Text Study for Mark 10:1-16 (Pt. 1); October 3, 2021

Again with the Children!

The “divorce text” in the Markan composition can drive sensitive preachers in directions we would rather not go. This text sometimes made me glad for the annual fall “Stewardship Emphasis” in the congregation because I could have an excuse for selecting an alternate text for the day. While I never minded preaching on money, it was not my favorite thing. But it was a topic far preferable to tackling the first third of Mark 10.

Yet here it is. I agree with Karoline Lewis, among others, that if we read Mark 10:1-16 in worship, we must preach on it. If we’re not going to preach on the text, then we shouldn’t read it. The text has far too much pain and pathos, too much shame and shuddering, too much rage and regret to allow it to hang in the air without comment. This is one of those Markan texts that will occupy the attention of the hearers, whether I choose to preach on it or not.

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I will get to the compelling issues of the text itself this week. But first, it’s important to set it in the proper context. We can use the text as a platform for our favorite riffs on relationships, scriptural interpretation, and cultural realities. That will all be important. But I need to allow the text to be itself first, before I try to bend it to fit my proclivities and priorities.

The lectionary committee takes the text beyond the divorce debate and into the second child encounter in the Markan composition (Mark 10:13-16). As I have noted before, the Composer uses doublings and even triplings of themes in order to frame conversations and to emphasize specific points. The fact that we have a second encounter between Jesus and children in a short time is something that should command our attention as interpreters.

All the commentaries on the text in this week’s edition of the workingpreacher.org site are excellent and deserve concentrated study. Mark Vitalis-Hoffman notes a grammatical issue in our text that is worth some time.

He points out that the word for “child” in Mark 10:15 can be rendered either as a subject or an object. That is, we can translate Jesus’ words as receiving the Kin(g)dom of God as would a child. Or we can translate Jesus’ words as receiving the Kin(g)dom of God as we would receive a child.

The NRSV translation simply has “like a child.” That’s accurate and can be read in either way. It is certainly possible that this ambiguous construction is precisely what the Markan composer intends. But I don’t think that’s the case. Many of us interpret this phrase with the child as a subject. That makes it about receiving the in-breaking Reign of God as would a child. Given the earlier context (Mark 9:33-37), that doesn’t seem right either.

We should interpret the phrase as an object – welcome the in-breaking Reign of God as we would welcome a child. I refer you to my posts on loving “for nothing” in this regard. Vitalis-Hoffman notes that this reading “fits the immediate context better, and it serves as a clear reiteration of what Jesus said in 9:37.”

The NRSV translation of Mark 10:14b might seem to cut against this interpretation – “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” That’s a defensible translation, but all translation is interpretation, especially when the Greek is not particularly clear. The literal wording is something like, “for of such as these is the kingdom of God.” The text can, I think, be just as easily be translated to read, “for of such as these does the kingdom of God consist.”

Again, the text reflects the twin reading in Mark 9. The Kin(g)dom of God is not a utility for our convenience or a resource for our use. God creates for the sheer love of Creation, not for what God can get. God is the Giver, never the Taker. All of us are “children” in that Creation. God loves us “for nothing.” And we are most fully like God when we love others in the same selfless, unconditional way.

I don’t know if one needs to include all this technical detail in a sermon. I suspect not. But as preachers we need to be aware of how the composition actually works and why. At the very least, I hope you have alert listeners (as I have been blessed to have) who read the text closely and discern that what they thought they knew is not what they are hearing from the pulpit. When that happens, it’s good to be ready with the goods.

Why does this matter? This means that the “divorce text” is framed by this concern for those who are vulnerable and un-valued, those who are subject to the power and whims of others, those who are regarded as barely human and of the same honor status as slaves. Remember that the Greek word paidios can be translated as either “child” or “slave.” Children were valued only when they could provide some utility and not before.

When we read and interpret the divorce text, this is where we ought to begin. Human beings are not created in order to serve as objects of convenience for one another. That is the case whatever the age, gender, class, status, power, color, or orientation. In the beginning, human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. Thus, every person is intrinsically valuable regardless of the perceived utility that person can produce.

I would argue, for example, that the “hardness of heart” Jesus identifies in Mark 10:5 can be described precisely along these lines. God’s desire is for all human beings to be regarded as the Divine image and likeness. Sin warps that desire in us so that we regard others (both human and non-human, by the way) as means to our ends. Therefore, the law is necessary to curb and critique such treatment.

The connections between Mark 10:13-16 and Mark 9 continue. In Mark 10:14, Jesus tells the disciples not to “stop” the children from coming to him. This is the same verb as we find in Mark 9:38-39. The disciples confront the unnamed exorcist and try to “stop” him. Jesus tells them, using the same words, not to “stop” him. The benefit of the doubt goes to the outsider, the child, the vulnerable, the powerless – not to those who seek to control Reality rather than to welcome it.

The disciples have it all backwards. As parents bring their children to Jesus for a blessing, the disciples “rebuke” them. This is the word that describes how Jesus treats demons before casting them out. It is also the word that describes the interchange between Peter and Jesus in Mark 8. It is also the verb people use in trying to keep Bartimaeus quiet in Mark 10:48.

“Get those little devils away from Jesus,” the disciples say. This really pisses Jesus off (I think that would be an acceptable translation of the Markan composition at this point). Throughout this section of the composition, the tug of war is between those who want to be greater and those who are vulnerable.

Jesus hugs the vulnerable, blesses them, draws them close. He is outraged by those who put power ahead of people. He critiques a system that makes the “lesser” objects of convenience for the “greater.” That system is not something that needs to be tweaked around the edges. This is what the Pharisees seek to do with the divorce law. That system is a sign of the power of sin, put in place to restrain the worst human tendencies – not to enhance what God desires.

What comes after our lectionary reading, therefore, matters as well. We have one of the “greater ones” who is beginning to see that so-called “greatness” is not so great. The rich man comes to Jesus with a question about the meaning and nature of his life. Jesus loves him for the question, as we will see next week. But relinquishing the basis of his “greatness” is a bridge too far for the man. He cannot receive the Kin(g)dom of God and goes away distressed.

Then the disciples return to the “greater than” game. They still don’t get it. Jesus instructs them once more. Then the Markan composer gives us the living parable named Bartimaeus. Those around him want to “stop” him, but Jesus isn’t having it. The blind can now see, and the seeing are now blind. That’s the status of both the disciples and the religious leaders as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

It is clear to me that the Markan composer wants us to read the divorce text in this framework. “As we should expect,” writes Vitalis-Hoffman, “God’s commands are not arbitrary but have a principle that motivates them. In a patriarchal Jewish society where only husbands had the prerogative of divorcing their wives,” he continues, “a prohibition of divorce provided a safeguard for women who could be left seriously disadvantaged after a divorce.”

This framing of the text does not make preaching on the text any easier. But at least we might be more accurate in our interpretation. And there is some chance that this Gospel reading contains some good news – at least for those without the power in a relationship.

References and Resources

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16.

Vitalis-Hoffman, Mark G. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-27-2/commentary-on-mark-102-16-3.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 6); September 26, 2021

If Loving My Neighbor is Wrong, I Don’t Wanna Be Right

It’s now more than twelve years since my denomination, the ELCA, moved to open our fellowships, our communion tables, and our pulpits to members of the LGBTQIA+ community. My performance during that small civil war in the denomination was neither heroic nor effective. I wish I had been a more courageous and forthright leader. I’m glad the outcome didn’t depend on the likes of me.

I argued repeatedly that I did not want to discuss homosexuality and the Church in theoretical and hypothetical terms. I wanted people to think about two children of the congregation of the same gender. They were involved in Sunday School, Confirmation instruction, youth group for all ages, regular worship, Bible study, and numerous service projects in the name of Jesus. They were real “stars” in the life of the congregation.

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Those two children became adults, fell in love, and wanted to be married in the Church. I urged people to think about those two (still theoretical and hypothetical, I admit) children before coming to some sort of decision on the issue at hand. I wasn’t interested in positions which weren’t required to take seriously the real lives of real human beings.

The response I received was both stunning and predictable. “I don’t want to confuse feelings and facts, Pastor,” one parishioner said repeatedly. “I don’t want compassion,” he argued, “I want the Truth. Don’t muddy the waters by brining real people into the conversation.”

I wonder what he might have done in conversations with Jesus about loving outsiders, while a small child sat on Jesus’ lap. The question only occurs to me now in the rearview mirror, but it’s pertinent to this week’s text. It seems clear to me in this text that when being “right” conflicts somehow with loving the neighbor, including the “outsider,” then loving the neighbor trumps being “right.”

Thus, the title of this post.

We will go to extraordinary lengths to protect our power, privilege, position, and property. That’s obvious when it comes to the history of violence associated with White Supremacy. It’s a truism when it comes to assessing the January 6 insurrection. It is also true, unfortunately, in the theological arena. The latest lie promulgated to protect White Male primacy is that empathy is a sin, when carried too far.

In two articles on the desiringgod.org site, Joe Rigney has argued that if love of neighbor seems to conflict with the Truth, then love of neighbor must give way. In our current setting, at least among us “liberals,” (happy to be one and more, thank you very much), love of neighbor is used, according to Rigney, to justify all sorts of sinful conduct and thought. More on that in a moment.

Rigney is president of Bethlehem College and Seminary. “Bethlehem: Education in Serious Joy” is the banner on the institutional web site. The college and seminary appear to fancy themselves as legitimate heirs of the intellectual tradition of C. S. Lewis. It was Lewis, after all, who wrote in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, that “joy is the serious business of heaven.”

Rigney exploits this supposed kinship with Lewis in his two-part article on the dangers to Christians of feeling too much and thinking too little. He adopts the persona and style of Screwtape, lead character in Lewis’ delightfully ironic little book, The Screwtape Letters. I am more than a little stunned by the smug arrogance of this tactic, but that’s another story.

The first “letter” is called “Killing Them Softly: Compassion that Warms Satan’s Heart.” Thus, if Rigney can hijack the title of a Seventies soul song, then I have no problem using another one to counter his cunning. Initially Rigney uses Screwtape to warn us that even compassion can be “cannibalized” to do the work of the Evil One. Capable tempters will make compassion subservient to “truth,” and support for the sufferer will then become instruction that minimizes suffering.

So far, so good. Rigney’s second article is called “The Enticing Sin of Empathy: How Satan Corrupts through Compassion.” He contrasts compassion (suffering with another person) to empathy (suffering in another person). This suffering “in” can become so powerful that it leads us to sin in the name of comforting the afflicted. Compassion, according to Rigney, seeks to help the sufferer with the Truth. Empathy seeks to help the sufferer with mere emotions. Compassion, he says, focuses on what is good for the sufferer. Empathy focuses on what makes the sufferer feel better.

Rigney goes on to accuse sufferers of holding their neighbors for “ransom” by demanding unreasonable love. “We want their unreasonable demands to become ungodly demands,” Screwtape says for Rigney. “Anyone who refuses to jump through the hoops,” Screwtape concludes, “isn’t being empathetic.” Compassion means going into quicksand to rescue someone, but with a rope tied always to the Truth (outside the pit). Empathy, Rigney suggests, is entering the pit with no rope.

Rigney and his like could appeal to certain trends in the social sciences (although that would seem to be self-defeating). Paul Bloom wrote an excellent book entitled Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. It may well be that Rigney and company have taken their analysis from Bloom and his colleagues without proper attribution.

Bloom has several contrarian concerns in his book. He worries that what we call empathy has been transformed into a claim for rights. If we experience the suffering of others too fully, we may actually run the other direction rather than offering care. In short, Bloom notes that empathy is more of a feeling response than a conscious decision. So he really pleads that we would seat our empathetic experiences in a larger framework of what he calls “rational compassion.”

“It’s not that empathy itself automatically leads to kindness,” Bloom writes. “Rather, empathy has to connect to kindness that already exists.” He contrasts empathy with compassion. Compassion, he writes, “does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

Bloom is not arguing for a lack of compassionate action — quite the opposite. But Rigney and his colleagues do precisely that and thus completely misunderstand what’s going on here.

We can hear clearly the (unacknowledged) basis for Rigney’s argument. “The problems we face as a society and as individuals are rarely due to lack of empathy,” Bloom suggests. “Actually, they are often due to too much of it.” Bloom is concerned that the suffering of the world may overwhelm our capacity for compassion, shut down our helping faculties, and send us fleeing into moral oblivion. His argument is backed by research and good thinking.

Bloom’s argument is not, however, particularly compelling. There’s lots of contradictory evidence, study, and are research in this regard. Well and good, Bloom says. That’s how science works. But it’s not how Truth works for Rigney, who bastardizes Bloom’s work, whether he knows is or not.

“By elevating empathy over compassion as the superior virtue, there is now an entire culture devoted to the total immersion of empathy,” Screwtape declares. “Books, articles, and social media all trumpet the importance of checking one’s own beliefs, values, judgments, and reason at the door of empathy.” This immersion untethers us from the Truth and makes us “eminently steerable” toward the Evil One. Empathy thus becomes the ultimate selfishness, in this view, focused on the “feelings” of the sufferer with no concern for the “good” of the one who suffers.

The accusation, according to Rigney is that we have moved from “feelings are important” to believing that “feelings are all that’s important.” In that universe, caring human beings become self-absorbed moral monsters who do Satan’s bidding by subjecting sufferers to domineering dimensions of care in order to feel better about themselves.

What’s the problem Rigney is trying to fix here? As Mark Wingfield notes, the real agenda comes out in further commentary, discussion, and amplification. Inordinate empathy has led us (well, some of us), for example, to move from regarding homosexuality as a sin contrary to Divine intention to regarding homosexuality as a gift from God. According to folks in Rigney’s camp, how does that happen? Inordinate empathy.

I find myself racing back these twelve years. Nothing new here; nothing to see. “I don’t want to confuse feelings and facts, Pastor,” Rigney and his crowd say. “I don’t want empathy,” they argue, “I want the Truth. Don’t muddy the waters by bringing real people into the conversation.”

The problems with this perspective are manifold. We have here a parade example of the danger of the single story, referenced in an earlier post. Rigney and his ilk argue that empathy will cloud our judgment and lead us into sin. Yet, it is far more likely that our particular take on The Truth provides camouflage for our interests rather than an interest in Reality. The notion that defenders of the Truth are immune to the delusion that afflicts the empathetic is morally arrogant and epistemologically naïve.

It is not the case, whether in the Christian scriptures or in the human heart, that feelings and facts can somehow be separated into isolated containers. Emotions are constitutive of thoughts. When we think, our cognitive and emotional centers light up in tandem and partnership. The first Christians, as first-century Mediterranean folks, understood that thought is always “emotion-fused.” It is an Enlightenment conceit that feeling and fact can be tracked into separate lanes.

If there is anything clear from Jesus’ ministry in the gospel accounts, it is that when being loving and being right are in tension, love trumps being right. How else can we read “The one who is not against us is for us”? The unnamed exorcist may not be getting it all right, but he is doing the Lord’s work. And that’s enough. Demands for higher standards are like offending limbs and wandering eyes. Get rid of them, not the neighbor.

We live in a time when at least some of us have been trained to view all Truth claims with suspicion. Somewhere behind those claims is likely lurking a desire to dominate. Assertions of “my Truth” are much more likely to result in sin than surrenders to “too much” empathy. Warning that empathy is a sin takes us into a sort of Christian Orwellian use of language which is hard to manage.

Really. I’ll take “too much” empathy over “the Real Truth” any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I trust Jesus to sort it out if I have loved too much.

References and Resources

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Rigney, Joe. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-enticing-sin-of-empathy.

Wingfield, Mark. https://baptistnews.com/article/have-you-heard-the-one-about-empathy-being-a-sin/#.YUyOiLhKiUk.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 5); September 26, 2021

The “In Crowd”

“For the one who is not over against us is for us” (Mark 9:40, my translation). If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That seems to be the plain sense of this verse and of the verses surrounding it. Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus tend to exercise the reverse of this statement – whoever is not for us is against us.

Before I get too far down the line, we need to acknowledge that Jesus says precisely that – “The one who is not with me is over against me, and the one who does not gather together with me disperses” (Matthew 12:30, my translation). It hasn’t happened often in my ministry, but on a few occasions an alert parishioner has caught these diametrically opposed statements and asked about them. Those have been precious ministry moments.

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So, Beloved Preacher, which is it? Does Jesus call us to welcome all comers unless there are compelling reasons to do otherwise? Or does Jesus call us to screen out the interlopers for flaws and only to let in the Chosen Few? Matthew’s account, after all, is the one that reminds us that the way to Life is narrow (Matthew 7), and that many are called but few are chosen (Matthew 22).

Yes, there are differences in these gospel accounts because there are differences in the audiences and issues addressed. In the Markan composition, Jesus is speaking about an outsider who is doing the work of God’s Kin(g)dom apart from the “normal channels.” Good for him, Jesus says. Keep up the good work.

In Matthew 12, the context is the Beelzebul controversy. The “sides” here are not insiders and outsiders doing the same blessed work. Instead, the “sides” are the “Kingdom” of Satan versus the Kin(g)dom of God. Those accuse Jesus of casting out Satan by the power of Satan are aligning themselves with Satan, Jesus declares. That continuing alignment is the one sin which cannot be forgiven since it is the ongoing choice to align oneself against God and to ally oneself to the Enemy.

In addition, the words in Matthew’s account are addressed to the powerful, the positioned, the privileged, and the propertied. In this case, they are represented by the Pharisees. Here the Pharisees seek to adjudicate whether Jesus himself is “in” or “out.” The case Jesus makes here is that he is the One who will do the adjudicating, thank you very much.

The vocabulary used in these accounts matters as well. In Matthew, the phrase “with me” has the sense of “being in company with” or “on the same side as.” That language fits well with the battle lines being drawn in the context. The verb that the NRSV translates as “gather” is the Greek word, “sunago,” which means to gather together or assemble. It is the root of the word we know as “synagogue.”

Matthew’s verse has an underlying Hebrew parallelism which results in a “rhyming” of ideas. “The one who is not with me” is paired with “The one who is not gathering together with me.” In the same way, “is over against me” is paired with “scatters.” Again, Matthew’s statement has to do with real alliance and identification with Jesus, not merely doing the same work. The result of opposition to this alliance and identification is to be “scattered.” Scattering is a code word for what happens to the people of God when they rebel (such as the time leading up to the Babylonian Exile).

There are, therefore, good textual reasons for drawing a fairly strong distinction between the two statements in question. They aren’t contradictions except in a woodenly literal sense. Instead, each is appropriate (at least in literary terms) to its setting and does not impact the use of the other.

That discussion seeks to answer the question of the (hypothetical) alert and curious parishioner. But it can help us with more than that. The power of the statement has something to do with who is being addressed and how. In Matthew, it is the representatives of the religious and political establishment who are seeking to exclude Jesus rather than to “gather with” him. He is only welcome on their terms, and he won’t agree to those terms.

In the Markan composition, it is the disciples who are acting as the representatives of an “establishment.” They are operating in the same way as the Pharisees in Matthew 12. John and the other disciples assume that anyone who is not “with” them in the most literal of senses is over against them and must be regulated. That may be all well and good for the powers of the establishment, Jesus replies, but it shall not be so among us.

If Jesus followers seek to exclude someone from our community, the burden of proof is on us – the excluders. That is particularly the case when we are acting as the administrators of the established order. When we church people function in that way, we are on very shaky ground in terms of the Markan composition. If an “outsider” is working toward outcomes similar to ours – especially when it comes to hope and healing – that “outsider” is to be commended, not condemned.

The language in the Markan composition has another striking feature. The one who is not over against us is “huper” us (to quote the Greek). The Greek preposition often has the meaning of “for the sake of” or “on behalf of.” There is the sense that the one who is not over against us is actually favorably disposed toward us and is acting for our benefit or improvement. I find that interesting.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Mindscape podcast with Dr. Sean Carroll. You can find links to the podcast at Carroll’s web page, https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/. Carroll is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist, investigator of complex systems, and amateur philosopher. He is bright, curious, entertaining, and relentlessly in pursuit of the Truth – whatever that ultimately means. The breadth of topics on the podcast is marvelous, and Carroll’s grasp of a variety of subjects is impressive.

It would be fair to say that Carroll is no adherent to a religion. He is a philosophical atheist, a naturalist and materialist, a determinist (at least in the way that quantum mechanics allows determinism), a many-worlds cosmologist, and an eternalist when it comes to an understanding of the nature of time. While he does not go out of his way to hammer religions, he does not shy away from the opportunities when they present themselves.

I imagine that many people of faith would find Carroll irritating and offensive on these occasions. I do not. While we do not share the same perspectives on metaphysics and ontology, I value his work and his views. I find that Carroll is “for” me and other religious folks because he is pursuing the Truth. Whether he accepts the description or not, I believe Carroll is working for the benefit of all who seek to know the essential nature of Reality.

And I think that if Dr. Carroll met me and discovered that I needed a cup of water, he would provide that as well.

When I think of Sean Carroll, I am reminded of the story of Emeth in C. S. Lewis’ final Narnia volume, The Last Battle. Emeth (whose name is the Hebrew word for “truth”) was on the opposing side, that of the Calormenes. The last battle is concluded, and the forces of Aslan have triumphed. Now they are entering the true Narnia, the deep Reality behind all reality.

As they enter, they discover Emeth reclining against a tree in a state of bemusement. Emeth fully expected, once he realized how things turned out, that he would be punished and likely destroyed. As Aslan approached, he awaited his fate. He confessed that he was on the “wrong” side and was glad to at least know the Truth.

Aslan bends down and touches Emeth on the forehead. “Son, thou art welcome,” the Lion growls. Aslan then explains that because Emeth has been devoted to the Truth, even in a vain cause, “I take to me the services which thou hast done to [the Enemy].” The Great Lion is not limited by our human perceptions of who is “in” and who is “out.” We do not determine the bounds of God’s Truth, nor can we be sure we know precisely who is “over against” Jesus and who is “for the sake of” Jesus.

Carroll might find this patronizing or even offensive. I certainly intend neither. Instead, our text demands great humility on the part of Jesus followers. What we think we know is not all there is to know. What we think is Real is surely not all that is Real. The Truth sought by science – even when resolutely opposed to the existence and working of God – is still a Truth being sought. As Luther might remind us, the First Commandment is still in effect. God is God, and I am not.

And that’s the Good News.

No one who earnestly seeks the Truth can remain unaffected by that seeking. When Dr. Carroll shares with me a cup of the water of Truth in his work, I am enriched. And he is drawn (from my perspective), like it or not, more deeply into the Truth that I would call God. While the Church deserves all the recrimination we receive in the atheist discussion groups I sometimes haunt, the pursuit of the Truth often brings the very same people closer to Jesus.

That means something. For example, it means that we must be very careful in how we respond – lest we create trip hazards for these earnest Truth seekers. How much better the world would be if we faith folks could see someone like Carroll more often as a Friend of the Truth than as an Enemy of the Church.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 4); September 26, 2021

(43) And if your hand causes you to trip up, hack it off; it is better for you to enter into The Life crippled than, having two hands, to go away into Gehenna, into unquenched fire. (45) And if your foot trips you up, hack it off; it is better for you to enter The Life lame than, having two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. (47) And if your eye trips you up, throw it out; it is better for to enter into the Kingdom of God one-eyed rather than having two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, (48) where their worm is not dead, and the fire never goes out; (49) for each one shall be salted by fire.

The second person pronouns in this paragraph are all in the singular form. This is a “you” discourse, not a “you all” discourse. That’s unusual in the Markan composition and in the Christian scriptures in general. We should conclude that something quite “singular” is going on in this text and pay attention accordingly.

As I hear the text, I try to remain focused on the presenting problem in this section of the Markan account. Jesus is teaching the disciples about the suffering, death, and Resurrection which lie ahead for him (and perhaps for them). The disciples are establishing the organizational church in the new Messianic administration, thumb-wrestling over who will occupy which rungs on the ladder of position and power.

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In the midst of that argument, they see someone who isn’t even part of the home team. He doesn’t deserve the power he has, in their view, to cast out demons in the name of (by the authority of) Jesus. So, they try to stop him – even though he is accomplishing what they, a few verses earlier, could not. The unnamed exorcist is destabilizing their budding Messianic meritocracy.

Meritocracy is a hot topic for divisive debate in the United States at this moment, as it has been for the last twenty years or so. Barack Obama’s election to the presidency (twice) buttressed the argument made so often that any little boy or girl in America can grow up to be the president of the United States. That statement is part of the mythology of American exceptionalism, post-racial naivete, and the camouflaging of power, position, privilege, and property in this country.

Not long ago, a scheme was uncovered which helped wealthy parents pay to get their children admitted to prestigious colleges and universities. Some highly visible parents have gone to jail, been fined, and suffered some small social stigma. The scheme was decried as evidence that wealthy people could simply buy their way into success, regardless of their native abilities, talents, and proclivities.

If only such crass pay-for-play projects were the real problem. In fact, the myth of meritocracy in the Western world covers the “front door” of privilege as well as the extra-legal “side doors” by which the powerful gain access and continue their stranglehold on position and property. One of the single most reliable predictors of life success in this country is not personal effort or accomplishment, for example. Zip code is a much better predictor of life success than anything we might do as individuals and a far better predictor than our native intelligence or skills.

The myth of the meritocracy covers up the fact that, as we all know, some of us win the zip code lottery by the accident of birth, and some of us lose that lottery by the same accident. Some of us begin the race of life five yards from the finish line, while others begin that same race a hundred yards away. In such a race, speed has little to do with the outcome. It’s all about where we begin.

Of course, we all know this intuitively. If we, as a culture, acknowledged this openly, we would have to retool everything we do in life. If we acknowledged that “deserving” our power, position, privilege, and property is based on a lie, we would either have to give it up for a better distribution scheme, or we would have to embrace the violence required to maintain the inequality.

Therefore, we tell ourselves stories to justify the system that privileges us. Or we are fed stories that justify the system that oppresses us. In the American system, we hardly think about these stories, and when we do, we who are privileged believe them.

I think the disciples are beginning to tell themselves a story that justifies their assertion that they are “greater than.” They will continue to tell that story throughout chapter 10 of the Markan composition, no matter how many times Jesus teaches them to the contrary. It is perhaps not until after the crucifixion and Resurrection that they can begin to see just how wrong their “greater than” story is for the Kin(g)dom of God.

Jesus advocates radical surgery as a treatment for the disease of the disciples. I want to be clear that Jesus is not advocating any actual amputations. This is figurative, hyperbolic language. No one should begin hacking off limbs or plucking out eyes in response to this text. But the surgery Jesus prescribes is no less painful.

If I use my hands to sustain the “greater than” story, that behavior has got to go. I can tell myself and others that I have worked hard for everything I have and everything I am. That’s true from a certain perspective. But if nearly sixty-five years of life teaches me anything, it reminds of how many times I could have gone over a cliff in my life. And it reminds of how many times I was lucky rather than good.

Other people have worked much harder than I with far different outcomes. And some people have worked much less than I with far different outcomes. The work of my hands does not make me “greater than” any other. If that’s the story I tell, I’m getting it wrong. And if that’s the story I believe, then someone else is likely suffering in order to support the falsehood that undergirds my life.

If I use my feet to sustain the “greater than” story, that behavior has got to go. It is so easy for me as a White man in this culture to simply walk away from anything and anyone who might make me uncomfortable. I can flee from the “inner city.” I can travel to different schools. I can choose to live in a place where I will see nothing but White bodies all day and every day of my life.

In such self-chosen spaces, I can live in the mythology of White Male Supremacy, and no one will challenge that story for a second. In the absence of such challenge, I can comfortably believe that the mythology is the Truth. If anyone dares to challenge that mythology, I can walk away. Or I can kick their heads in with relative impunity.

If I use my eyes to sustain the “greater than” story, that behavior has got to go. If I choose to see what supports my power and to be blind to what challenges it, then I am already halfway to hell. Yet, that’s precisely what so many of us do. We simply don’t believe the stories of the “less than” life among us because we refuse to see those stories. If someone is not doing as well, it’s their own damn fault, after all.

It certainly can be the case that a person could use hands, feet, and eyes to cooperate in the “less than” story that is told about so many people. But that’s not my place in the system. Like the disciples in our reading, I am sorely tempted to build and buttress the story that makes me “greater than.” The problem is that the “greater than” story leaves me on the outside of the Kin(g)dom looking in – left on the smoking garbage pile of history, being eaten alive by my own avarice and cruelty.

The Jesus story is not a “greater than” story. This section of the Markan composition is always spiced up when it is held alongside the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Whether there is a direct connection between the Markan account and Paul’s work is a matter for continued scholarly debate. But the rhetorical connections are obvious.

“Exercise this kind of practical reason among yourselves, which is also in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something at his disposal, but rather he emptied himself, taking on the form of a slave, being born in human likeness; and in form being found as a human, he humbled himself, being obedient to the point of death – indeed, death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8, my translation).

This is the story that forms me as a disciple and puts my “power” in perspective. As I have noted previously, we can only read the “power points” in the gospel narratives from our own positions. The story is not ahistorical or atemporal. Someone who is not in a position of power, privilege, and property as I am should not read the story in the same way. But for me, the Philippians 2 story deconstructs the myth of meritocracy for me as a Jesus follower.

The myth of meritocracy declares that my worth depends on what I control, what I know, what I produce, and what I own. There is no grace in that for me or anyone else. There is no Good News in a system that renders human beings as units of production and property. Fortunately, God regards us as “little ones” who are valued and loved before we can produce or own or think about anything. Our vocation is to regard one another in the same way.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 3); September 26, 2021

Trip Hazards

Most commentators agree that Mark 9 is an unusual element of the gospel composition. It is likely a collection of sayings that the Composer has brought together into a set of instructions for disciples. The teaching section begins with Mark 9:30. We read in verse 31 that Jesus was teaching his disciples about the handing over, the judicial murder, and the Resurrection in his immediate future.

It’s clear that the disciples are just not getting it. They argue about who is greater, and Jesus gives them a living illustration of real greatness in the Kin(g)dom. It’s even clearer that they still don’t get it. John reports that the unnamed exorcist is practicing his craft outside of normal channels. Jesus decides it’s time to bring out the heavy rhetorical artillery in order to break through their willful obtuseness.

Jesus continues to sit in the midst of the disciples with a small child cradled tenderly in his arms. He deflects John’s administrative detour and returns to the matter which is literally “at hand.” He points the disciples back to the child as his continuing case study. Eager outsiders must not be rejected, especially when they’re just trying to help by giving the disciples a cup of water to drink in their labors.

Photo by Yassin Doukhane on Pexels.com

(42) “’And he who might trip up one of those little ones who are putting their trust in me – it is better for him if a grinding stone (like that drawn by a donkey) would be placed around his neck and he would have been thrown into the sea.

“And,” Jesus continues in verse 42. That connection is omitted by the NRSV translators, and the separation is highlighted by a paragraph space in the text. But Jesus, in the Markan composition, links the kind cup of water to “these little ones who are putting their faith in me” (Mark 9:42). It is, in part at least, the rigid rejection of these eager outsiders which is a stumbling block to their continuing trust in Jesus.

Instead of acting like a bunch of beggars who get to show the other beggars where the bread is, the disciples in Mark’s composition act as if they own the bakery. That unfortunate trend will continue at least through the end of chapter 10. The Twelve had been invited into Jesus’ campaign about five minutes earlier (at least in a cosmic sense), but now they had become the membership screening committee. Rather than inviting all comers in for the party, they were giving the newcomers the boot.

Jesus’ response is, to understate the case, severe. If anyone trips up one of these newcomers on the way in, the consequence is massive. Being thrown into the sea wearing a giant millstone was a method of capital punishment in the Roman Empire. Jesus says, using hyperbole to get their attention, that such a fate would be preferable to the one that awaits the disciples if they impede the entrance of the “little ones” into the Kin(g)dom.

“Shit’s gettin’ real,” as one might say. It would seem that the behavior of at least some in the leadership of the Markan community was causing “little ones” in that community to question their trust in Jesus and perhaps even to leave the community in the midst of the stresses and strains of first-century Christian living. Capernaum, we have a problem.

I am thinking today of the trends in Christian church membership, church participation, and Christian faith commitments in the United States at the present time. The lines for all of those trends are headed down on the graph. As time goes along, the declines of the lines grow steeper. As I have noted before, the ELCA Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation projects that, based on current trends, my denomination will effectively cease to exist by 2050.

Well, denominations come, and denominations go.

In fact, the ELCA is the third variety of Lutheranism of which I have been a member in the last sixty-five years. As a denomination, we are living through the third major re-organization since 1988. I’m sorry for the disruption that causes in the lives of people who serve Jesus and his Church with faith, hope, and love (because it’s certainly not for the money). That disruption falls disproportionately on people of color and women who have served as ELCA staff, and that’s wrong.

That being said, this denominational decay is a feature of these larger national and societal trends. The Gallup organization reports that in 2020 church membership among U.S. adults fell below fifty percent of the population for the first time in the survey’s history. The study, in fact, charts self-reported membership in a (Christian) church, synagogue, or mosque. So, the numbers for Christians are even lower than the forty-seven percent measured in the survey.

In 1937, the number was seventy-three percent. It remained fairly stable until 2000. In the last twenty years, church membership as a percentage of U.S. population has moved from seventy percent to the reported 47 percent. Church, synagogue, and mosque membership has declined in this country during that time by one-third. The overwhelming majority of that decline has been in Christian denominations and congregations.

Well, why is that? The Gallup folks demonstrate that the decline is does not directly correlate to a decrease in belief in God. Nor is it purely a function of generational differences. Nor is it linked with any particular flavor of Christian theology or history. I think the data indicates that church membership and participation are declining in large part because we Christians (especially White Christians) are putting stumbling blocks in the way of people who might wish to have a trusting relationship with Jesus.

I hope you will read Robert P. Jones’ important book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, if you haven’t done so already. Jones does a masterful job of detailing how White Christianity has constructed and sustained White Supremacy in the United States. “White Christian churches have not just been complacent,” Jones argues, “they have not only been complicit; rather, as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6).

White Christianity continues to move further in the direction of White Christian nationalism. “Christian nationalism,” writes Kristin Kobes Du Mez, “the belief that America is God’s chosen nation and must be defended as such—serves as a powerful predictor of intolerance toward immigrants, racial minorities, and non-Christians” (page 4). It’s tempting for us mainline types to think that White Christian Nationalism is a disease of the “evangelical” traditions. Sadly for us, it is alive and well in most of our historically mainline congregations.

Until churches get serious about repentance and repair when it comes to racism, there will be no reconciliation. And it’s not only reconciliation with Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI people that is at stake (although that is crucially important). Many of our own children are leaving our churches because they are sick and tired of trying to sit next to people who refuse to put Jesus’ words into action when it comes to White Supremacy in the churches.

Similar things can be said about our welcome of those who are excluded and rejected because of gender, orientation, economic class, age, and personal history. My experience is that most young people in the Church actually get what the Gospel means in behavioral terms. Since they don’t see churches and older Christians living according to the Gospel, they’re headed for the exits.

As this exodus continues, (historically White) Christian churches become increasingly older, Whiter, and more socially and politically conservative. We are, it seems to me, caught in an accelerating negative feedback loop. Our Christian behavior trips up the “little ones” in our midst. Out they go. So, there are more of us to do the “tripping.” Disaffection increases, and the reactionary rump of the Church gets larger. I suspect we passed the tipping point some time ago, and it’s too late for many congregations.

Yes, I am pessimistic about specific religious institutions. And…and…and I am always wildly optimistic about the power of the Good News of Jesus to change lives and change the world. It’s just that much of that power of change is being applied outside the boundaries of long-established institutions and structures. We American Christians are surrounded by people who are casting out demons in Jesus’ name but are not following us.

We can follow John’s example and complain that they’re not part of the club. I understand that impulse. Many of these unnamed exorcists around us are not church members. Many of them are, I am sure, not Jesus followers, at least in their faith commitments. But these unnamed exorcists are certainly doing the work of Jesus, whether they know it or not.

Jesus tells John to look at the results, not the label. That’s our call as well. But, like the first disciples, we have some trouble getting out of our own way. As a result, we often end up flat on our faces, lying at the edge of hell on earth.

More on that next time.

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 2); September 26, 2021

More Than One Story

(38) “John was saying to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone in your name casting out demons, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’” (Mark 9:38, my translation).

In 2009 I listened to one of the first TED talks I ever heard. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Nigerian author and intellectual, talked about “The danger of a single story.” At this date, the talk has been viewed nearly twenty-nine million times. If you have not heard the talk (or if you want to watch and listen again), you can find it at https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare.

Adichie shares stories about narratives she has heard and narratives she has learned that boil the world or people or a person down to a single thing. A single story, she says, will “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” John and the other disciples tell a single story about the unnamed exorcist in Mark 9. That single story is “he was not following us.”

“It is impossible to talk about the single story,” Adichie continues, “without talking about power.” Many singular stories establish boundaries between “us” and “them.” That is certainly one of the functions of the story John tells in Mark 9:38. John and his colleagues don’t focus on what the exorcist does.

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

In fact, he is casting out demons in the name of Jesus. That seems like a good thing. But, John says, he’s not following us. He doesn’t belong to us. The unnamed exorcist is not one of the cool kids. He’s not one of the insiders. He has the wrong identity, the wrong pedigree, the wrong credentials. He’s one of them.

I invite you to think of all the stories that create “us” and “them.” There is the story of male dominance – a story that delineates differences between men and women. We all know, at least after John Gray’s 1992 book, that “men are from Mars, women are from Venus.” There is the story of Indigenous genocide. Native peoples are savages to be assimilated or erased because they can’t possess the land like civilized Europeans. There is the story of anti-Blackness. Black men are either hapless, subhuman fools or terrifying, subhuman Black beasts.

These are only a few of the “us” and “them” stories we tell (especially as White, Male, European, Christian, Western individuals). We can add more, of course. We tell stories about fanatical Muslim terrorists. We tell stories about murderous and raping Mexicans pouring across the southern border of the United States. We tell stories about lazy unemployed people who would rather eat chocolates and collect checks than earn an honest living. We tell stories about crazed White Nationalists who threaten Truth, Justice, and the American way.

Not all stories are equally limited or equally false or equally dangerous. But all stories lie to the degree that they leave out the details that make the subjects human. What about this unnamed exorcist? First of all, did he have a name? Was he just a camp follower who hadn’t gone through the regular onboarding process for the position of “disciple”? Did the power of exorcism in the name of Jesus land on him spontaneously, as the spirit of prophecy landed on Eldad and Medad in Numbers 11? Was he better at it than the Twelve – who had recently failed to cast out the epileptic spirit of the boy who simply needed more praying?

We don’t know because John and the others weren’t interested in another story. We do know that John and the others are very interested in position, power, and privilege as they follow Jesus. Another story threatened this campaign for jobs in the cabinet of the new Messiah. So, they had to put a stop to it.

“It is impossible,” Adichie reminds us, “to talk about the single story without talking about power.” She describes a term from the Igbo language that helps us get a grip on this. The term, she says, is “nkali.” It is this part of the talk that really nails the conversation to this section of Mark’s gospel. The term is, according to Adichie, a noun that means something like “to be greater than.”

Boom. We find ourselves immediately back a few verses in Mark 9. The disciples spent the trip from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum arguing about who was greater. The disciples were arguing about nkali. “Like our economic and political worlds,” Adichie continues, “stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent,” she argues, “on power.”

John and the other disciples exercise power in pointing out the “otherness” of the unnamed exorcist. They tattle on his out-of-normal-channels behavior. They exercise power in how they shape the story from their perspective and to advance their agenda. They apply power directly as they try to stop the person from continuing to act (it would seem that they failed in this attempt). They keep up the pressure by urging Jesus to put a stop to this out-of-bounds activity.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another,” Adichie notes, “but to make it the definitive story of that person.” The disciples do precisely that. The exorcist doesn’t even need a name. It’s the behavior that tells the whole story, as far as they’re concerned.

Adichie makes a powerful point at this moment in the talk. She quotes the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti who writes that the best way to hijack the story, the land, the history, and everything else that would make a people a people is to start with “secondly.” This is precisely what John and the other disciples do to the unnamed exorcist. They begin their story in the middle of his story and thus claim it as their own story.

“Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans,” Adichie says, “and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state,” she continues, “and you have an entirely different story.” We can add examples.

Start with the failures of “inner city” schools and not the histories of segregation, redlining, White flight, White riots, and maldistributed funding, and you get a story that blames Black people rather than White people. Start with the poverty of Pine Ridge and Whiteclay and not with the genocide and Indian schools and stolen land and broken promises, and you get a story that blames Indigenous people rather than White people. Start with AIDS ripping through communities of gay men a generation ago rather than the violent homophobia of American culture, and you get stories of the “gay cancer.”

Once you see the power of “secondly stories,” you will see them everywhere. These are the stories that underwrite and expand imperialism, colonization, racism, genocide, sexism, and all the other power games we continue to play inside the church and out.

This is not how Adichie ends her talk. Nor is it how Jesus leaves the situation with the disciples. (39) But Jesus said, ‘Don’t stop him, for there is no one who shall perform power based on my name and shall soon have the power to speak evil of me. (40) For the one who is not against us is for us. (41) For the one who might give you a cup of water in the Name that is “Messiah,” I tell you truly that one will not lose his wage.” (Mark 9:39-41, my translation).

Don’t stop him! For the one who is not against us is for us. It’s the sort of meme-length aphorism that helps make the Markan script so memorable (and easy to memorize). “Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign,” Adichie says, “but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people,” she observes, “but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”

Jesus tells the story of the unnamed exorcist in a very different way. Look at the outcome, not the identity. Did he cast out a demon in my name? That action will not leave him unchanged. Not only has someone else been set free. Someone else, the exorcist, has been drawn closer to the Kin(g)dom of God in your midst. The story is not about “us” and “them.” The story is about how “us” is infinitely bigger than our small minds can comprehend.

White, Western, male-dominated Churches are shrines for the Single Story. The question for too long has not been, “Is that Other Person following Jesus?” The question for too long has instead been “Is that Other Person following us.” That is something that must change if the Church is to remain faithful. “When we reject the single story,” Adichie concludes, “when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.”

What can it look like for churches to be homes to multiple stories rather than shrines to the Single Story? Every White congregation can seek a healthy dialogue with other-storied communities. Every Christian congregation can seek a healthy dialogue with Jews, Muslims, and other communities with different spiritual stories. We can be places where belief is not an entrance requirement and where doubt is celebrated rather than denigrated. We can become communities of discernment and deliberation rather than of judgment and violence.

Oh, is that all? Unfortunately, the Twelve are not having it…

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:38-50 (Pt. 1); September 26, 2021

We pick up where we left off last week. The disciples are playing the “greater than” game. Jesus tells them that the only way to win that game is not to play it. The disciples aren’t convinced. John immediately launches into a report on how some of the disciples dealt with a “competitor,” an unknown exorcist who is getting results by invoking Jesus’ name. The disciples tried to stop that first-century copyright infringement, but Jesus tells them they are still getting it wrong.

For a deeper understanding, we may be well-served to go to the “end” of this text (knowing that the beginnings and endings of our readings are really arbitrary points in a whole narrative.” “For everyone will be salted by fire. Salt is good; but if the salt becomes ‘unsalty,’ how shall its flavor be restored? Have among yourselves salt and keep the peace with one another” (Mark 9:49-50, my translation).

Photo by Castorly Stock on Pexels.com

This mention of “salt” puzzles us as contemporary interpreters. I find helpful some comments by Uri Lev in an article that details the uses of salt as food in the ancient Middle East. He writes that “ancient Arab tribes, like the ancient Jewish tribes, used salt in covenant ceremonies as a symbol of permanence. Still today,” he notes, “Israeli Arabs utter the ancient phrase in Arab tradition ‘There is salt between us’. This means,” Lev continues, “that there is a covenant of peace between the parties” (page 38, my emphasis).

I find it striking that the mention of “salt” and “peace” appear together in Mark 9:50. Salt apparently functions to preserve both food and covenants. We can see this in the several mentions of “covenants of salt” in the Hebrew scriptures. Lev points to “the function of salt as a preservative and its social function as a symbol against corruption and the maintenance of relationships between human beings as expressed in covenants” (page 38).

Ross writes in his IDB article (IV:167) that the “covenant of salt” in the Hebrew scriptures refers to the permanence of that covenant “since eating salt with someone means to be bound to him (sic) in loyalty.” This is the context for the words in Mark 9:50. “Jesus’ command,” Ross continues, “enjoins the mutual loyalty of the covenant relationship.”

The verb the NRSV translates as “be at peace” is given a more active force in the BAGD lexicon. It is translated there as “keep the peace” (page 227). That translation is supported as well by Foerster’s analysis in TDNT II:417-418. He refers us to a similar usage in Romans 12:9-21. In this section on mutual love in the Roman congregations, Paul urges his listeners to refrain from repaying evil with evil. Instead, he calls them to keep the peace with all.

In 2 Corinthians 13, Paul finishes up his letter with a similar appeal. He urges the Corinthian Christians to shape up their relationships, to have a common practical and social rationality, and to keep the peace. The result of this work is that “the God of love and peace will be with you.”

Therefore, the “punchline” of our text goes something like this. “Have salt among yourselves and keep the peace among one another.” But what about the line that leads into that conclusion? “For everyone will be salted by fire” (verse 49).

It’s immediately clear that this line presented problems even for the earliest interpreters (and performers?) of the script. We have three significant textual variants here. One variant simply inserts the words of Leviticus 2:13 in place of the preferred text. A second variant keeps both the preferred text and the previous variant. Metzger concludes that what we have in the text is the earliest and preferred reading.

The textual history, according to Adamiak, “proves that at very early stage this passage from the Old Testament was considered as an explanation of the mysterious logion of Jesus” (page 12). He notes that the interpretation might be relatively straightforward if this was all we had. Then we could conclude that the salty fire will destroy things. But, Jesus tells us, “salt is good.” How so?

The combination of “salt” and “fire” here certainly leads us to conclude that Jesus is talking about purification. The coming trials will force the disciples to focus on what really matters for the sake of their movement as Jesus followers. They are having great difficulty maintaining that focus as they move toward Jerusalem and the end of the story. Their arguments revolve around status and power. Those will not be important elements as they confront the cross.

Every one of them will be purified in the fire of persecution. That’s the nature of Jesus following. What will remain is what is important. Therefore, the purification is “good.” It may be that some of the Jesus followers will lose their “saltiness” and conform to the larger imperial culture. There won’t be, at least in this text, any coming back from that loss.

Conflict within the community, whether of the Twelve or of the Markan audience, is a direct route to that loss of flavor. That rings true for us as well. When I worked as a church conflict resolution consultant, this was one of the constant and tragic realities of the work. Some church members suffered catastrophic loss of faith as a result of their experiences of the conflict. In ever case I ran into this reality. The wounds were too deep, and some folks simply needed to walk away.

Jesus warns his disciples against creating any “faith trip hazards” for the little ones who put their faith in him. Was their constant bickering and their jockeying for position one of the reasons why some community members dropped out of the group along the way? If so, that was a big problem. It would be better to be executed at sea than to be responsible for such a falling away. If only some church leaders in conflicted congregations took this admonition seriously, some church fights might turn out better.

It would seem that a similar dynamic was at work in the Markan community. Imagine, if you will, the gospel account being performed in the presence of such a conflicted community. People on the various sides and in the several factions would sit or stand with one another. Perhaps they glared across the room at one another during worship. They might have refused to meet at the same communion table together. I’ve seen all that and more in contemporary conflicted congregations.

In the midst of that tense situation, the performer of Mark’s script comes to this place. It’s no accident that the text is filled with “you’s.” Just put yourself in the place of those conflictors in the Markan community. Then hear the “you’s” and how they would sound to you. The impact must have been like a spiritual sledgehammer for at least some of the folks. I wonder if some of them heard anything else from the performer that evening.

I find it important to remember that this gospel account is not offered simply to inform. It is presented in order to persuade people to come to put their faith in Jesus and/or to deepen that faith. It is intended to lead people to change their perspective, their worldview, and their behavior. It is a radical, life-changing script that would shake people up. I wonder if sometimes during the presentation, the performer had to stop for a while to allow some of the folks in the crowd do some work of repair and reconciliation before the story continued.

The Church in the United States is, at this moment, roiling with conflict. At this moment, one of the hot issues for White Christians in our area is whether we should wear masks in worship. People are screaming at one another in meetings over this issue. Pastors are considering resigning. Some have already resigned or retired because it’s just too much to bear. The politics of Covid-tide have overwhelmed all other concerns and threaten to destroy any number of congregations, faith commitments, and pastoral calls.

Here is, perhaps, a call for the faithfulness of the saints. “Have among yourselves ‘salt,’ and keep the peace among one another.” It is better to be painfully purified than to be destroyed. It is better to be painfully purified than to be responsible for the destruction of another believer. Jesus calls us to spend our time giving refreshing cups of water to other disciples rather than grabbing them around the necks in self-righteous rage.

Apparently, such a discussion is not a new thing in churches…

References and Resources

Kiel, Micah D. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-26-2/commentary-on-mark-938-50-4.

Lev, Uri Mayer-Chissick Efraim. “’A covenant of salt’: Salt as a major food preservative in the historical Land of Israel.” Food and History, Vol. 5, No. 2 (2007), pp. 9-39. 10.1484/J.FOOD.1.100220.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 6); September 19, 2021

Last of All

I have been using the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, as partially described in Paul’s little letter, as a case study of how Jesus’ words in Mark 9 might work out in an actual setting between Jesus followers. The call to Philemon in this regard is, I think, relatively straightforward. Paul encourages Philemon to relinquish his power over Onesimus and to welcome Onesimus as a beloved brother both in the flesh and in the Lord.

Commentators debate whether that means that Paul is asking Philemon to ratify Onesimus’ freedom from enslavement. I think that is the minimum for which Paul is asking, and that Philemon does comply with Paul’s request. That’s part of what “the cross” looks like for Philemon, and we could spend even more time imagining the cultural, social, political, familial, and personal earthquakes that result.

But let’s not.

Why does Onesimus return to Colossae and risk possible torture, disfigurement, and/or death? Why does he come back to the place of his enslavement when he could just as easily have stayed with Paul or moved on to greener pastures? I think he comes back because this is what “the cross” looks like for Onesimus in this situation. Having said that, I want to be very careful to explain what I mean.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

All of Jesus’ passion teachings in the Markan composition have to do with the nature and exercise of power in the life of the disciples. Jesus calls us to understand that the nature of power is always “positional.” If one has power “over” others, then as a disciple one is called to renounce that power over others in the name of Jesus and for the sake of neighbor love. That is the challenge facing Philemon. And that is the challenge that faces White American Christians in our time.

That’s a simple idea, but it’s damnably hard in practice. As has often been noted, the powerful experience equality as loss. That true because it is a loss – a loss of power over others and the privilege, position, and property that accrue to that power. For example, we White people experience so-called Affirmative Action as a loss because it makes us compete with all other people on an even playing field, and we won’t do as well as we did when we had a monopoly on the playing field.

If one is oppressed by others, then Jesus’ words in Mark 9 take on a different dynamic. Let me think about this as I imagine the situation of Onesimus. First, I am sure that Onesimus returns to Colossae voluntarily. Just as Paul did not make Philemon’s agreement a matter of obedience but rather something voluntary, so I am sure Paul applied the same deference to Onesimus. Otherwise, Paul could not have regarded them as equals in his family of faith.

Onesimus, therefore, has the power to choose to return or not. He uses that power to return, in spite of the potential risk to his safety. There may have been some legal reasons in the Roman system that made returning more advantageous to Paul, but Paul was already in custody and headed toward a hearing in Rome. As it turned out, Paul’s cause in that action did not succeed. In short, you can’t get more dead than dead. So, I don’t think the legal argument has much weight here.

I think Onesimus returns (along with Paul’s little letter and a small delegation from Paul) to provoke a crisis in the life of the Colossian congregation and in Philemon’s life of faith. It is certain that Onesimus did not return in order to apologize, beg forgiveness, and return to his former station. If that had been the case, Paul would have written a quite different letter. We know that because we have examples of such letters, such as the letter of Pliny the Younger to Sabinianus, regarding a somewhat similar situation (see https://www.bartleby.com/9/4/1103.html).

Onesimus does not return in order to be “nice.” Jesus does not talk about first/last issues in Mark 9 because Jesus wants his followers to be “nice.” This is about how disciples are to exercise power. And when we exercise power appropriately, we will destabilize the existing power structures. That’s why the paragraph about serving is preceded by a teaching about the cross. It’s not being “nice” that gets Jesus crucified. It’s about challenging the way in which power “over” is used as the only model of relationship. Onesimus does that to Philemon.

Onesimus does not return in order to punish Philemon. Rather, I would argue that he returns on the basis of Christian love. It is not a loving thing to leave me in a place where I blithely exercise power over others without thought or consequence. The idolatry of power over others makes me, as the power-wielder, subhuman. We human beings, created in the image and likeness of God, were made to use power for the sake of the Other. When we use it for ourselves, we degrade ourselves, eventually to the point of ceasing to be authentically human.

Onesimus comes to confront Philemon about power and to set him free from his inhumanity. If following Jesus is the clearest path to full and authentic humanity (and I think it is), then slaveholding is a clear deviation from that path.

Therefore, I believe Onesimus comes to destabilize, disorient, and deconstruct Philemon’s world – and to do so for the sake of love. If Onesimus (and Paul and his colleagues) make Philemon (and the rest of the congregation) uncomfortable, that’s a good thing. Would it be loving to abandon Philemon to his self-delusion? I don’t think so.

It’s a simplistic illustration, but it works for me. Is it more loving for my spouse to point out the lettuce stuck in my teeth before I go into a hundred-person Zoom meeting (even though I have that initial twinge of irritation at being criticized)? Or is it more loving for her to leave me in my comfortable ignorance, only to discover later as I review the video that I looked like I was growing a garden in my mouth? For me, the answer is obvious, no matter how I might feel in the moment of critique.

When Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI Christians challenge me in my unthinking racism, are they doing damage to me? No. I am uncomfortable. It is painful. I am forced to look at things about myself that I don’t like. I have to change not only some details about my behavior but my whole view of the world through White Supremacist lenses. That’s no fun for me, and my automatic response is angry rejection. But would it be more loving for others to abandon me to my sin and move on? No.

I want to say right way that I don’t think it’s the “job” of others to educate me about my own racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, classism, ageism, or any of the numerous other failings in my character and my worldview. Unlike Philemon (who may not have had access to many resources to encourage his reflection), I have access to a whole world of stories, experiences, history, data, reflection, theory, theology, and encouragement in this regard. I have a responsibility to seek out those resources – and to know that when I feel uncomfortable, that’s a sign that someone is trying to love me into my fuller humanity.

By the way, I think that Emmanuel Acho’s book, listed in the “References and Resources,” is an excellent beginning to precisely such a conversation.

If someone is oppressed, abused, and dehumanized, the most loving expression of power at that moment may well be escape (where that is possible and safe). There is no obligation for anyone to “educate” oppressors, abusers, and tyrants. That’s an analysis and a decision that the person in that position must engage in the moment. I have no right to even speak further about that.

Onesimus is in a somewhat different position. He comes with the new power of the gospel and a community that is constituted by that power. He does not come alone. Together, he and his colleagues confront Philemon and the Colossian congregation with the deconstructing news that every element of life needs to change for those who follow Jesus. For those with power over, that means relinquishing that power. If that relinquishing happens, then the oppressed might begin to think about reconciliation (but not before).

Thus, “the cross” for Philemon looks like relinquishing his “power over” others. He is invited to do so for the sake of the love of Christ – so he can refresh the hearts of the saints even more, to use Paul’s words. The cross which Onesimus has taken up is the one that will result either in a conversion of a slaveholder or the death of a former slave. For Philemon, the cross means being changed. For Onesimus, the cross means being the change.

When someone confronts me with the love of Christ and with my need for conversion, I need to learn the habit of appreciation rather than anger. When someone confronts the White Church with the love of Christ and the need for conversion, we are called to regard that confrontation as loving service, not as troublemaking. When we welcome such a one into our lives and conversations, we are welcoming Jesus and welcoming the One who sent him.

It is, therefore, a daily question for Jesus followers. How do I stand today in relation to power, and thus in relation to the Cross?

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-7.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 5); September 19, 2021

First of All

I noted above that the term for “child” in this text can just as easily be used to identify an enslaved person. That connection takes me to another of my interests, the relationship between Onesimus and Philemon in Paul’s little letter.

It’s too easy for us as Bible readers to experience Jesus’ words in the gospels as happening (to coin a phrase) “long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But the people who heard the Markan composition, and Jesus followers in the generation preceding them, had to work out what Jesus’ words meant in terms of their behavior and how they treated one another.

If, for example, Philemon heard from Paul and understood the Good News of God’s unconditional love for him and for the cosmos in Jesus the Messiah, then nothing in Philemon’s life could remain the same. His view of himself, as we heard earlier from Anthony Campbell, would be flipped on its head. His relationships with others would occur in an entirely new framework. His commitments to power, privilege, position, and property would be definitively deconstructed.

If the Good News of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, is true, then nothing can remain the same. That would include Philemon’s relationship with and response to Onesimus.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“If one desires to be first,” Jesus tells the squabbling disciples, “that one shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35b, my translation). Philemon was the paterfamilias and the slaveholder. That’s a typical image of “first” in Greco-Roman culture. Onesimus was an enslaved person – the paradigm image of what it meant to be “last.” If there is any situation in which Jesus’ discipleship teaching should have traction, this is it.

In Paul’s little letter, Paul makes it clear that Philemon’s trust in Jesus has produced the fruits of faithfulness in the life of the congregation in Colossae. Paul urges Philemon to continue to respond to the Gospel of love with works of love in the case of his response to the actions of Onesimus. Paul prays that “the partnership of your faithfulness might effectively generate in recognition [of the Lord Jesus] all that which is honorable among us toward Christ’s purposes” (Philemon 6, my translation).

Paul expects the new life which Philemon has experienced and continues to experience to result in some specific behaviors that give evidence of their partnership in the gospel. At the present moment, those behaviors have to do with how he will respond to the return of Onesimus to the community. The summary of Paul’s expectation is in verse 17. “If, therefore, you count me as a partner (and you certainly do, welcome him as me” (my translation).

The word for “welcome” has the literal sense of “take toward.” This is not a grudging tolerance or a mere passive acknowledgement. The word, and Paul’s expectation, is much more like the way that Jesus “takes” a child and gives that child standing in the midst of the community. Just as Jesus tenderly embraces that child, so Paul expects Philemon to embrace Onesimus as a beloved brother “both in the flesh and in the Lord” (Philemon 16).

Paul plays on the ambiguity in the terms for “child” and “slave” as well in his little letter. He acknowledges that Onesimus has been enslaved. He also refers to Onesimus as his “child” whom he has birthed into new life in Christ during Paul’s Ephesian imprisonment. Paul is “father” both to Onesimus and also to Philemon, the one who owes Paul his very life (Philemon 19). They are brothers in Christ and in Paul!

The congregation at Colossae witnessed the working out of Jesus’ “first and last” instructions to his disciples. Philemon needed to renounce his power of life and death, or at least physical punishment, over Onesimus if he was to obey Paul (and Jesus). Philemon had to give up his honor status, his position, in order to embrace Onesimus as a brother. He had to relinquish his property – both that which Onesimus might have taken and Onesimus himself as an enslaved person. And he had to surrender his privilege in order to embrace Onesimus now as an equal partner in Paul’s gospel mission.

I am walking through this in such detail in order for us to appreciate that Jesus’ teaching to the disciples was not theory or poetry. Christians, at least in Pauline congregations, were expected to put this teaching to work in their lives in Christian community. The powerful were called upon to relinquish that power for the sake of their partnership in the gospel.

At the beginning of his two-volume work, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright spends a hundred pages on Onesimus, Philemon, and Paul as a case study for how the Gospel works out in these communities. “Here we have, in fact,” Wright argues, “the concrete outworking of Paul’s theology of the cross – reflecting the same theme in 2 Corinthians 5 itself, written probably not long after Philemon” (Paul, page 20).

Because of this gospel of New Creation, Wright argues, the question of the social relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, and the status of each is “radically outflanked” (Wright, Paul, page 20). The “last” becomes first, and the “first” becomes last – and servant.

The one who was socially dead, the enslaved person, has been made alive. Onesimus has been “birthed” into the faith just as Philemon received his very life from Paul’s preaching. The one who was most fully alive, the honorable paterfamilias, must die to himself and to the world in order to live in the partnership of Christ.

As I discussed the Mark 9 text with a group of lay preachers this week, we came to a difficult realization. If we remain focused on verses 33 through 37, the text provides a marvelous opportunity to focus on the unconditional and prevenient love of God in Christ for us. As I described in an earlier post, we can find ourselves in Jesus’ arms as beloved children of God. There is no greater or more life-changing news that that!

If we stay with those verses, it’s all well and good. But we also have verses 30 to 32. All of this happens under the shadow of the cross. This transformative, revolutionary, destabilizing, re-orienting Divine Love provokes a violent pushback from the powers of this world. That violent pushback begins in my own heart – the place where my desires for self-idolatry originate. The move from first to last is the death of the Old Self.

“I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul writes to the Galatian Christians. “It is no longer ‘I’ who lives but Christ who lives in me.” The death of the ‘I,’ (the ‘ego’ in the Greek) is part of how I participate in, exercise partnership in the cross of Jesus Christ. “And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul continues, “I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).

The change in relationship between Onesimus and Philemon involved a variety of “deaths” for Philemon. Welcoming Onesimus as a beloved brother happened at the foot of the cross or not at all.

This case study has been conducted so far from the position of one who is “first” and is called now to be “last” and “servant.” The text calls me to look at my own faith walk and to assess where I am “first.” For me, that is nearly everywhere. I am White. I am male. I am educated in a Europa-centric system. I am not impoverished. I have professional status and standing. I have all the habits and assumptions that go with this mash-up of “first.” Following Jesus, for me, is mostly about daily becoming “last” and “servant.”

In the next chapter of Mark’s composition, by the way, we will see how this works out for one of the Firsts who comes to Jesus for advice. The rich man, whom Jesus loves, is unable to die to the “First” of his wealth and goes away deeply troubled. If I’m looking for myself in the larger story, there’s a place for me.

I am part of a denomination that has spent a lot of time in the company of the cultural Firsts. If we are to be a factor in the future of this culture, we will have to figure out how to embrace being Last. Jemar Tisby, in his book The Color of Compromise, itemizes some of the ways that we can embrace being Last in order to be faithful.

We can, as individuals, congregations and denominations begin making Reparations to Black, Brown, Indigenous, and AAPI communities. We can take down Confederate monuments and dismantle other symbols that continue to make “White” equal to “First.” We can learn from the Black Church how to be faithful without having to be First. We White Christians have no idea how to do that. We are so wedded to White Christian Nationalism that for many White Christians there is no daylight between such Nationalist idolatry and their understanding of the Christian faith.

Tisby has several other suggestions that I would commend for your consideration. “This much is clear,” Tisby writes, “the American church has compromised with racism. Countless Christians have ignored, obscured, or misunderstood this history. But the excuses are gone. The information cannot be hidden. The only question that remains,” he concludes, “is what the church will do now that its complicity in racism has been exposed” (page 212).

Will we who are powerful embrace being Last of all and Servant of all?

This post has focused on the “First” who is called to be “Last”? What does it look like to start out “Last” like Onesimus? Let’s think about that in the next post.

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Bailey, James L. “Experiencing the Kingdom as a Little Child: A Rereading of Mark 10:13-16.” Word and World, Number 1, Winter 1995, pages 58-67.

Black, C. Clifton. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-25-2/commentary-on-mark-930-37-7.

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Goff, et. al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2014, Vol. 106, No. 4, 526–545. DOI: 10.1037/a0035663.

Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Malina; Rohrbaugh, Richard L. (1992). Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Ruge-Jones, Philip. Cross in Tensions: Luther’s Theology of the Cross as Theologico-social Critique (Princeton Theological Monograph Series Book 91). Pickwick Publications, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. Wright, N. T. Paul and the Faithfulness of God: Two Book Set (Christian Origins and the Question of God 4). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition

Text Study for Mark 9:30-37 (Pt. 4); September 19, 2021


Twice in Mark’s composition, Jesus puts forth a child as a teaching illustration. The Composer uses multiple stories around similar themes to highlight the importance of each of those themes. The second time we run into a small child in Mark’s composition will be in a few weeks in Mark 10:13-16. In our current text, the focus is on embracing the child as an image of discipleship. In the next chapter, it is the child who embraces (receives) the Reign of God.

As I noted previously, neither of these images has to do with innocence, openness, or any supposed characteristics of the Child. There is nothing in the Child that demands Jesus’ embrace on its own merits. That’s the point, as I noted in the previous post. Jesus loves the Child “for nothing.”

Photo by nappy on Pexels.com

In his 1995 article, Jim Bailey gives us a summary of Ched Meyer’s assessment of the social status of the child in first-century Mediterranean culture. It’s a helpful summary of a fairly complete assessment. According to Bailey, Meyers lists six features of this social status:

  • Jesus does not have an idealistic notion of children in either text.
  • The Child typifies a category of the marginalized and dominated, like women, the poor, and the unclean.
  • The Child is “least” in both family and social structures in that culture.
  • Children were easily dominated and exploited since they were vulnerable and dependent.
  • Jesus invites his disciples to imagine the “least” as the model for discipleship.
  • Disciples, therefore, are called to “take up the powerlessness and vulnerability of the child.” (page 59).

In my experience, that reminder to listeners will still come as a shock and receive romantic resistance from those who continue to idolize the Child in White American culture. On the one hand, we who have power, privilege, position, and property don’t want our children to resemble those first-century Mediterranean children in any sense. We expect our children to be protected and powerful, able to receive and to maintain the power, privilege, position, and property we will bequeath to them.

I need look no further than myself in this regard. Regardless of my theological, moral, and political stances and pronouncements, I was committed to keeping my children firmly in the White middle class and elevating that privileged position, regardless of the cost (my estate will likely pay the last of the student loan debt unless something changes in the interim). I have succeeded in that project, and they are solidly on their way to carrying that effort into another generation.

Thirty years ago, the meaning of that effort played dimly around the edges of my consciousness. When it invaded my waking moments, I certainly found ways to push that awareness back into the shadows. We talked about having our kids in a more diverse educational setting. We did not, however, find an acceptable home in that school district. We didn’t take the effort or energy to enroll outside of our geography, although we could have done so. Those choices – paths of least resistance and White defaults – continued through college, with predictable outcomes.

None of this made my kids “bad” people. I’m not very objective, but I think they’re pretty good folks, despite their connections to me. But our clan has embedded itself firmly in the system of White power, privilege, position, and property. In two generations, Hennigs folk have gone from being tenant farmers without indoor plumbing to triple garages and swimming pools in Midwest suburbia.

It didn’t occur to me that this was all part of a system to sustain the White power of children of privilege until I thought back on the house we bought in Lincoln, Nebraska. We had an excellent realtor who listened closely both to what we said and what we didn’t say. The realtor sized us up and created a list of potential homes. They were all in neighborhood bastions of White power and middle class “propriety.” We didn’t ask for that. The realtor didn’t ask about it. We just all assumed this was unthinkingly “normal.”

We put the Child in the midst of our imagination, our priorities, and our communities. But the Child was White, middle-class, Christian, and English-speaking. Any suggestion that we might have needed to adjust our imagination, our priorities, and our vision for community would have been (and was) met with stiff resistance.

Continued reflection tells me that my efforts were, as should not be surprising, far more about me than about my kids. I love my kids and want “the best” for them (as if I actually knew then or know now what that might be). But I also did not want to “fail” as a White, middle-class parent. I was unconsciously anxious about the risk that my children might fall out of the White middle-class because of something I did or did not do.

If that happened, I would have regarded myself as a miserable excuse for a parent. So, I spared no expense, approved every sport and activity, and signed every loan document. I didn’t really begin to think hard about this until it was far too late for me. I read Scott Bader-Saye’s excellent book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. It’s one of those books that will be on my shelf after I die and to which I return often for challenge and clarity.

In the first chapter, called “Fear for Profit,” he has a section labeled “Fearful Parenting.” I read that in 2007 and had a brief, but profound, thought.


Bader-Saye points to the shift from a “good parenting” model to a “safe parenting” model. Ordinary life for children is now seen as this massive minefield of existential threats, and we parents have to hover over every step lest disaster strike. And there is someone else hovering in the background – the vendor always ready to sell us parental peace of mind. “When ‘good parenting’ is replaced by ‘safe parenting,’” Bader-Saye writes, “child rearing is easily captured by consumption – we may not be able to buy goodness, but we can buy safety” (page 13).

Safe parenting becomes an exercise in preventive living. We focus on dangers we must avoid rather than experiences we might embrace. We focus on control rather than creativity. We emphasize avoidance and aversion rather than adventure. We value familiarity rather than novelty. We raise children who know everything and learn nothing, who judge everyone and engage no one. “We want our children to grow into adults who are expansive and generous rather than fearful and constricted,” Bader-Saye writes, “yet the culture of fear routinely squelches such an extravagant embrace of life” (page 14).

I feel guilt and shame over that story and that history. I need to sit with those emotions and experiences, to marinate in them, and not expect anyone to make me feel better. But that’s not enough. We have sought to live in a somewhat different neighborhood these days, although it’s not exactly a stellar effort on our part. We support school funding that is not dependent on property tax revenues and zip codes. But that’s not going anywhere right now. We encourage our grandchildren to have a diverse set of friends, but we’ve already put in place many dynamics to work against that.

This text challenges me to do better.

The focus on the White Child in the center of our culture has another dimension. “If only we could all have the faith of a little child,” the resistance will insist, “then we wouldn’t have all these problems and divisions in our churches.” This perspective presumes that Jesus embraces us because of something in us rather than as an act of grace. And the image of the “innocent” and “trusting” Child is, in White American culture, always White and “pure.”

One of the unspoken and collateral dangers of clinging to this iconography of childhood innocence is that it will quickly morph into what it really is – the mythology of White Innocence and Purity. Remember our thought experiment about displacing the “white” baby Jesus in the congregational creche with a Brown baby Jesus? That experiment assumes rightly that the doll we are most likely to find there will be White.

If the child in the center of our imagination is White, Innocent, and Pure, then we White people see children (and adults) of other colors as guilty and impure. I have to confess that the first time I wrote that sentence, I wrote it in the passive voice with a thus unidentified subject. But that’s a symptom of the problem. If I write about children of other colors as “seen,” then I don’t have to take responsibility for the fact that I as a White person am doing the seeing.

In fact, that’s precisely what is happening. The myth of White Innocence and Purity is encapsulated in our imaginations as we center the White Child, the beginning of that Innocence and Purity. Once we have done that, it’s fairly easy to imagine children other than White as culpable and dirty. When we embrace that imagination, it’s even easier to see children other than White as dangerous, unworthy, and less than human.

The reverse image of the Pure, Innocent, White Child is the Dangerous Black Man. The power of that toxic image flows easily on to the bodies of Black boys who suffer fatal consequences. Studies too numerous to cite demonstrate that Black boys are perceived by White people as far older than they actually are. The Goff et. al. study shows that Black children do not have the same presumption of innocence as White children; that Black boys are seen as more culpable for their actions than White boys; that Black boys are misperceived as older than their peers in other races; and that these misperceptions result in violence based on dehumanization (especially violence in law enforcement and corrections situations).

We can say the names of a few of those Black children who have been killed by the Myth of the Pure, Innocent, White Child: Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, Tyre King, Cameron Tillman…and those little Black boys in my own neighborhood who are already at risk for just being boys…and Black.

How does this conversation impact our preaching about putting a Child in our midst?

References and Resources

Acho, Emmanuel. Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

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Malina, Bruce J. (1996). The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

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