The Reflectionary – Week of January 5, 2020

Epiphany 1

Text: Mark 2:1-22

A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. “Follow me,” Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.

Painting by Fr. Sieger Koder

While Jesus was having dinner at Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 

On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, “How is it that John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?” 

Jesus answered, “How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast. 

“No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. Otherwise, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”

Reflection

In this week’s text, we find Jesus in three different scenes: one healing a man who is paralyzed, one sitting at Levi’s dinner table, and one where Jesus is questioned as to why he is not fasting when everyone else is. If I had to name this passage like an episode of the show Friends, I’d call it, “The One Where Jesus Flips Expectations.”

The first story begins with a familiar scene – many gathered around Jesus as he teaches in a home. People have come from all around town and the surrounding countryside to learn from this teacher and healer. It’s no surprise that people are clamoring to get close to Jesus to experience his miraculous healing for themselves. That’s exactly what four men do when they bring a paralyzed man to Jesus. But it’s so crowded they can’t even get in the house. So they do the best thing they can think of – they climb up onto the roof, pull away some of the thatching, and they lower their friend down from the roof to the space right in front of Jesus. Their persistence and faith are certainly central aspects of this story. In this moment though, I want to consider the surprising way that Jesus responds.

Expectations were such that Jesus would, of course, immediately heal this man of his paralysis. Instead, Jesus responds in an unexpected way. He says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Jesus, say what? Your sins are forgiven? First of all, that wasn’t even what they were asking for. Second of all, how can Jesus even do that? Isn’t God the only one able to forgive sin? (Which, of course, is the whole point of Jesus doing such a thing – to reveal that he’s more than just a healer; he was, in fact, God in the flesh.) Receiving forgiveness of sin was not what anyone was expecting from Jesus. The boundaries between God and humanity were being torn down in this encounter, and those who questioned Jesus on this knew it.

The second scene, too, flips expectations in their head. Jesus is sitting down to dinner with a number of people. That part is not surprising. But where is Jesus eating? He’s eating at Levi’s house. A tax collector. A tax collector was someone who was seen as a corrupt extortionist. A Jewish tax collector was those things and more – he was a betrayer of his people by working for Rome, the empire of oppression. Jesus is eating in such a man’s house, along with other sinners. The Pharisees ask themselves, “what in the world is Jesus doing? How could he eat with such unrighteous people?” As they voice their question, Jesus responds, “It’s not the healthy people who need a doctor, but the sick.” Again, not what they were expecting from Jesus.

And then there’s the third scene, which is little more than Jesus giving a semi-cryptic response to a few people who came to ask him why he and his disciples were not fasting when both John and the Pharisees were. He talks about a present bridegroom, unshrunk cloth, and wineskins, and in each metaphor, Jesus seems to be telling his listeners that he is doing something different. He’s breaking from the norm. Something new is taking place.

In this single chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is clearly different than what many expected him to be. They don’t yet truly understand, but Jesus is beginning to show them that he is one to flip expectations. And isn’t that what God does? Any time we try to put God in our own box or conform him to our image, God breaks out and says, nope, that’s not who I am – let me show you a little bit more.

It can be jarring when our picture of God is stretched, or when our understanding of how we practice faith is challenged. Those who were around Jesus struggled to understand what he was doing and saying. The Pharisees and many other devout people really did not know how to handle Jesus. While there were, certainly, some Pharisees who were hypocritical, judgmental, or power-hungry, on the whole, I think they were largely a group of pious people who were doing their best to be faithful in keeping the covenant with God. And yet, Jesus challenges them. Jesus challenges us today too. Jesus challenges pious Christians who are just doing our best to be faithful in keeping the covenant with God.

If this gospel text reminds us of anything, it is this: Jesus will constantly surprise us and challenge our expectations of him. Are you willing to encounter him in new and unexpected ways?

Ponder

o   What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o   How has Jesus surprised you?
o   Where have you been stretched in your faith?

Challenge

Jesus had a habit of going and hanging out with people who were different or excluded. He challenged categories left and right. Consider a group of people who might be different than you. What might you be able to do to bring yourself into a closer relationship with them? Perhaps it could mean going and sitting down to share a meal with someone at Manna Meal in downtown Charleston or volunteering with a recovery home. Maybe you could ask to visit with folks from our local mosque or from the synagogue or temple downtown. (And if you need help in making connection with any of those communities, please let Pastor Cindy know)

And/or

Jesus likes to sit down at the table with people. It is one of the main ways that he builds relationships with others in the New Testament. Make a plan to have a meal with someone – a coworker, a neighbor, someone you may not normally get to spend much time with. Have them over for dinner, or go out to eat together.

Prayer

God, you always flip my expectations. You show up in places I’m not expecting or looking. Help me to see you wherever you are and to also see whomever you are with. Do something new within me, that I might be a new wineskin, ready to receive your transforming grace. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen.

-Cindy+

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