The Common Good
September-October 2003

Sharper than a Sword

by Michaela Bruzzese | September-October 2003

"We must re-vision Christian faith as a combative, argumentative, and emancipatory" practice that seeks "the well-being of all." 

"We must re-vision Christian faith as a combative, argumentative, and emancipatory" practice that seeks "the well-being of all." Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza's words, in But She Said, only sound new because they have been forgotten; as Paul reminds us, they have been with us from the beginning: "Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). Our faith has always been born of the truth's struggle to emerge in a broken world, and only the living word of God is sharp enough to separate truth from ego, wisdom from false teaching. As we shall see, it is often the community of the faithful who are most in need of its power.

We will first witness the Israelites' loss of vision and longing for the comforts of slavery (Numbers 11:4); later, the disciples themselves become preoccupied with their own ambition, arguing about who among them is the greatest (Mark 9:34) and demanding to share in Jesus' glory (Mark 10:37). Even the actions of the early Christian community will compel James to ask, "Have you not...become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:4).

Each of these instances brings confrontation, including with God. An exasperated Moses demands: "Why have you treated your servant so badly?... Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them?" (Numbers 11:11-12). James does not mince words: "Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" (James 2:1). And Jesus has no problem enlightening the disciples: "Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things" (Mark 8:33). But the most surprising voice comes from a woman who confronts Jesus' own lack of mercy: "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs" (Mark 7:28).

Again and again, the active word of God comes from where it is least expected. It is the powerless who realign the building of the kingdom and sharpen our vision so that the liberation of all God's people is always in focus.

Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

 

September 7

A New Table for All

Isaiah 35:4-7; Psalm 146; James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 7:24-37

"The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down.... The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow..." (Psalm 146:8-9). The psalmist beautifully and passionately attests to God's love, especially for the most vulnerable and defenseless. In this spirit, James demands accountability from a community that has forgotten God's love for justice and care for the poor, asking, "Do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?" (James 2:1). He states plainly that "you have dishonored the poor" (James 2:6).

The gospel reading also involves confrontation and accountability, but it is not Jesus who does the teaching or who initially shows mercy. Instead, a nameless Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus and asks that he heal her daughter. Presumably because she is not Jewish, Jesus rejects her request outright: "...it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs" (Mark 7:27). The woman, however, does what no other person in the gospel has done: She persists and persuades Jesus, for "even the dogs under the table eat the children's scraps." She is the only person to win an argument with Jesus in the whole of scripture.

Many have attempted to explain, excuse, or ignore Jesus' disturbing behavior, when, in the words of theologian Sharon Ringe, he was "caught with his compassion down." And with good reason—Mark's portrayal of Jesus is not a typical or comfortable one. The woman's behavior, on the other hand, has profound importance for the entire Christian community, for—according to theologian Laurel Schneider—she achieved the laying of a new table to which all are invited. Why the woman was not named nor invited to formal discipleship remains a mystery; however, she still serves as an example of discipleship for all Christians. Like all disciples are called to do, she recognized the new life Jesus had to offer and stopped at nothing to get it, for herself and for her child.

 

September 14

Like Rock and Like Flint

Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116:1-9; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

It is commonly assumed that Peter is referred to as "the rock" because of the strength of his faith, a belief that is certainly supported by scriptural accounts. However, it may have also denoted Peter's stubbornness and lack of flexibility when it came to certain concepts, one of the most critical of which is Jesus' confession of the passion, the first of which is recounted this week. To Jesus' question about his identity, Peter responds with remarkable clarity and conviction: "You are the Messiah" (Mark 8:29). However, just minutes later, Peter is unable or unwilling to grasp the implications of Jesus' confession: that his Messiah-ship involves not military or even religious power, but great suffering, rejection, and even death before resurrection. Peter has no problem with glory, but stops short when it comes to Christianity's essence: Jesus' free choice to submit himself to the power of evil out of obedience to God and complete faith in God's calling. Peter's rejection of Jesus' Messiah-ship is declared by Jesus as nothing other than Satanic, the very opposite of what God is and calls us to be.

Contrasting Peter's uncertain faith is that of the psalmist's, who praises God, "for you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling" (Psalm 116:8-9). There is no mention of delivering the body from death; true faith is concerned only with the soul and places blind trust in God for the rest. Isaiah, too, was upheld by his faith alone, for "The Lord God helps me; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame" (Isaiah 50:7). We also know, however, that this account is not the end of Peter's journey and that his faith is eventually so strong that he allows himself to be led where he does not want to go. The unwavering certainty and strength of the psalmist and Isaiah, and even Peter, liberate them to accept God's plan as their own. The faith of the psalmist and Isaiah is Jesus' inheritance, and Peter's faith—halting, unsteady, and weak, but never giving up—is ours.

 

September 21

Wisdom from Above

Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37

James' letter is so focused on ethical conduct that it is considered more of an exhortation, whose form and content echoes the tradition of Jewish wisdom literature. Here, the focus is "wisdom from above." Such wisdom is "pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy" (James 3:17). On the other hand, "bitter envy and selfish ambition" does not come from above, "but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish" (James 3:15). If only Jesus' disciples had access to this text, perhaps they would have been spared exemplifying the worst of "earthly, unspiritual, and devilish" behavior for the rest of us Christians. But they didn't, and Mark recorded their actions for all to see. The least we can do is learn from their mistakes and avoid doing the same.

In the typical pattern of Mark, Jesus' second prediction of the passion is followed by a particularly embarrassing example of just how completely the disciples fail to "get it." Peter himself responded "devilishly" when he rebuked Jesus after the first prediction ("Get behind me, Satan!"); following the second prediction, all of the disciples manage to demonstrate both envy and selfish ambition. After Jesus' prediction and still clueless because "they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him" (Mark 9:32), the disciples devote their energies to arguing who among them is the greatest. Jesus, with seemingly endless patience, tries to convey the message more clearly: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all" (Mark 9:35).

While the disciples could have been that clueless, we must wonder why Mark has placed this same pattern of ignorance after each prediction. In the end, his idea of the perfect disciple is not among the 12 at all, but a blind beggar (Mark 10:46-52). The disciples are blinded by their own agendas and cannot see what lies before them. Mark reminds us that proximity to power and privilege is not always an asset; it is from last place that we can see most clearly.

 

September 28

For or Against?

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29; Psalm 19:7-14; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

From the Israelites in the desert to the disciples, the people of God have a history of losing perspective and dwelling on their own well-being instead of God's kingdom. The passage from Numbers paints a bleak picture. Weary from the difficult transition to liberation, the Israelites demand the comforts of slavery rather than God's nourishment; in a moment of weakness, they are happy to trade the possibility of freedom for a few leeks and cucumbers. Equally weary of their constant whining, Moses has his own words with God, preferring to die rather than spend one more day leading them: "If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once...and do not let me see my misery" (Numbers 11:15).

Ironically, when God responds to Moses' pleas and empowers others to assume the responsibility of leadership, Moses' assistant, Joshua, becomes alarmed and jealous of their power and begs Moses to stop them. "Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets...." (Numbers 11:29), replies Moses, who longs for a community in which all are prepared and willing to share the burden.

The disciples, too, have lost sight of the kingdom and think instead of their own power and territory. Like Joshua, they react with fear and jealousy to another who heals in Jesus' name. Jesus rejects their parochialism, insisting that "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40). Obviously, our own desire to limit the work of God to our hands, our church, or our faith is nothing new. But egoism and territorialism were rejected from the very beginning. God's prophets will not always speak our language, pray our prayers, or look like us. And we can be equally sure that from our own ranks will come spectacular examples of blindness and ignorance. Only when we each assume responsibility for our faith community and discern together can we hope to see clearly and act rightly. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).

 

October 5

Crowned Equally with Honor

Genesis 2:18-24; Psalm 8; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Issues of power continue to surface, not only for communities but also for individuals. Unlike the creation account in Genesis 1:27, the account in Genesis 2 places the creation of woman directly from the man's body. When presented with the woman, Adam speaks for the first time, acknowledging that finally, as "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (Genesis 2:23) he has found a partner. "Therefore," the passage declares, "a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Genesis 2:24). According to theologian Alice Laffey, writing in An Introduction to the Old Testament: A Feminist Perspective, these verses would seem to signify that "the helpmate" for Adam is Adam's equal.

The Pharisees raise the issue of male/female equality when they demand Jesus' opinion on divorce. In his response, Jesus refers to the first Genesis account, when "God made them male and female" (Genesis 1:27). He concludes that the reading indicates not only that "what God has joined together, let no one separate," but that men and women bear equal responsibility in the case of divorce and remarriage: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:11-12).

This statement provides the basis for many Christian churches' teachings against divorce, based on the assumption that Jesus was speaking about individual men and women. However, if viewed in the broader context of gender, not individuals, Jesus' comments seem directed more toward the full equality of men and women. This equality is so profound that "no one" has the power to separate them, and make one of them less than the other. Instead, both persons, made in God's image and as one flesh, hold equal rights and bear equal responsibility for their actions and decisions. In this way, both are full heirs and partners to the great gifts that God has bestowed upon them; both are "a little lower than God," and crowned "with glory and honor" (Psalm 8:5) and both are equal in their rights and responsibilities as co-creators with God.

 

October 12

'What Will My Father in Heaven Think?'

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15; Psalm 90:12-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Mark showed plainly in the previous reading that by applying the rigid letter of the law, many Pharisees were missing its liberating spirit. The rich man in today's account suffers from the same blind allegiance to rules rather than love. Though faithful to the commandments, when asked by Jesus to put his faith into action by giving his money to the poor, the man "was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions" (Mark 10:22). He is shocked that rather than receiving congratulations for his piety, he receives an invitation that he is unwilling to accept; though his actions are faithful, his heart remains unconverted.

It is a lesson that has special significance today when Columbus' controversial "discovery" is remembered throughout the world. Columbus and the explorers, soldiers, and priests who accompanied him had the blessing of kings and popes and conquered in the name of both Spain and Christianity. And the vast majority of them, confessing Christianity, stole land, resources, and the very lives of native peoples.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, Dominican priest and lonely voice of dissent, denounced the explorers "who themselves do not know the faith" and "use the pretext of teaching it to others...to extract from their blood the wealth which these men regard as their god" (from Robert Ellsberg's All Saints). Katharine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who minister especially to Native Americans and African Americans, asked the question that most other white Christians failed to for so long: "You have no time to occupy your thoughts with...consideration of what others will think. Your business is simply, 'What will my Father in heaven think?'" De Las Casas and Drexel had the courage to remain faithful to God even when most Christians did not. And those of us whose countries are explorers still, mining distant lands for riches in the name of freedom and God, must pray for the courage to keep asking those questions. Only then can we hope to be able to accept Jesus' invitation to "come, follow me" (Mark 10:21).

 

October 19

Sharing in the Glory

Isaiah 53:4-12; Psalm 91:9-16; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

Jesus' third prediction of the passion, like the first two, reveals the disciples' continued inability (or unwillingness) to comprehend his mission. This time, brothers James and John follow Jesus' prediction with a request; in fact, they tell Jesus that "we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you" (Mark 10:35). They want to share in the earthly power that they believe awaits Jesus, to "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (Mark 10:37). Clearly, they have not been listening to Jesus or his promise that his life will end not in glory but in shame, that he will not be physically powerful but powerless, that he faces not religious or political leadership but death at the hands of both. The only glory of which he has spoken will come in heaven, after his resurrection. Both James and John, like Peter and the other disciples, have viewed Jesus' Messiah-ship through the lens of their own needs and desires, and thus, even at the third telling, they cannot begin to comprehend its true meaning.

Though it may be easy to criticize the disciples' actions, it is hardly fair. Isaiah, too, had foreseen Jesus' fate, but was still incredulous: "Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgressions of (the) people" (Isaiah 53:8). Jesus' prediction is pretty much beyond the reach of us all. Which is why Mark gives us so many opportunities to identify our own failures to understand and act through those of the disciples. Like Isaiah, we must acknowledge that "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned our own way" (Isaiah 53:6). It is why Jesus does not admonish, but continues to try and teach the ways of the kingdom, where membership is based not on favoritism or power but on the ability to serve: "Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10:43-44).

 

October 26

Let Us See Again!

Jeremiah 31:7-9; Psalm 126; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

The end of the eight-week cycle brings us back to the beginning. Jeremiah describes the community that God gathered to Israel, "among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together, a great company" (Jeremiah 31:8). Only in God's kingdom are the most vulnerable considered "great company"! The one who has become "a father to Israel" consoles the weeping and leads them "in a straight path in which they shall not stumble" (Jeremiah 31:9). The psalmist bears witness, proclaiming, "it was said among the nations, 'The Lord has done great things for them'" (Psalm 126:2). In God's community all are welcome and included, even and especially the most powerless.

The gospel reading also reflects God's attention to the vulnerable. Bartimaeus calls upon Jesus to heal him, insisting even though "many sternly ordered him to be quiet" (Mark 10:48). His persistence is rewarded: Jesus asks what he wants. "My teacher, let me see again" is his only request. His actions set him apart; according to Ched Myers in Binding the Strong Man, the account "is well known as a paradigmatic story of discipleship." For Mark, this poor blind man is the model disciple, for unlike the disciples, he knows he is blind and wants to be healed; unlike the rich man, he follows Jesus immediately.

Despite these words and examples, emancipation has yet to reach all of our community. Though this story closely parallels that of the Syrophoenician woman, she remains anonymous in the text, our history, and our churches. Like Bartimaeus, she was marginalized, and like him, she persisted anyway. Both requests were granted by Jesus because of their great faith. The Syrophoenician woman, however, is not lauded by gospel authors, church fathers, or most contemporary theologians as a paradigmatic disciple. She is not even named. It is thus fitting that our story ends as it began, with the evidence of our continued blindness before us. It exemplifies the dire need for the re-visioning of our Christian faith, so that both our vision and practice will always be liberating and "seek the well-being of all."

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