Tag Archives: Gospel of Mark

Be Opened

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go– the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.” Mark 7:24-37.

In today’s lectionary readings from Mark’s Gospel, we find a number of challenges.  In the first passage, on our initial reading, Jesus seems a bit stingy, argumentative, and a little off His game. A few years ago, reading this passage, I was struck by the idea that it seemed like Jesus had to be coaxed into being charitable. At first, we may wonder if this is the same Jesus we know. I want to suggest that this passage presents exactly the Jesus we know.

We should begin with the observation that this first passage contains a number of unusual characteristics.  First, it’s located in Tyre, which is not an ordinary place for Jesus to be roaming around. That’s Gentile country, and no place for a good Jewish boy to be.  Secondly, he’s approached by a Syrophoenecian woman.  At that time, it would be unusual for any woman to approach a Jewish rabbi, let alone a Gentile woman. (Further, the identification  of this woman as “pheonician” implies an association with the Canaanites. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel describes this woman as a Canaanite.)  Unlike many of the Gospel stories, in this story Jesus’ disciples (his regular companions) are absent. Finally, her daughter has a demon, and so we know we’re encountering a spiritual battle here.

I think part of the answer lies in the original Greek text.  When the woman comes and asks Jesus to cast the demon from her “little daughter” (thygatrion in Greek), He replies that the children should be fed first before the “little dogs” (kynariois). In one sense, I think we can read this story, picturing Jesus with a twinkle in his eye as He draws from this woman an affirmation of the faith which He knew was present in her. In another sense, I think St. Mark uses this story to contrast Jesus with the Jewish authorities of the day, who would certainly have rejected this woman and her concerns.

Mark uses this as a narrative device.  It’s worth noting that Jesus doesn’t tell the woman “no”; rather, he says, “not yet.”  I don’t think Mark uses this story to portray Jesus as ambivalent or wishy-washy on the subject of ministering to the Gentiles. Rather, I think he’s telling this story to portray the difference between Jesus and the religious authorities of His day.

Jesus expels the demon from this woman’s child “because of this reasoning” (dia touton ton logon). We therefore ask, what was it that she said?  She told Jesus that even the crumbs He had to offer would suffice to heal her daughter. We hear an echo of this in the old 1928 Book of Common Prayer, and I’m not so sure we shouldn’t still be praying this: “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy table.” From this Gentile woman we hear a remarkable affirmation of trust, of need, and of faith.

Mark’s second story similarly challenges the traditional notion of holiness of that time.  Jesus travels toward the region of the ten cities (the Decapolis).  Again, He remains deep in the territory of the Gentiles. The crowd brings a deaf man with a speech impediment to Jesus.  Jesus’ offers a deeply intimate act of healing this man.  He thrusts his hands into the man’s ears, spits and then touches the man’s  tongue. These things would have clearly violated the purity codes of that time, which viewed saliva as unclean.

As Jesus looks to heaven, he groans.  (Groans offers a far better translation of the Greek word estenaxen than “sighs.”)  In other words, this healing involves Jesus’ identification with the suffering and distress of this man.  Mark tells the story of an earthy (incarnational) healing, rather than a purely metaphysical event.  Mark reports Jesus speaking in the Aramaic language:  Ephphatha (which means “be opened.”)

The passage rings with the echo of Isaiah’s promise:  “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped….” Isaiah 35:5-6. In one sense, it’s the deaf man’s ears that are opened.  In other sense, it’s the Gentile woman who is opened to the ministry of Jesus.  Viewed in another light, it’s about Jesus being open to the pain of the world. In yet another sense, it’s the entire world (and not just the people of Israel) to whom Jesus opens a new way of holiness.  I pray that we will be open to his healing ministry as well.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Deeds of Power

Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.  Mark 6:1-13.

Mark’s Gospel for the Sunday Lectionary offers us several insights into Jesus.  You may remember a couple of weeks back, as the disciples were caught in a terrible storm, they wondered,  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:41.  Last week, in Chapter 5, we heard a partial answer to that question, in the stories of Jairus’ daughter and the woman who touched Jesus’ cloak.  I think today’s reading may also help us unlock the answer to that question.

Jesus returns to Nazareth, to his hometown.  Teaching at the synagogue, he astonishes the crowd there.  They marvel at his wisdom, his teaching, and at his “deeds of power.”  Like many of us, however, a profound distrust soon overcomes their sense of awe.  They wonder, “How can this be so?  We know Jesus, and we know his family.  He’s just a simple carpenter.”

Often, I think, we lose the irony of Mark’s next phrase.  “And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.”  Most of us would probably find such a miraculous hearing sufficient, if not extraordinary.

Mark does seem to link, however, the occurrence of the miraculous with the community’s ability to trust God, with the community’s faith.  That’s an interesting reversal of the way we often think of miracles.  We sometimes think, “Lord, if you will only (insert something miraculous here), then I’ll be able to believe.”  Mark, however, suggests that miracles are a consequence of faith, rather than a cause of it.  (The theological footing here may not be completely sturdy, in that it suggests that God’s power hinges on us and our belief.  I have serious questions about that view, but Mark seems to suggest it strongly. I’m inclined to suggest an alternate hypothesis:  Our trust in God opens our eyes to the everyday miracles that surround us.)

In the next passage, Jesus continues his ministry, and actively begins the process of the disciples’ formation.  He sends the disciples out in pairs, giving them authority over “unclean spirits.”  He sends them out with only a staff, and no provisions for the journey.  Jesus sent them out to proclaim his message of repentance, and they cured many and cast out demons.  I think this notion of “travelling light” will also help us answer the question “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Like their Rabbi, the disciples would not travel with either pomp or plenty.  They travelled, as Jesus did, sharing in the people’s need and vulnerability.  The twelve would learn to abandon the illusion of self-sufficiency.  The disciples would have to learn to trust God’s people, to trust each other, and most importantly, to trust God.  They would learn to be the instruments of grace and faith, and learn to be the music those instruments played.  Through the Incarnation of this Jesus, they would learn what the Kingdom looked like, and learn that God wanted to bridge His separation from mankind.

Throughout their time with Christ, they would begin to understand the answer:  “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  I hope we begin to understand, too.  Lord, we believe; help our unbelief.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

So That She May Be Made Well, and Live

When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea. Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.” He went with him.

And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him. Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, `Who touched me?'” He looked all around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?” But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.” He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James. When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly. When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.” And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement. He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.  Mark 5:21-43.

In today’s Gospel, Mark offers two portrayals of Jesus as a healer.  The first concerns the story of a man named Jairus whose daughter is dying.  Mark describes Jairus as a leader of the synogogue, which also reveals that some Jewish authorities looked up to and relied on Jesus.  While Jesus is on the way to help Jairus’ little girl, something remarkable happens.

Mark breaks into the story of Jairus and his daughter with an interlude, a story about a woman with a blood disorder.  This woman approaches Jesus, a woman who who had “suffered” and “endured” a lot.  Her disease had isolated her, hurt her, and left her penniless.  And yet, she believes that merely touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak will make her well.  She is cured, and moreover, Jesus tells her that her faith has made her well.

By the time Jesus arrives at Jairus’ home, the mourner’s announce that He has come to late and the child has already died.  Jesus counsels Jairus, “Do not fear, but trust.”  Jesus tells them that the child is not dead, but merely sleeping.  Jesus takes the little girl by her hand and tells her to get up, and she rises and begins to walk.

At the time of these events, Jairus’ daughter was twelve years old.  The woman had suffered from her hemoraging for twelve years.  These two are linked together, as the life flows out of them.  We might certainly read these stories in the light of the people of Israel (the twelve tribes).  One is a daughter of a man of honor and prestige, the other an “unclean” woman lost in her desperation.  Both the woman with the blood disorder and the little girl who had died are impure; by touching them, Jesus will share in this impurity.  And yet, through the touch of this unique Rabbi, both will find new life.

I think we miss the point of this narrative if we merely read it as a story about how Jesus was really good at conquering disease and even death.  I don’t think the message of the Incarnation was to simply to show us that God could work miracles.  Rather, God became man to show us how deeply he loved us and how he wanted to heal the wounds that separated us from Him.

Both Jairus and the woman with the blood disorder ask “to be made well” (sozo in the Greek).  This implies not just a curing them from their physical ailments, but also making them whole, restoring them, saving them.  Both Jairus’ daughter and the hemoraging woman were made well.  But Jesus offered them more than simply restoration of their health; He offered them life.

I don’t think these two stories are simply about Jesus’ remarkable power, or even about miracles.  Jesus didn’t come to show us how powerful He was; He came to show us how much God loved us.  He came to teach us about the extraordinary power of faith, and about the limitless compassion of the Living God.  And if we will reach out to touch His Son, we also will be made well, and live.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Peace! Be Still!

When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”  Mark 4:35-41.

In the Gospel reading from today’s Lectionary, we find Jesus and the disciples after a long day of teaching and healing.  In fact, the crowds had swelled to such a point that Jesus had preached from the boat as the crowd listened on land.  Jesus devoted much of his teaching that day to explaining about the Kingdom of God.  I think we might interpret today’s Gospel in that context, although Jesus will now show the disciples what the Kingdom is like.

When a violent storm arises and threatens to swamp their boat, the disciples feel a genuine terror.  I have often asked the exact question that they raise:  “Do you not care that we are perishing?”  I have often asked God almost exactly the same question:  “Can you not see what’s going on down here?”  We wonder where God is while we struggle through our troubles, our danger, and our fears.  And yet, the disciples found that their rabbi was with them all along, sleeping in the stern of the boat.  So, this story suggests that while we are panicking in chaos and certain that we are perishing, Jesus remains right there with us, in the middle of the storm.

Mark tells us that Jesus rebuked the storm, telling the maelstrom:  “Peace!  Be still!” We all wish that we could give such instructions when chaos arrives.  What would happen if we could rebuke cancer, or automobile crashes, or church fights, telling them:  “Be still!”  Even the wind and the sea obeyed Jesus, but I suspect that’s mostly because Jesus had such a profound trust of the Father.

Earlier, I suggested that this Gospel passage, like those that immediately precede it, is about the Kingdom of God.  Jesus can sleep through the storm because He knows that God reigns over all, and wants to take care of, all creation.  While the control of meteorological events may seem beyond most of us, trusting God is well within our reach.  Perhaps then, we too can be still.

I wish you Sabbath peace,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Out Into the Wilderness

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  Mark 1:9-13.

This portion of the reading from this week’s Lectionary  illustrates two important ideas relevant to our Lenten discussions.  The first is the principle of resistance.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from heaven announces that he is the beloved son of God.  There’s a Greek phrase that Mark uses throughout his Gospel, kai euthos.  It’s most often translated as “immediately” or “just then.”  Mark reports that immediately after this wonderful moment, right after this transcendent announcement, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

It seems an odd thing:  Jesus has just been consecrated to his vocation as the Messiah, the savior, and immediately He’s sent to the desert to face temptation.  We get a sense of the loneliness of Jesus’ situation, an isolation illustrated by the notion of “the wilderness.”  (In this sense, Jesus will share the Genesis experience of being “cast out” with us, will share in the Exodus experience of wandering in the wilderness.)  The phrase “the wilderness” connotes chaos, fear and a landscape where death and sin become a real possibility.

I think many of us have shared that experience:  just when we think things are going well, when we’ve decided to turn a corner on our relationship with God, we are thrust into that wilderness.  As Michael Corleone famously observed, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

As we work through our Lenten disciplines, attempting to find our way through the wilderness, we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter this “resistance” to change.  Sometimes, we may find that our Ancient Enemy views this as an opportune time drag us down again.  Sometimes, we may provide our own resistance, or even find resistance from our friends or our families.  And then, we may confront one of the greatest lies Satan tells us:  “Things are never going to change.  This is just too hard.  Life wasn’t so bad before.”

Even while he was in the wilderness with the “wild beasts”, Mark reports that the angels waited on Jesus.  Now, the angels acted as the messengers of God.  I think Mark is trying to tell us that even in that wilderness of spiritual desolation, God will not leave us alone.  Somehow, someway, God will speak words of comfort, courage and peace.  Learning to listen for them when we are ravaged by our terrors, that’s the tricky part.

Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus as having been “tempted by Satan”.  As usual, Mark doesn’t provide many of the particulars here.  Both Matthew and Luke offer more detail about the specific temptations Christ suffered.  We do know one thing about Satan, however.  Jesus said that Satan “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  John 8:44.  In this teaching, Jesus illustrates for us something important about the very nature of sin.

I believe that most sin, if not all sin, originates with a lie.  The German people could not have burned 6 million Jews without first deceiving themselves into the belief that the Jews were less than human.  We Americans could not have participated in the brutality of slave labor and the  slave trade without first believing that the Africans were “chattel”, that they were animals.  Or maybe we persuade ourselves that we haven’t had that much to drink, and we’ll have just one more glass of wine before driving home.  Sin generally originates in a lie, because deception is the currency of sin.

In my law practice, I’ve handled a number of cases of embezzlement.  In almost every case, the employee has convinced themselves that their employer has taken advantage of them somehow, and they’re merely recovering what the employer should have given them. I think I understand these folks because if I have a superpower, it’s my ability to deceive myself and rationalize.  And when I stray “out into the wilderness”, I find that deception is the native language of sin.

If we begin to view sin as separation from God, rather than simply doing something naughty, we start to see the subtle danger here.  Jesus described himself as the way, the truth and the life.  Of course, the Father of Lies must separate us from the Truth. Using this Lent as an opportunity for genuine reconciliation, therefore, requires that our self-examination must be firmly rooted in the unyielding truth.  As we approach Jesus, the closer we come, the further we move away from Our Ancient Enemy.

C.S. Lewis once observed “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” God always seeks our union with Him; Satan always seeks to divide us from God and his children.  I pray we use this season of Lent to reflect on those things which operate to come between us from the Almighty, and to take a few steps back towards our real home.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis