Archive for September, 2021

“Marriage verses Divorce, or More?”

Mark 10: 2-16

I want to start this exploration of the text from Mark with a translation that I think is helpful for us to put aside some of our assumptions about is and revisit its word to us today. Remember it is a translation but also see it as an attempt to probe beneath the text to seek the context it seeks to convey, the context of the writer and the intent of the writer of which we know very little and make huge assumptions. This does not mean of course that we can’t use the text in this way because our intent is with humility, seeking integrity and an authentic rendition of the story.

We enter the scene: And the pharisees came (and) were asking him if it is permissible (for) a man to release a woman, putting him to the test.  But he answered (and) said to them, “What did Moses command you?”  But they said, “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  But Jesus said to them, “For your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment, but from the beginning of creation, he made them male and female.  Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.  What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”

We note here that there is or are unspoken questions raising the discussion matter. Was there some debate about the authenticity of what Jesus had been saying about marriage or divorce? It they were trying to test Jesus and catch him out why?

And in the house, the disciples again were asking him about this, and he said to them, “Whoever might release his woman and might marry another commits adultery upon her.  And if she, releasing her man, might marry another, she commits adultery.” And we note that Jesus answers as a follower of Judaism and as a Jew and he answers with reference to Moses the one who brought his people out of exile. A very core belief for his questioners.

We continue the translation: And they were bringing children to him so that he might touch them, but the disciples were rebuking the ones bringing.  But seeing, Jesus was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me, do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.  Truly I say to you, whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.”  And he took them into his arms, was blessing them, laying hands upon them.

Here we note perhaps the reason for the Rabbi’s testing of Jesus? Was he being successful in sharing his ideas of this new way of being he was preaching about? Did the Rabbi’s sense that he was on to something that they had missed? What would it do to their standing? Was there something about this that rung true but would change their world? This realm or kingdom sounds like one that is too accommodating of anything goes, to radically liberalised, and if his success catches on what will happen to tradition, and all the truths that we have put safeguards around. What do we do with all the creeds and doctrines we have agreed to? Maybe this is why they felt the need to test Jesus and maybe the topic of marriage and divorce are just symbols of a bigger threat, that of the very fabric of their social assumptions, What happens to the standing of the patriarchal society? What happens to the peace and harmony our patriarchal society is based upon? What happens to our understanding of community?

Returning to our text we see that it begins at verse 2 of chapter 10.  In verse 1, we had just been told that Jesus has entered into Perea which is on the other side of the Jordan River from Judea.  He is still in the domain ruled by Herod Antipas, but is moving south toward Jerusalem.  We continue:

“The crowds again gathered around him” We note here that this is the only use of the plural “crowds” in Mark’s gospel.  Further, to establish the link with previous teaching, Mark says “as was his custom, he again taught them.”  The mention of crowds also means that there will be a large audience for the rabbinical debate which is about to ensue. This conversation we are about to witness is a biggie and there is a lot of interest in it. Again the reason for the Rabbi’s testing Jesus is heightened.

Looking at the question the writer is addressing, another level of this conversation. We find that Mark has spoken of several controversies involving the pharisees earlier in the scriptures (2:15-17, 2:23-3:6, 7:1-15, 8:11-12) so the mention of pharisees in this context invites interest and suspicion.  These pharisees come to “test” Jesus, as they had also done also in 8:11.  What was the test?  They ask if it was “permissible” for a man to divorce–“release”–his wife. And the test was to place Jesus squarely in the same position that had resulted in John the Baptist being killed.  John had questioned Herod Antipas’ divorce and subsequent remarriage to Herodias (6:17ff).  “It is not lawful (exestin),” John had said. The Pharisee’s were testing his following of Judaism, not unlike todays progressives face from fundamentalists. The same question John faced is now before Jesus–“is it lawful?” (exestin)–has now been placed before Jesus.  If Jesus agrees with John, that could be interpreted as treason against Herod Antipas.  (Jesus is in Perea, keep in mind, on Antipas’ turf.)

Another significant matter is that Mark has already told us that the pharisees were conspiring with the “Herodians” (3:6).  If Jesus criticizes Herod Antipas’ divorce, some of those “Herodians” would no doubt argue that he should deserve the same punishment as that dished out to John. So here we have Mark writing about the relationship between organised state religion and free thinking challenging cultural, social and economic assumptions. There could be an alternative way of being of God’s Kingdom and it might be unsettling to those with power influence and a social standing in a belief system based on control and obedience and a false collectiveness as opposed to true healthy vibrant community based on Love and acceptance and goodness and mercy.

The topic of marriage and divorce is problematical for us in that we come to it with a conditioned social cultural and traditional mindset and its possible we miss the core meaning or purpose of the text. We need to remember that Rabbinical argument, according to Deuteronomy 24, divorce clearly was “permissible”—or “lawful.”  (Deuteronomy 24:1:  “Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.  She then leaves his house.”) Maybe the issue of at the heart of the test was not about marriage and divorce but about the very success of the Jesus Way that we frightening the Rabbi’s?

The certificate of divorce in their tradition was called a “get.”  This terminated the marriage and made it possible for the woman to re-marry.  The certificate read:  “You are free to marry any man.”  (France, p. 393) So, Remarriage was not an issue for men because they could marry more than one woman. Again this raises the question of marriage and divorce being more than the initiating topic.

We might also throw into the mix the question of what defined “something objectionable”?  This question was being hotly debated between the two main theological schools of Judaism in that period, the school of Shammai and the school of Hillel.  The more conservative school of Shammai argued that only adultery was an acceptable reason for divorce.  The school of Hillel argued that almost anything could be considered “objectionable,” such as burning the pot roast, for example.

Jesus responds to the question with a question, which is significant for us in that it is not common practice today but it was a typical rabbinical practice then.  “What did Moses command you?” he asks.  The question is subtle.  Moses had no “command” on this issue.  The provision for divorce in Deuteronomy was, essentially, a concession to the reality of divorce and an attempt to provide structure and guidelines in its wake.   

The pharisees respond that “Moses permitted to write a paper of divorcement and to release.”  With the understanding that a “permission” is not the same as a “command”, this was true.  Moses had permitted divorce.  The pharisees present an acceptable legal argument based on the book of Deuteronomy. 

Jesus dismisses this permission with a sharp rejoinder.  “For your hardness of heart” Moses allowed divorce, he says.  This accusation of “hardness of heart”–sklerokardia–is a very serious one.  “Hardness of heart” is associated with resistance to the ways of God (Jer 4:4, Ez 3:7). Almost a rejection of God, a fundamental challenge. Moreover, Pharoah, their ancient enemy, had also had “hardness of heart.”  No Jew would want to be lumped in with Pharoah.  Secondly, Pharoah is a representative figure for patriarchy.  Nobody is higher up the social ladder than Pharoah. 

Having hit the Pharisees as hard as he could theologically by associating divorce with Pharoah and patriarchy, Jesus then switches from the subject of divorce to marriage in general.  In effect, he will base his argument on a broader understanding of Moses–not specific commands or permissions, but a general attitude toward life and relationships based on God’s design of creation. He broadens the discussion to place it firmly in the bigger picture or what the realm of God might be and be seen to be.

Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, he (God) made them male and female.”  The reference is to Genesis 1:27:  “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  We not the most significant thing here for us as westernized individualistic focused persons. The “image of God” her for both Jesus and Mark is that it is a corporate–“them”–and includes both male and female. Difference in sex is not part of the discussion. Here we have the strongest challenge for our interpretation of the text. We are asked to put aside our generational, evolved individualism and see the world alternatively. That of the collective, communal, and that in common.

We might note here also that the Essenes used the same text to prohibit divorce.  Contrary to the common assumption, Jesus does not actually “prohibit” divorce in this reading.  What he does do is remove it from being something of a technical issue, and places it in the much broader context of God’s desire for human life.

Jesus continues:  “Because of this, a man will leave his father and his mother and the two will be into one flesh so that they are no longer two but one flesh.”  Here, the reference is to Genesis 2:24:  “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  Note that the man is to leave his family–that is, he is to leave his own patriarchal tradition, his acceptable cultural understanding, his very assumed way of orienting himself with in society. 

Jesus adds, “What therefore God has joined together, let a human being not separate.”  Jesus avoids the technical term for divorce (apoluse) and switches instead to “separate” (chorizo).  He does not directly challenge the Mosaic law which allows for divorce, but instead bases his argument on God’s intention in creation which is the unity of marital relationships and the essential equality of male and female. Again it is what male and female, what marriage and divorce are all about. It is the collective, communal the in common.

Jesus goes on to explain adultery and marital relations and in the context of contradicting Jewish law by stating that a woman might divorce her husband.  This was acceptable in Greco-Roman law, but not Jewish law.

Here again we have the concern for the collective bigger picture of this realised alternative kingdom of realm of God. Jesus invokes God’s intention in creation which is that relationships be equal and unbroken.  He subverts the dominant patriarchal worldview that only men could get divorces, and only women could commit adultery against her spouse.  His teaching recognizes the profoundly wrenching experience of divorce, as anyone who has been through it can attest, and also recognizes the reality of divorce and the importance of maintaining justice in its application.  

And now to summarize we come to the text that includes the children. This is about receiving the powerless:  Immediately after the teachings on the collective, people were bringing children to Jesus “so that he might touch them.”  The disciples “rebuked” those who were bringing the children, apparently forgetting that Jesus had recently said that whoever welcomed a child also welcomed him, which was the same thing as welcoming God (9:36-37).  The disciples get it wrong again.  

“Rebuked” (epitimao) is a strong word, one often used against demons and demonic powers in Mark.  Seeing the disciples turn the children away, Jesus was “indignant” (aganakteo).  Indignant was also a strong word.  It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.

Jesus then says, “Do not prevent them, for of such is the kingdom of God.”  Children represent all the “little ones” cared for by God.  Of these “little ones,” the kingdom of God is constituted. Again the concern is for the realm of God. In Mark’s gospel, the phrase “truly I say to you” occurs 14 times.  It indicates a special pronouncement, and means the listener should underline what follows.  Then Jesus says, “Whoever might not receive the kingdom of God as a child might surely not enter into it.” The saying is not about the “simple faith” of innocent children and how we all should emulate their unquestioning trust.  It is, rather, about the precarious state of children, their vulnerability, their lack of status. We note that 60% of first century middle-eastern children died before their 16th birthday.  Indeed, already in Mark, the synagogue leader’s daughter had died of illness (5:21ff.), the syrophoenician woman’s daughter was ill (7:24ff.), and a man’s son was demon-possessed (9:14ff.). Nobody is more powerless than a child, then or now, and every child knows it.  Hierarchical systems, of whatever kind, oppress those on the bottom.  Pharoah oppressed his slaves.  From the point of view of the child, families oppress children. The message here is about the nature of the realm of God which is significantly different from the status quo. It is a radical alternative.

The episode closes with Jesus taking children into his arms, “blessing them”. Again, a strong word used only here in the four gospels. Also; the use of “laying hands on them” is a repetition of the three verbs; taking, blessing, laying hands and it adds force.  Jesus is overtly placing the powerless in the center of the community’s life, at the centre of the realm of God, at the centre of the collective new life. Exactly this collective, way of being where the individual is seen as imperative to community says Mark, is the kingdom of God.  Amen.

A Redundant Dualism or Not?

Posted: September 20, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 9:38-50

A Redundant Dualism or Not?

Mark’s borrowed story set down in the Lectionary for today has the potential to raise many issues 
and touch painful experiences. Why? Because it has the potential to press many of our social conscience, and maybe even personal, ‘buttons’, such as: Exclusion. Child abuse. and Power. Coupled with these, Mark has Jesus speaking in some fairly desperate and exaggerated terms in order to underscore his vision of reality.

It seems that someone outside the circle of Jesus and his close associates is seen to be ‘trading’ without the proper credentials. The disciples, but probably more correctly, Mark’s struggling congregation, see this person and others, as outsiders. And they want to be sure that outsiders remain outsiders. They check him out. Listen to what is being said. Watch what is done. Take notes for further reference. And to be sure the disciples are diligent.  They present their case to Jesus. Outsiders should remain outsiders. The trouble is that Mark says Jesus doesn’t agree.

On this point William Loader of Australia suggests: “Jesus is not an egotist obsessed with protecting his reputation, but someone who cares about people. It does not matter if the love comes from his hand or the hand of another, as long as it comes” (William Loader/Web site 2003).

What this implies is that when so-called ‘insiders’ start deciding who the so-called ‘outsiders’ are, they walk with real danger. And this is expressed well in Richard Jensen’s comment on this story: “Whenever you want to draw lines in order to mark who is outside the kingdom and who is inside, always remember: Jesus is on the other side of the line!  Jesus is always with the outsiders!” (Jensen 1996:149).

So, this story starts out about insiders wanting to keep outsiders out. But it also includes a cautionary note that suggests insiders, ‘though they don’t often realise it, can very easily become ‘outsiders’ themselves by their actions. This prompts our title for today. Is this a redundant dualism or not?

Mention child abuse and immediately many of us will recall the stories of sexual abuse experienced by children at the hands of some clergy and religious in the church. Because of the media coverage given to these cases and the Royal Commissions established to judge it is logical that many, if not all of us, have formed some strong opinions on this subject.

To think this is commendable and proper as injustice of such heinous proport needs exposing and eradicating. Returning to the title for today and not wanting to downplay the seriousness of child sexual abuse in any way, we might remember there are other, perhaps more subtle forms of abuse as well. Joel Marcus is professor of New Testament and Christian origins at Boston University School of Theology. Raises a point that anyone who has travelled in ‘third-world’ countries will, resonate with in his touching, if not challenging, story:

He writes: “Once, on a bus tour of Egypt, we were led into a ‘school’. It turned out to be a carpet factory where children sat hour after hour before huge looms, weaving lovely rugs to grace the living rooms of Western tourists like ourselves.  They were beautiful children who flashed us shy smiles, and their hands flew so rapidly over the looms that we could scarcely see them.

“I remember a young woman from the tour, a college student, hugging one of the little girls and weeping – weeping that this child should have to forfeit her childhood, and her hope for the education that might lift her out of poverty, for the sake of the few dollars she was earning for her family by making rugs for tourists.

“Somehow, just by visiting, we all felt complicit in the exploitation and destruction of spirit that was going on in that so-called school” (Marcus/Religion-on-line web site).

These stories, both biblical and otherwise, certainly seem hard stories for any who wishes to make distinctions between outsiders and insiders. Mark seems to be saying to his congregation, here is a choice: restriction and constraint, or preservation and setting free.

To choose the first is to fall into the disciples’ trap of exclusiveness. To choose the latter is to rise to the Jesus challenge of inclusiveness. An inclusiveness which, as has been suggested on previous occasions, enlarged God to include humankind and enlarged the self to include the neighbour.  According to Mark, Jesus talked a lot about what he called the kin(g)dom or realm or domain or empire of God. But this domain… this re-imagined vision of reality wasn’t some ‘pie-in-the-sky’ thing to wait for. It was present but invisible, becoming a part of their lives right then. Hidden in the dualism perhaps was the significance of division, the significance of the power of hopelessness, the significance of the courage needed to rise above the dualisms and as Jesus advocated embrace the alternative which is an inclusiveness rooted in a world beyond fear, beyond dualisms, beyond exclusion as a manes of ordering life. And it is an inclusiveness that gave and gives a preference to the underside of their social world. The poor and landless.
The unclean. The prostitute. The toll collector. The slave child. All those who had been marginalized, treated as ‘outsiders’, became privileged in God’s domain. And remember it is always a ‘Way’, an alternative always there to be found. Dualisms such as insiders and outsiders are not enough, they identify but they do not provide solutions.

Mark’s listeners were not prepared for the irony of that. It contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out of who should hold leadership in the movement and who should not.

So, where is the good news in all this? Well, it seems that the God of Jesus is the God of politics and the marketplace, the God of the poor and the working and the retired, the tillers of the land, the students, and the people of justice. Of people of all sexual orientation. Dualisms are still with us even today so its nit about eradication nor of living with. It is about an alternative Way of being and doing. Don’t get hung up on the energies required to sort out the insiders and outsiders just get on with providing an alternative that includes all of them.

We can see every day what dualisms like that can do and do, do to our society, to people. We can see the groups of noisy people running around in anguish, shouting: Forbid her!
Not him! Imprison him or her but not him or her. But as Mark reminds us: in Jesus’ vision, God breaks out of our rules for proper credentials, for power and authority.

Whenever we want to draw lines in order to define who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, Mark says remember… Jesus is always with the outsider! And that, has to be the real message of hope for us in these stories! What do you think?

Jensen, R. A. 1996.  Preaching Mark’s Gospel. Lima. CSS Publishing.

Mark 9:31-36

Dancing at the heart of the universe.

The story line seems simple enough. “The earth is in an intricately balanced equilibrium of temperature, ocean currents and weather patterns, and this equilibrium is being distorted.  Massive disruption is going to occur without major corrective measures” (Paul Sheehan, SMH 2006).

The ‘story line’… is the story line in the Al Gore film, ‘An inconvenient truth’. The film is about human-induced global warming. But it is also about one man, Al Gore, former Vice President of the USA, indeed the candidate George W Bush, um… ‘defeated’ for the top job in 2000. And his passion to tell the world about an issue which goes to the very core of who we are, as a species.

This is an important film and all of us should see it.

Support for this film and its moral message is very strong from commentators: “Whether you are convinced by what you see or not, every other subject is trivial by comparison” (Paul Sheehan, SMH 2006). “You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to” (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times 2006).

But some don’t get it. Despite the scientific research used to support the thesis of the film
there are those who are sceptical. They claim no matter what we do, global warming is “inevitable”
and instead of thinking we can prevent it or slow it, we should “start figuring out how we’re going to adapt” (Cairncross, Globe & Mail 2006).

Such thinking can result in a paralyzing negativity, especially in the world of global-warming politics, because it makes the problem appear insolvable. Planet Earth’s story is important and all of us should hear it. While it is not surprising to note the negativity in that it is reflected in many areas of life such as anti – vaccinationists, in our Covid ravaged world or an alternative view to almost everything in life driven by an underlying marriage to dualisms as a priori when approaching any subject.

One event that seemed simple enough. Was the return of Pope Benedict xvi to the German University of Regensburg, where he was a theology professor in the 1970s. During his speech to academics, he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor who regarded some of the prophet Muhammad’s teachings as: “evil and inhuman” (Phillip Coorey, SMH 2006).

While his speech quite rightly condemned religious violence, his biased words implied that only Islamic fundamentalists had ever been guilty of religious atrocities. The Islamic world reacted angrily. Despite a personal and public apology from Benedict during the week, protests continued in the Muslim world, especially in India, Pakistan, Indonesia and Iraq.

This is not the first time this pope Benedict caused anger and resentment. At his election in 2005 former Catholic theologian Matthew Fox said this was the election of the “first Grand Inquisitor as Pope” (Fox 2005). While Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff said Ratzinger “a hard man and without compassion,” and he feared that while Pope “an immense hell of hypocrisy will reign in the Church”.

These may seem harsh statements. But what is more significant is that they go to the heart of an out-of-date church and they challenge an authoritarian clergy. Not just in the Roman Catholic tradition but the whole Church. They are important issues and all of us should reflect on them. As issues that still go on in other forms today.

One issue that could be examined today is the response to the Covid-19 pandemic as Governments and communities seek to control and eradicate the global infection. What is the response generating in its wake or in its assumptions or even in its management policy? What effect will the response have on our understanding of what it means to be human in our world today and tomorrow? This is not a protest against what is happening but rather the results of the dualistic and simple approach to combating it?

Another occasion seemed straight forward enough. This one is unpacked by the teller we call Mark.  He says that: An itinerant sage with a group of disciples was walking from one place to another, listening and talking. And that while in a poor, peasant, agrarian society such an occasion was perfectly natural. these disciples were caught up in other issues, preferring to think about prestige and rank in their community, and figuring out how they were going to bring it about.

But this story appears to have been mor e complex than that as the story line is also about the sage Jesus and his passion of inviting others to re-imagine their world: to enlarge their picture of God to include all of humanity, and to enlarge their feelings of self to include the neighbour.

Ian Harris talks about this when writing of the faith journey of Dr Ian Cairns when working his way through Marks Gospel. Ian shows that God is not an unchangeable outsider, but is rather being formed in the processes of human searching and reflecting, and is therefore changing the patterns of human thought. The word ‘God’ symbolizes ‘our highest ideals of well-being, for the universe and for all its species, including the human.

So, in a symbolic act Jesus took a young street child, set the child in front of everyone so they could see, and put his arms around her. To understand the power of Jesus’ symbolic action
we should not think of children simply as loving and innocent. At the time of Jesus children were ‘non-persons’ (John Donahue. American web site 2006).

Where a child was a nobody unless its father accepted it. Where it was commonplace and legal for children to be ‘exposed’ in the gutter or rubbish dump, to die, or to be taken by someone who wished to rear a slave. 

Contrary to the disciples’ desire for positions of power and importance, Jesus is suggesting, it seems to me, that they should be more concerned with honouring into their midst the poor and vulnerable. In other words, re-imagining their world by enlarging their feelings of self to include the neighbour…

To quote Paul Ricoeur when he talked of the hermeneutical imagination: “Are we not ready to recognize in the power of imagination, no longer the faculty of deriving images from our sensory experience, but the capacity for letting new worlds shape our understanding of ourselves. This power would not be conveyed by images, but by the emergent meanings in our language. Imagination would thus be treated as a dimension of language”.

With the Mark story we have a hugely radical way to ignore or push the social boundaries of his society!  To ‘get up the nose’ of those who exercised power to value themselves over others! In acts of caring for vulnerable human beings we are to come face to face with the divine. This, is an important story and everyone should hear it.

Again, in Ian’s work we see Jesus as ‘the human one’ whose authority is of God. Note he is not God but his Authority as Jesus is of God in the sense that he pursues his vision of a world where human beings are freely able to move towards their highest human potential as responsible citizens of the cosmos.

Why? Because the point of Jesus’ life or his ‘ordering vision; is to advance what has been called the Kingdom of God or the reign of God or as Cairns puts it the kin-dom of God. This is not a call to submit to a higher will beyond ourselves but rather to a wholehearted commitment to the ‘common good’, the at-oneness of all things, or a rich quality of life in the here and now, a life ruled by justice and compassion.

What is becoming clear is that in current cultural development we are beginning to recognise that with the corruption of this Jesus ordering vision, essentially by the church itself, a modern ‘material prosperity’ is: harming other creatures, diminishing the functions of ecosystems, and altering our global climate patterns (Peters 2002).

Australian New Testament scholar William Loader suggests that: “Human beings have mostly attributed value to those who have power.  At some levels that has been physical power…  It is equally about having wealth, political power, family power…  They are saying such people are of Or as Cairns puts it, “Faith needs to become an active awareness of the sacred quality inherent in the whole of life, and a wholehearted response to this dimension; and again, ‘a positive determination to wrest meaningfulness from life.

Never before in the history of the world have so many known about so much. The new age dawning is an age of increasing scientific unity. Our living must be set in the context of the larger life we call the universe. And life’s choices are ours to make.

We need to embrace that ‘Spirit’ is a dimension in all of life, a perspective from which all of life may be viewed, and an energy in which all of life may be lived. Once we have heard the cry of the planet, or our neighbour’s cultural or religious pain, or the most vulnerable in our society,
we need to make a choice about what we will do.

Will we dance at the heart of the universe? Will the spirit of compassion and inclusiveness at the heart of Jesus’ life be our response? Will we dance at the heart of the universe? Will the mutual care of a community of faith… be our response? Will we make a difference when we make those decisions?


Peters, K. 2002.  Dancing with the sacred. Evolution, ecology and God. PA: Harrisburg. Trinity Press International.

Harris, Ian 2021 Hand in Hand, blending secular and sacred tom enlarge the human spirit. The Cuba Press

Reclaiming the Humanity of Jesus

Posted: September 8, 2021 in Uncategorized

Mark 8: 27-38

Reclaiming the Humanity of Jesus

“He comes as yet unknown into a hamlet of Lower Galilee.

He is watched by the cold, hard eyes of peasants

living long enough at subsistence level

to know exactly where the line is drawn between poverty and destitution.

“He speaks about the rule of God,

and they listen as much from curiosity as anything else.”

(John D Crossan)

John Dominic Crossan is the author of those descriptive words about the one called Jesus,

Found in Crossan’s The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. In this book Crossan offers us another lens through which to view Jesus. This lens is one of Jesus as a Jewish peasant. Many have likened this to a similar work on the historical Jesus by Albert Schweitzer, published more than 80 years ago.

In keeping with the debate we have been having as to insiders and outsiders, those in and those out and the debate around evolution, is the universe fixed and unchangeable or constantly evolving these seems that during the time of Jesus there was two streams of thought within Judaism: one an exclusive Judaism, and two an inclusive Judaism. • Exclusive Judaism sought to preserve the ancient traditions as conservatively as possible. And • Inclusive Judaism sought to adapt the ancient traditions through association, combination and collaboration. The place of interpretation in the process of understanding seems top have been a consistent concern.

Getting a handle on this point seems important for us today also because these two streams

act as background for Jesus’ ministry and belief about God. And they act as foreground for the question Mark has Jesus asking his disciples in today’s gospel story: What are people saying about me? Who do people say I am?

The truth is that we all have our own picture of Jesus. And that picture is shaped by the stories in the gospels and the thinking of several theologians. It is a constructed picture – perhaps more as a painting than a photograph – and we have to admit to have ignored those things we find questionable as does any biblical student or Bible interpretation.

Last week I argued that we have very little evidence for a picture of Jesus of Nazareth but that what we have is significant for a vibrant creative profile for a faith journey. I also raised the issue about the birth and development of a movement called Progressive Christianity based on the work of the Jesus Seminar in the late 1980s/early 1990s. A movement initially comprised of a group of more than 75 internationally recognised theologians and biblical scholars who met to share their thinking and research on the Bible. In their first report, titled The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus, they voted on the authenticity of the stories of the New Testament… using a colour coded legend to express their understanding. They developed the following categories:

When Jesus probably said those words they were coded (Red) When Jesus probably said something like those words they were coded (Pink). When Jesus didn’t say it but it contains his ideas is was coded (Grey) and when Jesus didn’t say it.  And they have been put into his mouth by his followers or the early church they were coded (Black). Why am I saying this? Well when we check today’s gospel story we find that those scholars reckon it falls into the fourth category.

That of words being put into his mouth and this suggests Jesus is in an atypical situation.

What we have is that apart from John’s Gospel, which was maybe written as much as 100 years after the life of Jesus, Jesus does not initiate a dialogue with his own identity as the focus. Does this matter? Does this make it difficult in finding a Jesus profile? I don’t think it does if we are careful. We can still see Jesus as a young man, going to see his cousin John, and being baptised by John. We can see that Jesus began his ministry with a sense of inadequacy. He went to the Jordan to be empowered, for he knew his imperfection. We can also be pretty sure of his character and intent from the story of the so-called ‘calling’ of his intimates. He chose as those who would be close to him humble folk fisherfolk labourers. We can also glean more of his intent by the sense of his love of and compassion for, people. Around him thronged sick people hopeless people common people, and he gave a special place to those who society condemned: scoundrels, harlots widows mentally ill… the lost sheep and not the flock that was safely in the fold.

The picture we get of Jesus is of one who invites all to become people of value, of importance, of greatness even and we are invited to enlarge our picture of God to include humanity, self and to include neighbour and to seek and discover the sacred in ordinary life.

Another part of this picture of Jesus is also of one who taught ‘good humanism’… a turn the other cheek and walk the second mile humanism, a give to others more than they ask. Love one’s enemies and show endless patience. What is significant here is that it is in the ‘humanistic’ side of Jesus we find all are members of one common natural family, no matter what their other pretensions may be.

What we might take carefully here is a conservative reaction to the deconstruction of the sacred or the humanization of Jesus and thus of religious faith. We might remember that religious orientation includes spiritual responses, which can include feelings of appreciation, gratitude, humility, reverence, and joy at the wonder of being alive. It also includes moral responses, involving values rooted in nature—to seek justice and cooperation among social groups and balance in ecosystems. Wonder, although not the only possible response when contemplating the immense scale of matter, space, and time, is surely appropriate once we realise we belong to something so very far beyond us. Such naturalistic wonder and awe counts as deeply spiritual.

Professor of Theology Michael Hogue gathers up these characteristics and suggests, in part, that religious naturalism“…is a humble religious path that decentralizes the human species within the infinitely broader metaphysical and aesthetic rhythms of the Universe. It is a way of knowing that reveres the wisdom of collective human experience and reason more highly than any single sacred book or tradition. It is a quest for wisdom from wherever it may come: from the symbols, myths and rituals of the world’s diverse religious traditions, from literature and the arts, from the intricate splendors of indigenous knowledges to the mind-bending ways of the modern sciences.” (Michael Hogue)

What seems to be developing is an understanding that Nature and naturalism are for us today ‘a main game’ for any progressive spirituality despite the continuing influence of neo-orthodoxy.  If we think back over the past two centuries and recount the ways scientific knowledge has impacted our lives, what would top the list? With the growth of interest in Climate and Global Warming, and the cosmic view it can be suggested that the recognition that nature is constitutive of who and what we are as human beings. “Whether or not we believe that there is something more”, writes Jerome Stone, “nature is so significant that all our beliefs must be reformulated so as to take nature into account.” (Jerome Stone)

And given a chance, the cosmogenesis (cosmic evolution)story is too compelling, too beautiful, too edifying, and too liberating to fail in captivating the imagination of a vast majority of humankind.
“For just as the Milky Way is the universe in the form of a galaxy, and an orchid is the universe in the form of a flower, we are the universe in the form of a human. And every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself.”  (Thomas Berry)

The human story and the universe story are the same story. We are not encapsulated, separated, isolated beings. Whatever we are, the universe is. “The reality inside of us and the reality outside of us are ultimately one reality. In us the universe dreams its dreams. In us the universe struggles for a moral vision. In us the universe hopes for new possibilities. In us the universe strives for self-understanding. In us the universe seeks the meaning of existence.” (David Bumbaugh) 

Do you not think that Jesus of Nazareth might have been on to something and that that something was why what little he did say made huge sense? And we have been trying to understand him ever since? Amen.


Crossan, J. D. 1991. The historical Jesus. The life of a mediterranean jewish peasant. VIC: Nth Blackburn. CollinsDove.

Funk, R. W.; Hoover, R. W. (ed) 1993.  The five gospels. The search for the authentic words of Jesus. NY: New York. McMillan Publishing.

Loomer, B. M. 1976.  “S-I-Z-E is the measure” in  (ed) H James; B. Lee. Religious experience and process theology. The pastoral implications of a major modern movement. Paulist Press.

‘Celebrating Evolution as a Reality Where People Matter’

“He had the ability to teach us startlingly new perspectives with a gentle touch. His calm, inviting delivery let us see what he was suggesting about our fundamental understanding of the historical Jesus. We were able to see how he modelled critical thinking and reflection. He made us comfortable with our discomfort at relinquishing cherished notions and opinions. He taught me that when we think critically, no one has to suffer, no one has to be made the enemy.”
David Dykes

Those words were from an online tribute to Marcus Borg. A leader within progressive Christianity, for whom we who seek to emulate his ability to offer us a way of following Jesus in our time and place honour his integrity, scholarship, and personal character.

Last week we engaged with the human propensity for the creation of exclusive circles and the insider’s and outsider’s debate and we touched on the post liberal theological journey within Christianity. I make no apology for singling out what I think is the most significant attempt to evolve the approach to a contemporary theology and a relevant Christianity and a relevant walking of the ‘Jesus Way’.

Today we have another interesting and different story from our gospel tradition. And a response guided by the thinking of Rex Hunt. It is a single-entry story (Mark 7:24-30) that not only paints Jesus in a not-so-positive light, but also seems to question the very spirituality that initially shaped him. Having redefined ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ in a previous story, the anonymous storyteller we call Mark now has Jesus challenged (and by implication, the Markan community somewhere in Syria) to put that teaching into practice by ministering to those often seen as ‘unclean’—or just different.

Or as we might say in our everyday language…  Take the time to look beyond external factors like nationality, religious heritage, or social position, which by their nature often exclude. So, to use a Borg saying: what ‘lens’ did the storyteller use and why? What ‘lens’ can we use to hear this story with twenty-first century ears?

Rex tells of being on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, several years ago, attending the 4th National Gathering of The Network of Biblical Storytellers Australia/NZ. We know that Queensland is a northern state in Australia with summer temperatures perhaps ‘similar’ to Arizona… Often very high with Desert to the West, channel country and some rain forests in the middle, and the famous, but diminishing, Great Barrier Reef along the Eastern coast.
For years its tourist catch-cry was: ‘Beautiful one day. Perfect the next’.

The Keynote speaker at the Gathering was feminist theologian and Catholic religious, Miriam Therese Winter. And for many especially the men it was a truly wonderful and stimulating experience. It was also an awakening experience for many of them as they began to hear some of the biblical stories through the eyes and ears — or through the ‘lens’ — of women.

Rex’s comments are made in that spirit as he reflects on Mark’s story. The storyteller’s ‘lens’—a Phoenician woman—and her unconventional behaviour as determined by social convention, bested Jesus. If we believe the storyteller, it caught him on the hop, so to speak. What initially draws the dominant culturally conditioned male’s wrath by its increasing boldness, cleverness, and basic moral correctness, eventually subverts that discomfort into agreement. Such is the power of an authentic alternative and one might say the motivation for Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus has already taught others that religious customs should not stand in the way of doing good for those in need. Now, Mark suggests, Jesus is faced with having to learn that social conventions, ingrained in his spirituality, should not do so either. And if it was good enough for Jesus to have a change of heart, then what seems implied in this story, is: why shouldn’t it be also good enough for others, especially Mark’s own community, to be so challenged?

On the surface the story is presented as one about healing. But if we dig a little deeper, we will find Mark intended it to be a story of inclusion and distributive justice. And where a woman becomes the lead actor or ‘lens’ in the interaction. The storyteller’s teaching moment seems to be: that people matter most. No one can be excluded. None can be treated like ‘dogs’ or ‘unclean’ or ‘outcast’. None! The restoration of the individual is thus sacramental of the restoration of society. Not as a preference but as a contribute to the indwelling of the reign of God. We remember here the ‘perfect generosity that we spoke of last week as the sight or ideal and manifestation of the reign of God that Jesus sought in the outworking of his vision.

Recalling last week, we saw that the search for the historical Jesus has taken us to a place where we have very little evidence but that that evidence is very compelling and that we can know Jesus by his profile, voice print and we can discern what is called his ordering vision or what his intent was and how he saw the vision unfolding as the reign of God, the alternative world the spoke of and sought.

The first two petitions of the Lord’s Prayer express the view that when God’s name is truly revered, God’s Kingdom comes and that this happens when God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And the man who sells everything he owns to gain an exquisite pearl is a disaster as a businessman, but an exemplar of the singlemindedness that God’s reign calls for. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is about properly valuing goodness, not about prudently valuing property. This ‘perfect generosity that characterizes God’s reign is depicted in the father’s acceptance of his prodigal son and in contrast to the older son’s ungenerous calculations.

Having argued for an understanding of the paucity of evidence and for what we have as being significant and suggesting that we might approach our understanding by looking through a lens let me change the ‘lens’ a little. Arthur Dewey is an author, a progressive theologian and a Fellow of the Westar Institute Jesus Seminar. You have no doubt heard of them
even if you haven’t heard of him.

In one of his many articles, he explores the possibility of viewing Jesus through the ‘lens’ of a peasant artisan or craftsman. Why? Dewey reckons this could help us work out what Jesus was about. He writes:

“It appreciates the texture of his imagination. How did Jesus craft his words? What did he envision as he worked? How did his words invite his listeners into his vision…? What can we make of those words?”

How does Dewey suggest Jesus went about crafting his words? He goes on:

“Working in wood or stone demands envisioning ‘what is there within’ the material… He ‘sees’ what is ‘there’ and works painstakingly toward it. The task is to see a vision and to use the ‘grain’ in seeking to realize that vision.”

So, what might artisan Jesus have ‘seen… what is there within’ his audiences?  Rex Hunt suggests the following suggestions and invites the reader to ponder them some more:

(i) dispute the conventional wisdom that says one’s primary concern should be for those within our own social group or clan or family or nationality;

(ii) admit there is a degree of alienation in society, be it towards Muslims, gays and lesbians, or so-called illegal immigrants – whom we or they often turn into ‘the enemy’;

(iii) challenge all to reshape their social categories, especially those of others, formed by fears and rumours and innuendo.

How could this happen? Dewey suggests:

… can you imagine acting differently towards those outside the circle of your people? …not only to re-imagine [your] response but also to offer [your] oppressor a chance for a more [humane] reply.

In short Rex suggests we might: practice ‘ubantu’. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu explained as meaning of this Zulu word:

We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably with yours. When I de-humanize you, I inextricably de-humanize myself. The solitary human is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.

There are still many in our communities who know what it is like to be without a voice, to be flattened, to be destroyed. And when Christian politicians and pastors — we know the kind — we find them in Legislative Assemblies and all over Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter… When these seek to change laws to enable the church or businesses, to exclude or denigrate minority groups,
it is no wonder others in the community think it natural to also treat asylum seekers,
gay, lesbian, and transgender folk, and the homeless in a degenerating way.

It is sad but we can hear it today in the management of the covid invasion. The move towards legislation for punishment of the fearful the protester, the alternative thinker is a knife edge away from this non-Christian response.

Australian author Tim Winton said in his 2015 Palm Sunday address when talking about the response to the so-called boat people:

We have an irrational phobia. We’re afraid of strangers. Not rich strangers. No. The ones who frighten us out of our wits are the poor strangers. People displaced by war and persecution. We’re even scared of their traumatised children. And if they flee their war-torn countries in boats, well, then, they’re twice as threatening.

Social commentator Hugh Mackay called this attitude ‘disengagement’. In a newspaper article he wrote: 

We prefer TV programs about backyards to news and current affairs; we have rediscovered the healing power of retail therapy; we have become more self-absorbed… We’re more prejudiced and, correspondingly, less interested in information that might challenge those prejudices.

While we might have moved on from that localized crisis, we still avoid the plight of others. We still think that ‘trickle-down economics’ is the answer to every question. Even it seems, if the planet burns itself up as a result of our obsession with wellbeing and so-called freedoms.

Until a Phoenician woman, already with two strikes against her, gives the ignored or the forgotten, a voice that is. We need to remember that prophets come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t look the way you would expect. Every generation must work out its values and its faith responses
to changing circumstances, just as those who preceded us were required to do. The world is always evolving and not everything passed down has the same value for life in the modern world.

We need to take seriously the nature of our discrimination and yes, we need to discriminate but we need to ask what lens we are using. And that goes for science, for politics, for education, and for religion. Change is what change is. This is an evolving world and we must evolve or destroy ourselves.

Perhaps another way of saying this is to say that when all is said and done, we actually live in a new present, every moment and that new present is qualitatively different from any of our human pasts. In this present, as we think about ourselves and others, how do we
find the energy to nurture a creative and compassionate lifestyle?

Sir Lloyd Geering suggests we need to take with radical seriousness the following:

• An attitude of awe towards this self-evolving universe.

• An appreciation of the living ecosphere of this planet.

• An appreciation of the capacity of the earth to regenerate itself.

• An appreciation of the total cultural legacy we have received from our human forbears.

• Responsibility for the care of one another.

• Responsibility for the kind of planet we pass on to our descendants.

• Its value to be found in life, in all of its diversity.

I think that’s a pretty good ‘ordering vision’ in keeping with the one Jesus had.

Geering goes on to say:

In developing a spirituality for today’s secular world, we must not be primarily concerned with saving our individual selves…  Rather we must be primarily concerned for the welfare of one another, for the future of the human species, and for the health of the planet.

As we ponder further on all this, thus completing this sermon, may our creative imaginations
become part of the ongoing discovery of new ways — a new lens — to be a human community in the world. Especially when everything around us seems fragile and unsure. And especially when we might be facing the transition of what has been called the sixth extinction of civilization.

To reiterate last week’s conclusion it has to be said that the reign of God at the heart of the Jesus Way of being was an ideal kingdom in his ordering vision and thus an ideal goodness that informs but ultimately transcends the moral virtue attained or is attainable by any individual or by any society. It was and is a goodness that transcends what is realizable in history when it offers our life in history a sense of direction. As a Christian today we are still faced with the challenge of discerning how to respond to an aspiring, enabling, but impossible ideal. That is why it can never be a journey marked by concrete doctrine or creed or absolutes that would deny evolution. It is a living dynamic ever changing faith journey. Amen.

Cairns, I. J. Mark of a Non-Realist. A Contemporary Reading of the Second Gospel. Masterton. Fraser Books, 2004.
Clayton, P. “Marcus Borg and the New Face of Christianity”. 27/01/2015.
Dewey, A. J. “Jesus as a Peasant Artisan” in R. W. Hoover (ed) Profiles of Jesus. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2002.
Geering, L. G. Coming Back To Earth: From Gods, to God, to Gaia. Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2008.
Hunt, R. A. E. Against the Stream. Progressive Christianity between Pulpit and Pew. Preston. Mosaic Press, 2013. (Re-issued by Morning Star Publishing, 2014)