Gospel of Mark — Week 6

Monday, November 12

Read: Mark 8:11-15

Consider: Last week we looked at the circumstances that surrounded an amazing statement that Jesus made. It was one of those one-phrase parables—short, but important. In fact, it was vital for his disciples to understand so they could withstand the onslaught that they were going to experience. And it is still vital for us today.

Jesus had fed the multitudes—5000 families and then 4000 families—with a few scraps of food. In the end, there was much more food left over than there had been before the crowds ate and “were satisfied” (6:42, 8:8). In the context of all this abundance, Jesus said…

“Be careful. Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” (8:15)

The yeast that spreads throughout a batch of dough will determine the form of the bread—its texture and its shape. And with this statement, Jesus spoke about two competing “forms”—two ideologies—that claimed to have the answer for humankind in the world the disciples inhabited. The Pharisees said that the kingdom of God would come through religious observance, strict keeping of the law and separation from those on the outside—sinners who were to be rejected by God and “othered” by man. Most Pharisees probably started out with good motives. They were trying to be faithful to their religious heritage. But, of course, legalism destroys — “the letter (of the law) kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).

Herod, on the other hand, believed that he and his family would set up a dynasty that would form the world through power. He could justify violence and evil because he saw himself as the good guy, therefore, anyone who opposed him deserved to be crushed.

When Jesus decried “the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” he was saying that neither the religion nor the government of the day had the answer. But Jesus knew that this was not simply a matter of what was right and what was wrong. It was also an issue of the subtly of leaven. You don’t see yeast working until it has already formed the bread. So, you may not be aware that the government’s appeal to force is beginning to make sense to you. You may not be aware that the judgmental stance of religious people is beginning to wear off on you.

“‘Be careful,’ Jesus warned them. ‘Watch out…’” or you’ll find yourself thinking like the candidates, judging like the media and missing Christ’s call to see the world in a totally different way—to see the kingdom of heaven that has come to you in Christ.

When we look at bread, we don’t see yeast, but we take it into our bodies. We must be careful and diligent to see the yeast of this culture so that we don’t take it into our souls.

Pray: “Lord, as I see and experience the vitriol of our nation, I keep trying to figure out which side is right. But the kingdoms of this world are not your kingdom. The values of this culture are not your values. Please don’t let me take my world-view or my tactics from a culture that is morally bankrupt. Help me to see the kingdom of love that has come to us in Christ. Help me to live by the standards of that kingdom and be an agent of grace so others can see and enter it with us.”

 

Tuesday, November 13

Read: Matthew 16:1-12

Consider: Mark preserved for us an important moment in Jesus’ journey with his disciples. In a boat, while they were fretting about having enough food, Jesus lifted their gaze to a more important issue by warning them about “the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod” (Mark 8:15—see yesterday’s meditation).

In today’s reading, we see the same dynamic. But Matthew’s account includes another group—the Sadducees.

While the Pharisees tried to change the world through legalistic righteousness, and Herod was using the blunt force of the state, the Sadducees had another approach. It’s difficult to briefly summarize these first century Jewish sects, but it appears that part of what Jesus condemned in the Sadducees was their relationship with Herod. They had decided to just get along. They wouldn’t point out the corruption, the violence, the evil of Herod’s rule. They would just placate him, say the right things and avoid controversy, so that he wouldn’t come down too hard on them. They believed a higher purpose could be accomplished in this way. Some of the Sadducees were even called “Herodians.”

The Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist and Jesus reveal that we cannot be silent. This is not a matter of right or left, red or blue, Republican or Democrat. This is a matter of naming evil for what it is. We must speak out. But I fear that American Christians have allowed politicians to set the rules. The result is progressive Christians who are afraid to stand for the unborn and conservative Christians who are afraid to stand for the immigrant. We’ve let our culture define and caricature the issues and bifurcate the solutions. We’re trying to decide which side we’re on, when Jesus is calling us to a higher kingdom, where we care about all oppressed people more than we care for ourselves.

There were a couple of other groups, too. The Zealots chose violence as the solution to violence. The Essenes went to the desert where they didn’t have to deal with the affairs of the world. But we’ve never known Jesus as a Pharisee, Sadducee, Herodian, Zealot or Essene. What can that tell us about who we should be?

Pray: “Lord, forgive me for the times I’ve taken my world view from the kingdoms of this world. I repent that I’ve ignored evil on ‘my team’ and justified it because we think we’re the good guys. As the political parties ignore and demonize the oppressed, you called us to become one with the most oppressed people of our world—the ‘least of these’ (Matthew 25). Help me. I want to be like Jesus.”

 

Wednesday, November 14

Read: Exodus 12:17-20

Consider: The Passover is the Jewish feast that celebrates Israel’s liberation from their slavery and oppression in Egypt. Part of the ritual is the making and eating of bread without leaven. This is because when the Israelites made their exodus from Egypt, they had to go quickly. They could not allow time for their bread to rise. They would “Eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Exodus 12:11).

But there was more to the symbolism of yeast than simply the time it takes. That is why they were commanded to remove all yeast from their homes. For seven days prior to Passover their homes were to be leaven-free. You see, leaven became a symbol for sin and for the ways of Egypt—the old way of life from which God wants to deliver us.

This is the imagery we’ve looked at this week as we’ve heard Jesus warn his disciples and the “leaven”—the yeast—of Herod, the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The violence of Herod, the arrogance of the Pharisees and the collusion-of-silence that characterized the Sadducees have no place in the new kingdom.

I think we can learn a great lesson from the Israelites’ practice of removing the leaven from their homes. In our use of technology, most of what the world values cannot be kept outside our front doors. Our homes are filled with the “yeast” that is so commonplace, we don’t even realize how it has invaded our lives.

What has had access to your home and your heart that really has no business on the inside? Are we allowing violence (including the violence of the tongue), arrogance, judgmentalism, gossip, the vitriol of our culture and other soul-crushing values to take up residence without any opposition on our part?

It’s not always easy to see. It’s subtle. That is why Jesus said, “Be careful, watch out” (Mark 8:15).

Pray: “Lord, I know I don’t have to fear the world. And I know you do not want me to embrace an escapist mentality. So please teach me how to be salt and light in your world without being polluted by the toxicity that resides in some places. May the prayer you prayed for us, be a reality in me — ‘My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one’ (John 17:15). Thank you for your grace.”

 

Thursday, November 15

Read: Matthew 13:31-33

Consider: As we’ve seen over the past few days, the Bible usually uses “yeast” or “leaven” as a metaphor for the oppression of sin. Jesus used it in that manner (Mark 8:15). But on one occasion, Jesus flipped the image.

A major portion of the metaphor is the subtly of yeast. You do not see it, but it is there. And the presence of the yeast changes everything. The very form, structure and appearance of the bread is determined by the yeast.

In Jesus’ parable of the yeast, he teaches us that just as evil can be spread without notice, so can the kingdom of heaven. Just as evil can wear you down without your awareness, so love can build you up even when you do not realize it is doing its powerful work.

It is vital that we see this. Many Christians have given up on the world. Their only hope is to escape it someday. They’re convinced that there is nothing we can do but cover our heads and wait for the end.

How sad! The kingdom of heaven is advancing. We are part of what God is doing here, now and eternally. According to Jesus, the small measure of leaven—the love your life exudes—is being used in a greater measure than you can possibly imagine.

No one has said it better than N. T. Wright…

“You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown into the fire. You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site. You are—strange though it may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself—accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world. Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness; every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world—all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.”

Pray: The Prayer of St. Francis…

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned. It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

 

Friday, November 16

Read: Mark 9:14-24

Consider: While the four gospel writers emphasize different aspects of Jesus’ teaching and ministry, Mark continually points out that Jesus was a healer. We still believe that Jesus is a healer. Though, to be honest, it can be difficult and, at times, impossible to understand. We’re always plagued with questions concerning who is healed and who is not healed. And sometimes the “Why?” and “Why not?” are overwhelming. Whenever someone tries to give us an authoritative answer on healing, we have an experience that contradicts their answer.

People lived with the same contradictions and the same kind of pain when Jesus walked the earth. About the only thing they could embrace about healing was the overwhelming evidence that Jesus was a healer.

What I love about this story is the honesty of the father who couldn’t find answers when it came to the healing—the deliverance—of his son. He had struggled for years and had now come to Jesus’ disciples with the hope that they could help. But, no. They couldn’t. When Jesus arrived, he told the man that it was possible. In fact, Jesus said, “Everything is possible for one who believes” (9:23).

I think all of us can see ourselves in this father and hear our doubts in his words…

“I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (9:24)

Now at this point, someone might have been tempted to give the man a pep talk. It seems that there are always well-meaning people who think that if they can just shore up our faith, God can begin to answer our prayers.

I get that. I want my faith to be stronger. We work at that throughout our lives, with the hope that our experiences will not destroy our faith but will stretch it to new proportions. But there is a danger of placing a burden on ourselves that we are unable to bear. There is a danger of depending on our faith, rather than depending on God.

Evidently the little bit of faith the man had was enough. But, of course, we know his faith didn’t deliver the boy. Jesus did. Jesus is the healer.

Pray: “Lord, I’m tired. I’m exhausted and scared. I feel like my faith is ebbing away, not getting stronger. I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief. But I know I don’t overcome by striving to develop heroic faith. I overcome by resting in your presence and in your love. Thank you that you walk with me through this process. You are all I need.”

 

Saturday, November 17

Read: John 20:19-29

Consider: Some people say, “Seeing is believing.” Others say, “Believing is seeing.” I think they’re both right. The more we place our faith in Christ, the more we “see.” We are better prepared to understand and embrace who he is, what he has done and what he continues to do. But our faith is also bolstered by our experiences. We see lives changed, love conquering fear, people laying down their lives for one another and our faith is deepened. Believing is seeing. And seeing is believing.

And both are part of this beautiful journey that God has prepared for us. That is why it is important that you and I don’t get discouraged when we wrestle with doubt. Doubt is part of the faith journey. And on this journey, God will give us insight as we stretch our faith—our incomplete, struggling and growing faith.

Yesterday, in Mark’s gospel, we saw a man who admitted that he was struggling with doubt. But he did the right thing with that struggle. He gave it to the Lord, asking Jesus to “help me overcome my unbelief!” (9:24). Jesus didn’t say, “Sorry. Come back when your faith is more developed. I can’t be your healer while you have doubts.” No, nothing of the sort. In fact, Jesus honored the little bit of faith that the man was clinging to.

The disciples had seen so much. But placing their faith in the resurrection was too much for them in the hours of chaos and fear that followed Jesus’ death. Thomas verbalized his demand for sight and so people have dubbed him, “Doubting Thomas.” But really, the reason the other disciples believed is that a week earlier they had seen what Thomas said he needed to see.

Jesus gave them what they needed, but he encouraged them—and us—to see beyond our physical senses.

“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (20:29)

Your doubt is part of your faith journey. Don’t wallow in guilt over the fact that you struggle with doubts. Rather, let Jesus join you on this beautiful journey of seeing and believing, believing and seeing, and learning to see with different eyes.

Pray: “Lord, I know faith is a gift from you. I can’t manufacture it. So, I simply open myself to you, allowing your Spirit to work in me. I want the soil of my life to be fertile so that I may grow in the manner that you have planned for me. Lord, ‘I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief’ (Mark 9:24).”