Monday, October 28, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 3)

Coming on the heels of the passages from Mark's Gospel account we discussed last week is a decidedly enigmatic set of statements from Jesus.  It reads as follows:

"Everyone will be salted by fire.  Salt is good; but if salt becomes unsalty, by what way will you season it? Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with each other." [Mark 9:49-50]

You can easily see how perplexing these comments are.  Barclay suggested in his, Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Mark. Westminster Press (1956): p. 241, this was an example of pithy sayings of Jesus the gospel writers would record out of context as a means of remembering them.  I disagree.

The passage is difficult to grasp if one fails to see its connection with the passage preceding it.  What we have here is Jesus' summary statement to the whole discussion answering the question, "Who's the greatest?"--at least that is how Mark is using it.

I must first explain a minor translation challenge before elaborating what I mean by the last paragraph (now stay with me a moment; it won't be pretty).  The word translated "fire" is in the dative case without any preceding preposition.  Consequently, the translator, knowing the many ways the dative functions in Greek, must decide what preposition the writer intended. In the present situation, most people translate it as I did as "by fire" or "with fire."  But  the 19th century Jewish Christian, Alfred Edersheim, in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. Hendrickson (2000): p. 557,  translated it, "for fire."  The usual translation is the means or agent by which the salting is done, whereas Edersheim's translation is the reason the salting is done.  So which is it?  Do you care?

Both ways of understanding fire are possible.  What we will discover is by taking both paths we end up in the same destination more enriched than were we to chose one path over the other. This is the beauty of the Greek language and God's word.

Edersheim's translation captures a practice every Jewish listener of Jesus' day would have understood.  Before a burnt sacrifice was offered to God, both the body of the animal and the wood fueling the fire to consume the animal had to be first salted.  From this vantage point, then, Jesus is using "fire" to represent a sacrifice--more specifically, an acceptable sacrifice.

In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul defines what it means to be an acceptable sacrifice:

"I urge you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercy of God to present your bodies as a living, sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--your acceptable worship; and don't conform to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind so that you prove what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God." [Rom. 12:1-2]

We are to be living sacrifices to God, where are acceptable worship--service--comes through a renewing of our minds--that is, a fundamental change in the way we view the world.  This change of mind starts with a purification of ourselves in purpose, motives, and thought--the whole person; this so we can effectively love others by seeking their spiritual and physical good for their sake and God's, in even the simplest ways; and this is done without harboring prejudices or divisions--something we easily do to elevate ourselves over others.  In short, we become the least of all and the servant of all.  Only when we become such people are we salted, and we are an acceptable sacrifice for God.  Because only in this salted condition does God's love flow in justice that is true peace.

The more common translation sees fire as the means by which we are salted.  The listener would have easily understood this allusion because, for example, precious metals are purified by melting them in a fire, so the impurities (dross) can be easily poured off.  From this perspective, then, Jesus is teaching us that to become salted--to be salt--we must be purified as by fire.

In the first century, salt was a precious and therefore expensive commodity.  Salt was used to preserve foods, and was seen as a nutrient.  We become like salt to the world only when we listen to and yield to the Holy Spirit working in each of us who stand in Christ in God's kingdom.

The Holy Spirit will move us away from all those things causing us to sin (disobey God)--those attitudes and ideas we use to promote ourselves at the expense of others, and the selfish-ambition keeping us from truly loving others in even the simplest ways.  In short, the Holy Spirit is purifying us with the fire of grace so we will become the least of all and the servant of all, which is to be real salt to this world.

This purification by the Holy Spirit will, like fire, be hot and painful--that is, it will necessarily entail suffering.  The reason is everything the Spirit is transforming us into is in direct contradiction of how the world thinks and operates.  The world strives for the single goal of being the greatest by wielding the most power.  For this reason, we who strive for Christ's principle of greatness will experience resistance both from within ourselves and from outside ourselves; indeed, we will be hated, and such hate will incur suffering.

Even though the present world doesn't recognize it, and even violently opposes the idea, the world will not find peace outside the kingdom of God.  We who stand in God's kingdom in Christ are His salt to this dark and confused world.  We nourish and bring preservation by being living sacrifices, which is to become the least of all and the servant of all.  If we cave in and hold onto the world's principles (i.e., conform to this age) in order to save ourselves, we lose our saltiness. This is what Jesus means by "if salt becomes unsalty, by what way will you season it?" And Jesus tells us elsewhere such vapid salt will be thrown out to be trampled under people's feet (see Matt. 5:13).

Therefore, my dear readers, let's stand in God's kingdom in Christ by submitting ourselves wholly to His grace through the power of His Holy Spirit working within us, and become the least of all and the servant of all.  Only then shall we be at peace with each other.   

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 2)

Last week I proposed our reluctance to see others with an uncompromised compassion is because we are all trying to answer a question much more important to us: "Who's the greatest?"  I neglected to point out we also believe we know the answer; it is either a) I am! or b) I need to be be!  Both to our detriment and the detriment of others, this is the real question and real answer we all pose in all our relationships--from those most intimate to us to those most remote to us.

As I have said hundreds of times on this site, God has made restored relationships--first with Him and then consequentially with each other--possible in Christ.  I question if we can fully comprehend what these restored relationships are if we don't see others with an uncompromised compassion.  As long as I see others from the perspective of how they might advance me or hinder me, I am really only interested in the question of who's the greatest, and answering it summarily with a resounding, "I am!"

Jesus who is the source of all wisdom, God incarnate, and therefore the only one who can guide us into and perfectly arbitrate restored relationships, He tells us the greatest is the least of all and the servant of all (Mark 9:35).  Let's read further in this passage from the Gospel account of Mark and learn what Jesus means by this.

And taking a child, Jesus made the child stand in their midst, and after embracing the child Jesus said to them, "Whoever receives a child such as this in My name, receives Me.  And whoever receives Me does not receive Me but the one who sent Me." [Mark 9: 36-37]

Because children were nothing much more than possessions equivalent to slaves in the first century, Jesus' admonition would have been astonishing to those listening--to say the least.  The greatest therefore in the Kingdom of Heaven (i.e., "in My name") is one who refuses to cling to social prejudices, but who treats every person, either those who can repay or those who cannot, with equal love, which means to promote the other's welfare over his/her own--even if it doesn't advantage the one doing the promoting.  In this way we are truly receiving God because He has loved us the same way.

The disciple, John, says to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name and we forbid him, because he wasn't following us.  Jesus said, "Don't forbid him.  For no one who does a miracle in my name is one who will soon be able to speak evil of Me.  For whoever is not against us, is for us." [Mark 9: 38-40]

A person who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will not promote or maintain divisions.  From the time we are children until we die, we humans love our cliques, clubs, and Parties.  We seem to find great power through our exclusionism. The most grievous example of this are the walls that we maintain between our own brothers and sisters in Christ (i.e., sectarianism).  But one piece of the great news of the Gospel is God has broken down all the dividing walls of humankind in Christ.  His kingdom is open to all without distinction who surrender themselves completely in faith to Jesus the Christ.

"For whoever gives to you  a cup of water to drink in (My) name because you are of Christ, truly I tell you, that one will absolutely not lose his/her reward." [Mark 9:41]

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven are those who maintain right relationships in even the simplest ways.  I see in this simple parable of Jesus a role reversal in order to communicate a universal principle.  Jesus did this with the parable of the Good Samaritan to communicate we are all neighbors and therefore we must treat all as we would like to be treated.  In a similar vein, we need to treat our brothers and sisters in God's kingdom as if the entire kingdom rides on even the slightest gesture of kindness; because--guess what?-- it does.  A mitigated love ceases to be love God is trying to create in us, but quickly reverts to self-interest.

"And whoever might cause one of these little ones who are believing in Me to stumble (sin), it is better for him/her if a mule-driven-mill-stone is placed around his/her throat instead, and has been cast into the sea." [Mark 9: 42]

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is one who seeks first the benefits and spiritual prosperity of another person for the sake of God and that other person.  It is a sad truth that our neglect, exploitation, or inordinate burdening of another person leaves us owning some of the sin that person might fall into because of this.  The very foundation of the Kingdom of God is relationships, first between us and God, and then with each other.  As Jesus' image of a mill stone around a person's neck illustrates, God takes these relationships very seriously.  When we advantage ourselves at the expense of another person, it is as if we tear the very fabric of God's kingdom.

"If your hand might cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better to enter into life maimed, than to depart, having both hands, into Gehenna--into unquenchable fire.  And if your foot might cause you to sin, cut it off; it is better to enter into life lame, than, having two feet, to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out; it is better to enter into the Kingdom of God one-eyed, than, having two eyes, to be thrown into Gehenna, where their worm doesn't die and the fire isn't extinguished." [Mark 9:43-48]

The greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven is the one who purifies him/herself.  If our leg is gangrenous, we have the doctor cut it off because we would rather live lame, than to die whole.  At its most basic level Jesus is telling us the one who is least of all and the servant of all loves him/herself by eliminating everything and anything from his or her life--whether good or bad--that might cause him or her to sin, which is to disobey God. The illustration Jesus employs here of a hand, foot, and eye speaks to the extreme by which we strive to purify ourselves--not a literal injunction.

I see also by Jesus' choice of body parts an intended completeness of purification.  It is all too easy to cherry-pick those parts of our life we think God wants us to purify, and then ignore all the rest.  We might then purify the part we have identified with the intensity basic to Jesus' parable (above), but still miss the comprehensiveness also intended with the parable.  What do you think?  I suggest the hand, foot, and eye are types for the purpose, motives, and thoughts of a person.  These three things capture the whole person; they are therefore interrelated, and so must all be subjected to Christ.  For, indeed, to purify ourselves is to completely surrender ourselves in faith to Christ.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Who's the Greatest? (Part 1)

What is your typical reaction to other people?  When you see a toddler for the first meeting, I suspect you are filled with some degree of affection for the little person; a desire to be the child's protector might even well up in you.  But when that same rascal goes on the rampage, pulling out your potted plants, running around helter skelter, or screaming in a temper tantrum, those initial warm impressions quickly vanish.  Perhaps more interestingly, you thereafter view the same child, regardless of his/her present disposition, with at best only a patient tolerance; any original sense of regard is long gone. Furthermore, you now tend to project your dissatisfaction on the kid's parents, so you question their parenting skills and even their character: "Certainly responsible parents who understand the importance of discipline to the health and welfare of future civilization would never raise such an unruly little beast."  You stuff the kid and its family into your burgeoning file of names of all those people you classify as second and third class citizens, and therefore people to be avoided, or at least not to be trusted.

There are many more examples of how we tend to make lasting judgments of others based on scant evidence--people such as the loner in your office or class room, the mother screaming at her child in the check-out line, the guy sitting at the green-light for more than 5 seconds before going, or many, many others I'm sure will easily come to mind with only a mere touch of the rolladeck cards we all keep at the ready in our brains.

Face it; our judgments and assessments of others--any others, whether family, friends, acquaintances, or people we only read about--grow increasingly harsher and unforgiving as their actions or inactions become increasingly inconvenient to us.  We invariably take our first glimpse of our fellow human beings with critical eyes.  Even if we make the attempt to perhaps understand the other person's behavior, we usually find ourselves making qualifications, and end up shaking our heads at them for their obvious stupidity, flagrant and incomprehensible immorality, or--if we are in a particularly generous mood--ineptness.  We rarely, if ever--and I mean all of us, myself included--consider others with an unqualified compassion.  Why is that?

The question should be most disturbing to all of us who profess to be followers of the Lord and King, Jesus the Christ--that is, all of us who claim to be Christians--because Jesus always looked at the throng with compassion.  And the throng always contained all types from the murderers to the oppressed, the swindlers to the haughty, and the poor to the rich.  Yet, even though  Jesus teaches us the student is not above his/her teacher, nor is the servant above his/her master, we all seem to excuse ourselves from having to greet our fellow human beings with the same compassion our professed Lord does. Perhaps, we think Jesus is a perfection unattainable by any of us, or the compassion He exhibits is only something he expects us to practice in heaven, or maybe we take a mean view of the word compassion.  Joseph Ratzinger, in his seminal work Jesus of Nazareth--From the Baptism in the Jordon to the Transfiguration. Image (2007): p. 197, in describing the Good Samaritan's response to the man left beaten and bereft on the side of the road, explains our valuation of the term compassion this way:

"And now the Samaritan enters the stage.  What will he do? He does not ask how far his obligations of solidarity extend.  Nor does he ask about the merits required for eternal life.  Something else happens: His heart is wrenched open.  The Gospel uses the word that in Hebrew had originally referred to the mother's womb and maternal care.  Seeing this man in such a state is a blow that strikes him 'viscerally,' touching the soul.  'He had compassion'--that is how we translate the text today, diminishing its original vitality."

Dr. Ratzinger is absolutely correct; and the same word is used to describe Jesus' reactions to the crowds.  Regardless, we rarely conjure up such a "visceral" compassion for others.  Instead, we downplay the whole idea, thinking compassion is nothing more then writing a check to the United Way. Why is that?

I propose the answer lies in the fact we are all busy trying to answer another question far more relevant to us: Who is the Greatest?

And they went into Capernaum, and when He was in the house Jesus asked them, "What were you considering on the road?"  But they [His disciples] were remaining silent; for they were arguing with each other on the road, "Who is the greatest?"  And after sitting, Jesus called the Twelve and says to them, "If anyone wants to be first, he/she will be last of all and servant of all." [Mark 9:33-35]

Jesus has graciously given us the answer to the question consuming all of us.  I suspect it isn't what we wanted to hear.  I'm also convinced that in this answer we shall find the path back to the visceral compassion God expects each of us to have for our fellow human beings.  Therefore, next week we will allow Mark to unpack for us what Jesus means by being least of all and servant of all.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The First Clayton Bloom Parable (Reprised)

[Because last week I published the second Clayton Bloom parable, I thought I would reboot the first for all of you who either have forgotten it or are new to my site.  Enjoy.................]

Clayton Bloom sired three sons. Even before they had hardly grown, each of them turned away from their father, obsessed by a need to outdo his brothers. When they could, the brothers demanded their inheritances and left their father—each certain that with his talent and resources he would excel over his brothers.

Time passed and the three brothers failed in their quests. Each found himself separated from the others and severely destitute.

At the right time, Clayton went in search of his wayward boys to bring them home. He found his oldest in a stupor and lying in a ditch.

The father appealed to the man, “Come home my son, and I will give you rest. You will have your original job at twice the salary. And someday you, along with your brothers, will be given control over my estate.”

His son looked up through eyes half closed by contempt for his father and replied, “I don’t want your pity, Old Man. And I certainly don’t want your charity. I can care for myself. Go away and leave me alone!”

Reluctantly, Clayton left his oldest son in search of his brothers. Eventually he found his middle son, and appealed to him in the same manner he had with the man’s older brother.

The middle son didn’t answer his father right away, but thought, if I take the money, I can get myself cleaned up and go back to those guys who stuck me and make them sorry for underestimating me. The bums will soon be bowing to me, and I’ll be on top, again. “Sure, Pops,” the middle son said. “I’ll go back to work for you. Thanks, thanks a lot!”

After Clayton had sent his middle son home with instructions for the servants to care for him after he arrived, the father sought out his youngest boy. He found the young man worse off than his brothers. The father knelt beside his youngest son, and appealed to him as he did his two brothers. The man looked up at his father with weak eyes that welled with tears.

“Why should you be so kind to me after I brought you so much disgrace? I have despaired so long, Father. If you only knew how tired I am of it all. I hate my life. I have tried to console myself by remembering my home and you and my life there, but I couldn’t. I tried and tried but the memory was gone, so I convinced myself that it never really happened. I thought it was nothing but a dream. I went on even though deep down I knew it was pointless and ended here hoping to die. I didn't have the guts to kill myself. Now here you are. It wasn’t a dream after all. I want to go home. I’ll do anything to go back there. I’ll listen to you. I’ll do anything you say. Teach me, Father, so I can please you. I want to please you, but I've forgotten how. I should never have left home. How could I have been so stupid?”

The young man wept. Clayton reached out and pulled his son up out of the murky water and embraced him. He could feel his son’s bones beneath his dank, soiled, and tattered clothing. The son staggered and nearly collapsed out of his father’s arms. The father realizing how near death his boy was lifted the frail body over his shoulders and carried his son home.

A year passed, and the younger brother found the middle brother packing a suitcase.

"What are you doing?” the younger brother asked.

“I’m out of here, man,” the middle brother replied.

“But why? We have everything we could ever want right here. No one out there will ever love you and care for you as our Father does. You of all people should know that.”

The middle brother attending to his task answered, “This is too much like work. No thank you. You can have it.”

“What are you talking about?” the younger brother pleaded. “Father has given us servants to do all the real labor so we can complete our studies. Once that is done, father has promised to put us in charge of the whole estate—the house, the land, the livestock--everything!”

“That’s fine for you,” the middle brother said as he snapped the suitcase closed.“I got some old scores to settle.” He waved a thick wad of bills before the younger brother’s face, and then plopped it on top of others neatly stacked in a black attaché. “Besides,” the middle brother continued, “I know just how to parlay this money into some big bucks. Soon you will be working for me, little brother. And I’ll make it happen without all the sweat. I have all I need.”

The middle brother picked up his things and made for the door and stopped. Turning to face his younger brother he said, “Still, I can always use dedicated workers like you. Yes, you’ll be hearing from me, squirt.”

The younger brother watched his brother walk out of sight; he never looked back.