The Common Good
February 2009

'Listen to Him!'

by Michaela Bruzzese | February 2009

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary for February.

Over the next four weeks, Jesus’ public ministry begins to cause problems with both scribes and demons, and issues of knowledge and secrecy abound. The question of authority is turned upside down; the scribes lose theirs, and those you would least expect—a leper, Simon’s mother-in-law—gain authority and a place in the new reign. Jesus tries to keep the focus on the message, not the miracles, and tries to prepare us for the truth of his mission—salvation, yes, but through the cross.

In the midst of the confusion, Mark offers a little help by presenting Jesus as the Messiah and chosen one so clearly that even the disciples get it: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7). The Transfiguration serves to remind us that Jesus has already conquered death and set us free. Knowing this, we can re-enter the chaos more fully, passionately, and freely to struggle for this reign that we dare to claim as our own.

Meanwhile, Paul has to confront his own demons—wresting “church” out of a few ragtag communities, and putting out fires that flare up when disciples try to translate spiritual beliefs and human limitations into community. Luckily, instead of focusing on his own power, Paul keeps us focused on Christ and on service to one another: “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corin­thians 4:5).

Michaela Bruzzese, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Brooklyn, New York.

February 1

Building with Love

Deuteronomy 18:15-20; Psalm 111; 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; Mark 1:21-28

The fourth Sunday of the Epiphany, like the second, raises again the issue of knowing and community. Paul, unimpressed with the assertion that knowledge is a matter of individual freedom and rights, explains that a lived faith means freedom for, not freedom from, community: “So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:11-12). Paul insists that what we do affects others, and our duty is not just to ourselves but to the body of Christ. Knowledge alone risks pride, but knowledge combined with love builds the reign of God—a community of the weak as well as the strong, in which all are equally important.

Mark also takes on knowledge that “puffs up” when he explains that, unlike the scribes, Jesus “taught them as one having authority” (Mark 1:22). Mark’s criticism isn’t exactly subtle—the scribes of the synagogue were powerful precisely because of their knowledge. But lacking love, this knowledge was wielded as a weapon of judgment rather than liberation; it was used to destroy rather than build. Jesus, on the other hand, with knowledge and love, publicly takes on the demons that possess both individuals and the community. In silencing and expelling the demons, Jesus is also silencing the scribes and extinguishing their power; he frees the man and the entire community from possession by forces that seek to limit the dispensation of God’s grace and mercy.

Deuteronomy sums it up best: “But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die” (18:20). If we dare call ourselves Christian, we must remember that we speak in the name of Christ and the new reign of God. As the psalmist reminds us, we, like God, should be “gracious and merciful,” and our works, like God’s, should be “faithful and just.” Only then will we be prophets of life instead of death.

February 8

From Message to Church

Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-11, 20; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39

As Jesus’ public ministry continues, Mark describes several miracles as by-products of Jesus’ actual mission: to proclaim “the message … for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38). Nowhere in Mark’s gospel does Jesus claim that his ministry is about miracles; nor does he heal someone without being asked or approached. Instead, Mark describes Jesus’ primary mission—“proclaiming the message in their synagogues”—followed by its effects: “and casting out demons.” Jesus’ healing of Simon’s mother-in-law is a beautiful example of how the message and the miracles fit together. After leaving the synagogue, Jesus is asked to help the woman: “He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.” Jesus raises her physically, but also symbolically, restoring her to wholeness and a rightful place in the community. In response, she enters the new reign. Putting message into practice, she “immediately began to serve.”

Translating Jesus’ message into practice is a struggle well-known to the imperfect but ever-faithful Paul. Writing from Ephesus about 10 years before Mark, Paul addresses problems in the fledgling church at Corinth. Here Paul must defend his apostolic ministry from attack by the church in Ephesus—a refreshing, if unfortunate, demonstration that petty struggles for power are not limited to the contemporary church. Paul maintains the high ground by keeping the focus on what is important—the message, not the messenger: “If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

Paul shows that choosing to be Christian is about duties, not rights. We must remember that God alone is our power, as the psalmist observes: “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” A power whose greatness is most evident in concern for the weak: “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” This, too, should be our only claim to greatness, the only power to which we aspire.

February 15

Surrendering to the Cross

2 Kings 5:1-14; Psalm 30; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; Mark 1:40-45

True discipleship requires the ability to surrender, and this week’s readings feature examples of just how (and how not) to do it. First, though it’s hard to imagine that a leper could issue instructions on how his healing should take place, Naaman does exactly this in 2 Kings. Annoyed that Elisha’s instructions are not sufficiently grand for a man of his stature, Naaman must be convinced by his own servants to “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” After reluctantly following Elisha’s instructions, he emerges from the murky waters with skin “… like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean.” Only then is Naaman convinced, and only then does he confess that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

Naaman was healed despite himself, in stark contrast to the leper who approaches Jesus in Mark’s gospel. The leper demonstrates not only humility, but great faith when he confesses, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Jesus confirms the man’s faith with words and, more significantly, physical touch: “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!”

The “Messianic secret” unique to Mark reappears when Jesus commands the leper to “say nothing to anyone.” Mark’s Jesus maintains the focus on the Messiah who must confront, in body and spirit, the world’s fear and hatred so that new life may be victorious. As Joseph Martos and Richard Rohr observe in Great Themes of Scripture, “Jesus’ way of salvation is a way through darkness and death.” This understanding has critical implications for our ability to accept discipleship. Accor­ding to Martos and Rohr, “Mark’s Jesus does not want us to proclaim that he is Lord and savior until we fully understand that his way leads to the cross.” Knowing this makes our surrender to discipleship and complete faith in the God of Jesus that much more difficult, and that much more essential.

February 22

A Definitive Meaning

2 Kings 2:1-12; Psalm 50:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9

One week before Lent, Mark clarifies the true identity and mission of the Messiah in his account of the Transfiguration. It is significant for its placement as much as the message—it is preceded by Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus’ first prediction of the passion and followed by Jesus’ second prediction of the passion and the disciples’ inability to heal those who are possessed. Since healings always accompany Jesus’ proclamation of the new reign, the disciples’ inability to expel demons shows that they do not yet understand the message or the mission. In the midst of the chaos and confusion, Mark places the account of the Transfiguration, a clear demonstration of who Jesus is (the successor of Moses and Elijah) and how God feels about him (“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”).

No stranger to chaos and confusion, Archbishop Oscar Romero was especially devoted to the Transfigured Christ. Unlike the disciples, Romero understood Christ’s passion; the people of El Salvador lived it on a daily basis, caught between a civil war and the state-sponsored terrorism that accompanied it. For Romero, the Transfigured Christ assured him that their plight, far from meaningless, was part of God’s promise of redemption. As he reflected in a homily three weeks before his assassination by government forces, “The theology of transfiguration is saying that the road of redemption passes through the cross and through Calvary, but that the goal of Christians is beyond history. Not to alienate oneself from history, but rather to give more meaning to history, a definitive meaning.”

Rather than give into despair, ignorance, or apathy, the promise of the Transfigured Christ impelled Romero to enter fully in to history and to more publicly and passionately defend the suffering of his country. Like Romero, the Transfiguration allows us to witness Jesus’ triumph over death and despair. More importantly, it allows us to more fully commit ourselves to the struggle for life over death in all its forms, knowing that Christ has already won.

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