John the Baptist

When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her. When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother said in reply, "No. He will be called John." But they answered her, "There is no one among your relatives who has this name." So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called. He asked for a tablet and wrote, "John is his name," and all were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God. Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, "What, then, will this child be?" For surely the hand of the Lord was with him. The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.

Luke 1:57-66,80

I heard a remarkable exegesis on John the Baptist this morning. John is the only saint whose feast day (today) celebrates his nativity -  his birth - rather than his death.  His solemnity falls roughly around the summer solstice, as the hours of daylight begin to decrease (June 21). Of course, we celebrate Jesus’s nativity at Christmas – around the time of the winter solstice, as the hours of daylight begin to increase (December 21).  John, famously said of himself and Jesus, “I must decrease so that he may increase.”

It is interesting to reflect on how different John and Jesus were. John was ascetic, living on locusts and honey and wearing a camelhair robe.  Jesus was criticized for feasting and drinking so much he was considered a drunkard.  (Of the two of them, I’m glad Jesus, rather than John, is the ultimate Christian example!)  Yet they were cousins, both were given their names before their birth by angels (although only John's stuck), both were radical itinerant teachers with a band of disciples, and both would eventually be executed by the state.

It is also interesting to note that John was very interested in virtue, self-improvement, and holiness.  He shared this with St. Paul.  I have argued here and in my book that although we assume Jesus was principally focused on the same thing (to which we apply a lot of confirmation bias), that is not the case.  Was Jesus a repudiation of John? I don't think so.  But they were describing entirely different things: John described the well-lived life, while Jesus described the nature of God's relationship to us.  Both are, of course, of immeasurable importance.

Image: Herodias, by Juan de Flandes

June 17, 2018 - Be Still

Jesus said to the crowds: “This is how it is with the kingdom of God; it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land and would sleep and rise night and day and through it all the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how. Of its own accord the land yields fruit, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once, for the harvest has come.”

Mark 4

Christians often talk about their obligation to bring about the Kingdom of God on Earth.  In this reading, however, Jesus seems to be saying we can relax and let it take care of itself.  This may seem like inexcusable sloth and the result of learned helplessness in the face of an enormous task.  What ever happened to lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness?  

I believe this supports one of the primary ideas of this blog (and my book): The Gospels and the Old Testaments are principally concerned with describing God’s morality, not commanding our morality.  In this passage, God is describing what He will do and expressly inviting us to stand down, not to get in the way, to avoid causing collateral damage (as in the Parable of the Weeds and the Wheat), and that we need do nothing but be still (to quote Exodus).   

This is only the first half of the Gospel reading for this week.  I explored the second half, the Parable of the Mustard Seed – but as told by Matthew, in my July 20, 2017 post.  That post is quickly becoming the most popular in the three-year history of this blog, threatening to overtake even provocatively entitled blogs like “Predestination” (July 25, 2017) and “Proof of God’s Existence” (April 21, 2017).

Image: The Jordan River

June 10, 2018 - May Truth Be Spoken Though The Mountains May Fall

Jesus came home with his disciples. Again, the crowd gathered, making it impossible for them even to eat. When his relatives heard of this they set out to seize him, for they said, "He is out of his mind." The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said, "He is possessed by Beelzebul," and "By the prince of demons he drives out demons."

Summoning them, he began to speak to them in parables, "How can Satan drive out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand; that is the end of him. But no one can enter a strong man's house to plunder his property unless he first ties up the strong man. Then he can plunder the house. Amen, I say to you, all sins and all blasphemies that people utter will be forgiven them. But whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never have forgiveness but is guilty of an everlasting sin." For they had said, "He has an unclean spirit."

His mother and his brothers arrived. Standing outside they sent word to him and called him. A crowd seated around him told him, "Your mother and your brothers and your sisters are outside asking for you." But he said to them in reply, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around at those seated in the circle he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother."

Mark 3:20-35

I invite you to ignore the second of the three paragraphs of this week’s Gospel reading, which I have italicized.

Maybe it’s not a big deal, but that omission reveals something I, for one, have never noticed before. In the passages before this week’s Gospel, Jesus had to flee by boat to avoid being crushed by the adoring crowd. In the first paragraph of today’s Gospel, the crowd had found him again in his home (this is the only reference I am aware of that implies Jesus has a home) and is closing in so closely, he can hardly find room to eat.

His family (his family!) has an interesting opposite reaction: they decide he has lost his mind!  The lawyers agree. They set out for Jesus’ house.

In the paragraph I have asked you to ignore, Jesus tries to convince his disciples that he is not crazy. 

Finally, in the third paragraph, Jesus is told his family has arrived and that they are calling for him.   Remember, his relatives set out to confront him – to do an intervention - to stop him from his crazy preaching.  Every time I have read this paragraph previously, I have thought Jesus was being oblique, somewhat cold-hearted and a little over-zealous. But it now appears to me Jesus was simply dismissing his family's authority to silence him and strongly affirming his teaching in the face of their rejection.  He personifies the term Kierkegaard used to describe Abraham: a Knight of Faith.

June 3, 2018 - Freedom

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread,
when they sacrificed the Passover lamb,
Jesus’ disciples said to him,
"Where do you want us to go
and prepare for you to eat the Passover?"
He sent two of his disciples and said to them,
"Go into the city and a man will meet you,
carrying a jar of water.
Follow him.
Wherever he enters, say to the master of the house,
'The Teacher says, "Where is my guest room
where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?"'
Then he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready.
Make the preparations for us there."
The disciples then went off, entered the city,
and found it just as he had told them;
and they prepared the Passover.

Mark 14

This is only the beginning of this week’s Gospel. It is followed by Jesus’s consecration of the bread and wine which rightfully usually gets most of the attention.  But note that the Gospel of John leaves that part out entirely.  There is profound importance in just the timing of the Passion story: Jesus is celebrating Passover the night before he is arrested, tried and executed.  In some ways the Passover story is very different from the Passion.  Passover commemorates when God freed the Israelites from slavery “with a strong arm,” symbolized by the presence of a shank bone on the Seder table. The Passion commemorates when God allowed His Son to be executed as a criminal in the most horrendous way. No strong arm was evident. In some ways, the two holy days are parallel: Christians assert that the Passion marks the moment when God freed us from slavery again.

From what slavery are we freed? Some would say it is was our slavery to some inherited guilt – and gloss over that the concept of inherited guilt seems profoundly unfair. Shall not the judge of the earth do justice?  Jesus himself pointedly rejects any notion of inherited sin in John 9:1-12, to the anger of the Pharisees.

The principle challenge of Judeo-Christianity is to understand what God accomplished on Mount Sinai and Calvary.