Tag Archives: New Testament

Mark’s Gospel chapter 4. Let’s do a bit of gardening.

He began to teach them many things in parables

Jesus taught in parables; no serious scholar doubts that. When we read a parable in the Gospels we are close to the authentic voice of Jesus of Nazareth. As Mark says later in this chapter (verse 34):

He did not speak to them except in parables

 But parables caused problems for his audience. Perhaps he deliberately chose to confuse people. Perhaps they are a bit like Zen Buddhist koans – ‘what is the sound of one hand clapping?’.  Perhaps both parables and koans are designed to stop people in their tracks and say, ‘Hang on! Wait a minute! I don’t get that!’ That must be what the early Jesus movement churches thought because next in this chapter we have the first of several ‘explanations’ of a parable:

10When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God; but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”

Oh dear! Like I said in my previous blog post, the history of the church (and therefore of the New Testament writings) is the history of ‘broken people’. Here is a writer who, with the community of which he is part, is wrestling with the puzzle, ‘why don’t people get it?’ and ‘why do they persecute us Christians?’ He finds his answer in the words from Isaiah that he quotes in verse 12. It’s a tempting explanation, especially if one has stumbled on the truth that, there is a beautiful, vibrant, joyful reality underlying my brokenness that Jesus called ‘the kingdom of God’ and yet lots of people just don’t get it.

With the greatest of respect to Mark, I want to insist that there is a further lesson to be learned about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. The reality to which Jesus points in other parables is that this beautiful, vibrant, joyfulness is present in every human being, no matter how blind to it they are; no matter how much their blindness leads them into shocking behaviour.

Some of the reasons for our blindness appear in the explanation of the parable, verses 13 – 20:

  • Satan. ‘Satan’ was a neat way of explaining the inhuman depths to which we can sink. Most of us today cannot go along with the idea of an independent being out there somewhere of utterly evil intent. The Jewish philosopher/poet Martin Buber, reflecting on the Nazi holocaust, suggested there are two stages of evil. The first he called decisionlessness; what you might call the, I’ll-get-around-to-it-later syndrome. This attitude can leave us vulnerable to his second stage. Here it is possible for otherwise ‘nice’ people to take positive decisions to engage in destructive activity especially if lots of those around us are helping to make it attractive or even respectable. We are queamish about calling something or someone ‘evil’. Maybe it’s because we don’t like to think that anyone is beyond reform and redemption. Eckhart Tolle writes in his bestselling The Power of Now, “Humans are a dangerously insane and very sick species. That’s not a judgement. It’s a fact. It is also a fact that the sanity is there underneath the madness. Healing and redemption are available right now.”
  • Staying power (verses 16 & 17): people who ‘have no roots’ as the parable puts it. Mark probably had in mind the persecution that Christians were suffering for their faith when he was writing his gospel. But trouble of any kind can knock us off course – for example, illness, other peoples’ cruelty. Or we can behave like children in a supermarket of toys. We get excited about a new technique for meditating but as soon as it proves a bit difficult to keep it up we rush off down the aisles looking for a new toy.
  • Worldly blandishments. They hadn’t heard of capitalism in Mark’s day – consumer, global or otherwise. They weren’t exposed to our daily deluge of television advertising, and celebrity culture. Still the nail is accurately hit on its head here with ‘the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth; and the desire for other things’ (verse 19)
  • Finally the good soil (verse 20). It can take some of us (me for example!) almost a lifetime to realise that there’s ‘good soil’ somewhere deep inside us. The seed has been lying there just waiting for me to do some gardening. The good news is that there are now many people on the planet who realise this and are able to offer help. Eckhart Tolle is one of them. There is an exciting rediscovery of the Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. Here are just a few web sites to visit
  •  http://ecocontemplative.com/index.html
  • http://www.biospiritual.org
  • http://contemplativefire.org
  • http://www.contemplative.org/cynthia.html
  • http://www.contemplativeoutreach.org
  • http://centeringprayer.org.uk
  • There’s a good summary of what is known as ’emergent Christianity’ in the final chapter of Don MacGregor’s book ‘Blue Sky God’.
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Mark’s Gospel – interlude

I am a broken man who happens to be a bishop.

One of those present at a gathering I attended last weekend uttered those startling words. Somehow I knew that the speaker knew this was not the ultimate truth about himself. I was reminded of the  story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer who went to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10). One boasts of his spiritual and moral practices. The other sees himself as a sinner in need of forgiveness. Jesus reminds his hearers that it’s the second person who is closer to  God.

Christianity and especially the institutional expression of it we call the church frequently gets a bad press. I suspect this is usually because too many of us too often forget what the bishop remembered last weekend. We are all broken people, just like the rest of humanity. And yet – and yet – as I hinted, the bishop spoke his words with an authenticity that suggested he understood an even deeper truth about himself. The church can also get a bad press when its members never get beyond the knowledge that they need forgiveness. Wallowing in the ‘miserable sinner’ syndrome is missing or misunderstanding the good news that Jesus proclaimed, almost as much as boasting about our spiritual prowess.

Now here’s the thing: there never was a golden past in the history of Christianity, apart, that is, from the life, teaching and death of Jesus of Nazareth himself. It was always, from the beginning a history of broken people. I am not one of those who believes that the Bible is the inspired ‘Word of God’ – in the sense that inspiration somehow overrode the ‘brokenness’ of its authors.

Jesus never wrote anything down – so far as we know. If he did, it didn’t survive. What happened around him was an outburst of spiritual energy that has transformed world history, in ways both good, not so good, and just plain bad. From his life, teaching and death has flowed a river that millions of people are part of now.

Things happened because of the energy of this river of life.  Some of them altered the course of the river’s flow – Paul’s letters, the Gospels and other bits of the New Testament (all written by broken people); the emergence of an ordained ministry, priests, bishops, Popes (more broken people, as the current Pope would, I am sure, acknowledge). Every now and then there’s a major upheaval as the river gets forced into a canyon, becomes turbulent, even falls over a cliff; the split between eastern and western forms of the church, for example and the Reformation. Most of these crises happened because broken people either forgot their brokenness or forgot the deeper truth about themselves.

The waters have been getting pretty choppy again over the last 150 years or so as the Bible is subjected to scholarly criticism and scientists begin to describe a universe that profoundly challenges the way we think about God, the world we inhabit and the people we share it with. Think of gay people, the ordination of women, abortion, contraception, the misuse of our home planet, poverty and plenty.

So when, in my next blog post, I return to Mark’s Gospel, please remember that I start from the assumption that I’m reading something written by a ‘broken’ human being who nevertheless was profoundly inspired by all that Jesus of Nazareth had said and done, especially his message of forgiveness and love. Like the bishop, Mark and his fellow New Testament authors could write with an authenticity springing from a deeper place within them