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  • Michael Minch

Good News from Mark



Mark 7.1-23 engages us in a consideration of contending holiness movements.  The text is about tradition, defilement, and holiness/wholeness.   One tradition, that of the Pharisees and the scribes, is filled with purity codes, regulations guiding use of food, and other quantitative measurements, restrictions, and permissions.  Mark has already presented Jesus as rejecting traditional purity codes/laws, but until now, however, he has not moved from particular actions to a general principle or truth.  In this episode he reformulates the very idea of holiness, defilement, and purity.  The conversation begins with what might be seen as a trivial point—the washing of one’s hands.  But hand washing and dietary laws are about more than they seem.  They are about the maintenance of strict boundaries between people.  The Pharisees defended their purity codes as fundamental to ethnic and national identity.  Jesus, on the other hand, repudiates these exclusivist definitions by attacking their ideological foundations.


This passage is about Jesus’ final encounter with his Jewish adversaries in Galilee.  A “fact-finding commission” seems to have been sent from Jerusalem to observe and report on Jesus and his movement.  What does defilement and purity mean?  What is the place and value of tradition?  These questions are at the heart of the inquiry.  To take the law (Torah) seriously, a faith community will build a system (or at least a structure) of regulations to guide members of the community.  In Judaism, this “fence around the law” was Halakah—a body of case law built to allow the Torah to be protected and put into practice.  But from Jesus’ standpoint, Halakah had become a burden and a problem.  Jesus clearly and sharply opposes this “tradition of the elders.”


Yet, on the other hand, Jesus makes positive use of the terms “commandment of God” and “word of God,” referring to law (Torah) in the Hebrew Bible.  Rather than attacking the Torah, he affirms it.  Jesus does not abolish the concept of defilement or purity, the clean/unclean distinction.  Rather, he interprets it differently than do the authorities from Jerusalem and their local representatives.  Jesus sweeps away dietary laws and affirms ethical values (.21-22).  Jesus levels two charges against his opponents.  One, that they major in the minors (.6-8); and two, that their use of tradition masks their avoidance of the actual word of God (.9-13).  He uses Isaiah 29.13 to argue that the word of God specifically repudiates “human precepts” and he uses the practice of korban (“dedicated”/“dedication”) to illustrate his point.


Korban named the practice Jews could use to give their wealth to the Jerusalem Temple and to Jewish authorities in general.  We are familiar with this device insofar as we often pledge our wealth to an organization, specifying the ends of our lives as the point of this wealth transfer.  Jesus noted that some used korban as a way of not taking care of their elderly parents.  Korban was used to fund religious Judaism.  In Jesus’ confrontation of the Temple treasury operation in 12.37-44, he accuses the scribal class of hiding economic exploitation behind public piety—again with the elderly as victims.  For Jesus, Judaism had become built upon a political economy of exploitation and oppression of the poor.  By conflating issues of table fellowship with the political economy of the Temple, Mark demonstrates his consciousness of the central

underpinning of oppression in the symbolic system of legalistic religion.  This story, then, not only serves to legitimize Jesus’ community practice of integration with Gentiles, it also serves to persuade poorer Jews that the system that purports to protect their ethnic and national identity exploits them.  Against the dominant group boundaries, Jesus offers a vision and a horizon of a new, radical, inclusive, morally powerful community and politics—one that upholds the radical moral demands of the scriptural tradition.


Jesus is laying out his contrast with those who give lip service to God and faithfulness, but whose hearts are, in fact, far removed from God.  The tradition he rejects is one in which rituals and external observances have replaced true love for God registered in one’s “heart.”  Thus, Jesus accuses the Pharisee leadership of “annulling” the commandments of God.  Religion and religiousness have become an obstacle to God.  The Levitical law code is now deprived of its authority because only that which “comes from the heart” can truly defile.  (So Mark inserts the editorial comment, “thus, he [Jesus] declared all foods clean.”)  


The legalism attacked by Jesus was not unique to Judaism, to be sure.  Legalism has been part of the Christian story from the very beginning (note, for example, Paul’s anger with the Galatians for this very thing).  I can count dozens if not hundreds of battles with legalism I have experienced in my own Christian journey (and I bet you can too).  The issues under interrogation in this passage remain alive and vexing for us.  Is everything about tradition “bad”?  Of course not.  Are all forms of innovation and newness “good”?  Of course not.  One way of putting the challenge is that when tradition is alienated or separated from the word of God— there’s the problem.  But, of course, we argue about when this is and is not the case.  One might say that traditions should have a secondary, ancillary, and buttressing relationship to the word of God—but again, this doesn’t make the matter simple.  We might also say that whereas religion changes people “from the outside,” God changes people “from the inside.”  But then, this does not simplify the matter either.  We certainly need to humbly remember that “Jerusalem” tendencies lurk within each of us.


In verse 9, Jesus says, “You have a fine (kalos) way of setting aside the commandments of God in order to observe your own traditions.”  Given the meaning of this Greek word, kalos, we might interpret this sentence:  “How beautifully you do an ugly thing!”  Religion and religiousness can be beautiful and ugly at the same time.  The New Testament does not call us to be merely religious, and God did not enter human history in Jesus to bring us a new religion.  Bonhoeffer wrote about “religionless Christianity” and he had it right (as does Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, Fleming Rutledge, and others).  God forbid we would be reduced to religion!  May this Advent and Christmas be for us, a liberation from religion as a concomitant embrace of God’s “tearing open the heavens and coming down” to us (Isaiah 64.1).


Thank you for reading,

Michael   


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  • ben2297

Wrestling and Grace

Genesis 32.22-32; Romans 8.35-39

12 November 2023 - Bloomfield Home Gathering


It is fall, so leaves and plants are dying, turning brown, the green of life draining from them. The days are shorter and colder, more darkness and less light. Some animals are going into hibernation. Some birds are flying south. It is not surprising the fall brings melancholy and some degree of depression for many. And this fall, we enter a deathly stalemate of war in Ukraine, a horrendous war in Israel and the Occupied Territories, especially Gaza, and continued war in other locations, e.g., Ethiopia, Syria, and Sudan, to name a few. This fall we realize we are one year away from another national election, and that polling just revealed that Donald Trump is leading Joe Biden in a number of critically important states. We wonder how such a horrific monster of a human being could actually be desired as president over the comparatively intelligent and decent person who is now president. We wonder how a political party that actively works to destroy democracy and produce authoritarianism can gain votes and elected offices over a party whose members, whatever their various faults may be, actually want democracy, human rights, and freedom for all. The eclipse and demise of the warmth and brightness of summer is more than mirrored by the eclipse and decline of so much decency and basic morality. We live in a society and a world that seems to be spinning off its axis as millions of people embrace hatred, bigotry, fear, greed, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and other systemic and structural sins. Not that things were entirely wonderful before, but now? O my God! Lord, have mercy.


We come together week after week, sit together, speak together, feel the closeness of one another, look into each other’s eyes, and feel the hearts and spirits of one another because we know that in order to remain sane, to find any healing, we must belong to a community of hope. We know that we will only find hope through love. And we believe that it is Love itself, the infinite Love we call “God” who breathes love and hope into our lives. God is its source and its sustenance. And so we come, week by week, to see in each other and hear from one another, about this healing, hope-giving, graceful, healing, loving, God. We come not only to see and hear about this Love and Hope, but to encounter it, to be in relationship with it, to have God take us by the hand and heart, to hold us and heal us, to feel the care and courage, the loveliness and love, the goodness and grace, of God.


This story of Jacob at the Jabbok River is powerful for its central message. It is something we sometimes seem to know, but often forget. Something about which we need to be reminded again and again. A truth easy to embrace in theory, but one we reject in the truth of our actual lives over and over. Our blessings and our wounds come to us bound together. Grace and pain come intertwined. It is good to have children sitting with us this morning, hearing this message, as it is one that is hard to learn and one that we are best off if we begin to grasp it early in life.


We pick up the story at a river toward the end of the day, as Jacob and his family are traveling. There is no need for our purposes to discuss the purpose of the travel. He sends his family ahead, across the stream, so that he is alone. The name of the stream, or river, “Jabbok,” seems to be a play on “Jacob.” It is an eastern tributary of the of the Jordan that originated near present-day Amman, Jordan. We get a picture of Jacob preparing to sleep alone on one side of the river, with his family and resources on the other side. The crux of the story is that Jacob is encountered by a “man” who wrestles with him for quite a while— until daybreak. Jacob is wounded, his hip is hit or stretched quite hard, and it causes him pain and gives him a limp.


This is the story where Jacob becomes Israel. “Israel”—his new name—means “the one who strives with God” or “God strives.” We can see how these meanings can bleed into each other. God is a God who will wrestle with us, who will strive with us, who will contend with us—and we certainly know that we humans are apt to wrestle with, and contend with, God. It is important that Jacob demands to be blessed. If God is going to wrestle with Jacob through the medium or messenger of someone who seems like a man, Jacob figures he should get some kind of blessing out of the encounter. The Hebrew does not call this figure “God” directly, but when Jacob receives the blessing, he responds by naming the place where this happened, “Peniel” which means “the face of God” and he declares “I have seen the face of God.” It’s clear that Jacob has wrestled with God, that he has asked for a blessing, that God gives him a blessing and a name to match the moment. We are not told what the blessing is. It would be to miss the story’s point to focus on the blessing itself. The point is that God’s blessing comes to Jacob, turned into Israel, through a painful and difficult encounter that leaves this new man wounded, and pained. Physically, he has been diminished. But he has not been diminished so much as he had been empowered. He is not less, he is more. But pain is involved.


Everything that God has in store for Israel, the covenant, the grace, the judgment, the heartbreak, and promise-keeping—everything comes from a loving God whose blessings are bound to woundedness, suffering, and pain. This pattern is seen in its fullness in the Anointed One, the Messiah (“Christ”) who comes to us as God and suffers even to the point of death on a cross, as the means of giving us the greatest blessing possible—our liberation, our salvation, our healing, our union with God in Christ. This cruciform truth that appears early in the story of Jacob-turned-Israel, reaches its paradigmatic climax in Jesus’ death and resurrection. But this cross-shaped reality in life is not exhausted in Christ—as Philippians 2 makes clear. It is a reality that remains true for us also.


When we are young, we can scarcely understand why things cannot always go smoothly for us. And when things do not go smoothly, we see it as an affront, as an interruption of a pattern of what should be uninterrupted goodness defining our reality. “Why is this happening to me?!” is a question that erupts from our hearts, and sometimes our mouths, often. As we get older and mature, we gain the skills to take things in stride. Well, not entirely, of course. We still struggle with many of the events in life that give us pain, that wound us. We can all quickly recollect a large number of events and facts wherein we’ve been wounded deeply, but if we live in Christ, if we’re being transformed into Christ-like disciples who live in the grace and love of God, experiencing courage and hope—we can see in many of those events, the presence and power of blessing as well.

But why am I sharing this message? If this is an obvious, nonoptional aspect of life, why bother to mention it?


It seems to me that some religious people pray for God to take hardship away from them, and while many of us do this from time to time, some religious people make such petition a defining element of their faith. Their faith is overwhelmingly, if not entirely, palliative. They want God to relieve them from pain and suffering, and often even from inconvenience. If God is not a God who delivers for us in this way, why bother to believe? That’s how many religious people are religious. But this view bears no relationship to the God we meet in scripture or in real, honest life, and I do not think those who are sitting here this morning harbor such innocent, childish, and self-centered “theology.”


We are living in a particularly challenging moment, as my opening remarks indicated. But this does not mean that God is absent or completely powerless. God still delivers blessings, grace, love, courage, hope, and change—bound to suffering and pain. This is to say something surprising and counterintuitive, if we look at it a certain way. When we see or experience suffering and pain, can we not also look for the how it might be a vehicle for blessing, a means for grace, an opportunity for love and transformation? Not because we’re optimists! We’re not optimists! We’re disciples. In the words of Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Of course, we often do not know what God is doing in the world, and often it seems like God is doing very little indeed. But we know better. We know that God brings strength out of weakness. God brings life out of death. God brings joy out of sorrow. God brings freedom out of slavery. God brings light out of darkness. God brings hope out of hopelessness, pessimism, and cynicism. God brings love out of fear. As Romans 8.35-39 declares so eloquently—what can separate us from the love of God? Nothing! As we wrestle with God, let us take our wounds and limp forward— blessed, graced, loved and empowered for the journey.


Amen!



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In a world plagued by rising anti-Semitic incidents and conflicts like the Israeli-Gaza war, it is essential for the Church to address the issue of Christian anti-Semitism. This problem has manifested in various forms, from unwavering support for Israel to subtle but dangerous biases against the Jewish people. It is vital to acknowledge these issues and work towards a more inclusive and loving faith community.


My Story and Perspective

I am Jewish and an unapologetic follower of Jesus. This identity places me in a unique position, making me a heretic among many of my Jewish friends and a minority in the Christian community. My Jewish identity is deeply rooted, shaped by my family's history of Holocaust survival, as both my grandparents on my father's side were survivors. I am fully aware that in Nazi Germany, I would have been marked with a Yellow Star and Pink Triangle and sent to the camps, just like countless others.


It is essential to understand that being Jewish isn't just about religion; it's about ethnicity, culture, history, and identity. My faith in Jesus doesn't erase my Jewish identity, and I proudly embrace both aspects of who I am.


The Issue of Conservative Evangelical Christian Support for Israel

One of the challenges we face is the sometimes unquestioning support for Israel among conservative Evangelical Christians. While supporting Israel is not normally considered anti-Semitic, it can become problematic when it turns into a kind of "fetish" or idolatry. This unwavering support can overshadow concerns about the rights and well-being of the Palestinian people. It's crucial to strike a balance between supporting Israel and advocating for a just and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Historical Anti-Semitism in Conservative Evangelical Christianity

It is also necessary to confront the historical anti-Semitism that has persisted within some segments of the conservative Christian community. This may manifest in stereotypes about Jews, conspiracy theories, or even hostility towards Jewish people. Some individuals have used theological misinterpretations to justify such biases, but it is essential to recognize these distortions for what they are and reject them unequivocally.


The Issue of Unquestioning Support for Palestinians by Progressive Liberal Christians

On the other end of the spectrum, some American Progressive Liberal Christians may exhibit biases against Jews while supporting the Palestinian cause. This bias, often subtle and indirect, can manifest as a "fetish" for supporting Palestinians, as conservative Evangelicals do for Israel. It is vital to advocate for Palestinian rights without falling into anti-Semitic stereotypes or biases.


Condemning All Forms of Anti-Semitism

As Christians, we must stand together to condemn all forms of anti-Semitism, whether it arises from unwavering support for Israel, historical biases, or subtle biases against Jews. Anti-Semitism is contrary to the teachings of Jesus, who himself was a Jew, and goes against the essence of love, compassion, and unity that Christianity promotes.


A Call to Reject and Repent of Anti-Semitism

We, as Christians, must actively reject anti-Semitism in all its forms. We need to repent for the times when we have contributed to or turned a blind eye to anti-Semitic attitudes within our faith communities. We must strive to be allies and voices for our Jewish neighbors, demonstrating the love, acceptance, and inclusion that Christ exemplified.


In a world grappling with the rise of anti-Semitism and ongoing conflicts like the Israeli-Gaza war, Christians must lead the way in rejecting all forms of anti-Semitism. Let us stand united in love and solidarity, embracing our Jewish siblings and working together to build a more inclusive, compassionate, and Christ-like community that reflects God's boundless love for all of humanity.

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