In the mess of the world, how can I feel clean (Mark 7:1-23)

Sometimes this world can feel so dirty and so grubby that it’s impossible to feel clean. It’s not just the shady politics and the media corruption. It’s the hypocrisy in the people around us, the anger, the envy, the shallowness, the greed, the shameless self-promotion, the arrogance, the lack of empathy, the selfishness. It’s all around us, it invades us, it takes up real estate in our brains. It infects us, it sticks to us and it’s so pervasive that it’s impossible to see or feel anything pure.

This is not a new phenomena. Would you be surprised to know that Jesus raised against this very thing? In today’s passage (Mark 7:1-23) the Pharisees yet again accuse Jesus of blasphemous behaviour. This time it’s allowing his disciples to eat with unclean hands. We’ve covered this ground before in a previous blog (you can read it here when we looked at nor Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious). But this time it’s different.

This time Jesus hits back in the most personal way possible. He quotes the very scriptures they use to inflate themselves. “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites,” Jesus says. Isaiah. The great prophet. The mouthpiece of God, Jesus said prophesied about these Pharisees (and people like them). He prophesied their faithlessness. Their failure was so insidious, it was foretold.

These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.”

This is Jesus quoting Isaiah 29:13. What does Isaiah say after this? Verse 14 says “Therefore once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder; the wisdom of the wise will perish, the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish.”

This is quite a signal to the Pharisees, and when Jesus was speaking these words, those hearing him would have known exactly what he meant when he quoted these scriptures. Jesus explains further though. He gives an example of how inherently arrogant and hypocritical they have become.

You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) – then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

Corban? Corban is from the Hebrew qorban and relates to setting aside a portion of ones possessions for God. In real terms this meant that in the surface one could be “obedient” in giving (or at least virtue signalling the intention to give). Then, having annexed that money, you could keep it away from the parents, and potentially keep it away from the temple and just keep it for yourself.

This is the epitome of hypocrisy and arrogance and selfishness. It’s using God’s own laws to work the system in favour of avarice and greed and breaking God’s laws.

This is where the world has come to. It’s dirty, grubby and grimy – down to the very core of society. It’s a dirt that won’t wash away.

When Jesus then focuses on food and cleanliness in his parables, he gets to the heart of the issueit’s the heart.

Eating without ritually washed hands does not make them unclean. What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”

Focus on the outside and the heart suffers. Focus on the heart and everything on the outside improves – starting with ourselves.

The rest of the world will still be dirty and grubby. But we will be improved.

As prophesied in Isaiah, God has astounded us with wonder upon wonder. Jesus. His own son. God in the flesh. Perfect. Pure. Clean. The only place we can feel cleansed and purified is at the feet of Jesus.

Because of him, our hearts can be changed. Because of him we can change our world for the better, starting with us. And if world around us still stinks, we can go back to him to feel that sense of cleanness. We can re-calibrate and rest in his purity.

This is a stand alone blog but is also part of a series working through the Gospel of Mark. You can dip into any you have missed here.

Inspirational memes I hate: “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle”

Memes can be helpful – quick bites and pick me ups as we scroll through social media, reminders of biblical truths particularly can point us to where our attention should be as we rush though the day.

Some memes sound helpful, but are most definitely not.

One of the inspirational memes I hate is this one:

You may even have seen it like this, as though God himself were speaking to you.

It sounds great doesn’t it? So comforting. So loving. We lean on this when times are tough. When we need to believe we’re going to be OK. When we are desperate to know that things are going to get better.

Except God didn’t say this. This is a paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:12-14:

So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

What this doesn’t say is that God will not give us anything that we cannot handle. What it does say is that God is present in our temptation. The context of the passage is warnings from the Israelites history and their fall into idolatry, sexual immorality and revelry (ie drunken partying). This is not a passage about God generally making life OK.

So this is the first reason I hate this meme – because it says something that the Bible doesn’t say. It gives us a false Bible knowledge. It’s certainly the kind of thing that God might say. God our Father is all-loving and all-merciful. But he didn’t actually say this. If this is something God didn’t say, we can’t extrapolate (poorly) from things he did say.

Throwing this meme around is well-meaning, but it promises things God didn’t promise. It implies God will make everything alright. It implies God will raise us out of our problems. It implies he will never let us break.

And that is demonstrably not true.

So this leads to the second reason I hate this meme. It implies things that aren’t true. Recently, American church pastor and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson took his own life. This article by Ed Stetzer is beautiful and well worth a read. Jarrid Wilson broke. We all know other people who break. It is tragic and terrible – and true.

Our world breaks people. Things happen to people that they cannot handle. If on one hand we are telling each other that God will never give us things we can’t handle and then see people breaking, what does that say about God? Does it say he wasn’t there? Does it say people’s weakness is stronger than God’s power? Does it say God left them?

What does that do to our confidence in him? If our faith is informed by these memes, then our faith is also eroded by these memes. We need to be more discerning than that. Our faith needs to be in the right thing.

This then leads to the third thing I hate. Because if our faith is informed by these memes, and yet we see people breaking, we must believe less of those people – because we cannot think less of God! People around us are dying inside. People we know are crumbling. We cannot be a people who thinks they just aren’t coping like it’s some kind of weakness. If we believe God doesn’t give people anything they can’t handle, and then people aren’t coping, surely it must be their fault. They aren’t strong enough. They don’t have enough faith. There must be something wrong with them.

And that’s how we end up in little huddles in church talking in hushed tones about people.

So then here is the last thing I hate about this meme. We begin to believe these things about ourselves. We believe we must be not strong enough. We believe that our faith is not big enough. We believe that God must have left us. We believe that God is trying to help us but we just aren’t doing things right. We shouldn’t be bending. We shouldn’t be breaking. We shouldn’t be in the jagged pieces that we are.

Here is something that is true – People bend. People break.

In 2 Corinthians 1:8 Paul says “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,  about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself.

Paul was crumbling. He nearly broke. And yes, he relied on God, which makes it sound easy, like a self-help moment. But we cannot forget before he got to that, he despaired of life itself. And despair doesn’t just disappear. Even when we resolve to (weakly and brokenly) rely on God, there is healing, there is loneliness, there is fear, there is even trauma to overcome.

In Psalm 34:18 it says God stays close to the broken-hearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. This is a promise we can hold in our brokenness. He doesn’t promise to un-break our hearts. He promises to stay close. And he promises save us when we are crushed in spirit. Save us – not make all the bad things disappear, not take away the anxiety or depression or the trauma. He doesn’t even promise to take away the suicidal thoughts or change the abusive husband, or stop the redundancy. He promises he will be with us, and save us.

What we must also notice in this is that God knows when we are broken and crushed. There’s no holy huddle and talk in hushed tones. He knows and he proclaims his promises to us in a voice loud enough for us to hear. This is where we anchor our faith.

We should all pray for wisdom and discernment. Our faith is impacted by these memes so we need to exercise our discernment to know when they are true and helpful and when they are poor paraphrases, when they are not true.

We all know people who are breaking. If we have God’s wisdom, we will have God’s heart for them. We can be a people of true love and compassion, upholding people who are bent so far their backs are breaking. We can hold people’s hands even when they are shattering into jagged pieces. We can walk with them when they are too weak to walk by themselves. We can pray for deliverance and pray for healing and pray for miracles. And we should pray earnestly, hungrily, expectantly. God can do anything. Anything is possible for him. But we don’t know that bit of the plan. All we know is the surety if he promised. That he is there and will save us.

And if you are reading this and you feel you are breaking, hear God’s true promises. He is with you and he will save you. He is with you in the darkness. Don’t believe what the meme tells you. He knows what you are going through and he knows you cannot handle what is happening to you. What is happening to you is real. It is so real it could break you. But he is with you. And he is just as real as the things you are facing. But he is mightier and louder so even though you might not feel like it, he is there.

He is with us. And we must rely on him. Because when we have nothing else, not even our own confidence or mental strength or emotional clarity, he is the only thing we have. When we can’t see anything of hope, when we believe we have no support, when we think we are completely alone, when we can almost feel our spirit cracking under the pressure of our burdens, he is there.

Hear his promises and never let him go.

I admit it. I want to be led. But not by anyone (Mark 6:30-56)

I am a pretty modern woman with some old fashioned edges. On one hand I have a full time job, I’m a single parent, I manage a house, I deal with the problems, I keep calm and carry on. On the other hand, I like manners. I like good customer service, I like men to hold doors and are creative with romance, just to please her.

This is of course all superficial stuff. What it boils down to is being comfortable with my personal abilities, at the same time as being comfortable to be lead by another.

But not just anyone. Someone who believes in me. Someone who supports me, even though they lead me. Someone who will never let me down.

Today’s passage shows us Jesus as the man who leads us – and how he does it. Not with inappropriate power or harshness, but with complete gentleness. In Mark 6:30-44, we see the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus as shepherd. In Mark 6:45-56 we see Jesus walking on water. This second story shows Jesus has the power to be as harsh as he wants. And yet in the first story we see he uses his power to love and support with tenderness and compassion.

Jesus, before the death of John the Baptist, had sent out his disciples to preach in his name. Now the apostles return to Jesus and recount everything they’ve done (Mark 6:30). They go to a remote place but people follow them there and Jesus had compassion on them because “they were like sheep without a shepherd”. What does he do in response? He begins to teach them. This is their need, and it’s the need he provides. They may have come for healing miracles, but it does not say this (and it usually specifies that’s why the crowd is there). He expresses his compassion for them through his teaching.

As sheep without a shepherd, it’s not that they are confused. As a popular Old Testament reference, sheep without a shepherd are scattered and vulnerable to attack by wild animals (Ezekiel 34:5). Spiritually, the people are lost and vulnerable. They need a shepherd. And this is what Jesus is. He teaches them. He guides them.

Later in the day, Jesus has compassion on them again, this time in the face of their immediate physical needs. They are hungry. Jesus gets the people to recline in small dining groups as though it were a banquet. Then the five loaves and two fish become enough to feed 5,000 men (and an unknown number of women and children) to a level where all are satisfied and there is enough leftover to fill 12 baskets.

This points us backwards and forwards. It points backwards to God feeding the Israelites in the wilderness. The people are in a remote place, much like the wilderness. In addition, it is God’s miracle and Moses is his hands and feet, just as here it is Jesus’ miracle and the disciples are his hands and feet.

It also points forward to the end of times banquet, when we will be in his presence as foretold in Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine – the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Is. 25:6-9).

After this, Jesus sends his disciples away in a boat while he goes to pray. The boat is stuck in a storm and Jesus goes to meet them, walking on the water. Despite having seen the feeding of the crowds, the disciples see Jesus and think he’s a ghost. But Jesus doesn’t berate them. He merely says “Have courage. Don’t be afraid. It is I”

Compassion expressed in teaching. Power expressed through gentleness. Jesus is God. He could do anything. He could smite everyone if he wanted. But he doesn’t. He shepherds them. Even when their hearts are hardened, even when the disciples are being dull and thoughtless, he shepherds them with gentle compassion.

Here’s the thing. We are so modern. We like to be independent and powerful. And yet one of our greatest cultural icons is Captain America – someone who has super strength and amazing powers. But he exercises these powers with complete gentleness. Culturally, this is something we seem to be craving.

And here is Jesus, the most powerful person in the universe, the one who could do anything. And he expresses his power through compassion and gentleness.

Yes, this is the one I want to lead me and I am not ashamed to admit it. He is there when I am hungry and lost, he is there when I am dull and hard hearted. He is powerful when I am weak. And always, gentleness and compassion.

He is my leader. He is my shepherd. I know his voice, and I follow him.

This blog is a stand alone piece but is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links to each individual week can be found here, in Bible studies in Mark.

Bible studies in Mark

Each Monday, we have been working out way through the gospel of Mark. You can follow along each week or jump in and out. You can read it like a devotional or work through it with me. You can post any comments you like and ask questions – this study allows us to creat an online community!

Each blog is a stand alone piece but you can also follow the whole series. If you kiss any, here’s where you can find all the studies to date:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)
  13. Week 13: How can something be a tragedy and a triumph (Mark 6:14-29)
  14. Week 14: I admit it, I want to be led, but not by anyone (Mark 6:30-56)

How can something be a tragedy and a triumph? (Mark 6:14-29)

There’s a lot of women in the Bible who we can admire. Strong women. Smart women. Gentle women. Brave women. There are women who triumph when everyone else crumbles. There are women who save the day. There are women who believe when all hope appears to be gone.

There are other women who are the exact opposite. There are of course plenty of men in the Bible who lead the people into idolatry and death. Here though, we meet one of the women who’s inappropriate authority over her husband, leads them all into wickedness and evil.

Today’s passage deals with the death of John the Baptist.

The story is that Salome, the step daughter of Herod, dances for him and he is so enchanted that he says she can have anything she wishes. Salome, in consultation with her mother Herodias (Herod’s wife) asks for the head of John the Baptist.

There’s a mix of history and theology here that turns this Hollywood-style thriller into a tragedy and triumph at the same time.

Herod Antipas was the ruler of Galilee and Perea as a Roman client state. He was the ruler of the Jews and was also raised as a Jew. He was married to the daughter of the king of Nabatea – and he divorced her to marry Herodias, who had been married to Herod’s half-brother. It’s not clear whether she walked out on the half-brother and married Herod anyway, or divorced him before marrying Herod.

Confused yet? It’s like a plot line from The Bold and the Beautiful isn’t it?

John the Baptist had preached against Herod and Herodias’ marriage, which was against Old Testament law (although it was not against Roman law so they must have snuck it in under that). This is all attested by Jewish historian Josephus who was writing at the time of the events.*

Herod appears to have had a conflicted relationship with John. In Mark 16:19-20, Herodias wants to kill John but can’t because Herod feared him. The original Greek here implies more a reverential fear – which fits with the passage saying “Herod would listen to John” and he would be greatly perplexed but he would like it. Herod knows he is a holy and righteous man and likes listening to him, even though he doesn’t really understand.

Herod had imprisoned John because of what he was saying (6:17). But he also protected him from Herodias who wanted to kill him (6:19).

Josephus says John was imprisoned in the fortress of Machaerus where John appears to have been for a while because in the other gospels, John receives visits from his disciples and from Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 11 and Luke 7). It must have been bleak and seeing the fortress reminds us we are dealing with real people and real events.

Source: https://archaeologynewsnetwork.blogspot.com/2019/03/jordans-biblical-fortress-of-machaerus.html#OsuYcE2RGpuk130K.97

We are also dealing with a narrative arc of the Bible. Herodias’ murderous hatred of John points us back to Jezebel in the Old Testament and her hatred of Elijah. In 1 Kings 18 Elijah had defeated the prophets of Baal. In 1 Kings 19, Jezebel swears to kill Elijah too and he flees.

This echo of Jezebel is deliberate – not because Herodias is equally as wicked (although she is), but because of the association with Elijah. Since the beginning there has been association of John with Elijah and the prophet who prepares the way for the Messiah.

Herod is a weak fool. Herodias and Salome defeat him with their wits. They manipulate him and he walks right into it. Herod doesn’t want to kill John, he knows he is innocent. He is perplexing and maybe a threat to his authority but he’s done nothing wrong. And here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus with Pilate. Pilate sees Jesus as a possible threat but knows he has broken no laws.

When John is executed, John’s disciples come and take the body and lay it in a tomb – as Jesus’ disciples would soon do. Another foreshadowing.

Until this point, John has been the main landmark on Herod’s horizon. After John’s death, Jesus’ ministry really rises to the fore. When Herod hears about Jesus fears that John has been raised from the dead. Some people are even saying this. This is telling on a few fronts. Firstly, that the association between John and Jesus is evident. While people have yet to clearly distinguish them, it shows that at the time, they were not two distinct movements but seen as one a progression of the other. This is certainly what John himself had understood as he prepared the way for Jesus, and that he must become less and Jesus becomes more.

It also shows Herod’s guilt and shame. His fear almost feels as though he thinks he is being haunted by the ghost of this innocent man he has murdered.

It also points forward again the Jesus – who was raised from the dead. It’s interesting there was a rumour that John was raised from the dead, but it never went anywhere because he wasn’t. He demonstrably wasn’t. He didn’t appear anywhere and nobody saw him. When the rumour erupts of Jesus’ resurrection, he is seen in many places by many people. There’s no denying that that really happened. Here, however, it is just a rumour because of the similarity between John’s preaching of baptism and repentance, and Jesus’ preaching of repentance and faith. John baptised with water, but Jesus baptised with the Holy Spirit.

So John’s death was tragic. But it was also a triumph. It pointed us back to Jezebel to re-affirm John as the Elijah figure who prepares the way. It also points forward to what will happen with Jesus – the ultimate triumph.

I find it staggering that God provides these sign posts for us to help us understand and interpret what happened in the past, what is happening at the time and what is to come. Without John, the events around jesus’ ministry and sacrifice would be harder for us to interpret. With these events, God gives us a deeper and profound picture of what is happening and why.

God is gracious in his revelation to us. What he communicates is like a set of keys to unlock scripture. Nothing is in code. It’s not secret knowledge. It’s all there for us to read, understand, think about and look back to him in awe and reverence.

* Josephus Book 18, chapter 5. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

This blog is a stand alone piece but it is also part of a weekly online bible study. If you have missed any or would like to reference back to the beginning, the links are below:

  1. Week 1: “Who do you say I am”. Introduction to the gospel
  2. Week 2: The Beginning. Mark 1:1-20
  3. Week 3: The Who, the what and the why. Mark 1:21-45
  4. Week 4: Jesus didn’t come for the super-religious. He came for you. Mark 2:1-17
  5. Week 5: There is nothing you can do to start – or stop – God’s plan. Mark 2:18-28
  6. Week 6: Jesus wasn’t the man they wanted him to be. Mark 3:1-12
  7. Week 7: Jesus made us a new family – does church really feel like that? Mark 3:13-35
  8. Week 8: Is fruitfulness something we do or something we are to be? (Mark 4:1-20)
  9. Week 9: What will the kingdom of God be like? (Mark 4:21-34)
  10. Week 10: Jesus goes out of his way to specifically find you (Mark 4:35-5:20)
  11. Week 11: The only person who could save her was him (Mark 5:21-43)
  12. Week 12: Misunderstood, disrespected, unloved, written off (Mark 6:1-13)