* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Mark 8: Gaining and Losing Life

Having looked at the first half of Mark 8, we turn to the remainder of the chapter, where we find a healing story (not unlike many other stories of healers in the ancient world), the story of a famous conversation between Jesus and Peter, and a lesson on the cost of discipleship. When the author of Luke copies these last two passages, he leaves out the response of Peter and the subsequent rebuke but leaves everything else more or less just as the author of Mark wrote it. The author of Matthew, on the other hand, includes an endorsement of Peter as early church authority (even though the rebuke from Jesus follows close on the heels of this endorsement), essentially legitimizing Peter as first pope. This is possibly a political addendum intended to resolve arguments in the early church about who should and should not have positions of authority within the hierarchy. Aside from this addition, the author of Matthew only slightly revises the words of Mark.

Some may find this particular healing story challenging. The other gospel writers do not seem to include it, perhaps for this reason. The Jesus character in this story uses a ritualistic technique to remove the man's blindness, which suggests that he cannot simply will that the man's blindness be removed, but instead must take some magical action in order to heal. As scandalous as that may seem to some, even more troubling is the implication that Jesus doesn't quite do the job completely on his first attempt; he has to perform the healing twice in order for the man's sight to be fully granted. However one justifies this detail, one might infer a limitation to the power of Jesus or conclude that Jesus could do things however he wanted to. The issue becomes moot, however, when one realizes that the same story could have been told about a dozen other healers in the first century and could even have been passed along from much older tales about Asclepius and his ilk. At the end of the day, there is no reason to dwell on the story.

What follows is perhaps more unique to the Jesus cult, although it has overtones in common with the teachings of many ancient mystery religions. In this portion of the narrative, Jesus confirms with his disciples that they believe in his status as messiah, then he orders them to keep that a secret. This may have been believable for any number of reasons, but many of the Jewish messiah cults that emerged in the first century developed within the Zealot faction, which was strongly opposed to Roman rule and promoted an aggressive, violent response to the imperial presence in Jerusalem. These uprisings ended inevitably in the assertion of Roman authority, up until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE and the scattering of Jews throughout the Roman territories, where it was thought they would be less likely to organize violent coups. One may not want to be publicly proclaimed as "messiah" if the prevailing interpretation of that title was something that would draw unwanted attention from Roman authorities.

Jesus proceeds to tell his disciples that he intends to play out a different course of action, at the appropriate time. Here, the author of Mark foreshadows the passion story and the promise of resurrection, even though the gospel of Mark does not contain any resurrection appearances of Jesus. The passage essentially conveys the message that Jesus is different from other messiahs, that "messiah" does not have to mean military action, and that freedom and peace are not necessarily about getting rid of an occupying force. Peter, according to the story, doesn't get it. So, Jesus puts Peter in his place and asserts his commitment to a specific outcome.

The passage closes with Jesus following up his rebuke of Peter by presenting a new way of thinking about living with integrity and purpose. The passage is familiar, but its words have often been construed to mean that people must give up their own personal identity -- their own goals, dreams, passions, abilities, and potential -- and become something else. The teaching here has been taken by some to mean that we should not value ourselves or the things we can potentially accomplish in life, but that we should cast all of that aside and live sacrificially. Without straying too far from what is written here, one can justify being a martyr, or at least living like a victim. People sometimes speak of having their own personal cross to bear as if their unnecessary suffering contributes something meaningful to the world, when this makes very little sense in light of the assertion elsewhere that Jesus' yoke is easy and his burden light.

It seems instead that Jesus' rebuke of Peter is indicative of a strong sense of personal identity and vision. While I find the historical credibility of the gospel narrative dubious, the character of Jesus in this passage can be seen as clearly self authorizing, uninterested in what other people think a "messiah" is supposed to be. He sees a path forward that is personally meaningful and publicly transformational -- he has a deep purpose that lines up with his personal values. Peter's attempt to tell him that he has it all wrong is essentially an attempt to say, "You can't just do whatever you want; you have to fall in line with what society says you are supposed to be." Jesus boldly rejects this notion.

Thus, if you want to follow the example of Jesus in this narrative, if you want to find some spiritual value that can be applied to your life, stop giving credence to fears and obligations about what you must do and be honest about who you are. The world has a definition of success that may not reflect your own deep values and passions, so don't judge your own life based on other people's ideals. You don't need to commit your life to vows that you won't ever be like your father or your mother; there is no reason to base decisions on fears that you will never have or be enough. Look beneath whatever fears and vows you allow to guide you and get in touch with a deeper set of values and principles. Live like you matter -- live like your values and ideals have merit, even though that can be risky. 

If you live like you have to protect yourself from life -- if you never risk being authentic and  committed to your own deep values -- your life will be less meaningful than it could be. If you want to live fully, live with integrity and intentionality. It doesn't matter what other people think you should achieve or acquire, it matters that what you are doing in your life aligns with what actually matters to you. When we fear that others may not approve of or accept our values, or that we might lose a relationship or a job because of our commitment to a meaningful vision, we shortchange our ability to create more satisfying lives and a better world.

In terms of emulating Jesus as he is portrayed in the gospels, what seems to have mattered to him? People. The gospel writers make it abundantly clear that the bulk of Jesus' ministry was focused on helping people: healing people who needed healing, teaching people who needed teaching, inspiring people who needed inspiration. The Jesus of the gospels helped people become their best selves, if they were willing. If it is of any value to think of being Christ-like, then this seems to be at the heart of that quality. In fact, inspiring people to become their best selves would seem to be at the heart of every major religion.

I believe that our deepest values and identities are remarkably similar. I believe that -- beneath all of our accumulated fears and beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the world we share -- we all understand that we need one another, that our lives during our time on this planet are made more meaningful when we are engaging our passions in a way that connects with other human beings. What we stand to "lose" is not our lives, but a way of living that only seems safe and successful on the surface while remaining empty and lackluster in terms of personal meaning and satisfaction. We do not need to deny ourselves, and we do not need to be burdened by obligation. Rather, we can embrace our deepest selves and unleash that authentic capability, beauty, and creativity in our lives and in the lives of those around us. 

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