Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lent Reflection: The Crucified Messiah

The penultimate event in each of the four canonical Gospels is the death of Jesus by crucifixion. As modern readers of these stories, particularly living a world that celebrates violence, and especially after we swarmed theaters in 2004 to watch Mel Gibson’s depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, we might wonder why none of the four Gospels describe the grotesque details of crucifixion. They simply say that Jesus was crucified.

The reason for the lack of a blow by blow description of Jesus’ crucifixion may be because the people of the first century Roman World were very well aware of the practice and effects of this horrible tool of execution. The Romans used crucifixion often, and they used it well, as a deterrent against upstart rebels. Jesus was certainly not the only one to die on a Roman cross, so to include the bloody specifics of how crucifixion was carried out would probably be unnecessary.

Yet, we also may propose that the lack of these details about the act of crucifixion itself is also due to the fact that each Gospel writer wants his audience’s attention focused on other particulars that are much more important to the story of Jesus’ death.

As we approach Mark’s telling of Jesus’ execution during this Season of Lent, we ought to be reminded that Mark is not writing history as we would write history. Rather, Mark is interpreting history through a narrative story he tells to communicate what it means that Jesus died on a Roman cross.

Indeed, much of the details that Mark includes other than that Jesus was crucified may not be entirely historical, at least to our modern minds. But that is not the point. Like the rest of the story he tells, the Passion of Jesus is narrated so that we might pay close attention to the events and words in this story to inform us of the importance of Jesus’ death for faith and discipleship.

There are certainly many things happening in this scene, but of utmost importance are the things that are said to or about Jesus by those who stand around the cross. On one level, these statements are meant as scornful indictments that mock Jesus and characterize him as nothing more than a common peasant who was badly mistaken about who he thought he was. Yet, with ironic flair, Mark places these indictments on the lips of those who watch Jesus die with the intent of using them as proclamations that declare the truth about Jesus.

Jesus is mockingly treated as a king. He is given a purple robe and a crown of thorns, and those who beat him and mock him bow down to him in sarcastic worship. The sign that is hung above him reads, “King of the Jews,” and the religious leaders contemptuously say, “Let the Messiah, the King of Israel come down from the cross now, so that we might see and believe.”

The irony of this is very clear. While the religious leaders mean to mock Jesus as one who cannot possibly be a king because he hangs on a criminal’s cross, Mark means to use this to show that Jesus is king precisely because he hangs on a cross.

The kingly throne of Jesus according to Mark is not a seat of gold and jewels, but one of wood and nails. His kingly authority is not secured through power and violence. Jesus is king because he gives his life away in protest of the injustices of his world.

Jesus is also mocked by those who stand around the cross by their taunts of, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” In their thinking, if Jesus healed others, which Mark’s story is clear that he did, then he should be able to save himself. Those who watch Jesus die challenge him to do just that.

Again, the irony is obvious. These people were mocking Jesus because he hung on a cross in weakness and he was helpless to change his circumstances. Indeed, from the cry of Jesus accusing God of abandonment, we learn that even God could not change the course of this tragic event.

But Mark uses their mocking to express the true mission of Jesus. It is exactly because Jesus remains on the cross, giving his life, that he saves others. Remaining true to two of his earlier statements, “Those who want to save their life must loose it” and “The Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for many,”

Jesus demonstrated to those around the cross his own willingness to die to save others. In giving his life on a scornful cross, Jesus was indeed achieving salvation for humanity.

There is one final statement that deserves our attention and our response. This statement serves the crucifixion scene as a defining moment that expresses the truth of Jesus’ excruciating death. It is the testimonial spoken by the Roman Centurion who stood at the foot of the cross.

As this soldier was about his daily routine of crucifying criminals, something he probably did on a regular basis, he witnesses something he had never before witnessed. He sees the death of this innocent man, and he confesses, “Truly, this man was God’s Son.”

The title Son of God as it is used in reference to Jesus in Mark is important. No human, not even Jesus, ever uses this to refer to Jesus. Only God and the unclean spirits refer to Jesus as the Son of God. Why is this?

Perhaps it is because the human characters of Mark’s story never recognize Jesus as the Son of God. In Mark’s narrative, it is Jesus’ death, not his miracles and not his resurrection that is the defining moment that declares him as God’s Son. It is Jesus’ death that is the ultimate expression of his true nature as God’s Son, the one sent by God to challenge the powers, both spiritual and political. In seeing Jesus die, the Roman Centurion confesses Jesus as the Son of God.

During the remaining days of this Holy Week, each one of us stands at the foot of the cross. We look directly in the face of Jesus and we see him breathe his last breath and die. As we reflect on his death, do we dare to remember that we are not simply called to stand and watch? Do we dare to confess our own faith in Jesus as God’s Crucified Messiah? Do we dare to take the road that he took by challenging those who bring oppression and injustice? Do we dare to embrace his call to take up the scandalous cross and follow him?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lent Reflection: Jesus’ Garden Prayer Models a Faithful Response to Suffering

As Jesus and his disciples move closer to the event of Jesus’ trial and execution, which he seems to know is coming, but they seem to ignore, we, as readers of Mark’s story, begin to suspect that the drama of the narrative is about to reach its crescendo. Indeed, beginning in Mark 14, the narrative is pointedly focused on Jesus’ suffering and death, and one scene in particular captures the distress that Jesus faces in his last hours.

The scene in the Garden of Gethsemane in Mark 14:32-50 swells with imagery, betrayal, and treachery. There, we are witnesses to Jesus’ anguish, the disciples’ failure and desertion, and the handing over of Jesus to those who will judge him, beat him, and kill him. The event of Jesus’ suffering and death, about which he has spoken of several times, is now becoming a reality.

As readers of the story, we should not be surprised. Throughout the Gospel of Mark Jesus has been certain about this destiny. In fact, just before their move to the garden, when Jesus and the twelve celebrated the Passover Meal, Jesus spoke about the bread and the cup as symbols of his death. Jesus is sure that his death will take place, and he is determined to follow through with his destiny as that which will fulfill God’s purpose.

It is somewhat shocking then to see the anxiety of Jesus in the Gethsemane account. Not shocking in the sense that he is somehow above feeling anxiety, but shocking in the sense that up to this point in the story he has been so resolute. Never has Jesus demonstrated such anguish or grievance over God’s will for him to die. Yet, in the garden, Jesus struggles with what he has previously declared as his divinely mandated death.

Much could be said about this scene; too much for a short reflection. For one thing, it is a clear picture of Jesus’ humanity and his vulnerability as a human. For another thing, this scene is fraught with unanswerable theological questions concerning God’s character as that which wills violence and death. We certainly should not ignore either of these issues, and in any attempt to address them, we should be intellectually honest. But in this Lenten reflection, we might learn something valuable from Jesus’ prayer at his most vulnerable moments.

The prayer opens with Jesus’ direct address to God calling God Abba. It has been the consensus of most Jesus scholars that Jesus adopted this phrase from everyday use in family life, and that the term carried special meaning, particularly in relation to Jesus’ use of it in reference to God. To put things simply, in calling God Abba, Jesus affirms his close relationship with God and his trust in God’s benevolence toward him.

What is interesting is that this is the first time in Mark that we witness Jesus speak directly to God. In narrating Jesus’ direct speech to God, Mark may want us to remember when God spoke directly to Jesus, in the baptism scene at the beginning of the story. If this is the case, we are reminded, as Jesus remembers, of the loving declaration from God, “You are my Beloved Son.” In his most anguishing moment, when he is alone facing his impending suffering and death, Jesus recalls perhaps his most joyous experience, his baptism, and his intimate relationship to God, his Abba, the one in whom he entrusts his fate.

Jesus’ trust, however, is not limited to the benevolence of God. He also seeks to enlist the power of God to remove the cup of suffering from him. Jesus’ affirmation of God’s power to do all things prefaces what is his real concern, a relief from the suffering that is fast approaching. This is requested forthrightly by Jesus to the God in whom Jesus trusts for both love and power.

His affirmation that God can do all things clearly shows us that Jesus believed that the reversal of the divine will narrated throughout the Gospel is entirely possible. Though Jesus is not stating a universal principle, his prayer expresses his belief that God could take away the cup. Indeed, at this point, God is the only one who can deliver Jesus from the suffering and death that is upon him.

Yet, Jesus’ understanding of God’s loving care for him, combined with his belief that God can take away the cup of suffering, is what leads Jesus to affirm his submission to the divine will. He has been characterised throughout the Gospel as submissive to God’s will, and here, even in the face of his suffering and death, Jesus submits himself to what God desires, even as he calls on God to intervene. In a sense, Jesus’ intimate moments with God give him strength to face what is ahead of him.

In contrast to Jesus’ anguish that transforms into faith, the disciples are presented in the narrative as unconcerned about Jesus’ fate and their own faithfulness to him. Each of the three times Jesus finishes praying he returns to the disciples only to find them sleeping. He has commanded them to “keep awake”, but they are weak in flesh. Jesus contrasts their weakness in flesh with the willingness of the spirit.

We have wrongly interpreted Jesus to mean the human spirit, yet it seems more likely that Jesus means God’s Spirit. It is God’s Spirit that is willing to give these disciples strength, just as it is God’s Spirit that has strengthened Jesus.

As God is the only one to whom Jesus can turn during this time of anguish, so the disciples, and indeed all who seek to follow Jesus faithfully, can find hope in Jesus’ example of trusting in the willing Spirit of God to sustain us during times of anguish and suffering. God is the source of not only Jesus’ hope in the face of suffering; God is also the one to whom followers of Jesus must turn during times of doubt and pain.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Lent Reflection: A Major Example from a Minor Character

The Gospels are stories. That seems like an obvious statement, but making it may help us understand how to become better readers of these stories. Instead of viewing them only as historical records of what happened in Jesus’ life and ministry, we should treat them more for what they are; stories written for the purpose of communicating to their audiences how to live as disciples of Jesus.

Because these ancient texts are stories, they have the characteristics of other narratives that we might encounter. They have plot and conflict. They use time and space for literary purposes. But perhaps the most important feature that these narratives have is the way they present characters as models of how to live and how not to live.

For example, the disciples, who are the most prominent characters other than Jesus, actually serve more often as examples not to follow. They are frequently portrayed as bumbling idiots who never really understand Jesus’ mission and their role as followers of Jesus.

Yet, there are characters in the Gospels that we need to see clearly even though we might skip over them in our casual reading of these narratives. These characters are considered minor characters, for they only briefly appear in the narratives. Yet, when we carefully read the Gospels, we actually discover that these minor characters serve as major models that often express the ideals of what it means to follow Jesus.

These characters are for the most part people who seem insignificant. They are often not named. They are also those who are on the outside of normal existence in the first century world as many of them are shunned from community because of their illness, their impurity, their gender, and their economic plight. They are unimportant people. Yet, they are the ones to whom we should look to discover what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

We could spend a great deal of time looking at each of these minor characters and how each one teaches us how to follow Jesus, in contrast to the twelve men who follow Jesus. But, in this reflection, I want to highlight one woman who plays a significant role in epitomizing what it means to follow Jesus, even though she is not in the company of his closest friends.

In my last Lenten reflection, I wrote about Jesus’ actions in the temple and how his actions declared an end to the temple because of how corrupt it had become and how the temple structure worked to exclude others.

As we move from that scene in Mark 11 and encounter the scene of Mark 12, we find Jesus in the temple courts, teaching and answering theological questions. But just before he leaves the vicinity of the temple, Jesus sits and watches folks bring in their tithes and offerings to the temple treasury.

We are not sure why he was doing this. Perhaps he was confirming what he already knew about the temple; that it really was a place of corruption and that those who gave to the temple really only brought their gifts in order to be seen doing so.

But, as he watches the wealthy bring their gifts into the temple, Jesus notices a woman that no one else sees. While others stood around watching the rich bring in their elaborate gifts, receiving praise for what they have given, Jesus notices a poor widow come in and lay onto the treasury a small coin.

Those of us who have grown up in church are very familiar with this woman. Indeed, we have become even more familiar with her gift, referred to as the “Widow’s Mite”. Who among us cannot remember hearing this story when we were children attending Sunday School?

But like many of the stories that we learn from childhood, the story of this woman may have become so familiar to us that it simply becomes part of the lore of our faith instead of what it is intended to do: Confront us with our own greed and call us to sacrificial giving.

It is important to notice that this story comes at the end of Jesus’ presence in the temple; a presence that was highly emotional and disruptive. He had spoken boldly and judgmentally against the temple practices, and the leaders were set on putting him to death. Yet, just before he commends the widow for her gift and then leaves the temple courts, he makes one more important theological statement about the law givers of Israel.

He questions their theology by questioning the reading of scripture and their interpretation of who the Son of David is. Yet, more poignantly, he judges their ethics and offers a strong warning to his disciples about the teachers of the law. While these law givers might show much public piety in their teachings and in their interpretations of scripture, they devour widow’s houses. They act unjustly against widows, and we can assume others on the margins of the first century Jewish society.

Maybe this is why Jesus notices and draws attention to the widow who gives all she has. Not only is she a model of faithfulness and sacrificial giving, giving all she has to live on, which is what she has left after the rich and powerful have taken her other possessions, she does so without regard to how she has been treated by them or without regard for her own needs. She models the very actions of Jesus.

While the teachers of the law spout off this theological interpretation and that theological proposition, and while they create laws by which people must demonstrate their faithfulness, they act in direct opposition to the purposes of God by not acting justly towards others.

What a contrast of characters! Those thought to be so theologically astute and spiritually pious before the public are actually facing the judgment of God, while the woman who is not noticed by anyone except that she brings so very little to give, is actually the true model of discipleship.

Jesus points to this woman and tells his disciples that she is the model of faithfulness. Instead of listening to the preachers who preach theological propositions, pay attention to and follow the actions of this character who lives the kingdom of God of righteous and social justice.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lent Reflection: Is the Church an Inclusive Place of Prayer for All?

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and his disciples heading toward Jerusalem is both an important literary device and a theologically rich motif for the plot of the narrative. But the question we should ask is: Why were Jesus and his disciples headed to Jerusalem? The answer highlights once again the theme that Jesus and his disciples were working at cross-purposes.

Of course, the exchange between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John, that we saw in Mark 10, may indicate that at least these two disciples believed Jesus was going to Jerusalem to become the King of Israel, and that they would participate as members of his royal court. However, it does seem likely that the group that followed Jesus for the most part probably thought they were going to Jerusalem as faithful Jews making their annual pilgrimage to David’s city and to the temple to celebrate the Passover.

But, as Mark tells his version of the story, it seems that as Jerusalem comes closer into view, Jesus does not intend to enter the city as the kind of king the disciples hoped for. Nor does he come to Jerusalem simply as a Jewish pilgrim; one among many pilgrims making their way to the holy place.

Indeed, as Jesus and his band step closer to Jerusalem, it begins to become clear that he intends to enter Jerusalem as one sent to challenge the authorities for their religious tyranny, their abusive power, and perhaps mostly for their lack of justice toward the poor and marginalized. In fact, he is so set on taking this action against them that he has accepted that what he will say and do in Jerusalem will lead to his suffering death at their hands.

There is no event more significant in demonstrating Jesus’ intentions than that which takes place in Mark 11, when Jesus arrives at the temple. Of course, anyone familiar with the biblical story knows full well the importance of the temple for Jewish religious life. The temple stood as a beacon for faithful Jews of the first century and as a constant reminder of God’s promise and presence with them.

Yet, the temple was also the seat of political power for the Jewish religious leaders. In being the center of power for the ruling elite of Israel, the temple was a place in which segments of Israel’s population could not enter, and thus, those shutout could not participate in the full religious life of Judaism. Gentiles, women, those suffering from various infirmities, and other marginalized peoples were forbidden from full inclusion and participation.

Many modern readers of the story of Jesus’ actions in the temple interpret the meaning behind what he does in the temple and what he says about the temple as merely a spiritual message. In other words, we like to think that Jesus is confronting the religious establishment on spiritual grounds alone. Moreover, some understand what Jesus does as a refutation of Judaism. But both of these interpretations miss the point of Jesus’ action.

While it is true that there is indeed a spiritual thrust to Jesus’ acts against the temple, that thrust coincides with, and perhaps even follows from what Jesus feels about the political and economic abuses that were taking place there. There was clearly a political and economic structure to the temple that cut out and even abused the poor, while at the same time functioning as a “den of thieves.” But Jesus will have nothing of it. He speaks harshly against what is happening in the temple, and he reminds the hearers of the original intent of the temple to be a place of prayer for all peoples of the world.

Yet, what is particularly interesting about his actions in the temple is the way Mark tells us how these events developed. Jesus goes into the temple late on one day, looks around, and then leaves until he returns the next day, when he begins to overturn the tables. Why does Jesus do this, and why is it important for Mark to tell us these details?

The straightforward answer seems to be that Jesus was determined that his actions against the temple be witnessed by a large crowd; larger than the one that may have been there late on the first day. His actions can thus be defined as symbolic action that was intended not only to challenge the religious-political elite and their abuses, but also to publicly call for an end to the temple practices themselves. It was an action that called for a halt to what was taking place in the temple, and a negation of the belief that God approved of what was taking place in the temple.

If we interpret Jesus’ actions in the framework of his ideas about the rule of God, then we must see his actions against this center of religious and political power in Judaism as a call for the temple practices to be more inclusive. Indeed, by quoting from both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus is stating what the temple is suppose to be, an inclusive and welcoming community, as well as condemning what it has become, a place that not only excludes the poor and marginalized, but that also steals from them.

If segments of the population were being excluded because they were Gentile, female, poor, sick, and ritually unclean, then the temple served not as a place of prayer for all people, but as a place of exclusion, a practice that is clearly at odds with the message of Jesus.

The message of inclusion, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and ministry of justice and liberation, is fundamental to the rule of God. But inclusion can only happen when the walls that divide humanity are torn down so that all God’s people may enter.

Religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and social and economic barriers are only a few that preclude God’s just rule from becoming a reality. Jesus condemned the religious leaders for using their religious power to exclude others from community with God.

Modern followers of Jesus should heed Jesus’ words and should work to create more welcoming communities of faith so that all God’s peoples may find a place of prayer. If we do not, then we are also working at cross-purposes with Jesus.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lent Reflection: Jesus’ kingly glory comes not in thrones of power, but in the cross of suffering.

As I have mention in my two previous Lent Reflections, one of the dominant themes in the Gospel of Mark is the journey that Jesus and his disciples travel along the road to Jerusalem, the holy city of David. With each chapter and verse of the story, we are observers as Jesus and his band of disciples move further down the road with Jerusalem coming closer into view. Indeed, in Mark 10:33, Jesus specifically tells them, “See we are going to Jerusalem.”

Most likely those who followed Jesus knew they were headed to Jerusalem; what faithful Jew would not know the direction to Judaism’s most important city. So Jesus’ acknowledgment that they are headed to Jerusalem seems out of place and unnecessary, unless the mention of the direction in which they are headed is intended to mean something.

So, the question becomes, why does Jesus state specifically that they are headed for Jerusalem? And in hearing Jesus say that they are going to Jerusalem, for what purpose did the disciples think they were headed for the holy city? Did their understanding of the trip to Jerusalem match that of Jesus?

Maybe they assumed that he would go into Jerusalem as the conquering Messiah. Perhaps they thought that when they reached Jerusalem, Jesus would take his rightful place as King of Israel and overthrow the Romans. Possibly they followed Jesus towards Jerusalem, hoping that they would be participants in this rule of Jesus in David’s city. Most likely they did believe that Jesus’ purpose in continuing on the road to Jerusalem was so that he would be made a king and, consequently, they would share in that kingly power.

This expectation is seen most clearly in the request two of Jesus’ disciples make as their band moves even closer to Jerusalem. The brothers, James and John, come to Jesus with the bold demand; “Grant us to sit, one at your right and one at your left, in your glory” (Mark 10:37). It seems that they are aware that in heading to Jerusalem, Jesus intends to take his rightful place as the promised King of Israel, and it appears that they are very interested in securing their own places of authority, closer than any others to the seat of power.

These two disciples, and I would venture to guess the other disciples as well, seem to believe that following Jesus leads to glory, power, and prestige. They assume that by following Jesus to Jerusalem they will inherit seats of authority next to Jesus, one on his right and one on his left. Yet, these disciples, as well as the others, fail to understand that there is no glory apart from the cross that looms in Jerusalem.

Jesus had spoken to them about what would happen in Jerusalem two other times before this exchange; he would be arrested, beaten and killed. Indeed, right before James and his brother come to make their bold request to Jesus, Jesus tells all of the disciples, one more time, that he will suffer and die. But somehow they failed to hear, or better yet, refused to hear his words. Instead they continued to see the movement toward Jerusalem as a move toward power and glory and not one that would lead to suffering and death.

The specifics of the request made by the brothers should not be missed. James and John were seeking seats of authority by requesting places on the right and left of Jesus. Jesus affirms that there are such seats, but they are reserved for whom they have been prepared by God. What might he mean by his response? The clue might be found in another place in Mark.

The only other spot in Mark where people are said to be on the right and left of Jesus is in the crucifixion scene of chapter 15. In verse 27 of that chapter, we read that there were two bandits crucified with Jesus, one his right and one on his left. Moreover, just before we read of these two other crucified victims on either side of Jesus, we are told about the inscription that hung above Jesus on the cross that read, “King of the Jews”; an historical note that Mark utilizes for irony.

Whether or not this is a correct reading, it does seem reasonable to suggest that the author of Mark is tying these narratives together. In doing so, the story makes clear that those who seek places of power and glory in Jesus’ kingdom are not worthy to be crucified with him. Rather, the outcasts and the reprobate of society share in his suffering; they are his companions in death as they were in life. And, as he and his fellow criminals against the state hung on those crosses, the glory-seeking disciples were deserting him.

There is no doubt that Jesus was headed to Jerusalem to take his place as king; so in that regard James and John were correct. Yet, just like Peter’s misunderstanding of what it meant to call Jesus Messiah, the brothers failed to comprehend that the kingly glory of Jesus is found not in a worldly throne, but in his death on the cross. Jesus is crowned King in his crucifixion. And, those who are at the right and left of Jesus in glory are those who take their places on the right and left of Jesus in crucifixion. For Jesus, kingly glory comes not in thrones of power, but in the cross of suffering.