Not turning a blind eye.

Signpost for Sunday 24 October 2021: Job 42:1-6,10-17; Ps 34:1-8,(19-22); Heb 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52.

Oh, what a Hollywood ending to the book of Job. After all that suffering and heartache, Job ends up so much better off both materially and emotionally than he had ever been. And yet, not a single one of his questions is answered by YHWH. If you don’t find this one of the most frustrating books in the Bible then, “You’re a better person than I am, Gunga Din.” (As jingoist, Rudyard Kipling didn’t quite say.)

All I can say is that the link in the readings this week seems to be that YHWH appoints Job to intercede for his friends, as Jesus becomes the high priest who intercedes for everyone in the reading from Hebrews.

Meanwhile, what about the Gospel reading? It’s another miracle. It’s not the first blind person Jesus heals in Mark’s gospel either (Mark 8:22-26). So maybe it’s not the blindness we should think about.

I found these to be the most interesting words this week: “Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more.” (Mark 10:48)

The blind man would have been an outcast from first century society just because he was ‘sick’. And even though he doesn’t fit in, Jesus still asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:50)

Jesus doesn’t think he doesn’t fit in. As far as Jesus is concerned absolutely everyone fits in. It’s that message of inclusion again, not exclusion.

Paul

Power tripping.

Signpost for Sunday 10 October 2021: Job 38:1-7,(34-41); Ps 104:1-9,25,36b; Heb 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45.

I remember running a writing class for professional communicators a few years ago. I started the session by asking everyone if they had a favourite word, and if so what that word might be. Someone said their favourite word was ‘difference’. I asked why and they said they wanted to make a difference. At the time I was disappointed with that answer because frankly I’ve heard far too many people say they want to make a difference. Managers, students, new appointees to significant positions in all sorts of corporations. For me, it smacks of a 21st century cliché. 

I’ve also heard and read that most people who enter politics say that they do so because they want to make a difference. Yet we all know that most political parties want one thing more than to make a difference – and that’s to hang onto power for as long as they can once they have it. In the USA that lust for power seems to be threatening the very existence of anything we recognise as democracy. For example, the Republicans have spent the time since Trump’s defeat either denying that they lost or worse, passing laws that prevent the people they think will vote against them from voting at all.

In the UK the Tories were prepared to let Boris Johnson be their leader just to hang onto power. Here in NZ we’re still lucky enough (?) to be going through the throws of people getting bored with a particular party being in power after two or three terms before they want a change. Needless to say, though, whoever is in power thinks twice about how they behave if they think voters won’t vote for them.

What does all this preamble have to with this week’s readings, you may ask. Well, Mark 10:35-45 doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, so I am trying very hard to find something helpful in it. It doesn’t make a lot of sense on first reading because why on earth would  James and John even think about asking Yeshua to do whatever they ask? And then, why would they ask to be numbers two and three in the kingdom of heaven after Yeshua himself? Yeshua had dealt with all that nonsense in Mark 9:33-34 surely.

Here’s what seems to challenge everything we in the 21st century know about all of those who have power over any of us – be they politicians, managers, bosses, corporations or billionaires. None of them conforms to what Yeshua is reported to have urged in Mark 10: 43: “… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.”

Paul

A bit of poor logic.

Signpost for Sunday 10 October 2021: Job 23:1-9,16-17; Ps 22:1-15; Heb 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31. 

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21, New International Version)

Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me. (Mark 10:21, King James Version)

I noticed something about this verse for the first time this week. Usually I worry about the fact that I’m rich. Well, not Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg rich admittedly, but compared with the more than two billion people who live on $1.90-a-day or less, rich beyond their wildest dreams. I don’t worry about how a camel could get through the eye of a needle so much as whether I should have absolutely no possessions. It’s not that I believe in a reward system that might allow me to get into ‘the kingdom of heaven’. I don’t. I believe Jesus’ teachings are really about how we should live our lives.

Here’s what struck me this week – the verse doesn’t say, “sell everything you have and give all the money you make from that to the poor.” It says, “sell everything you have, and give to the poor.”

If the rich young man had sold everything he had he would have made quite a lot of money from the sale. Then he has to “give to the poor” but not necessarily give all that money to the poor. Maybe he made the same mistake I suspect a lot of people do when they hear or read these verses.

Some of the earliest Christians were rich. Quite a few of them were even rich women, (for example Phoebe – Acts 16:1-2, Lydia  – Acts 16:14, Drusilla – Acts 24:24.) There are also those mentioned in the gospels themselves (Mary, called Magdalene … and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources. [Luke 8:1-3]). 

The only rich man mentioned in the gospels who does the right thing that I can think of is Joseph of Arimathea. But maybe that’s because rich men were far more numerous than rich women (not much has changed then), and therefore they don’t get a mention. Or maybe more rich women, rather than rich young men understood what Jesus was saying. Who knows?

I don’t really know where I am going with this either, except, maybe one point is that I think it’s crazy that we tolerate a world in which more than two billion people live in abject poverty. Or closer to home, there are about 157,800 children living in poverty in New Zealand. I read the other day that New Zealand produces enough food each year to feed 40 million people. I am naïve enough to wonder therefore why anyone goes without food. 

The truth is that I haven’t sold alI my worldly goods and then given heaps of money to the poor. And I’m still not at all sure that’s what Jesus is telling me to do. Maybe he is, and I have failed. For now though, I will not support any government that does anything that makes the circumstances of the poor any worse, nor will I support one that does not do everything possible to make their lives better. Politics of course gets in the way. Jesus, of course, didn’t give a fig about politics.

Paul

As Groucho Marx, said, “Marriage is the chief cause of divorce.”

Signpost for Sunday 3 October 2021: Job 1:1;2:1-10; Psalm 26; Heb 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16. 

I doubt whether Job’s story would make for the most binge-worthy series on Netflix. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again (to save you looking it up): Job 1:1, 2:1-10 reads like a Greek myth. It’s full of ‘the gods’ looking down on humans and wagering among themselves. Why? Because 5000 years ago, that’s the way most people on earth understood their concept of God; even, it seems, the Jewish people who introduced monotheism into the world could not get away from the idea that God was up on a hill somewhere or in the heavens and looking down upon us. This week’s reading does nothing to dispel the fact that this is an ancient myth. And then, all the characters are cardboard, even God, and Job, really. You can almost imagine this being badly acted out as a medieval morality play.

I’m guessing that the really contentious passage for most people this week though is Mark 10:2-16. For the best part of the 20th century these verses were often quoted in the argument about whether Christian churches should welcome divorced people into their congregations or not. These days, the church is grappling with the concept of marriage itself – can it only be between a man and woman, as the passage suggests on first reading? More of that later.

I also think it’s still hard not to read or hear Mark 10:2-16 without concluding that Yeshua condemns divorce as being an act of adultery. But can that be all there is to it?

And, why is this passage an essential part of the gospel of Mark? Well, the context in particular makes me think it’s not there mainly to teach a moral lesson. If we follow the events so far, then it appears that these Pharisees are out to trick Yeshua into the same predicament that John the Baptist had found himself in earlier (Mark 6:17-28 ). Their stated purpose is to test him (Some Pharisees came and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Mark 10:2). The passage even uses exactly the same phrase John used when he declared Herod Antipas’s divorce and subsequent marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias was “not lawful”. Add to that the fact that if the Lectionary had started at verse 1 instead of verse 2, then we’d know that Yeshua is at this moment in Perea, deep inside Herod Antipas’s ‘kingdom’. And Mark has already told his readers and listeners that the Pharisees are colluding with the Herodians (Mark 3:6). So if these Pharisees can get Yeshua to say something that amounts to an outright criticism of Herod Antipas’s divorce, then surely Yeshua would deserve the same fatal punishment as John. A head would have to roll.

That’s the dramatic relevance of the passage, but what else might context reveal to a 21st century reader or listener like you and me?

First off, there’s the fact that in first century Palestine only the man could get a divorce (from his wife), and only the woman could be found guilty of adultery (against her husband). So, although verse 11 sounds very harsh to our ears (“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. 12 And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”), in a first century context Yeshua would be seen as saying that men and women actually have equal status in the marriage. Take that further and apply it to the present day question about the concept of marriage itself. Might the Yeshua who behaves so radically in the gospels be inclined to say that both partners in any marriage have equal rights – be that a marriage between a man and a woman or between two men or between two women?

Whatever answer you come up with, it seems clear that Yeshua doesn’t think divorce is a good thing. Could that be because he’s worked out that if it’s a question of adultery it’s the usually the ‘faithful’ partner that suffers most when his or her spouse divorces in order to marry someone else. Is that what this means: “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery”? I’d like to think so. I’s also like to think it might apply to any committed relationship, whether that’s a legally recognised marriage or not.

But does Yeshua condemn adultery full stop? One possible answer to that question might be found in John 8:3-11:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus… said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” … At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there… Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared.

Paul

Austin Powers may need a Mini-Me but Jesus doesn’t.

Signpost for Sunday 26 Sept 2021: Esther 7:1-6,9-10; 9:20-22; Ps 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50. 

The disciples can’t heal a deaf and mute (Mark 9:18) and they don’t like it when someone who isn’t even one of them can heal people (Mark 9:38). Then Yeshua says two things. First, that anyone who gives a cup of water to a child is doing the right thing. Second, that you should cut off your hands and feet and pluck out your eyes if necessary rather than let those limbs get you into trouble.

What on earth is that all about? Is it about the fact that God doesn’t need you and I to be perfect (either physically perfect or maybe even morally perfect) in order for you and I to be accepted and loved?

I’m guessing that it’s definitely not about worrying whether you and I are able to be as powerful as Jesus himself. You and I may not to be able to miraculously heal someone, but you and I can do something as simple and as thoughtful as offering that someone a drink of water when they are thirsty.

Have the disciples been trying to be Mini-Me Messiahs? Yeshua doesn’t want that. None of us can be perfect. If you want to be perfect you have to be prepared to cut off your hand or your foot, or pluck out your eye. I am guessing that Yeshua knows none of us are really prepared to do that. Instead, maybe he wants us to be aware of who needs help, love, compassion, shelter, or any kind of sustenance. And to provide it whenever we can.

Paul

May you stay forever young (with apologies to Bob Dylan).

Signpost for Sunday 19 Sept 2021: Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13–4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37. 

My wife is definitely of noble character and certainly worth far more than rubies (Prov 31:10). But that’s not the point. I know there are lots of people whose partner (male or female) is as well. Not worth as many rubies as my wife, obviously. But, no wonder the Church has trouble attracting young people into the congregation. Why are we being asked to listen to or read Proverbs 31:10-31 in this day and age?

The crux of the matter this week, though, is the reading from Mark. Too many scholars disagree about who the audience was that the author of Mark’s gospel was writing for. The only thing that is reasonably certain is when the gospel was written – about 70 AD/CE – after the destruction of the Temple. The Temple’s destruction led many early Christians to think that maybe it was time for Jesus to return, and maybe even avenge the destruction.

Maybe that’s why Yeshua in Marks’s gospel keeps telling the disciples “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30)

But, avenging anything isn’t really Yeshua’s style anywhere in the New Testament, so maybe not.

What about the disciples going on about which of them is the greatest (Mark 9:34)? That doesn’t happen in any of the other gospels. Has the author of Mark got something against Peter and wants to make sure we don’t think he’s the greatest disciple? He’s already said that Yeshua accused Peter of being Satan (Mark 8:33). But perhaps Yeshua doesn’t call him Satan at all. I found one source this week that suggests the word ‘Satan’ comes from the word ‘Sa-than’, which means stumbling block.

Then we come to the most interesting bit of this week’s reading: “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Matthew 18:2-5 is the other version of this passage (At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.)

Typically the author of Matthew expands on the original. And I think what might be in the back of many people’s minds when reading or hearing Mark’s version this week are these words: unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Yeshua had been talking about how to be ‘the greatest’ when picked up a child and sat that child on his knee, just like any father, grandfather, or favourite uncle might do. Just like I do with my grand-daughters.

And do you know what? Each one of them is the greatest. I have absolute faith in each of their abilities to be wonderful. I don’t know yet what each of them will achieve in life, but I love, and will always love, spending time with them all together or singly. And no matter what each of them goes through in her life, though I cannot protect her from what may come, I will always believe in her. Of course that’s exactly how I feel about her mother and her mother’s sister, my own children.

And if, as I wrote last week, we understand that Yeshua’s main purpose was to reveal the way of God to humankind, then one thing this passage suggests is that’s the way God sees us.

Paul

Guess who.

Signpost for Sunday 12 Sept: Proverbs 1:20-33; Ps 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38.

I’ve been thinking about the question that Yeshua asks the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). Who on earth would first century people have thought he could possibly be? We know that some thought he was Mary and Joseph’s son who had become a bit too big for his sandals. They were the ones who couldn’t believe someone they had known as a child and a young man could become anything extraordinary. But people who didn’t know him personally would have been making their best guess when they said he was John the Baptist, or Elijah come back to life, or another prophet.

Every Jewish person in first century Palestine, though, was really waiting for the Messiah. I bet most of them just didn’t dare hope that Yeshua was it. Maybe only Peter dared say it out loud. And, of course, most of this week’s reading is written to convince people in the first century that just because Yeshua didn’t fit the concept of the freedom-fighting, Roman-vanquishing, Jewish-nation-glorifying Messiah they were hoping for, that didn’t mean that Yeshua couldn’t be the Messiah after all.

But fast forward to the here and now and ask yourself, “Who do you say that Yeshua was and is?” It can be dangerous question to answer. Some people will tell you that if you don’t say that Jesus was born in a manger, to a woman who had never had sex in her life, and that he was crucified and came back to life, then you are not a Christian. Maybe they are right, but I’m so sure about all of that. 

Nevertheless, it’s a question worth trying to answer honestly. So here goes.

I think that for me there might be a clue in that difficult phrase used to describe Jesus as ‘the Son of God’. If, like me, you don’t take every word in the Bible literally, then what happens if you don’t take those words literally either? (After all, taking those words literally has led and still leads to all sorts of problems.)

What if the Son of God isn’t literally God’s son, let alone God’s only son. What if Jesus/Yeshua was the only man on earth at the time he lived of whom God might say, “He is like a son to me.”? (A bit like YHWH saying that David was a man after his own heart.) I think that might help explain some things.

It might, for example, shed some light on Paul writing that “we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ,” (Romans 8:17). It especially makes sense to me when I reflect on Marilynne Robinson’s summation of the Gospels as writing that set out to describe “a man of surpassing holiness, whose passage through the world was only understood after his death, to have revealed the way of God to humankind.”

And how did Yeshua/Jesus reveal the way of God to humankind? Wasn’t it mostly by showing us how to go about life on earth?

Paul

Ref: Robinson, M. ‘Freedom of Thought’ in ‘When I was a Child I Read Books’ (Hatchette, 2012).

Who let the dogs out? Who, who, who, who, who? (With apologies to the Baha Men.)

Signpost for Sunday 5 Sept: Prov 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps 125; James 2:1-10, (11-13),14-17; Mark 7:24-37.

I always think the story about the Syrophoenician woman is interesting but not because of the miracle that occurs. It’s the way Yeshua treats the woman that gets me. He pretty much calls her a dog to her face. That seems weird because most of the time Yeshua treats women with respect and compassion, no matter whether they are Jews or gentiles.

In Marks’ version of the story Yeshua’s reaction doesn’t seem to make sense at all. This is all that has happened ‘… as soon as she heard about him, a woman whose little daughter was possessed by an impure spirit came and fell at his feet.’ (Mark 7:25) OK, so Yeshua was hoping no one would find out he was in town and bother him, but is that enough to explain why he insults the woman so vehemently at first?

Maybe it didn’t make much sense to the author of Matthew’s gospel either because he tells a rather different story. He makes the woman’s behaviour much more annoying, writing that she ‘… came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” ‘ (Matthew 15:22-23)

Having said all that, the woman’s behaviour once Yeshua does hear what she has to say is even more surprising. She argues with a man in public. Bad enough that she speaks to a strange man at all without being addressed by him first (worse still if she shouted at him in the street). Then she goes and argues with him, in public. Unheard of in the first century Middle East. And, wait for it, she wins the argument. Wow!

‘The Way’ appears to have been a very different way of living from the norms of the time. And it sure makes me wonder about things like 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 (Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says) and 1 Timothy 2:11-13 (I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man). Whoever wrote those two epistles either didn’t know about Syrophoenician woman, or chose to ignore her completely. Unlike Yeshua himself.

Paul

Who makes the rules?

Signpost for Sunday 29 August: Song of Solomon 2:8-13 Ps 45:1-2, 6-9 James 1:17-27 Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23.

Oh dear, how many of us are going to feel guilty (or worse, superior) when they read or hear these words this week: it is…out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly” (Mark 7:21-22)?

Or how many of us are going instead to focus on the fact that Yeshua In one single stroke (verse 15) gets rid of the Jewish “purity law” relating to food. What you eat doesn’t matter, and it never did, he says.

Personally, I think the most interesting bit is when Mark/Yeshua quotes Isaiah 29:13 and he talks about the fact that organised religion (The Church of whatever faith) often seems to mistakenly emphasise “teachings [that are] are merely human rules”. For me that’s what this passage is most importantly about. Just think, for example, about the teachings that are still imposed by Christian organised religion of whichever denomination and that “are merely human rules”:

Priests cannot marry

Priests must be celibate

Women cannot be priests

Women cannot be bishops

Divorced people cannot marry in church

Gay people cannot marry in church

I could write a much longer list than that, but I think we all get the point. It’s not my point, though, it’s ultimately both Yeshua and Isaiah’s point, surely.

Paul

Open doors and open arms.

Signpost for Sunday 22 August: 1 Kgs 8:(1,6,10-11),22-30,41-43; Ps 84; Eph 6:10-20: John 6:56-69.

I think that if I was in church this week (which I can’t possibly be because we are in Covid lockdown here in New Zealand) then I would struggle to see what his week’s readings from the Lectionary are all about. Each one seems separate from the other, to my untutored ear anyway.

The best I can do is go through a couple of them and see what might be going on. In which case, let’s start with the reading from Kings. Verses missed out all over the place. But to be fair, that’s only so we don’t get bogged down with too many details that would slow down the narrative, such as it is.

It is all about the building of the first great Temple. Here’s the first ‘church’ and more than that, the first ‘cathedral’ that we know of. But no wonder Solomon is portrayed as being no dummy. He may well have built the ancient equivalent of Gaudi’s Basilica de la Sagrada in Barcelona, but he realises YHWH doesn’t need a man-made house: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (Verses 27 – 28).

For me those verses say two things. First, that I should not confine my God to a building on a Sunday. Second, that church buildings aren’t really there for God’s benefit, they are there for mine. When I go into a church I hope I’ll meet God there somehow. God might not live there but it’s a place God seems to hang out in occasionally. So I hope we bump into each other from time to time. Sometimes we bump into each other during a church service, when lots of other people are around too. Sometimes we bump into each other when I am the only person in the building. Often we miss each other completely.

Then the other thing these verses from Kings say to me is that ‘The Church’ hasn’t always been as good at being as inclusive as Solomon obviously thought his version of ‘The Church’ should be. After all, he reminds YHWH that people will be so fascinated by the Temple, all sorts might turn up to have a look. That’s why Solomon asks YHWH to “Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name.” (1 Kings 8: 42 – 43) I think that’s a hint that church should be inclusive not exclusive?

Speaking of which, I wonder if it goes some way to explaining why Ephesians 6:10-20 talks about fighting “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

I discovered this week that most scholars think the letter to the Ephesians is an earl example of the sort of direct mail letter we all used to get from Reader’s Digest. These days there’re called EDMs (Electronic Direct Mail); my bank, my electricity company and my telecom provider love sending them out, don’t yours. But wait there’s more. The Jerusalem Bible, for example, points out that some critics think the first words of the letter would have originally looked like this: Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints which are at __________ , and to the faithful in Christ Jesus…” the blank to be filled in with the name of whichever church the letter was being sent to.

Be that as it may, the letter was written in response to newly converted Jews who found themselves having to mix with gentile converts. Apparently many of them behaved as if those gentiles were somehow inferior to them (the newly converted Jews). It’s quite possible therefore that one message that comes out of the letter is, “Hey, stop squabbling with each other; stand together as an army against the powers you are both having to face: …the rulers, the authorities, the powers… etc.” And here’s how to that: “…put on the full armour of God… with the belt of truth… the breastplate of righteousness … the shield of faith… the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.” (Eph 6: 13-18 contains some of the Bible’s best poetry.) One point here I think is that no one is going to say, “Sorry, we can’t find your size.”

Paul