Friday, May 29, 2020


When I was still at school, a girl gave me one of those religious tracts. It wasn’t the Four Spiritual Laws, but it was one of the others.

I had been to a methodist Sunday School every week since I was four years old. (Beginners, Primaries, Seniors and the terribly, terribly '60s Sunday Session for “older fellows and girls.”) John and Charles Wesley were arminian (*) evangelicals who thought that anyone — anyone at all — could be saved, but that no-one — no-one at all — could be saved without the Blood of Christ. Somehow that had all slipped past me over a decade of church. Including confirmation classes.

I assumed that my friend belonged to some weird cult, like the moonies or the catholics or even worse. I knew that Jesus was a hippy and a preacher, John Lennon and Ghandi and Martin Luther King all rolled into one. He preached a radical and innovative philosophy of love which had never occurred to anyone before. Certainly not anyone Jewish. And then, one Thursday, nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a cross for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change…

I thought maybe the tract my friend gave me was working from a different Bible. It didn’t appear to be in the least bit interested in a road to happiness through love and charity (Cash, J 1971) or even about believing in what I could be in all that I am (Martell, J 1979). It appeared to say that the crucifixion was not a terrible misunderstanding, but that Jesus had come to earth specifically in order to be crucified. It laid out, in very concrete language, how the death of Jesus was all about retribution and punishment. Laws without punishments are merely advice. It was something like a schoolboy walking to the front of the classroom and holding out his hand so one of his friends could avoid getting the strap. It was specifically like a judge who had dedicated his whole life to the principal of retribution finding his best friend in front of him in the dock. He imposed the severest possible fine on his friend and then paid it himself. 

The Gospel, in other words, of Penal Substitution, as laid out in sadistic detail in the Gospel According To Mel Gibson. Jesus, you remember, forces himself to remain conscious during his ludicrously extended flogging because the more he is hurt the more forgiveness there will be for humans. 

At some point after reading the tract I decided I had better actually read the New Testament. I read it in secret, with a torch, with my lights out. I may have gone to Sunday School every week but I would not have wanted my sister knowing that I read the Bible on my own time. I was hoping to find my faith in the Godspell according to Schwartz confirmed: Jesus invented love, and indeed Love, and Christianity was about trying very hard to be as much like him as you could possibly be. But I was open to the possibility that The Tract had it right. Sin separates man from God. Jesus took the penalty for sin. Anyone can go to heaven provided they ADMIT that they are a sinner (A) and BELIEVE that Jesus died for them (B) and COUNT the cost of being a follower (C) and DECIDE to give their life to him (D).

I was expecting to find one or the other. I assumed that reading the actual Gospels would settle the question. 

But of course, it really didn’t.

* Arminian — A Christian who attaches far too much importance to human free will, according to Calvinists

Calvinist — A Christian who attaches far too much importance to predestination, according to Arminians
Virus Diary: Star Wars

Star Wars fan "quite likes" minor Star Wars spin-off, shock.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Mark 11 11-26

and Jesus entered into Jerusalem,
and into the temple:
and when he had looked round about upon all things
and now the eventide was come
he went out unto Bethany with the twelve

Jesus makes a big, pointed, dramatic entry to Jerusalem. He heads for the temple. It is the first thing he does. It’s a big deal. The temple is where God lives.

But nothing happens. He just looks round. And then heads back to Bethany with his inner circle.

Bethany has now taken the place of Capernaum. It is where Jesus is staying: a temporary home, a mile or so from Jerusalem. I've heard lots of sentimental sermons about the place; but Mark doesn't say anything about it. He just takes it for granted. He doesn't even say who Jesus is staying with.

QUESTION: Is Jesus still on his donkey, or as he sent it back to Bethphage with a thank you note? Are the rest of his entourage — the generality of students and hangers-on — also lodging at Bethany? Or do they stay in the city?

and on the morrow,
when they were come from Bethany
he was hungry
and seeing a fig tree afar off
having leaves
he came,
if haply he might find any thing thereon
and when he came to it
he found nothing but leaves;
for the time of figs was not yet
and Jesus answered
and said unto it,
“no man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever”
and his disciples heard it

and they come to Jerusalem
and Jesus went into the temple
and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple
and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers
and the seats of them that sold doves
and would not suffer that any man should carry any vessel through the temple
and he taught, saying unto them
“is it not written,
my house shall be called of all nations the house of prayer?
but ye have made it a den of thieves”

and the scribes and chief priests heard it
and sought how they might destroy him
for they feared him,
because all the people was astonished at his doctrine

and when even was come, he went out of the city.
and in the morning,
as they passed by,
they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots.
and Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him,
“master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away"

This is a strange story. It’s the only time Jesus does a malicious miracle; a miracle of destruction. But it also seems to be an accidental miracle. Jesus doesn't get cross and kill a tree. The tree withers away and dies because Jesus is cross with it. 

It reminds me of some of the folk-tales and apocryphal gospels. The midwife tries to touch the Virgin Mary inappropriately and her hand drops off. Mary spanks the boy Jesus with a willow switch and all the willow trees rot. Jesus says something casual to a tree and the tree shrivels up. It’s like: nature is an over-keen servant, jumping around and doing what the boss says without checking if he really means it. Jesus may bless little children and heal blind people. But he is still fundamentally scary. The last thing you want is for him to look on you disapprovingly.

Mark quite often wraps one story around another, so that the outer story sheds light on the inner one. Scholars call this “intercalation” or, if no-one is listening, “Markan sandwiches.” This is a good example. The story of Jesus in the temple is wrapped around the story of Jesus and the fig tree. 

The inference is clear enough. Jesus was cross with the tree, but he was even more cross with the temple. The tree had it coming; so does the temple. The present system is going to wither away and die. Because it is not producing any fruit.

What is Jesus' problem with the temple? We are inclined to see a lot of things in the passage which are not there. Jesus is angry because the money-changers are swindling people. Jesus is angry because the animal-sellers are over-charging. Jesus is annoyed by the whole idea of trade in such a holy place. The 1972 version of  Jesus Christ Superstar memorably shows traders selling souvenirs and postcards, like a modern cathedral gift shop. The 2000 version, less subtly, depicts a temple full of gangsters, drug-dealers and lap-dancers.

You go to the temple in order to make a sacrifice: that is what a temple is for. When Jesus healed the leper, he told him to go to the priest and perform the ritual which Moses laid down: a ritual which involved ceremonially killing a bird. If you are going to do the ritual, someone has to sell you the bird. There were rules about what kind of currency you could use to make your donations and pay your temple tithe. (It was inappropriate to give God gifts in a coinage that had a picture of the allegedly divine Emperor on them.) So there had to be people exchanging secular coins for sacred ones. When Jesus overturns the tables he is saying, on some level — no more sacrifices. No more tax. No more ritual. No more temple.

When I imagine this scene, I imagine Jesus making a grand, violent gesture — making a lot of noise and shouting a dreadful warning at the tradesmen as he does so. But Mark seems to say that, after telling the traders to leave, he sits down and spends all day teaching (giving out doctrine) to anyone who will listen. He takes two Old Testament prophecies and puts them side by side. Isaiah said that in the future everyone in the world would accept the God of Israel, and everyone in the world would come to Jerusalem to pray in his temple. But Jeremiah said that the present-day temple was full of hypocrisy — people going through the motions of performing ceremonies but ignoring the Ten Commandments and the moral law. “This Temple isn’t what Isaiah said it would become” says Jesus “It is still what Jeremiah said it was.”

The teaching session follows a familiar pattern. Jesus preaches. The people listening are dumbfounded. And the priests want to kill him. It is hard to see why complaining that dove-salesmen are over-charging would make the priesthood murderous. But if Jesus is announcing or foretelling the end of temples and priests, you can see why things might escalate.

Jesus is angry with the temple. The chief priests and lawyers want to kill him. And when he gets home, the fig tree he was angry with that morning is already dead.

and Jesus answering saith unto them
“have faith in God.
for verily I say unto you
that whosoever shall say unto this mountain
be thou removed
and be thou cast into the sea
and shall not doubt in his heart,
but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass
he shall have whatsoever he saith.
therefore I say unto you, what things soever ye desire,
when ye pray,
believe that ye receive them,
and ye shall have them
and when ye stand praying, forgive,
if ye have ought against any:
that your Father also which is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.
but if ye do not forgive
neither will your Father which is in heaven forgive your trespasses”

The disciples are surprised by the dead fig tree. Jesus takes this to be a teachable moment. But he doesn’t talk about priests or temples or how the fig-tree arguably symbolises Israel: he makes a general point about praying. 

You are impressed because I told a fig-tree to wither? says Jesus. But if you called on the power of God you ought to be able to tell the Mount of Olives to slide all the way back to Galilee. 

Evangelicals always say that “faith” does not mean intellectual assent but whole-hearted trust. Jesus didn't tell the father of the deaf-mute that his son would be healed if he somehow did a mental conjuring trick and persuaded himself that this impossible thing was possible after all. He meant that his son would be healed if he trusted in the dunamis of God. 

But what he is talking about here does look a lot like intellectual belief. He doesn’t seem to be saying “If you have wholehearted trust in God you could in theory order the landscape around.” He seems to be saying “If you believe that you are going to get the particular thing which you ask God for then you will get it, up to and including an earthquake.” (It may even be that Jesus didn’t so much say “when you ask for something, believe that you will receive it” as “when you ask for something, believe that you have received it.”) 

This is an incredibly problematic passage. In the first place, it isn't true. Christians don't order mountains around. Very pious people make sincere prayers and their prayers aren't answered. And we are only a few chapters away from Jesus himself asking God for something very important and not getting it.

Jesus has spoken several times about people’s need to be forgiven by God; and he has antagonised the Pharisees by claiming that he himself can forgive sins. This is, so far as I can see, the first time he has talked about people needing to forgive each other.

Is this merely an “aside”? Is Jesus saying “God will give you anything you pray for. And incidentally, when you are praying for things, remember to forgive anyone you have a grudge against.”

Or are the two things connected? You can use the power of God to cause an earthquake. You really can. The only conditions are that you have to totally believe that the earthquake has already happened. And you have to harbour no ill-will or grudge against anyone who has ever harmed you in your whole life.

Total faith. And perfect forgiveness. That's a pretty high bar you have to clear before you can make the miracle work. 

That is why you see so few Christian induced landslips.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Read my arts/virus diary.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, May 22, 2020

Mark 10: 46-52 + 11 :1-10

and they came to Jericho:
and as he went out of Jericho
with his disciples and a great number of people,
blind Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus,
sat by the highway side begging.
and when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth,
he began to cry out, and say,
“Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me”
and many charged him that he should hold his peace:
but he cried the more a great deal,
“thou son of David, have mercy on me”
and Jesus stood still,
and commanded him to be called.
and they call the blind man,
saying unto him,
“be of good comfort, rise; he calleth thee”
and he, casting away his garment, rose,
and came to Jesus.
and Jesus answered and said unto him,
“what wilt thou that I should do unto thee?”
The blind man said unto him,
“Lord, that I might receive my sight.”
and Jesus said unto him,
“go thy way;
thy faith hath made thee whole”

and immediately he received his sight,
and followed Jesus in the way

Jesus leaves Perea and crosses the Jordan. He passes through Jericho without incident.

There is another story about a man who crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. He fit a battle there, and the walls came tumbling down. Either Mark doesn’t see the symbolism, or he thinks it is too obvious to be worth pointing out.

This is only the second time that Jesus has been called Jesus of Nazareth. The first time was when he came south to be baptised by John. This makes sense. You only call him "of Nazareth" when he isn't in Nazareth any more. 

We have one more healing. Another blind man. Unusually, we know his name: he’s the son of Timeus.

Four hundred years before Jesus, Socrates had a long conversation with a man named Timeus. They talked about the true nature of the universe. Plato wrote it up in a book. It would be a massive stretch to suppose that Mark knew anything about it.

Why are all these people telling Bar-Timeus to be quiet? Don’t people flock to Jesus for healing wherever he goes?

I once heard a very good sermon. It’s those hard-hearted disciples again. The same ones who didn’t want the little children to trouble Jesus; they don’t want the blind beggar to trouble him either. But as soon as Jesus takes an interest, they patronisingly change their tune. “Cheer up old chap, he’s seen you!” And how very true that is, even today. The people who say that they are Jesus’ followers aren’t very interested in disabled people and poor people and homeless people as a general rule. But if one of them turns up in church, suddenly, we’re all over them.

Well, maybe. But I don't believe the disciples were saying “Don’t ask Jesus to heal you. If there’s one thing we know about Jesus, it’s that he never heals blind people!” I think it is much more likely that what they were saying was “Pipe down. Stop making so much noise.”

Like Peter, Bar-Timeus has worked out who Jesus is. Unlike Peter, he is shouting it from the rooftops. Jesus spent the first half of the book telling demons and evil spirits to hold their peace. No-one can make this blind man shut up.

No-one has called Jesus the Son of David before. There is no story in Mark which suggests that he has a royal bloodline. But Son of David means rightful king. It’s a political challenge. Bar-Timeus might just as well be shouting “Romani ite domen”.

Why does he cast away his garment before he comes to Jesus? There are plenty of expository ideas. He is poor. Unlike the rich man, he is quite willing to throw away his one material possession before entering the Kingdom. In the very early church a baptism was an actual bath so candidates were naked. (The Romans didn’t mind this kind of thing as much as we would.) It has something to do with Jesus’ teaching about patching new clothes with old cloth; Bar-Timeus is throwing off the old robes of Judaism so he can wear the new robes of Christianity. It was a hot day. It was a big heavy blanket. He couldn’t have walked very far in it. Jesus has said that following him will be like an execution and crucifixion victims would have had their clothes removed.

I don’t find any of this entirely convincing. There is nothing particularly unlikely about a beggar dumping his blanket before being introduced to the King. But why does Mark think this one detail worth mentioning?

and when they came nigh to Jerusalem,
unto Bethphage and Bethany
at the mount of Olives
he sendeth forth two of his disciples,
and saith unto them,
"go your way into the village over against you:
and as soon as ye be entered into it,
ye shall find a colt tied,
whereon never man sat; 
loose him,
and bring him
and if any man say unto you,
‘why do ye this?’
say ye that the Lord hath need of him
and straightway he will send him hither”

and they went their way,
and found the colt tied by the door without
in a place where two ways met;
and they loose him.
and certain of them that stood there said unto them,
“what do ye, loosing the colt?”
and they said unto them even as Jesus had commanded:
and they let them go.
and they brought the colt to Jesus,
and cast their garments on him;
and he sat upon him.
and many spread their garments in the way
and others cut down branches off the trees,
and strawed them in the way.
and they that went before, 
and they that followed,
cried, saying,
blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord:
blessed be the kingdom of our father David,
that cometh in the name of the Lord
hosanna in the highest”

And now we come to the climax of the story: the stories which everyone knows; the stories which define the liturgical year. We’ve all waved palm branches (made out of green cartridge paper) in Sunday School or carried palm crosses (made in Africa) home from church. We can hear "all glory, laud and honour" and "ride on, ride on in majesty" and “hey zana ho zana hi” much more clearly than we can hear Mark’s words.

Mark gives us a little build-up to the main event. Up to now Jesus has walked everywhere. He is never said to own or borrow a horse or a camel; the fact that he criss-crosses the lake in Peter’s boat speaks against it. But this story about Jesus sending the disciples ahead doesn’t really tell us anything.

There are lots of puzzling incidental details. Why does it matter that no-one has ridden on this particular donkey before? What difference does it make that the disciples found it at a cross-roads? Was "the Lord needs it" an agreed code-word? Were the donkey wranglers in the business of lending animals to important folk? Or are we to envisage the disciples asking with a Jedi-style wave of the hand?

It doesn't really matter. Why did Jesus ride into Jerusalem on a donkey? Because his disciples had fetched him one. Why did he send his disciples to fetch him a donkey? So he could ride into Jerusalem on it.

Six hundred years before Jesus, a man named Zechariah had written a poem in which the true king of Jerusalem rides into the city on a donkey. How could he possibly have known? What are the chances?(One in ten to the seventeenth, if we trust Josh McDowell, which we really, really, shouldn’t.)

But this isn’t a co-incidence. Jesus has planned it. If he is fulfilling a prophecy, he is doing so consciously. He has taken the trouble to obtain a donkey in order to make it clear that he self-identifies as Zechariah’s king. Now Bar-Timeus has shouted it out there is no longer any question of keeping it secret.

Jesus has brought a cadre of students with him from Galilee, and presumably has picked up some more in Perea. As he rides into the city, they start shouting that King David’s kingdom is going to be restored. That is what “messiah” means to them.

We were told that Bar-Timeus “cast his garment off” before Jesus restored his eyesight. Jesus followers are “casting their garments on him.” People tearing off their clothes is evidently now part-and-parcel of a public appearance by Jesus. Mark doesn’t appear to say that people waved palm branches at Jesus; he says that they threw clothes and leaves in front of him for the donkey to walk on.

When a King comes to town riding on a beast of burden rather than on a war-horse, he is probably signifying that he comes in peace. But that doesn’t mean that he is a hippy king or that from how on there won’t be any more soldiers. Peace is good because it comes at the end of a war. Zechariah’s king was proclaiming peace because he had just defeated all his enemies.

Hosana is right up there with kumbyah as a word everyone uses but no-one knows the meaning of. There was a children’s Bible that we used sometimes in Sunday School which translated it as Hurrah!

It’s a Hebrew word: yasha na. Yasha means “deliver” or “save”. Na is a word you add to another word to turn it into a request. We are told that it means “we pray” but our English Bible most often translates it simply as “please”. (“Say na my sister you are” = “please say you are my sister”.)

So when Jesus rode into Jerusalem, his followers were shouting “Deliver us, please!”

As everyone knows, the name Jesus is an anglicisation of Yehoushua. It’s the same name as the man who fought the battle at Jericho after the Israelites had crossed the wilderness. It comes from YHWH-yasha: God-will-deliver. So the disciples are coming very close to shouting Jesus’ name at him: YHWH-yasha, yasha na! Deliverer, deliver us! Avenge us, Avenger!

Some people think that The Highest is a circumlocution for God, so "Hosana in The Highest" means something like "Save us, highest one, please!" But surely it makes more sense as an intensifier? Hosana in the highest! Hosana as big as it can get! Ultimate Hosana!

That word, hosana, yasha-na, turns up in one other place in the Bible, in Psalm 118.

save now, I beseech thee, o Lord
o Lord, I beseech thee, send now prosperity.

blessed be he that cometh in the name of the Lord

we have blessed you out of the house of the Lord

There is no doubt that when the crowds start shouting hosana at Jesus, we are supposed to think of this hymn. The disciples are actively quoting it. And Mark must also know the next lines, although the crowds do not shout it. 

God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light: 
bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.

The song is about welcoming the king to the city. But it is also about the arrival of a sacrificial lamb.


When the Psalm says that the sacrifice is going to be tied to the alter "with cords", the Hebrew word is baabotim. The word aboth is overwhelmingly translated in our Bible as rope, cord, bond or chain.  Isaiah (5:18) says the people are connected to sin as if by the "rope" of a cart. When Samson is imprisoned by the philistines, he manages to break the "ropes" he is tied up with (Judge 15:14).

However, on two or three occasions, context requires the word to have a different meaning. Ezekiel (19:11) talks about a vine “whose stature was exalted among the thick branches, and she appeared in her height with a multitude of branches”. On the first occasion the word for "branches" is aboth. 

Leaves in the higher branches of trees can appear to be wreathed or woven together; so while woven-together-thing generally means "rope" it can be taken figuratively to mean "foliage".

It follows that Psalm 118:27 could be translated, very literally, as

“with woven-together-thing bind the sacrifice to the corners of the alter”

and therefore

“with foliage bind the sacrifice to the corners of the alter”.

Psalm 118 is probably connected to the Jewish festival of Tabernacles which does indeed involve ceremonially waving branches over a sacred tent or hut, so at a stretch you could take it to mean:

“with the foliage you are going to subsequently wave over your tabernacle already in your hand, go and bind the sacrifice to the alter.”

The New International Version optimistically translates the verse as:

“with boughs in your hands lead the festal sacrifice to the alter”.

The Good News Bible goes even further:

“with branches in your hands, start the festival”.

The Contemporary English Version goes with:

“march with palm branches all the way to the alter” 

which seems to me to be actively deceptive.

Eugene H Peterson gives up altogether and goes with

“Festoon the shrine with garlands, hang colored banners above the altar!”

Mark certainly thinks that some things in the Gospel were foretold by the Prophets. Psalm 118 is quoted over and over again; Jesus will reference it directly in the next chapter. But if translators are allowed to go back and change the text of the Old Testament in the light of what they have read in the New, Josh McDowell's odds are shortened considerably.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Read my arts/virus diary.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, May 18, 2020

Mark 10 13-45

and they brought young children to him
that he should touch them
and his disciples rebuked those that brought them
but when Jesus saw it,
he was much displeased,
and said unto them,
“suffer the little children to come unto me,
and forbid them not:
for of such is the kingdom of God.
verily I say unto you
whosoever shall not receiv
e the kingdom of God as a little child
he shall not enter therein"
and he took them up in his arms,
put his hands upon them,
and blessed them

Most of us first got to know the Bible by hearing it read out loud in church. I have probably heard this story more often than any other. It forms part of the baptism service in the Methodist prayer book — and very probably the Anglican one as well. The only passages that got read out more often were the various Christmas stories and Paul’s account of the Last Supper.

If we are looking for Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, this is where we can find him. I remember Mrs Huber telling the story in Sunday School. The Mummies and Daddies have bring their children to Jesus. The disciples send them away. Jesus has been preaching all day. He’s hot and tired and needs a rest. Come back tomorrow, can’t you? But this makes Jesus angry. Of course I have time to talk to the children, he says. So it’s a message to famous and important people: don’t be one of those spoiled celebrities who hides away from his fans. Be like Jesus who could always make time to sign one more autograph. Or else it’s a message to us kids. Don’t think God doesn’t care about you just because you’re little. Don’t think God doesn’t hear your prayers. Jesus always has time to bless little children. First let me hear how the children stood round his knee and I shall fancy his blessing resting on me…

Am I the only one who spent decades not having the faintest idea what the word “bless” means? God was clearly a person whose main occupation was blessing people, but who had to be reminded to do it on frequent occasions, but exactly what this “blessing” activity involved, I was never quite sure.

Back in Galilee sick people mobbed Jesus wherever he went. They thought that if they even touched his clothes they would be cured. But these aren't sick kids. It has got to the point where even the healthy want Jesus to touch them. You can’t blame the disciples for wanting to get rid of them.

But Jesus is quite happy to see the children. They aren’t “just kids”: they are very important people; especially important people. The kind of people who will own the Kingdom of God. People who don’t receive the Kingdom in the same way as “those of this sort” won’t even be allowed in. 

He puts it that way round: not “people who are like children will be allowed into heaven” but “people who are not like children won’t be.” 

"Receiving" means something like “welcoming” — showing hospitality. If someone didn’t recieve the disciples during their missionary journey they were told to just turn their backs and walk away. Just before leaving Galilee the disciples were told that receiving a child was the same as receiving Jesus — and that welcoming Jesus was the same as welcoming God.

The word "suffer" in this context means "permit" and has nothing to do with cruelty or the Moors Murders. See also "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"

and when he was gone forth into the way
there came one running,
and kneeled to him,
and asked him,
“good master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
and Jesus said unto him,
“why callest thou me good?
there is none good but one,
that is, God.
thou knowest the commandments,
do not commit adultery,
do not kill,
do not steal,
do not bear false witness,
defraud not,
honour thy father and mother”

and he answered and said unto him,
“master, all these have I observed from my youth.”
then Jesus beholding him loved him,
and said unto him,
“one thing thou lackest
go thy way,
sell whatsoever thou hast,
and give to the poor,
and thou shalt have treasure in heaven
and come,
take up the cross,
and follow me”

and he was sad at that saying,
and went away grieved:
for he had great possessions.
and Jesus looked round about,
and saith unto his disciples,
“how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!”
and the disciples were astonished at his words.
but Jesus answereth again,
and saith unto them,
“children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”

Point 1: The guy who runs after Jesus is definitely rich; but there is no reason to think that he is either young or a ruler. He claims to have led a moral life since he was a young man: if anything that suggests that he is getting on a bit. Maybe that is why he is starting to think about mortality.

Point 2: There is absolutely no reason to think that The Needle’s Eye was a gate in Jerusalem. It’s a nice bit of homiletics, but it isn’t what the passage says. Jesus is talking about the possible and the impossible. It is really, really hard for camels to squeeze through narrow gates. It is physically impossible for them to squeeze through needle's eyes.

Point 3: The Greek word for rope is kamelos.

There are lots of clever ways of misreading this passage.

You could point out that the man claims to have kept the Ten Commandments, plus that extra one about defrauding that came in from somewhere — but doesn't mention the other six hundred provisions of the Jewish law. He may be righteous, but he isn’t religious.

Or you could say sticking to the rules by itself isn’t; what matters; what matters is wanting to stick to them; following them on the inside. There’s not much good saying “I have never cheated on my wife” if you are adding “more’s the pity” under your breath.

Or you could say that the problem is self-righteousness. It’s better to be bad and know that you are bad than to be good and tell people you are good. You’ve stuck to the whole of the law for your whole life? That’s wonderful. And how’s the humility coming along?

But those kinds of reading go against the plain meaning of the words. A few years ago, John the Baptist stood somewhere near here and told people that they needed to turn their lives around and clean themselves up so the Lord’s road would be ready for him when he arrived. Well here is a man whose life is just about as turned around as anyone’s could be; and the Lord is literally walking down the road. The Pharisees once asked why Jesus spent so much time with bad people; and Jesus said for the same reason that a doctor spends so much time with sick people. Here is a man who quite definitely doesn’t need a physician. If this guy can’t get into the kingdom of heaven, no-one can.

And that’s the moral of the story, apparently. No-one can.

If you really want to live forever, says Jesus, give away your money. All of it. Moral behaviour is neither here nor there. If you’re rich, you can’t come in.

The man goes away. The disciples look at Jesus, waiting for the spiritual explanation. They are expecting him to say that when he said possessions he didn’t really mean possessions, any more than when he talked about bread he really meant bread. 

But there is no trick or parable or double meaning. When Jesus said that it’s very hard for rich people to get into heaven, that’s what he meant. And by “hard”, he doesn’t mean big-guy-going-through-a-small-doorway hard. He means elephant-going-through-a-keyhole hard

and they were astonished out of measure, 
saying among themselves,
“who then can be saved?"
and Jesus looking upon them saith, 

"with men it is impossible, 

but not with God: 

for with God all things are possible”
then Peter began to say unto him, 
“lo, we have left all, 
and have followed thee”
and Jesus answered and said,
“verily I say unto you, 
there is no man that hath left 
house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, 
for my sake, and the gospel's,
but he shall receive an hundredfold
now in this time
houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; 
and in the world to come eternal life.
but many that are first shall be last
and the last first”

It is impossible for rich people to go to heaven. So if they can’t, who can? Again, the disciples are probably expecting Jesus to say “poor people, obviously”. But Jesus says “No-one. It is impossible.” So there is no hope: apart from one thing. God is quite capable of doing the impossible. He can thread camels through needle’s eyes if he so chooses.

We all know about the nasty “prosperity” theologians who say that believing in God will make you rich. And we all like to throw the story of the rich man in their faces. Jesus was either a communist or an ascetic, or both. Either he wanted the rich man to sell all his possessions because the poor needed them more than he did; or else he thought that possessions were bad for the soul.

But then Jesus goes and talks to the disciples. And what he tells them seems to be very much on the prosperity theologians side. If you give your stuff away, you’ll get even more stuff back. Like Job. Bad things may happen if you follow Jesus — people may hate you. But good things will happen as well.

C.S. Lewis thought this was an example of Jesus cracking a joke — using humour to make a serious point. “Come and follow me and you can have it all: happy families, fast cars, hot showers, steak on the barbecue, persecution….”

“But Andrew…Jesus was talking in a spiritual sense. He meant that the spiritual rewards of following him in abject poverty will make you much happier than the big house and the big car could possibly have done.”

If that is what he meant, then he expressed it in a very odd way. Why talk about “houses, land and family” if what you mean is “spiritual happiness”? And if we are entitled to say that he meant houses, lands and family only in a spiritual sense; why are we not permitted to say that he told the rich man to sell his possessions only in a spiritual sense?

This is not the first time that Jesus has given two apparently contradictory teachings in consecutive sentences. In my kingdom, everyone will be poor. In my kingdom, everyone will be rich. These two things are the same.

and they were in the way going up to Jerusalem;
and Jesus went before them:
and they were amazed;
and as they followed,
they were afraid
and he took again the twelve,
and began to tell them what things should happen unto him,

“behold, we go up to Jerusalem;

and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests,

and unto the scribes; 
and they shall condemn him to death
and shall deliver him to the Gentiles:
and they shall mock him
and shall scourge him
and shall spit upon him, 
and shall kill him: 
and the third day he shall rise again”
and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, 
come unto him, saying,
“master, we would that thou shouldest do for us 
whatsoever we shall desire”
and he said unto them 
“what would ye that I should do for you?”
they said unto him, 
“grant unto us that we may sit, 
one on thy right hand, 
and the other on thy left hand, 
in thy glory”
but Jesus said unto them, 
“ye know not what ye ask: 
can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? 
and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
and they said unto him
“we can” 
and Jesus said unto them, 
“ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; 
and with the baptism that I am baptized withal 
shall ye be baptized:
but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; 
but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.”
and when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John.
but Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, 
“ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles 
exercise lordship over them; 
and their great ones exercise authority upon them.
but so shall it not be among you:
but whosoever will be great among you, 
shall be your minister:
and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, 
shall be servant of all.
for even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, 
but to minister, 
and to give his life a ransom for many”

The York Mystery Play was a great pageant, depicting the history of the world from creation to apocalypse in a single day. The final play, staged at great expense by the Merchants Guild, depicted the Last Judgement: actors representing angels and demons welcome the saved into heaven and the damned into hell. Jesus is enthroned in glory at the centre of the stage; to his right sits Mary, newly crowned Queen of Heaven; on his left sits Peter, holder of the keys of heaven and the power of binding and loosing.

Jesus says that James and John are not going to have the best seats in heaven: the medieval playwright decided that they would go to his chief disciple and his mother. If he had thought to invite the apostle to the Gentiles they could have formed a folk band. 

But the York Merchants' play misses the point on a cosmic scale. 

When Jesus chose the Twelve disciples, he singled out James and John and nicknamed them the Thunder-Brothers. Along with Peter, they form an inner circle within the Twelve. The Three went up the mountain to see the metamorphosis of Jesus; they witnessed the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. But this is the only time they get a scene to themselves.

There has clearly been some jockeying for position going on. Before they left Galilee there was an argument about who the most important disciple was. Now James and John are lobbying for the top jobs. Maybe there is already a faction who think Peter should be boss and a faction who think the brothers should be boss? 

Jesus has left Perea and started to walk towards Jerusalem. The mood in the band is one of amazement and terror. Jesus is walking into his enemies’ centre of power. I think it is probably over-subtle to say that the ones in the front were surprised and the ones at the back were scared. Everyone was probably feeling mixed emotions. You join the army knowing that sooner or later you are going to see front line combat; but that doesn’t mean that being told that you are going over the top first thing tomorrow doesn’t concentrate your mind.

Jesus doesn’t do much to steady their nerves. He has now foreseen his death three times. Each time he is more specific about it. In Galilee he said that the Son of Man was going to be handed over; now he says that he is going to be handed over to the Jewish leaders; and that they in turn are going to hand him over to the Romans; and its them who are going to beat him up and spit at him and kill him.

So how can James and John still be thinking in terms of glory? Perhaps they still don’t understand that Jesus is talking about himself. “Yes, very distressing for this Son of Man chap. But on a completely different matter, when you are king, we would like to volunteer to be your second and third in command?” Or have they understood him a bit to easily? “So there is nothing to worry about. You are going to die and rise from the dead. When that happens can we have the best seats?”

Jesus says (surprisingly) that he can’t promise this because it isn’t his decision. And the he starts talking about the whole idea of greatness. If you want to be big, you need to be a servant. If you want to be the most important of all, you need to become everyone’s slave. (He makes that distinction: between diakanos, a servant, and doulas, a slave.)

He has said almost these exact same words before. When they were all arguing about greatness back in Galilee. If you want to be the first, you will have to be the last, he said. And he illustrated the point by picking up a child.

A lot of sentimental rubbish has been talked about the story of Jesus blessing the children. We are told that children own the kingdom of heaven because they are innocent or spontaneous or trusting. There was supposedly an order of monks who made playing tag and hide and seek part of their spiritual practice in order to be more child-like. But what Jesus must really be talking about is status. Children are important because they are unimportant. Rich, holy people wont even get through the door. The most impressive seats in the kingdom will go to the ones who wait at table and sweep up after the party.

And that is the final piece of the puzzle. What everything has been building up to. Kids are the real grown-ups. The poor are the real rich. The slaves are at the top of the pecking order. The last are literally first and the first are literally last. 

Jesus doesn’t exclude himself from this. If anything, he's mostly talking about himself. He is going to be beaten up and spat on and tortured. Status doesn't get any lower than that. James and John don’t yet understand what Jesus takes “glory” to mean.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Read my arts/virus diary.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Mark 10 1-12

and he arose from thence
and cometh into the coasts of Judaea
by the farther side of Jordan
and the people resort unto him again
and, as he was wont
he taught them again

Curtain rises. Part two. 

The scene has shifted to a new location, but everything continues as it did before the intermission. People are still coming to Jesus and he is still teaching them. 

The first half of the story took place in and around Capernaum. The second half will take place in Jerusalem. But this short section is set in an in-between place: South of Galilee, east of the Jordan near the Judean frontier. Mark says that they are beyond — peran — the Jordan. There was a geographical area known as Perea, the Beyond Country. Some people go so far as to speak of a Perean ministry. The location is important. Herod, king of Galilee, who beheaded John the Baptist, is also King of Perea. 

and the Pharisees came to him,
and asked him,
“Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?”
tempting him.
and he answered and said unto them,
“what did Moses command you?”
and they said,
“Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement
and to put her away.”
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“for the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
but from the beginning of the creation
God made them male and female
for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother
and cleave to his wife;
and they twain shall be one flesh:
so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
what therefore God hath joined together
let not man put asunder"

and in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter
and he saith unto them,
“whosoever shall put away his wife
and marry another,
committeth adultery against her.
and if a woman shall put away her husband
and be married to another, 
she committeth adultery”

Herod (not to be confused with Herod) had been married to a foreign princess called Phasaelis. His brother Herod (not to be confused with Herod or Herod) had been married to Herodias, the granddaughter of Herod. Herod and Herodias, in order to complicate their family tree even further, divorced their respective partners and married each other. John the Baptist told them that their new marriage was not lawful: so they had John the Baptist’s head chopped off. 

Jesus was himself baptised by John; and Perea on the far side of the Jordan is John’s old stamping ground. Doubtless some of the people who have come out to hear Jesus speak also came out to listen to John. They may even have heard the rumour that John survived his execution and has resumed his ministry under a new name.

And so along come the Pharisees with a trick question. 

“We were just wondering for no particular reason what you think about divorce? Suppose in some purely hypothetical case a man were to dismiss his wife and marry someone else; and supposing that someone else had a living spouse. What would you say about that?”

It’s a perfect trap. Either Jesus criticises the King, or he criticises John. If he says that divorce is never lawful, than he is in very grave danger of being the after dinner entertainment at Herod’s next birthday party. But if he says that divorce is sometimes lawful, then he is telling an audience of ex-John-ites that the Baptist died for nothing.

As so often, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor. Why are you asking me about what is and is not permissible? Isn't the Torah clear?

And like any good lawyer, he wouldn’t be asking the question if he didn’t already know the answer. Jesus thinks that the Pharisees sometimes use their own, oral teaching to wriggle out of the harder commandments of Moses’ law. But in this particular case everyone is on the same page. Deuteronomy chapter twenty four verses one to four, to be precise. Divorce is not absolutely prohibited provided you fill out the correct paperwork.

Moses’ stipulation about writing out a formal declaration of divorce is clearly for the benefit of the women who are being abandoned rather than the men who are doing the abandoning. Being able to produce a piece of paper saying that your husband sent you away is a lot better than being thought of as a woman who has walked out on her husband. The consequences of adultery were quite serious.

The Pharisees must have thought that Jesus had evaded their trap. He has forced them to give a straightforward answer to their own trick question. On the strictly legal point; John went too far. Herod’s marriage to Herodias was legal provided both of then had served divorce papers on their previous partners. 

But then Jesus drops a bombshell. He says something far more shocking than either of the things which the Pharisees were trying to trick him into saying. Yes, according to the law of Moses, Herod was entitled to dismiss his first wife. Which goes to show that the law of Moses isn’t the last word on these kinds of questions. 

Moses gave the instruction about marriage certificates as a concession. “Because your hearts were hard.” We are familiar with “sclerosis” being used as a medical term to mean the hardening of veins or liver; we are familiar with “cardiac” to refer to the heart. Jesus says that the pharisees are suffering from sklerokardia. Hard-heartedness implies a lack of empathy, and also a lack of understanding. Pharisees have previously been said to be hard-hearted when they tried to stop Jesus healing a man’s hand on the sabbath. The disciples were said to be too hard-hearted to understand the deeper significance of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Is Jesus saying “Moses allowed divorce because men lack the empathy to be faithful to one woman?” Or is he saying “Moses allowed divorce because people have too little insight to understand that God really prefers monogamy”?

Look at how he phrases the question. What did Moses command you? It is because your hearts were so hard that Moses wrote you this law. I don’t think Jesus can mean that the divorce concession was put in specially for the benefit of Pharisees. “You” must mean the people to whom the Law was given: the human race in general; the Jewish people in particular. And Jesus is standing outside that relationship. He does not consider himself to be one of those to whom Moses gave the law.

Jesus claims that there is an older law against which Moses’ law can be judged. More basic than the six hundred laws the Jews have to obey. More basic than the Ten Commandments which apply to everyone. Older even than the seven commandments which God gave Noah. So fundamental it hardly counts as a law or a precept at all. It is just a description of the way things are.

“From the first creation God made them male and female; and because of this a man leaves his father and mother and sticks to his wife; and they shall be — the two — for one flesh; so that they are no more two, but one flesh.” 

Translations which say “they will be like a single person” or even “they will form a new family” are trying to soften the force of the original. A man adheres to his wife. They are glued together and become a single being. It isn’t that you shouldn’t split them up: it’s that you can’t. 

The second creation story in the book of Genesis says that Eve was originally a part of Adam: that God made the first woman out of the first man's rib. The first story, more mysteriously, says

"God created Adam in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." 

Does this mean that Adam -- mankind -- was in the arch-creation a hermaphrodite; or that they were a composite being; or merely that they were spiritually masculine and feminine? Either way, there has been some kind of separation, pulling the two genders apart, and that separation is mended by marriage.

We can read this in two ways. We could take it very stringently. Last week Jesus scrubbed out some passages from Moses' law, with the result that his disciples could live freer than the Pharisees. All food is now kosher. Eat what you like. Today he repeals another section of the law; with the result that his followers are more restricted in how they can live. Moses said that marriages was a legal contract that the law could dissolve: Jesus says that marriage is part of the natural order of things and can never be dissolved under any circumstances. Absolute heterosexual monogamy or absolute life-long abstinence. Take your pick. I never said it was going to be easy.

But I think we could also read it more pragmatically. Elsewhere, Jesus has treated Moses’ law and God’s law as being interchangeable; so it is hard to suppose that he is saying “In this instance, Moses was in error: ignore him on this one.” So can’t we say that Jesus is allowing that there has to be a degree of realism — of concession to fallen human nature — in any interpretation of morality. In the arch-creation there was a man and a woman and they bonded for life; but God’s instructions for living in the world as it now is recognises that life is more complicated than that?

Mark seems to acknowledge that Jesus' words are cryptic and obscure. He says that the disciples asked him to clarify what he said when they were alone with him, and that he gave them a very plain answer. If a man sends his wife away and marries someone else, he is cheating on her, papers or no papers. And it goes for the woman as well: she’s committing adultery even if she can produce a certificate to say she’s not. So John was right: it wasn’t lawful for Herod and Herodias to be together.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Read my arts/virus diary.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Mark 9: 33 - 50

A long time ago -- Christian tradition says about three years -- Jesus met Peter and James and John and most importantly Andrew by the beach; and Peter took them home to visit his sick mother-in-law. It looks as though Jesus never left. Peter's house just becomes "the house"; the place where Jesus lives when he's not on "the boat". Peter's boat, very likely. After their long walk -- maybe a twelve days round trip -- to the north, they come back. For the very last time. It would probably be fanciful to call this a farewell discourse, the last seminar Jesus gives in Galilee. But Mark is definitely a Gospel of two halves -- the Capernaum section and the Jerusalem section. And this is where the first half finishes.

and he came to Capernaum:
and being in the house he asked them,
"what was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?"
but they held their peace:
for by the way they had disputed among themselves,
who should be the greatest.
and he sat down,
and called the twelve,
and saith unto them,
"if any man desire to be first,
the same shall be last of all,
and servant of all."

The disciples are having an argument about "who should be the greatest". The fact that they are embarrassed makes it clear that they were talking about which was the greatest of them -- who was the best disciple. Perhaps Peter's announcement that Jesus is going to be King has set them thinking about who is going to have the top job in the new administration.

Jesus's response is that people who want to be big will end up small; people who want to be in charge will go right to the bottom of the heap. He doesn't extend the metaphor, and say "and therefore, the person who wants to be a servant will end up in charge." That's certainly the inference we are supposed to draw, but he doesn't it draw it for us at this point. 

and he took a child,
and set him in the midst of them:
and when he had taken him in his arms,
he said unto them,
"whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name,
receiveth me:
and whosoever shall receive me,
receiveth not me,
but him that sent me."

I don't know about you, but I remembered this passage incorrectly. I thought that Jesus was contrasting the humility of the child with the arrogance of the disciples. The disciples were bickering about who was the greatest, and Jesus pointed to a child and said -- he's the greatest, because he's little and insignificant. But in fact, Jesus uses the child to make an unrelated point. If you want to be kind to Jesus, be kind to little kids; and if you are kind to Jesus; you are also being kind to God.

and John answered him, saying,
"master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name,
and he followeth not us:
and we forbad him,
because he followeth not us."
but Jesus said,
"forbid him not:
for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name,
that can lightly speak evil of me
for he that is not against us is on our part."

It isn't clear how John's question about sectarianism is a response to Jesus' statement about welcoming children. Possibly we could infer that John is saying "Does that mean that we have to accept absolutely everybody?" The Greek doesn't seem to require us to say that John answered Jesus. "John said" or "John declared" would work just as well. If Jesus has been preaching for as much as three years, it is not all that surprising that there are people who regard themselves as his followers who are not part of the main body of disciples. And Jesus is fine with this. The miracles -- the works of power -- are the test. If the other guy is really able to call demons to heel, then there isn't likely to be anything seriously wrong with his teaching.

I suspect most of us would take the opposite view. If we heard that someone was running a faith-healing mission, we'd want to know what their theology was before we talked about the validity or otherwise of their miraculous cures.

"for whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name,
because ye belong to Christ,
verily I say unto you,
he shall not lose his reward."

This seems to go back to the verse about welcoming little children. People who welcome kids "in Jesus' name" also welcome Jesus; people who give the disciples something to drink "because they are of Christ" will get rewarded by God. 

These verses are all about inclusiveness. If you want to invite Jesus into your house, invite some kids in. If someone you don't know is performing works of power, good for him. If someone gives you a glass of water, then they'll get rewarded. 

But it isn't universal, unconditional inclusiveness. You have to invite the children in Jesus name. You have to be doing the miracles in the name of Jesus. The glass of water only earns browny points if its been given to you because you are followers of the Messiah.

But then Jesus flips it round. The converse is true as well.

and whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me,
it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck,
and he were cast into the sea.

and if thy hand offend thee,
cut it off:
it is better for thee to enter into life maimed,
than having two hands to go into hell,
into the fire that never shall be quenched:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

and if thy foot offend thee,
cut it off:
it is better for thee to enter halt into life,
than having two feet to be cast into hell,
into the fire that never shall be quenched:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

and if thine eye offend thee,
pluck it out:
it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye,
than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Some years ago, when the Web was still called Usenet, I suggested that using the expression "Old Testament" pejoratively was deeply anti-Semitic.

You know the kind of thing. "I heard a vicar talking about how God is worried about sexual immorality and will punish bad people -- he's a bit Old Testament, isn't he!" "People in the middle ages used to hunt and kill witches: that was because they were following the Old Testament and didn't understand there'd been a new edition."

At the time, I was pretty much laughed out of court; calm down, Andrew everyone said, you can't go around casually accusing people of anti-Semitism. (This was before Jeremy Corbyn.) 

I think that today just about everyone would agree that the idea that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and punishment and the New Testament God is a God of love and mercy really is an anti-Semitic trope. The more strongly you believe that Christianity superseded Judaism, the harder it is to draw that kind of a wedge between "Old" and "New" Testaments. The supposedly vicious Old Testament God is Jesus' dad.

And here is Jesus talking about hell. And not a metaphorical hell either; not the absence of the presence of God or living a miserable, pointless life on earth. No, he appears to be talking about a nasty, painful hell, where you are roasted and eaten alive. There is nothing like this in the Old Testament. Jewish people rarely preach about this fiery hell of eternal torture. If you really wanted to draw the distinction, you would have to contrast the long-suffering, tolerant Old Testament God with the angry, fiery New Testament one. 

Our folklore and our hymns are inclined to paint a picture of a sweet, spiritual Jesus, in contrast to the supposedly monstrous Jewish God. "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," wrote Charles Wesley. "Loving Jesus, gentle lamb...thou art pitiful and kind." "Jesus thou art all compassion. Pure, unbounded love thou art." This is so obviously not a description of the rather mysterious and terrifying figure in Mark's Gospel that many of us have been tempted to flip to the other extreme -- to counter Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild with Harsh Jesus, Overbearing and Severe.

What we have here is unquestionably a rant: and yet it comes in the context of a discourse which began with Jesus taking a child in his arms and saying "be as kind to this child as you would be to me."

The first transition is very clear. If you are kind to children -- or to weak people, or to anyone who needs it -- then good things will happen to you. Conversely, if you are cruel to children and weak people, bad things will happen to you. We don't have to say that the punishment will literally be more unpleasant than drowning. But we do have to say "You will have no chance at will definitely, definitely, definitely come to a bad end."

The word Mark uses for "offended" is skandalizó. It means "cause to stumble" or "put a stumbling block in the way of" or simply "trip up." In the parable, some of the seeds were "tripped up" by the thorns they were planted near; the people of Nazareth were "tripped up" by Jesus's teaching. So it means, if anything: don't put obstacles in the way of children. Don't set traps for them. Making young people stumble is the worst thing you can do.

Everyone is probably on board with that. But Jesus suddenly extends the message. Don't trip children up. And if anything trips you up: get rid of it. Whether it is your hand, your foot or your eye...

It really isn't helpful to try and apply this literally, although plenty of people have. (You can take "if thy hand offend you" as a dire warning about masturbation; but which dire sin might you commit with your feet?) Clearly, we are in the realms of poetic hyperbole. Jesus is not saying "some of you are literally going to have to chop off your own hands." He is saying "being tripped up is the worst thing that can happen -- do literally anything to avoid it."

The Himon is a valley near Jerusalem where (we are told) they used to burn the refuse. So what Jesus repeats three times is:

"It is better to enter into life maimed, or crippled, or blind than to be thrown into the valley of Himon where the inextinguishable fire is never extinguished and the everlasting worms last forever."

The part about fire and worms comes from Isaiah, referring to the destruction of the bodies of God's enemies:

“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

"Hell" is an interpretative gloss by the translators of the King James version. If Jesus had been saying that the souls of the people who had been scandalized by his teaching would burn forever in the afterlife, he would have been introducing a new and novel doctrine. No-one reacts as if this is what he is doing. So we should read the passage on its own terms. And on its own terms it is still pretty strident. 

"If you cause a child to stumble, you have no hope at all. And if anything is causing you yourself to stumble, get rid of it. Think of the worst thing you can imagine. Think of what happens to God's enemies. Falling away from me is worse than that."

for every one shall be salted with fire,
and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.
salt is good:
but if the salt have lost his saltness,
wherewith will ye season it?
have salt in yourselves,
and have peace one with another.

And finally, three more astonishingly obscure sayings. 

Salt is being thought of here as a disinfectant, not as a preservative or a seasoning. In the Torah, sacrificial animals have to be sprinkled with salt to make them acceptable to God. So the sense seems to be "Everyone is going to go through the fire; every sacrifice has to be purified; but there is no way of purifying a purifying agent. So you need to be pure yourselves; and you'll do that by living peacefully together."

It's a funny conclusion. It's like we've started from some general points; built up to a huge, thunderous climax about and fallen away to a general teaching. Don't try to be great; that will make you insignificant. Welcome small, unimportant people, that's the best way of welcoming me. Don't be exclusive; if someone says they are my follower, they probably are. If someone is kind to you they count as my followers too. But making someone else stumble is certain doom! And the worse thing you can do to yourself is let yourself stumble!! That's even worse than maiming yourself!!! People who stumble will be piled up and burned in the valley of Himon!!!! Everyone is going to be burned; so purify yourself first. And the way you do that is by living in harmony."

and he arose from thence, 
and cometh into the coasts of Judaea 
by the farther side of Jordan:

For three years, Jesus has been staying with Peter and preaching in Capernaum, and the villages around Capernaum. But now he gets up, and starts on the long walk back to the Jordan, where he was baptised; and to Judaea, where his enemies live.

"And he got up, and went to the borders of Judaea."

End of part one. Intermission.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)