As we begin a new education year today, it is interesting that the readings of the day provide significant guidance. The first reading (from 2 Samuel 15-16) provides the odd description of David discovering that his son Absolom has now won over the majority of the people and was gathering troops against the King – so David flees in sadness to avoid a bloodbath in the city of Jerusalem. While on his way on the Mount of Olives, a member of Saul’s clan comes out and begins to curse him and throw stones at him. Charming behaviour! But rather than allowing one of his soldiers to kill Shimei, David takes the criticism and cursing as being from the Lord. Very noble.
In the Gospel (Mark 5) we have the powerful story of Jesus arriving on the south-eastern shore of the Sea in pagan territory and being greeted by a demon-possessed man. He is so deranged that he spends his life (day and night) without clothes, howling and cutting himself with stones. Jesus begins to free the man, while the demons protest. When asked to identify itself, the demon names itself as Legion “for there are many of us.” It could be a reference to the presence in that land of the Tenth Legion (which has the Boar as its emblem). A Roman Legion contained between 2000 and 4000 soldiers. The presence of Jesus in this pagan land is still bringing cleansing to the land by bringing dehumanised people to freedom. When the now clothed and calm man asks Jesus to follow him, Jesus tells him instead to stay in his local community and be a witness there to the mighty works of God.
Monday in Week 4, Year II.
Over the last few weeks during the readings from the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, we have heard of the first teaching and preaching of Jesus in his call to repentance because of the breaking in of the kingdom of God. Last Sunday we heard the call of the first four disciples. Today, Mark takes us to the beginning of his actual ministry on the first day in the life of Jesus. He goes, on a Sabbath day, to the local synagogue in the town that becomes his new home base, K’far Nahum (Capernaum), and begins to teach. The Synagogue was a relatively new reality in Judaism, beginning most likely during the period of the Exile, after the destruction of the temple of King Solomon, and before the exiles began to return to Jerusalem under the Persian King Cyrus and the building of a new temple. Many Jews did not return and remained in the diaspora, perhaps because life was better and more stable there, and perhaps because they found the synagogue service to satisfy their religious needs.
Synagogues could be buildings, but their basic reality was the coming together of a community, which could meet anywhere, including in private homes. The service was somewhat fluid, but it generally was comprised of only three components: a time of prayer, a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Tanakh (most commonly from the Torah), and then an interpretation of the reading. As a teaching institution, the focus was on the instruction that was offered. Usually, there was no music and no songs were sung, and no sacrifices were offered. Each synagogue (and at the time of Jesus there were as many as 480 in the city of Jerusalem) would have three positions: a leader or ruler who ensured the orderly running of the service, a collector and distributor of alms, and a minister (Chazzan) who cared for the Tanakh scrolls and made them available. There was no regular teacher or preacher. It was up to the leader to find someone to teach each week, or invite someone to teach during the service. That person could be a member of the congregation, or a visitor; they might be a recognised scribe or rabbi, or someone who seems to have the necessary teaching gifts, like Jesus. Scribes taught the Hebrew scriptures, but did so based on earlier interpretations – either written in the Tanakh, or in the body of oral teaching such as the Mishnah, or the oral teaching of earlier Rabbis or scribes. What Jesus brought to this teaching was personal authority: “you have heard how it was said, but I say to you…”
Mark wants us to know that the healing ministry of Jesus when he displayed his mighty works and authority was constitutive of his whole ministry. In fact, more than half of the public ministry of Jesus in Mark is comprised of miracle stories. A significant example of these are the release and healing of people possessed by demonic powers – with four major sections of his gospel taken up with these stories – see Mark 1:23-26; Mark 1:39; Mark 5:1-20; Mark 7:24-30; Mark 9:14-29. In a typical account of an exorcism, there are six stages:
- The meeting of Jesus and the possessed person
- The resistance of divine power
- Powerful response of Jesus (‘Be muzzled’ or ‘Shut up!’)
- A Command to leave
- The Departure of the demon
- The Reactions of the witness – usually astonished, amazed or afraid.
Jesus still has authority over our lives and every area of sin, darkness, addiction, shame and evil in our lives. As we pray for our country on this long weekend, let us allow the authority of Jesus to bring healing into every area that needs his love and mercy.
Sunday 04, Year B. Mark 1:21-26
Last Sunday we were invited by Jesus in the Gospel of John to “Come and See” and this week when we resume in the Gospel of Mark and hear the first words of Jesus in this Gospel, we are invited to “repent and believe the Good News” and to join with Jesus as he walks along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, inviting two sets of two brothers to “Follow me.” All four of the men immediately leave their possessions, their trade and their families to follow Jesus.
The first reading from the Book of Jonah provides a counter example of this immediate response. Although Jonah is included in the collection of the 12 Minor Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, the book is not a collection of his sayings (thankfully) but rather a satirical story of his call and ongoing failure to fully respond to the call and word of the Lord. This short book with only 4 chapters and 48 verses provides comical relief to us in those times when we struggle to respond to the Lord and his call to be faithful to his word, and invites us to reflect more deeply on our own response to pagan enemies and their conversion to God.
Sunday 03, Year B. Jonah 3:1-5,10; Mark 1:14-20
The first Gospel that we hear as we plunge back into the season of the year with Mark in year B is not from the Gospel of Mark, but from the first chapter of the Gospel of John (John 1:35-42). The Gospel opens with John seeing Jesus walking by and John declares to two of his disciples “behold, the lamb of God” – and they began to follow Jesus, instead of John. When Jesus sees them following after him, he turns to them and asks them a brilliant question: “What are you looking for?” I like their answer – in part because it seems like a very awkward question and not the one that they are really wanting to ask – “Rabbi, where are you staying?” I guess that they really want to ask something like – “Can we become your followers?” Jesus responds to their question, not with a direct answer, but he doesn’t ask them another question – which as a good Rabbi, Jesus is very good at. No he offers a lovely invitation to “Come and See.” It is an invitation that leads to life with Jesus, and it is the beginning of an answer to the first question of Jesus (which are also the first words of Jesus in the Gospel of John). The invitation to life with Jesus opens the door for one of the disciples, Andrew, to then invite someone else. The Gospel is never really experienced until we extend the encounter that is central to the gospel to another person. So Andrew invites his brother, Simon, to also come and see the one the one who is the Messiah. Simon comes into the circle of Jesus’s influence and into the gaze of his love. When Jesus gazes at Simon, he doesn’t only see what has happened in the past, he also sees the full potential of the person who stands there before him, and Simon is no longer only the son of John, he is now called by his future destiny to be Cephas (in Aramaic), or Peter (in Greek).
Sunday 02, Year B. John 1:35-42; 1 Sam 3:3-10,19; 1 Cor 6:13-20.
The key to understanding what this feast day of the Epiphany is all about is not so much in the specific details of these strange visitors from the East coming to offer gifts and worship to the newborn king of Israel, but in the bigger picture of what these magi represent. We heard last Sunday about the promise that the Lord made to Abram when he called him from his own people and his own family to go to a new place, a land that God will show him, where God will make Abram to be the patriarch of a new people, and a new nation, but also to be the source of blessing for all the nations.
God began to reveal this plan for all the nations slowly. Just as a human baby takes time to develop and mature, so also the human family who received this message of covenant love and faithfulness needed time – generation upon generation – to make sense of the radical call and identity that God was inviting them into. We should not be surprised that when we read the ancient Hebrew scriptures now that many of the teachings and claims strike us as crude and perhaps barbaric. But they were mere steps along this journey towards what God originally intended for all the nations to be part of.
So what began with one family, gradually developed into a larger and more complex reality that became one tribe, then twelve tribes, which grew into a new people during the time of slavery in Egypt, so that as the people escaped and made their Exodus journey through the wilderness and into the promised land, they became a new people and then became slowly one nation and one kingdom during the days of King David. But this was only the beginning. Paul (or one of his disciples) tells us today in Ephesians 3 that the original plan of God, that was hidden for so long, began to be revealed in glimpses through the Prophets, but in our time was finally revealed through the birth, life, passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul saw himself as the great evangelist of this new announcement: that what was understood as exclusive and particular, was now to be experienced as inclusive and universal – a blessing that belongs to all people, nations, languages, cultures, genders, sexuality, colours, social status, education levels, ethnicity and creeds. A message that some magi from the East happened to stumble across in Bethlehem, was now made available for all people. But now the work of Christmas needs to begin – to bring this inclusive and universal gospel into the lives of all people.
Feast of the Epiphany. Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6.