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

Damage and Healing

Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

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

My parish, over the past few weeks, has been engaged in a study of Wendell Berry. This past Sunday we read Berry’s essays, “Health is Membership” and “Damage.” This week we’ll be discussing the essay, “Healing,” and the short story, “Fidelity.” With those works on my mind I could not help but hear our scriptures for this Sunday with an echo of Berry’s voice. From our lesson from Genesis 2 to Psalm 8, the opening of Hebrews and Jesus’ engagement with the Pharisees, we find the themes of the membership, damage, healing, and fidelity.

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Taking Sides

Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Psalm 124

Mark 9:38-50

One of the frustrations of our present moment is the constant attempt to draw lines in the sand, to make almost every hill one on which to die. One group or person will agree with another on most things (and likely all essential matters), but the remaining disagreements – no matter how minor – become a bridge too far. We see it both inside and outside the church. Every difference becomes a potential point of division. 

The results are all too familiar. Constant anger at someone else and their tribe. Frustration at the ongoing tension, which is often exacerbated by the trivial nature of the disagreement. Isolation as we slowly cut ourselves off from others. And exhaustion as the mental and emotional weight of such tension takes its toll.

Sometimes the history of the church can occasionally offer some solace. Perhaps we can find some context to our present perception of the world. Perhaps we realize that it is not as bad as it was in the past. Of course, it is also possible that we discover things have been like this for a long time, which can actually add more frustration.

Recently, I was struck by the similarities between oft-used contemporary rhetoric and that of Charles Spurgeon within the so-called Downgrade Controversy of the late nineteenth century. Among other things, Spurgeon was concerned about the embrace of new methods of biblical interpretation that he saw as threats to the Bible’s authority. He also railed against violations of expected moral guidelines such as ministers going to the theatre.

While there were some serious theological concerns that needed to be addressed, Spurgeon did not seek to address them through conversation. Instead, he offered divisive rhetoric, declaring that a “new religion has been initiated, which is no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” 

This view further contributed to division, as Spurgeon argued that “Christian love has its claims, and divisions are to be shunned as grievous evils; but how far are we justified in being in confederacy with those who are departing from the truth?” It is quite easy to hear echoes of these sentiments in some contemporary tribes of Christians. Even if his opponents approached him with openness to conversation, Spurgeon expressed his skepticism of their sincerity: “Let every believer judge for himself; but, for our part, we have put on a few fresh bolts to our door, and we have given orders to keep the chain up.”

The result of this controversy was a split between Spurgeon’s church and its denomination, and his censure by that denomination. While there is quite a bit to lament in this story, in recent years (and quite recently), Spurgeon’s actions have actually been hailed as heroic and as an example to emulate.

The appointed Psalm reading for this week echoes this perspective as well. In it the psalmist gives thanks for God’s actions on behalf of Israel. The repeated phrase, “if it had not been the Lord who had been on our side” (Psalm 124:1-2), speaks with certainty that God was (and is) on their side. For the psalmist, this is about the futility of Israel to save itself from the grasp of its enemies or from the overwhelming flood. Gratitude becomes the result here. However, from another vantage point, we can easily project the psalmist’s certainty forward, concluding that since God is on our side, who can stand against us?

The gospel lesson enters the conversation at this point. As Jesus is traveling with his disciples, John states that he and several of his companions saw a person invoking Jesus’ name in order to perform a miracle to help someone. In response, they worked to stop that person “because he was not following us” (Mark 9:38). This exchange is placed immediately after last week’s gospel lesson, where Jesus said, “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).

We are not told what motivates John to speak up in this moment and tell Jesus this story. Perhaps he is concerned that this new miracle worker is usurping the disciples’ self-described importance. Maybe he thinks he is protecting Jesus from outsiders. Perhaps he simply picks up on “in my name” in Jesus’ previous instruction and proceeds to talk about another instance where his name was used. Of course, Mark’s gospel is filled with examples of the disciples simply failing to understand what Jesus is talking about. That is especially true in this particular section of Mark.

Jesus’ response is simple yet profoundly helpful: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He notes that anyone who can support Jesus to the extent of performing a miracle cannot truly betray him elsewhere. 

As we saw in last week’s lesson, Jesus uses a single word to open doors to the marginalized: whoever. There is an inclusivity here that holds off on painting lines of division. Whoever. This word seeks to find friends and allies in unexpected places. Whoever. Rather than taking sides against our neighbors, we are urged to take sides with God and find fellowship and common ground with whoever we find there.

Contemplating these passages in light of our present experiences (and even reflecting on older events such as the Downgrade Controversy), we see Jesus unsettling our certainty about God being on our side. More importantly, we see Jesus blurring any lines we may prefer to draw or divisions we might like to solidify. This undermines the entire project of excessively drawing lines in the first place.

This does not mean that there will not be serious doctrinal differences that might be problematic, but Jesus cautions against seeing every difference as a fault line and point of division. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This is crucial for taking Jesus’ closing admonition in this week’s lesson seriously: “be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).

Image Credit: Chris Goldberg

Then He Took a Child

And an argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 9:46).

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Mark 9:30-37

Jesus’ face was turned toward Jerusalem; he was on his way to meet death. Things were different now.  He didn’t want to mingle with crowds; he wanted to go deep with his friends, to teach them the most important lessons at all.  Time was short and the days were desperate.  Jesus knew if he didn’t get his message across to these twelve, his mission had failed. He was desperate to see some measure of understanding in the disciples’ eyes.  

“The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”  Jesus scanned their faces—there was a traitor among them, and he knew it.  “They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” He announced it as fact, a warning, maybe even as an appeal.

Not a glimmer of insight showed on the faces of his friends. His words didn’t fit their plans or dreams; they grew quiet and began to fidget.  The Master’s sense of gloom, his talk of death, cast a shadow on them all.  They were like a patient who receives a dreaded word from the doctor: “We’ve found something in your x-rays…”  There are times when you don’t want to know more.  

“They did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.” Fear kept the disciples from asking hard questions. Peter already made one attempt to manage Jesus, and earned the name “Satan” for his trouble. Maybe it was just easier to keep quiet. If they could have worked up the courage, what questions do you suppose the disciples might have asked? 

Why must you suffer? What kind of a Messiah dies? Will you leave us? What will happen to us?

Pause for a moment and ask yourself: What questions am I afraid to ask of Jesus?

Jesus’ frustration bubbled out after they found a place in Capernaum to spend the night. “What were you arguing about on the road?” he asked them, and a guilty silence filled the room. They  glanced at one other, hoping someone would come up with a decent answer. On the road they had been working out seating arrangements for the ticker tape parade that awaited them when they hit Jerusalem with the Messiah in tow.  They had squabbled over who got the office next to the boss, who was the alpha disciple?  You can almost hear Jesus pray: “O Lord, how can the keys of the Kingdom be entrusted to these guys?”

Do you demand proper respect? Do you enjoy the titles and trappings of your position?  Are you driven to succeed in your field, to rise to greater levels of authority or respect? Do you long for recognition, fame, wealth, security?  Does being stuck where you are stick in your craw?

If so, join the circle of the twelve.  It may be hard to find a place; everyone is elbowing in for the best seats.  The morning session has already begun.  

He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”