Good Teacher

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

The man who ran up and knelt before Jesus asking how he could inherit eternal life must have been overjoyed when Jesus asked him if he had kept all the commandments. He had indeed. He had been perfect in the law since his youth. For a moment he basked in Jesus approval. 

But in a breath, Jesus invites him to go beyond the commandments to the next level of his quest for perfection. "Go sell what you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me."  The man is not prepared for such a radical step. If he gives up his many possessions he will be totally dependent on Jesus and his band of disciples, an odd lot to be sure, and making a road trip of uncertain implications. Is this what he wants? He decides that he is not ready, and he withdraws with sadness.  His wealth, once his greatest advantage, has been exposed as an obstacle and a burden, but one he cannot part with.

The gospel invites us to replay this scene for ourselves.  What would you ask of Jesus if you could meet him face to face? Do you want to be holy? Are you ready to follow him?   Imagine his look of love as he asks you to take the next step. What is that next step in your life-- the "one thing lacking," that is holding you back from a fuller commitment to Christ?  

Seek First

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt 6:34).
 
One of the ironies of modern life is that even as more and more people enjoy an unprecedented level of material well-being, we still see ourselves as “the Age of Anxiety.”  People will always find things to worry about.
 
Jesus addressed his own disciples, seeing how anxiety over food, clothing and basic necessities was distracting them from an awareness of God’s loving providence. If the birds of the air and the flowers of the field can live abundant lives, why not you?  Will all your worrying really change anything? 
 
Yet how hard it is to live this freely? We count our paychecks, setting aside some for the future. We buy on credit and try to manage our debt. We invest in more education to get a better job, planning a path forward, praying to avoid crisis or setbacks.
 
Even the wealthy must monitor their holdings, or rely on professional experts to invest and grow their money, manage their properties, protect their interests legally, use tax law to their advantage. With greater income come more expenses, more complicated lives. How many are trapped by their possessions, burdened by how money has dominated all their relationships, spoiled their personal happiness?
 
At the heart of today’s Gospel is Jesus’ desire that his disciples have the right priorities.  “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  This is the secret of peace of mind and freedom from anxiety.   If you are right with God, then you will always be prepared for life’s inevitable ups and downs. 
 
St. Paul sets the example of someone who has had abundance and want, suffering and satisfaction, failure and success. What held him on course was his commitment to do God’s will and to seek what was right.  His life was a great adventure with God and he rejoices to have always had more than enough.  Jesus wants this same freedom and joy for all his disciples.  

 

Everlasting Love

“What God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mark 10:10).
 
There seems no question that Jesus upheld the ideal of a true marriage being indissoluble. When asked about Moses’ concession to allow a man to dismiss his wife, Jesus told the Pharisees that this was because of “the hardness of your hearts.”
 
The ideal was based on what God intended in creating man and woman in the beginning as expressing the image and likeness of God. This state was part of the paradise before original sin, and remains part of  the promise made possible by the redemption won by Christ.
 
As a sign of that promise, a valid nuptial union was not just a contract, but a covenant in love that made husband and wife one flesh. Their union was a sacramental sign of God’s fidelity. Their exclusive union also enabled them to share God’s power to create, producing children in their own image and likeness.
 
Therefore a marriage was so central a symbol of the inner life of God and the relationship between God and his people, a fully covenanted union recognized and celebrated by the community before God was not be disregarded for mere human considerations or convenience.
 
Many marriages fail from the outset for lack of maturity, freedom and form, and many others fail because of weakness and even “hardness of heart.”  But the ideal remains and is deserving of protection and celebration as a sign of God’s fidelity to his people.
 
 How the church deals with failed marriages is also part of the redemptive work made possibly by God’s mercy. The same community that celebrates the ideal also acknowledges the common need for forgiveness and healing. Love makes all things possible.
 

Upon this Rock

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:16). 

Peter’s prominence in the Gospel narratives reaffirms that at the time the New Testament was being composed, some hierarchical and scriptural themes had been settled by the early church. 

The role of the Twelve as representing the 12 tribes of Israel in the new Christian dispensation was established. With the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Rome became the center of the world and the new focus of church leadership and authority. Peter and Paul, believed to be martyred in Rome, made the city the most important patriarchal center for Christendom. 

Today’s famous scene in Matt 16 (like its original in Mark 8), affirms Peter’s special role as head of the Apostles. The image of Peter as the “rock” on which the church stands was interpreted literally rather than taken for the pun it was, and subsequent theologies of the church have built on this designation to create papal succession and the authority of subsequent popes as vicars of Christ on earth. 

Yet, like other versatile biblical symbols, we ought to ask what kind of "rock" Peter was by looking at the imagery in context with other passages. For example, the story of Moses in the desert when the people begged for water concludes with Moses striking the rock – twice – and water flowing out. His failure to trust God results in his not being allowed to enter the Promised Land.  

The failure of Peter to trust Jesus and, in fact, his denial of him, creates a crisis of grief so profound that Peter weeps bitterly, his heart and his pride broken. The Rock is struck and out flows the sign of his rebirth in a baptism of tears.
 
His encounter with Jesus at the Sea of Tiberias completes his restoration in another baptism scene as he jumps into the water to reach Jesus on the shore. In the eucharistic ritual of his triple protestation of love, Peter is comfirmed as the first evangelist of Mercy. It is his failure and full restoration by the Risen Christ that equip him to be the leader of the church.  

Peter is indeed the rock on which the church and its mission rests, but he is a rock broken and healed, a failed leader restored by unconditional love. This is the foundation of his authority to preach Jesus and to lead the church. 

 How far from the trappings and status assigned by history to the popes as temporal figures, yet how close this Peter was to the heartbreaking, radical mystery of his Lord. Here is our model for finding the mystery of God's love by letting life break our hearts. 

Jerusalem Tomorrow

“What were you arguing about on the way? But they remained silent” (Mark 9:33).

One of the great mysteries of the disciple’s relationship to Jesus was why it took them so long to figure out what following him was going to entail.  

From the middle of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus could not have been more explicit about the suffering and rejection that lay ahead for him in Jerusalem. After three separate statements about his coming execution, Jesus still found his disciples quarreling among themselves about who would be first when he entered his glory. 

American folksinger Emmylou Harris sings a story song about this misunderstanding called “Jerusalem Tomorrow” (<strong>https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwwckZbrXck</strong>) in which a failed traveling preacher who has been bilking the crowds with his own “ministry” of fake healing and storytelling signs up with Jesus after realizing he is different.

Jesus tells him he will get "paid off down the line," and he decides to follow. The song ends with “We're headed to Jerusalem tomorrow.”

We all know the shock the man is in for. Jesus is no huckster or short-term flash of glory, but the Holy One of God who will save the world by sacrificing himself. All of his disciples will share in the paradox.

The road to Jerusalem will strip us of our agendas and illusions about personal glory. But it will also be the path to true joy in this life and the fullness of life to come. 
 

Prayer and Fasting

"Why could we not drive the spirit out?" (Mark 9:29). 

Jesus' disciples are surprised that in his absence they cannot handle a father's request for an exorcism of his son. They invoke Jesus's name, but the possessing spirit will not yield. By the time Jesus returns, the entire scene has roiled into a stand-off fueled by crowd excitement.

Mark's account provides two detailed descriptions of the boy's convulsions and the father's plea that someone save his son before he destroys himself by alternatively throwing himself into fire and then water. Even Jesus' efforts are forceful, producing a dramatic confrontation with the demon, whose departure leaves the boy as though dead, a corpse.  

The disciples want to know what was lacking in their efforts. Jesus says that "this kind can only come out through prayer." The words "this kind" reveal that there are some evil spirits of a higher and more powerful order, and that real spiritual combat may be required beyond the ordinary formulas for exorcism. 

Prayer, of course, reminds us that only the Holy Spirit accomplishes any real spiritual change. The disciples are only channels of this movement, and so they must deepen their relationship with the Spirit to be instruments.

Most of us will not encounter such combat, but all of us are invited to grow in our discernment and collaboration with the Holy Spirit, whose "possession" of us through baptism is why all lesser spirits are displaced and denied access to us (unless we open ourselves to their influence).   

What all of us do encounter are the "larger" demons that flourish within the many cultural and ideological forces that drive social moods and ethos, often doing real harm and much seductive mischief and misdirection. For example, consumption driven by popular marketing and entertainment, or the frenzies that race across social media to produce mass responses. How many fall susceptible to prejudice and caricatures, stirring fear and hatred and actions that result from them? 

To witness such forces at work to demonize and terrorize society is an awesome and troubling experience. Many are astonished to see the social fabric fraying and civility disappearing from our political and civil landscapes. How did this happen, and what can be done to repair the damage inflicted on otherwise good and reasonable people?  

Once we realize it is in fact a spiritual crisis, then we will know what Jesus meant when he told his disciples to deepen their spiritual resources and personal discipline to confront evil by devoting themselves to prayer. Only intimate personal friendship with the Holy Spirit will enable us to move into deeper realms where the real transformational work of God is taking place to save the world.
 

Be Perfect

“But I say to you …” (Matt 5:39). 

If we sometimes find the Beatitudes to be otherworldly or a bit too idealistic for practical living, today’s continuation of the Sermon on the Mount will not make Jesus’ challenge to his disciples seem any easier. What is important to keep in mind is that Jesus is inviting us into a fundamentally different way to think and act in our relationships. 

Most scripture scholars agree that the audience for the Sermon were people living in a culture based entirely on honor. You were someone if you asserted your honor, the honor of your tribe, family and social station. To lose honor was to find yourself outside the only support system there was. 

Successful people built up their honor by obeying social rules, rising within the ranks of set protocols not unlike today’s business etiquette or reciprocal duties to return a favor, invite those who have hosted you to a similar meal or event, showing signs of gratitude, etc. 

We glimpse this quid pro quo world in Jesus’ parables about inviting guests, seating at banquets, showing hospitality, especially when he challenges everyone by breaking the rules, eating with social outcasts, the poor and the sick who cannot reciprocate. It made so sense within an honor culture to contaminate yourself  with losers or to offend important people who could help you advance in status. 

Jesus challenged religious and legal perfectionists by holding that there was more to keeping the law than just the letter. Not murdering or committing adultery also required us to control our contempt and our lust, a much deeper kind of virtue only the pure of heart possess.  

In today’s gospel, Jesus gets to the heart of the honor identity by telling his disciples to turn the other cheek and go the extra miles, two instances in which powerful people could humiliate those of lesser status. Striking someone in the face was away to remind a slave, a child or a woman (wife, servant) who was boss. A Roman soldier could by law force a Jew along the road to carry his heavy pack for one mile. 

Jesus’s instruction was in fact an effective strategy to challenge the abuser to see his victim as a person of equal dignity by exposing the injustice of his use of force. The backhand blow of the first strike could only be repeated with an open-handed blow if the victim stood his ground and “turned the other cheek.” It would have to be a blow reserved for a fight between equals. And carrying a soldier’s pack an extra mile changed the relationship from a legal to a personal basis, putting the burden onto the soldier. 

Christian pacifism has never been about passivity or nonresistance to evil, but is a way of disarming the aggressor by exposing injustice or by applying persuasion and even shaming.  Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. understood this perfectly. 

The ultimate example of Jesus’ message was to show that God was so powerful that God did not have to protect the divine honor. God is free to pour out his love on both those who obey him and those who do not. The capacity to forgive those who offend us, to show mercy on those who do not deserve it, even reject it, is the ultimate sign we are the children of the Heavenly Father revealed by Jesus.  This is really the goal of this new kind of moral being and behavior, and the only way the world will emerge from its violent ways. 

Our Ladder to Heaven

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Today’s first reading from Genesis 11 about the “Tower of Babel” was a tale from the prehistory meant to caution humans from entertaining any divine aspirations.  The human race is dispersed geographically and linguistically by a jealous God for building a brick tower to connect earth to heaven. Think of the pride of place and technological prowess claimed by the tallest skyscraper in today’s world. “Is there anything we cannot do?” some boast. 

Yet just 14 chapters later, in Genesis 28, Yahweh extends just such a connection from heaven to earth as Jacob dreams of a ladder of ascending and descending angels. It is a sign of favor affirming the promise made to Abraham and his descendants of an unbroken covenant. The Gospel writer John sees the imagery as a foretelling of the Incarnation, for Jesus was himself the connection between divine and human and our “ladder” to heaven.

Today’s gospel passage from Mark makes clear that the only way to heaven is to follow, or imitate, Jesus. And how do we do that?  By taking up the burden of our lives, denying ourselves and living as Jesus did. Therefore the ladder to heaven is the cross.  

Our longing for God eventually confronts us with the need to get our shoulders underneath the particular responsibilities and opportunities our life presents.  We can neither play it safe by refusing to live, nor by pretending to be self-made and independent of God’s direction.  Jesus makes it clear that those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for his sake will save them.

Every cross will fit perfectly the person it is intended for, for it is the sum total of the circumstances, choices and influences that have made us who were are. The secret of life, quite simply, is to become your real self. No other cross will get you to heaven, Bearing your own with faith and submission will insure that you are “lifted up” together with Jesus, in his sufferings and in his glory.  

Intermission

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:27).

Many dramatic plays divide the production with an intermission.   The first part of the play introduces the characters and the plot, building up the tension and the questions introduced by the story. During the intermission, the audience retreats to the lobby to discuss the action and speculate how the play will resolve itself. 

Exactly halfway thought his gospel, Mark brings his audience to the central question, “Who do you say that I am?”  In a shocking scene near the city of Caesarea Philippi, Jesus not only tests their understanding of who he is, he reveals that most of their expectation of success and glory in Jerusalem are totally wrong. He is going to be rejected and executed. Peter, who has just identified him as the Messiah, is so upset that he scolds Jesus, only to be reprimanded severely.

Intermission. 

 A stunned audience leaves the theater to fathom the meaning of this reversal.  The central faith question is pressed in on each of them. “Who do you think Jesus is?”  Where will you stand when he is rejected and killed?  It is a crucial exercise, for the purpose of the Gospel is to challenge our faith.  The rest of the play will make sense only to those who are open to the mystery of Jesus’s self-sacrificing love. 

The gospel must overtake us in the most personal terms possible for it to have its full impact. It is not a story about other people, about disciples who lived 2,000 years ago. The gospel is about us. Jesus deliberately looks directly at us during the dialogue at Caesarea Philippi.  The question is not, who do other people say that I am? But who you say that I am?  As we let this question focus on our minds and hearts, we realize that everything else depends on how we answer it.  

I Long to See Your Face

“Do you see anything?” (Mark 8:24).

In the previous chapter of Mark’s Gospel, we had the healing of a deaf mute. Jesus leads the man away from the crowd and, using spittle and touch, restores first his hearing and then his ability to speak.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals a blind man by putting spittle on his eyes. Like the earlier miracle, some creative effort is evident, and the healing seems to happen in stages, again performed in private, away from the crowds.

On possible explanation for this manner of healing is that Mark wanted to emphasize that Jesus is like God at creation. Spittle and mud, touch and prayers, even special words like Ephphatha (“Be opened”) or the idea that light gives sight. “Let there be light.”

And like the first creation, Jesus works with what he has. He is like an artist in clay, creating with sighs and breath, touch and even spittle, an intimate expression of personal identity (as anyone knows who has provided a saliva sample to discover his or her entire genetic heritage).  

Another way to understand these miracles is to see them as stages on the way to recognition and faith.  The blind man can hear Jesus’ voice but cannot see him. He feels Jesus leading him outside the village, then the sensation of Jesus touching his eyes. At first he can only see form and color, describing people as like walking trees. Only with additional touch does the man see clearly.  He is able to see Jesus for the first time.  

These are also resurrection stories.  Before we know Jesus we are barely alive, unconscious, blind, deaf and mute to the full encounter with God that is always present to us.  We must be awakened to new life, called into being by the Word. 

Jesus works with us where we are and at whatever stage of development we are in. He works through the ordinary circumstances, limitation and problems of our everyday lives to awaken us to greater and greater awareness of what God has in store for us.  Discipleship is an ongoing encounter that draws us deeper and deeper into the divine life Jesus offers us. 

This is why the perfect prayer is, “Lord, I long to see your face.” 

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