The Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:17-31) – #BigRead12

So one day a rich young man falls on his knees before Jesus and asks what he needs to do to inherit eternal life.

“Well, you know the commandments,” says Jesus before listing them.

Only that’s the interesting thing. He doesn’t list all of them. After all, everyone knows there are Ten Commandments, so why does Jesus only list six?

This story is as much about what’s left unsaid. Go to Exodus 20 where the Ten Commandments first appear and there, partially, is Jesus’s list. However, he seems to have replaced “do not covet your neighbour’s possessions” with “do not defraud people” (which is a key part of the Jewish Law, but not one of the Ten).

Effectively, once we untangle Jesus’s list, the rich young man has actually only kept five of the commandments. One of them we’ve touched upon – do not covet. Maybe this guy’s wealth has been getting in the way of that one. Maybe he’s been looking around at his fellow socialites and power-brokers, seen their fancy houses, their fine clothes…

It seems a shame to think this way – the fact is, when he begs to know what he needs to do to get eternal life, he seems 100% sincere. Jesus doesn’t verbally smack him down like he does hypocritical Pharisees, he respects this young man enough to make his point fairly subtly, for now at least. But something’s wrong here, the young man is missing the point fairly spectacularly.

That point is seen in the four commandments Jesus omitted – Don’t worship other gods, don’t make idols, don’t misuse the name of God, observe the Sabbath. In short, all the Commandments covering how humanity should relate to God. Jesus seems to be implying that the man’s relationship with God isn’t what it should be.

The young man doesn’t pick up on this – “I’ve kept all those since I was a little boy!”

“Okay,” says Jesus, “Now you need to sell everything and give it to the poor.”

Boom. This is the nuclear option. Because this is the line that makes the young man walk away, leaving both him and Jesus saddened. His relationship with God isn’t what it should be because his money and possessions are getting in the way, to the point that they’re making him break the Commandments about idolatry. His money has become his god and he hasn’t even realised it.

That’s challenging. It’s fairly easy to not bow down in front of a golden calf. It’s stuff like money and career and power that are more insidious, pushing God off his throne without us even noticing. It’s scary stuff.

And it’s not only scary because of that, although that’s bad enough. It’s scary because, when the young man and Jesus talk about eternal life, they’re not talking about what happens when we die, we’re talking about what happens when God’s kingdom comes and is established on Earth. The young man was seeing that as some future event, but that’s not how Jesus saw it – his ministry and his imminent death on the cross were already inaugerating that kingdom. It was already there and it’s already here – not fully consolidated, sure, but here all the same. God’s work, God’s power are breaking through, changing lives, bringing resurrection in a whole variety of situations. Part of that involved feeding the hungry and making sure the poor were looked after.

The young man wanted to inherit eternal life by entering God’s kingdom at some point. What he didn’t realise that this wasn’t going to be in the future, this was now, and so him selling his possessions and giving to the poor would have been him helping to inaugerate the kingdom there and then. There were poor people in his community who needed that help.

And yet he couldn’t do it. He may well have seen his money as a reward from God for all his years of trying to keep the Law, but he’d missed the point. He was blessed to be a blessing, but his part in this chain had fallen apart.

Jesus goes on to talk about how wealth and power can get in the way of us entering the kingdom, but let’s watch the young man walk away. He thought he’d been keeping the Law, loyally following God for years. And yet he hadn’t. Judging by Jesus’s list he’d barely managed 50%. We all fall short of the glory.

And that’s something that God understands – that’s why grace is so important. But we need to acknowledge we need that grace, to realise that, no matter how sorted we seem to be, there’s always the possibility that something’s creeping in between us and God.

I like to think the rich young man looked at himself in a mirror and changed his ways after this encounter (I know someone who has a theory he might have been St. Paul…), but we never find out. We leave him walking away from Jesus, sad looks all round and an unspoken challenge for us all in every retreating footstep.

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Reclaiming a Gentle Jesus? (Matthew 11:20-30)

There seems to have been a bit of a trend in Christian circles over recent years. It’s an odd trend if I’m being honest, one that I can understand the roots of but which still seems a bit… I dunno, extreme? Wish fulfilment?

The trend is that of the badass Jesus.

See, there are those, mainly manly men, who are reacting against the stereotype of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild’. Jesus wasn’t like that, they say; he threw money lenders out of the Temple with a whip, he went toe-to-toe with authorities, he terrified the forces of evil. And yet here we are, living in a culture where you can buy pictures of Jesus looking like shiny blond hippy in a bedsheet.

This has therefore been replaced with another Jesus, a more masculine figure, one who looks like an outdoorsy carpenter. Someone you could imagine following to the Cross. Problem is, this can go too far and you end up with another straw man, this time Jesus as Chuck Norris, ready to roundhouse kick sinners in the face. Also, it seems to involve holding swords and quoting Braveheart a lot.

So which one is the true Jesus?

Well, look at Matthew 11:20-30. It starts off with the badass version – Jesus proclaiming woes and destruction on cities that had seen miracles but still rejected him. That’s the sort of Jesus some people like – you step out of line, you suffer the consequences. You’re saved only because of the Cross, and don’t you forget it.

But then it goes straight into “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is the gentle Jesus, the one who’ll help you and listen to you and share your burdens – a friend as opposed to a commanding officer.

Those verses pretty much sit next to each other in the Bible. Hmm.

Part of it is a wider crisis of masculinity within the church, I think – some of the words used, like ‘cissy’ point to something more than simply wanting to claim the tougher parts of Jesus’s ministry. After all, has anyone really seen Jesus as being weak? The guy walked a path that inevitably led to crucifixion, that’s not weakness by any stretch of the imagination. And gentleness and toughness aren’t mutually exclusive.

But here’s the thing – too often we try to put Jesus into a box. “He’s badass!” “No he’s not, he’s nice!” We want him to fit our preconceptions – if we want to wave swords around then we like a jesus who kicks butt; if we’re uncomfortable with that, we might prefer the Jesus who’d make a great babysitter. Neither of these are the whole story, of course, but they serve to make Jesus a comfortable figure.

And that’s the problem. These sort of things deny Jesus the complexity of even the average human being, let alone the one person who was both human and divine. I’m willing to bet even cage fighting champions smile at giggling babies, so why do we deny Jesus that complexity?

So yeah, Jesus was strong and tough. He got into (verbal) fights; he endured torture and nails through his hands.

And Jesus was gentle. He welcomed children, he cried publically when his friend died, he spoke kindly to outsiders.

He could hang out with former terrorists like Simon the Zealot; he also made his first resurrection appearance to a woman who was unlikely to have been believed when she ran home brimming over with the news.

And when talking about strength, Jesus wasn’t always big on the world’s strength – power is found in weakness, kingship in servanthood, an upside down kingdom of heaven. Who knows what badassery looks like in that sort of world?

When it comes down to it, Jesus is complicated. That’s my only real problem with the WWJD? trend from a few years back – What Would Jesus Do? Often it was the unexpected, because he doesn’t fit our stereotypes and preconceptions and agendas. When people asked him if he paid the Temple tax, he pulled the money out of a fish. I bet no-one saw that coming.

Jesus is tough. Jesus is gentle. Jesus is God, and Man, and, far from being a caricature, Jesus is complicated. To treat him as any less attempts to diminsh someone who is far too big to ever, ever hide in a box.

 

The Temptation Of The Christian Blogger

So you’ve written a blog post, and although you know you shouldn’t, although you know that what matters is that you’re writing, that you’re finding your voice, that you’re doing this for you and, hopefully, God, you still can’t help but look at your statistics page…

It’s a temptation for any blogger. I’ll admit that I’m far, far more stats obsessed with my other blog; here I’m basically typing up the notes of my Bible study and hoping that they might be of some use to others, whereas Geeks Shall Inherit The Earth is far more of a blogging-for-blogging’s-sake project (so it gets frustrating when so many people show up there just looking for the lyrics to ‘I Am The Music Man’).

All of which is very high-minded, but all the same, it’s nice to know that you’ve got an audience to communicate this stuff to. Unfortunately that gives rise to insecurity.

Take yesterday, for instance. At first glance I had one of my best days in terms in statistics. All well and good until I looked at it closely and found that I’d had 11 visits from the Republic of Tanzania, a country from which I’ve never received traffic before. That sort of anomaly stokes my paranoia – it would be great to think that I’d been quoted somewhere in Tanzania and that 11 people were enjoying my blog, all within a few minutes of each other, but my cynicism kicks in – was it an attempt to attack my blog? Was it spam? Did someone spill Pepsi into one of the servers?

That’s the thing with blogging. You never know how many real people you’re talking to as opposed to spam robots, especially as that could mean that no-one’s reading some of your posts. That’s why comments, even something as simple as “Great post!” or “You suck!”, are important. At least you know someone’s out there.

This is less of a problem with preaching. I’m doing the Methodist Church’s ‘Faith and Worship’ course, and so far people have been really nice, coming up to me after the service and engaging with what has been said. And no-one’s said “You suck!”, which is nice. Sure, you might deliver an apocalyptically bad sermon, but at least you know that the congregation are real and physically in the room with you. That chat with a preacher at the end of a sermon can be an enormous encouragement, even for someone like me who isn’t much of a chatter – I tend to veer between taciturn and verbal diarrhoea.  

Okay, let’s not be naive – some of this stuff grows out of ego. It’s human nature. We like to be appreciated and like to hear we’re appreciated. And the flipside of this is that we can be bad at expressing that appreciation, because you get busy after the sermon and you miss thanking the preacher, or you read a blog on your smartphone and the commenting software doesn’t work, or you’re sneaking a read of an article while doing thirty other things, or…

That’s the paradox isn’t it? We like to be appreciated but we’re not always great at showing appreciation to others. Here I am, holding my hands up to that.

But there’s another side to this for Christian Bloggers (note the capital letters). There’s a drive, a passion, a calling to communicate something of God out there in the blogosphere and we want that to be heard, not because of ego but because, well, we want to talk about God and there’s no point preaching to an empty church. I don’t care how advanced artificial intelligence is getting, no-one’s ever spoken into the spiritual life of a spambot.

And so these are issues, yes, but God has a way of teaching us lessons through our issues. Here are the lessons he’s been trying to get through to often-unresponsive me:

1. If you’re doing this for God, then he’s your chief audience. It doesn’t matter if the majority of your audience turns out to belong to Skynet, you’re writing this for God. And that means striving for excellence and honesty and concentrating on what God’s saying to you through your writing. Because not only is God your most important audience, if he’s blessing your writing, if he’s speaking through it and inspiring it, then the other chief audience for your blog is you. Because sometimes the message that needs to be communicated isn’t aimed at someone in a cybercafé in downtown Tokyo, it’s aimed at the person actually writing it. If God can be a co-pilot, he can also be a co-writer.

2. One of the ‘life verses’ for bloggers should be Isaiah 55:10-11, which says that God’s word “…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Even when we feel like we’re banging our heads off our monitors, contemplating with despair the vast and empty wilderness of our patch of cyberspace, we need to trust that, if God’s put this love of blogging in our hearts, it’ll achieve the purposes he (and not necessarily we) wants it to achieve. And maybe the posts that don’t get an immediate response aren’t ready for it yet, or are teaching us humility, or, worst case scenario, include stuff that needs to be ignored. In this sense it’s the same with any communicative ministry – get the words out there and let God do the rest because he knows what he’s doing.

But that still won’t stop me looking at my stats page… 😉

 

The Young Man Who Runs Away (Mark 14:51-52) – #BigRead12

And so Jesus is being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Temple police have shown up, armed to the teeth, Judas has carried out the most infamous act of betrayal in history, and the disciples have fled. Hundreds of sermons have been preached on this, because this is moment the cross really starts to cast its shadow, the moment that Easter begins.

And yet there are a couple of verses that, while fitting the narrative without a problem, stick out like a sore thumb:

“A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”

 Everything crashes down from the epic themes of treason, cowardice, non-violence and injustice to this, an anonymous young man slipping out of his shirt to escape arrest.

On the one hand, it’s understandable. Maybe the disciples have all gone, but this young man has got too close the action. There’s a brief struggle and he runs. The fact that he’s naked emphasises his cowardice and shame – running around with no clothes on was a pretty dramatic social no-no at the time. Heck, no-one would be keen on this today. It highlights the sheer abandonment of Jesus – the people following him have all gone, in one case even leaving their clothes behind. This is a pretty comprehensive desertion of Jesus.

Tradition states that the young man could have been Mark, the traditional author of the gospel. If that’s the case, maybe this is his confession – “You look at Judas with contempt, you look at Peter with anger, but I abandoned Jesus too. And maybe you’d’ve done the same thing in my place.”

And yet it feels like there’s more going on in this verse. The young man doesn’t seem to have been one of the disciples (past, present or future) so maybe it wasn’t Mark, maybe we shouldn’t have expected him to risk his neck for Jesus. But if he wasn’t a disciple, what was he doing there?

Well, he was wearing a linen shirt on a night where, not long afterwards, Peter was warming himself next to a fire; the guy’s not really dressed for the occasion. So maybe he wasn’t following Jesus, maybe he was a local kid who heard the noise, ran out in his night clothes to see what was going on, and ended up narrowly avoiding getting caught up in something far bigger than himself. Perhaps he’s an innocent young bystander who nevertheless can’t avoid becoming a part of the story, because when you encounter Jesus a response is demanded. You can’t stand on the sidelines, rubber-necking the story of Good Friday. That option isn’t really available.

I like that idea, but at the same time it feels a little tenuous. The anonymity of the young may be important, but important enough to warrant a mention here, as Jesus’s ministry approaches a climax? I don’t know.

The whole thing feels… I don’t know, liminal. While looking into this, I stumbled across something interesting – other than here, the only other use of this word for ‘linen’ in the gospels is when describing the grave clothes that Jesus will soon be wearing; meanwhile, the Greek word used here for ‘young man’, neaniskos, is only used once more in Mark – when describing an angel that announces the resurrection of Jesus. It might be a stretch, sure, but maybe there’s something else going on here, something visionary, something prophetic?

But then you’d expect Mark to make more of this. As it stands, the verse is straight-forward, almost feeling too…banal to be a vision or a prophetic enactment by an angel or something. Maybe there’s a key in pointing out that the man was young?

But then the disciples as a whole were probably teenagers and in their early twenties. We’re not talking a group of old men, despite all the art that gives them beards and receding hairlines. I always find it a little sobering that Jesus, standing before Pilate, nailed to a cross, was younger than I am now. The naked guy was young, but so were the rest of the disciples.

Maybe there’s something in what’s come before. People were expecting the Messiah to be a military ruler – that seems to be true even of the disciples who’ve been following Jesus for years. Even after Jesus has told them that he’s got to die, that this arrest is part of God’s salvation plan for humanity, the disciples still try to resist this – Peter cuts off a man’s ear with a sword, earning him a slap-down from Jesus. This isn’t the violent revolution that people were expecting, this isn’t about fire from heaven consuming their enemies. This is about the cross, and it seems as though this is the moment that the disciples realise this, their youthful impetuousness and desire to see the Romans kicked out falling about when confronted with the truth of the situation – that one of their friends has sold them out and that Jesus is going to die.

And, either because they can’t process this now it’s become a reality, or because they’re just plain scared, they run. And the young man, last one standing, flees in shame and nakedness. Rubber-necker, Mark, heck, even an angel, the end result is the same. Jesus faces the cross alone.

What do we do with this story?

I’m not sure. There are too many ‘maybes’ to draw any definitive conclusions. But I do know this – sometimes there are moments when we get scared and we want to run, no matter the cost to ourselves. And yet, later in the Bible, these people who have run end up becoming the founders of the church, great evangelists and preachers and gospel writers. What changed?

Jesus came back. The Holy Spirit came in power. And the world changed, but more than that, individuals changed, teenagers who once turned and ran became powerful men of God. And as we remember what happened in Gethsemane, with all its questions and confusion and fear, we need to remember what was about to happen just a few days later…

 

James and John Get Cocky (Luke 9:51-56; Mark 10:35-45)

Jews and Samaritans did not get on at all. This is important to remember.

After all, the Samaritans were considered half-breeds; when the Assyrians conquered the region centuries before, they moved their own people into depopulated areas, where nature took its course and the new arrivals started families with the remaining Jews, resulting, in some eyes, in a compromised religion and a sullied gene pool.. Several hundred years later and things weren’t pretty between Samaritans and Jews; a couple of decades before Jesus started his ministry, a group of Samaritans sneaked a bunch of human bones into the Temple, promptly getting their countrymen banned from Jewish festivals. And, because this is a tit-for-tat feud, and because Samaria lay between Galilee and Jerusalem, Samaritans refused to offer hospitality to Jewish pilgrims making their way to the Temple for the great feasts.

So when Jesus and the disciples are turned away from a Samaritan town, James and John are furious; so furious, in fact, that they offer to call down fire from heaven to destroy the town. This, to me, raises a fundamental question:

C’mon lads, who do you think you are?

I mean, what made them think they had that sort of power? Only a few verses earlier Jesus is upset that the disciples (admittedly not including James and John themselves) can’t even handle a single evil spirit. When you look at other examples of fire being called down from heaven, it’s associated with big hitters – 2 Kings 1, where it’s linked with Elijah sorting out the emissaries of the corrupt king Ahaziah, and a couple of examples from the ministry of Moses.

Ahh. Moses and Elijah. Maybe that helps explain things. Because it hasn’t been long since the Transfiguration, a spiritual experience during which James, John and Peter encountered, in some form, those same two heroes of the Jewish faith, not long after which the disciples get into an argument about which of them is the greatest.

So were James and John getting cocky because of their experiences? Did they think meeting Moses and Elijah, seeing Jesus in all his divine glory, made them a cut above everyone else? Calling down fire to destroy people? Heck, the story that threat most closely resembles is that of Sodom and Gomorrah, and that was God acting in judgement. They’re putting themselves in some illustrious company.

Needless to say, Jesus has to put them in their place.

It doesn’t seem to sink in, however, because later in Jesus’s ministry, they’re at again. In Mark 10:35-45 they’re asking to be seated at the right and left of Jesus in God’s kingdom – in other words, the two most important positions. This is utter arrogance, and Jesus asks them if they can walk the path he has to walk.

“Yep! Sure can!” they answer.

And yet, when Jesus does inaugerate his kingdom – on the cross – those on the right and left of him aren’t James and John (James seems to have done a runner, and John’s just a spectator), they’re a couple of criminals – “bandits”, which implied they were revolutionaries against Rome. And of those two, only one of them was willing to place his future in the hands of Jesus.

(The repentant bandit turns out to have given his name to San Dimas, the town immortalised by Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which is irrelevant but I always find it cool.)

But wait – sure they’re arrogant, but maybe James and John have a point. After all, at the beginning of Luke 9 Jesus sends out the twelve core disciples to proclaim God’s kingdom and to heal the sick, and it seems to have been successful. Maybe the problem isn’t so much the idea that they could access God’s power – they already have – but the attitude behind it. Jesus isn’t the sort to go around calling down fire from heaven to destroy a bunch of people, but here’s the thing – the Messiah was widely believed to be a military leader who would boot out the Romans and restore Israel’s fortunes. Looked at in that context, James and John’s moments of arrogance are a bit more understandable,

And that’s the central tension in Jesus’s ministry – the idea that the kingdom is achieved, not through violence and imperial ambition but through grace and suffering (the repentant bandit doesn’t get into paradise through revolution, after all). Instead of talking about fire and thrones, James and John should have been talking about forgiveness and humility and becoming like a child. It’s a lesson they’d painfully learn (James was the first of the Twelve to be martyred, after all) but, for now, they’re still following a mistaken agenda.

And that’s a lesson, Do we make Jesus in our own image, as a prop for our own agendas? And should we be talking about the cross more than we talk about fire?