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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Daily Readings for Saturday, March 22

Genesis 43:16–34; Psalm 43; 1 Corinthians 7:10–24; Mark 5:1–20

The brothers have arrived with Benjamin and as they stand before Joseph, he tells his steward to bring the men to his house and slaughter an animal and prepare a feast, for he plans to dine at noon. When the steward brings the brothers to Joseph’s house, they are afraid and wonder if he will now punish them for not returning the money. Will he make them his slaves and take their donkeys? And so, they stand at the entrance of Joseph’s house in fear and there speak with Joseph’s steward. They tell him that they came down the first time to buy food, and when, on their return, they came to the lodging place, they found that their money was in each man’s sack, in full measure. And so, they have brought it back. In addition, they have brought back additional money to buy more food. But the steward tells them he does not know what they are talking about; he received their money. Does he not know that Joseph had it placed in their sacks, or is he simply on the inside in this matter and supporting Joseph? Whatever, he tells them to rest assured and not be afraid. Obviously, their God and the God of their father must have put the money in their sacks. At that, the steward brings forth Simeon, gives all of them water to wash their feet and fodder for their animals. Having prepared themselves, the brothers now prepare the present and then wait for Joseph to appear, for they had heard that he planned to dine at home, at noon. When Joseph comes home, they give him the present and bow to the ground in obeisance, once again fulfilling the prophecy of Joseph’s original dream. Joseph inquires about his father—is he still alive? Yes, he is still alive and well. Again they bow in obeisance. Looking up, Joseph sees Benjamin, his mother’s son, and asks, “Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?” Joseph then invokes a blessing on Benjamin. With that, Joseph is overcome by emotion and bolts from the room to find another chamber in which to weep. Having done so, he washes his face and returns to the banquet room, and controlling his emotions, orders the meal to be served. Joseph dines by himself; he is, after all, nobility. They serve the brothers by themselves and the Egyptians with them by themselves, for we are told that the Hebrews were an abomination to the Egyptians. In all probability, the difference between Egyptian concern for hygiene and their scrupulous cleanliness, over against the effects of travel, but more, living among flocks in pastoral life made the Hebrews an abomination that the Egyptians wanted to keep at arm’s length. When the brothers are seated before Joseph, they are astonished to discover that they are all seated in rank order from Ruben to Simeon all the way down to Benjamin, according to their age and birthright. And so, they look at one another in amazement. Further, portions of food are taken to them from Joseph’s own table. However, the portion taken from his table to Benjamin is five times as much as any of theirs. And so, they drink and are merry with Joseph.

Psalm 43 is a petition for God’s help in times of trouble asking for God’s vindication against the ungodly ones who have behaved in deceitful and unjust ways against her. Affirming her trust in God, she asks why this has happened: “why have you cast me off?” Then she prays, “Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me! Isn’t that what we most need when besieged by deceit and injustice--some light and truth? Once led through the treachery of injustice, let God’s light and truth bring her to God’s holy hill in Jerusalem and to God’s dwelling there, the temple. There she will worship God with exceeding joy and praise him with the harp. After reaffirming her commitments to God, the psalmist turns reflective and asks herself, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me?” Her counsel is that universal word that continues to resound throughout scripture: “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God.” Yes, this is a difficult time, but God is present within it as her helper, and will be triumphant. There will come a time beyond this when she will again be filled with joy and praise.

Paul now turns to addressing those who are widows or who have never been married in the Corinthian congregation. Given the shortness of the time, Paul believes it is good that they remain as he is, celibate and unmarried. However, if they are unable to constrain themselves to this, it is better that they should marry than burn with passion. Paul now turns to the subject of those who are married to unbelievers: they are to remain with them in the marriage. This comes, not from Paul, but from the Lord. It may be that the unbelieving partner is sanctified by the believer. But if, in fact, a believing wife leaves, she must remain unmarried, or, otherwise, be reconciled to her husband. And, if an unbelieving partner chooses to leave the marriage, they are to allow it. Each is to live as the Lord has assigned. If a slave, then as a slave, though it is a good thing to seek freedom if that is available. For whoever is called a slave is the Lord’s freeman, and whoever is free is the Lord’s slave. They were all bought with a price. However, they are not to become slaves of men.

The storm quelled, the disciples and Jesus reach their destination, the Gentile country of Gerasenes and are immediately met by a demon-possessed man who is living among the tombs. The unclean spirits within him are such that he has super strength and, in spite of numerous attempts to constrain him with chains, he has always broken free. He has spent his days and nights howling and bruising himself among the tombs. Upon seeing Jesus, he runs to him, bows to the ground and shouts at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” This last phrase is the demon’s attempt to invoke spiritual help to keep Jesus from casting him out, for we are told that Jesus has already told the unclean spirit to leave the man. Jesus asks the spirit its name, and it replies, “Legion, for we are many.” He begs Jesus not to send them out of the country—the territory where they have some authority and power. In Jesus’ day, spiritual beings were believed to be connected to particular places and lost their power when displaced. A herd of swine are feeding on the hillside near them, and so he begs, “Send us into the swine.” Jesus gives them permission to do so. Notice the absolute authority he is exercising over this legion of demons. They do and, thereupon, about two thousand swine rush down the steep bank, fall into the sea and drown. They have returned to what was believed to be one of sources and homes of evil and chaos—the sea. As the wind and the sea had obeyed him, so too, now, the legion of demons have obeyed. Those who had been tending the swine rush into the city and wider countryside to tell people what has happened. When they come out to see Jesus, they find the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they are filled with fear and begin to beg Jesus to leave them. As Jesus and the disciples get back into their boats, the man who had been possessed begs to come with them. Jesus refuses—one of the few instances in the gospel where he turns someone away who wants to follow. Why? For one thing, the man was probably a Gentile. What would a Gentile be doing in Jesus’ entourage? But, there is more to this than, at first, meets the eye. Jesus tells the man to go home to his friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for him, and what mercy has been shown to him. The man goes away and begins to proclaim throughout the ten Greek cities of the Transjordan, known as the Decapolis, not what God has done for him, but how much Jesus has done for him! What appears at first to be Jesus’ rejection of the man and his request to be Jesus' disciple, turns out to be a means of spreading Jesus’ fame and message among the Gentiles. He becomes Jesus' first Gentile disciple.

Posted March 22, 2014
Friday, March 21, 2014

Daily Readings for Friday, March 21

Genesis 43:1–15; Psalm 22; 1 Corinthians 7:1–9; Mark 4:35–41

It is not long before the grain the brothers purchased in Egypt is spent, and the famine is even more severe. Jacob tells them to return to Egypt to buy more grain, but Judah reminds his father that the man said they must return with their younger brother or they would not see his face. He tells his father that if he will send Benjamin with them, they will go to buy grain, but, if not, they will not go. Jacob, now called Israel, says, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They reply that the man questioned them closely about their father as well as the rest of the family; did they have a younger brother? They simply answered his questions honestly. How were they to know that he would demand that Benjamin be brought to him? Judah again speaks up, saying, “Send the boy with me, and let us be on our way, so that we may live and not die—you and we and also our little ones.” He offers himself as surety for Benjamin promising to bear the blame forever should he not bring Benjamin back. Besides, had they not delayed, they would have now returned from Egypt twice. Jacob relents, saying, if it must be so, they must take the man a present: choice fruits of the land, a little balm and a little honey, gum resin, pistachio nuts and almonds—a precious present indeed, given the famine. Also, they are to take double the money that was returned in the top of their sacks; perhaps it was an oversight. Finally, he tells them to take Benjamin as well and be on their way to the man. May God Almighty grant them mercy before the man, so that he may send back both their older and their youngest brother. As for Jacob, he is bereaved of his children—simply bereaved. And so the men take the present, double the money and Benjamin, and make their way back to Egypt, and, there, stand before the man.

Psalm 22 is the best known lament in the Psalter, primarily because it contains the words that are on the lips of Jesus hanging on the cross and is all but prophetic concerning what takes place there. It is a lengthy plea for help that describes the psalmist’s troubles. Day and night he calls for help with no answer. Yet, God is the Holy One enthroned on the praises of Israel; the One his ancestors trusted and he delivered them. But the psalmist does not ask on the basis of his own righteousness. He is but a worm, not human, and scorned by others who despise and mock him. “Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver,” is repeated in the passion (Matthew 27:43 ) with the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees using these words to mock Jesus in his dying. In the midst of suffering, the psalmist remembers that God has cared for him since his birth and from that time the Lord has been his God. Again he pleads, “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” Vivid language follows to describe the psalmist’s condition: surrounded by strong and destructive bulls, poured out like water, a heart melted like wax, bones out of joint, mouth dried like a potsherd, and his tongue cleaving to his jaw. The psalmist understands this as God’s judgment against him: “you lay me in the dust of death,” circled by dogs ready to devour his flesh. His enemies likewise stare and gloat over his suffering and divide his clothing among them by casting lots—another image Matthew includes at the cross. After one final plea for the Lord’s presence and aid to save him from the power of the dog and the mouth of the lion, suddenly, there is a shift in the second half of verse 22: “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” God has acted. The rest of the psalm is one of praise to God for not hiding his face, for answering and for coming to the psalmist in his distress. The psalm is exultant and filled with promises to testify to the Lord’s goodness among his brothers and sisters in the midst of the congregation. His rescue is such that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship him.” For, dominion belongs to the Lord and he rules over the nations. Even those yet unborn will be told about the Lord and proclaim him. It is easy to see why the infant church found in this psalm prophetic witness to Jesus’ passion, death, resurrection and eternal rule, and how its influence found its way into the passion narratives.

Though we have no record of the church in Corinth sending Paul an official letter, it is clear that some members of the church have written to him with specific concerns, and it is to these concerns that Paul now turns. The first has to do with the relationship of human sexuality to lives of holiness. Paul has already condemned the sexual immorality (the Greek word pornoria from which we draw the English word “pornography), which seems still apparent in the congregation and which he has said must be cast out. “But,” asks the writer, “what about the sexual relations between a husband and a wife?” It appears that some in Corinth who are married have now espoused lives of chastity similar to Paul’s own sexual celibacy (1 Co. 7;7), and adopted the slogan, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman,” understanding Paul’s frequent injunction to “imitate him” in leading a faithful life, to include this provision as well, even if one is already married. Paul begins this section addressing this issue, quoting the slogan that has clearly been relayed to him by the writer of the question. Whatever Paul’s personal sexual life might be, he rejects the slogan as not only dangerous, but also the threshold to falling into pornoria. From the question comes some rather astonishing counsel, especially given the cultural context of the day and more, Paul’s deep conviction that Christ’s return will be at any moment, and, therefore, no human relationship will be lasting. Nonetheless, because not to do so will lead to more serious cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his wife—the verb “have” her being less about possession and more about engaging in sexual intercourse with her. But, Paul does not end there! He follows that “each woman [should have] her own husband. In a culture where women were still property, limiting the question to what men should or should not do, thereby making women “non-persons”, Paul makes the point that men and women were made for one another and stand in a relationship of equality within marriage, both have the rights of sexual fulfillment. They must give to one another sexually, what is their right by marriage. And, so unique is this relationship God created that we call marriage, that not only does the wife not have authority over her own body but her husband does (something with which no Corinthian man would disagree), but likewise, no husband has authority over his own body, but the wife does! This is raising the issue of rights in marriage to a level simply, heretofore, unknown. And why? Because both wife and husband belong to Christ and are one in him. So too, their becoming one sexually is another dimension to the gift of that unity that is uniquely their own. Both have been sanctified in Christ; their sexual lives are holy. Therefore, they are not to deprive one another of their sexual life together, except perhaps—and notice the “perhaps?" this is not a commandment—by mutual agreement for a set time, in order to devote themselves to prayer. But even that must have its limits, so that, thereafter, they may again “come together” to fulfill their desires for one another. For if not, the door is wide open for Satan to tempt them using their sexual drives and natures to lead them into pornoria. Paul is quick to acknowledge this is a concession on his part and not a command, given the fact that he is celibate. Given the dynamics of the short time between now and Jesus’ return, he might wish that they were all as he is. Life is less complicated, unconstrained by the other realities that come with marriage that can hinder or make more challenging devotion and service to God. But, those asking the question have not been given the gifts that are his, and among them is the gift of celibacy. Without the gift, the demand of celibacy is not only foolish, it is an open door for Satan to do his work, as the church has often discovered over the years, when it has not been realistic about the human need for sexual expression and fulfillment. And notice, Paul does not treat celibacy as some kind of superior gift, but simply one among many, of which marital sex is also a gift. Having addressed those who are married, Paul will now turn to those in the community who are not.

Mark wants us to know that what follows is not a disassociated excerpt, but still a part of the whole context of what Jesus has been up to that day, which began with him teaching the crowd by the sea from a boat pushed off shore. The line from there, through the parable of the sower, to his comments about teaching in parable as well as revealing to the disciples in secret what they mean and the importance of listening to him all stand in background and help interpret what follows. “On that day when evening had come,” Jesus wants to cross over the sea to the other side in order to leave the crowds behind. The disciples take him with them in the boat and begin the crossing. A great windstorm arises to the point that the boat is about to be swamped, but Jesus is asleep on a cushion in the stern. The disciples awaken him and call on him for help. Does he not care that they are about to go down? Jesus rises and rebukes the wind and the sea, demanding their silence. “Peace, be still!” is prosaic, but what Jesus literally says is “Silence! Put a muzzle on it!” The wind and sea respond as obediently as the demonic spirits have responded. He then turns to them and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” The answer is: no, of course not—not that kind of faith! They still do not understand who he is. But seeing this, they are filled with a combination of fear and awe and begin to ask themselves, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” They are not yet the soil in which the seeds of the kingdom can take deep root. Some rocks need discarding and some thorns uprooting, which will happen as, indeed, it does happen as we follow him.

Posted March 21, 2014
Thursday, March 20, 2014

Daily Readings for Thursday, March 20

Genesis 42:29–38; Psalm 27; 1 Corinthians 6:12–20; Mark 4:21–34

The brothers arrive home and tell Jacob what has happened to them in Egypt, and how the “Lord of the land” spoke harshly to them and accused them of being spies. They denied it, but the Lord of the land would not believe them. They repeat to Jacob what they said to Joseph, and how Joseph demands that they leave one of them with him and return home with their grain, but then bring their youngest brother back to him in Egypt. Then he will know they are not spies but honest men. When that happens, he will release their brother and give them permission to trade in the land. Again, as they empty their sacks, they discover that each one has had his money returned, and now they are further dismayed, but not so much as their father. Jacob tells them that he is the one they have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, Simeon is no more, and now they would take Benjamin also? How is it that all of this has happened to Jacob? Ruben steps forth and offers his own two sons as a pledge that he will return from Egypt with Benjamin. If not, Jacob can kill Ruben’s sons. But Jacob replies, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left, if harm should come to Benjamin on the journey, they propose it would bring Jacob’s grey hairs down to the land of the dead in sorrow. Jacob will not let them return with Benjamin.

Psalm 27 expresses confidence in the presence of the Lord and does so in triumphal language. “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom then shall I fear?” (Sorry, that’s the way I memorized it, and this should be memorized, right after Psalm 23!) The Lord is the strength and stronghold of my life, of whom should I be afraid? Enemies range from “evildoers,” adversaries and foes—all shall stumble and fall because of the Lord’s care. “Even though an army encamps against me, yet, my heart shall not fear.” The imagery of a fearful heart is so true to life when anxiety hits. After one more expression of confidence, the psalm turns more reflective: “One thing have I asked of the Lord and that will I seek after: to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.” This is precisely the same sentiment with which Psalm 23 ends. It goes on to affirm (and perhaps even recall) God’s sheltering care in the day of trouble. The double action of “conceal me in his tent,” and “set me high on a rock” covers the span from shelter when on the run to ultimate triumph over those who pursue. And now the psalm turns victorious and exultant with promises of sacrifice, shouts of joy and songs (psalms) and melodies to the Lord (remember, they were often accompanied by or sung to melodies; not just recited). There is the request for God to hear when he cries, and to answer. Immediately, his heart says to him “Come, seek his face,” and he replies, “Your face Lord, do I seek; do not hide it from me.” Notice the kind of face-to-face intimacy of relationship that is being sought as the psalm pleads not to be turned aside, cast away or forsaken. And then there is the extraordinary confession, “Though my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will not, but will take me up.” There follows the request to be taught the Lord’s ways and to be led on a level path (who of us does not want life without its ups and downs?), and to be kept out of the hands of his adversaries, for false witnesses have arisen against him and are breathing threats of violence. The psalm ends with the wonderful affirmation, “I believe I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living,” and then “wait for the Lord, be strong, let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.” This last phrase, in one form or another, appears some fourteen times in the Old Testament, better than a third of them in the Psalter. The faith of the Psalter, if not all of Scripture, can be summed up as “Waiting for the Lord.” Seeing the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living along with the previous, “the Lord will take me up,” was later seen as a reference to life after death in heaven. Here, in its original setting, it simply means goodness of life lived with and out of the strength of the Lord now, here, in the land of the living.

The Corinthians have clearly heard Paul’s gospel of freedom, and have taken it to excess, declaring for themselves, “All things are lawful for me.” Paul quotes their words back to them, and, without denying their freedom in Christ, makes the point that not all things are beneficial. The word behind beneficial (sumphero) not only means personal benefit, but also that which contributed to the common good. Food, kosher or not, is meant for the stomach just as the stomach was designed to receive and process food, and both will ultimately be destroyed. The body, however, is not meant for fornication. Rather, it is meant for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and by that same power will raise us. Have the Corinthians forgotten that their bodies are joined to Christ and his members? Do they realize what they are doing when they use their bodies in immoral ways, going to prostitutes or engaging in other forms of immoral behavior? They have actually joined the sexual partner to Christ himself in a defiling way, making him one body with her, just as they have become one body with her. As one of my biblical professors somewhat plainly observed when talking about this text, “Sexual intercourse is, after all, more than just screwing around!” There are physical consequences, emotional consequences, and, as Paul makes clear, spiritual consequences. After all, to be joined to Christ is to be one spirit with him. Therefore, the faithful are to shun fornication. It, among all the sins—the majority of which are “outside the body,” is actually a sin against “the body itself.” Here, Paul clearly has two bodies in mind: that of the ones engaged in sexual immorality, but also, the larger temple of God’s Spirit, the church. Few things tear up a congregation like sexual immorality within it. But now, he takes his image of being the temple of the Holy Spirit, initially applied to the whole assembly, and makes is personal. Each and every one joined to Christ in baptism had become a temple in whom God’s Spirit dwells. We are no longer our own. Bought with a price, we are to use our bodies to glorify God. All else is an abuse that not only harms us physically, but is also an abuse and hurtful to God. These are startling words to people who lived in a culture of sexual excess, not unlike the one we live in today. The dynamics attendant to indulging in such excess, whether with a prostitute or just another consenting participant, remain the same—a serious misuse of God’s gift of sexuality. It is harmful to all from God himself, through us, all the way to the “consenting partner.” The church is backing away from this stance in an attempt to be “pastoral” and not appear preoccupied with matters of sex, which simply reveals how poorly we understand sexual dynamics. The warning is for everyone’s sake.

Jesus continues telling his parables, reminding his listeners that no one puts a lighted lamp under a bed or beneath a basket, but on a lamp stand so that its light may be seen. For there is nothing hidden, except to be revealed; and nothing secret that will not come to light. Again, if they have ears, let them listen! In the context of the parable of the master taking the talent from the man who had buried it to give it to the man with five who made five more, he tells them that the measure they give is the measure they will receive and even more will be given to them. To those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. This is followed by the parable of the growing seed: it is scattered by the sower who does little more, night or day, until it grows, stalk, head, and then full grain. Once it reaches its fullness, the sower comes with his sickle and reaps the harvest. And with what shall this kingdom of God he describes with parables be compared? It is like a mustard seed, one of the smallest of all seeds, yet when sown on the ground, grows up to be the greatest of all shrubs and puts forth its branches so that the birds can nest in its shade. And so, with such parables, Mark tells us, Jesus spoke the word to them as they were able to hear. He did not speak to the crowds except in parables. But to his disciples, in private, he explained everything.

Posted March 20, 2014
Wednesdday, March 19, 2014

Daily Readings for Wednesday, March 19

Genesis 42:18–28; Psalm 5; 1 Corinthians 5:9–6:11; Mark 4:1–20

The brothers’ three-day sojourn in Pharaoh’s prison complete, they are brought back to Joseph, who, speaking through an interpreter, tells them what they must do to live. They must leave one of them behind, and the other nine can carry bags of grain back to their households to address the famine, but they must then bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back to Egypt. If they do this, their words will be verified and they shall not die. And so, the brothers agree. Talking to themselves in Joseph’s presence, they confess that this hardship has come upon them because of what they had done to Joseph, and, how, when they saw his anguish and he pleaded with them, they would not listen. Consequently, this anguish has come upon them. At that, Ruben chastises them. Did he not tell them not to wrong the boy; but they would not listen? As a consequence they all have to deal with the reckoning for his blood. They do not know that Joseph understands what they are saying, and overhearing this, he turns away and weeps. Then, he returns to his place among them and selects Simeon, the second oldest of the brothers, and has him bound before their eyes. Joseph then gives orders to fill their bags with grain, but to return every man’s money to his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. And so, they load their donkeys with their grain and depart for Canaan. That evening, when they reach their lodging place, one of the brothers opens his sack to give his donkey fodder and discovers the money has been placed in the top of his sack. Unsure what to make of this, they lose heart and begin to tremble. What is it that God has done to them?

Psalm 5 is more a prophetic sermon than a prayer, the speaker is God and the ones being addressed are those who have come to the temple to worship God through sacrifice. In essence, it says that we cannot substitute sacrifice for right conduct. The psalm is structured like a lawsuit. Initially, God calls on all creation to observe as he judges his people, those who made a covenant with God by sacrifice. Judgment begins by God declaring that he has no need for food and even if he did, all of the animals of the earth are his in the first place. What God desires is a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and paying their vows to him. Even now God promises to deliver those who call upon him. The wicked, on the other hand, are severely rebuked. What right do they think they have by giving lip-service to God’s statutes? They hate God’s discipline and leave his words behind, while making friends with thieves and keeping company with adulterers. Their mouths are filled with evil, even against their own family. Thus far, God has remained silent, and in that silence they have assumed that God was like them—duplicitous, and did not care. But now God is judging them. Mark God’s word or be torn apart—it is as simple as that! Those who bring God a sacrifice of thanksgiving and who walk in God’s ways, honor him. To these, God will show salvation.

Paul had earlier written to the Corinthians (a letter we seem not to have), telling them not to associate with sexually immoral persons, meaning people within the Corinthian church. They took him to mean people beyond the bounds of the church. Consequently, he clarifies himself and tells them to drive out all of the sexually immoral among them, as well as the greedy, the idolatrous, the revilers, the drunkards and the robbers. One wonders who would be left! Not only are they to avoid fellowship with these, they are not even to eat with them. For the judgment Paul is invoking is not on those outside the church—that is God’s job—but on those within it. They are to “Drive out the wicked person from among [them].” He now turns to the settling of disputes among them. It seems that they have been going to Roman courts, suing one another to resolve their differences. Paul is astonished that they take their concerns outside the church. Are there not those among them wise enough to rightly settle these disputes? Then, utilizing the apocalyptic conviction of life in the new age that Christ will bring with him, have they forgotten that, ultimately, they are to be among the saints to whom God will give the responsibility of judging the world? Why, then, are they standing before unbelievers to do so? The very fact that they have such suits is already to their shame. Why not simply be wronged and leave it at that? Rather, in seeking to defend themselves, they themselves have wronged and defrauded others. It is a reminder that seems to have been forgotten in the contemporary church, where congregations, congregants and even pastors have resorted to the civil courts to get their way, and in each case, it ultimately brings shame to the church. Paul then reminds them that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God. They should not be deceived! He then lists a series of these behaviors and reminds them that this is what some of them were before they were washed, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of God. They must not return to their past forms of behavior.

Until now, Mark has only given us short snippets of Jesus’ teaching, but now he gives some extended parables--today, the parable of the sower. The crowds are such now that Jesus cannot sit among them and teach, and so he goes out to the Sea of Galilee and gets into one of his disciple’s boats and begins to teach just a bit off shore as the people sit on the land next to the sea. Calling on them to “Listen,” he tells the parable of a sower who goes forth casting seed in every direction without regard for where it lands. Some seed fell on the path and the birds quickly came and ate it. Some fell on rocky ground without much soil, and though it rose up quickly, when the sun came, it was scorched, and, having no root, withered away. Some seed fell among thorns, and the thorns choked out what grew, so that the seed yielded no grain. Some fell onto good soil, grew, and brought forth grain with an increase of thirty, sixty and a hundred fold. At this Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” The scene now shifts, and Jesus is alone with the twelve who ask him about the parables. Jesus tells them, “To you has been given the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables in order that they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand.” He is quoting Isaiah 6:9-10 in which God foretells the people’s obstinacy. Here, in Mark, the parables mask the truth to all but those given the secrets of the kingdom of God. Jesus then proceeds to explain the parable. The seed is the word, the various forms of soil are those in various states of life, some so hard that it does not sink in and Satan comes and snatches the seed away, some so rocky that the word initially sprouts but never takes root and withers in the heat of the day, some in which it does take root and grow, but is choked out by the concerns of life before it bears fruit, and some in which the word sprouts, takes root, grows and produces a harvest of thirty, sixty and a hundred fold.

Posted March 19, 2014
Tuesday, March 18, ,2014

Daily Readings for Tuesday, March 18

Genesis 42:1–17; Psalm 34; 1 Corinthians 5:1–8; Mark 3:19b–35

Famine has reached the land of Canaan, and Jacob turns to his sons and asks them why they stand around looking at one another rather than doing something about it. Do they not know that there is grain in Egypt? And so, he dispatches them all except the youngest of his sons, Benjamin, Joseph’s brother who was born as their mother Rachel, Jacob’s favorite wife, died. Jacob has a sense that the brothers were behind his loss of Joseph, he will not put Benjamin at that same risk. The ten brothers travel to Egypt and find themselves there among all the other peoples of the world, wanting to buy grain, and to do so, must appear before Joseph. When they do, Joseph recognizes them, though they do now know who he is. Joseph treats them like strangers and is harsh with them, demanding to know where they are from and why they have come. They tell him, from the land of Canaan; they have come to buy grain. Joseph remembers the dream of them bowing down to him and becomes even more harsh, accusing them of being spies who have come to see the “nakedness of the land.” The brothers deny this. They are all sons of one man in Canaan; they are honest, not spies. Again and again, they represent themselves as Joseph’s servants, fulfilling the dream. Still, Joseph accuses them of being spies, which again, they deny. Rather, they are twelve sons of a certain man in Canaan. The youngest son has remained there with their father, while one of their brothers “is no more.” Imagine how those words fell on Joseph’s ears! But Joseph says to them, “It is just as I have said to you, you are spies.” There is only one way to determine if this is true—he will test them. One of them is to return to their father and younger brother and bring the younger brother back while the rest remain in prison, in order that their words may be tested, to determine if there is truth in them or if, in fact, they are truly spies. And Joseph has all of them put in prison for three days.

Psalm 34 is attributed to David, when he feigned madness before king Abimelech so that the king drove David out, allowing David to escape. It is a wisdom psalm built on an acrostic pattern, each new section beginning with a word that begins with the successive letter of the alphabet and focuses on God’s goodness. It uses a number of Hebrew parallelisms, the first phrase making a statement that the second phrase repeats with different language: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall be continually in my mouth.” “O magnified the Lord with me, and let us exalt in his name together.” “Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” These, of course, have been solidly incorporated in the liturgical language of the church as the Psalter was its first prayerbook. The psalm is testimonial through and through: “I sought the Lord, and he answered me…, look to him and be radiant. …. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord.” The young are then summoned to listen and learn the fear of the Lord and what it means for their lives. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in sprit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all. …. The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Paul now turns to some of the other issues in the Corinthian community that are destroying it, beginning with sexual behavior that is immoral, and of a sort that is not even found among the pagans renowned for their sexual libertine behavior. A man is actually living in a sexual relationship with his father’s wife, and the Corinthians have done nothing about it. Just how arrogant can they be? Do they think that anything is permitted? They should be in deep mourning over this, with the man who has done this being removed from the church. Though Paul is absent in body, he is present in spirit, and has already pronounced judgment on the man in the name of the Lord Jesus. Notice that the woman has been assumed powerless in this, as, indeed, in that culture, women were powerless in such matters. As for the man, they are to eject him from their fellowship, and “hand him over to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” Unfortunately, this text was later used in the medieval church to justify all forms of torture, including burning at the stake, the notion being that in burning, the impurities of the flesh were being consumed and removed from the soul, rendering it pure and acceptable so that it could return to God. How easily scripture’s nose can be twisted to fit our own desires. It is one thing to leave someone to Satan to do his work; it is quite another to be Satan’s accomplice in it! All of this has come from their boasting about living now in the fullness of God’s reign where all is permitted—even this. Do they not know that a little yeast leavens the entire batch of dough? This behavior will spread among them if it is not now checked. Therefore, they are to clean out the leaven of their old lives—especially that of the symposium, which was where such sexual libertinism and excess took place—so that they may be a new batch of dough. What seems a throw-away line, “as you really are unleavened,” is anything but that. It is Paul telling them that their behavior reveals that they have yet to be leavened with the yeast of Christ, the paschal lamb who was sacrificed. Here is Paul’s only reference to Jesus’ crucifixion as a new Passover—“Passover lamb” is not the correct translation of pascha. Rather it should be translated, “Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us,” as it is quoted today in many contemporary Eucharistic liturgies before the bread and wine are distributed. Here, Paul is using pascha as shorthand to connect Jesus’s death as a means of redemption, but also to the enactment of a new Passover meal, by which Paul means their Eucharistic assembly, which in Corinth seems to have fallen into the ways and behaviors of the Greek symposium. And so, in very compressed language, Paul is not only affirming a conviction already held in the church, that Christ’s crucifixion is a new Passover and that the Eucharistic meal they share in coming together in worship is God’s new Passover meal. Consequently, they are not to bring the leaven of malice, immorality and evil into that assembly, but the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth that can then be leavened by Christ, as they partake of him in the meal.

Jesus returns home, in all probability, to Capernaum, his base of operations in Galilee. His fame and popularity have spread and people now crowd in upon him and the twelve so that they cannot even eat. When his family learns that he is back at his home, they go out to restrain him. They have heard what some are saying about him: he is demented, and doing the work of the devil. Chief among these are the scribes from Jerusalem who have seen Jesus violating Torah again and again. How can he be from God? But from whence comes his power? It must be the devil. And so, they claim that his exorcisms are being done by none other than Beelzebul, the chief or Lord of the demons. Knowing this, Jesus calls the crowd and challenges the scribe’s notion by telling two parables, one dealing with political realities the other household matters. A kingdom or a house divided against itself cannot stand. If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, casting himself out, then his end has come. Shifting to another metaphor, Jesus says no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder it without first tying up the strong man. But this is precisely what is happening. The demons are not only recognizing Jesus as God’s Son, but responding to Jesus’ superior commands. They come out when commanded to do so and remain silent. Satan is bound, his house is being plundered. Then Jesus adds these formidable words: people will be forgiven whatever blasphemies they utter except those against the Holy Spirit; these can never be forgiven. The scribes’ allegations that he is possessed are true—but not by Satan. He is possessed by the Holy Spirit, and misnaming, and failing to see that is unforgivable. By now his mother and brothers have come, but are unable to get into the house because of the crowd. Standing outside they send word to him. “Outside” here, is more than Mark’s desire to locate them in the geographic landscape. They, too, are on the outside and think he might be demented. Whatever, they have come to take him home. When he is told that his mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking for him, he redefines the nature of family in the kingdom of God. The connection is no longer biological, but rather, those who do the will of God. Looking around at his followers he says, “Here are my mother and my brothers and sisters—those who do the will of God. “Sisters” here is not an editorial gloss to make the text inclusive. The word appears in the Greek and is witness to the fact that there were women among Jesus’ earliest disciples and followers.

Posted March 18, 2014
The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson

Author: The Rev. Dr.       Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012

The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.

© 2014