From Hand Washing to #SyrophoenicianLivesMatter: Mark 7

As human beings we have an annoying trait of complicating what God instructs us to do. This is where Mark 7 begins, but not where it ends. At the start of the chapter it is the Pharisees who are complicating God’s instruction. In fact, Jesus will go on to explain they are doing something even worse.

Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus faces hostility from the religious leaders. It was not just Jesus that the leaders had it in for, Israel had a long tradition of prophets who criticised the status quo and thereby the leaders. In Jesus’ time it was still the case. Many people would announce a new teaching, usually centred on the need for political change. Then they set out to bring truth to power. Some, like Jesus, gave everything in the attempt.

Here, the Pharisees have taken some of God’s instruction (torah) and made an extra burden of tradition to go on top. The Law (torah) required priests to ritually clean their hands. This was an act of grace as it reminded them that when dealing with the Holy God of Israel a clean heart is essential.

Please note that this is not about hand hygiene—though this is the centre of our daily lives at present. As an aside, we might want to have a word with Jesus and his disciples on this count.

The accusation that the disciples have not washed their hands, is a claim that they have not obeyed the extra rules made by the Elders. These rules had been added as a burden on everyone. When you are travelling doing itinerant ministry, is not feasible to carry the necessary dedicated washing cups, pots, and bronze kettles. And Mark’s gospel makes it clear that Jesus liked his disciples to travel light.

Jesus, as a rabbi, is responsible for his disciple’s actions. At this level, the Pharisees are justified in bringing the matter to Jesus. The problem with their case is, however, twofold. Firstly, their motives are dubious. This, however, is not the point that Jesus takes up with them. The second issue is the key one. By focusing on man-made traditions these become a distraction from God himself.

Jesus quotes from Isaiah 29:13:

‘This people honors me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching human precepts as doctrines.’

We must not get self-righteous at this point by spotting what we do without thinking. In my own Baptist tradition, the trinity of words: tradition, doctrine, and ritual are often unspoken and these matters judged as peripheral. We might read what Jesus says about human traditions and then go further than Jesus does.

In quoting from Isaiah, God-sanctioned tradition, Jesus is primarily pointing out that God desires true worship. He wants hearts that are set on him. At the same time, he affirms that doctrine and ritual still have a place. In the New Testament, the disciples and Jesus’ brother, James, affirm both doctrine and ritual. In the case of ritual, we still have cleansing effected baptism, we have Christ’s sacrifice proclaimed in bread and wine, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit through anointing with oil. All these are mandated by Jesus and/or the testimony of the New Testament.

Our Christian tradition makes it easier to see some things than others. Let us not abandon other commandments of God. And Let us remember that working these out requires a framework of tradition, doctrine and ritual.

Things get worse for the Pharisees as Jesus spells out why he has quoted Isaiah. He suggests that their specific traditions get in the way of God’s commands. He mentions the idea of ‘corban‘ in which something could be set apart for God. The specific issues seem to be that some where giving land and wealth, made ‘corban‘, to the religious leaders. In doing so, some then deprived their parents of the support that was their due in old age, according to the Law.

Then Jesus gets to the revolutionary bit. Jesus’s comments about the human heart, our insides, our outsides, and purity is both great teaching, spells out a bigger problem—a problem for everyone.

With reference to our basic bodily functions, Jesus explains that what we eat cannot make us unclean. This even transforms some of the commandments of the Law. This is a trajectory that enables God’s people to eat screech owl and even pig should they wish to. The repercussions of this took years to work out after Jesus death hence the editorial note in verse 19.

The counterpoint to this is that we know a person’s heart by their fruit. There is that horrible list: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. Jesus and the Pharisees are on common ground with this list. They can also agree on its root cause.

Jesus and the Pharisees agreed on ample evidence from the Scriptures that the heart is the underlying problem:

  1. God judges people on the basis of their heart, ‘for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’ (1 Samuel 16:7, NRSV).
  2. The law acknowledges the problem of the uncircumcised heart (Leviticus 26:41).
  3. Proverbs 20:9 puts the issue as a rhetorical question: “Who can say, “I have made my heart clean; I am pure from my sin”?”

Why does he tell them what they already know? The problem is that human effort, via traditions, cannot deal with the sinful heart that we each have. Not even God’s commandments can do this. They might be a helpful bandage or provide palliative care, but they do not deal with a sinful heart. This is a bigger problem than ritual impurity over the lack of hand-washing.

Jesus does not address the problem in this encounter with the Pharisees. Remarkably in the next episode in Mark’s gospel it is a Syrophoenician women—yes, a Gentile—that perceives that Jesus is the at the centre of a game changing solution to this conundrum.

Here we enter someone’s home, the details are left out by Mark. Presumably, this is a house where Jesus has been able to get peace and quiet previously—a safe house. But his effort to get some downtime has not worked. A Syrophoenician woman gate-crashes his rest. This is a bold and desperate move; Gentiles don’t barge into Jewish homes to address a Jewish Rabbi.

It is the hope that Jesus can work a miracle that has driven her to do the unthinkable. She begs Jesus to cast a demon out of her absent daughter, left suffering at home. So far so good, our sensibilities have not been ruffled even if those of polite Jewish society have.

And then we wake up because our Lord and Saviour, our role model for life, the sinless one, the man who has just preached that we are all judged by what comes from our mouths, makes what could be understood as a racial slur. Jesus implies the common label of Gentiles as dogs in what he says to his woman. So offensive is this episode that Luke misses it out of his gospel written to a Gentile audience. 

In this tricky saying, Jesus explains that his ministry has been essentially to the Jews, and only in passing to the Gentiles. In this way, Jesus’ ministry is food for the children of Israel, and not food for Gentiles.

Are you feeling uncomfortable? Are we going to have to have take down any statues of Jesus and crosses that commemorate his death and resurrection, in a #SyrophoencianLivesMatter rampage? Is Jesus being racist?

We will of course never know Jesus’ tone, his demeanour, the possible twinkle in his eye when he said these words. What we do know is that despite alluding to the labelling of Gentiles as dogs, standard practice in his culture, his statement elicits the most remarkable response from this woman:

“Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

In this brief exchange and based on the knowledge of Jesus that brought her to a strange Jewish house, she has understood what the Pharisees with all their hand-wringing and hand-washing have missed. She has seen that Jesus’ work starts with Jews but is the hope of all humanity. She is pleading that this might begin right here and right now with her daughter. Her faith and courage are rewarded:

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.

This remarkable new understanding of Jesus’ work is the start of Mark’s Gospel revealing that he in his deeds and his person he will address the bigger problem of the heart. Both Jew and Gentile will have the possibility of a circumcised heart as Leviticus puts it.

Perceiving, Proclaiming and Partaking of the Cross

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’   Mark 8:31–33

1. Perceiving the Cross

I have lost count of the number of times I have correctly predicted the future. Please don’t be anxious this is not a claim to be a clairvoyant or a confession of divination. Simply the acknowledgement that I am a parent.

I recall all three of my children running around in circles in our house. My words proclaimed wisely: “If you don’t calm down someone’s going to get hurt”. The sentence was barely finished and we were weighing-up whether go to take a child to hospital, as a swelling grew before our eyes on their forehead.

I also recall making the comment: “If you drag him round by his arms like that you will dislocate something”. The uncontrollable crying was only silenced two hours later in hospital as a doctor fixed an elbow joint with a dull click.

More recently by knowledge of the world had me observe: “If you keep kicking the ball that hard you’ll break a pane of glass in the greenhouse”. This time I hadn’t quite foreseen what would happen. There were three broken panes.

This is no prescience, or anything unnatural, this is cause and effect. Years of observing how the world works and inferring what will happen next. This is what the Bible calls wisdom. Jesus has often been labelled as a Sage, a biblical wise man in the tradition of Solomon and in the tradition of the Books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job. Many of his words recorded in the gospels echo the wise way of looking at the world and at life, for example:

And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.   Matthew 6:28–29

As Jesus discovered his mission, to preach and teach about God’s Kingdom, and grew in his understanding of the scope of what he was doing and teaching; as he realised he was the Son, as he worked out what this meant—he didn’t need to be the wisest sage to put two and two together—to realise he would come into massive conflict with the authorities.

As hostility grew with the religious leaders, to his words and deeds, it would have become painfully clear to Jesus that there was not going to be a happy conclusion to his ministry on earth.

As the best teacher of his day, as the wisest sage, as the most remarkable worker of miracles he was not destined to become ‘Professor of the Kingdom’, at the University of Jerusalem, but rather he was so bugging the scribes, the elders, the chief priests, that a conflict was inevitable. And when the Romans eventually noticed, well, others had done less—and been less—and been silenced by execution.

In this way Jesus perceived that death was the outcome of his words and actions. But wisdom and reason only get anyone so far. Although Jesus gave up the attributes of deity prior to his Incarnation, as a man he was still able to receive from God—he was still able to experience revelation.

That he was not only proclaiming a message but was the message, didn’t come from being wise—this could only come from revelation.

Whilst reason pointed to his death at the hands of Jews and Romans in an unholy alliance to silence an inconvenient truth, only revelation can point to the significance of that death. Human wisdom points to cause and effect. It is only revelation that can truly explain.

And it was a vicious cycle as Jesus recognised who he was—Son of God and Messiah—so he upset the authorities more and more. There was an inevitability that he would die because of his words and deeds. Our passage does not mention the cross. We read this back into this episode. But Jesus was probably all too aware of the likely nature of his death.

As Jesus wrestled with God the Father in prayer; perhaps in those profound moments of baptism and transfiguration, he received an answer:

the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again

 Through wisdom Jesus saw his death; through revelation he understood its significance and glimpsed resurrection too.

2. Proclaiming the Cross

As Jesus understood his death and resurrection—as he reasoned and as God revealed—he became the first to proclaim the cross. And what a result. If healing, miracles and inspired preaching caused hostility, the preaching of the cross inspired disbelief and fear. So off-the-mark is Peter that Jesus sees the hand of the deceiver, of Satan, at work.

From Peter’s perspective, so unwelcome and so unexpected was Jesus’ proclamation that he simply saw it as wrong. In his mind it went again everything he had learnt. That your Rabbi should die would surely mean they were a failed teacher. That a Messiah should die was unthinkable. It did not stand to reason. Jesus’ death as Son of God, as Messiah requires new knowledge—revelation, first to Jesus, then to the Jews and then to the Gentiles.

Peter was so bewildered by the thought of Jesus’ death, that in all likelihood he couldn’t see beyond this to remotely comprehend Jesus rising again.

Jesus, of course, had to start with his disciples—a constant education by drip-feeding information. They might not understand his death and resurrection before they happened, but they needed to afterwards.

The drip-feed education is seen in two further episodes in Mark, for example in the second one we read:

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, ‘The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.   Mark 9:30–32

The thought of Death and Resurrection caused Peter to disbelieve and to fear. The proclamation of Jesus’ death and resurrection always has a result. Its meaning provokes response. Disbelief is perhaps the normal first response. Fear is perhaps the natural step beyond disbelief. An emotional response of fear is a belief of sorts.

We can expect similar responses as we share the gospel. Some will simply disbelieve. Some will make a more significant move and be fearful. Such people are only a hair-breadth away from the belief that inspires fear to the belief that inspires faith.

3. Partaking of the Cross

The disciples journeyed with Jesus, but they were also on a different sort of journey—a journey of discovery as to who Jesus was. This journey can only end when the significance of both his death and resurrection are understood. The disciples had already partaken of the First Covenant—they were circumcised—and each year they remembered the Covenant during Passover. Each and every Sabbath they heard the Law of the Covenant read. This First Covenant came as Revelation, as God revealed himself in mighty acts and in his Word. The disciples needed fresh revelation to understand the New Covenant. They had partaken of a First Covenant that knew its foundation in the blood of a lamb. They were soon to experience the Last Supper at Passover.

The disciples some forty, or so, days after that Passover would understand John’s baptism afresh in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection. They would understand that baptism marked the start of partaking in the gospel. A step into water, being submerged and coming up out of the water, marks the journey from old life to new life. It marks the entry into a new covenant with God.

Hearing the gospel is a way of receiving the gospel, of receiving grace. Sharing bread and wine is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace. Being baptised in water as obedience to Jesus; being baptised by Spirit by the laying of hands, such a baptism is a way of receiving the gospel and receiving grace.

We would do well to remember that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a self-help gospel. The good news of new life only comes through grace—through God’s undeserved favour. Representing the Gospel as a lifestyle choice—a self-help gospel—like all the other lifestyle choices is one of the reasons for the frailty of the Western Church.

In the film ‘Saving Private Ryan’, Captain Miller and others, give their lives, as the film’s title reveals, to save private Ryan from death in combat. As Miller dies, having given his own life, he tells Private Ryan to “Earn this”.

In contrast, the cross does not speak of earning. We cannot earn it, we can only receive it. We can partake, in what is a remarkable gift of new covenant, new relationship, new life. The normal Christian birth comes, first through hearing the Word, then through baptism in Spirit and Water, and then is regularly renewed, remembered and celebrated through Bread and Wine.

So, carry on receiving this gospel—listen, be filled, be cleansed, be fed—imbibe the very water of life. All these things are what it means to perceive the cross, proclaim the cross and partake of the cross.

 

Jesus is Baptised — Mark 1:1–11 

Introduction: Jesus in 4-D

On the 28th August 1989 the band Depeche Mode released a song called Personal Jesus. I personally think it’s a great song. If you like 1980s music you might well agree. However, it does not make for good theology. In fact, it inadvertently acts as a critique of other bad theology. A close analysis of the lyrics implies that Jesus is essentially just a therapist and not a lot more. The singer-poet implies that they could be both lover and therapist—the implication is that Jesus might be good therapist, but the singing lover will be a better one.

One of the biggest problems in faith, as well as theology, is that we have a terrifying tendency to make Jesus into a reflection of ourselves and/or to caricature him. Professional theologians and believers in general both have this ability of taking the God-Man Jesus and making him into their own ‘personal Jesus’—seeing him in 1-D, or at best 2-D. In this way, the most remarkable person in all history is neatly labelled, categorised and at the same time emptied of his enormous depth and substance.

Church History and history at large have countless examples. Here are just three:

  1. Nineteenth-century German liberal theologians saw Jesus as a liberal pedlar of timeless truths emptied of his Jewishness.
  2. Some Marxist Liberation theologians look to Jesus and see a Marxist revolutionary.
  3. Margaret Thatcher famously looked at Jesus and saw a proponent of Thatcherite economics.

The wrong Jesus means the wrong gospel, and the wrong gospel is simply not Good News. Seeing Jesus in 1-D supports lifestyles, politics, worship and faith, all contrary to the Good News. The wrong Jesus obscures the best news. The very real danger is that we lose the Good News about the creator’s action for us and obscure it with a Jesus of our creation. In creating our own personal Jesus we can prevent the possibility of genuine personal relationship with the Father through Jesus.

One way to address this problem is to turn to the four New Testament gospels. To attempt to see Jesus afresh as those first witnesses report. To see Jesus in 4-D. This reflection is just one small contribution to this aim.

Mark and Jesus’ Baptism

Mark’s gospel is the shortest of the canonical gospels. Most of its verses are found in the other two Synoptic Gospels: Matthew and Luke. In terms of content it does not add much to the accounts of Matthew and Luke. So why worry about Mark’s Gospel? Why even bother? Can’t we just cut out the unique bits and paste them as an appendix to Matthew and Luke? Or how about making a single bigger gospel? As great a theologian as John Calvin did just this in his epic commentary on the Synoptics: A Harmony of the Gospels.

If we think this is a good idea we are, I think, missing a major point of why there are four gospels included in Scripture. Mark has a ‘story’ to tell and a ‘biography’ to unfold. Jesus’ life, his ministry, his death, his resurrection and his significance are beyond one human’s capacity to capture. Mark makes a contribution equal to that of the other gospel writers. Despite being shorter he has captured and presented a unique account of the remarkable nature of Jesus in his own God-authorised way.

Mark’s account is a gospel of phenomenal pace and dynamism, as well as having been shaped so that the episodes and events emphasise Mark’s understanding of Jesus. This account probably served as The Gospel for one of the earliest Christian churches—it was all they had for perhaps a decade or two. We are privileged to have all four authorised ‘biographies’ of Jesus.

I would encourage you to make time to encounter each gospel over the next three months. Reading Mark’s gospel at a gentle pace takes just under two hours—this is the length of a typical film or four episodes of a soap opera. Why not get it as an audio book for freshness?

Mark makes much of three key events in the life of Jesus: his baptism, his transfiguration and his crucifixion.1 Mark even appears to make deliberately links between the three events. Here at his baptism, for example, the heavens are ‘torn open’ and a dove descends. At the transfiguration his garments turn white and a cloud descends. Whilst at his crucifixion the sanctuary curtain is torn and darkness descends.

At his baptism of Jesus, a voice from heaven is heard, at the transfiguration a voice is heard from the cloud and at the crucifixion Jesus’ own loud voice is heard.

As Jesus is baptised God says “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased”, during the transfiguration God says “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” and during his crucifixion it is said that “Surely this man was the Son of God!”.

John the Baptist plays the role of Elijah at the baptism (the camel’s hair and belt give it away), Jesus is joined by Elijah on the mount of transfiguration and Jesus is thought, by some, to be calling to Elijah as he is crucified.

The baptism, transfiguration and crucifixion are for Mark the central points of revelation—they reveal his gospel to be the:

“good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God”

 As he stated at the very outset.

John the Baptiser

The return of Elijah had become a mainstream Jewish hope by the time of Jesus. And Mark echoes the description of Elijah from 2 Kings 1:8. Mark picks up specifically on the hope that Elijah, or a new Elijah, would prepare the way for the Messiah. John the Baptist was a proponent, as his name suggests, of baptism. The very word baptism, is for us, rich in meaning and we see it as a religious word, the carrying out of a religious rite whether by immersion in water or by sprinkling of water during infant baptism or Christening.

But those hearing the call to be baptised and seeing other people baptised were seeing something new—we know that there was a Jewish renewal movement who practiced ritual bathing, the Essenes who were the owners of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But their practice was for the community and was a repeated ritual. Some scholars think John might have been one of these Essenes. But John is doing something different in his call to baptism. The word baptism was a normal everyday word, simply meaning being submerged or being drenched in water.

John the Baptist, as Mark makes clear started something—he initiated a call to baptism as a testimony to a decision of repentance and renewal of faith. He prepared the way by proclaiming the forgiveness of sins. He is part of the old order—he preaches forgiveness under the old covenant. He is also a bridge between old and new. A bridge between Torah and Gospel. Just as John heralds Jesus, so Jesus heralds good news. The first we hear of this good news is some continuity. Jesus also promotes baptism and he also teaches forgiveness of sins.

Jesus the Baptiser

But when someone is a bridge there is not only continuity there is also newness. There is startling newness encountered here in Mark’s story of Jesus. It might not sound new to us, but the way in which Jesus fulfilled the messianic hope was remarkable. This is the reason why so many did no instantly believe this message of good news.

The truth of Jesus’ message was not enough to start Christianity. The veracity of Mark’s account and the other gospels was not enough. The Holy Spirit that Jesus baptised with at Pentecost, and subsequently, was the powerhouse that enabled the journey of the Good News of forgiveness from 12, to 120, to 2000, and to the ends of the earth.

The forgiveness of sins is of course not just something that Jesus talks about, it is something that he achieves in his very actions—in his life, his ministry, his death and his resurrection. What John promises is not just a present opportunity for water baptism, but that the Messiah bringing an extra dimension to baptism. John was only too aware that he baptised with water—just good old H2O, with a few impurities no doubt, from the river Jordan. But the one he was preparing the way for would baptise in Holy Spirit.

In much of the New Testament it is not always clear whether baptism refers to water or the Holy Spirit. In early Christian thinking the two merged into one—water baptism and Spirit baptism are both expected early steps in Christian initiation and discipleship—two sides of the same early experience of faith and the encounter with Jesus in 4-D.

Christians have disagreed on what Spirit baptism means, for example whether it must be accompanied by speaking in tongues, prophecy or some other manifestation. Most Pentecostals teach a two-stage process as normal where Spirit baptism is normally a so-called second blessing after the receiving of the Spirit as a seal for salvation. Others see, at least ideally, a single stage.

Whether it be a quiet sense of inner peace, a warm inward glow, speaking in other tongues or something even more dramatic, such work and experience of the Spirit is part of what it means to follow a Jesus who baptises in Spirit. We must remember that we can’t invoke the Holy Spirit. God’s action by his Spirit is not dependent on us. Unfortunately, what we can do is quench his work.

The best ways of avoiding quenching the Spirit and to be in the place of God moving by his Spirit are to look to holiness, prayer, repentance, obedience and Scripture. The Church and our faith are served best when our lives are open to both receiving God’s word and receiving God’s Holy Spirit. For God the Father works in his creation continually by his two hands, the 4-D Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

 

Reference

  1. I am indebted to Ched Myers’s unique commentary, Binding the Strong Man, Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988, for this helpful point.