Not Very Nice

Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace

Mark 2:23-3:6  |  Second Sunday after Pentecost

Why do so many people want to insist that Jesus was always nice? They like to talk about Jesus healing people, and they love to say that he suffered the little children to come unto him. (We can thank the King James for that fascination, I think.)

Mark is describing another sort of Jesus, an angry one.

Someone saw Jesus and his disciples picking ripe grain as they walked through a field. It’s an odd snack, but they were hungry. A group of religious men (and yes, we may be fairly sure they were all men) accused them of breaking the Sabbath, reaping on the day of rest, work that was by the letter of the law proscribed. Their accusation made Jesus angry.

The Reaper, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.
The Reaper, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1889. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam.

To borrow a line from Sidney Poitier’s character in The Simple Life of Noah Dearborn, it’s ok to be angry. There are places and times when anger is the appropriate response. These days it isn’t difficult to find such a place or time.

The caution comes when we consider why Jesus was angry and who crossed him — religious people. If Christianity has it right, God Almighty incarnate was ticked off with some religious people.

There’s plenty of irony.

Rules. Rules can be a fine way to achieve an end. Rules can be tools, a method. Consider the rule of a monastery—some things laid aside, others picked up. Rising before sunrise to pray. Perhaps keeping silence. Obedience. Or consider keeping the Sabbath. Even today, observant Jews may find the rules of the Sabbath challenging, restraining, or they may find keeping the Sabbath to be liberating, freeing, restorative, which is the entire point, of course.†

The religious people complaining to Jesus wanted to bind God in rules for which they had forgotten the meaning. They were like men who set out on a journey but forgot their destination.

Rules aren’t the point. They’re just the method.

Here’s something else that is fascinating — Jesus answered them with a story, not an argument. He told them a story about David eating the bread of the Presence, bread reserved for the priests. It’s a story about one of God’s favorite people breaking the rules. (You can find it in 1 Samuel 21.) Maybe that’s one of the reasons God loved David: all those rules he left scattered behind him like broken pottery.

David is on the run, hungry, fleeing for his life from Saul, the unhinged, autocratic king. The priest Ahimelech gives David sacred bread to eat, and he also gives David the sword of Goliath that oddly enough had been kept in the sanctuary — holy food and an oversized weapon. When word reaches Saul of what the priest has done, Saul orders Ahimelech and his fellow priests to be slaughtered, along with their families. It’s not a pretty story.

The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
The Harvest, by Vincent Van Gogh. 1888. Collection of Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Jesus tells the religious folk who were objecting to hungry people picking grain on the Sabbath that the Sabbath day was made for humankind, not the other way around. Jesus is reminding them of the reason for the Torah, the law — to enrich the lives of people, to open a relationship with the Divine. They could not grasp it, having long before traded the law for their rules.

Their rules were easier. Focus on the Torah would have kept their eyes on God, which may have been wonderful or terrible, but never comfortable. Focusing on their rules let them divert their attention from the Divine. They subverted their own experience of faith.

We’re supposed to criticize the rule-keepers. At least, that seems to be the way of present day Christianity. Point at the ridiculous critics, shake our heads at their short-sightedness. Maybe that’s part of the reason that Jesus was angry. He knew that all these years later, we’d share one thing, at least, in common with the rule-keepers — we think that we are better at being good. And in focusing on behavioral delimiters, boundaries of acceptable Christian behavior, we loose track of our goal. Generally speaking, Christian ethics, like the ethics of every major religion, result in good behavior, good citizens, good neighbors, but that isn’t the point. You can achieve that same level of ethical behavior as an agnostic or an atheist, it’s just that the basis of your rules would be different.

One person may feed the hungry because that strengthens society, or because one day he may find himself hungry. The person of faith feeds the hungry because she sees the image of God in their faces.

There is a deeper point in the Torah, a more sublime meaning in doing unto others as we would have them do unto us. In loving our neighbor, we draw closer to the Divine. The closer to God, the fewer rules we need. And those first disciples walking with Jesus? It wasn’t a handful of grain that sustained them. It was the presence of God.

† For more along this line of thought, you may enjoy Surprised by God, by Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg. Here’s a link to her website and to more information about her book:


Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace
Jesus Mural of Faith, Hope, Love, and Peace, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.

You Probably Think This Verse is About You

Garden View

Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Mark 10:1-16

You Probably Think This Verse is about You

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Way back in 1972 (and yes, I remember it) Carly Simon released a song called “You’re So Vain.” Here are the words of the refrain:

You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?

Album cover: The Best of Carly SimonIt was a huge hit. Since the song came out, plenty of people have tried to figure out who the subject is—Warren Beatty? Someone else? Several people? All of us?

It should have been playing when the Pharisees came asking Jesus about the legality of divorce. And it should be playing while we read the story in the Gospel of Mark.

We tend to think that the story is about divorce. We may even think it is about us, especially if we have been divorced (or if we’re contemplating it.)

Divorce is the subject matter, that’s true. There is even a followup by way of a private conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples. So you could argue that the passage really is about divorce.

Fair enough. It is just not what I’m hearing in the story.

Still, if you’d like to read more about divorce and about making sense of the various views of divorce in the Bible, you should read Craig S Keener’s book And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. (The link will take you to the Amazon page where you can find it.) Keener’s approach is clear, interesting, and best of all helpful (unless you are looking for ways to beat people over the head with rules—then you’d be happier reading something else.)

In Mark, context matters. The way parts of stories are matched up or put together matters.

Here, we begin with a journey in verse 1 and end with another journey in verse 17. Let’s take those journeys as our bookends and look at what Mark has bound together.

In the beginning we have Pharisees and laws about marriage and divorce. Afterward, we have Jesus being indignant, perhaps even angry, that his disciples were shooing the small children away, keeping them from approaching him. This isn’t about rules or law. This is about relationship and acceptance.

Take Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. He points back to the creation stories, which are overwhelmingly relational: the relationships of God to creation and of human to human are the most foundational theological expressions of the creation stories.

God has joined us all together. It is not just about one marriage, or one relationship, or a handful of people. It is about grasping the relational aspect of God, the relational aspect of the Gospel.

We are all in this thing together. Like that garden in the story of Eden. Like a married couple. Like children running to someone they love.

That’s the point.

Maybe we were right. Maybe these verses really are about us.

Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden
Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria

Imaginary Things

Lorikeet Image

Proper 17 (22) | Mark 7:1-23

Imaginary Things

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Rules are simple things. By means of rules we divide the universe into halves, and we set one against the other. One obeys a rule, or one does not. One is right or wrong, in or out. There is only light and dark, black and white, and by means of such a mental contrivance we simplify our world.

There is only one problem. Rules are imaginary things.

Our world is probably not imaginary, or if it is, we are part of the same dream. Imagination is not what we see: imagination is how we see it.

The same beautiful lorikeet as elsewhere on this page, but in black and white. Look at what is lost. (Photo taken at the Lorikeet Landing at the NC Aquarium in Ft Fisher.)
The same beautiful lorikeet as elsewhere on this page, but in black and white. Look at what is lost. (Photo taken at the Lorikeet Landing at the NC Aquarium in Ft Fisher.)

Take the creation stories of Genesis. They help us to imagine the coming into being of the world—so far so good. When we take those stories and set them against the explanations of science, we have ourselves performed an act of creation—we have created a duality that does not exist, pitting science against faith. If science discovers a truth that contradicts a tenet of faith, as Galileo did, then it is our theology that is flawed.

It is a bit like describing death to a child. An explanation of the biological process, while scientific, may be useful on some levels, but such an explanation will not assuage her grief. A non-scientific story, even a mythical or fanciful one, illustrating the wheel or cycle of life may be more helpful in addressing her feelings, the human pain of loss. The two approaches are different, but they are not in opposition. Each is helpful in the right setting. Yet there is something in humanity that wants to hold to a single view, a single explanation of the world, as though the mind were a hand too small to grasp two strings at once.

It is the easy way.

The religious folk in the passage from Mark are no different. Beginning with the notion of living a life of faith, they developed rules. Having developed the rules, they began to follow their rules instead of their faith.

Rules define things. One either follows them or one does not; one is therefore considered faithful by the other religious folk or one is not. Rules eliminate the gray areas on the face of our moral compass. Tithing replaces generosity. Obedience replaces faith. Rules replace thought. Religion replaces love.

Some modern Christians are tempted to label the people in this Gospel story as ‘Old Testament’ thinkers—people of the rules—as opposed to the opposite notion of ‘New Testament’ thinkers—people of grace. That kind of thinking only works if you forget that 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Micah had already gotten there:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.IMG_2389
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
—Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Long before Jesus dealt with the rule followers, their own prophets had already rejected sacrifice and ritual and rules. It seems some of them weren’t listening. Centuries later, some of the people around Jesus were still more concerned about ritual, rules, and conformity than about love.

In all of scripture, it was never written that God preferred rules, or governance, or even religion. The prophets told us that God is love, that God is light.

Sin is never about failing to follow rules. Sin is always about failing to act in love.

No matter how well we follow the rules, if we act without love, we have failed. If we forget all the rules, but treat ourselves and one another with love, we are people after God’s own heart.

Lorikeet Image