If we look back two or three chapters in the Gospel of Mark, we can find readings similar to the themes in today’s Gospel lesson. Twice earlier in Mark’s Gospel Jesus had foretold his suffering. When Jesus told the disciples that, they didn’t seem to get the point of why he was telling them.
The Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as Sirach, has the distinction of being the only book in the Bible that counsels against putting your elbows on the table at dinner (41:19). Ecclesiasticus covers a wide swath of the human condition, from rapturous poetry in celebration of wisdom to the most mundane things, like how to behave at a dinner party. Don’t eat too much, do enjoy the wine, but don’t drink too much. Don’t interrupt the musicians. Don’t talk too much, don’t chew greedily. Don’t be the last to leave. (Ch. 31-32)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a phrase from our Rule of Life that refers to the “mystical and apostolic aspects of our vocation”. The “mystical and apostolic”: it’s a way of encapsulating one of the polarities or we might say complementarities of the Christian life. The mystical and apostolic—or we could say the contemplative and the active—or prayer and service. The SSJE has both in its DNA—as do many other religious orders.
In my reflection and prayer on today’s gospel, one phrase jumped out at me and grabbed my attention. Jesus says, “I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” For the Father himself loves you. This is startling in its simplicity but it is the core theme of John’s gospel; the love of the Father for all of us. This simple phrase from the 16th chapter of John: “…for the Father himself loves you, mirrors the sentiment of love from way earlier in the 3rd chapter: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
“I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”[i] Instead of telling us to be kind, respectful, compassionate or patient (which we are to be), Jesus tells us to love. In the New Testament Greek there are four words for love. One is about family, love between children and parents, between siblings. Another is the erotic, sexual, falling in love. Another is the love of close friends. Then there’s agape, different from the rest. It’s not based on a relationship or affinity.
There are times in the gospels when it seems like Jesus is his own worst enemy. Here he returns to his hometown, where he gets a warm reception – initially. The gospel writer reports that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v.22). Then, suddenly, he seems to turn on the crowd, blasting them with words they find completely offensive, and the next thing we know, we’re reading that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff!” (v.28-29). How does he go from ‘warm reception’ to ‘angry mob’ in the span of a few minutes? And why?
In the Gospel record, we read of three presentations of Jesus at the Temple. Today, the first of the presentations, marks forty days following Jesus’ birth. Two things were required of Mary and Joseph according to the Law of Moses: Jesus’ parents were required to present Jesus in the temple, dedicating him to God as their firstborn son.[i] Also, there was Mary’s need for “purification.” We read in the Book of Leviticus that a new mother was to be ceremonially purified by a priest forty days after childbirth.[ii] A second presentation was when Jesus was age 12, when he greatly impressed the temple authorities with his precocious knowledge.[iii] And a third, when, as an adult, he was presented with the goings on of Temple – what was going on, outside and inside the temple.
If you are anything like me, and I have been around long enough to know that none of you are like me; but I have also been around long enough to know that you are all like me. You all have your own interior cycles of feasts and fasts. Sometimes this interior cycle is connected to the calendar. Sometimes it is even connected to the liturgical cycle of the church. But sometimes it is connected to your gut. You find yourself thinking or feeling or pondering something and you don’t know why or where it has come from and then, days or weeks later you understand. Right, you think. That’s where it is coming from.
One of the catch phrases of the recent political landscape has been “It’s the economy, stupid.” It sounds like something Jesus might have said in one of his crankier moments. Jesus was very concerned with money and had a lot to say about it.
About this time of year parishes all over the country are having “Stewardship Sunday”. (Perhaps that’s why some of you are here!) Vestries are preparing annual budgets and figuring out ways to economize. Some preachers are reminding people of the Biblical standard of the tithe. People are wondering if that means 10% before taxes or after.
Today’s gospel lesson is a rather odd parable that Jesus tells his disciples. For the most part the manager in this story is embezzling his boss’s money and he gets found out. And so his employer fires him and the man then worries about what people will think of him and where he will find a job in the future with this on his record. So far the actions of the employer and the subsequent anxiety of the former manager are no surprise to us. What happens next is probably even LESS surprising: the man, before the news of his unemployment is made known attempts a manipulative cover-up which, if all goes according to his plan, will cast him in a favorable light to those who owe his former employer money, and perhaps secure him a new job. Again….no surprise, it’s as if we could see this story on the front page of the Boston Globe.