Did Jesus Make a Mistake?

man yelling
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/ben_haines/2648400778/">Benjamin Haines</a>

Mark 1:40-45

A contaminated man came and knelt in front of him. “You can purify me if you dare.” Enraged, Jesus took him by the hand and said, “Of course I want you to come clean.” And so he was. Then Jesus told him in no uncertain terms, “Go back to the priests and pay the legal fee for the certificate of reinstatement they refused to give. There’s spit in their eye!” But instead he went out and blathered it all over town, so Jesus couldn’t go into town openly. People had to come out to the boonies to see him instead.

[See also, previous comments on this passage.]

Leprosy isn’t about Hansen’s disease. It’s about contamination. It’s about designating certain people as unacceptable. Who’s in and who’s out. Today, we have lots of leprosy tests. We’ve just changed the name of the test slightly to litmus test.

There are the biggies that churches and politicians love to argue over: divorce and remarriage, gay and lesbian, liberal and conservative, sprinkling and immersion, infant and believer. On and on it goes.

This little snippet in Mark, though, isn’t about any of those. It’s about someone who is just plain difficult. Starting with his attitude, “If you dare,” and ending with his refusal to follow orders. Is it any wonder he’s been branded a pariah by polite company? He’s got an attitude problem and a problem following directions. He’s the loud, obnoxious guy at the party that nobody wants to talk to, who’s ready to tell you everything he knows but doesn’t want to listen. He’s the one, who when you see him coming you say, “Oh, God, not him!”

He’s been so obnoxious that he’s been thrown out of the party altogether. Now, he’s coming to Jesus. Maybe he can tell Jesus a thing or two. Maybe he wants to see if Jesus is everything everyone has been saying about him. Responding to this challenge, Jesus’ response is right to the point: “Of course. Be clean.” It’s simple acceptance of who he is. “Yes, you can be in my company.”

There is a second part to Jesus’ answer, though. Jesus refuses to let his movement become sidetracked by any competing agenda. Jesus says, in effect, “Sure you can be with me, and here’s what it involves. Go back and tell those who’ve excluded you that you’re not going away. You’re back in.” It’s here that everything goes wrong, because instead of getting with the program, he misuses his encounter with Jesus as a license to be all the more obnoxious, to the point where Jesus isn’t able to go into town any more either. In effect, Jesus has become contaminated. This man’s “leprosy” has infected Jesus.

So, what to do about the obnoxious people? Did Jesus make a mistake? Yes and no. From a public relations standpoint this encounter is a disaster. It is, however, a typical result of offering a genuine welcome to everyone without exception: there will be some who just don’t get it and will make your life harder. The good news is that, if you don’t allow your mission to be sidetracked by the temptation to go into “damage control” mode, there will continue to be others who do get what you’re about, who will go out of their way to be a part of what you’re doing, like those who had to go out to the boonies to see Jesus.

Not everyone will understand what you’re about. Not everyone will be receptive of it. Some may even spread misinformation about it to claim some status for themselves. None of that is as important as being true to your mission.

Service Above Self

hospital bed
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/slightlyeverything/6550567513/">Kate Hiscock</a>

Mark 1:29-39

From church, they went straight home to Simon and Andrew’s house along with James and John. They told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever. But when he came in, he took her by the hand and she got up, the fever gone, and began to serve them.

That evening, as the sun set, people started bringing their sick and deranged to the door – the whole city turned out – and he cured many with various illnesses and cast out many demons, but without allowing them to speak – they knew him.

The next morning at O-dark thirty, Jesus got up and went out to be alone in prayer. But Simon and the others tracked him down and told him, “Everyone’s out looking for you.” He said, “Let’s head out to the next few towns and get the word out there. That’s my mission.” So off they went, all over Galilee, speaking in churches and expelling demons.

[See also previous comments on Mark 1:29-34 (on healing) and Mark 1:35-39 (on not stopping).]

This short trio of events is (sort of) Mark’s equivalent to Luke’s great commission (“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8).

  • Jerusalem – The first scene is of Jesus restorative ministry happening among those who are the closest in, Peter’s family, among those few who are (at this early stage) already following.
  • Judea – The second vignette shows Jesus ministry to people who are not on the inside, but who are still close to home. These are people who are coming toward Jesus. They are those who have heard about the movement, who believe that Jesus might have something to offer them.
  • The ends of the earth – The third part reverses the direction of the second part. Instead of people coming to see Jesus, Jesus goes out to take the message to them.

There is a real sense in which every successful, sustained endeavor to lead a movement and to effect real change needs all three of these elements: those who are already in the movement, those who are curious about the movement as a means of satisfying their own needs, and those who haven’t a clue what the movement is about.

In each of these three areas of concern, Mark is careful to show us that Jesus ministry is one of restoration. Beyond this, however, we might also make a few observations about the particular kind of work needs to happen in each of these areas.

  • Jesus’ restoration of Peter’s mother-in-law.While we might focus on the miraculous dissipation of her fever, the more important thing happening here is the result of her recovery. She began to serve them. Jesus will later say, as the disciples argue among each other about which of them is the greatest, that the greatest is the one who becomes a servant (Mark 10:44). Peter may be the most famous of the disciples, but his mother-in-law, by her service is already the greatest. Taken as a whole, Mark implies that the ministry of restoration among those who are already within the community is to generate a community of service.
  • Jesus’ restoration of the ill and possessed. Among those who are coming to Jesus, Mark is careful to note that Jesus would not allow the demons to speak “because they knew him.” This is the first instance in Mark of what’s commonly called “the messianic secret” – Jesus doesn’t want his identity as the messiah to get out. Among those who have come to him focused on their own needs, the notion of a messiah can only deepen their dependence on some external salvation. It reinforces the notion of “a savior come to serve me.” The whole point of Jesus’ restoration (as we have seen in the first scene) is to strengthen people for service of others.
  • Jesus ministry in Galilee. Finally, Jesus isn’t satisfied with merely doing damage control. (Hugh MacLeod cartooned that, “All control is damage control.” Think about that!) It’s not enough to say who you aren’t. You have to proactively advance the mission and say who you are. Again, what Jesus does, and presumably what he says, is about serving others, ending the imprisonment of those possessed.

What’s your mission? Are you caring for those who are already participating in it? Are you receptive of those who are wondering if you can serve them? Are you reaching out to those who have yet to hear your good news? Most importantly, is your work in each of these cases about your greater service or is it about your greater self?

The Renegade Disciple

Please lock the door. Unauthorized people have been coming in.
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/4171379513/">Cory Doctorow</a>

Mark 9:38-41

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw this guy casting out demons on your behalf, but he wasn’t one of us, so we told him he had to stop that.”

“Don’t stop him,” Jesus replied. “If people are doing great things on my behalf they’re not going to be two-faced and curse me. If they’re not against us, they’re for us. I swear, if someone gives you a cold drink because you’re part of the movement, they’ll be rewarded.

The Jesus movement is not copyrighted. If anything it’s explicitly anti-copyrighted. Anyone can do it. Everyone is welcome to be a part of it. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

If John and the first disciples are any indication, Jesus followers have always had trouble with this concept. Today, there are thousands of groups claiming to follow Jesus. That’s a good thing. People all over the world are giving the Jesus movement a go. Unfortunately, many of those groups are trying to claim that they are the only “real” or “true” Jesus followers. That’s not such a good thing.

I once heard a story about a woman who claimed to be following Jesus. When asked where she had been baptized, said, “I baptized myself in my bathtub.” The person who told the story was of the opinion that she was certainly not a real Christian. She was unauthorized to carry out this kind of ceremony. She was not a member of any “real” church. She was a renegade, a “new ager,” an imposter.

I suppose she might have been all those things. But, if she was doing great things for Jesus, the truth is Jesus doesn’t care. She’s for the movement. She’s probably more for the movement than a lot of “official” church people. Maybe she’s not for the institution of the church, but again, the evidence from Mark suggests, Jesus doesn’t care. Leave her alone. Don’t stop her.

You might even try to be a little more like her. I’ll drink to that.

Row Your Boat

storm clouds off shore
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/joiseyshowaa/2653967396/in/photostream/">joiseushowaa</a>

Mark 6:45-52

Right away, he made his students get back onto the boat and across to Fishermans Wharf, on the other side, while he remained there to send the crowds back home. After saying good-bye to the people, he went up to pray on the mountain.

Meanwhile, as evening came, and Jesus was still on land, the boat was out at sea. Jesus could see his students rowing hard against the wind. In the early morning he came walking across the sea to them, and was intending to go on ahead of them. When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and scared out of their wits, they screamed.

Jesus said to them, “Calm down. It’s me. Don’t worry.” Then, he got into the boat with them, the wind died down. They were incredulous. Their hearts remained unmoved, and they didn’t understand the bread and the fish.

[See also, previous comments on the parallel passage in Matthew 14:22-33, and on the first sea-crossing in Mark 4:35-41.]

This is Mark’s second story of a dangerous sea crossing. This time, though, Jesus is not in the boat. The disciples are on their own. The reason for their failure to make headway against the wind: their hearts remained unmoved, and they didn’t understand about the bread and the fish.

What Jesus had done with the disciples, Jesus now wants the disciples to do on their own. From the beginning of this passage, it’s something they don’t want to do. Jesus has to make them get into the boat and go. Again, the winds against them are symbolic of the disciples own Resistance to going where they know they must go and doing what they know they must do. It’s the same Resistance that Jesus had to deal with as he began his work.

We encounter the same resistance every day. It’s much easier click around on Facebook than to do whatever work you know you really should be doing. Check your email again. Take another break to check on what’s happening at the water cooler. Channel surf. Before you know it, the time is gone, and you’re not any closer to where you know you really want to be. The winds are against you. Moreover, the more important the work, the stronger the winds.

If you understand about the bread and the fish, you know that there are people – lots of people – who are depending on you. The command of Jesus is still ringing through this passage, “You give them something to eat.” If it were just a matter of finding your own self-fulfillment, that would be serious enough. Jesus wants you to open your heart to the reality that it’s not just about you. It’s about them. It’s about us all. We need you to go and do what Jesus is asking you to do. You’re needed on the other side. We need you on the other side of your fear.

Please, get in the boat, and row.