The Gospel reading this week involves two stories. The first is Jesus’ warning about the teachers of religious law who take pride in their religious robes and the fact that people bow to them as they walk by. The second story is the account of the widow’s mite. For us, there is a challenge in both stories. Are we obsessed with our religious status? Christians are most vulnerable when people tell them that they have done something great for the Kingdom, such as preach a powerful sermon. It is here that our ‘puffed up’ pride can cause us to fall. Next, the story of the widow’s mite reminds us about real giving. Our giving to the work of God should be, above all else, sacrificial. If we simply give what we have left each month then that is not really giving at all. Rather, our giving should cause us to give up something fundamental to our lives each week or month. Our giving should cause us to go without. In a sense both these stories are linked. Here, Jesus is painting a picture of the Kingdom of Heaven. Being a Christian is not about obtaining status, reputation and resources, rather it is about emptying ourselves of all these things. Being a Christian is quintessentially not about receiving but about giving.
STEVE’S DISCIPLESHIP BLOG
A well-known educationalist once said, we often end up valuing what we can measure rather than attempting to measure what is of real value. This practice spills over into church life as we strive to quantify spiritual standards by how pious we have been. This religiosity or legalism was no less prevalent in Jesus’ day. The sacrificial system was based on performing certain religious practices with a certain quantity of bulls, rams, doves or other elements of sacrifice. Today, some in the church delight in measuring spiritual worthiness by our ability to keep the rules and follow the laws. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there is no place for order, spiritual discipline and even religion but I fear we often go too far, because there is something much more important. The Gospel passage this week is the account of the conversation between Jesus and the inquiring religious law teacher. Jesus commends the religious teacher for his understanding of love. Jesus confirms that loving God and loving our neighbour is more important than all the sacrifices (old and new) required in the law. This is not a licence to do anything; far from it. Rather it is a life of action and deeds which is borne out of love rather than a sense of failure if we don’t follow all the pre-determined man-made rules.
All the blessings of this life and the wonders of this world pale into insignificance when compared with the all surpassing gift of our eternal salvation through Jesus Christ. The cry of humanity should therefore be: “What must we do to be saved?” In the Gospel passage appointed for this week we find the answer in the life of a blind beggar called Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus did three vital things to receive eternal life. Firstly, he confessed his utter need of God: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Next, when Jesus summoned him, he immediately jumped up and came to Jesus with an earnest request: “Teacher, I want to see.” Finally, after all this, he followed Jesus down the road as a completely changed man. The most beautiful gift in the universe is ours through these three simple steps. Praise God!
How important are hierarchies to us? Do we continually look up to people who hold positions of great status and / or power? Or, if we are one of these people, do we have a smug sense of superiority when we are asked what job we do? However, the most important question is what did Jesus think of hierarchies? The Gospel reading for this week is the account of James and John asking for a special privileged place with Jesus in heaven. Why did James and John think that they deserved this, above the other disciples? Perhaps it was their family connections. The fact that we know their father’s name suggests that he was a man of influence. Perhaps it was because they were part of what some scholars have called Jesus’ inner circle, along with Peter. For example, it was Peter, James and John who were present at the transfiguration and none of the others. We don’t know their motives but what we do know is Jesus’ response. In effect, Jesus says it is not about hierarchies at all. He cites those Gentile rulers who ‘lord it over’ their subjects as an example of the wrong way for his followers to behave. Instead says Jesus, ‘whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wants to be first must become the slave of all’. Of course, Jesus not only said these words but modelled them in his own life and death where he came ‘not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’. Although these words are well known, I wonder how often we take them to heart? If we are serious about being a disciple of Jesus Christ we have to shed all forms of self-importance and start serving others.
Within the life of the church we often pray for the poorest members of our community but, reading the Gospel passage assigned to this week, I wonder whether we should pray for the richest members of our society instead. Seen within the context of eternity, it is the rich who are most vulnerable to not receiving eternal life. It is the rich who are most likely to lose out. Why is this? There are, no doubt, many inter-linked reasons but here I will advance just three. Firstly, if we are rich and powerful, it is tempting to think that we have achieved this by our own skills, abilities and effort. It is tempting to forget that every single one of our talents and opportunities are just gifts from God. Secondly, in making decisions and choices it is tempting to rely on our own resources and never turn to God. Thirdly, with great resources come great opportunities and temptations for carnal pleasure. Ultimately, when people look up to you and start praising you for your wealth, the temptation is to put yourself on the throne of your life and displace God. The sin of pride abounds and the rich inherit wealth but forfeit their souls. Is it wrong to be materially rich therefore? The answer from Jesus is no, but it is very hard. Is it impossible for a materially rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven? Again, no, says Jesus because, with God all things are possible. But, says Jesus, if we are rich, we must be particularly careful. Here is the sting: in global terms the vast majority of people living in Guildford would be considered already as very rich!
The Gospel reading assigned to this week is Jesus’ teaching on divorce. As always, it is helpful to understand the context in which Jesus was speaking. In Jesus’ time, the Jewish law of divorce was based on Moses teaching in Deuteronomy. This could be interpreted as a man was able to divorce his wife (not the other way round) for trivial things. As a result, women were sometimes treated as ‘objects’ that could be disposed of if they did not please the man. A further consequence of this was that many Jewish girls were reluctant to get married as they had little security. Jesus, in effect, says this is all wrong. He replaces this loose interpretation, by some, of the law of Moses by highlighting the sanctity of marriage. Jesus goes back to the creation story to say that marriage was part of God’s original plan and designed to be permanent. It was a physical AND SPIRITUAL union which included family responsibilities. As such, no man-made laws should allow it to be easily dispensed with. Seen in this light, Jesus’ teaching is probably best interpreted as supporting both women and family life at a time when both were vulnerable to abuse.
What is the worst offence we can commit? God is willing and able to forgive those who truly repent of their sins but in the Bible reading this week Jesus has stern words for one type of sin. Jesus says, “Anyone who causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better if he was thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck”. O. Henry tells the story of a little girl whose mummy died and who was brought up by her daddy. Unfortunately, her daddy always ignored her and told her to go and play in the street by herself. As she grew up, the inevitable happened – she took to the streets. When she eventually died, Peter said to Jesus that she was a ‘bad lot’ and should be sent to hell. Jesus replied, “no, let her in, but” Jesus added in a stern voice, “find the father who caused her to sin, and send him to hell.”
There is a famous prayer: “Lord I am a simple man; make me simpler yet.” Yet in modern living everything seems to militate against this. We are encouraged to upgrade, develop our careers and seek out bigger opportunities for ourselves. It was no different in Jesus’ day. In the Bible passage for this week, the disciples were squabbling over who would have the best seat in the kingdom of Heaven. Jesus takes them aside and tells them that they have got it all wrong. Instead of always striving to get ahead in life, they should focus on serving others by humbling themselves. Jesus goes on to use an illustration with children. No doubt there were children close to him at the time. He uses these children as an illustration by noting their attitude to life. He tells his disciples to be child-like, not childish, by adopting an attitude of humble acceptance of being loved by their parents. We too should abide in God’s love without striving to have a higher status in God’s kingdom. In short, we should seek, if anything, to be more simple.
The Bible reading for this week is the account from Mark’s Gospel of Jesus asking his disciples who they thought he was. I suppose if you asked this question to people in our society, most people would respond that they hadn’t really thought about it. For the majority of Britain who don’t go to church, they would probably cite, as a reason, some bad religious experience or some belief that science has replaced religion. But, if you could get through the ‘religious baggage’ and ask people who they thought Jesus was, there might be three ‘modern day’ answers. Firstly, some would say he never existed; second, others would say that he was a good man / teacher and still others might say that he was some kind of ‘faith healer’. In a very religious society in the first century, the three choices were very different: John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. Is there any truth in any of this? Of course, the question remains, and it has divided world opinion for the last two thousand years and may continue to do so for two thousand more. What about us? Who do we say that Jesus is? The message of Mark’s Gospel is unequivocal. Peter said to Jesus “You are the Messiah” or in some translations, “You are the Christ!” This is the Christian faith; this is what we believe. It is amazing, because it is true for all believers who have had an encounter with Jesus. Our prayer is that the whole world would come to know this reality.
The Gospel passage for this week is the account of Jesus healing the deaf-mute as recorded in Mark’s Gospel. This is a wonderful story because it enables us to get to the very heart of God. Of course, there is the remarkable miracle of the man being healed but there is something else in this passage which could easily go unnoticed. The writer includes the words “Jesus took him (the deaf-mute) off alone.” Why? Before any supernatural healing was to take place, Jesus shows his deep compassion by directly addressing the emotional well-being of the person involved. His deafness and speech impediment would have been an acute embarrassment to the man in a society which believed that illness was linked to sin. Further, the man may not have known who Jesus was, and may have been confused and anxious about what was happening to him. Knowing all of this, Jesus took the man off alone and then took the trouble to explain to him what He was going to do to him. Obviously, Jesus couldn’t use words because the man could not hear, so Jesus acts it out for him. Jesus spat on his hands, indicating the healing process and then touches the man’s ears and tongue. In this way, Jesus was explaining that he was going to heal him and heal his deafness and speech impediment. After all of this, Jesus then cries out to heaven for healing for this man – and he is healed. Note however, before the miracle was the compassion. As we read the synoptic Gospels we are struck again and again by Jesus’ compassion. Jesus was, and is, not only (or not mainly) a miracle worker. He was God incarnate. He was fully in the nature of God and, as God is love, this same love and compassion naturally flowed into all his words and actions. So it should be for us.