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.
Following the fall, one of the outcomes was a form of excessive rule-following or legalism. This obsession with rules by some people permeates all human institutions, as well as the Church. That is, within the Church there are some members who are in the grip of the sin of legalism. This is as wrong today as it was in Jesus’ time when the religious authorities were more interested in following rules than they were in showing God’s love. This is a corruption of the truth and Jesus spoke sternly to these people calling them ‘hypocrites’ and a ‘brood of vipers’. Indeed, the only people that Jesus seemed to get angry with were the religious leaders – particularly as they should have known better. In the Bible reading assigned to this week, we have Jesus berating the Pharisees and teachers of religious law over this precise matter. They had arrived to confront Jesus with the fact that his disciples were not following the correct rituals of hand washing. Jesus’ response to them was to quote Isaiah – the writings of whom they claimed to follow – when he replied: “Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.” Whose rules do we follow? Our own man-made rules or God’s commands to love God and to love our neighbours? Let us not be lured into the belief that all society’s ills can be cured by more and more legislation and more and more enforcement of rules.