The Leaven of Sincerity and Truth

“Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (Mark 8:15).

One of the aspects of the gospels and of Jesus as a teacher is the power of language to transcend the literal meaning of words to reveal a much deeper realm of metaphor and symbol. If we cannot cross this threshold to grasp the underlying truth in the imagery Jesus uses, we will find it hard to understand his invitation to faith. 

The evangelists use the frequent misunderstanding of  the disciples to illustrate how Jesus had to teach them them by pushing them past the literal to the figurative. Today’s passage from Mark is a good example. 

After another frustrating encounter with the Pharisees, Jesus and his disciples get in the boat to cross the lake. The disciples forgot to bring enough bread.  Jesus uses the situation to warn them to “be on guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod.”  The disciples think Jesus is talking about physical bread. 

No, Jesus responds, reminding them of his ability to multiply bread at will. Why are they worried about having enough bread?  He is warning them against the subtle, pervasive influence of the Pharisees and of Herod. Like yeast, their blindness and hostility against Jesus has so permeated their minds, they are incapable of hearing the truth.   “Don’t let this yeast into your thinking,” Jesus says. 

There is another leaven they should be cultivated—the leaven of faith, which also has the power to shape their understanding of everything.   This is the leaven of the parable in Luke 13:21, when a woman takes and hides leaven in a large batch of flour to produce enough bread to feed a whole village.  This is what the Kingdom of God is like.  

St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (5:8) tells the community to replace “the old leaven of malice and wickedness with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”  Jesus death and resurrection has transformed the old Passover from slavery in Egypt to liberation from death to new life.   

This Passover is represented in the gospels by the frequent trips back and forth across the lake, where so many astonishing revelations occur for the disciples during violent storms and Jesus’ appearance walking on the water. If these are actually resurrection appearance stories, we are encountering a powerful metaphor in the gospels, but we must grasp it to understand who Jesus is and what faith in him demands of us. 

Jesus is surely warning us today to guard against other kinds of leaven, invisible and pervasive influences that shape our thinking without our knowing it, but with serious consequences.  Fear is one of these -- fear of people we see as different or threatening. Nationalism -- a sense of superiority that justifies inhumane treatment or  violence against anyone we decide is an enemy.  Consumerism -- a seamless world of desire for things, food, entertainment, pleasure, constantly stimulated by television and film, the Internet, can replace reality with illusions. 

These forms of leaven cannot co-exist with the leaven of the Gospel, which is the Holy Spirit, who requires total collaboration with our spirits. One leaven must replace all others entirely.    

The Sign of Contradiction

“Amen, I say to you, no sign shall be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).

The Pharisees were skeptical of Jesus, and so they asked him to give them a sign to prove that he was from God. They want certainty; he invites them to take the path of discernment and faith. 

When Jesus was presented in the Temple as a baby, his mother was told that he would be a sign of contradiction destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel. It was an ominous foretelling, for the final sign given to an unbelieving world was the sign of the cross. 

In another passage during his ministry, Jesus spoke of the sign of Jonas. The son of man would go down into the belly of a whale for three days, understood as his death and resurrection. 

The great “messianic secret” in Mark’s gospel is that the world expected a majestic, powerful figure to restore God’s rule with great sigs and wonders, rooting out sin and punishing sinners. Instead, Jesus dies for sinners and invites everyone to reshape the world with justice and love. 

What sign would reassure us that we are doing God’s will? We want hints and small rewards along the way to be sure. But what we have are ordinary days and regular chores and responsibilities that hold our lives together in our families and communities. If we do these faithfully over time, we will see God everywhere. 

The Hebrew word <em>tikkun</em> means to stitch up a tear. If we want the world to be mended, we are invited to take our scissors and thread each day repair the small places where the fabric of friendship or society is worn and rent.  

Imagine a million tailors going forth each day. To see their collective gift, is this not sign enough that God is with us, in the world and in our hearts? 

Give Me a Discerning Heart, O Lord

“Give me discernment, that I may observe your law and keep it with all my heart” (Ps 119:34).

Every reformer is criticized for breaking tradition. The early church had to defend Jesus for his radical interpretation of the Mosaic Law. Critics said he was a law breaker and a heretic. No, Paul and the evangelists responded: Jesus actually rescued the Law from those literalists. legalists and fundamentalists who failed to grasp the underlying essence and Spirit of God’s revealed truth

In today’s gospel, Matthew shows how Jesus set an even higher standard of obedience to the law.  The Fifth Commandment says, “Thou shalt not kill,” but the one who attacks his brother verbally is also guilty of murder.  The Sixth Commandment says, “Thou shall not commit adultery,” but someone who lusts after a woman in his heart has also committed adultery.

The spirit of the law reduces all of us to the status of sinners, for who has not harbored anger or lust in his or her  heart against others? Humble discernment exposes everyone’s need for mercy and challenges the righteous person and the legalist who claims to have never sinned and therefore to be superior to others. 

Jesus’ most direct critique of the religious teachers of his day was reserved for those who devised complicated rules and rituals to display their public piety, while shielding their failure to keep the basic commandments of love, honesty, respect for parents, purity of heart and compassion for the poor. They were hypocrites—those who wear masks to hide their true motives and deeds. 

Jesus not only kept God’s word, he was God’s Word, the ultimate standard for what happens when mercy and justice come together in discerning sin and healing the sinful heart. There is no question that human beings fail to keep every law, but God’s mercy finds us where we are and loves us toward the holiness only God can give.  

The legalist is eager to judge others, to wield power over others, always “in the name of the church.” But the result is seldom real conversion of heart or joy, but more likely a life of obedience based on fear.  The battle going in the church between some bishops and Pope Francis over finding the best pastoral approach to Catholics in second marriages illustrates this.  

Evangelization is not possible if the only face the church can present to its own people and to the world is the face of judgment, penance and exclusion. Who will be spared or left to stand with the “holy remnant” of the perfect huddled around leaders who claim they alone represent God?  Where is the joy of the Gospel?

Hear the Word

“He has done all things well” (Mark 7:37).

If you cannot hear, this will alter your ability to speak. In meeting the deaf man with a speech impediment, Jesus first addresses his deafness.  He puts his finger into the man’s ears, then spits and touches the man’s tongue. “Be opened!” he commands, and deaf man can hear, the impediment is removed and he speaks plainly. 

The most important prayer for Jews, the Sh’ma, begins with the word “Hear.”  The first commandment God utters is, “Listen.” If we truly hear, we will love the Lord our God with all our mind, all our heart, all our soul and our strength. The faithful  servant is literally “all ears” to the voice of God, whose Word calls him or her into existence, naming, loving and guiding them back to the Source. 

How true it is that someone who cannot or does not listen will also be unable to speak effectively.  A leader who does not listen is soon isolated and impotent, living in his own world. Even kings and presidents find themselves surrounded by people who only tell them when they want to hear, and they become delusional. 

 Jesus liberates the deaf mute in an intimate and almost primitive way, by putting his fingers in his ears and using spittle to touch his tongue. He is like God kneeling in the mud to fashion Adam and breathe life into him. 

Mark’s account suggests that Jesus knows this miracle is like creating what was not there before, bringing a person alive  into the community of speaking and hearing for the first time. Jesus tries to draw the man away from the crowd so he can work with him.  Faith is necessary, not just from the man but from Jesus himself as he calls on heaven to hear his plea. 

We are all called to be evangelists. But before we can announce the Gospel we must first hear it, not just with our ears but with our hearts. Until Jesus heals us, we are all deaf mutes. Only when he touches us personally do we begin to know him, hear him, obey him. Then nothing can stop us from announcing him to the whole world.  

Learning from and with Jesus

“Let the children be fed first” (Mark 7:26).

Matching up today’s Genesis reading about the creation of woman with Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenecian woman gives us the rare chance to say that both Adam and Jesus "met their match." 

God sees that Adam is lonely, and so every creature is brought to him to be named as a possible companion. But only the woman, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, is a true partner. They reflect each other so completely that together they exhibit the full image and likeness of God.

Jesus goes to the margins of Israel and to the defined limits of his mission to the chosen people. There he meets a pagan woman who wins her request for healing for her daughter by outwitting Jesus in an exchange of metaphors. He tells her that he cannot share the children’s food with the dogs. She argues that the dogs get table scraps. In the face of such faith, Jesus can only conclude that the Spirit has brought him here to expand his ministry to the whole world.

How appropriate that the Holy Spirit -- the feminine genius, co-creator and wisdom of God -- should complete Jesus’ human maturity by an encounter with a brilliant, determined, challenging woman. She is also a mother, and the fiercest love possible brings her to the border to capture Jesus’ attention on behalf of her endangered daughter. She will not let him go until he gives her what she wants.

If Mark’s Gospel has previously challenged our notion that Jesus was all powerful by showing that his miracles needed the faith of those who received them, here we see not an all-knowing Jesus, but one who learns as he goes. He is like Adam, naming reality, altering his perceptions and the course of his mission with each fresh encounter. A very human Jesus is discovering himself as he obeys the Spirit that is driving him forward. 

Grace makes all things new. Freedom creates our reality at the growing edge of every choice we make. Other people help us develop by believing in us, loving us, questioning us, winning our hearts, changing our minds. Blessed are those who are not afraid to learn by taking risks, making mistakes, finding new ways to be human.

We go to God together, because this is how Jesus did it, and why he told us to follow him.  

From the Heart

“Things that come from within are what defile” (Mark 7:14). 

Jesus follows his critique of the scribes and Pharisees for their obsession with external cleanliness with a lesson about where evil originates.  It is not what enters us from without that harms us, but what flows from our own thoughts and motivations. 

His words describe ordinary experience. If we are hurt or attacked, that experience has no power to control our reaction or damage our integrity.  Martin Luther King Jr often emphasized this truth in comforting those suffering the effects of racism. It was not their fault or their responsibility. They could remain self-possessed by not giving in to hatred or the desire for revenge. 

The damage inflicted by others is a stain on their character, not the victim’s. Hatred poisons the person who harbors and expresses it. The rapist and the child abuser bear the full judgment for what they have done, not the victims of their violence. 

Jesus knew this from experience. He endured constant attacks on his character, was accused of being in league with Satan, was verbally assaulted, maligned, ridiculed and shamed by his opponents. Yet none of this abuse could break his inner confidence as he fulfilled his Abba’s will.  Even when he was arrested, imprisoned, tortured, condemned and executed, Jesus was free of the evil others had accused him of.  

The journey of discipleship begins in our own hearts. God’s mercy is the balm that heals the sin-sick soul. There is no use pretending we do not harbor the potential for sin we see in others. But God’s mercy is the foundation of all holiness, and God gives it as a pure gift to anyone who prays for it.  

Above All, Love

“You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition” (Mark 7:7).

Jesus challenges the scribes and Pharisees for insisting on the ritual hand washing and the purification of cups and dishes while neglecting the deeper call to be pure of heart. Their legalism was self-serving, a way to set themselves above ordinary people. They even excused themselves from the commandment to care for and honor their parents by saying they were dedicated to God.  

In his ongoing struggle with religious leaders, Jesus’ deepest criticism was that they neglected the first commandment to love in favor of their own man-made rules.  

If we sort out basic commandments from church rules, we uncover a long history of reformers who have tried to bring the church back to essentials clashing with traditionalists who insisted on institutional rules and their own theological systems above all else. 

The debate over clerical celibacy is one of these issues. Some see rejecting the ordination of women as a tradition that owes more to male power than the New Testament and Jesus’ own inclusion of women among his disciples or Paul’s witness to female leadership in ministry and house churches.  

The current criticism by some in the hierarchy of Pope Francis’ emphasis on pastoral accompaniment in the case of Catholics in second marriages seems more about enforcing legal purity than acknowledging real suffering with compassion. The pope has angered many clerics by simply suggesting that ordinary Catholics are capable of discernment and examining their own situations conscientiously. Priests should be part of that process but without needing to control it. 

All of us are asked to determine what is essential and most important in our lives. Do we insist on our human rules and traditions at the expense of being patient and loving with others in their struggles? Are we living in fear of God’s judgment instead of opening our hearts to God’s mercy?  Jesus came to liberate us from both fear and legalistic thinking. If we do our best and concentrate on love, we are fulfilling the whole law.   

Baptism First

"The began to bring in the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was” (Mark 6:55)

Today’s commemoration of Japanese martyrs Paul Miki and Companions will perhaps garner more interest from Martin Scorsese’s film "Silence," about early 17th century Jesuit missionaries opposed by authorities in Japan trying to protect national culture from European influence, including Catholicism. 

The violent expulsion of foreign priests meant that the faith went underground and survived for 200 years without clergy or sacraments other than baptism.  Benedictine scholar Godfrey Diekmann saw in this phenomenon the potential of the lay church in times of priest shortages and a reminder that baptism is the preeminent sacrament for all Christians, greater than Orders, a function derived for clergy from their baptism in common with the “priesthood of all the faithful.” 

Today’s gospel continues Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ ministry with his disciples as they cross the Sea of Galilee to the gentile area of the Genneserat, where crowds await them and miracles of healing occur with just a touch of Jesus’s cloak. 

We are heirs to this gospel, empowered by our baptism to be Christ to others, sources of healing, forgiveness and consolation to anyone who sees our faith and invites us to touch their lives. Neither Jesus nor the disciples are “clergy” as such, a much later specialization in the institutional church. 

One of the central goals of the Second Vatican Council was to ignite a deeper sense of mission in the lay majority of the church.  A passive laity that expected clergy and religious to be the church was a distortion of the early church and a tragic diminishment of the mission of every baptized person to be another Christ in the world.  

People in search of God will always be attracted to wherever Jesus is.  Jesus is with us, in us, alive and active through us.  

Show the World

“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:13). 

One of the most decisive questions confronting the church is whether it is in the world or apart from the world. 

One way to separate it from the world has been to say that Christian faith is essentially a spiritual reality focused on the salvation of souls. Good Christians are those who remain aloof from material concerns, unworldly and uncontaminated by the “world, the flesh and the devil.” 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes a decidedly different view of the role his followers were to play in history and in the world. He begins with the Beatitudes, descriptions of a community that engages society with its witness to justice, peace-making, mercy, compassion and humility, even if rejected and persecuted by the dominant culture. 

The mission they received from him is not to be hidden or spiritualized. They must be the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Be seen, permeate your lives with your faith, for you are not sent to ignore the world but to transform it. 

Faith then, expresses the underlying mystery of the Incarnation. God is in the world, among us, one of us. Our flesh, our daily responsibilities and personal relationships are how we make the Kingdom of God real. Grace permeates everything human.  Politics, media, social and cultural commitments, our careers in business, education, finance, the arts, medicine, public service are all realms where faith shapes people’s lives.

Today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah calls believers to show their love for God by caring for the poor, the hungry, the homeless and naked. This is how we show we are serious about our faith. What good is our piety and personal morality if it does not express itself in service and compassion to our vulnerable neighbors.  God sees who we are by what we do. The blessings showered on us are meant to be shared. 

One question every church ought to ask, especially as it concludes its Sunday worship and its members head back out into the world and into the week ahead, is this: What difference does it make that we were here praising God, listening to the Scriptures, receiving Communion?   What impact do we have on the neighborhood around us, the city we are part of, the world we live in? 

It is a question on which our own salvation may depend. We are the light of the world, the salt of the earth. Does the world know this, and if not, why not? 

The Price of Power

“Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you” (Mark 6:25).

Lord Acton, a 19th century English historian, is famous for writing: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Acton had studied the effects of power on many rulers and knew why Shakespeare’s plays about most rulers were tragedies. Power leads to paranoia that justifies brutal suppression of any perceived threat, and this ends with the death of conscience and any capacity for human empathy. 

References to Herod in the New Testament include the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem by Herod the Great and the beheading of John the Baptist by his son, Herod Antipas. The Herodian dynasty was propped up by the occupying Romans for their own purposes, but history consigns these rulers to the monster category for their cruelty and wanton violence to protect their power.  

Mark repeats the tabloid version of the drunken banquet Herod hosted for his sycophants, how the sexually provocative dance of his stepdaughter prompted the king to promise her anything as a reward. Her vengeful mother directs the girl to ask for the “head of John the Baptist, on a platter, at once!” Herod, like many powerful men, also craved approval, and he could not go back on his word. Despite his misgivings and, even realizing the spiteful hand of the girl's mother in the whole affair, he acceded to their bloody taunt to his pride and had John beheaded. 

Evil deeds summoned up by the rich and powerful to satisfy their lust for self-aggrandizement are like prayers to the dark powers of death. Mark uses the language of prayer to recount Herod’s promise to Salome: “Ask of me whatever you wish and I will grant it to you.” Herod, imagining himself a little god who can do whatever he wants, in fact proves himself a fool manipulated by others, shamed for his venality and cowardice in the view of his guests and courtiers. John the Baptist will be honored as a martyr for the faith, while Herod will disappear like dust in the wind, another sorry example of Lord Acton’s rule. Half his kingdom will prove to be half of nothing. 

God’s Word is the one power that does not corrupt, but makes whatever it touches holy. We should pray for that power and for the wisdom to use it wisely in whatever sphere of influence we have, small or great. When judgment comes, only justice and love will remain, so let us pray to be among those who pursued God's will in our lives.