It Always Comes Down to Authority

 Mark tells us this in this day’s Gospel, that Jesus “spoke with authority and not as the scribes.”

What does this mean?

A cursory look at the definition of “authority” offers little help.

“The power to enforce laws, exact obedience, command, determine, or judge.”

No one would accuse Jesus of “exacting obedience”. Rather, he gave us reason to obey, warning us sometimes of the consequences of not obeying, but never does he force us to do his bidding.

Further, the word “power” seems inappropriate here.

Mark’s audience, as best we are able to discern, was under great pressure. That pressure came from Rome, who was at the time engaged in exacting its “authority” over the Jewish lands, especially in Jerusalem, the seat of the uprising.

Mark’s community, probably from somewhere outside Jerusalem, saw the brutality and ruthlessness of the Roman war machine.

So we must look elsewhere for what Mark meant by using the term “authority” as regards Jesus and his teaching.

I think that comes from his juxtaposition with the phrase “not as the scribes.”

We know that the scribes at the time were the “literalists” of their day. They interpreted the Scriptures and defined what was acceptable and what was not to the greater population. There were various codes to be adhered to, various practices that must be accomplished to be and remain in good standing as a Jew.

So they had a certain authority it would seem, since they declared the clean from the unclean, the pious from the not, yet, apparently they did not impress the population as speaking for God. Rather, they spoke as the established “church”. Few if any, so it seemed, thought of their teaching as anything but rote repetition of rules and regulations.

No, Jesus spoke as a prophet, one sent by God to EXPLAIN. A prophet is not a seer of the future, but one who assembles the “threads of the day” and explains what they mean for the average person. Prophets are sent when people “don’t see the obvious” and need to be told what is coming (if they don’t change their ways).

Mark goes further.

As I said, Mark’s community is under great threat. Mark, doesn’t stop with just explaining that Jesus has this “authority” and should therefore be listened to as a prophet. He fairly hits his community up the side of their heads!

Jesus cures a man cursed with a demon, and the demon shrieks, “I know who you are. The Holy One of God!”

No question now. Jesus is not just a prophet, he is God’s Holy One! “Listen to him,” Mark proclaims.

One can but imagine the uproar this caused in the synagogue that day. First this rather nobody from a small outlying village arrives and without schooling or training, speaks in the synagogue, explaining the scriptures in a way apparently new and quite different from the usual recitation of admonitions and blandishments. And then, he disrupts the sacred place with a healing, calling forth demons who shriek and create a ruckus.

“What is this?”

What indeed?

We can see in our mind’s eye, the crowds slowly walking away in small groups, whispering among themselves. We can imagine that the synagogue authorities watched all this and gathered too, to discuss this event, and what it might mean.

We all are required to obey certain authoritative acts. We must pay taxes, obey traffic laws, obey our parents, our bosses. That is normal, and for the most part good, for society depends on a degree of compliance voluntarily given.

However, we must always remember that there is a “higher authority”, one that always supersedes earthly rules. It is the authority written in our hearts by a loving God who has impressed upon us an ingrained “knowledge” of moral right. Jesus speaks as this “authority”. We read his words and ponder his teachings, recognizing that our hearts respond to the “authority” of his teaching.

While we often wish to rebel and take a “have you come to destroy us?” attitude, we know the truth of what He speaks.

Let us always shed evil and stand in the light of God’s truth.

Amen.

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Cleansing the Temple

In reading through the texts for the second week of Advent, I came upon the familiar lines of Isaiah, echoed in Mark:

“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”

As I often have, I wondered exactly what that meant.

To me at least, I pondered that directed me to not get caught in many of the twists and turns of life, but rather to keep my eyes and heart locked on the goal–making myself and my life a fitting example of Christ’s teachings.

We are reminded in Isaiah that God has dealt generously with Jerusalem and thus with us as well. We are promised that God is coming!

Yet, in our second reading from Second Peter, we get a quite different message. It is one of chaos and fire, of destruction and upheaval. All that we have done here on this earth is to no account, it will be destroyed and replaced with a “new earth”. We apparently have so ruined this one, that the only recourse is a cleansing.

But look a bit deeper. The writer of 2Peter is writing in perilous times for his community. While Jesus himself, and Paul thereafter spoke of his return in terms of years, now perhaps as much as 70 years has gone by. And few if any eye-witnesses remain. Hardly anyone has even heard an eye-witness speak.

The community is disheartened, distressed, and persecuted.

“What have we done wrong?” you can hear them ask.

The one writing assures then that God gauges time much differently than they. God so loves his people that he gives them this time to make of themselves that perfect being, worthy of the Kingdom. And so the delay is not out of anger or disgust, but rather out of love.

In effect we are told that as we cleanse ourselves of sin, so we bring forth the day we long for.

We do not sit passively, tending the fire, waiting for salvation. No we participate in the Kingdom now by our very actions as Christians. If we do our jobs, living lives worthy of the Kingdom, then we hasten the return of our King, we make the fire unnecessary.

We cleanse the Temple in a literal sense as our way of making straight the path of the Lord.

Come Lord Jesus!

Amen.

 

Is 40:1-5, 9-11
Ps 85: 9-14
2Pt 3: 8-13
Mk 1: 1-8

 

To The Watch Towers!

As an adult, Thanksgiving has come to be my favorite of holidays. Although I spend hours and hours buying food, preparing it, and setting up the table, finally the moment arrives and we sit down to a feast.

But more glorious to me, is the fact that I have no cooking to do for the next three days. When we feast, we feast. We eat Thanksgiving dinner for four days, enjoying it anew each time, and leaving little in the way of leftovers.

But I admit, that around Saturday, I start to lose my contentment. It has nothing to do with the cooking. It has everything to do with the looming specter of the holidays to come and all the work that that entails.

There is of course more buying and cooking of food, but there is the addition of decorating, holiday cards, gifts, and all the sundry events and parties and so forth. And it seems overwhelming.

In my thirties, it seemed nearly impossible. I seem to never have a moment when I wasn’t shopping, decorating, baking, or obsessing. As I’ve aged, and our lives have settled down, frankly little of this troubles me now. But I remember it quite well.

Advent comes as an island in the chaos. It tells us to slow down, stop our obsessing about things that don’t matter much at all, and to concentrate on what truly is. The LORD IS COMING!

And we are reminded that instead of all this unnecessary busy work, we should be concentrating on what is truly valuable–doing our best to usher in the kingdom that we so long for.

Believe me, we can be at our worst during the hustle and bustle of holiday times. We can be rude and pushy, arrogant, and down right mean to those who we see as getting in our way or obstructing our plans. And Advent reminds us, that that is not what we should be about at all.

It is a time of shared love and charity. It is a time of community, and caring for each other. It is a time when we join together in our hope for the future that we know to be ours.

Mark reminds us: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”

And Paul tells us that we have been given all we need to be at the watch: “in him you were enriched in every way,
with all discourse and all knowledge,. . . ”

We take a pause in our busyness, and contemplate these things.

We realize that we get caught up in the Madison Avenue of it all, and we lose sight of our need. Our need is great. It is the need for our God:

 “Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.

We need with a deep yearning to recall that we are fashioned as God would have us. We are not consumers. We are not Italians, or Irish, or Puerto Ricans. We are not Presbyterians or Catholics, Baptists or Lutherans. We are not lawyers, or mechanics, teachers or real estate agents. We are not parents, children, aunts, or cousins. We are not old or young, rich or poor.

We are God’s creation. We are gifted with love and compassion and humility. We are awaiting our Savior’s return to bring glory to God in the Kingdom. We wait. We watch. We hope.

Is. 63:16b-17, 19b, 64: 2-7
Ps 80: 2-3, 15-16, 18-19
1Cor 1: 3-9
Mk 13: 33-37

Repost: Mark: A Commentary

It is with pure delight that I thank Westminster John Knox Publishing for sending me the following selection for review. This is the opening book in a new series entitled: Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible.

The first book in the series is Mark, by William C. Placher. It was published along with Luke, which I have also received and will be reviewing shortly.

WJK also publishes the Interpretation series, of which I have long been a fan, but after reading Mark, I suspect this new series may far outstrip that wonderful series.

The idea behind the Belief series is to bring together the latest exegetical work, along with literary, historical, archaeological, and other pertinent advances as they impact how we interpret the bible from a theological point of view.

In Mark, they have certainly attained their goal. Professor Placher, unfortunately now deceased, has written a simply beautiful commentary. Not content to just tell us what the text means, or most likely means, Placher explores how Mark’s “good news” is still most relevant to the world we live in today.

For example, in the opening pages, he writes:

Americans today, therefore, read the Gospel of Mark–this story of a Middle Eastern man tortured to death by the most powerful empire of his time–when we are the most powerful nation of our time, and our forces are torturing people, sometimes to death. What does this imply about our values and the sort of people we have become?

Peppered throughout the chapters are “Further Reflections” on key phrases or words such as Kingdom of God, Miracles, and Ransom. Each of these probes into the historical record and juxtaposing that against our modern notions, finding common ground and points of comparison.

Quotes are boxed throughout the text as well, and are wide-ranging in their authorship, including Luther, Barth, Basil, Tertullian, Philo, Cicero and many others. These highlight themes introduced and explored by Professor Placher.

What is most compelling is the breath of sources. You will meet the likes of Karl Barth, and Luther of course, but also the likes of Calvin, John Dominic Crossan, and Gustavo Gutiérrez. Majority opinions are explained, but plenty of minority opinions are given with their rationales. Of course, Placher gives his choice and the reasons for it in the end.

We are a world more and more polarized along religious lines. Placher offers us, for example, a theological explanation of chapter 12:28-34. Here Jesus is questioned by a scribe as to which commandment is first. Jesus famously says “love God and love your neighbor.” This is all well and good, but in answering, Jesus shows us that even though many of his arguments are with scribes, not all scribes are bad, some come with honest questions. Barth points out that this the Hebrew Scriptures often engage “outsiders” to do the will of God, and thus Jesus shows us that good can often come from those who are not like us. How useful it is to remember that today.

The point always is, that when we read scripture, and Mark in particular, there is much that speaks to our condition today, both individually and as communities and nations. Every minister, priest, and preacher, every teacher seeks to make the scripture relevant to their listeners. This is no more than Mark did himself, in trying to tailor the stories he told to the issues present in his community.

How could Jesus help them? How can Jesus help us? As students of scripture, we have much to gain here in understanding, but if we are also preachers and teachers, we have even more, for here we can find new insights, new interpretations, new connections where we never realized them before. For every minister who has sat late into Saturday evening, still trying to find something “new” to say on tomorrow’s gospel, she or he will likely find help here.

We squabble, some of us in our respective traditions with rules about who can join us, and who cannot join us. We have our own brand of “unclean”. Yet, Jesus did not teach us that. He taught us the opposite. He regularly ate with sinners and those ritually unclean, and he never made it a condition for sitting at table with him that repentance was a pre-requisite. What does that say to us today?

Page by page, Placher explores, teases out, and conjoins text from not only Mark, but from other texts as well both in and out of the bible. The picture sharpens and Mark’s words take on added significance. We see in a new way, hopefully a better one.

I simply enjoyed this commentary more than I can say. I found it easy of explanation, yet profound in its theological depth. Placher has drawn from a broad spectrum of experts, and has intertwined them to make coherent and useful conclusions. He gives us a foundation from which to explore.

As I said, teachers and preachers will find this commentary invaluable as they search for new ways to marry scripture to today’s world. Individuals will see application in their own lives and spiritual journeys.

If the rest of this series can be predicted upon the basis of this opening publication, then we are in for a rich treat indeed. You may indeed want to consider the entire series, as it comes out. I have barely begun Luke, and I can already see that it carries on the fine standards established in the first offering. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. You won’t be sorry.

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