Just as Jesus had told them

February 11, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from Mark 11:1-6.

When they drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany at the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately on entering it, you will find a colt tethered on which no one has ever sat. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone should say to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ reply, ‘The Master has need of it and will send it back here at once.’” So they went off and found a colt tethered at a gate outside on the street, and they untied it. Some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They answered them just as Jesus had told them to, and they permitted them to do it.

Jesus’ peripatetic journey to Jerusalem is nearing its end. Why is Mark setting this scene for us? Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem appears to be a fulfillment of the prophet of Zachariah according to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, “[T]he Lord as a divine warrior would ride into Jerusalem, seated on the foal of an ass.”

However, the details are peculiar. It makes Jesus look like a seer, someone with special powers of divination. Not just divination either, but some kind of magical power to compel people to do something for what purpose they know not why. This is a new experience of Jesus for his disciples and they unquestioningly follow his orders. According to Moloney in The Gospel of Mark, “This is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is credited with foreknowledge other than the passion predictions and chapter 13 [destruction of the Temple and the tribulations].” This passage has a different flavor to it, though. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary admits, “There is some ambiguity about whether Jesus’ instructions were predictions reflecting supernatural knowledge on his part or simply the reflection of an arrangement that he had made beforehand with the owner.” The Commentary doesn’t say any more about that, though. That’s not very helpful.

Moloney goes on, “This oddness adds to the impression that something more than Jesus, the disciples, and taking possession of a young ass is involved in these preparations….Jesus’ foreknowledge, however, is not the point of the story….Jesus’ awareness of the events that will bring him into the city points beyond Jesus to God. The passion predictions made it clear that Jesus was responding to God’s design, and this thought is carried further in the correspondence between Jesus’ orders and what, in fact, happens. Jesus’ preparations for his entry into Jerusalem are a further step in the unfolding of God’s plan.”

The Hebrew Scriptures clearly communicate God’s plan for His people over and over again. I don’t know those Scriptures well. There is something within me that resists the notion that God has a plan, though. Even the Jews repeatedly rebelled at the idea or at least didn’t much like the plan He had in mind for them. Maybe because it strikes me as being manipulated even if it is God pulling the strings. The free will he gave us is deeply embedded in our DNA. God’s plan is essentially for us to be obedient, faithful children seeking to be in a mutually loving relationship with Him. Or is His plan much more detailed than that? This passage seems to indicate that He can get down into the details. How often does He intervene in my life, trying to get me to adhere to His plan? I don’t know the answers to these questions. No one does.

I guess what it comes down to for me is to follow the example of the disciples in this story. Simply do as Jesus tells me and don’t ask why. That’s not my natural inclination, but often is the best path for me. It’s hard, though, because it means I have to figure out what Jesus is telling me to do, not in a general way but in the specifics of my daily life. That means I have to listen to him; I have to seek him out and then be still so that he has a chance to tell me what he wants me to do. Prayer and contemplation is the prescription. That’s what Jesus did and why he was able to accept His Father’s plan for him.


Have pity on me

February 10, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is from Mark 10:46-52,

They came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, the son of Timaeus, sat by the roadside begging. On hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.” And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he kept calling out all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me.” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him” So they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take courage; get up, he is calling you.” He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus. Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, “Master, I want to see.” Jesus told him, “Go your way, your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.

According to the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, this “is as much a call story as a healing story.” It seems curious to me, though, that Jesus didn’t call Bartimaeus directly. Instead he used his disciples as emissaries; he issued his call through him. They encourage him — “take courage,” instruct him — “get up,” and deliver the message — “he is calling you.” I think Jesus uses others to do the same for me. He doesn’t always speak directly to me. It’s as if he knows that he has to use a variety of means to get through to me, to deliver his message. Maybe because at times I’m so focused on what I want and loud in begging for it that he knows I can’t hear him. He knows he has to arrest my single-minded attention on what I want so that my faith and trust in him can displace my neediness. So I can change from beggar to faithful disciple. That’s what other faith-filled people do for me in my life. They encourage and instruct me and deliver a message that I’m unable to otherwise hear at times, helping me to change from beggar to disciple.

“Master, I want to see.” Bartimaeus is asking for the gift of sight, the gift of faith. Jesus asks me what I want him to do for me. He is ready, am I? Do I believe that he loves me, that he wants to heal me? Am I ready to follow him, follow him to the cross? If I can answer “yes” like Bartimaeus, he will save me, heal me. I will be made to see, to understand. Jesus is calling me to him, just as he did Bartimaeus.

Today I feel like pitiful Bartimaeus sitting on the roadside mindlessly crying out over and over, “Help me, help me.” Today I’m not on the road to Jerusalem with Jesus; I’m sitting blindly on the side of the road. I don’t really want to hear directly from Jesus; I don’t want to follow him to the cross, to suffering. I just want to cry out in pity; I don’t really want to see. Some days are like that.


To give his life as ransom

February 9, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news the beginning of this week is from Mark 10:41-45.

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John. Jesus summoned them and said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

To me this teaching goes hand-in-hand with love one another. Jesus tells me how to love others — to be of service. Service is one thing, but to be a slave? To be a slave means to be the property of another, to be at another’s beck and call, to put his or her needs and desires above my own at all times, to deny myself. I never really thought about service in this way. Jesus wants me to be a slave, not a slave of another person but his slave. He wants me to serve others as he did even if it means denying myself.

As Moloney writes in The Gospel of Mark, “Jesus establishes service as the feature of Christian discipleship….Over against all the culturally accepted and expected ways of showing greatness and exercising authority, the disciple is to be the servant of all and the slave of all.” As always, Jesus is the model for me. Moloney goes on, “Jesus does not ask suffering and service from his disciples as a distant lawgiver. He, the Son of Man, leads the way….The disciple of Jesus, called to self-giving for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel and to the service of even the most lowly, is called to follow Jesus.”

It’s difficult for me to think about being a servant when I’m tired or not feeling well. It’s hard, tiresome work. At least it is if I make it that way, if I make it an obligation instead of an act of love. That’s the key. Jesus always acted out of love, the source of his power and authority, his love of God, his father. I try more and more to act from that same source of love. Fact of the matter is, I can’t do it otherwise. I can’t do it on my own; I can only do it by drawing on the strength of God’s love. I had an unusual experience after communion yesterday. When I knelt in the pew I started to thank God for the gift of His Son and I began to cry I was so overwhelmed with gratitude for that gift. I don’t recall every having that response before. To me that’s what Jesus meant when he said that he gave his life as a ransom many and that includes me. For that I am eternally grateful.


We want you to do for us whatever we ask

February 5, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is from Mark 10:35-40.

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” He replied, “What do you wish [me] to do for you?” They answered him, “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to him, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink, you will drink, and with the baptism with which I will be baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

According to the notes in the New American Bible, “[T]he metaphor of drinking the cup is used in the Old Testament to refer to acceptance of the destiny assigned by God.” In the case of James and John and all those who follow Jesus it means to share in His suffering by living in accord with his teachings, the good news, the gospel. That should be the objective of disciples, not the status, the glory, that James and John sought. I’m like James and John. I want the reward that I think I have earned by doing the best I can — some but not all of time — to follow Jesus and love and forgive others. I ask all kinds of things of him — things I desire like restoration of health, a consulting engagement I really wanted, the repair of a relationship, relief from financial stress. Maybe not the status and glory that James and John had in mind, but things that were important to me nonetheless.

Am I ready, though, to really follow Jesus, to live the gospels and accept the suffering that inevitably accompanies such a life, the hard choices that have to be made? Putting my own desires aside, accepting the destiny that God has in store for me? It’s plainly clear that I’m not. However, Jesus didn’t give up on James and John. He won’t give up on me either. I just need to keep following Jesus as they did. Step by step, day by day.


Those who followed were afraid

February 4, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news this morning is from Mark 10:32-34.

They were on the way, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus went ahead of them. They were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. Taking the Twelve aside again, he began to tell them what was going to happen to him. “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles who will mock him, spit upon him, scourge him, and put him to death, but after three days he will rise.”

This is the last time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus will tell his disciples of his impending death. I was having a hard time understanding why the disciples were amazed and who was it following who was afraid? Moloney in The Gospel of Mark explains that this is the first time that Jesus told his disciples that the end of the journey will be in Jerusalem. So, I can understand that they would be amazed considering the hostility of the Pharisees, scribes, and elders. Moloney believes that Mark is still referring to the disciples as the ones who were afraid. That makes logical sense, though the wording of the sentence is ambiguous. The Douay-Rheims Version, the first English translation predating the King James Bible, makes this more clear to me: “And they were in the way going up to Jerusalem: and Jesus went before them, and they were astonished; and following were afraid.”

Fear can be a debilitating emotion. Moloney writes, “These emotions have highlighted their [disciples’] increasing inability and unwillingness to accept Jesus’ agenda, for himself and for those following him. But the disciples are described as ‘those who followed.’” To me that’s the amazing thing — that despite their fear they still followed Jesus. That is faith and devotion! Especially considering that Jesus was very blunt in describing what lay ahead. As Moloney states, “[T]he final prediction leaves nothing to the imagination.”

True, they would fail him, but at this point they are still willing to follow him. Barclay notes that there are two kinds of courage, the first being an instinctive reaction. “There is also the courage of the man who sees the grim thing approaching far ahead, who has plenty of time to turn back, who could, if he chose, evade the issue, and who yet goes on….They [the disciples] had learned something which is of the very essence of life and faith — they loved so much that they were compelled to accept what they could not understand.” This immediately called to my mind the fact of death in general. Most of us I speculate are afraid of dying and death. I like to think I’m not afraid of death, but I am afraid of dying, of suffering. It takes courage to follow Jesus to suffering and death. I want to turn away, to evade it if only in my thoughts. I’ve always had tremendous admiration for people who are able to accept gracefully their impending death. They have a sense of acceptance, of peace, and even of joy that is very attractive.

We all face dying and death every day, of course. I don’t know when my hour will come. I think Jesus wants me to not be afraid, to know that through suffering I will be reunited with God, to turn my face toward God. Though there is no way of understanding what that means, but Jesus wants me to be so compelled by love that I will accept it gracefully, peacefully, joyfully. I don’t get much encouragement from the secular world, though!


A hundred times more

February 2, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news this cold morning is from Mark 10:28-31.

Peter began to say to him, “We have given up everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Amen, I say to you, there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come. But many that are first will be last, and [the] last will be first.”

Peter, after witnessing Jesus’ response to the young man, wondered what the disciples’ reward will be since they have given up everything to follow Jesus — family, jobs, possessions. They had become itinerants and been subjected to hostile crowds and to the condemnation of religious authorities. Weren’t they going to be favored by God in some way for their sacrifices?

Jesus promised that they will receive a hundred times more than they have given up now and eternally. God will bless them now and forever. Jesus told them that they will be first, not the rich and powerful that society believed would be first. What were the rewards they were then receiving or about to receive? Both the New Jerome Biblical Commentary and Moloney in The Gospel of Mark state that it was the community of believers, the inner circle of the disciples, the fellowship they shared with Jesus, the satisfaction of living according to Jesus’ gospel that was their reward, a reward greater than riches or even family.

However, Jesus also told them that with life with him and in him would provoke persecution. Some reward! I don’t want to hear that! I want abundance; I want life to be all sweetness and light. I don’t want to suffer. But the good life and suffering go hand in hand in living according to the gospels, in submitting my will to God’s will to love others no matter what. That’s always the challenge that Jesus presents me. I will be rewarded a hundred times over, but I have to accept the suffering that comes with it. It’s what I think of as tough love.


Who can be saved?

January 29, 2015

Dear brothers and sisters,

The good news today is from Mark 10:23-27.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at this words. So Jesus said again to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through [the] eye of [a] needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

According the notes in the New American Bible, in the Hebrew Bible “wealth and material goods are considered a sign of God’s favor. The words of Jesus provoke astonishment among the disciples because of their apparent contradiction of the Old Testament concept. Since wealth, power, and merit generate false security, Jesus rejects them utterly as a claim to enter the kingdom. Achievement of salvation is beyond human capability and depends solely on the goodness of God who offers it as a gift.”

Jesus has been teaching me about the reality that I am dependent upon God alone for everything but especially for entry into His kingdom. Try as I might to be financially secure, to exert control, to gain power, none of that will assure that I will enter the kingdom of God. In fact, to the contrary, I will only make it more difficult for myself. I can’t do it on my own. I have to finally recognize, and act in accordance, that I am completely dependent upon God’s love, His mercy, and His grace. My salvation is a gift from Him; I cannot earn it.

That goes against everything I was taught as a child and learned on my own. I’ve always thought I could earn my just rewards. If I worked hard enough, if I was good enough, I could earn what I wanted. I could earn love; I could earn a good life; I could earn a pass from hardship and heartache. It doesn’t work that way, though. Again and again, Jesus tells me about the need to be humble, to give up the arrogant notion that I can earn anything. Everything is a gift from God, totally unmerited. That’s such a hard thing to get through my head. Whether I am good or selfish or sinful, God still blesses me with His love and gifts. I can’t do anything to earn it; I can’t make a camel pass through the eye of a needle. It’s when I accept the gift of His love fully that I am able to see that He provides the same gift to everyone. He loves them no matter what. It helps me to be more accepting, less judgmental, less rejecting. That’s the way of thinking and being that Jesus wants to get me to; he wants me to enter the kingdom.

He wants me to enter His kingdom. It’s His gift to me; I can’t earn it. It’s up to me to accept it in gratitude and humility.  I can be saved!