Know Thyself

Spending some time alone may be healthy before we rush into active service.

Auguste Rodin’s sculpture of the Thinker placed in front of his rendition of the Gates of Hell, 1880, Museé Rodin, Paris.

Mark’s gospel (Mark 1:9-13) tells us that immediately after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness there to be tested by Satan. Why does Jesus need to be alone for 40 days in a barren landscape?

I like to think that need follows inexorably from the breakthrough experience Jesus has at his baptism. At the moment when he comes up out of the water, Jesus hears a voice in heaven say: You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased (Mark 1:11).

The heavenly voice speaks a word of unimaginable affirmation. It singles Jesus out for the spiritual distinction of being the beloved Son of God. The voice is saying in effect, “You are uniquely close to me, as close as a son is to his father.” This affirmation is accompanied by a filling with spiritual power as the Spirit descends upon Jesus.

Talk about a mountaintop spiritual experience! It must have been an incredible high. That is precisely what made it dangerous. This high could have led to Jesus’ spiritual and mental unhinging. He could have become so full of himself and his special status that he could have become unbearable to be around. Or he could have gone mad, just as many mentally deranged persons have who have delusions about being god.

Either outcome would have defeated his mission. For Jesus’ status is given to him for the purpose of his mission. He needed to learn how to subordinate his ego-centrism to his mission.*

I think that was the task he faced as he was driven out into the wilderness. Jesus had to come to understand deep in himself what it meant to be the Son of God. What that status permitted him to do and what it did not permit him to do. He had to understand his identity in a profound way before he was fit to pursue his mission.

Matthew’s and Luke’s Takes on the Temptations

I suggest this interpretation of his testing in the wilderness because of what the gospels of Matthew and Luke bring to the story. Mark tells us nothing about the exact nature of the temptations Satan poses to Jesus. But Matthew and Luke do. We need to pay particular attention to the wording they give to the words of Satan.

When Satan poses his first temptation, it is a temptation to Jesus to use his spiritual power to gratify himself, in particular to turn stones into bread to satisfy his hunger. But we need to note how Satan introduces that temptation. His first words are: If you are the Son of God…. Satan zeroes in on that very special identity that Jesus has been given by the heavenly voice at the baptism.

Again when Satan raises the second temptation, the temptation is to use Jesus’s special relationship with God to call attention to himself and to gain fame and admiration. He is to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, trusting that God’s angels will rescue him from killing himself.

Once again we need to note how Satan introduces the temptation. He begins: If you are the Son of God…. Satan exploits the heavenly voice’s words to Jesus.

Satan does not use these same words to introduce the third temptation. But the third temptation presumes upon the status which has been conferred on Jesus. In its Old Testament usage the words Son of God have royal associations.** Jesus is tempted to seize his right to be king by worshipping power as represented by Satan.

Each of these temptations derives its power as a temptation because it exploits Jesus’ new consciousness of being the Son of God. Jesus must penetrate into this revelation to understand it, to understand what behavior is appropriate to his identity and what is not. And that takes some solitary time alone to wrestle with his own self.

Out there in the wilderness Jesus was probably not spending the bulk of his time watching the gauzy clouds float by in the sky. He was probably struggling with his own thoughts and emotions trying to plumb the meaning of the breakthrough experience that had been his in his baptism.

The Biblical Paradigm of the Exodus

What I find fascinating about Jesus’ experience is that it seems to be a common experience for people who undergo breakthrough spiritual experiences. Take the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1:17, Paul tells us that after his breakthrough experience with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus, he immediately went away into Arabia.

Paul tells us nothing about what he was doing there nor for how long. But he does move out into the wilderness. I like to think that he did so to be alone, to try to begin to understand what had happened to him in his revelatory experience with Christ and what this now meant for him and his life. I suspect he was wrestling with his own new identity and calling just as Jesus was in the desert.

What I find further fascinating about both Jesus’ and Paul’s experiences is how they conform to the Old Testament paradigm of the Exodus. When Israel is freed from slavery in Egypt, especially in the breakthrough experience of the miraculous crossing the Red Sea, God leads the people out into the Sinai desert there to wander for 40 years before they enter the Promised Land.

There is, I believe, a very concrete reason why God does this. In Exodus 4:22-23, God refers to the people of Israel as his firstborn son. Pharaoh is to let God’s son go so Israel may worship and serve the Lord.

Israel as a people is given the same status as Jesus in his baptism. And Israel must learn to understand what that status means for them just as Jesus must. That is the important work that is going on in the Sinai wilderness those 40 years of wandering. They are being shaped into a people who will be able to live as the chosen corporate son of God when they enter into the land. We can then see the Exodus wanderings as a series of educational temptations.

Israel, of course, never fully passes the tests. When they enter the land of Canaan, they enter with an imperfect understanding of what their special status means. As a result they fall prey to new temptations to exploit and abuse their status as a son of God. In the Christian story, this sets the stage for the coming of Jesus, who will finally fulfill Israel’s destiny.

This Exodus paradigm has been lived out over and over again the lives of many Christian saints. An outstanding example is St. Anthony, the hermit in the Egyptian desert who helped launch the monastic movement in Christianity. And the monastic tradition has continued this paradigm by requiring candidates to undergo a lengthy novitiate (a time of spiritual formation and testing) before they take their final professional vows.

I believe we need to honor this Exodus paradigm as well as we individually go through our spiritual journey in life. When we have breakthrough experiences spiritually, it may be hazardous to our spiritual health to rush out into Christian service in the world. Instead we may need, just as much as Jesus, Paul, and Anthony did, to take some time to be alone, free of distractions, to plumb the meaning of what has happened to us. Unless we do, we will botch our mission by misunderstanding the meaning of our identity.


* Jesus will once again confront the issue of ego-centrism in the Garden of Gethsemane. There he must subordinate his own desire to live with the demands of God’s will. He does so in the words of his prayer, Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want (Mark 14:36).

** For examples, see Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14.

Transforming Repentance

Unpacking the message of John the Baptist.

Image of John the Baptist in the deësis mosaic in the church of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, 13th century.

The gospels suggest that John the Baptist created quite a sensation when he began preaching in the Judean wilderness. All four gospel writers say that crowds streamed out of Jerusalem and the Judean countryside to hear him.

There must have been something electrifying about his preaching. I imagine the scene resembled the kinds of crowds who gathered in the camp meetings that launched the great revivalist movement in 19th century America. There must have been a surge of excitement in the air.

But what was John’s style of preaching? Did it involve a lot of shouting and yelling, like a sawdust revivalist? Or was it highly poetic and filled with vivid imagery? The gospel writers don’t say.

All we are told is that it was premised upon the conviction that the kingdom of God was about to arrive (see Matthew 3:2). That meant people needed to change their behavior. Luke suggests that meant adoption of a way life that prioritized social justice (see Luke 3:10-14).

Mark summarizes John’s preaching in his typically terse way. He says that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:4). He elaborates no further. So we are left with our imaginations as to what were the specifics of John’s message.

Understanding Repentance through the Greek

There is an important detail, however, in that concise summary. The word repentance is an interesting word in Greek. It is the word metanoia. Its primary meaning was not emotional, meaning a feeling of remorse, as the English word repentance has largely come to represent.

Rather metanoia meant first and foremost a change of mind. It was to change the way one thought, the way one looked at things, the way one perceived and understood life and the world. We might more accurately translate it as a change of mindset or a change of consciousness. To adopt an analogy, it means to change the mental software within ourselves that governs how we perceive the world and then how we behave.

If we believe the world is a dangerous place, afflicted with scarcity, and full of duplicitous people, we will most probably become defensive, greedy, and suspicious people in our attitudes and ways of living. If we believe the world is a beneficent place, overflowing with abundance for all, and full of caring people, we will most probably become open, generous, and compassionate people in our attitudes and ways of living.

What makes the fundamental difference between these two ways of living? A deep-seated way of perceiving and understanding the world, our core mindset.

John premises his call to change our mindsets on an amazing claim. The kingdom of God is about to arrive. (Again see Matthew 3:2.) When it does, everything in the world and in society will change. Our old strategies for living will no longer work. We will need to adopt a new mindset or consciousness. And we can begin to prepare for that new reality by starting to adopt that new mindset now. It is the way we can get ready for the kingdom’s arrival.

And to represent our commitment to adopting this new mindset, John calls upon the crowds to be baptized. We do not know how John baptized specifically. But in the early church, when one came to be baptized, one stripped out of one’s street clothes and was dipped into the water naked. One then arose out of the water and assumed a new festive garment. In this way, the action involved a kind of spiritual rebirth.

If John baptized in a similar way (and we don’t really know that he did), then the people he baptized were making a dramatic statement of their commitment to changing their mindset.

The Challenge of Changing a Mindset

But changing one’s mindset or consciousness is no easy feat. In most cases the way we look at and understand the world is grounded in early childhood experiences.

Erik Erikson taught that the most fundamental challenge of the newborn infant is to develop a deep-seated confidence that the world can be trusted or not. It is the foundation on which all later work in growing into a healthy human being is grounded. Whether that healthy foundation is laid or not depends upon the child’s experience with the adults in his or her life. Can they be depended upon to meet the child’s needs, and thereby nurture within the child a core of trust? Or do they engage in neglect, intentional or not, breeding instead in the child a core attitude of mistrust?*

By the time we reach adulthood, our fundamental mindset is so deeply entrenched in our being that it is nearly impossible to change it by sheer will power. If we seek to change it by will power, we must apply ourselves to a steady, unrelenting commitment to thinking in a new way regardless of how the experiences of our lives seem to deny that new way of thinking over and over again.

Over time, that new way of thinking may settle into a trait of character that governs our behavior without conscious effort. But that requires such a strenuous application of will power over time that few people have the inner stamina to do it.

That’s why I have become convinced that a fundamental change of mindset or consciousness requires some kind of transformative experience that reshapes our whole way of seeing the world and consequently our way of behaving. In the language of traditional Christian spirituality, that transformation is seen as a change of heart, the seat of the inner personality. And as the heart changes (in Biblical language, becomes soft and warm rather than hardhearted)**, then our mindset will change with time as well.

Once again, in the language of the Bible, such a change of heart is tied to an experience of God loving us, just as we are, with all our strengths, gifts, and, yes, all our flaws and weaknesses. When we come to experience that love deep in our beings, it changes us.

That experience may come all at once for some people, in a dramatic, breakthrough experience (as it did for Bill Wilson, founder of AA, or Thomas Merton), or it may come through a gradual buildup of almost imperceptible experiences of God’s love coming to us through the routines of daily living (as it did for Brother Lawrence or Evelyn Underhill). The speed of the experience is not the issue; it’s the reality, however that happens.

Maybe this is why the gospel writers tell us that another part of John’s message was:

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit. (Mark 1-7-8)

 John may sense deep within himself that the metanoia that he is calling the crowds to practice is something beyond their power to do or his power to accomplish. It requires a greater power.*** And that is why he looks for the coming of the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Only a divine power can truly transform our hearts.


* A summary of Erikson’s ideas are found in an article on his stages of psychosocial development on the Simply Psychology website.

** One example is the language used in Ezekiel 36:26.

** I am reminded of the fact that at the heart of the Alcoholics Anonymous therapy for overcoming alcoholism is the nurturing of a reliance upon a “higher power, however it is understood.” That trust in one’s “higher power” is the key to recovery.

 

Jerusalem–Icon of Unity

Unity is the seedbed of peace.

New Jerusalem

An image of the new Jerusalem from a Spanish manuscript, 1047 A.D., preserved in the Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

Psalm 122 is titled a “song of ascents.” This indicates that it belongs to a collection of songs (Psalms 120-134) that pilgrims sang as they entered the city of Jerusalem or the temple. (If they were traveling to the city from the Jordan Valley, it would have been literally a steep ascent, approximately 2,500 feet in total.)

It is a joyful hymn addressed not to God, but to the city itself. Its lyrics reflect the passionate attachment that Jewish pilgrims have felt and continue to feel for the ancient city. (That passionate attachment has come to be paralleled among Christian and Muslim pilgrims, too.)

The psalmist celebrates the city. First of all, it is the place where all the tribes of Israel assemble before God. Here they become one people in the presence of the God who has called them to be one nation.

The city is redolent with memories of the Davidic dynasty. David conquered the city, and there his descendants reigned for the next 400 years until its fall to Babylon in 587 B.C. There their thrones were set up.

The city is the site of the temple. In this sacred place Israel meets its God and God meets his people. It is truly a thin place, to adopt a Celtic concept.

An Evocative Image

But what I have always loved most is the description of the city in verse 3. In the New Revised Standard Version, the verse reads:

Jerusalem–built as a city

            that is bound firmly together.

That may be an accurate translation of the Hebrew, but the translation of the verse that resonates deeply in my soul is the translation that we find in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer:

Jerusalem is built as a city

                        that is at unity with itself.

I first encountered this translation in my 20s. That decade was a decade of inner turmoil for me. I was torn this way and that by many different and competing desires and beliefs and confused feelings. It would be accurate to say that I was a deeply fragmented person.*

When I encountered that phrase at unity with itself, I felt that was not a description of me, but it certainly expressed my deep longing. Oh, to be a person who was at unity with himself!

What these words convey to me is an immensely beautiful image of integration. They express the experience of a life in which the diverse pieces of that life all fit together in harmony. The light and the shadow, the successes and the failures, the achievements and the losses, the joy and the pain. All make up a full life, but most of us find it hard to accept that fact.

I have made much progress towards that goal since my 20s, but I am not fully there yet. The words, however, continue to inspire me. They are the lodestar for my spiritual journey.

The words serve not only as the lodestar for an individual life (like my own), but also the ideal for which we all long as we look at living together with others–life in a family, in a church, in a local community, in a nation, or internationally. Human kind has seldom realized this dream, but it beckons us emotionally and spiritually nonetheless.

The New Jerusalem of the Book of Revelation

The elder John picks up this image of Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation. In chapters 21-22, we read his vision of the new Jerusalem that descends out of heaven upon the earth at the end of history, when God creates a new heaven and a new earth.

The beauty of the city is dazzling with its bejeweled gates, golden streets, and verdant gardens. But what has always fascinated me about John’s description is that the city is equal in length, breadth, and height. The city extends 1.500 miles in each of those three dimensions.

What we have is a description of a cube. And the cube, along with the sphere, has traditionally been a symbol of perfection. The new city is a city at perfect unity with itself. All is in harmonious proportion.

The city has no temple, for it needs none. God dwells fully with his people in the culmination of that unity that unites heaven and earth, matter and spirit, humanity and its Lord.

Psalm 122 ends with the psalmist’s summons to pray for Jerusalem. Pray specifically for its peace. For where there is true unity, there also will be peace.


* So also has been the case with the historic city of Jerusalem. Few cities have been as fragmented and fought over as much as the city of Jerusalem, whether from internal discord or from foreign invasion. When we read Psalm 122, we feel we have entered into something of a dream world. This is not the Jerusalem of history. But dreams do reveal the depths of our inner psyche and for that reason point to a spiritual longing that cannot be smothered.

Joy in the Midst of Tears

A seemingly ordinary psalm opens up with a surprising depth of meaning.

Yin_yangWhen I’ve read Psalm 13 in the past, I’ve been inclined to read it thoughtlessly and hasten on. Its sentiments seemed so conventional. Almost every line can be found in other psalms.

Recently, however, as I read it again, I was struck by how mature this particular psalmist is in his psychological/spiritual life.

The psalm opens up as a typical lament psalm. The psalmist is in some kind of deep distress. It is not entirely clear what the cause is. Hints suggest that it may involve some kind of physical pain. There are also allusions to attacks from an enemy. The psalmist fears that his enemy may get the better of him. All this is causing a bout of sleeplessness.

Whatever the causes, the psalmist wants God to come to his rescue. But God seems nowhere near. The psalmist cries out, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me?” That “how long” gets repeated three more times. This underlines the psalmist’s sense of abandonment.

In its last two verses, however, the emotional tone makes a 180-degree turn around. The psalmist declares his trust in the Lord. He joyfully awaits his rescue. In spite of all that he is enduring, hope remains.

Then comes the line that struck me between the eyes. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me (verse 13:6). In the Revised Standard Version translation I was reading, this sentence is in the past tense, not future tense. It is not an expression of hope, but a memory of past experiences of God’s grace. They have been many, for the psalmist uses the word bountifully. (The Book of Common Prayer uses the word richly, a very evocative choice).

In this short lyric we hear the poet hold together two conflicting emotions: sorrow and joy, anxiety and hope, desperation and reassurance. The duality of the poet’s life is resolved by his holding on to both sides of his experience. He does not let his faith smother his pain, nor does he let his pain erase his joy and hope. He holds on to the totality of his life.

His stance is so reminiscent of the Chinese concept of yin and yang (the complementary opposites held together in a unity). That’s why I chose the taijitu, the traditional Chinese image of yin and yang, as the visual image for this posting.

This is a paradoxical way of living. But how does the psalmist hold these contradictions together? That is the question that I don’t feel I have the answer to yet. Do any of you, my readers?

The Parable of the Golden Buddha

A discovery in Thailand opens a window on one fruit of a spiritual journey.

The golden Buddha in the Bangkok temple of Wat Traimit

In 1954, a Buddhist monastery in Bangkok, Thailand, was undertaking renovations. A stucco image of the Buddha had long sat in the courtyard under a tin roof. The monks decided to build a shrine to shelter it.

The following year the statue was lifted from its pedestal to be moved to its new location. The statue proved surprisingly heavy. The ropes lifting it broke. The image fell hard on the ground. As it did, some of the stucco coating chipped off.

The color of gold gleamed through the crack. When the workmen removed the rest of the plaster, they discovered a gold image underneath. Parts of the head were in fact pure gold. It weighed five and a half tons.

The image had been moved to Bangkok in 1801 from the ruined city of Ayutthaya. There it had sat for many years in a derelict temple. A Burmese army had destroyed the city in 1767. It is now believed that the temple’s monks had covered the statue with clay in hopes that the invaders would not discover what lay beneath.

They were so successful that not only did the invaders not suspect what lay beneath the plaster, but everyone else forgot also, until the golden Buddha was accidentally rediscovered. Today it is the prized image in its own temple.

This story offers a wonderful parable for one fruit of our spiritual journeys. As we move deeper into the spiritual life through the practice of spiritual disciplines, we can find ourselves discovering more and more of our true self versus the false self that we show as a façade to the world in our everyday life.

A Theme in Modern Spiritual Writing

The contrast between the true self and the false self is a common theme in the writings of many modern writers on the spiritual life. We encounter it often in the writings of Richard Rohr and Thomas Keating, two Catholic writers who have had a profound influence on my own understanding of the spiritual journey.

Rohr attributes the introduction of this theme into the vocabulary of modern spirituality to Thomas Merton, that monk-writer who helped launch the rediscovery of the contemplative prayer tradition in the modern world.

For example, in his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton says this:

For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.*

He goes on to say later:

Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny…To put it even better, we are even called to share with God the work of creating the truth of our identity.**

 This work of becoming who I truly am is not, however, work we do by our own initiative. Rather, says Merton, the secret of my full identity is hidden in Him. He alone can make me who I am, or rather who I will be when at last I fully begin to be. ***

A Theme with Pauline Roots

Though Merton, Rohr, and Keating are using the language of modern psychology, they seem to draw their inspiration from a passage in the apostle Paul. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)

In this passage Paul speaks of our life that is hidden with Christ in God. It is a life that will be fully revealed and expressed when the Last Day comes and all creation enters into its destined glory, a glory in which each individual created being will shine in its unique identity.

The spiritual journey is the journey in this life when we begin to glimpse and experience aspects of that unique identity, which is our true self. We in partnership with God begin to chip away some of the spiritual clay that hides the golden image below. That is something of the excitement that the spiritual journey can bring us.

The Social Context of Paul’s Thought

This is an inspiring way of thinking for me. It means that we need to think of our spiritual journey as something wonderfully positive, not as something intensely negative. But it is easy to corrupt this way of thinking about the spiritual journey if we think of this discovery of our true self in solely individualistic terms. That is the bias of much of modern American culture and of modern self-help books and lectures.

The apostle Paul never sees our life hidden with Christ in God as a call to live our lives in splendid isolation from all others. We journey towards our unique life always in a social context. That is why the bulk of Paul’s writings are concerned with life in the church as a social body. It is in the challenge to live out the life of love in the rough and tumble interactions of a social network that we begin both to discover and build the unique self that God has created us to be.

Merton picks up this Pauline way of thinking when he writes:

I must look for my identity, somehow, not only in God but in other men. I will never be able to find myself if I isolate myself from the rest of mankind as if I were a different kind of being.****

So I hope that as you pick up and practice the spiritual disciplines, they will empower you to chip away at your false self and discover the golden Buddha that lies underneath. It is the unique self that God created you to be, just as my true self is the unique identity God created me to be. As we let that true self shine forth, we let God’s glory blaze out into the wider world.

Notes:

* Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions Books, 1961. Page 31.

** Merton, New Seeds. Page 32.

*** Merton, New Seeds, Page 33.

**** Merton, New Seeds. Page 51.

You Can’t Celebrate the Party with One Guest Missing

God’s plan aims for inclusion, not exclusion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Jesus as the good shepherd. A mosaic in the mausoleum of Galla Placidia, Ravenna, Italy, 5th century A.D. Photo credit: Peter Milošević. Used under Creative Commons license.

Luke 15 recounts three of Jesus’ most famous parables: the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. In each story, one member of a group goes missing. It/he is the lost one.

In the story of the lost sheep, a single sheep wanders off from the flock. The shepherd leaves his flock to search for the lost sheep and return it to the flock. In the second story, one coin in a collection of ten coins is lost. A housewife thoroughly scours her house until she finds it and restores it to the collection.

The third story of the lost son has a bit of a twist. A man’s young son demands his portion of his father’s inheritance. He then travels to a far country where he squanders that inheritance in undisciplined living. When he sinks into destitution, he comes to his senses. He returns home to ask forgiveness and encounters his father running down the road to joyfully embrace and welcome him home.

What is striking about all three stories is that the shepherd, the housewife, and the father all celebrate the recovery of the lost one by throwing a party. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which is lost,” says the shepherd to his neighbors. Merrymaking is a repeated note in all three stories.

The parties don’t come until the lost one has been restored. What strikes me about this fact is the thought that the parties cannot begin until their one missing guest is present. The merrymaking cannot be full until that missing guest has been ushered in.

That is what makes the ending of the third story so poignant. Even though the lost younger son has been restored to the family–and to the party–there is still one guest missing. That guest is the elder son who has been working in his father’s fields.

He resents his father’s extravagance on behalf of his errant younger brother. He will have nothing to do with the party celebrating his brother’s return. When the story ends, we are left with the question: Will the elder son spoil the party by becoming the next missing guest?

Jesus tells the three stories in response to grumbling by Pharisees and scribes that Jesus has been socializing with tax collectors and sinners. In their view, God’s party must shut out those missing guests. The party is all about exclusivity, not inclusion.

But Jesus responds by telling these three stories. In throwing his party, God is all about inclusivity, not exclusivity. In fact, the hint is that the party cannot begin until every one of the missing guests has been found and brought in on the celebration.

Now the point of these stories, I think, goes beyond just concerns about the pastoral approach of churches in their dealings with social, economic, ethnic, or moral outsiders. I find myself wondering if it does not point as well to universal salvation when the kingdom of God is ushered in at the end of history.

This is not to deny the theme of judgment that we find in Scripture. Mercy can never sweep sin and evil under the spiritual rug. We must take with great seriousness the notes of warning that are scattered throughout Scripture.

But I also contend we must always balance out that theme of judgment with the equally strong theme of the overflowing mercy and love of God for all his creation. And these three parables suggest that there are no limits on how far God will go to restore those missing ones to his party. He will scour the universe until each lost one has been brought in.

That also raises a question I have to take personally. Will I be the elder son who, by my insistence on the exclusivity of God’s intentions, become the next missing guest at the party?

Note to Reader:

I want to acknowledge that my thoughts in this posting were triggered by an insight into these three parables written by Amy-Jill Levine. A friend recently sent her piece to me. Levine is a Jewish professor of New Testament at Vanderbilt Divinity School. Just as Christians have long commented on the Hebrew Bible, so Levine is an example of how this process is going the other way as well. I welcome that for the new insights that Jewish interaction with the New Testament can bring me.

Where Begins the Gospel?

An ambiguous word comes loaded with meaning.

An image of the evangelist Mark in the Anglo-Saxon Lindisfarne Gospels, 7th-8th centuries.

Sometimes, when reading the Bible, we encounter a word, a phrase, or a sentence that seems so ridiculously simple. We read it and move on, giving it no further thought. But if we stop to pinpoint its meaning, what had seemed so simple becomes ambiguous. It possesses layers of meaning.

One classic example is the sentence fragment that opens the Gospel of Mark: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1). It sounds simple and straightforward. That is, until we try to understand what the author means by the word beginning. Just what does constitute the beginning of his gospel?

I contend that there are at least four possible ways of understanding that simple word.

1) The sentence fragment may serve as a book title. Ancient books did not have titles like published books today. When people made reference to a particular book, instead of naming its title they would quote its opening word or words.

For example, in English Bibles, we give each of the five books of Moses a title: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Hebrew Bible, however, their titles are the opening words of each book. Genesis is not called Genesis but Bereshit (In the beginning), which is the opening word of Genesis in Hebrew.

Mark may intend the opening fragment of his gospel to serve this purpose. He is telling his reader that he is herewith beginning to  tell  the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2.  When we notice, however, what immediately follows this opening fragment (Mark 1:2-8), we find Mark quoting a passage out of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Maybe Mark wants us to see this quotation as the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This may be a way Mark signals to us that the gospel of Jesus Christ really begins in the Old Testament. The Old Testament story of Israel is the necessary preparation for the coming of the gospel.

This interpretation does not sound so far-fetched when we notice how it is impossible to understand the fullness of the New Testament message unless we soak ourselves deeply in the Old Testament. The New Testament writers are constantly quoting the Old Testament. They use theological terms and images that have their origins in the Old Testament. And the Old Testament provides the fundamental theological premises on which the New Testament writers build their own theologies.

The New Testament becomes wobbly in its proclamations without the background of the Old Testament. So the Old Testament itself may be the beginning of the gospel which Mark is proclaiming.

3) I always believe that it is essential to pay attention to context when trying to interpret an isolated phrase or sentence in a Bible passage. The opening of Mark is no exception.

If we pay attention to what follows the opening fragment (again Mark 1:2-8), we find it is not only a quotation from the Old Testament, but also the story of the coming of John the Baptist and his ministry of baptism in the desert. In fact, the quotation from Isaiah serves to leads us into this ministry.

So a third option for understanding the beginning of the gospel is the ministry of John the Baptist. In fact, all four gospels in the New Testament acknowledge that the ministry of John the Baptist as the trigger that launches Jesus on his own ministry. Jesus does not begin his preaching, teaching, and healing until he has been baptized by John.

Christians have ever since acknowledged the crucial role of John in launching the Christian movement by giving him the title the Forerunner. In Orthodox iconography, like the mosaic of the deësis in Istanbul’s church of Hagia Sophia, John always stands to the immediate left of the central icon of Jesus.

Deesis_mosaic_Hagia_Sophia.jpg

4) The final possible meaning requires looking upon the whole of Mark’s gospel as the context for its opening sentence fragment.

Scholars have longed noticed that in the manuscript tradition the gospel of Mark has ended oddly. In the earliest manuscripts it ends with chapter 16, verse 8. Scribes added verses 16:9-20 to the gospel only centuries later.

So Mark’s original text appears to have ended with the resurrection of Jesus proclaimed by a young man (an angel?) to the women at the tomb. But oddly Mark’s gospel contains no appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples as do the other three gospels. Instead the young man tells the women that the risen Jesus will go before his disciples into Galilee. There they will see him (Mark 16:6-7).

But Mark never records that appearance in Galilee. Why? That’s one big puzzle in studying Mark.

It is important, however, to recognize what Galilee represents in Mark’s gospel. It is not the Jewish heartland. Judea and Jerusalem are that. Galilee is more of a borderland. Its populace mingles Jews with Gentiles. To a Jewish purist, it is therefore a place where one might risk religious contamination.

Yet the young man tells the women at the tomb that Jesus’ disciples will meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. Is this coded language by which Mark is suggesting that Christians will meet the risen Jesus when they continue his ministry in the borderlands, in those lands where races, ethnic identities, social classes, and religions intermingle.

This leads me to wonder if Mark sees the movement of Christians out of Palestine and into the Gentile world as the continuation of the gospel ministry of Jesus. That gospel ministry began in Galilee. There was the beginning of the gospel, but not the end. The full story is to be found in the spread of the gospel out into the whole world. The ministry of Jesus–his life, his death, his resurrection–is only the beginning.

Now which of these possible interpretations does Mark have in mind when he writes The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Son of God? Is it possible that he does not have just one of these meanings in mind? Is it not possible that that simple, but ambiguous sentence fragment embraces all four?