Mocking Jesus — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Have you ever been mocked for being a Jesus follower? If so, you’re in good company.

In 1857, explorers uncovered a bit of anti-Christian graffiti in a room of a building called the domus Gelotiana on the Palatine Hill in Rome. The hand-drawn cartoon depicts a person hanging on a cross. The figure has the head of a donkey rather than that of a human. The caption of the cartoon reads something like “Alexamenos worships his (or a) god.” At the foot of the cross is a figure, presumably said Alexamenos, raising a hand in salute or worship.

In the next room is an inscription that reads “Alexamenos is faithful.” This may be a reply or rebuttal to the graffiti in the first room. Of course, we cannot discern the tone either of the cartoon or the response. This may have been a hostile exchange. It may have been a bit of good-natured ribbing between friends. It may have been a way to identify the location of Alexamenos to authorities seeking to regulate or persecute Alexamanos and other Jesus followers. We can’t know for sure.

Photo by Rodrigo DelPer on Pexels.com

Scholars believe the graffito was drawn sometime in the late 100s to the early 200s of the Common Era, about a century after the four canonical gospels were put to the page. At this time, pagan writers regularly ridiculed Christians for worshipping a crucified and dishonored criminal. It may be that some of these pagan authors believed that Christians practiced donkey worship, an accusation applied to Jews before the Christian era.

Depicting a character with the head of an ass is a time-honored trope in the literature of lampooning. I am reminded, for example, of the fate of Nick Bottom in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bottom and his hapless colleagues provide the comic relief during the drama.

Bottom’s head is transformed by Puck into that of a donkey. In that guise, he becomes the object of infatuation for Titania, the fairy queen, who has been bewitched by a love potion. The situation provides no end of hilarity, mostly at Bottom’s expense. Bottom merits some of this treatment, in Shakespeare’s telling, because he has an inappropriately high opinion of himself and his own dramatic talents. The script takes him down a notch, and (as the Bard might say), all’s well that ends well.

Mockery is in the historical DNA of the Jesus followers movement (what I abbreviate as the JFM). This is especially true in the Markan composition. In his climactic “passion prediction” in Mark 10, Jesus declares that the Gentiles who execute Jesus will begin the process by mocking him and spitting on him. That description comes to pass in Mark 15:20 when the soldiers mock him as part of their practice of torture. Those who pass by the cross continue the mocking in Mark 15:31.

It was no worse treatment than a failed revolutionary messiah deserved. Jesus made it clear that members of the JFM could expect similar treatment in the future. In Mark 13, he tells the disciples that they can anticipate betrayals and beatings, interrogations and internment, humiliation and hatred. This sort of treatment, Jesus declares, is not a sign of failure but rather of faithfulness.

I don’t know about you, but I have rarely been subjected to mockery because I’m a Jesus follower. When I was in college, I took a three-year sojourn into philosophical atheism. I thought at the time that this was the only reasonable path for intelligent people. I discovered that I could not survive the existential vacuum such a perspective seemed to demand of me. After a bit of personal drama, I returned to the path of Jesus following.

Even then, I was not really “mocked.” An honored mentor received the news of my lapse from atheism with a rueful and puzzled shake of the head. Friends and classmates simply thought I had gone crazy in a new but not particularly novel sort of way. Other Jesus followers rejoiced that I had returned to the fold and hoped that I had learned my lesson. Only one of my former atheist compatriots had the integrity to call me “a stupid ass who exchanged hard truth for easy certainty.”

Coming back to the life of the Church did not subject me to ridicule. Instead, it was celebrated and rewarded. Obviously, it led me to my life’s work inside the confines of the Church. I’m not complaining in the least. I’m simply observing. In my experience, being identified as a Jesus follower presented no downside. No one was drawing donkey-headed cartoons to mock me and lampoon my faith. Instead, I was on the path to privilege and respectability.

That hardly sounds like mocking. It has nothing to do with dying. I am not sure I’ve ever gotten very far as a member of the JFM.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that persecution and pain are the means to demonstrate my belonging. The Christian gospels do not valorize victimhood or celebrate suffering. But the gospel accounts certainly remind us that faithful following is likely to get us into real trouble with the guarantors of the status quo. If our discipleship doesn’t get us into “good trouble,” we may need to wonder if we’re on the right path. Donkey-headed cartoons are not the goal of following Jesus, but they are often the outcome of such faithful following.

There is nothing attractive or virtuous about Jesus’ suffering and death in the Markan composition of the gospel. There’s lots of groaning and crying out. There’s lots of blood and screams. There’s plenty of mockery and humiliation. It’s not attractive or controlled. There’s lots of human cruelty and straight-up tyranny.

In the midst of it, however, something strange happens. The world gets turned upside down. In spite of the cruel ignorance of the torturers, “the reader understands that these characters’ actions and words point toward a truth unknown to them,” Joel Marcus writes, “royal garments and crowns rightfully do belong to Jesus, who will show his kingship precisely by not saving himself by dying on the cross. Although the degrading slave’s death of crucifixion seems to the mockers to be a decisive contradiction of the claim that Jesus is a king,” Marcus concludes, “the reader knows the opposite is true” (page 74).

Marcus notes that Jesus does not claim the title, “King of the Jews,” for himself. It is assigned to him by his mocking torturers and the contemptuous crowd. The titulus, the sign on the cross, “was meant not only to indicate the charge against Jesus,” Marcus suggests, “but also to continue the mockery that was intrinsic to the process of crucifixion” (page 83).

But what happens, Marcus asks, if the mockery itself is mocked? “And what happened,” he wonders, “if the prisoner mocked by crucifixion as a person of high status or a presumptive monarch responded to his torture with unaccountable dignity?” (pages 86-87). This may best account, for example, for the response from the centurion in Mark 15:39 – “Truly, this man was the son of God.”

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Kelly Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

It is the very visibility of the cross and the dignity of the sufferer that bring about this unmasking. I can’t help but think about the televised images and video, for example, of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was the combination of Bull Connors’ cruelty and the nonviolent dignity of the protesters that filled our small screens. It was that combination which provoked the nationwide outrage that led to the signing of the Civil Rights Act and related legislation.

It is not that suffering as a victim is good in itself. However, bearing up under the weight of punishment with faith, hope, and love has the power to convert those who are watching – some of whom had previously been in the company of the mockers. Suddenly the joke was on them.

We Jesus followers believe that God ratifies this power to change the world by…changing the world. That’s what the Good News of Resurrection is all about. The powers of sin, death, and the Devil are turned upside down and inside out. The mockery of Creation – the captivity of all things under an alien power – is mocked by the Creator who deigns to be crucified. Suddenly the joke is on the jerks.

If I embrace that Good News and the power of the Resurrection, then I might be given the courage to resist the Powers by mocking the mockers. That would mean stepping out of my safe, establishment, institutional Church bubble and into the hurly-burly world of pagans in power. These days, a number of those pagans in power call themselves “Christians,” so the confrontation has become ever so much more complicated.

At the end of our year with the Markan composition, this is where we find ourselves. Will I put myself in places where someone wants to put an ass’s head on me and laugh themselves silly? Will I keep pushing until the laughter turns to rage and some wish to bash in my ass’s head? I don’t know. I’m not sure. I want to flee in fear like any self-respecting disciple in Mark’s account. But perhaps I’ll do better once in a while.

After all, my story is no more complete than Mark’s story…

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/not-without-gods-power.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/commentary-on-mark-151-47.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.

The Fab Four — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 12:35-44

The Fab Four

Konstantin Stanislavski is regarded as the “father of modern acting.” He was the one who first said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Prior to his time, the bit players and extras in productions didn’t do much acting. Mostly, they just filled in the spaces between the lines of the “big” actors.

Stanislavski rejected this understanding. He required the same depth, commitment, and quality from all his actors – big or small, headliners or extras. This demand revolutionized the theater experience for both the actors and the audience.

In our text, we witness the performance of one of the bit players and extras in the Gospel according to Mark. The poor widow may have a small part in the drama. She is, however, anything but a small actor. The poor widow is, in fact, one of the “Fab Four” in the Markan gospel account.

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Mark’s gospel features four unnamed women. They are the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5, the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, the poor widow here in Mark 12, and the woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14.

These women are some of the so-called “little people” in Mark’s gospel. That means they aren’t one of the Twelve so-called “official” disciples. Nor are they among the named characters who have larger roles in the drama. Instead, they come on stage. They play their parts and speak their lines. Then they leave the stage, not to be mentioned again.

The four women are, in the language of the theater, bit players and extras. They might not even rate a mention in the credits at the end of the film or on the back of the program. Yet, these four women – the characters I want to call the “Fab Four” – reveal more about who Jesus is and what following him means than most of the other characters in Mark’s script.

These four women have similar roles in the Markan drama. Each of them takes the initiative. The woman with the hemorrhage seeks Jesus out and takes the risk to touch his robe. The Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus and walks right into the house where he’s staying. The poor widow expresses her devotion to God in the Temple with her whole living. The unnamed anointer comes uninvited, not only into the house, but into the space reserved for the invited male guests.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like. These are not small actors. Nor do they have small parts.

These four women are outsiders to “The System” – the status quo that keeps them sick, rejected, poor, and segregated. They do not allow, however, “The System” to keep them in their places. The woman with the hemorrhage has had enough of ineffective treatments. The Syro-Phoenician woman has had enough of limited access. The poor widow has had enough of gifts evaluated by size. The anointing woman has had enough of men controlling access to worship.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like.

They, however, are not identical. The “Fab Four” each have their own roles and performances. The despair of the bleeding woman drives her to courageous faith. The determination of the Syro-Phoenician woman empowers her to get what she seeks. The devotion of the poor widow requires even a corrupt and broken system to convey her gift to God. The discernment of the anointing woman is beyond that of any of the men in the room.

These women engage in the dance of trust. It is a complicated step that I won’t often get right. Trusting Jesus as my Lord often requires this combination of desperation, determination, devotion, and discernment. The recipe is never quite the same twice in a row. But this complicated dance plays out in the Markan drama for those with the eyes to see it.

Martin Luther describes one function of the “Law” in God’s Word as driving me deeper into my need for Jesus. Luther gets that right. This text drives me deeper into Jesus’ loving embrace. That doesn’t happen as resignation or fear. Rather, I am driven by a joyous hunger to have what the Fab Four have. There is more to this discipleship biz, and I want it.

Yes, perhaps the way to relate to these four women is to contract and nourish a case of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “holy envy.” I know it was Krister Stendahl who coined the phrase. And Taylor always gives due credit. But she puts additional flesh on Stendahl’s theological bones in this phrase.

I can envy the widow for her deep devotion, her “ruthless trust” (as Brenna Manning would name it). I can envy her for shedding her last bits of financial and cultural baggage. After all, as that great philosopher, Kris Kristofferson, once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

I can envy her the adventure of not knowing what comes next and the excitement of finding out. I can envy her love without anxiety or limits. I can envy her desire to love God, not for what she can get but rather “for nothing.” I can choose to feel ashamed by her example or inspired by it. I think the Markan composer longs for us to see the Fab Four and know that there are no small parts in the Good News of the Kin(g)dom of God – not even for me.

I am convinced that the Christian gospels are not, in technical terms, “wisdom” texts. They are not advice on how to get along in the world as it is. That work is left for books like Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures and, perhaps, James in the Christian Scriptures. No, the Christian gospels are apocalypses. They seek to uncover the world as God intends and destines it to be.

Each of the Fab Four is an apocalyptic actor, revealing more about the Kin(g)dom and Jesus’ role and identity in that Kin(g)dom. They demonstrate that God’s healing love flows into the world. They show that outsiders have faith – often more than the insiders. They demonstrate what it means to give one’s whole life for the sake of love. And they point to Jesus as the true Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God.

In my envy, I am challenged as a disciple to live an apocalyptic life as well. I don’t mean that I should focus on end times prophecies. No, I’m claiming the real meaning of “apocalyptic.” Jesus followers are called to live lives that reveal the living and loving presence and power of God in Jesus Christ for the sake of each person and the whole cosmos. The four women do that in the Markan composition. They show us that we can do that in our lives as well. There are no small parts in the gospel drama, and no one is a small actor.

The Fab Four also uncover The System in its tragic brokenness and terrible power. The critique in the poor widow’s story, for example, is not that the Temple is financially extractive. The problem is that the widow is abandoned with only two pennies to her name. The fact that this widow exists is Exhibit A to prove that The System is broken and corrupt. The rich have a surplus because the widow has a deficit – and vice versa.

Each of the Fab Four reveals, in her own way, a place where The System is broken. The bleeding woman requires us to look at our health care system and know that it penalizes the poor not only for being poor but for daring to be sick. The Syro-Phoenician woman reveals our anti-Other prejudices now expressed in rejection of the migrant. The poor widow reveals our exploitation of the many to enrich the few. The anointing woman shows up in our discounting of the witness and voices of women – especially in churches.

The four women remind us that where we look determines what we see. If we look at the rich donors and the big stones of the Temple, we will not see the poor widows, the bleeding women, the desperate mothers, the grieving prophets of the world. We dare not look at the beneficiaries of The System and expect to see anything other than support for the status quo.

The Kin(g)dom of God is most clearly revealed in the people The System regards as bit players and extras. We who follow Jesus know where to look. It takes immense, self-serving effort to avert our gaze and look in all the wrong places. The Fab Four remind us to abandon that habit of the averted gaze.

The small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into a bigger apocalyptic story next week. Jesus tells us that a system which can treat this poor widow in this way is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. More on that next week, but (spoiler alert), we should be very worried.

More important, however, the small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into the biggest story of all. She gives her whole life in trusting response to God’s goodness. This is a preview, a foreshadowing, of Jesus as he gives his whole life in trusting response to God’s call and for the sake of all.

In the gospel drama, there are no small parts. Please, God, help me to stop being a small actor.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-6.

Cruz, Samuel. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-5.

Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.

Kiel, Micah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-2.

Langknecht, Henry. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-3.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-4.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.

On Wanting the Right Thing — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:46-52

Last week I reminded you of the wonderful offertory prayer in our Lutheran liturgy. That prayer begins with God’s great mercy. “Merciful God,” we pray. God’s mercy releases us from bondage to sin and stuff. “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” we continue. “We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” This is what Christian stewardship looks like. We are made for mercy.

When I played Little League baseball, I was a splinter-collector. I spent so much time on the bench, I had a spot molded to my eleven-year-old backside. The only time I got in a game was when the issue was no longer in doubt. We were either so far ahead or so far behind that my meager contribution couldn’t affect the outcome.

Thus I hated the Little League “mercy rule.” If we were ten runs ahead or behind in the late innings, the umpire would call the game. I understood the need for the rule. Without it, we might have lost some games by a hundred runs after two days of non-stop agony. But the rule meant that I got to play even less.

Photo by Steshka Willems on Pexels.com

The “mercy rule” is designed to stop the punishment and pain. That’s our cultural understanding of “mercy.” If we beg for mercy, we are asking for the punishment and pain to stop. That’s true on the ball field, on the playground and on the battlefield. We understand mercy as the end of punishment and pain.

Son of David,” Bartimaeus cries, “have mercy on me!” What is he asking? Is he asking Jesus to stop the punishment and pain? No, God isn’t punishing the poor man. So he must be asking for something else.

Our New Testament is written in first-century Greek. But Jesus and Bartimaeus probably spoke to each other in Aramaic, a dialect of Hebrew. In Hebrew, “mercy” has the same root as “womb.” So God’s mercy is not about the end of punishment and pain. Mercy is God’s “womb-love” for God’s children. God’s mercy is compassion in action. We are made for mercy.

Bartimaeus begins the story as one who lives on the edge – the edge of the road, the edge of the town, the edge of community, and the edge of survival. He moves from the edge to the center by the end of the story. I wonder how many of the composer’s listeners had made the same journey. I wonder how many of us have made the same journey – perhaps many times!

I imagine a performance of the Markan composition as I listen to the story. Candidates for baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the crowd late in the evening, perhaps on the eve of Easter Sunday. They listen to the story in all of its depth and drama as they consider whether they will go through with their commitments to lives of following Jesus to the cross. Perhaps these candidates in particular identify closely with Bartimaeus.

They have, perhaps, been living on the edge as well. Some of them may be enslaved persons who never quite know what the next moment will bring – a beating, a sexual assault, cleaning the latrine, or tutoring the master’s children. They may not be able to see into the next moment, much less the next day. They have heard that this Jesus character might be a source of good news in an otherwise dreary world. And they begin to cry out.

In our liturgy, we often use a section traditionally called the “Kyrie.” “Kyrie” comes from the Greek word for “Lord.” It is a prayer that concludes with the words “Lord, have mercy.” That prayer reflects the prayer of Bartimaeus in today’s gospel reading. We often come to worship crying out with Blind Bartimaeus for we know not what. But we know we need it.

What are we asking in that prayer? I know you haven’t thought about it much. But if you did, I wonder if it would go like this. We pray that prayer so God will stop punishing us. We’re here face to face with God. We’ve confessed our sins. Now, God, cut us a little slack. Ease up out of our faces a bit, so we can get closer to you.

That’s the problem Martin Luther confronted in the Reformation. If God is intent on punishing, then God is not someone we love. In fact, Luther discovered that he came to hate the God of pain and punishment. It was when he re-discovered the God whose heart is all mercy that the Reformation began. We are made for mercy.

So we pray, “Lord, have mercy.” Your mercy, Loving God, is your compassion in action. Your mercy is your womb-love for your people. Take us into your heart, Loving God. Wrap your arms around us. Hold us close and heal us. Remind us of who we are. We are people made for compassion in action. We are made for mercy.

There’s a direct connection between the gospel reading last week and this week’s reading. Last week, Jesus asked the disciples, “What do you want me to do for you?” They wanted status, certainty and security. They demanded position, privilege and power. They wanted the wrong things.

Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question. “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus wants help, healing and hope. He wants to rest in God’s womb of love. He asks for mercy. Bartimaeus wants the right thing. We are made for mercy.

We get another second person singular now. “What do you want that I shall do for (or to) you?” The Markan storyteller perhaps turns to those most impacted by the story and asks the question. The “fourth wall” of play-acting is pierced again. The story reaches out and grabs at least some of us with its power.

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Let’s pause for a few moments and sit with that question.

“My teacher,” Bartimaeus responds. The distance has disappeared. The chasm has been bridged. The Son of David has become My Teacher. “That I might see again,” the blind man replies. The word is “anablepo.” The preposition that begins the word vibrates with multiple meanings. Let me see “again.” Let me see “anew.” Let me “look up.” The Markan composer intends and includes all these meanings in that small sentence.

Is that what you want? Do you want to see the world as Jesus sees it? Do you want to see things in a new way? That’s one of the definitions of repentance, after all. And repentance is the precursor to believing in Mark 1. Do you want to look up? For a while in the days to come, looking up in the Markan composition will mean looking up to Jesus on the cross. Is that what you want?

Bartimaeus experiences a preview of the Resurrection. That’s what God’s mercy produces. He throws off his cloak. He rises up. He is made whole. He follows Jesus on the way to the cross. That’s how it can work for us as well.

Is that what you want?

Perhaps your congregation or community is in the midst of an annual financial appeal. Many congregations are. We give in response to God’s great mercy. That’s a confusing theme if we use the cultural understanding of mercy. Then it sounds like we’re giving to pay God off. We’re so glad that God is no longer hurting us that we respond with gratitude. That’s like saying it feels so good when we stop banging our heads against a wall.

We give in response to God’s great mercy. God’s great mercy is the compassion of Jesus. God’s great mercy makes us whole. God’s great mercy wraps us in the womb-love of the Trinity. We give joyfully because we are so happy. We give joyfully because we are so glad to let that mercy flow through us into the lives of others. We give joyfully because we are made for mercy.

“And immediately,” the Markan composer tells us, returning now to narrator mode, “he could see again (or anew or up).” The more I reflect, the more I think that seeing “anew” is the real emphasis for the Markan composer here. That new sight, even though it resembles the old way of seeing, has new outcomes. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to suffering, to the cross – the Way of Discipleship.

“Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you,” we pray in our liturgy. “We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us.” That sounds a great deal like Bartimaeus, throwing off his cloak and leaping to his feet in trust and hope. Is that what you want?

Then we give our gifts. “May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you,” we pray, “dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Signs of our whole lives returned to God. Is that what you want?

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me. Call me to want the right things…

On Wanting the Wrong Things — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:32-45

James and John waste no words. “Teacher, give us what we want!”

Those words take me to breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. We finish eating. We are funneled back into the retail store. Every time it’s the same conversation. “Grandpa, give me what I want!” And another grand-child learns that life is filled with disappointment.

Wanting isn’t the problem. “What is it,” Jesus asks them, “that you want me to do for you?” The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

Photo by Ayyub Yahaya on Pexels.com

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things. James and John want power and prestige, status and security, dignity and dominance. They want to rule with Jesus. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what that means.

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. Our economy exploits our wanting. We have often enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cracker Barrel with the grandkids. To get what we really want, we are required to run the retail gauntlet. We are surrounded by plaques and party dresses, rocking chairs and recipe books, toys and trinkets. Our desires are carefully channeled to stimulate sales. The store shapes our desires and then tries to satisfy them.

There’s the problem. We are created wanting. But that’s not the whole story. We are designed to desire God. Nothing else will do. No matter how the retail gods tease and tempt us, we always want more. We can never buy enough, eat enough, love enough or rule enough to be satisfied. This is the curse of consumerism. Retail therapy is a symptom of the disease, not a treatment.

We are designed to desire God. Christian thinkers have known this from the beginning. “Our hearts are restless, O God,” writes St. Augustine, “until we rest in you.” Blaise Pascal describes the “infinite abyss” in each of us that can be filled only by God.

The hallmark of sin is that we settle for restlessness. The hallmark of sin is that we fill the abyss with anything and everything except for God. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

This is about much more than temporary trinkets at Cracker Barrel. Now we come back to James and John. They don’t want plaques and party dresses. They want power. Subtlety is not their strong suit.

The problem isn’t wanting. The problem isn’t even wanting power. But power in God’s kingdom is nothing like power in the world. Power in God’s kingdom comes in the shape of a cross. The gospel writer knows who will be at Jesus’ right and left hands. It won’t be James and John. It will be two bandits. Above Jesus’ head will be a sign that reads, “The King of the Jews.

The world thinks this is backwards. Only the lead dog has a clear view. Everyone else has a…tail…in their face. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. You’re either climbing or you’re falling. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Truth is a poor substitute for victory.

Jesus says power comes in the shape of a cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus tells all of us disciples, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The purpose of this power is freedom. A ransom is paid to free a hostage. The first purpose of power in God’s kingdom is to set captives free. If you are a captive, this is good news for you. Jesus died and lives so you can be really free.

If you are a captive…but then, who isn’t! We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Jesus draws the powers of sin, death and the devil on to the cross with him. As we read in Ephesians, he takes captivity captive and kills those powers. When we trust him and follow him, we share in that freedom.

Still, we are captive to consumerism. Consumerism is a system that promises identity, meaning, and purpose through shopping. That’s not the definition an economist would give. But it is precisely the spiritual promise consumerism makes. Consumerism turns wanting into the goal of life. In this worldview, what we want is irrelevant. Our desire becomes our god.

It is “stewardship season” in many American Christian congregations. Someone once asked me if the goal is to increase giving to a congregation. That would be a salutary side effect of such an appeal. The goal, however, is freedom. The goal is freedom from captivity to stuff, security and certainty. Grateful giving is the best path to freedom from wanting. The goal is freedom to be the self-giving servants that God has made us to be. In part, that will be the freedom to buy less stuff.

Giving for the life and work of the Church is a tool for reaching that goal. An offertory prayer describes it well. “Merciful God,” we pray, “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you. We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

The world thinks serving is for suckers. Jesus is no naïve dreamer. He knows how the world works. He reminds his disciples of that. The weak are meat for the strong to eat. The world asks, “Do you want to eat or be eaten?” Jesus is hardly a utopian romantic. He simply says, “It is not so among you.

We are also still captive to self-serving power. We live in a time when power has ceased to be a tool. We live in a time when power has become the goal. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus says, “But it is not so among you…” Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings.

When I vote, for example, I apply this litmus test to every candidate. Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings. Self-servers do not get my vote. Self-givers do. I must confess that the slate of people for whom I can vote appears to be shrinking by the day. But I keep looking.

Jesus comes to release all of Creation from bondage to sin, death, and the devil – ALL of creation! If I will not participate in that work of release, then I cannot receive it. We live in a time when White Male Supremacy struggles to remain the dominant system in our society. Christian denominations and churches have been central to sustaining that system for the past four centuries. We can be part of shedding that system or sheltering it. The Jesus option should be clear.

“You know that the so-called leaders of the White Christian Nationalists lord it over people of color, women, migrants, and anyone else who threatens their power,” Jesus says, “but it is not so among you.” If it is so among us – even in subtle ways – then we are not following Jesus.

Jesus delivers his clearest and most detailed teaching on the cross and resurrection. Then James and John ask for a promotion. That’s crazy talk! But that’s precisely what we White American Christians do when Jesus sets us free and we use that freedom to keep others in bondage. That is, as James Baldwin once noted, a kind of insanity.

Our release comes by means of Jesus, dying and rising. The cross changes Creation – no, restores Creation to the way God makes it, and us. That change costs those of us who are invested in the status quo of power over others. It will feel like dying. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. So, if we’re losing power, position, privilege, and property, then things are probably working as they should.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who are privileged White Christians is developing and sustaining the moral, emotional, and institutional stamina to live through the losing. “To serve,” for us first means dealing that fragility as dominant and dominating people. We are being forced to look at our history and practice of tyranny and to sit with that for a while.

In the meantime, as church institutions, we need to practice some losing. Of course, some of that is being forced on us by a changing culture. But when will we start giving land back to Indigenous people? When will be start including reparations to Black institutions as part of our annual denominational and congregational and personal budgets? That’s the question I put to myself, and it’s painful.

Must be the right question.

The test for this is always the Jesus test. Our Lord comes to serve, to give, to die and to live. But that living is God’s gift, not the result of selfishness or fear. William Willimon reminds us that “our faith is full of people…for whom survival was low on the list of priorities.” If survival is the goal, we have failed the Jesus test. If serving in love is the goal, we have passed.

Wanting is not the problem. Wanting stuff in order to help others is not the problem. Wanting power in order to serve others is not the problem. Wanting freedom in order to worship God and love our neighbor is not the problem. Pray this week for right desire. Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

Do Not Pass Go — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 10:17-31.

Perhaps the rich man confronts an existential meltdown. Maybe he is meeting a crisis of meaning. Could it be he has found the purpose-driven life to be mostly just…driven? Does he live his best life now, only to find that “best” is not enough?

The rich man has won the real-life Monopoly game. He owns Park Place and Boardwalk (as well as all the orange properties which, statistically, have the highest Return on Investment). He has all the railroads and utilities for a steady cash flow. He has even won second-place in the beauty contest (twice!).

He’s got it all. Come on, buddy. You’re so close.

Photo by Alexandr Podvalny on Pexels.com

In the first-century world, rich men were seen as sort of white-collar criminals. “Every rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief,” the ancient proverb says. Mark’s audience was mostly poor people. It’s unlikely they applauded when the rich man appeared on the Markan stage. Instead, this strangely anonymous character was likely greeted with boos, hisses, and the melodramatic throwing of popcorn.

We twenty-first century American listeners are a different audience. We identify with the rich man. We hope he triumphs. “We worship at the altar of plenty,” Kate Bowler writes in No Cure for Being Human. “Our heroes are corporate titans, fitness-empire builders, grinning televangelists, music legends, and decorated athletes whose gilded lifestyles and totalizing success hold out the promise of more…Despite the boom and bust of the American economy over the last fifty years, we cling to stories of more-than-enoughness, believing the future is full to the brim for all of us.”[i]

Come on, buddy. You’re so close. You won at real-life Monopoly. Maybe now you can win at Life (existence, not another board game).

The rich man draws another card. “The one who dies with the most toys still dies.” At some point you cannot pass “Go.” You will not collect another two hundred dollars. Your money goes back into the box, and your property titles back into the pile. Tokens are retrieved. The game is over.

Maybe the rich man has a “Hank Williams” epiphany. We’ll never get out of this world alive. So, he has a “come to Jesus” meeting – with Jesus!

How do I stay in the game? What’s the point if all the money is just decorated paper in the end? Beyond the dollars and cents, does my life make sense?

Jesus says what he always says. It’s not about you (as in, it’s not about me).

Jesus says it with love. Jesus says it to save the man from himself. Jesus says it to save me from myself. But Jesus says it. It’s painful to hear that it’s not about you. It’s even more painful to hear that it’s not about me.

It’s one thing to hear that about some nameless guy from two thousand years ago. It’s a whole other thing when this is about me. When it happens to someone else, it’s a sad story. When it happens to me, it’s a full-on, five-alarm, fucking tragedy.

That’s why the man runs to Jesus. In that world, powerful and positioned men never, ever ran. That’s what slaves and servants did. The only reason to run was if the world was about to come to an end. Apparently, it was.

The man runs toward Jesus. But he’s running just as fast away from…something. He’s running as fast as he can from futility and finitude. If he can just sprint fast enough toward an answer, maybe he can outrun and outgun the question. It’s surprising how fast a man can run when he’s being chased by an open grave.

He asks his question. What can I do to guarantee a life that will last? What’s Jesus’ solution? It’s not about you…er, me. The only way to manage mortality is to meet it head-on. The only way to face finitude is to, well, face it. Relinquish all those toys and props that distract from and deny the reality of death. Lean into life as a losing proposition.

Excuse me while I go spend an hour in the self-help section of a bookstore in order to cheer up a bit.

Sell all you have, Jesus says. Give it to the poor, Jesus says. Follow me on the way to the cross, Jesus says. Only then do you stand a chance of figuring out what it all means. It’s not about you…er, me.

That’s it, Jesus? That’s all you got? That’s the “Good News”? Mother Teresa of Calcutta – someone who knew a thing or two about such matters – quoted other great saints at this point. If this is how you treat your friends, Jesus, it’s no wonder you have so few of them.

As the digital philosophers of our age are wont to say: WTF?

Come on, Jesus! What can I do to guarantee the life that will last? “Why the hell are you asking me!” Jesus demands. You have the rule book. You know the boundaries. You’ve read the owner’s manual. Isn’t that enough?

Apparently not.

Now the existential crisis slows to a crawl. Jesus sees the man, really sees him as he is. It takes Jesus a bit to realize that this guy is not a pompous pretender. When Jesus sees him for what he is, Jesus still loves him…er, me. And Jesus loves his question. Don’t forget that.

Okay, Jesus says. Here’s the real deal, the straight poop for you. Stop trying to make the universe come out right. Stop trying to fix everything and everyone according to your specifications and for your benefit.

You want to know how to live a life that matters? Stop trying to be God. The position is already filled.

That’s not law. That’s love. That’s liberation. That’s real life. God is God. I am not. And that’s the Good News.

Sell all you have, Jesus says. Give it to the poor, Jesus says. Follow me on the way to the cross, Jesus says. Only then do you stand a chance of figuring out what it all means. It’s not about you…er, me.

Jesus doesn’t tell him to haul his stuff to the city dump. It’s not just about the stuff. After all, stuff ain’t enough. But it’s not bad either. All the good in this life comes from God. The thing is that the goods are for doing good, not just for doing well. So, Jesus says, use your stuff the way God intends – to give real life to others.

Relinquishing our stuff is more than a social service project – although that’s a good thing in and of itself. It’s about facing our finitude and managing our mortality. There’s nothing that gives me more of a false sense of security than some extra bucks in savings. There, I think. I can breathe for a bit. Of course, it only takes one failed water heater or broken timing belt to set me straight on that one.

Don’t remind me of my mortality, please. In fact, if you do, I might get more than a little pissed off. Kate Bowler and Luke Powery share a conversation in the current edition of the Christian Century. One of the topics is mask-wearing during the Pandemic. “In some ways, we’re all wearing a visual sign of our mortality,” Powery notes. “We’re all wearing our finitude,” Bowler agrees.[ii]

We don’t want our finitude to be quite so “in our face” (or on it, apparently). I think there’s a direct relationship with the resistance to mask wearing and our cultural obsession with the denial of death. Scared people can do some pretty scary stuff in reaction to their fears.

It’s clear that following Jesus to the cross and beyond is about letting go – of stuff and of ourselves. But, as Kate Bowler notes, Jesus is not the Marie Kondo of the first century. “It’s easy to imagine letting go when we forget that choices are luxuries, allowing us to maintain our illusion of control. But until those choices are plucked from our hands,” Bowler continues, “someone dies, someone leaves, something breaks—we are only playing at surrender.”[iii]

The rich man catches up to Jesus as Jesus is headed back out “on the way” – the way to Jerusalem, the way to the cross, the way of discipleship. Mere choice is in the past. It’s time to go. Jesus invites the rich man, and me, and you, to join him on that road of relinquishing. We who know the story can already hear the scream on Golgotha. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Do not pass “Go.” Do not collect two hundred dollars. Is it any wonder that the rich man finds Jesus’ loving invitation shocking? Is it any wonder he departs the stage bereaved?

We who know the story know there’s more to the story. But the “more” goes through the cross, not around it. Yes, Jesus promises “houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields” now in this age. A community gathers in the shadow of the cross, a community that does not depend on stuff or status.

Of course, those perks come “with persecutions.” Smacking people in the face with their finitude still pisses them (us) off. Reminding the world that stuff ain’t enough will never get us elected president (or anything else). But it’s the truth that frees us from the myths of immorality.

“All of our masterpieces, ridiculous,” Kate Bowler writes. “All of our striving, unnecessary. All of our work, unfinished, unfinishable. We do too much, never enough, and are done before we’ve even started,” she concludes. “It’s better this way.”[iv]

The discipleship challenge is to allow Jesus to make that real for us, in us, and through us.


[i] Bowler, Kate. No Cure for Being Human, Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, page 44.

[ii] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/interview/living-and-leading-our-mortality?utm_source=Christian+Century+Newsletter&utm_campaign=de16ed366e-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_EdPicks_2021_10_05_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_b00cd618da-de16ed366e-86201003

[iii] Bowler, page 44.

[iv] Bowler, page 198.

Soft-Hearted — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines, October 2, 2021

Mark 10:1-16

Jesus said to them, “For your hard-heartedness God wrote this commandment for you.Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.

Pharisees, in whatever era, want rules. Rules are about power and control. Rules don’t care about people. Jesus does. Jesus makes it about relationship. Jesus describes why marriage and divorce are so hard. Pharisees want to keep it all on paper. Jesus goes literally to the heart of the matter.

Marriage and divorce are hard because they go to our hearts. A marriage makes two people into one flesh. Divorce tears that one flesh apart. Marriage is the birth of a new reality. Divorce is the public funeral when that reality dies. Jesus assumes that divorce happens. He knows this is terrible and tragic. He has no time for armchair discussions. This is about real people with real hopes and real pain. Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.

Photo by Mehmet u00d6zcan on Pexels.com

In Jesus’ time, wives were the property of their husbands. Marriages were not based on love between two persons but on property, status, and honor considerations between two families. Marriage was a legal contract between the families of the bride and groom. It was often about rules, not relationships.

So a prohibition of divorce was a safeguard for women. Without that protection, the woman was left naked and vulnerable after a divorce. In situations where either party could initiate a divorce, it’s the faithful partner that is harmed when his or her spouse divorces in order to marry someone else. Committing adultery is not an abstract, moral sin. It is a real, hurtful action against one’s God-joined partner.

Matt Skinner makes some helpful observations about these verses in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “When Jesus talks with his disciples in 10:10-12,” Skinner writes, “he says nothing about the rejected partner in a divorce and his or her remarriage. He seems to be speaking specifically against those who leave their partners for others. His point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery,” Skinner argues. “That is, his strongest words are against those who initiate divorce as a means to get something else,” he concludes, “sacrificing a spouse to satisfy one’s desires or ambitions.”

God’s Law is designed to protect the vulnerable. When God’s law is used to promote the powerful, we are being hard-hearted. Jesus refuses to render a legal judgment on divorce. He turns the question upside down. He shifts the conversation from legal to relational categories. He seeks protection for the most vulnerable. Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples

David Lose puts it well in his 2015 comments. “In fact, Jesus goes one step further and takes what had turned into a legal convenience – typically for the man who sought a divorce – and pushes his interlocutors to see that this law – indeed, all law – was and is intended to protect the vulnerable….The law is meant to protect the vulnerable and hurting,” he continues, “and every time we use it for another purpose we are twisting it from the Creator’s plan and, indeed, violating it in spirit if not in letter.”

Jesus is concerned about exploitation. Serial divorce was a way to throw someone away. Divorce treated people as disposable. For Jesus followers, there are no disposable people. The heart of God’s kingdom is embracing the vulnerable. Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.

That’s why we get another story about Jesus blessing children. Children in the ancient world had few rights and no social status. Jesus blesses them, not because they conjure sweet images of cherubic innocence. Jesus blesses the children because he has concern for the vulnerable and scorned, for those ripe for exploitation.

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. 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.

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.

This is about community. But it’s not a community of the strong, or the wealthy, or the powerful, or the independent. This is a community of the broken, of the vulnerable, of those at risk. It’s a community of those who know their need and seek relationship with each other. It’s a community where people have learned that by being in honest and open relationship with each other they are in relationship with God, the very one who created them for each other in the first place.

The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints, we say. Is that how it works out? Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.

Can we talk about the reality and pain of divorce? My first wife died suddenly. My second wife has been divorced. Our relationship and marriage provoked consternation and disapproval, not least among some church people. Each of our previous marriages ended in a death–mine, the death of a spouse; hers, the death of a relationship. Out of those deaths, the Holy Spirit has birthed a new relationship–a new life. That’s the God we worship–the God of resurrection. That’s the God we expect to meet in the Church.

If divorce is the public funeral for a relationship that has died, then there is the possibility of new life after that death. I have seen Jesus bless far too many later marriages with life and love, with joy and happiness, with grace and growth, to believe that they are not of God. This does not make our words about divorce any easier. But we can acknowledge what we see and thank God for the new life.

Can we talk about the pain and reality of marriage? Can we talk about the pain and reality of widowhood, of being a child of divorce, of having friends who divorce? I pray that this is a place where our relationships and conversations can be real. I pray that this is a place where we can support one another in all our ups and downs.

Our culture still wants us to believe that there are people out there somewhere who have blissful lives together with no problems now or on the horizon. I’ve not met any such people. Being married is a demanding kind of intimacy. We can help people by admitting that out loud as the norm for our human communities. And we can think together about how our faith communities can be supportive of all sorts of intimate and committed connections.

I’m glad to say now that marriage is not only an issue for heterosexuals. People are just people, and marriage is just as hard. Marriage is also not the normative standard for relationships. Friendship is hard. Being someone’s child or parent is hard. Being a sibling is hard. The standards Jesus describes for healthy marriage apply equally, but with different dynamics, to any human relationship we can mention.

So, can we talk about the loneliness that infects and infests our American culture? This is the number one mental health issue in our society. Can we talk about the pain and reality of losing a pet? We are made for community–with God, with one another, and with Creation. People know in their bones that it is not good to be alone.

The Church is the community of the blessed and broken, as David Lose has written. Does that ring a bell? Jesus took the bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it. We are a eucharistic community. Just as the body of Christ is blessed and broken for us, so we are blessed and broken for the life of the world. Just as the blood of Christ is blessed and poured out for us, so are we blessed and broken for the life of the world.

Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples.

Finally, can we talk about the pain and reality of being marginalized and vulnerable in this society? We live in a culture where power and control, defense and denial, hostility and hatred are the order of the day. There are no disposable people–no matter their age, gender, color, citizenship, language or merit. Every thought, word and action must be held up to this standard. There are no disposable people. Any rule that says otherwise opposes God’s love.

Jesus wants soft-hearted disciples

Strange Games — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:38-50; September 26, 2021

In the 1983 film, War Games, Matthew Broderick plays a young computer hacker named David Lightman. Lightman works his way into the computer system controlling the United States nuclear arsenal. He accidentally launches a game which will lead to an all-out nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union unless the game is stopped.

Of course, no one can stop the game. The film moves toward the inevitable, catastrophic result. In the final moments, Lightman lands on a radical solution. He and the system designer, Dr. Stephen Falken, get the computer (aptly named WOPR), to play tic-tac-toe against itself.

The computer plays more and more games at an accelerating rate. The result is hundreds of “draws.” WOPR then applies this experience to the game of Thermonuclear Warfare. Scenarios flicker across the display in dizzying succession. “What’s it doing?” a character asks. “It’s learning,” Lightman replies.

Photo by Elina Krima on Pexels.com

Over and over, the result of the game is “Winner: None.” Suddenly, the screen is dark, and the room is quiet. “Strange game,” WOPR notes. “The only winning move is not to play.” The crisis is past, and control is returned to the humans. “Dr. Falken,” WOPR asks, “would you like to play a nice game of chess?”

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.

Strange game. The only way to win is not to play.

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.

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.

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 continue to 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. One of those lurking claims is the worry on the part of some Christians that we have too much empathy for our own good these days. Such nonsense!

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. The game may be strange to me. But it’s not strange to him.

Jesus Isn’t Playing — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 9:30-37; September 19, 2021

Jesus’ disciples remind me of my five-year-old grandsons. I spent a week this summer shuttling two of them to and from a local day camp. The opportunity to overhear their backseat conversations was for me one of the highlights of the week.

There was the usual conversation about toys and teachers, about sack lunches and sports. But typically, they got around to the latest installment of the “My Daddy” game.

“My daddy drives a new car. But my daddy has a big, new truck. My daddy mowed the lawn last night. But my daddy mowed the lawn and power-washed the driveway. My daddy can lift a hundred pounds. But my daddy can lift two hundred pounds.” The bidding on that one rose to a thousand pounds before we arrived at the day camp door!

Photo by sudip paul on Pexels.com

I expected at some point that one of the daddies would be stronger than a locomotive, faster than a speeding bullet, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Then the other daddy would have to fight daily for Truth, Justice, and the American Way, while masquerading behind the glasses of a mild-mannered reporter.

The conversation was loads of fun for me. But it was deeply serious for the boys. Their verbal jousts substituted for the wrestling matches that sometimes unfold on our basement carpet and, as often as not, end in either tears or triumph (or both).

Who’s greater? The five-year-olds are practicing the skills and building the stamina that they will need for a lifetime of such contests. The pursuit of position, privilege, and power is older than the human species. The compulsion to compare mine to yours (whatever the object of comparison) is one of our deepest psychosocial structures.

The question, “Who’s greater?” drives human history from the halls of kindergarten to the halls of empire.

Who is greater? This need to compare and compete animates our activities. True enough that it seems more visible behavior among the males in the species. I think, however, the gender variation when it comes to comparison behavior is a difference in degree rather than kind.

Comparison, and the jealous envy it produces, is fuel for our late-stage capitalist consumerism in the Western world. We compare stuff and want more. The disciples, however, simply use a different currency. For us, the envy might focus on cars or couches. The disciples compared status and wanted more. For the disciples, the envy focused on honor and shame.

But the question is the constant. Who’s greater?

I know that most Bible translations, including the NRSV, have “greatest” rather than greater. There are good, technical reasons for that translation. But the question in the Greek is a comparative, not a superlative. It’s about establishing my relative position in the hierarchy, not about my absolute worth as a person.

I don’t have to be the best, the greatest, or the highest. I only need to be better than, greater than, or higher than…you. As the old joke has it, if a bear is chasing you and me, I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.

That old joke demonstrates what the question really means. The question lives on fear and anxiety. We fear that there is not enough for everyone – not enough stuff, not enough security, not enough love. The good things in this life, we believe, are in short (and limited) supply. So I better get mine while the getting is good.

I don’t have to be fast. I just have to be faster than you.

Most of us relatively rich Westerners don’t have to outrun hungry bears. But that lack of physical threat doesn’t make us less afraid. If anything, we are more anxious than ever.

The “greater” game is often secret and subtle. The rules change constantly. In our consumer-driven economy, people can make lots of money off my “less than” fears. All I have to do is put the word “limited” in any advertisement, and the response rate will go up. I am assaulted every day with promises of “greater than” – if only I will part with enough cash.

The disciples pass the time on the road to Capernaum playing the “Who’s greater?” game. I suppose it was less irritating than the “Are we there yet?” game. I imagine that Jesus overheard the spirited contests just as I overheard the “My Daddy” debates raging in the back seat.

When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus quizzes the disciples on their conversation. He knows what they’ve been arguing. They know he knows. They answer his question with embarrassed silence.

Jesus tackles the teachable moment. No one can win the “greater than” game in the end. There is always someone better than, greater than, or higher than me. There is always someone who can outrun me. The bear catches us all in the end. As the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, the one who dies with the most toys still dies.

The only way to “win” the “greater than” game, Jesus says, is not to play at all. He doesn’t propose that we stop running and surrender to the bear claws. Instead, he declares that God is not the bear. God is not a supernatural miser, hoarding the good stuff and dispensing it with an eye dropper. God is not the hungry bear seeking to devour us when we stumble and fall.

The God who sends Jesus among us is the Loving Parent. That Loving Parent embraces us for who we are – not for what we can produce or how fast we can run.

Jesus takes a toddler by the hand and leads the little one into the middle of the muddled disciples. Jesus doesn’t point to the innocence or humility or trusting nature of the child. Those are late-modern romantic fantasies. Real parents will tell you that those fantasies have little to do with actual children.

In the ancient world, small children were not seen as gifts. Instead, children were regarded as economic liabilities with no intrinsic value. They might grow into usefulness if they survived to adulthood. But as toddlers, children around Jesus were often viewed as good for nothing.

A “good for nothing” cannot be “greater than” anything. That little child could not play the “greater than” game. That is Jesus’ point. That toddler is a living, breathing parable of how God regards us. That little child is a living sacrament of the Divine community. We are all “good for nothing” in the end. And God loves you for you – not for what you can produce or how fast you can run.

“God’s Love is not oriented toward ‘what is’ but rather toward ‘what is not’,” writes Tuomo Mannermaa. “That is why God’s Love does not desire to gain something good from its object,” he continues, “but rather pours out good and shares its own goodness with its object.”[i] Mannermaa is drawing out Martin Luther’s insight that the central and most important fact about God is that God gives.

In other words, God doesn’t love us to get anything. That’s the game sinners play. Rather, God loves us in order to give everything. “Just as God has created everything out of nothingness and caused what is not or what does not exist to come into existence-to be,” Mannermaa notes, “in the same fashion God’s Love calls its beloved out of nothingness and surrounds its object with its own goodness and good things.”[ii]

Mannermaa quotes Luther’s words from the Heidelberg Disputation to cap off his point. “Therefore sinners are beautiful because they are loved,” Luther wrote, “they are not loved because they are beautiful.” God brings us “good for nothings” into the beauty of existence for the sheer love of us.[iii]

That’s the point of the living, breathing parable in the middle of the muddled disciples. Who’s greater? Who cares? God knows you’re the greatest before you even draw a breath.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see myself. “How radically must we rework our own self-image,” Antony Campbell asks, “if we accept ourselves as lovable—as deeply, passionately, and unconditionally loved by God?”[iv] The answer is obvious. This Good News requires and facilitates a revolution in how I see – and treat – myself.

What happens when we begin to trust that Good News and live accordingly? If I trust this Good News, it revolutionizes how I see my neighbor. After all, if God loves me “for nothing,” that’s how God loves all of us “good for nothings.” If I live that way, then I must resign from all the “greater than” games we humans play on a daily basis.

That’s going to cause some trouble, which is why this whole section stands under the shadow of the cross.

The cultural system of White Supremacy is the biggest and baddest of all the “greater than” games we White, Western Christians have been playing for five centuries. If we don’t hear in this text the call to dismantle that system in our congregations and communities, I have very little hope for us. Fortunately, God has much more hope than I do.

The cultural system of Consumer Capitalism depends on the oxygen of envy and eats comparison for breakfast. If we are “enough” for God, then we can trust God to provide enough for us. That means learning to be satisfied with enough rather than always hungering for more. That may break the Consumer Capitalist system. Ok.

For me this also applies to my relationship with other species on this planet. I see no reason to limit this ethic to human relationships. Therefore, I do not have the luxury to believe that humans are “greater than” (that is, more valuable than) other species on this planet. That affects what (I mean “who”) I eat, what I wear, and what I throw away.

Who’s greater? Who cares? It’s time to stop playing.

.


[i] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 149-150). Kindle Edition.

[ii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 152-153). Kindle Edition.

[iii] Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Location 156). Kindle Edition

[iv] Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Accepting Unconditional Love (p. 4). Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Am I Up for It? Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 8:27-38

Who is Jesus? What do you say?

Let’s begin with who Jesus is not.

Jesus is not White. Jesus is not Nordic. Jesus is not Aryan. Jesus is not American. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat or a Libertarian or a Socialist. Jesus is not a capitalist or a communist. Jesus is not an entrepreneur. Jesus is not rich. Jesus is not an individualist.

Jesus is not Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. Hell, Jesus isn’t even Christian!

Jesus is not a spiritual star athlete. Jesus is not a warrior. Jesus is not a body-builder. Jesus is not John Wayne or Ronald Reagan or Donald Trump.

Photo by Rodolfo Clix on Pexels.com

Jesus is not a Gnostic mystic. Jesus is not a Cynic philosopher. Jesus is not a self-help guru. Jesus is not my lover or best friend. Jesus is not Santa Claus with brown hair on a diet.

Jesus is not a mirror in which I can admire my favorite things about myself.

But that is precisely what we expect from Jesus in twenty-first century America. It may be as ubiquitous as Warner Sallman’s painting of Jesus that still hangs in most White American Protestant church halls in this country. It may be as blatant as the stained-glass images of Jesus in White Christian worship spaces that uniformly cast Jesus’ skin tone as White.

Our image of Jesus (and by “our” I mean White American Christians generally) can also be as dangerous as the iconography that filled the imagination of Dylann Roof.

Robert P. Jones, the author of White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity puts out a regular newsletter continuing his conversation on this topic. Recently he wrote an article called “Saving our Churches from Dylann Roof’s White Jesus.”[i] Roof is the White Lutheran Christian man “who murdered nine African Americans during the closing prayer of a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston in 2015…”

Let’s take some time to say aloud the names of those nine Black Christian sisters and brothers before we move on:

  • Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor
  • Cynthia Hurd
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lance
  • Rev. Clementa Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders
  • Rev. Daniel Simmons
  • Myra Thompson

Roof was convicted in the murders of those nine and sentenced to death for his crimes. He appealed that conviction and sentence. That appeal was recently rejected by the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals. Jones highlights information from Roof’s own journal that is filled with “Christian” imagery, including “a full-page drawing of a resurrected white Jesus emerging from the tomb.”

We might think that Roof’s spiritual formation at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, ELCA, in Columbia, South Carolina, was deficient and deformed. Jones notes that Roof’s assumed imagination of Jesus as white is not exceptional. Instead, Jones gives a brief inventory of just a few stained-glass windows in established churches that feature an exclusively White Jesus.

“These images perform unacknowledged, but powerful theological work,” Jones writes. “For the skeptics, just a few experiments would likely reveal how strongly many Christians remain invested in the whiteness of Jesus, which is rooted in underlying beliefs about white supremacy.”

Jones then offers a few of those thought experiments to give us a chance to test our own underlying beliefs about white supremacy in our churches and in our White Christian selves. They are worth quoting and then wrestling with for a while. Jones assumes a relatively “evangelical” theological framework in these experiments, but I think many White Christians will register the same discomfort.

  • How would your church react to a move to remove all images of Jesus, including stained-glass windows and paintings, that depict Jesus as someone of European descent and replace those images with more accurate depictions of a Jesus of middle-Eastern descent?
  • How would a non-white Jesus impact the ways White Christians think of a personal savior and the theology of salvation? How comfortable would we be with letting a brown-skinned Jesus “come into our hearts”?
  • How would we react to an illuminated baby Jesus in the nativity scene in front of the church that was Brown instead of White?

Let’s take some time, White friends, to sit with the discomfort of those questions before we move on.

In my pastoral experience, moving to change the images of Jesus in our White facilities would be more than enough to get a pastor fired. Admitting a brown-skinned or Black Jesus into our White hearts would push many White imaginations beyond capacity. And messing with the baby Jesus in that decrepit old cradle/manger? I would have the moving truck loaded and my life insurance up to date.

This may all seem like fairy tales or speculation except for Jones’ final wondering. “What difference would it have made for Dylann Roof, if the Christian formation he received at the white Lutheran church of his childhood had taken place under the compassionate gaze of a brown-skinned Jesus?”

Who is Jesus? What do you say? If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. That’s worth repeating, if I do say so myself. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

That is precisely the place we go in the gospel reading from Mark. Jesus challenges all disciples with the question: “Who do you say that I am?” The first Jesus-followers have several false starts. Then Peter gets the right answer. “You are the Messiah!” Go to the head of the class, Peter! We take back all those things we said about your stupidity.

Jesus then orders his followers to shut up about this! Peter has just uncovered the biggest and best news in history. He’s outed Jesus in front of the other disciples. And now, they’re supposed to keep it to themselves? I can’t even keep the Christmas presents in the guest room secret from the grandkids. How in the world were those first followers supposed to sit on this bombshell?

Jesus told them to shut up because they didn’t know what they were talking about. Messiah! Messiah! Messiah! Jesus must have wanted to give Peter the “Princess Bride” treatment. “You keep using that word,” Jesus seems to say, “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Jesus begins to explain what “Messiah” means. He will continue that explanation in our texts for the next few weeks. The short version is shocking: “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again…” (Mark 8:31, NRSV). There was no holding back now. This was the straight poop.

Peter gets it right away. He gets what this means. If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

Who is Jesus? Jesus is, as Mark tells right off the bat, the reign of God come near and beginning here and now.

This turns the upside-down world right side up. This requires a complete reversal of our assumptions. Dying is the path to life. Serving is the way to lead. Power, position, property, and privilege are useless. Sin, death, and the Devil are not the last words. Losing is winning. Giving is receiving. Enemies are loved. Captives are freed.

The schemes, structures, and systems that depend on an upside-down world will not go quietly. There’s going to be Hell to pay before the end. Even we may be closest to Jesus will do anything we can to avoid Jesus’ conclusion. Let’s take Jesus aside, tell him to shut up, set him straight while there’s still time. Because we know how this could end.

Taking Jesus aside, telling to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what produces a Jesus who is White a Jesus who is Nordic, a Jesus who is Aryan, American, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian or Socialist; a Jesus who is a capitalist, a communist, an entrepreneur, rich, or individualist, a Jesus who is Protestant or Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox; a Jesus who is Christian.

Taking Jesus aside, telling him to shut up, setting him straight – that’s what we want to do because the alternative is life under the shadow of a cross. Is that what we really want? Well…

 If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus.

“Essentially,” Brent Diggers writes, “Mark is saying that the Son of God will not dial down his ministry to spare his own life, or even to ease his suffering. His commitment to the healing of humanity literally knows no limits,” Diggers concludes. “And neither—Easter tells us—does God’s life-giving power.”

When Jesus proclaims, embodies, and enacts the life-giving reign of God, the forces of sin, death, and evil respond with violence. While that response is not logically or mechanically necessary in the way that a trap closes when the mouse takes the cheese, such violence is the normal and expected response of those forces.

What is “necessary” from the Divine perspective is the mission of forgiveness, live, and salvation, whatever the cost. What is necessary from the anti-Divine perspective is a violent response to maintain the power, position, and privilege of those who benefit from that system.

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated.

If we are Jesus-followers, then who Jesus is for us determines who we are for Jesus. Every day I wonder if I can be that person…


[i] https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/saving-our-churches-from-dylann-roofs

The Sighing Jerk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 7:24-37

Our text provokes far more questions than it provides answers. The NRSV calls this section “The Syrophoenician Woman’s Faith.” It could just as easily be called, perhaps, “That Time When Jesus was a Xenophobic Jerk.”

Or it could be called “The Desperately Persistent and Patient Gentile Mother.” Or maybe we should call it “Not as Smart as You Thought You Were, Eh, Jesus?” Or maybe…well, you get the picture.

What, precisely, is the story here?

In this encounter we can see that both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are each a bundle of intersecting identities. In this context, Jesus is a Galilean Jew in Gentile territory. He is a man interacting with a woman in a patriarchal culture. He is a religious teacher and healer in a place where someone needs what he has to offer. He is a poor man in a part of the world that extracts wealth from his people in order to live in luxury. Jesus is each of those identities and all of those identities.

Photo by Soulful Pizza on Pexels.com

The woman – unnamed, of course – is a Syrophoenician Gentile native relatively close to her home turf. She is a woman interacting on her own with a man in a patriarchal culture. She is a mother desperately seeking healing for her demon-possessed daughter who believes that Jesus has what her daughter needs. She is, perhaps, a wealthy woman who lives, at least in part, off the extractive economy that keeps the Galilee and Galileans poor and hungry. The woman is each of those identities and all of those identities.

The woman is perhaps well off and accustomed to being in charge, so her reply to Jesus is based in confidence rather than humility. But she is also in desperate need of what Jesus has to offer, and he’s not a mere peddler of faith-healing wares. So, when it comes to power in this situation, it’s hard to tell which foot the shoe is on at any given moment in the interchange.

All that being said, some of us still have to ask, “Why is Jesus being such a…jerk?”

What if our reading of this text is the problem rather than the solution? David King outlines six varieties of solutions to the problem of Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman:

  1. Jesus is on vacation.
  2. Jesus is playing.
  3. Jesus has a more important mission.
  4. Jesus is bested in debate.
  5. Jesus is racist.
  6. Jesus is sexist.

The first three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Defending Jesus.” The last three responses are variations of the theme I would call “Teaching the Teacher.”

Mitzi Smith reads this text through a Womanist theological lens. She experiences the Syro-Phoenician woman as “sassy.” Smith writes that “sass” as a term is “usually applied to the behavior of persons considered inferior or subordinate, by race, gender, position, class, or age to the person toward the talk, back talk, gesture, and/or attitude is addressed” (page 97).

Obviously, Smith is on to something here. Through this lens, Smith sees the Syrophoenician woman as being considered inferior or subordinate due to race, gender, position, class, or age, as compared to the person being “sassed.” She defines “sass” as “when the oppressed name, define, call out, and sometimes refuse to submit to oppressive systems and behaviors” (page 97).

Smith argues that this Greek, Syro-Phoenician woman with a demon-possessed daughter “bears a triple stigma because of her race, gender, and status as a mother” of such a child. She “experiences racism, sexism, and classism as interlocking forms of oppression. All three forms of oppression are highlighted in the narrative,” Smith contends, “and they impact how Jesus responds to the woman” (page 101).

She argues that Jesus responds to the woman “in a way that betrayed his Jewish male bias.” More than that, he seems to communicate that Jewish lives matter more, at least for now, than do Gentile lives. That’s a potent rhetorical connection that I had not seen previously in this text. Now that Smith has pointed it out, I cannot “un-see” it.

All of these responses, however, assume that Jesus is in the position of social and cultural dominance in the conversation. I think we’d be well served by re-examining that assumption as we read the text. I found the 2010 article by Poling Sun to be very instructive in this regard.

“If the powerful one in this story, however, is not Jesus but the woman,” Sun argues, “or more accurately, not the woman as woman, but the Syro-Phoenician woman who symbolizes and in fact represents the powerful and real colonialism, the story and message would be entirely different” (page 385).

What if Jesus is not just taking a small sabbatical? What if, instead, he is hiding out from the agents of Herod Antipas and the Jerusalem elites until things calm down a bit? If that is the case, then the Syrophoenician woman has blown his cover. When she came in the door and put him at risk, does Jesus think, “Just another Gentile rich bitch coming to take what belongs to us Jews”?

That puts a different spin on his words in the text.

What if we come to this reading seeing Jesus as oppressed rather than powerful? How does that affect our experience of his initial words, and of his actual response?

More than that, what if we begin to see following Jesus as a path away from power? We read the text from a triumphalist perspective where Jesus has all the power (and therefore so do we). But, if Sun is right, that is not the situation It certainly wasn’t the situation for the Markan church. Jesus is one of the colonized, not one of the colonizers. If Jesus is suspicious, defensive, and reluctant, that makes sense. He is testing her sincerity, not her “faith.”

Can we mainline Christian types in America serve and witness from a non-dominant place? We are so addicted to triumphalism in the Western, White church that I’m not sure we can adjust. Can we submit to the leadership and wisdom of our Black, Brown, and Indigenous siblings in Christ to learn real humility in order to be healed? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

This is a significant way into the text and especially into Jesus’ harsh words to the Syrophoenician woman. But I think the story unveils a confrontation of power and power – the cultural, political, economic, and social hegemony represented by the Syrophoenician woman and the world-altering power of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

I think it points as well to vulnerability meeting vulnerability – the desperate desire of the mother for her daughter’s healing and Jesus’ awareness that the shadow of the cross extends even into the territory of Tyre and Sidon.

I don’t think that Jesus repents and is converted in the way that the “Teaching the Teacher” scenarios would have it. Sun’s analysis cuts through that conundrum. But I do think Jesus changes his mind about the woman who comes to him in her time of need. He commends her for her “word” of humble, self-effacing wisdom. She relinquishes her power. She “dies to self” in order to save her daughter. In a very real sense, she came not to be served but to serve.

Matt Skinner points to the woman’s response to Jesus’ words as the crowning description of her repentance and, dare we say it, faith. Skinner argues that Jesus does have a change of heart toward the woman because of the nature of her argument as a theological proposal. Even though Jesus is focused on his mission to Israel, there are still crumbs enough for her daughter to be healed, she pleads. Jesus agrees.

The incarnational dimensions of this story, however, go much deeper with a close reading of the story. Both Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman are complicated. Each is an intersection of both complementary and competing identities. Each is a bundle of contradictions looking for a self to serve as the center. That’s human existence. It’s not clean. It’s not very organized or consistent.

But it’s real.

Both Jesus and the woman experience changes of mind and heart in the story. That’s not troubling to me either. If there are echoes of the Jonah story in the background of this text (and I think there are), then the idea that both the hegemonic power and the Divine power experience repentance and reconciliation is old news.

We may find that news uncomfortable and inconvenient (just ask Jonah), but that doesn’t make it any less true.

Diversity is not a necessary inconvenience to be tolerated. Rather, it is the very glory of God and a gift to be celebrated. Will we bother to get into conversations where we are not the ones in power but rather the desperate supplicants hoping for a hearing? Will we “be opened”?

Be completely opened! And be set free from the previous constraints of the old ways of hearing, speaking, and seeing! Is this prayer really for the disciples? And for us? We have discussed this before, but it’s worth re-visiting here. Most congregations make the claim that “All are welcome.” The real work happens when that claim is converted into a question: “Are all welcome?”

The pragmatic answer in all congregations, in one way or another, is “no.” We generally are not open to persons from a range of socioeconomic situations. We generally are not open to persons from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. We generally are not open to persons from a diversity of gender and sexual orientations. We generally are not open to persons with divergent political views.

Being thoroughly opened is hard work. No wonder Jesus sighed.