Year B, Proper 27, RCL
November 8, 2009
Every so often, TV shows, mostly those with running plot-lines, like Desperate Housewives or The Big Bang Theory, will have an entire episode that doesn’t advance the plot, but really just tells you where they’ve been the past few months or weeks on the show. Have you seen one of these? They are called re-caps, and they are typically positioned as a set up to really big episode that is coming up. It serves to refresh your memory before some mid-season cliff-hanger.
I want us to have a bit of a re-cap with our Gospel lessons from the past several weeks, lets say, going back to the end of September. These lessons have been a roller coaster of teachings from Jesus, sometimes comforting and reassuring, sometimes they are difficult to hear. Since the first Sunday after Pentecost, we’ve been hearing, week-by-week, Mark’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Mark took a vacation in August, and we heard from John’s Gospel. Other than those few weeks, and last Sunday because it was All Saints Day, we’ve been hanging with Mark since the first Sunday of June.
So in case you don’t remember or weren’t here (and that’s OK, we weren’t taking roll), let’s recap what we’ve heard from the Gospel of Mark the past several weeks:
September 27th—We heard Jesus tell his disciples that it’s OK for other people to do ministry in his name, that no one has exclusive rights to proclaiming the Good News of Christ to the people. He immediately tells his followers (that’s us, too, by the way) to pluck out an eye ball, cut off a hand and cut off a foot because it would be better to go through life lame than to have all of our appendages and go to hell, a directive from Jesus that left his disciples thinking, “Wait. What?”
October 4th—We heard Jesus’ teaching on divorce, a difficult passage that has made many squirm in their seat, and a response that likely left the Pharisees without a rebuttal. But then we hear Jesus rebuking the disciples from blocking children who were coming to see him. “For it is such as these who are considered worthless in our society that the kingdom of God truly belongs.” Both episodes can be difficult to hear, although the part with the children tends to make us feel a little warm and fuzzy.
October 11th—The famous story of the rich man who has kept the commandments all his life (that would be the Big 10 that Moses came down the mountain with). He goes away shocked and grieving (scripture tells us) when Jesus tells him to give away all he has to the poor. And remember that the disciples, led by Peter, say, “Look, we’ve have left everything to follow you.” Jesus reminds them whoever leaves all these things behind will receive a hundred fold when they come into God’s glory. But Jesus says, the first must be last and the last must be first.
October 18th—James and John, the sons of Zebedee, ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left, leaving the rest of the disciples fuming that those two fellas thought they were so special. So Jesus reminds them all that they must serve one another. The passage from that Sunday ends with Jesus foreshadowing his crucifixion by saying, “for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” It is the second week in a row that we hear Jesus say that the first must be last and the last must be first.
Two weeks ago, on October 25th, we heard the story of the healing of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. The upside is that Jesus calls Bartimaeus close to him, Bartimaeus says, “I want to see,” and Jesus heals him. Bartimaeus follows Jesus along the way. The downside, we would discover if we kept reading, is that Bartimaeus is following Jesus into Jerusalem, where he will be crucified in a matter of days.
Had last week’s passage from Mark not been properly usurped by the All Saints Day lessons, we would have heard what might be the most encouraging and enlightening conversation with Jesus in all of Mark’s Gospel. A Scribe, someone who is not, by all accounts, a follower of Jesus, approaches Him, after seeing how well he has answered the questions of his disciples, and says, “Which commandment is the most important?” Jesus goes directly to the heart of Jewish worship and says, “Shma, Yisrael, Adoni elohenu, Adoni ehad. Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” Jesus then says that to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as our self is the cornerstone of the law. The scribe agrees with Jesus’ assessment and even says that these things are far more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices, to which Jesus replies, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”
This week’s Gospel lesson makes up in tough news what last week’s lacked. So let’s go there in our mind’s eye. I want to invite you to imagine what the scene looked like (close your eyes, even, if you are comfortable). It’s Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding on the back of a colt, with cloaks and palm fronds on the streets. He has run the money changers out of the Temple, and told the parable of the wicked tenants. He has given the “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” talk, and gone toe-to-toe with the Sadducees about what Resurrection means. We don’t know what day of the week this is, but we know it is before he celebrates the Passover dinner with the Disciples. So here is Jesus, sitting in the Temple, having been tested and grilled, and been in the cross-hairs of the Temple leaders, and he says these words about those same Temple leaders.
What do you think Jesus’ tone of voice is when he’s saying all of that? Was he shouting a pronouncement or was he subtly talking to his disciples? Was he sad? Angry? Snide? How are his eyes set? Where is he looking? What was the response by those around him?
The next scene with the widow putting her last penny into the treasury is often seen as a great example of stewardship and what Jesus really requires of us. But on the heels of saying that the scribes devour widow’s houses, is it still such a feel-good, inspiring moment? Or is it a continuation of his condemnation of the temple leadership?
One of my favorite images is of Jesus is the one that came, I believe, out of the 1960s, and is called the Laughing Jesus, and it is a profile-angle painting, with Jesus’ head cocked back, looking up towards the sky, with an expression that would suggest he’d just heard the funniest thing in a long time. That’s not the Jesus we’ve seen in our Gospels the past few several weeks. We’ve seen a Jesus who calls us to make tough choices. We’ve seen a Jesus who is demanding that we respect the dignity of every human being. We have a picture of a Jesus who puts us at a loss of words when it comes to his teachings. This is not the same picture of Jesus we have in, say, Matthew’s Gospel, where he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” and “Come to me all who are weary and carrying heavy burdens.”
While most of us would rather hang out with the Laughing Jesus or the Jesus who told the scribe that he wasn’t far from the kingdom of God, we, myself included, need to be reminded that its those words and statements that seem harsh, that seem like Jesus isn’t being loving or caring, that in those words, Jesus is calling us to our better selves, showing us a better way, that Jesus is begging us to remember that we are God’s beloved children, which means that we are meant for good, we are meant to be reconciled with God. If we didn’t need to hear that call, if we didn’t need that reminder, then the Word would not have been made flesh.
The reality is that we do need to hear those seemingly harsh words, to remember that sometimes WE are the scribes. Sometimes we are the ones who think we deserve to sit the closest to Jesus. Sometimes it is easier to think about ourselves than to love our neighbor. And none of us are able to constantly love God the way we should. We can wallow in that, we can give up on the goal, or we can choose to be renewed by the chance everyday to love God and neighbor a little bit more than we did yesterday.
Jesus is showing us something different, calling us to put the least among us first, calling us to look beyond ourselves so that he might increase and the kingdom of God might come to fruition right here on earth. As we approach the start of Advent, I hope we will continue to wrestle with these roller coaster teachings from Jesus, opening our hearts and minds to better love God and our neighbor.