for instance, to Bill Gates who has pledged to give away most of his wealth. To be sure, his gifts may be generous, but at the end of the day, he will still live his life as a billionaire up until his death, even if he gives away 99%+ of his wealth. This is not to say his acts are terrible. Instead, it is to note that the one who gives when it hurts, who gives time they do not have, or funds when they have very little, the one who recognizes her/his situation as one of blessing and so wishes to bless others, even in the midst of poverty, this is the one who should be commended. A million acts of charity and love and sacrifice, greater than the monetary gifts of a billionaire, exist all around us every day. Jesus calls us to stop and try to take notice.

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Lent 2019 Day 36: Mark 12:28-34

Mark 12:28-34

Love

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he was being asked what had, by that time, become a fairly standard question that rabbis would ask one another. This teacher of the law, if nothing else, at least recognized the quality teaching of Jesus. Jesus’ response, while not phrased in this particular way, had begun to become a somewhat standard response, with two notable exceptions:

First, Jesus declares that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is also the greatest commandment. The standard rabbinical reply was that the Shema (the first commandment), was the greatest, and that one loved God best by working to fulfill the law. The law was best summarized by the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus elevates it. When he declares it is “second” he is not declaring it is second in priority. He is merely indicating that there is another command that is inseparable from the first. This reaches back, again, to Genesis 1.

When God created humans, God created them in the image of God. This does not mean we bear physical resemblance to (for God is Spirit), nor, I would argue, does it mean we have a measure of traits that also belong to God. Instead, Genesis 1 as part of the Torah (law) is intended to combat idolatry, Israel’s biggest struggle prior to the exile. The reason idolatry is wrong is because it creates a second image of God, when we, as humans, already exist as this image. This is behind the teacher of the law’s response to Jesus that “to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.” We worship God best through loving our neighbors as ourselves.

The second addition Jesus gives to the standard response is the addition of the word “mind.” The Shema command of Deuteronomy indicates the love of God with all your heart, soul (being/identity), and strength. Jesus adds to it to love God with all your mind. Again, the teacher of the law picks up on that, renaming it “understanding” in English translations. To love God properly is not to turn of your brain and stop thinking. Nor is it to allow yourself to fall into a “holy frenzy” where you lose sense of self and are unaware of what is happening, as is the case with some. No, to love God fully is to be fully engaged with all of your being, including your mind. When you study God’s word, when you ask hard questions, when you wonder, and yes even when you doubt, you are expressing a love for God with your whole being.

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Lent 2019 Day 35: Mark 12:13-27

Mark 12:13-27

Images and Appearances

When Jesus asks the Pharisees whose picture is on the coin, he uses very specific language: “Whose image is this?” This is a call back to Genesis 1. When God created humanity God created them “in the image of God.” So when Jesus asks whose image is on the coin, this is not a call for clarification, but a call for them to recognize and begin a conversation about who we are in relation to God, who is the image on the coin? Caesar is not God, but he bears the image of God as we all do. Thus all our actions should be so oriented to point others to the God who created us all. Coins are a human creation, and fundamentally artificial. God owns them all.

When the Sadducees asks about marriage after the resurrection of the dead, they are not being serious. They are trying to point out what they believe to be the ridiculousness of such a belief. But the resurrection of the dead and the coming Kingdom of God is not merely an extension of this life (though that is how many view it today). Instead it is something greater, grander and beyond finite human comprehension. Marriage is a glimpse of this greater reality, not a precursor to it. They have made a fundamental category mistake. Marriage is “till death do us part” not “for all time and eternity.” Once the fullness of the Kingdom is present, there is little need for the dim picture that marriage presents us. This is not to downplay marriage, far from it! The dim picture that marriage gives us is one of infinite goodness. Thus to bring a glimpse of infinite goodness into our corrupted finitude is still beyond just about anything else we can now experience. But all things will pass away and be burned up in the refining fire of God.

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Lent 2019 Day 34: Mark 12:1-12

Mark 12:1-12

A Prophetic Life

“Speaking prophetically is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” So my preaching professor ingrained into my head. Examining the Old Testament prophets, this is certainly the case. Isaiah’s message of condemnation to an overly comfortable Israel shifts to one of conciliation given to a nation in exile. Jonah’s message is one of condemnation. Once the Ninevites become aware of their precarious state, that God’s judgment is impending, it changes to one of comfort (there are still 3 days!). Amos condemns those who persecute the poor, performing both tasks with the same message at the same time. The one who speaks prophetically always speaks comfort to those who are oppressed and speaks against those who are too comfortable. God always sides with the oppressed, and always calls for reform from the comfortable.

As such, the one who proclaims a prophetic message will always, in the midst of that proclamation find themselves rejected in the dominant cultural paradigm. This does not mean that if you find yourself ostracized and treated poorly you are a prophet (you could just be a jerk, I don’t know). It does mean, though, that if you don’t find yourself meeting opposition, that you are likely no true prophet. Prophecy is not everyone’s calling and is not for the faint.

This is the background to Jesus’ parable. Throughout Israel’s history they had been sent prophets, and the prophets were mistreated. Elijah, the paradigm for post-kingdom prophets, was probably the most rejected of all, but you see similar points by Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Samuel, and others. By being part of the establishment of Israel and the Israelite temple under Herod (under Rome), the chief priests and teachers of the law knew they were part of the establishment that Jesus had come to condemn. Now, being before them, they fail to recognize the irony as they plot to kill God’s Son.

They made the same mistake everyone makes at some point. But they failed to recognize their error. The fact is, the earth, and all that is in it belong to the LORD, not to you, not to me, not to anyone else. The earth is the Lord’s and all that dwell therein. He’s come to reclaim what was left to our care.

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Lent 2019 Day 33: Mark 11:27-33

Mark 11:27-33

Authority

Several Jewish leaders question Jesus. By asking whose authority Jesus is acting under they are simultaneously questioning any authority of Jesus and placing their authority over his. Jesus, knowing that the time of his crucifixion is not quite yet, turns the question back onto them: What about John the Baptist?

This puts a problem upon them for the two reasons stated in the text, but it warrants further explanation. John’s baptism signaled a rejection of Judaism as it existed. Baptism, for the Jewish mindset, was a reserved for converts to Judaism. It was a washing away of the past in order to pursue a new future once they had found God. While circumcision was for men only, baptism was for everyone. By being baptized, Jewish people were rejecting the Judaism currently being practiced and in so doing were acknowledging God was doing something new. This is why baptism was a sign of repentance.

By putting the question to the Jewish leaders, Jesus questions their authority to even question him. If they accept the baptism was from heaven, they lose all authority because they are part of the system John’s baptism was meant to reject. Yet they fear they will lose power due to a rebellion if they reject John’s baptism. This is why they issue the ambiguous “we don’t know.” It would cost them too much to respond one way or the other.

So it is with us. Too often we seek a political answer when there should be one. We know the right thing to do, and when we know that thing and don’t do it, it is somehow worse than outright rejecting it.

 

Lent 2019 Day 32: Mark 11:12-25

Mark 11:12-25

Withering Trees

Around the retelling of Jesus overturning the tables in the temple (a warning to those who seek to use the gospel solely for commercial gain) we have the interesting episode of the fig tree. Jesus comes to a fig tree, finds out it doesn’t have any figs (and it’s not yet time for the figs), curses it, and the tree withers up. What?

I don’t purport to have the only or best understanding of this passage, but a few things should be noted.

  1. It’s not about the fig tree. This was clearly a symbolic gesture, akin to the prophetic drama enacted by Ezekiel. The fig tree, both in its history and by the narrative being divided by an episode in Jerusalem, is clearly meant to be a reference to Jerusalem. Jerusalem itself continuing to have significance for the Christian well beyond the New Testament.
  2. Fig leaves were used after the first sin. In Genesis 3, after the man and the woman became aware of their nakedness, they used fig leaves to cover themselves.
  3. The leaves indicated something. Several commenters note that fig trees produce figs before they produce leaves. That is sometimes the case, but not necessarily so, especially if this is not the first season for the tree. That said, older fig trees do tend to have a lot of leaves and no fruit.

Again we don’t know entirely what is going on. The gospel writer makes a point of noting that Jesus looked for figs and didn’t find any because it wasn’t time for figs. Understanding this in the context of an allegory (of sorts) for Jerusalem, we might say that Jerusalem always looks promising, but never produces true sustenance. Perhaps, Jesus is declaring that the time of Jerusalem, with its Passover festivities every year, is over. It will never again produce fruit. This is the final Passover. Jesus is inaugurating a new fruit, one that is given once (and will be referenced in the upper room dinner) and not needed again.

The first fruit of the fig, in the garden, brought with it evil and sin. The next fruit needed to be revisited year after year and could only provide the inadequate covering as did the fig leaves for the man and the woman in the Garden. A greater sacrifice would need to be made. But unlike the first sacrifice, which would provide a more adequate covering, this new sacrifice would cause a fruit to grow within (the Fruit of the Spirit), forever satisfying, healing and nourishing a people. The tree is cursed so people stop running to the tree. There is a tree of life in a new Jerusalem that Christ is planting.

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