A Severing of the Spirit

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 4:12-16

Mark 10:17-31

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; [he] is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.”

I always understood this to be a reference to scripture as the “word of God.” I am not sure that I do anymore. Recently, I have come to apply the Johannine use of the term “logos,” which is translated here as “word,” to hear this passage as a reference, not to the text of scripture, but rather to Christ, the Word of God. 

I suppose one could argue with the integrity of that decision, supposing that the Johannine use of “logos” does not necessarily make its way into the other books of the New Testament. But the rest of our reading from Hebrews also gives us reason to think it is referring to Jesus, seeing that the following verse (13) speaks of a person, using personal pronouns and the phrase “the one to whom we must render account.” Similarly, the following, well-known passage from Hebrews speaks directly of Jesus, our “Great High Priest.” The one who judges thoughts and intentions of the heart is also the one who is able to sympathize with them.  

For this reason, I believe the author of Hebrews is speaking of Jesus, and it makes even more sense as we see this two-edged sword do its work on the Rich Young Ruler in the Gospel reading from Mark 10:17-31. Here we see a pious man conflicted in his loyalty, perhaps unable to discern his own thoughts and intentions, and the call of Jesus will act with surgical precision in an attempt to divide a masked-but-unclean spirit from this beloved soul. 

Willie Jennings, commenting on Karl Barth’s exegesis of this passage, points to the posture and piety of this young man as he approaches Jesus, kneeling and honoring Jesus by calling him “good”. He is, as Jennings says, the “properly formed religious subject.” That is, he makes the right gestures and even admits to a life of righteous behavior after Jesus names the commandments of the “second table,” those directed at love of neighbor.

Here is where, however, the two-edged sword begins to split soul from the spirit that possesses the Rich Young Ruler: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” The devastation of the Rich Man at this instruction reveals both his wealth (for we have not known of it until this point in the reading) and of his absolute devotion the unclean spirit of wealth accumulation. Christ has called the man into covenant partnership, and, as Jennings says, “The rich man already has a covenant partner: mammon.” The man is not only ruled by this unholy covenant partner, but we are also led to ask whether his religious formation and right observation of the law were funded by this greater devotion to Mammon. Could his financial security be the bedrock of his religious mastery, with Mammon then being the great provider for the possibility of his religious devotion? 

Jennings gives us these questions to ponder, while also pointing to the invitation of Jesus as a direct challenge to the lordship of Mammon in the life of the Rich Man: 

The Rich Man’s theological mastery is resourced by his financial mastery, and he is being asked by Jesus to exercise that mastery in offering up both to God and neighbor…The man through his giving will have treasure in heaven and thereby begin the reorientation of his life through an alternative financial calculus. That alternative financial calculus is aimed concretely at the poor as the new point of coordination for wealth. It is in exactly how the poor and disadvantaged are helped that shows love of neighbor and constitutes the material conditions for the transformation of the rich man.

Jesus speaks to the Rich Man in love, asking him to follow him – to join him in covenant partnership and signify this partnership through the redistribution of his possessions to the poor – the very neighbors he has apparently neglected to serve in the course of his pious observation of the Law. For, his law observance was always subject to the call of Mammon and that unholy pursuit, grounded in the Lordship of wealth and service in that temple. Jesus is beckoning him toward a different pursuit, one that redirects wealth and possessions toward a shared life with Jesus and the poor who will inherit his Kingdom. Thus, there is Good News to be shared with the Rich, as Saint Oscar Romero has said, “that they, too, become poor in order to share the benefits of the Kingdom with the poor.”

But this severing of the spirit of Mammon from the soul of the Rich Man proves to be too difficult for him, and the Word of God has laid him naked and bare before the other disciples and, perhaps, to himself for the first time. This man only feels the love of Christ as judgment, and the invitation to covenant partnership, to discipleship, reveals just how tightly his identity is bound to the pursuit and maintenance of his wealth. Again, Jennings is spot on in his lecture: 

By calling the rich man to covenant partnership, Jesus has killed him. He has killed him by bringing him into [Jesus’] own life – his obedience to God his father and his life in the Spirit. God confronts the rich man with a death that leads to life. If no one can see God and live, then the rich man is now looking at God asking him to die.

This is nothing less than the call to discipleship, and we stand with the disciples asking Jesus the same question, “Then who can be saved?” Their question reveals their own temptation toward the pursuit of mammon, and it should resonate with us as we navigate a world where financial pragmatism and “stewardship” is measured by acquisition, accumulation, and growth. We are asked with the disciples, “Who are you trying to become? The Rich Man? Or the One who bears the cross in solidarity with the poor?”

The gate of the Kingdom is as narrow as a needle’s eye for those burdened with the heap of accumulated wealth. If the church is to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus and the Spirit of Grace, wealth must be shared and distributed as each has need so that no one is so burdened at the entrance of the Kingdom that they cannot easily pass through the narrow gate that leads to life abundant. 

1 Quoted from the NRSV, with the article changed from “it” to “he” in 4:12b. There is not article in the Greek text; it is an addition to the English translation.  

2 Bradley Jersak, A More Christlike Word: Reading Scripture the Emmaus Way, 34-35. Jersak’s experience recounted on those pages mapped onto my own, and I am grateful to him for exposing this as simply as he does in this book. 

3 The bulk of my reflections on this passage stem from a lecture I heard years ago and return to regularly. The lecture is titled, “A Rich Disciple? Karl Barth on the Rich Young Ruler,” and it was given at the annual Karl Barth Conference at Princeton Theological Seminary by Willie James Jennings. The audio/video of the lecture is no longer available online, but it seems to have been published under the same title in Reading the Gospels with Karl Barth

4 Oscar Romero, “The Political Dimension of Christian Love,” Commonweal, March 26, 1982. https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/archives-political-dimension-christian-love

Herod’s Party Trick

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

Mark 6:14-29

This story of the beheading of John the Baptizer functions as a kind of flashback for Mark’s storytelling, sandwiched between the story of the disciples being sent out two-by-two and returning with their stories of healing and exorcism. Is it any wonder, then, that Jesus exhorts the disciples to come away to a deserted place in order to rest and, perhaps, escape the gaze of those with Herod’s ear bent to their whispers? 

Undoubtedly, this story, sandwiched between the sending of the disciples to preach repentance, cure, and cast out, is meant to warn the growing church of Jesus’ disciples of the real danger implicit in the church’s ministry. But perhaps more compelling is the contrast between the powerful “King” Herod and the Lord Jesus presented in this sandwich narrative. 

In this flashback, we see the chasm that exists between the powerful ruling class and those subject to their whims. John the Baptizer is Herod’s prisoner, and the text tells us that Herod is intrigued by John, if not a little fearful of him. Who can blame him? John doesn’t exactly have a nursery-rhyme message, especially for those with a Herodian moral compass. But John’s powerful message of repentance also means he is well acquainted with the powerful means of enfranchised retribution wielded by Herod. Yes, Herod is intrigued and a little fearful. But Herod is also the strong man in this story, as of yet unbound in the household of Israel, and he has the means of controlling the narrative as he sees fit with the power of incarceration and, as we will see, death. The powerful so often demonstrate their fear by brandishing these powers, both then and now. 

Nevertheless, it seems as though Herod has no interest in killing John the Baptizer. But his spouse does have said interest. 

I want us to consider the sheer banality of John’s death; consider how absolutely tragic and stupid it is that this great prophet, who stands as the signpost at the crossroads of history, is murdered by an indifferent ruler as a birthday present. It is almost as if Mark is holding this great figure in front of us, showing him to be the forerunner of the Christ, the inaugurator of the message of repentance and the forerunner of the Kingdom’s Gospel proclamation, and the one with whom we have now closely identified the ministry and message of Jesus, and he is killed as a party trick for the ruling class. Such is human life in the hands of those far removed from the common life of the underclasses. 

There might be some question of keeping oaths, here, but we shouldn’t be too caught up in Herod’s insistence on keeping his oath. Remember the folly of Jephthah, who swore an oath to God: “And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering’” (Judges 11:30-31). Perhaps these stories are precisely why Jesus commands his disciples to abstain from oaths: But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black.” If we take this teaching from Jesus applied to this story, we can see that Herod’s oath goes hand-in-hand with his megalomania and self-interested “regard for his oaths and for the guests.” (Read: He did not want to look bad.) What does it take to regard one’s oaths and peers above the life of a fellow human being? Such is the value of the Forerunner’s life to this ruler; such is the value of so many lives to the rulers of this world. 

We should take notice, here, of the ways in which an oath (of office?) seemingly gives Herod a sense of absolution in this gratuitous violence. It is, after all, for the purpose of seeming true to his word, whatever his own feelings might be. He will stand by his decision, even if that means “collateral damage” is done. As a ruler, one cannot become attached, after all; ruling requires breaking a few eggs with dispassion for the sake of order. What would they all think if he broke his oath now? Would he make the tough decision when the time came, or would he let his passions get in the way of ruling efficiently and effectively? The king cannot be concerned with the fate of the pawns, anyway.

But Jesus receives the disciples and invites them to rest (Mark 6:30-31), understanding that their ministry in the towns and villages has likely left them exhausted and in need of recouperation. This is the beginning of the contrast between Jesus and Herod for this sandwich narrative. If we read on into the story, the disciples are unable to escape the crowds following them. Mark tells us that Jesus “saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). How far removed is this from the rule of Herod? Compassion is impractical. The disciples see this, and they suggest the people go buy their own food. Jesus will instead enlist them in the work of the Gospel: “You give them something to eat.” Perhaps this is but another way of saying, “Feed my sheep.” 

This is the way of the Reign of Jesus: the compassionate lamb among his sheep, the shepherd who lays down his life, the King who elects shame for the sake of each little one. As the rulers of this world hold humanity at arm’s length, the Lord Jesus embraces humanity as his own, and with the solidarity borne of compassion, feeds his sheep until each is filled with more to be shared. 

Living Stones

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 4:5-12

The first four verses of Acts 4 set the stage for the reading we get in the lectionary for the Fourth Sunday of Easter:

“While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. So they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and they numbered about five thousand” (NRSV). 

The larger context of this reading is equally important, as Peter and John have just invoked Jesus’ name in order to heal the man begging at the Beautiful Gate. This leads to amazement among the crowds and an address from Peter, calling the crowd of 5000 to repentance and belief in the Risen Jesus.  Read more

Love of Neighbor and the Mystery of God With Us

 

Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

Matthew 22:34-46

As someone tasked with weekly sermon preparation, I often find that the most helpful reflections are those that, rather than make a single, uniform point about the text, offer a few possible directions for exploration and uncovering.

As I read this passage from Matthew’s Gospel, there are a number of directions I think any homilist could go, and I hope that the following possibilities are helpful in either your preparation and writing, or in your prayerful reflection on the text as a spiritual discipline. Read more