I have been profoundly affected by the image I saw a couple of weeks ago of ISIS fighters about to execute 21 Coptic Christians. The scene was horrific in its staging; the victims on their knees, behind each one of them his executioner, with a sword at the throat. I have struggled to make sense of this and other horrific acts of religious violence over the last weeks and months, struggled to understand the interplay of religion and politics, the effects of twelve years of the global war on terror, struggled to make sense of the inhumanity of human beings. Continue reading
This week’s lessons are here.
A brief story from the gospel this week but one that has carried a great deal of freight in the History of Christianity. In recent decades, it’s been a particular focus of feminist interpretation and reflection. In the tradition, Martha and Mary have stood as ideal types for the active and contemplative life, or the contrast between social activism and single-minded attention on the love of God. It’s hard for us to read or hear this passage without projecting Mary and Martha on to our own experience, and ask our selves whether we are a “Mary” or a “Martha.” If we’re a “Martha,” should we stop and try to be more like “Mary?”
I’m reading this passage in light of an earlier incident in Luke’s gospel that caught my attention. After Jesus cast the demons out of the Gerasene demoniac, the villagers found him “sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.” (Lk 8:35) In this case, the healed man begged Jesus to allow him to go with him, but Jesus told him to go home and tell people what God had done for him.
Like him, Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. Jesus commends her behavior to Martha, declaring, “she has chosen the better part.” We don’t see either Mary or Martha following Jesus but it’s important that Martha is described performing “diakonia,” service, in our translation that was the “many tasks” that distracted her. In Acts 6, a similar dynamic can be seen. The twelve complain, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables” (Acts 6:2). As a result, seven deacons were appointed to distribute food to the poor and widows. Martha is the deacon, Mary the servant of the word; but in our story, Martha has a voice, Mary remains silent (like other women in Luke and Acts), while Martha is silenced by the Lord (as Paul in Acts 8 silenced the slave girl).
Luke wants female disciples to be silent and sit at Jesus’ feet. He even tries to downplay the importance of their diakonia (service) as hosts, founders, maintainers of house churches in Acts. This story may partly be a projection of that reality and the tension that surrounded it from the Early Church back on to Jesus’ own ministry.
In the Gospel of John, Mary and Martha appear as the sisters of Lazarus. They are friends of Jesus. In John, Martha is not silenced. She makes one of the great Christological statements, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”
Do these different stories offer insight into the way Martha and Mary were understood in the first decades of Christianity? Do they provide evidence of Martha not just as a disciple but as a deacon (a minister of hospitality and the Eucharist) but also as a preacher of the Gospel? And did Luke try to suppress that tradition?
It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Continue reading
September 16, 2012
Last week I mentioned the importance of geography in Mark’s gospel. We saw Jesus travel to Tyre, west of his customary stomping grounds in the Galilee. After his visit to Tyre, he traveled in a roundabout fashion, via Sidon, to the Decapolis (the ten cities) which lay east of the sea of Galilee. Again, it was Gentile territory. In today’s gospel, he is on the road again. Now he has moved north of Galilee to the region of Caesarea Philippi. It too was gentile territory, but more importantly perhaps, its name proclaims its significance. Continue reading
This week’s readings are here.
A map of Northern Palestine in the time of Jesus is here.
In last week’s gospel, Jesus traveled from Galilee to Tyre. He then traveled north to Sidon, before heading back toward the Sea of Galilee. But he went beyond the Jordan to the region of the Decapolis. He then seems to head north for Bethsaida on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee is mention in Mark 8, before moving further to Caesarea Philippi. While Galilee continues to be the base of his activity, he is moving beyond it in three directions, west, east, and north.
Caesarea Philippi is the location of today’s gospel. A city that was founded by the Herods, it was named in honor of their patron, Caesar Augustus. It was a Roman city, dedicated to the emperor, to Rome’s gods, and to Roman power.
For Jesus to come to this region under the looming shadow of the Roman Imperium, and ask here, “Who do people say that I am?” was to set up a sharp contrast between himself, Rome, and the sort of political Messianism that was dominant among Palestinian Jews of the day.
“Who do people say that I am?” The answers came easily off the disciples’ lips–Elijah, John the Baptist, a prophet. Then Jesus asked those who had been following him for the past months, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter responded with his famous confession, “You are the Messiah.” It’s a word we’ve not seen in Mark since the first verses of the gospel and it’s not at all clear what Peter meant by his confession. Certainly Jesus had not acted in conformity to contemporary messianic expectations. And what comes next further shatters those expectations. Jesus predicts his suffering and death, a statement which Peter contradicts and for which Jesus rebukes him.
Then comes another symbol of Imperial Rome. Jesus tells his followers that if they would be his disciples, they must take up their cross and follow him. The cross was a symbol of Roman power and ruthlessness. The cross was reserved for the worst offenders, for revolutionaries and the like. Crosses loomed on the outskirts of towns and cities to show everyone what the consequences of resisting Rome’s power would be.
The community for whom Mark was writing probably knew all too well what the consequences for following Jesus were: Persecution, execution. They didn’t belong to a group that had access to the corridors of power. Their struggles didn’t have to do with whether they could pray in public. Following Jesus was life or death.
It’s hard for us to imagine, hard for us to conceive of what it might mean to follow Jesus in the ways that Mark understood discipleship. For us, it’s enough to come to church when it’s convenient, to throw a few dollars in the collection plate, to volunteer to help in a food pantry or homeless shelter. But if we confess Jesus to be the Christ, Mark’s challenge should stand before us as a symbol of what discipleship means. To follow Christ means accepting his lordship, following his way to the cross, and rejecting the power and the powers of this world.