Called

“They abandoned their nets and followed him” (Mark 1:16).

 Any study of the scriptures quickly reveals how rich and multi-layered the Word is when we engage it with openness and faith. A seemingly simple narrative unfolds in greater detail as we let our imagination enter the story. Unlike other kinds of reading, God’s Word draws us into an encounter with a living Voice, inviting us to make Jesus real in our lives.

Today’s short account of the call of the first disciples is a good example. Mark has set the stage at the start of his Gospel, so we know that Jesus has begun his public ministry announcing that the “Kingdom of God” is at hand. The phrase must have had an electric impact on his audiences. How daring of this ordinary Jewish layman, a carpenter from the hill country village of Nazareth, to talk openly about a new kingdom backed by God. The people must have wondered what King Herod and the Roman occupation thought about all of this. There is tension in the air.

Jesus’ reputation is spreading quickly in the lake country because he was a compelling story teller and was also performing miracles of healing and exorcisms. Jesus was demonstrating real power. The fishermen in Capernaum by the Sea of Galilee had heard of him, and the suddenness of their response to his call suggests that Peter and Andrew, James and John, had already been influenced by Jesus.

These men are fishermen, two sets of brothers who are part of family businesses, with boats and nets, hardworking, intelligent but probably not educated, family men. They are likely young, in their 20s, not the grey-bearded figures in Christian art. Jesus is only 30.

What did Jesus see in these men that moved him to choose them to be Apostles who would one day be sent out to share the message and witness of Jesus?  Their work as fishermen meant that that they lived with uncertainty, often all night out on the lake hoping to make a catch. Their skills included an ability to read the sky, weather conditions, water temperature, and to discern what was invisible beneath the surface of the lake. When the nets came alive with thrashing fish, they had to jump to the task of hauling them on board and bringing them to shore. 

Here was a perfect parable for what Jesus would ask them to do as Apostles. They were to “catch” people to the Gospel message, drawing them into the boat of the church and into communities of faith. What better helpers could Jesus have than these brothers with rough, rope-scarred hands and enough patience and skill to go where the catch was and endurance to bring it into the kingdom of God?

The scriptures we read are like those small flavor-packed bouillon cubes used to make soup. Everything is there except for the hot water that, when added, will reconstitute the full broth and bring to life its aroma and taste. God provides the Word, but we have to add the hot water. It is our imagination and faith that give body to the story, for it is not just about Peter and Andrew, James and John. Today’s living Word is addressed to us and about us. Jesus is calling us to be with him in the work of sharing the Kingdom of God.  This is the joy of the Gospel.

Chosen

“Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him” (Mark 3:13).

One measure of a leader is the group of advisors and associates he or she selects to help fulfill the mission. If the team is poorly chosen without discernment and coordination, the mission suffers.

Mark tells us that Jesus made his selection of apostles after going up on a mountain, a sign that he conferred with God even as Moses had on Mount Sinai before making major decisions.

This hardly explains how, then, some of the chosen apostles were fallible and even unreliable picks. Peter was proud and stubborn and proved a failure when tested. James and John had anger issues. Thomas had doubts. Matthew was a hated Roman collaborator and tax collector. Judas betrayed Jesus.

Was Jesus mistaken in selecting them, or were their very flaws important to the story?  

The answer from the Gospel seems to be that Jesus knew exactly why he chose each apostle. Each one possessed qualities that would emerge under trial. Each one would undergo a process of conversion that made them good apostles. They experienced what they were sent to share with others. They were weak and unworthy, yet by God’s mercy they were called to glory. This was the Gospel they preached.

This should encourage us. We certainly know our weaknesses, and the notion that we might be called to be apostles seems far from possible. Yet Mark has brought the possibility to each of us by telling us that the real apostles were just like us, yet Jesus chose them anyway. In fact, Jesus chose them because they were flawed, in order to show what grace could make of them, and of us.

Do we believe this? It may be the first and most important act of faith required of us. God is eager to make each one of us a witness to the power of mercy to transform the world. If it can happen to us, it can happen to anyone.

For All

“Hearing what Jesus was doing, a large number of people came to him …” (Mark 3:8).

Mark stresses early in his Gospel that Jesus had a universal mission. He came in a special way as the promised messiah to the Jews, but his message of salvation was for everyone who responded to him in faith.

In today’s Gospel passage, Mark identifies all the groups and regions beyond Judea and Galilee that flocked to Jesus when they heard of his healings. Tyre and Sidon were on the northern border of Galilee, and Idumea was on the far side of the Sea of Galilee. Both areas were primarily populated by pagans.

The crowds were so great that Jesus had a boat ready so he could preach from the water when the press of people that gathered was so eager to touch him that they threatened to crush him. These scenes were early in his public ministry, and Jesus was quite popular. 

The presence of officials from Jerusalem meant that the official religious establishment was concerned about this theologically uneducated hill country preacher. They had seen other popular figures arise who had gathered large followings and had challenged Roman authority, bringing down a quick and violent response.

We know from the Gospels that this period of popularity quickly shifted to a time of suspicion and controversy as it became clear that Jesus was challenging the temple establishment and calling for deep reform and repentance from everyone.

Long haul conversion is the hard part of every journey of change. Even only several weeks into the New Year, how many resolutions have been forgotten as old habits reappear? True spiritual change might begin with a burst of fervor, but sustaining it requires deeper and deeper reflection and motivation.

If we hold to one resolution for our spiritual growth in this new season, it should be for perseverance until new habits and regular discipline in prayer and practice can take hold.  Jesus calls his circle of disciples in the very first chapter of Mark, but it is in the next 15 chapters that they will prove how deeply his call has gone in their lives.

Stretch

"Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath?" (Mark 3:4).

Today's Gospel focuses our attention on the word "stretch."  A man with a withered hand has been deliberately placed in the synagogue on the sabbath to test whether Jesus will heal him despite the legal restriction about doing any "work" on the sabbath. Jesus will succeed in "stretching" the man's withered hand back into wholeness, but he will be unable to "stretch" either the narrow interpretation of the law being used or the hearts of the Pharisees who have set this trap in order to discredit Jesus.  

Jesus contronts their legalism and their bad faith. These scholars know that the sabbath law does not prevent anyone from doing an act of healing or rescuing an animal on the sabbath. Why this hardness of heart?  Why would they not rejoice that a crippled man could be restored to health, instead of only using him for bait?  Their true intentions are revealed when they fail in their scheme, for these Pharisees leave the house of prayer to consipiire with their social enemies, the Herodians, to kill Jesus. So much for either life or the sabbath. 

Paralysis is a terribile thing when it afflicts our consciences or withers our hearts. The only remedy is a lifetime of stretching and openness. When compassion is blocked by fear, judgmentalism or habit, we are in danger of real spiritual atrophy and loss of discernment. Only exercising our hearts and going beyond our narrow views and prejudices can we grow as disicples.  Jesus leads the way in stretching out his hands to us, and teaching us to stretch out our hands to others. 

Love Over Law

“The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:28).

Mark’s reference to the story of David and Abiathar and the bread of the covenant (from 1 Sam 22) to support Jesus’ authority to allow his disciples to eat grain they pick in the fields on the Sabbath adds rich perspective to this Gospel passage.

We recall that for Jews the primary source of authority came from Moses and the Law. But King David was another source that Jesus’ critics could not ignore.  In using the story, Jesus reminds them that though the ceremonial bread used in the temple was restricted to the priests, David and his men were hungry, like his own disciples. Human need overrides ritual protocol. The Sabbath serves people, not the other way around.

But there is more to the story. At the time David encounters the temple priest Abiathar, he is fleeing King Saul, who is jealous of David’s popularity and is trying to kill him. So David is in fact a fugitive from the king, and a rebel to his authority. He is outside the Law, but he is superior to the Law because God’s favor has already passed from Saul to David, who has already been anointed king to succeed Saul by the high priest, Samuel.

Mark applies this succession to Jesus, whose authority is greater than that of the Law. He is the new Moses, and his teaching proclaims a new covenant. He is the promised descendant of David, the Messiah.  The bread of the temple, or the manna Moses called down from heaven, is being replaced by the Bread of Life, revealed as Jesus’s own gift of himself to his disciples.

The Gospel gives us a new freedom by revealing something greater than rules and rituals. It is the law of Love, which is often much more difficult than a written code. Love requires engagement and discernment. When confronted by human need, love asks us to respond, even to “break” the rules. Compassion asks us to act first, and then sort out the details or ambiguities.  We may not be following Moses, but perhaps we are following David, the charismatic figure whose passionate approach to life and to the graces poured out on him  reminds us of Jesus.

Jesus fulfilled the entire Law by keeping the Law of Love, and we are called to do the same.

 

Faithful Stewards

“The word of God is living and effective” (Heb 4:12, Gospel antiphon)..  

The disciples of John the Baptist and the Pharisees were upset with Jesus for not telling his disciples to observe the custom of fasting each week. Jesus was not against fasting, had fasted himself in the desert and as part of the liturgical life of the community on the Day of Atonement and other penitential feasts.

What we sense in their criticism of Jesus was that they were unhappy with his easy manner and joyful message to sinners. He was relaxing the structures and rituals of the law and of religious practice that his critics relied on to distinguish themselves from ordinary people. They had special status because of their public piety and discipline,

What Jesus was challenging was the inability of these religious groups to grasp that God had done something new and wonderful. The Good News was an outpouring of unconditional love on everyone, even sinners. It was a time of joy to be celebrated. Jesus himself was the sign of this newness. He uses the image of a wedding feast. People were dispensed from the need to fast during a wedding.  Jesus was like a bridegroom, and his disciples were dispensed from fasting because he was with them.  

The time would come when his disciples would fast. The church would show its wisdom in developing both a strong tradition and an openness to change.  We need to both preserve what is of value and to be ready to adapt to what is new.

Jesus shows his familiarity with ordinary household practices of storing wine and mending clothing. His homey examples of the need to adapt hit home with us 2,000 years later.  Don’t put new, or fermenting, wine into an old container that has lost its ability to expand. The new wine will explode the old skins.  Do not use a piece of unshrunken cloth to patch an old garment. When you wash the garment, the patch will shrink, pulling away from the older cloth, ruining the garment. 

The examples work both ways. If something new is happening in your life, don’t force it into old expectations or patterns that will resist it. Be open. And if you have traditions that need to be preserved, don’t add totally new practices that are incompatible or untested, lest the fabric of your life be disrupted. 

The steward of the household is wise to distinguish what is needed and when, both old and new.

Come and See

“They went and saw where Jesus was staying, and they stayed with him that day” (John 1:41).

The prologue of the fourth Gospel presents Jesus as light.  Light is what enables us to see, and this theme of seeing, not just physically but with eyes of faith, runs throughout the Gospel. The author uses the word “see” in both senses, and conveys in this and in a number of other ways that there is a depth to the process of coming to know Jesus.

The first disciples are drawn to Jesus, and when they follow him, he turns and asks them what they are looking for. They reply, “Where do you live?” or “Where are you staying?” The question implies not just a physical location but the sense of Jesus’ whole identity and the source of his teaching. They are asking him, “Who are you?”

Jesus replies, “Come and see.”  By following him, the disciples are asking not just to see where he lives but to be inculcated with his understanding. They call him “teacher” and what they are looking for is to be formed by him.

Finally, the Gospel tells us that they “stayed” with him the rest of that day.  Again, this is about more than time and place. They have found what they were looking for, and they decide to commit to Jesus as disciples. From that point on, they will “remain” with Jesus, even in times of challenge and difficulty.

The actual time, “about four in the afternoon,” is given, implying that they probably shared a meal with Jesus. A meal will be the setting for being taught, and this is another rich theme that will continue through the Gospel.  

This passage about becoming a disciple at the beginning of the fourth Gospel was meant to call other disciples long after the original events took place. So it is with us. A light has come into the world. It enters our hearts and enables us to see that Jesus is the one we are looking for. So we begin to seek him, in prayer, in our reading of scripture, in our desire within a faith community to share the formation evident in others.

Jesus responds to our seeking. He draws us to himself by turning and looking at us, asking us to explain what we want. We want to be with him. We want him to teach and form us. He invites us to come and see, more and more deeply as we develop our relationship with him. We will share meals with him. The Eucharist, where the Word and the Bread are broken open to nourish us, will transform us. We will become what we hear and consume.  If we stay with him, we will complete the journey of discipleship we have begun. This is the Christian life.

This passage of scripture, like so many of the stories and sayings we will hear and reflect on in our reading and in the liturgy, is a Gospel in miniature. Everything is here, everything we need to know as a disciple, to deepen our understanding and commitment.

The gift of faith is a light kindled in us that opens our eyes and the eyes of our minds and hearts to the secret of life. Like the first disciples, we begin because something prompts us. We may barely understand what this grace is, like the first invitation to love someone that draws us into a relationship. We may barely understand why we feel attracted to that person, but if we say yes, everything begins to unfold in a new way.

We make every journey one step at a time. Today’s Gospel is an invitation to take the first step or to remain in a relationship that has already defined and formed us. In either case, there is always more ahead.  Jesus turns and looks at us and says, “Come and see.”  

Four Friends

"When Jesus saw their faith, he said to him, 'Child, your sins are forgiven' " (Mark 2:8).

The Gospel stories are like rich gems, and if we hold them up to the light, we see how many facets they have. 

In today's Gospel story of the healing of the paralyzed man, we realize that he would never have gotten to Jesus without the help of four friends. When it seemed impossible that would he reach Jesus through the crowds, these friends carried him to the house, hoisted him up onto the roof, removed the tiles and lowered him into the room in front of Jesus. Jesus sees "their" faith, and this sets in motion the miracle. 

Writer Melissa Nussbaum once remarked that something important was lost when the bishops changed the wording of the Creed from "We believe" to "I believe." There are times when it is hard for us to believe individually. I am in crisis or a time of doubt. I have to be carried by the community. How reassuring it is that this is what community can do for us in our weakness. All of us need to be carried some times.  When "I" am struggling to believe, the "we" of the community embraces and carries me. 

How blessed we are if there are four friends, or family, or even one friend, who will support us in a time of paralysis. This may be all it takes to keep us on track, focused on God's love while we work through some issue that has knocked us down, made us lose faith. 

This is the joy of the Gospel. 

 

Deep Listening

"I will do it. Be made clean" (Mark 1:42).

The story of Jesus healing the leper, like so many Gospel stories, is so familiar to us that we read it quickly but without really pondering it's simple power. One way to appreciate how much the evangelists put into the text is to read it slowly with attention to every word.

If we consider just the verbs, the leper does several actions: He came to Jesus, knelt down, begged him, then said, "if you wish. you can make me clean." The leper initiates the encounter by coming to Jesus, seeking him out even though, as a leper, he would have to break the taboo imposed on lepers to stay away. He believes that something would happen, so his faith is the basis for this miracle. He kneels before Jesus, an act of submission, again a sign of trust. He begs, an emotional sign of his desperation. Finally he carefully words his request:"If you wish," he says, "you can make me clean."  Jesus has the power, but will he use it? Many people said lepers were being punished by God for some sin. The leper trusted that Jesus did not share that view of God. 

Jesus' response also comes with four verbs. First, he is moved with pity, The Greek word implies a gut-wrenching compassion. Jesus feels the leper's pain and isolation, and it is from this well-spring of pity that his action flows. Jesus stretches out his hand. He reaches across the gulf  people put between themselves and the suffering of others, because they fear contamination, or fear getting too involved, too emotionally engaged in the pain of another. Jesus touches the leper, becoming ritually unclean, an outsider like the leper. He could have healed with a word, but he touches instead. Finally, Jesus speaks directly to the leper's prayer. Yes, he does wish to make him clean. Yes, he will do it. "Be made clean."  

By slowing down Mark's account of the healing, we see and feel the rich, nuanced, almost choreographed approach from both sides, ending in an embrace of hurt and compassion, brokenness and wholeness. Jesus reveals what God is really like, face to face, heart, hand and voice.

Our encounters with God can and should be he same. Prayer begins the dance between our needs and God's love. If we enter the dance and go with the flow, we come to know God in a new and intimate way, exactly what Jesus wishes for us. 

Formed by the Word

“Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Sam 3:10).

The beautiful story about the call of the boy Samuel in the night is a model for our search for intimacy with God. We are told that at first Samuel was not familiar with the Lord, because the Lord had not yet revealed anything to him. We can dispose ourselves to God’s presence, but God must initiate and reveal the divine Self. Patience is part of prayer, and we must trust that God will encounter us when the moment is right. The Psalms, the great prayer book of the Bible, teach us to wait for the Lord.

Samuel is awakened three times by God’s call before he realizes what it means. Our own awakenings may take time or be partial, until we learn to recognize and respond to God’s prompts. Samuel grows in his awareness as he matures naturally. It is the same with us.   

God’s Word is always effective. When God speaks, things happen. Even if our progress is gradual or in stages, the Word is always forming us in just the right way and at the right time. Our approach to God is part of the actual encounter. We have to learn how to love another, and the whole relationship is the gift, not just certain peak experiences.       

God spoke to Samuel so that Samuel could be God’s spokesperson to the people. If we learn to listen to God, our own words will continually express what God is saying to us. Prayerful people make good evangelists. Everything they say and do is a revelation of God’s presence.

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