The Common Good
September/October 2009

An Unconventional Messiah

by Michaela Bruzzese | September/October 2009

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary for September and October.

Jesuit theologian Carlos Bravo labels the next four weeks “crisis and confirmation”—Jesus’ insistence on extending God’s love and mercy to the poor has put him on a collision course with the religious establishment and the oppressive Roman state. Far from a divine being, aware of his fate and mission from day one, Bravo understands Jesus to be profoundly human and struggling to faithfully live God’s reign in the face of increasing hostility. Jesus’ choices simultaneously confirm his violent fate and his identity as God incarnate, who will, through death and resurrection, offer each of us everlasting life.

Jesus faces resistance not only from social and religious leaders, but from his own disciples. Though able to confess that Jesus is the “messiah,” the disciples’ understanding of the title is the opposite of what Jesus teaches and lives. Jesus must insist again and again that his destination is not traditional kingship, but suffering, rejection, and, ultimately, death. Only through this path can he show that God’s love for us is real and triumphant over death. Over and over Jesus must explain kingdom values, as opposed to human values that prioritize power, status, and exclusivity. He must insist that the mission is not to be served, but to serve; not to be first, but to be last. And not to limit the scope of God’s work or love: Those who bring light and love in Jesus’ name are to be supported, not condemned, for “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

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

September 6
Faith Into Action

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Psalm 124; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37

JESUS’ HEALING MINISTRY continues with the Syrophoenician woman, a narrative found also in Matthew. This woman is the only person in any gospel to challenge Jesus and prevail. While Jesus initially dismisses her request to heal her daughter—who “had an unclean spirit”—because she was not Jewish, the woman persists, contrasting Jesus’ lack of generosity with her great faith and determination. Those who have firsthand experience with “unclean spirits,” or psychiatric illnesses, as they are now understood, know the profound loneliness and paralyzing debilitation they wreak on individuals and loved ones. Like the Syrophoenician woman, they know the healing Jesus offers is no small thing.

Jesus’ words seem out of step with his usual compassion. Mark gives no clear explanation except that Jesus “did not want anyone to know he was there” (Mark 7:24). Perhaps he feared that healing a foreigner’s child would spread news of his deeds even further—the healing of the deaf man afterward also took place “in private, away from the crowd.” Or maybe Jesus was just revealing his humanity—stressed out by the increasing tension with civil and religious leaders and exhausted by the demands of the crowd, he was simply unable to put compassion first. Whatever the reason, the most important part of the story is not Jesus’ words, but his actions—he admits the woman is right and restores her daughter to wholeness.

James underscores the importance of actions over words, insisting that our confessions of faith in Jesus are empty if they are not reflected in the life choices we make: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (James 2:14). Indeed, as the Syrophoenician woman shows us, great faith can save us—but only if that faith is expressed in persistence and action, not just words.

September 13
An Upside-Down Reign
Proverbs 1:20-33; Psalm 19; James 3:1-12; Mark 8:27-38

AT THE CRUX of the “crisis and confirmation” dilemma posed by Bravo, Jesus hears the disciples’ confession of who he is—“You are the Messiah”—and must give his correction of what that means: “Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). Jesus’ conflict extends even to his most devoted followers. To his insistence that what awaits him is suffering and certain death, not coronation, Peter “rebukes” Jesus, unable to hear or accept his truth.

Jesus’ response to Peter is no less severe. In an essay in Systematic Theology: Perspectives from Liberation Theology, Bravo writes that “Jesus remonstrates him in the harshest words he ever uses against anyone,” and in doing so, demonstrates that “Peter’s proposal is a temptation for him.” Bravo’s observation suggests that Jesus still struggles profoundly with the consequences of his choices; by confirming his unwavering commitment to the God of mercy, whose love and loyalty to the poor is good news to the outcast but threatens those in power, Jesus also confirms his violent fate at the hands of the church and the state.

Having chosen his path, Jesus’ most urgent task is to convey the teachings of God’s new reign to his followers, who will now be responsible for continuing the mission he will not be able to finish. His response to Peter reveals the upside-down mentality required of the new reign, in which our natural impulse to protect and enrich ourselves must be denied in favor of God’s way—to the point that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

September 20
Pro Life
Proverbs 31:10-31; Psalm 1; James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8; Mark 9:30-37

JESUS’ ATTEMPT TO convey kingdom ideals to his followers continues and intensifies—both in his directness about the consequences of his choices as well as the disciples’ inability to comprehend what he is saying and what it means for them. Jesus’ words couldn’t be more direct: “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (Mark 9:31). But Mark’s testimony—“But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him” (Mark 9:32)—and what happens next reveal that the disciples couldn’t be more confused or afraid. Still thinking of “human things” instead of “divine things” (Mark 8:33), they argue about which of them is the greatest.

In response, Jesus places a child among them, as yet another kingdom parable: This is what the kingdom of God is like! It is composed of those who are vulnerable and in need of love and care, and those who care for them care for God: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37).

Jesus’ actions seem like overkill—who wouldn’t welcome and protect a defenseless child? His choice highlights the disciples’ difficulty grasping what may seem obvious to us. But we would do well to listen closely. While many Christians passionately defend the unborn, their participation in defense of the “born,” and the myriad problems that affect vulnerable children and their families every day, is not nearly as comprehensive. Jesus’ invitation to the disciples is our invitation, too, a reminder that we must defend all human life equally—born and unborn, young and old, rich and poor—if we hope to preach the good news with integrity and live it in reality.

September 27
Divided We Fall
Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22; Psalm 124; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

WHEN THE DISCIPLES criticize someone for casting out demons in Jesus’ name because the man “was not following us” (Mark 9:38), Jesus is forced to address one of the most common and destructive tendencies concerning humans and power. Already the disciples have forgotten or conveniently misunderstood the radical inclusiveness of God’s reign and seek to limit membership to their special “club.” The man is not “one of them” and should therefore be stopped.

It is a tendency to which we can all relate. The number and variety of communities that work in Jesus’ name reveals that there are infinite ways to live and proclaim the good news. Diversity in itself is not a problem, as Jesus explains—the danger arises when any one of those communities professes to be the only true church and exclusive bearer of salvation.

The lesson is so important that Jesus underscores it for the next two paragraphs. Using the metaphor of the body, Jesus insists that it is better to physically remove that which impedes the spread of the good news and “enter life lame” than to “put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me” (Mark 9:42-47).

James concurs: This project will not work if we are fragmented and concerned with our own self-promotion and well-being at the expense of others. Christianity is not a project for individuals—it is by definition a community, which has profound implications. As Christians, we are truly our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers: “… you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). Within individual Christian communities, between churches and between religions, our salvation is interdependent.

***
Our Long Walk to Freedom

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary for October.

In the next four weeks, Mark and Job alert us to the dangers of legalism and easy answers offered by superficial religion, and instead invite us on a remarkable journey into true discipleship. The “utilitarian religion” portrayed by Job’s friends not only “lacks depth and authenticity,” writes theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez in On Job: God-Talk and the Suffering of the Innocent, but “has something satanic about it.” Rejecting this approach, the author of Job shows us how to enter the mystery of suffering and, through it, says Gutiérrez, reach “full encounter with the loving and free God.”

The path Job walks is also the path for which Jesus prepares, and Mark’s readings are each a separate invitation to deepen our participation in God’s reign. Jesus rejects the bonds of legalism imposed upon those who already suffer great failures, such as divorce. He insists that the care of the weak is the true model of discipleship and way of the kingdom. He invites us to lose everything in order to be free to receive everything, and rewards the faith of the destitute whose privileged position, as the least of these, places them directly in the path of God’s coming reign.

In each encounter Jesus assures us that the journey to greatness begins from last place, and that, above all, faithfulness is measured more by our capacity to serve and to trust than our ability to follow rules. More important than following the letter of the law, we must follow the Spirit, which always and everywhere seeks the liberation of God’s people.

October 4

Laws for Love

Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

JOB AND MARK set the stage for the next month, exposing both the limits and dangers of a legalistic, superficial approach to faith. As the embodiment of the good and faithful servant, Job is without blame according to the law. Even God observes that after being tested, Job “still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Satan insists, however, that further testing will expose Job’s superficial faith; God only has to “… touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 2:5).

The readings from Mark demonstrate a similar sentiment. The Pharisees define faith as Satan has, where religion is confined to following rules in expectation of reward. In seeking to test Jesus, they use their knowledge as a trap instead of a way to liberate God’s people. Jesus exposes their ploy by countering their petty god with the God of mercy. Instead of getting lost in legal semantics, or looking for more ways to exploit people’s pain, Jesus insists that men and women have equal access to Mosaic laws and, more importantly, God’s mercy.

To emphasize his point, Jesus turns to the many children surrounding him, and “took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” His actions demonstrate that the reign of God is about loving people, not laws. Author Megan McKenna observes in On Your Mark that “Jesus is calling his followers to a relationship of trust and dependence on God” so that we can “depend on one another and be responsible for one another.” Jesus has always insisted that the law was made for humanity, not the other way around. Our faithfulness is demonstrated not in complicated codes, but in how we extend God’s love and mercy to one another—especially the “least of these.”

October 11

True Encounter

Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

AS HIS SUFFERING continues unabated, Job discards the hollow answers given by his friends and stubbornly persists in his quest for an explanation. In his questions and longing for answers, we also witness his unshakable belief in God’s loyalty—“his hope in the God who gave him the gift of life,” writes Gutiérrez. Job’s assurance that God will respond to him is also his need to know that his suffering is meaningful, that God notices: “Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me” (Job 23:6).

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man may not seem similar, but the inherent critique of the easy answers provided by superficial religion is the same. The rich young man, like Job, has done everything right. He has followed the law, and therefore expects to be commended for his piety and to reap his reward. Jesus, moved by the man’s earnestness, invites him to go beyond such “utilitarian religion” to a life devoted to others. Freed from his possessions, he can know the freedom of dependence only on God. But the man cannot fathom Jesus’ assertion that, in Gutiérrez’s words, “the kingdom of God isn’t a right to be won …; it is always a freely given gift,” and he “went away grieving” (Mark 10:22).

Both Job’s friends and the rich young man assumed that faith was quantifiable and livable in the tidy parcels afforded by following rules and gaining rewards. But today Job and Jesus expose the danger of such self-serving religion, in which “there is no true encounter with God but rather the construction of an idol,” Gutiérrez writes. Jesus’ invitation still stands: The God who gave us the gift of life also invites us to true encounter.

October 18

Free to Live

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 24, 35; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

IN SOME OF the most beautiful writing of the Hebrew Testament, the Creator God answers Job’s demand for an explanation by turning the tables and asking, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? … [W]ho laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4, 6-7). God’s willingness to dialogue with Job reveals that God respects our freedom enough to dialogue, and that our suffering does not go unnoticed.

“Job’s journey,” authors Joseph Martos and Richard Rohr write in The Great Themes of Scripture: Old Testament, “becomes a symbol of the Calvary that every person of faith eventually must climb …. For it is by going through, living the mystery, that we find salvation. … It is by the letting go of life that we are set free to live.” Far from avoiding it through intellectual or superficial answers, Job shows us that suffering must be fully entered into if we truly seek the eternal life of the resurrection.

This freedom is also what Jesus is trying to convey to his followers and his disciples. But the closer they get to Jerusalem, the more blinded the disciples are by their need for Jesus to be a traditional king. To John’s and James’ requests for positions of power and prestige in the new kingdom, Jesus assures them that they can indeed share his journey—not as leaders, but servants, for “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44).

Far from demeaning, theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether observes in Sexism and God-Talk that servanthood, in God’s reign, is in fact the first step to freedom: “By becoming servant of God, one becomes freed of all bondage to human masters. Only then, as a liberated person, can one … liberate others rather than to exercise power and rule over them.”

October 25

The Last Are First

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

WITH GOD'S RESPONSE to his questions, Job essentially ends up where he started, with complete faith that suffering is mystery and that God is faithful: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). In the words of Martos and Rohr, “He is liberated from self-centeredness and self justification, he is enabled to accept his humanness, and he is freed to accept life on its own terms.” By doing so, Job embodies faithful discipleship and achieves what the rich young man could not—complete dependence on God.

It is a journey that the blind, destitute Bartimaeus had already traveled, and knew so well that he accepted discipleship before it was even offered. When summoned by Jesus, the beggar leaves everything he owns and “sprang up and came to Jesus” (Mark 10:50). The contrast between his response and the rich young man’s could not be more striking—the latter, imprisoned by his possessions, could not accept Jesus’ invitation, but Bartimaeus recognizes Jesus as the “Son of David” and follows him immediately. His response is highly symbolic, as Ched Myers writes in Binding the Strong Man: “The poor join the final assault on the dominant ideological order, and the rich have walked downcast away. The first have become last, and the last first.”

Bartimaeus’ actions also contrast strongly with Jesus’ own disciples. Even before he regained his sight, Bartimaeus saw more clearly than the disciples, who are still blinded by their own aspirations for power and thus unable to comprehend Jesus’ choices or their implications. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, Bartimaeus is free to be free, while the rich young man and the disciples are still possessed by their own ideas of who Jesus is and what kind of liberation he brings.

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