Archive for June, 2012

Gospel, Mark 6:1-6  Nazareth, Jesus’ native place, was a village of probably less than 250 people.  It was situated in the Galilean hills near the northern ridge of the plain of Jezreel (Esdraelon in Greek).  Shepherds could traverse footpaths down into the broad fertile plain, but the slope was too steep for roads.  The only road out of Nazareth went north a short ways and then divided into three routes, one to the Galilean capital Sepphoris five miles to the NW, another to Cana  about nine miles due north, and the other to the Sea of Galilee 15 miles to the east. 

“Could anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel asks his friend Philip in John 1:46, insinuating that Nazareth was an insignificant end of the road village of country hicks.  Growing up in Minneapolis, my brother and I spent two weeks every summer with my grandparents in the small town of Tyler in southwestern Minnesota.  The kids there treated us with extra respect for being from the Big City, and, I confess, we took great pride in that fact.  Ultimately, of course, it doesn’t matter where a person comes from…it’s where we’re going that counts.

The people were “astonished” by Jesus. This gives us great insight into how Jesus the child and young man related to his neighbors as he was growing up.  He apparently didn’t work miracles, breathe life into clay birds to impress friends (as some fanciful accounts tell it), or surpass all other children in town with his intelligence and spirituality.  Their query “Where did this man get all this?” indicates that Jesus hadn’t impressed them as someone out of the norm.  On the contrary, they may have considered him a bit lower than others, thinking him to have been conceived in sin to parents who didn’t wait until after the wedding.  The crowd’s astonishment was not one of being impressed so much as being bewildered by Jesus’ preaching and power. 

The word for brothers is “adelphos”.  Philadelphia (philos + adelphos) is the “city of brotherly love”.  “Adelphos” appears in the gospels in both the narrow (Matt. 1:2 “Jacob [was] the father of Judah and his brothers” and Matt. 4:18 “he saw two brothers, Simon and his brother Andrew”) and the broader group usage (Matt. 5:22 “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” and Matt. 547 “If you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that?”).  Whether you prefer the narrow or broader meaning here will depend on your belief whether Jesus’ mother Mary remained a virgin all her life or only until after Jesus’ birth. 

Jesus could not work many miracles due to their lack of faith.  Jesus told the woman in last week’s gospel (Mk. 5:34), “Your faith has saved you”, a phrase he repeats in other healings (Mk. 10:52, Lk. 17:19).  While Jesus has the power, our faith opens the door to let Jesus go to work in us.  Our lack of faith, conversely, creates a block to that same power.

Reading 1, Ezekiel 2:2-5  This passage, noting how obstinate of heart Ezekiel’s audience will be, is selected to match the gospel reading in which Jesus encounters a similar hardness of heart among his neighbors at Nazareth.  Babylonia had taken control of Judah in 597 B.C., set up a subservient member of the royal family on the throne, and deported a number of educated and skilled laborers to Babylonia to serve the government there.  Ezekiel was among them.  When the puppet king decided, against the advice of the prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem, to quit sending tribute to Babylonia and seek a better arrangement with Egypt, the Babylonian army returned in 587 B.C.  This time they tore down the temple and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, taking anyone of power, learning, or influence back to Babylonia.  This began a time period known as the “Babylonian exile” or the “Babylonian captivity”.   For discouraging rebellion against Babylonia, Jeremiah was not taken into exile.  It is believed that he met his fate being murdered by fellow Jews on the way from Judah to Egypt.  It was around this time that Ezekiel received his call to be a prophet, the only named prophet ever to receive such outside the Holy Land.  His initial preaching, a call to repentance and reform, was generally unheeded.  Only later, when people had recognized that the exile was the result of turning a deaf ear to God and began to repent, did Ezekiel’s message change to one of hope and promise.

Reading II, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10  What was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”?  Some people believe it to be a physical infirmity such as malaria which was common in some of the areas where Paul preached.  Others think Paul refers to some moral weakness against which he had little resistance despite his disciplined lifestyle and best intentions to the contrary.  If used in the same sense as our expression “thorn in the side” which refers to people who irritate us (so used in Numbers 33:55 and Ezekiel 28:24), Paul might have been referring to conservative Jewish Christians who were a constant “thorn” in his side.  Whatever the “thorn” may have been, it kept Paul from forgetting that it was the power of God at work in him and not his own powers that made the differen

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Gospel, Mark 5:21-43  Following the storm in last week’s reading, Jesus and the apostles had continued on across the Sea of Galilee to Gerasene territory.  The city of Gerasa was about 5 miles east of the lake but controlled the surrounding area including a section of the eastern shores of the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus had cast an evil spirit into a herd of swine (a humorous note for Jews who were not permitted to eat pork) which ran over a cliff and died, following which the locals begged Jesus to leave their district…perhaps fearful of his power but also concerned about possible further economic losses.

On arriving back in Capernaum, Jesus “stayed close to the sea”.  Because occasional high waves (as in the storm in last week’s reading) sent huge waves across the lake (a storm in March of 1992 sent 10 foot high waves crashing into downtown Tiberias), Capernaum had an 8 foot-wide breakwater that ran for 2,500 feet along the shore to protect the city.  There was no beach area.  Boats were moored at a number of piers jutting up to 100 feet out into the lake, creating small harbors for protection from storms.  Peter landed his boat at the pier docking he rented.  When Jesus got out, he was met by crowds of local people as well as those from other locations who knew Jesus was headquartered at Capernaum and returned there after his many excursions to neighboring towns. 

The name Jairus means “He enlightens”.  This could be understood as referring to the name bearer as a source of enlightenment or as God enlightening the one so named.  Very few people other than members of his immediate group or government officials are named in the gospels, so one might wonder why Jairus received such an honor.  We don’t really know, but might conjecture that Jairus became a Christian and was influential in drawing other people to follow Jesus.  He was the head of the Capernaum synagogue.  As such, he would have been under a lot of pressure from the visiting Pharisees and temple representatives from Jerusalem to quell the “Jesus movement” centered right there in his city and synagogue.  His heart told him otherwise as he saw Jesus as the only chance to heal his daughter.  The raising of his daughter had a tremendous impact on Jairus, perhaps changing his from being obediently cautious about Jesus to becoming a disciple and one in a position to influence many other people.  

I worked in Venezuela from 1994 to 1999.  In that culture the wake took place in the home.  It was expected of female family members and close friends that they express their grief in dramatic fashion, draping themselves over the casket and wailing loudly, even hysterically.  At a certain point, a mourner would collapse, and be carried by other mourners to a nearby bedroom where smelling salts were always available.  To enhance the family’s expression of grief, other people were often paid to wail and mourn.  This practice has now pretty much died out but was still common enough in Venezuela in the early 1990’s. The people Jesus put out on arriving at the house were probably folks from Capernaum hired to assist the family in giving expression to their grief.  That would explain why they mocked Jesus rather than being relieved when he tells them that the girl is not dead…they had just lost a job and didn’t like it.

“Talitha koum” is retained in the original Hebrew along with a Greek translation in the gospels along with a few other expressions of Jesus (“Abba”, “ephatha” ,“eloi,eloi lama sabacthani”).  We don’t know why this is the case, but one might guess that, along with the naming of Jairus, this incident was recounted over and over again, causing the gospel account to retain the Hebrew expression.

Why did Jesus tell Jairus’ family not to tell about what had happened?  Everyone in town had already heard that the girl had died.  Seeing her on the street the next day, they would certainly ask.  Jesus knew that the story would be repeated over and over again.  While Jesus healed to assist people in need and express the power of God present in his ministry, he must have been somewhat frustrated that many people came to him as Jesus the “miracle worker” and not for the message and call to discipleship at the core of his ministry.  I encourage you to listen to one of my favorite songs from Don Francisco called “Gotta Tell Somebody”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Et0JLmt6-Qw  which expresses the story of Jairus coming to Jesus and how impossible it would have been for him not to give witness to what Jesus did for his daughter. 

The woman suffering from the hemorrhage had lost all her savings unsuccessfully seeking help from doctors.  The woman’s desire to be healed was deeper than the physical fatigue and anemia from which she suffered…deeper than her being financially broke.  According to Leviticus 12:1-8, 15:19-30) she was “ritually unclean”, barred from regular fellowship in the faith community for having a discharge of blood.  Jesus healed her in these ways and one even more important.  After “stealing” Jesus’ power, the woman hid in the crowd, probably thinking Jesus would scold her or, worse, take back the cure.   Jesus wanted to heal the whole person, not just her physical being.  Calling her out of the crowd, he gave her peace of heart along with physical healing.

Reading 1, Wisdom 1:13-15, 2:23-24  “God didn’t make death” and “formed man to be imperishable”.  How could people in a time before they believed in life after death believe that death was a natural stage in the life of each person as is true for the rest of nature?  Thus it had to be credited to the devil.  In Romans 6:8 Paul connects two deaths, the physical death of the body and the spiritual death to sin: “If we have died with Christ we believe we shall also reign with him.” St. Francis of Assisi referred to death as “Sister Death”, as a friend rather than an enemy which frees us to leave the constraints of the physical world for the glory of heaven. 

Reading II, 2 Corinthians 8:7, 9, 13-15  The Christian community in Jerusalem had grown rapidly beginning with Pentecost.  Believing that Jesus was returning very soon, people sold what they had, put the proceeds in the common pot, and waited.  No one would have guessed that the pot would go empty before Jesus’ return, but with the passing of time, finances got pretty tight.  When a wealthy person named Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, sold some property and put the proceeds in the pot, he received the nickname Barnabas which means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36-37).  That same Barnabas was Paul’s sponsor in joining the Christian community and his traveling companion on the first missionary journey.  Paul, like his counterpart Barnabas, wanted to see the “mother community” at Jerusalem survive, and so Paul took up collections for the Jerusalem church at most cities and towns he visited.  This section of his letter to the Corinthian community was written to encourage their generosity in that collection.

In writing this, Paul was encouraging not only generosity but also a sense of connectedness and common support among all Christian communities…that the Body of Christ was broader than their own individual community. 

In the poor barrios or neighborhoods where I worked in Venezuela people often went around knocking on neighbors’ doors when they needed money for a prescription, a casket for a relative’s funeral, etc.  People from within the poor barrios were usually quite generous, more so than folks in wealthier neighborhoods who more commonly denied assistance completely or told the petitioner, “If you need money, don’t come here begging.  Go out and earn it like I do!”  I once witnessed a man who had the equivalent of $40 to get his family through the next week give half away when asked for help.  He believed that, when his time of need came, his neighbors would come through for him.  Not having much, he wasn’t controlled by the little he had.  His future security was not in whatever he could personally amass but rather confidence in the generosity of his neighbors when his time of need might come.  Paul would have affirmed such an attitude and applauded his generosity.

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Gospel, Luke 1:57-66, 80  How do parents choose names for their babies?  Although there are multiple sources for baby names, many people still name their children after a parent, grandparent, or some other significant relative or family friend.   Such may have been a common method at the time of Jesus, as is inferred in this reading, but with the exception of Herod’s family, we really don’t see such a practice in either the Old or New Testament.  Native American families are known to name a child after some personal qualities they see in the child.  This was more likely the method used by Elizabeth and Zechariah.  The name John means “gift of God”, and they both considered their child to be a gift from God. 

Although Zechariah had been struck mute for the duration of the pregnancy, the couple still would have communicated through signs and writing on a tablet, marking letters with a metal stylus on a board covered with a layer of wax or moist clay that could be smoothed out to erase the writing much like an etch-a-sketch.  Since Zechariah seems to have had a tablet close at hand, we can assume that he and his wife communicated with him writing on the tablet during those nine months.  So, the neighbors being amazed when Elizabeth and Zechariah both picked the same name for their child had nothing to do with Zechariah’s being mute.  With a high infant mortality rate, it was considered bad luck for Jewish people to select a child’s name or even discuss possible names.  Naming was a powerful thing…recall how God honored Adam by having him name all the animals and how Jewish people were not allowed to speak God’s name…and the extra attachment which would come from naming for a child who then died I childbirth added to the grief of the parents.  Therefore, names were not discussed…making it all the more notable that the angel Gabriel told Mary her baby’s name even at the time of conception.  The neighbors’ amazement was both at the common awareness between Elizabeth and Zechariah that the child was a gift of God and that, on naming the child, Zechariah could speak and praise God.

Reading 1, Isaiah 49:1-6  This is the second of Isaiah’s four “Servant-of-the-Lord” oracles in a section of Isaiah (chapters 40 to 55) often attributed to an anonymous figure who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian exile and, therefore, referred to as Deutero-Isaiah.  The first oracle focused on the ministry of the servant.  This one speaks more of the servant and how his ministry will bring glory to God to the point that the title “servant” is “too little” or insufficient to describe his role or the impact of his ministry.  He would be God’s “light to the nations” for through him the glory of God would be revealed to peoples far beyond the nation of Israel to the ends of the earth.

This reading is selected for the celebration of the birth of John the Baptist was likewise “called from birth” to be like a “sharp-edged sword” or “polished arrow” of God word through his preaching. 

Reading II, Acts 13:22-26  Paul and Barnabas have come to Antioch in Pisidia on the first missionary journey.  On their first Sabbath there they went to the synagogue where, according to the custom of honoring visitors, Paul was invited by the leaders of the synagogue to share a “word of exhortation for the people” (Acts 13:15).  This passage is part of Paul’s presentation in the Antioch synagogue that day.  

Paul refers to John the Baptist without any need to explain who he was and what he did, thus presuming that his listeners are already quite familiar with John and his ministry, more familiar with John than with Jesus whose way John had been sent to prepare.  This gives us some idea of the impact of John’s ministry as Jewish communities so far away knew about him.  The gospels and New Testament letters always spoke highly of John and his ministry while indicating that John himself was preparing for Jesus.  Adherents didn’t have to put John aside to go to Jesus…they could follow where John himself had pointed.

Paul refers to two groups of people in attendance at the synagogue: “brothers, sons of the family of Abraham” and “those others who are God-fearing”.  The word “God-fearing” is a technical word used in reference to people who were not Jewish but felt an attraction to some of the beliefs and prayer of the Jewish community.  They were not accorded full membership status but were permitted to attend synagogue services.

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Gospel, Mark 4:26-34  The phrase “kingdom of God” appears 13 times in the gospel of Mark.  Prior to this passage, Jesus has announced that “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), calling people to repent and believe.  He had told his followers that, by being his disciples and learning from him, “the secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you” (Mark 4:11).  This is the first example in Mark of what are called the “Parables of the Kingdom” as he would tell of certain aspects of the kingdom’s unfolding in this world.  A man scatters seed and it grows on its own…we try to work for advancing God’s kingdom, but the growth is always God’s work in which we are merely tools.  The tiny mustard seed grows into a large bush to give home and shade for the birds of the sky (note in today’s first reading that the cedar tree grown from a shoot, representing the renewed kingdom of God’s people, becomes home for the birds of the sky)…Through the little that we do for the growth of God’s kingdom, God will provide shelter and home for others. 

For other references to the “kingdom of God” in Mark’s gospel, consult: 9:1, 9:47, 10:14, 10:23-25, 12:34, and 14:25.

Reading 1, Ezekiel 17:22-24  Cedar wood has a pleasing fragrance and is decay resistant.  It was commonly used for building ships in ancient times.  Cedar contains a chemical that repels moths and other insects.  Thus, cedar wood has been used for closets and chests for storage of linens and clothing.  For all these reasons, Solomon built the temple of Jerusalem with cedar wood from Lebanon.

Cedar trees most normally develop from seeds which take root as seedlings.  Cedar trees can also be grown in a process called “vegetative” or “asexual reproduction” by which a part of the parent tree will develop roots.  This can happen in ideal situations with the right amount of moisture, proper nutrients and sunshine.  The younger the shoot, the greater the possibility that it will develop roots, and so a shoot taken from the topmost branches, the most recent growth of the tree, have the best chance. 

The shoot will be planted on a high and lofty mountain.  Cedar grows best in mountainous regions.  Mountains were also symbolic of getting closer to God and further from the influences of the world.  Although the prophet would not be aware of the genetic significance, a new plant developed from vegetative reproduction is the same genetically as the parent plant as compared to one grown from a seed which is a genetic cross between two parent plants.  I’m sure Ezekiel would have appreciated the significance of the new plant being a true continuation of the old…the regenerated nation having the same identity and relationship to God as that vanquished by the Babylonians.

The renewed nation, growing with the blessings of God, will be a blessing for many peoples, symbolized by the many birds and other animals that will find a home there.

Reading II, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10  We are people of faith, believing and investing our lives in the promise of eternal life in a heavenly kingdom whose splendor will eclipse anything we know in this life. In Jesus’ imagery of the final judgment those invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” are called “blessed by the Father” (Matthew 25:34).  Revelation 21 paints a picture of “a new heaven and a new earth” far more splendid than anything you’ll ever find in a tourism promotion. 

So, why is it that we tend to hold on so to this life and experience such sorrow at the death of a loved one?  We tend to feel most comfortable with what is familiar.  When going on a tour in some foreign land, most people do not move very far out of their comfort zones.  Even the most inveterate traveler and adventurer finds comfort on returning to the familiar life of home.  The Greek word translated “to be at home” does not refer to home as a specific house but to one’s country and society.  Paul initially uses the word in this passage with reference to this body and physical world as “home”.  He then changes the location of our home…our true destination, country, society…as being in heaven, thus making us travelers journeying through this world on the way to our true home.  Paul has made the mental and spiritual transfer of his citizenship and true home from this world to that of the next, and he is not fearful of things in this world but, rather, anxious to go home.  See 1 Corinthians 15:50-58 for Paul’s comments on the sting of death being swallowed up in Christ’s victory.

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