Divorce as Illustration

He answered, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

Not much “wiggle room” there.

Most folks don’t have a problem with this rule until they (or someone they know) break the rule.  Then what?

Mark does not address the “then what” – and neither should we (at least not from Mark).  He just lays down the rule.  The significance is why he lays it down where he does.

Mark 9:30 informs us of Jesus’ second prediction of his impending death.  From there, right through the third prediction and 10:45, Mark focuses on selfless living.  Almost squarely in the middle, he presents Jesus’ teaching on divorce.

It’s not just a “divorce” passage.  The passage is there, without compromise, to illustrate the seriousness of self-centeredness.  It leads to a condition described as adultery.  Every divorce is caused, at root, by selfishness on the part of one or both partners.  But it isn’t just in marriage.  In every phase of life, self-centeredness removes God from the throne in favor of self.  That action is called “adultery,” and when God wanted to talk about Israel’s faithlessness, that’s the word he used.

Marriage is serious business.  To make it work requires selflessness.  Failure is not consequence free option because selfishness is not a consequence free option.  It would be better to have an anchor tied about your neck and be thrown into the sea (Mark 9:42).  The illustration underscores the seriousness and personal impact of following Jesus.

Selflessness

“If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

I’d say this command ranks up there with “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” as the most difficult of Jesus’ expectations.  In an age like our own, characterized by privilege, entitlement, and an insistence on having our way, maintaining our rights and being respected, it may be a deal-breaker for some.

And yet, Jesus is dead serious.

The words come after another of the disciples’ “arguments.”  This time, they were fussing over who among them would be the greatest.  To their shame, the argument took place just after Jesus had told them (for the second time) that he would be betrayed and killed (“Never mind you Jesus.  What about us?”).  Beginning with this second prediction, and moving through the third, Mark devotes the next sixty-five verses to the discipleship requirement of selfless living. Three times in that section, he illustrates his message with children.

The illustration is a bit lost on us because our world prizes children, gives them priority, and does everything to protect them and see to their success.  But in Jesus’ world, children were regarded little more than slaves.  Abortion was common, as was infanticide.  Jesus’ point was this: if you are going to follow Him, you must be willing to take the status of a child in the ancient world – which was no status at all.  How important is this selfless attitude?  Without it, Jesus will say later, there is no entrance into the Kingdom of God.  Whereas selfless living may be a deal-breaker for us, self-centered living was a deal breaker for Jesus.

Faith Struggle

“If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:23)

Deb Hotaling has a 20 year old son. He is six and a half feet tall and weighs 200 pounds. Over all in excellent health, he does however, have autism. He functions at the intellectual level of a 6 year old and like most 6 year olds, he can get violent when frustrated. Unlike other 6 year olds however, his outbursts can be dangerous to himself and others.

Ms. Hotaling is her son’s care-giver. What will she do when she can’t calm him any more? What will happen to him should something happen to her?

Reading her plight this morning I was reminded of this story in Mark 9. A father had an adult son, demon possessed all his life. Periodically, the young man would lose physical control of himself, sometimes endangering his life. I would imagine a father in such circumstances would try anything to help his boy, and in such desperation he came to Jesus.

He made a mistake though: he confessed a lack of faith – to which Jesus responded with enough incredulity to make the father think help might not be forthcoming.

Everybody struggles with faith. Does God care? Can God help? Will God help? Will He help the way I want him to? Yes, yes, yes, and perhaps. The hard part of the struggle is confidence with the yeses, and being happy with whatever the “perhaps” brings. Only then will we truly overcome unbelief. Fortunately, as he did for the father in Mark 9, Jesus works in our behalf in the meantime.

Instead of Prayer

“What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. (Mark 9:16)

Whenever I read the story in Mark 9:14-29 I am reminded of the Israelites at Sinai. Moses went up Sinai to be with God, and left on her own, Israel turned quickly to idolatry. Here, Jesus leaves nine apostles on their own while he ascends the Mount of Transfiguration. The next thing he knows, they’ve gotten themselves into an argument.

A man with a desperately ill adult son has brought his boy to Jesus for healing – but Jesus isn’t there. So the father settles on the nine disciples. Here, the details of the story become sketchy. What becomes prominent however is NOT the inability of the disciples to heal the son, but what they spend their time on instead – arguing with the scribes.

Arguing gets a lot of press in Mark. The people argue with each other about who Jesus is. The Pharisees argue with Jesus. The disciples argue among themselves. And now, the disciples argue with the teachers of the law.

Jesus doesn’t argue. He just heals the boy.

Later, when the disciples ask “why” they couldn’t do the healing, Jesus says the healing could only come about by prayer.

Do you get the contrast? The disciples could have accomplished more had they spent less time arguing and more time in prayer. Around us are people desperate for hope. They won’t find it among a people who spend their time bickering. They will only find it in a confident people who in times desperate and otherwise have their eyes focused heavenward on the only hope there is.

Hear . . . and obey.

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7).

The story of Jesus taking Peter, James and John to a high mountain where he is “transfigured” is found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – and at exactly the same place: right after Peter confesses, on behalf of all the disciples, their faith that Jesus is the son of God.

Mark opens his gospel with the announcement that with the coming of Jesus, the Kingdom (or rule) of God has come near (1:15). This has a positive consequence for the believer as the next nine chapters unfold: There is no reason for the disciple of Jesus to fear in the misfortunes of life, nor the challenges that life may present nor the demonic powers who may present them. Jesus is superior to them all and ready to deliver.

But there are responsibilities: the disciple must not try to cram his discipleship into his old life. He must live a new life. Second, old rules and traditions must be jettisoned in favor of a new way of living, and that way must be lived according to the word of God. On the Mount of Transfiguration, for the third time in the book (see Mark 3:35; 7:1-13; and here), this point is made. In all three gospels the point is the same: those who confess Christ must do as He says. Put another way, the benefits of the Kingdom of God belong only to those who are subject to its king.

Dying and Living

“Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Chapter eight of Mark’s gospel is the hinge of his book and features a turning point.  There, Jesus reveals to the disciples for the first time his impending death.  Mark says Jesus spoke “plainly” about it and Mark himself is equally “plain” that the disciples didn’t get it – underscoring their denseness three times between 8:31 and 9:32.

Interestingly, while they focus on the “rising from the dead” part, Jesus focuses on the “dying” part.  Nearly seventy years ago one writer penned these words: “The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give over our  lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoffer, The Cost of Discipleship, p. 99).

But the call is not just to die.  It is also a call to live anew. We die to who we are, that we might become the likeness of our resurrected Lord.  Yet, there can be no rising without the dying.

Slow Recovery

He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, “Do you see anything?” He looked up and said, “I see people; they look like trees walking around.” (Mark 8:23-24)

Blindness plays an important role in the gospel accounts.

Matthew has three ‘healing of the blind’ stories, Mark two, Luke and John one each.

In Mark, this story comes hot on the heels of Jesus’ frustration with his disciples after a second ‘feeding of the multitude’ story which, except for the number of people fed, sounds much like the first story.  The second story underscores the disciples’ amazing spiritual blindness.

John has a similar story, but there are subtle differences – one of which is that John’s account highlights the spiritual blindness of Israel’s religious leaders.  Mark’s account highlights the blindness of the disciples.  That this healing story happens in stages makes it different from not only John, but every other miracle Jesus performs.

Mark’s account helps to explain why Jesus, though disappointed with his disciples, doesn’t just leave them in disgust.  Some blindness doesn’t go away immediately – even by the power of God.  It takes time, and the patient persistent ministry of the sighted. Lives aren’t changed just because they are taught better.  It’s a point we all should  remember as we serve.

Eventually, of course, with proper treatment, the spiritually blind are expected to see; willful blindness is not an option for the child of God.  It’s all a part of the required ever changing, ever growing Christian life.

Frustrated Again

Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? . . . Do you still not understand? (Mark 8:17-21)

It may well be the closest Jesus gets to losing his cool.  The words are not addressed to his enemies, but to his disciples, and few early readers would be surprised by Jesus’ frustration.

Mark 1:16 – 8:21 is marked by three callings of Jesus: a call to follow him, a call to be with him, and a call to imitate him.  At the beginning of the last call, Jesus feeds 5000 people from 5 loaves of bread and two fish. At the end of the last call, he feeds four thousand from a sack lunch.

Both stories:
* begin with a need to feed the crowd.
* continue with Jesus delegating the task to the disciples
* have the disciples insisting it cannot be done.
* have Jesus asking “how many loaves do you have?”
* mention Jesus telling the crowd to sit on the ground.
* mention Jesus praying
* have Jesus feeding the crowd.

And then, scant hours later, the disciples are arguing with one another because they have no food.

Hopefully, you can understand why Jesus comes a bit unhinged.

When we’re too busy bemoaning our challenges, worrying about them, or even hoping they never come our way, we become willingly blind to the matchless power of God to provide –  and eyes that won’t see are the blindest of all.

Listen

“There some people brought to him a man who was deaf and could hardly talk, and they begged Jesus to place his hand on him. . . He looked up to heaven and with a deep sigh said to him, “Ephphatha!” (which means ‘Be opened!’)” At this, the man’s ears were opened, his tongue was loosened and he began to speak plainly” (Mark 7:32-34).

Though Jesus met people randomly in his travels, and many sought him out , the gospels tell us some sought Jesus for what he could do for others.

You’d think that would be a good thing, but Mark has another point to make.

I can only think of one case where someone was invited to come hear what Jesus had to say. And yet, Jesus’ ministry was intended to be more about teaching people how to live than helping them through the rough patches of their lives. The Lord did both of course, but like raising people from the dead, his miracles were only temporary. Other illnesses would come, and so too would death. But what Jesus had to say would be of eternal benefit.

Here, faced with yet another plaintive plea for healing, Jesus, with a bit of exasperation – that’s that sighing deeply part – consents. And people are “overwhelmed with amazement” and speak glowingly of his work. Yet Mark tells us they paid no attention to what Jesus said (see verse 36).

It’s not the first time Mark makes this observation. It won’t be the last. The message is subtle but vital: turning to Jesus in moments of crisis may be wise. But wiser still is to listen to what he has to say, and obey.

Tradition

So the Pharisees and teachers of the law asked Jesus, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?” . . . And [Jesus] said to them, “You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to establish your tradition!” (Mark 7:5, 9).

Britain’s House of Commons has traditionally inscribed its laws on parchment. Recently, after 600 years, it voted to use paper instead.  The vote wasn’t without rancor.  At least one MP protested: “This is destroying a piece of culture, history and tradition for no particular reason.”

I wouldn’t say “no” reason.  Parchment costs $45 a sheet.  Archival paper only costs twenty cents.  At my house, this would be a “no brainer.”

Tradition is often “the way we’ve always done it.”  Sometimes, tossing tradition is a good idea.  Sometimes not. Jesus wasn’t against tradition – not even in our text.  What he was against were traditions that violated the will of God, or competed with that will. Jesus condemned his critics because their tradition got in the way of their obedience.

An obedient faith, practiced over time, becomes a tradition.  But it is not just a tradition. In at least three places Paul refers to obedient Christian practice as “tradition” – 1 Corinthians 11:2; 2 Thessalonians 2:15 and 3:8.

Let’s be careful of three things: First, that we never refer to any of our faith practices as just traditions when they in fact have a divine mandate.  Second, that we not allow any faith practice that is just tradition to compete with what God has actually said.  Third, let’s be careful to make following the will of God the tradition of our lives.