Things of God, Things of Men (Mark 8.22–9.1)

Jesus’ relationship with his disciples is all too often a relationship of one step forward, two steps back—both with his first disciples and with us today. They, and we, make progress in the faith only to backslide into our old way of doing things. This back-and-forth dynamic is only display in Mark 8.22–9.1.

“Who do people say I am?” Jesus asks the disciples. We often read the Gospels in order to find practical guidance about how to live our lives, and it offers guidance aplenty. However, the Gospels are not about us, they are about Jesus. Therefore, the question we should be asking when we read the Gospels is not, “What does this say to me?” but “What does this tell me about him?”

The disciples list a variety of common answers to Jesus’ question: “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” The crowd’s answers are quite complimentary. John the Baptist was commonly—and rightly—believed by the people to be a prophet. The great Old Testament prophet Elijah was the forerunner to the Messiah (Mal. 4.5–6). Even as an ordinary prophet, Jesus is a spokesman for God.

But Jesus’ presses the disciples: “Who do you say I am?” In that day and this, it is not enough to know what others believe about Jesus. We must make up our minds about him for ourselves. Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” that is, the long-prophesied king of Israel who will put all things right.

The answer is true, of course, but open to misinterpretation. So Jesus takes pains to tell the disciples that his kingdom wears a cross, not a crown. This draws Peter’s rebuke. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to Peter. “You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

Having in mind the things of men means prioritizing crown over cross, power over sacrifice, judgment over mercy, and an easy-going spirituality over a disciplined following of Christ. It means choosing this world over the salvation of your own soul. Such a mind is satanic.

Having in mind the things of God means seeking a crown through the cross, employing spiritual power through personal sacrifice, letting mercy triumph over judgment, and pursuing the life of Jesus through the hard slog up Calvary. It means prioritizing the state of your soul over the size of your possessions. Having the mind of God is not an easy thing.

No wonder Peter’s rebuke called forth an exorcism. Peter was right to call Jesus “Christ.” But he was wrong—demonically wrong—to leave the cross out of the picture. The only question left for ourselves is whether in following Jesus we also seek to avoid the cross and all that it entails. Do we seek salvation through the cross of Christ, or apart from it? Do we seek spiritual growth through Christian self-denial (cross-bearing), or apart from it? Whether your spiritual journey is going forward or backward depends on how you answer those questions.

The Yeast of the Pharisees (Mark 8.1­–21)

Over the past two years, I have become a huge fan of television crime shows. I watch CSI, Law & Order, Cold Case, and Numbers, of course, all of which are fictional. But I enjoy “true crime” shows the most. My wife and I TiVo every episode of American Justice and Cold Case Files. What fascinates me about these shows is the way detectives patiently gather and sift evidence in order to solve the case and convict a criminal.

Mark 8.1–21 tells two stories. The first is the feeding of the 4000 (vv. 1–13). The second reports on the debriefing meeting Jesus held with his disciples after the event. The Pharisees play a negative role in both stories. In the first, they refuse to let the evidence of Jesus’ power convince them that God has sent him. In the second, Jesus warns the disciples not to become like them. Let’s take a closer look at both stories.

The Gospel of Mark is filled with stories about Jesus’ miraculous powers. In our day, people think of Jesus primarily as a teacher. In Jesus’ day, people thought of him as a teacher, exorcist, and miracle worker. He both taught about and demonstrated the power of the kingdom of God. When the Pharisees witnessed Jesus feed the 4000 with seven loaves of bread, they had already seen or heard about his many other miracles, including the feeding of the 5000, which is recorded in Mark 6.30–44.

The Pharisees’ knowledge of Jesus’ miracles is what makes their request in verse 11 so aggravating. “To test him,” Mark says, “they asked him for a sign from heaven.” Jesus responded: “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given it.” Of course, Jesus had already given them many “signs from heaven—exorcisms, healings, a resurrection, and two miraculous feedings of multitudes. The Pharisees simply refused to look at those. They wanted yet another. They are like the defense attorneys in my crime shows who, faced with a mountain of evidence against their client, think there is still a reasonable shadow of a doubt.

And that brings us to the disciples. Jesus warned them about “the yeast of the Pharisees.” This is a colorful way of talking about the Pharisees’ skepticism, which will—like yeast—spread throughout the believing community if unchecked by faith. But faith is not unreasonable. Jesus provides evidence that faith in him is well placed. He cites the feeding of the 5000 and of the 4000 as evidence in his favor. “Do you still not understand?” he asks the disciples. In other words, will you believe in me because of what you have seen with your own eyes?

There comes a point in our lives when we must make a decision about Jesus. I know people who put off that decision, also seeking more data, more evidence, more arguments in Christ’s favor. I’m always happy to give such people what they’re asking for—since there is plenty of evidence for Jesus. But at some point, we all have to make up our minds about Jesus. Asking for more evidence may be an indication of legitimate spiritual seeking. But it also may be an indicator of illegitimate, obstinate, unreasonable doubt.

He Has Done Everything Well (Mark 7.24–37)

Mark 7.24–37 tells two stories.

In the first story, a Greek woman from Syrian Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon) asks Jesus to exorcise a demon from her daughter. Easy enough, of course! Jesus has already exorcised numerous demons as well as given his disciples the power to do so (Mark 1.21–28, 39; 3.11–12, 15, 20–30; 5.1–20; 6.7, 13). And yet, Jesus responds to the woman with what seems like an ethnic insult: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” As the parallel story in Matthew 15.21–28 makes clear, “children” refers to Jews and “dogs” to Gentiles. Jesus seems to be saying that he will not help the woman because she doesn’t deserve the blessing reserved for Jews.

The woman is persistent, however. She counters Jesus’ apparent insult with a strong riposte: “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” (Incidentally, this woman is the only person in Mark’s Gospel to refer to Jesus as “Lord.” She demonstrates a theological acuity that others lack.) “For such a reply,” Jesus says, “you may go; the demon has left your daughter.” And indeed, it had.

What do we learn about Jesus from this story? That Jesus is an ethnic chauvinist? No! As Matthew makes clear, Jesus is a mission-driven individual: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (Matt. 15.24). Jesus’ mission is to bring the gospel to God’s chosen people, the Jews, his countrymen and fellow religionists. And yet, Jesus everywhere permits mission creep. All who come to him with genuine faith receive what they ask for. In the immediately preceding story, “Jesus declared all foods ‘clean’” (Mark 7.19). In Jesus’ day, food divided Jews and Gentiles. By declaring all foods clean, Jesus crosses the dividing line declares all people groups clean as well.

In the second story, Jesus heals a deaf mute. Then he commands the man to remain mute and not share his testimony with others. “But the more [Jesus] did so, the more they kept talking about it.” The people hear and see Jesus’ handiwork, and they respond by saying, “He has done everything well.” Excellence is a hallmark of Jesus’ life, teaching, healing ministry, death, and finally resurrection.

What do these two stories teach us about how we ought to respond to Jesus? First, to approach him with bold prayers. The Syro-Phoenician woman boldly crosses a language barrier (Greek), an ethnic barrier (Jew-Gentile), and a sex barrier (male-female) in order to ask Jesus a favor. And he grants her request. Are we boldly forthright in our prayers? Do they cost us anything? Second, these stories teach us to share our faith boldly. In the Gospels, people violate Jesus’ commandment of silence with impunity. It’s almost as if Jesus wishes us to disobey him in this regard. But all too often, we act like mutes when we should be shouting the wonderful things Jesus has done for us.

Clean Hands, Unclean Hearts (Mark 7.1–23)

Mark 7.1–23 tells the story of Jesus’ interaction with a group of inquisitive Pharisees and teachers of the law. Through his response to their question, we learn about the danger of externally defined righteousness as well as the necessity of inward moral transformation. Let’s take a closer look at the story!

Notice the context: A committee of Pharisees and teachers of the law from Jerusalem go down to Galilee to investigate Jesus’ orthodoxy. When they see Jesus’ disciples eating food without first washing their hands, they ask Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with ‘unclean’ hands?” For the Pharisees and teachers of the law, hand washing is a religious ritual, not just a hygienic practice. (In our day, it is the reverse: a hygienic practice, not a religious ritual.) If Jesus’ disciples do not observe the hand-washing ritual, then the Pharisees and teachers can conclude that Jesus’ teaching is heterodox and spiritually suspect.

Now, the Mosaic law commands the priests to wash their hands before they minister in the temple (Ex. 30.17–21). It also commands men and women to bathe—and wash their hands—if they experience a bodily discharge (Lev. 15.4–30). But it nowhere commands the Israelites to wash their hands before eating.

Noticing the discrepancy between “the commands of God” and “the traditions of men,” Jesus criticizes the Pharisees and teachers of the law for three reasons.

First, their priorities are misplaced. Quoting Isaiah 29.13, Jesus points out to his hearers that the Pharisees and teachers of the law let go of “the commands of God” even while they hold on to “the traditions of men.” They claim that their hand washing honors God, but in reality, it dishonors God by elevating human interpretations of Scripture to the level of Scripture itself.

Second, they are hypocrites. They expect others to obey human traditions while they themselves disobey divine laws. This is the point of Jesus’ example about the practice of corban. The Pharisees and teachers of the law dedicate money to the temple that should go toward the care of their elderly parents. For Jesus, the moral requirements of the law are paramount. But the Pharisees and teachers of the law find ways to evade them.

Third, they have an external, rather than internal, definition of “cleanness.” The Pharisees and teachers of the law value clean hands. But Jesus values clean hearts. Indeed, according to Isaiah 29.13, God himself wants clean hearts above all else. Or rather, he wants our hearts to be near to him. The Pharisees believe that they are basically good inside and so strive to avoid contamination by outside influences. But Jesus believes that our heart, not our environment, is what contaminates us. “‘What comes out of a man is what makes him ‘unclean.’”

It is easy enough to beat up on the Pharisees. But how often is our religion like theirs? Too often, in my opinion. So, let us repent, prioritize God’s word, obey his commandments, and seek divine help to change from the inside out!

Smallness of Faith, Hardness of Heart (Mark 6.30–56)

Mark 6.30–56 tells the stories of two miracles. In the first (vv. 30–44), Jesus feeds a large crowd with fives loaves and two fish. In the second (vv. 45–56), he walks on water. Both stories tell us something important about Jesus, as well as something troubling about ourselves.

The first story tells us that Jesus is the Great Shepherd who cares about and provides for his sheep, both spiritually and physically. It begins with Jesus inviting his apostles, exhausted from their first extended evangelistic campaign, to take a few days off. “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” This invitation is a profound comment on Jesus’ leadership style. He expects and empowers us to do great things, but he also realizes the limits of our abilities and encourages us to create moments for self-care.

The apostles’ rest did not last long, however, for the crowds discovered their quiet place. We have seen Jesus’ heart for his apostles, now we see his heart for the masses: “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.” This is a profound comment about Jesus’ priorities as a leader. He prioritizes the crowd’s spiritual needs over their physical needs. Why? Because, as he told the devil, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4.4).

By the same token, however, he does not neglect the crowd’s physical needs. When the disciples ask him to send the crowd away so that they can purchase food in the surrounding villages, Jesus says to them: “You give them something to eat.” All they can rustle up are fives loaves and two fish, hardly enough food for a multitude. But when Jesus blesses and distributes the food, the disciples discover, to their amazement, that there is more than enough for all. Smallness of faith had hampered the ability of the apostles to minister to the crowd.

After feeding the crowd, Jesus sends the apostles ahead of him to Bethsaida, which requires that they set sail on the Sea of Galilee. A storm arises, and Jesus—who is on a mountain overlooking the lake—sees “the disciples straining at the oars, because the wind was against them.” So, he walks across the lake to them. When they see him coming toward them, they think he is a ghost and become frightened. So Jesus responds, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Then he climbs into the boat, and the wind dies down. Mark offers this commentary on the apostles’ response: “They were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.”

Jesus is a powerful person. That is the important lesson we learn from these stories. The troubling lesson is that we all too often have small faith and hard hearts. So, let us pray and strive for a large-minded, soft-hearted faith!

A Prophet Without Honor (Mark 6.1–29)

In a perfect world, people get exactly what they deserve. Good comes to those who do good, but bad to those who do bad. A perfect world, in other words, is characterized by justice, which Aristotle defined as treating equals equally and unequals unequally.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. In our world, bad things happen to good people, while bad people enjoy good things. Injustice is all too often the rule in our world, not the exception.

According to Mark 6.1–29, Jesus and his colleagues also experienced injustice. Although good people—in Jesus’ case, a perfect person—they experienced bad things. Jesus was a “prophet without honor” in his hometown (vv. 1–6a). He trained his disciples to “shake the dust off your feet” of villages who rejected the good news (vv. 6b–13). And John the Baptist—last of the Old Testament prophets—was beheaded because Herod made a rash vow to a seductive dancer (vv. 14–29).

How should we live in an unjust world?

First, we should say what we must. When Jesus taught in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, the people were amazed, as Jesus’ audiences typically were after hearing him speak. But their amazement was cynical, not joyful. “Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” Hegel once said that no man was a hero to his own valet. Jesus surely wasn’t a hero to his fellow villagers. Their familiarity with him—or perhaps their envy of him?—had only bred contempt. But Jesus spoke anyway. So did the disciples, who experienced a measure of success in their evangelistic efforts. And so did John the Baptist, whose brave criticism of Herod’s sexual immorality ultimately cost him his life. In an unjust world, those who are just by faith must speak the truth, no matter what the cost.

Second, we should do what we can. Verses 5 and 13 offer a startling contrast between Jesus and his disciples. Of Jesus we read: “He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them.” But of the disciples we read: “They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.” How is it that Jesus healed so few when the disciples healed so many? Verse 6 says, “And [Jesus] was amazed at [his villagers’] lack of faith.” With both Jesus and the disciples, there was no shortage of power to heal, and they were all willing to heal. The shortage lay in the faith of the Nazarene villagers. Their unbelief constrained Jesus’ power. As followers of Christ, we should do whatever good we can whenever we can, but we should also realize that some people don’t want us to do good to them.

Finally, we should bear what we must. Jesus bore the sadness of the villagers’ failure of faith. The disciples bore the joy of miraculous success. John suffered persecution and martyrdom. When we say what we must and do what we can, we must be prepared for whatever result comes our way, either good or bad. That is the cost of discipleship for all who follow Jesus.

An Interruption to an Interruption (Mark 5:21-43)

Mark 5.21–43 tells the interconnected stories of two miracles: (1) the healing of a woman with a twelve-year-long hemorrhage and (2) the resurrection of Jairus’ little daughter.

What do these miracles teach us about Jesus?

First, and very obviously, they teach us that Jesus has the power to heal. Jesus has power over sickness and death, as the stories of the woman and the young girl make clear. Furthermore, Jesus has power over the natural and supernatural realms, as seen by his calming of the storm (Mark 4.35–41) and exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (5.1–20).

Second, Jesus’ power to heal is holistic. Pay close attention to the story of the woman with the twelve-year-long hemorrhage. According to Mark, in addition to her illness, she “had suffered a great deal under the care of many doctors and had spent all she had, yet instead of getting better she grew worse.” Her problem had physical, emotional, and financial dimensions. It also had spiritual and social dimensions, however. What Mark does not state explicitly, but what the careful reader knows, is that this woman was ritually “unclean” according to the Law, and she rendered unclean anyone she touched (Lev. 15.25–33). How long had she felt ashamed of her condition? How long had she been unable to experience human touch? We do not know. What we do know is that when Jesus healed her physical illness, he also healed her emotions, ended the medical draining of her finances, restored her to spiritual “cleanness,” and reconnected her to normal human society. “Go in peace,” he said, “and be freed from your suffering.”

Third, Jesus’ power to heal reverses the flow of contamination. When someone is sick, we fear catching the disease. According to the Law of Moses, when someone is ritually unclean, anyone who touches that person becomes unclean as well. In the two stories we’re considering today, both the woman with the twelve-year-long hemorrhage and the dead girl were ritually unclean (Lev. 15.25–33; Num. 19.11, 14). When the woman pushed her way through the crowd to touch Jesus, she rendered unclean everyone she touched, but not Jesus. Nor did Jesus become unclean when he took Jairus’ little daughter “by the hand.” Why? Because Jesus decontaminates whatever he touches, physically and spiritually. I think Jesus’ example of physically touching people is a marvelous model for us to follow. When people are sick—of AIDS, for example—we should not feel afraid to touch them, for this is what Jesus would do if he was in our place.

Finally, Jesus makes his power to heal available at all times. My dad likes to say that Mark 5.21–43 is the story of an interruption of an interruption. Jesus was teaching the crowd when Jairus interrupted him with news of his little daughter’s parlous condition. Jesus was on his way to Jairus’ house when the hemorrhaging woman interrupted his journey and touched him. Time management techniques have taught us that every activity needs to find its appointed day and hour. Jesus never made appointments, or rather, he never let his appointments interrupt an opportunity to help people. Neither should we.

The first step in healing is simply being available to others so that God can use you as his agent of bring wholeness to others.

Salvation as the Ultimate Sanity (Mark 5:1-20)

American culture has a longstanding interest in the occult, stretching from the Salem Witch Trials in the late seventeenth century to the remake of The Amityville Horror today. A crucial difference between then and now is that the Puritans feared witches and demons because they thought they were real. We, on the other hand derive entertainment from them because precisely we think they don’t really exist. (There’s just nothing like a good scare now and then!) I’m not sure whether being entertained by depictions of evil is an improvement over prosecuting witches, but I am sure that American interest in the occult is here to stay.

And that brings us to Mark 5.1–20, the best-known story of demon possession in the Gospels. In the story, Jesus encountered a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. “This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and food, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.”

Mark is quite clear about the cause of the man’s bizarre behavior: An “evil spirit” possessed him. More specifically, he was infested by multiple demons. When Jesus asked the man his name, the demons replied: “My name is Legion, for we are many.” And when Jesus exorcized Legion, Mark tells us that “evil spirits” (plural) left the man. Modern commentators generally assume that Mark is using pre-scientific categories of demon possession to describe a man who suffered from bipolar disorder and dissociative identity disorder. In other words, the man was a manic-depressive with multiple personalities.

Personally, I think both Mark and Jesus before him knew how to distinguish disorders with natural causes from disorders with supernatural causes. So, I think Mark’s diagnosis is more accurate than that of modern commentators. And anyway, there are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamed by philosophers, as Hamlet reminded Horatio. My worldview is not characterized by a cramped and narrow naturalism, and I don’t think yours should be other. Interestingly, however, whatever the diagnosis of the man, Jesus exhibited an incredible power to heal. Either he exorcized the man or immediately cured him of his bipolar and dissociative identity disorders without medication or extensive time on Freud’s proverbial couch. Whatever we might say about the man, we must agree with his appraisal of Jesus, that he is “Son of the Most High God.”

A story that began with a wild, uncontrollable, inconsolable man ends with that same man “dressed and in his right mind.” This is a marvelous portrait of salvation as the ultimate sanity. Whether the causes of our disorders are supernatural or natural, Jesus wants to bring wholeness and wellness to our lives. And since he is the Son of God, he can.

True Adults in Faith (Mark 4:21-41)

In a sermon a few years ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger—now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—offered some insights about what it means to be “a true adult in the faith.” Reflecting on Ephesians 4.13–14, he said: “Being an ‘adult’ means having a faith which does not follow the waves of today’s fashions or the latest novelties. A faith which is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ is adult and mature.” Today’s Scripture reading is Mark 4.21–41. In it, Jesus shows us what it means to practice a mature, adult faith in him.

First, a mature Christian faith is characterized by openness. “For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open.” What should Christians be open about? About their faith, which is portrayed as a lamp lighting the way to salvation. “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand?” Adult Christians do not hesitate to live their faith before others and share their faith with others. Why? Because they have nothing to hide.

Second, a mature Christian faith is characterized by mercy. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.” In other words, if you treat others judgmentally, you will be judged. If you treat others mercifully, you will receive mercy. “Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him.” An adult Christian passes along to others the grace he has received from God.

Third, a mature Christian faith is oriented toward fruitfulness. Jesus tells two parables about the kingdom of God. The first one compares the kingdom to a farmer who scatters seed (vv. 26–29). “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows…. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” In other words, it is not enough that you make a good start in the faith. Seedliness is insufficient. God wants you to come to fruition, ready for the divine harvest of the resurrection.

Fourth, a mature Christian faith has influence. The second parable of the kingdom Jesus tells concerns “the mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.” Does your Christianity provide help to others in need? Does it comfort mourners? Does it shelter victims?

Fifth, a mature Christian faith takes Christ at his word. In verses 35–41, Jesus and the disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. “Let us go over to the other side,” Jesus said. Midway through the journey, a storm arose that threatened to capsize the boat and drown them all. The disciples were anxious, but “Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.” The disciples yelled at him: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown.” Jesus woke up, calmed the storm, and questioned his disciples: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” When Jesus says, “Let us go over to the other side,” you will make it to the other side, no matter what happens along the way. A mature faith believes in Christ through troubled times.

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