Nero, Bono, and Ruffling Feathers

Based on Mark 2:1-22.

Scholars tell us that the book of Mark was written between 55 and 70 Common Era to explain who Jesus was.  Christians at that time, about 30 years after Jesus, were a small, fledgling offshoot of Judaism, especially popular among the poor and the destitute.

This information is important because it tells us who the audience was, and some of the challenges that they faced.

Between 55 and 70 CE, the Roman emperor was a guy named Nero.  He was a nut ball, and some historians wonder how the Roman Empire survived his rule.

And, when he was accused of starting a week long fire in Rome that burned down three quarter of the city in order to make more space for his palace, he said, “It wasn’t me!  It was the Christians!” And so the killing of the Christians began.

The Romans really had a taste for blood, and devised all sorts of excruciating ways to kill their victims.  Crucifixion, lions, being lit on fire…  There are even reports of the Romans making Christian parents watch their children be fed to hungry dogs.

When writing this book about Jesus, Mark’s audience was a small, poor, destitute group of cultural outsiders trying to follow Jesus while staring death in the face.  They had little money and no power and were afraid for their lives.  The emperor Nero was quite okay if they were wiped off the face of the Earth.

I find that knowing this information not only helps explain some of the stories about Jesus that we find in Mark, but also reminds us how much of a different world we live in today.  In our world, we have money, health care, CPP payments, and social assistance.  We don’t have the death penalty in Canada.  We have written laws about religious freedom, we have our highest politicians identifying as Christian, and we have rural municipalities declaring that they will continue to pray at meetings.

When we stop and think about who the gospel of Mark was written for, the audience seems to be quite different than most of us today.

Let’s keep this in mind as we look over these stories.

Jesus Forgives and Heals a Paralyzed Man

 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’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 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!”

We start with the story of the paralytic man, whose friends took apart a roof so their friend could experience healing.  These guys loved their friend.  Obviously.

It reminds me of an old story.    Someone went up to two older people who attended church their entire lives, and asked them a question.  “Are you a Christian?”

The first one answered: “Yes.  I am a born again baptized believer.”

The second answered:  “Well, you’re asking the wrong person.  You’d better ask my neighbours.”

The friends of the paralytic man understood this. They loved their friend.  Deeply.  They put their faith into action.  And, as we read in verse 5, it was this faith in action that Jesus responded to.

Now, remember the first readers of this gospel.  A church full of poor and destitute outsiders facing persecution.  This is a story about love for people on the margins, unable to fully participate in society.  They is a story about love between friends.  This is a story about a community coming together to love their neighbour when they don’t have any political or social power.  In this story, the only power they have is their love.  Because of love, you take apart the roof.

Jesus always seems to place a higher value on right living instead of right thinking.  Both are important, and they probably lead into each other, but right living always seems to be held higher than right thinking.

Are you a Christian?  Ask my neighbour.

Jesus calls Levi and Eats with Sinners

Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. 14 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.

15 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.16 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?”

17 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.”

Jesus calls Levi, the tax collector, to follow him, and then he goes and has dinner with him and other sinners.

For those of us who grew up in churchy world, I could ask the question, “How many of us here are sinners?”  And we’d all dutifully raise our hands.  We know we’re not perfect and we say stupid things and sometimes think bad thoughts.

But, let’s go back to the original audience.  A church full of poor and destitute outsiders facing persecution.  I think sinners, here, didn’t mean people not swearing and not speeding. I think that “sinners”, here, could best be understood as “outsiders.”  “Outsiders” was something that Mark’s first audience could understand.

So, I were to ask us the question, “How many of us here are outsiders?”  I wonder how many of us would raise our hands?

Jim Wallis, part of the Sojourners community, was on CBC radio a few weeks ago, and he told a story about being at Davos at the World Economic Forum, a gathering of the world’s richest people and governments.

He said that recently, there’s been a bit of a values crises there, as we try to figure out what our massive wealth inequality means to the world, where 1% of the world’s population owns half the global wealth.  Even Pope Francis had written a letter to the meeting in Davos about this, saying that “Wealth should serve humanity, not rule it.” And at the end of the conference, Jim Wallis was asked to make some concluding remarks.

He looked around at the people there:  Bill Gates, Bono, CEOs, heads of states, and other famous, rich people.  He said to them, “Look around you. Understand that this is the most included room on the planet.  You are the most included people.  So the moral test of your vocation is how do the most included relate to the most excluded.”

Are we included, or excluded? Are we insiders or outsiders?

And who does Jesus come to first? Those of us who are outsiders.

Funny story:  I was applying for a job as youth pastor at my previous church in Winnipeg,

So, the church I was applying to was a little more on the theologically conservative end of things, and in my application I had written down that the radical message of Jesus is about radical inclusivity and radical obedience.  All ten people in the interview had circled the word “inclusivity”, and asked what I meant by that word.  Well as you may know by now, I often say things without always thinking, and I said the first thing that came out of my mouth.

“Well, if Jesus came to Winnipeg today, where would he go hang out first?  He’d probably skip most of our churches and go hang out a gay bar.”

I cannot believe that they hired me that day.

Who does Jesus come to first? Those of us who are outsiders.  Yes, those of us who are rich and powerful and educated and pay our taxes on time and cut our grass and iron our shirts also need Jesus, but Jesus always seems to start at the bottom.  And this, was great news to a church filled with people at the bottom of society, and still is good news for us today.


Before we go to story #3, let’s talk about some of the opposition Jesus was facing.

In all the gospels, including Mark, Jesus always seems to be rubbing up against some opposition.  He’s ticking people off and ruffling some feathers.  And if we notice, the people he’s frustrating are all people who are either wealthy, religious leaders, or people who have some sort of social capital or power.

When I preached about hell a few years ago, one of the many things that I remember is that the only sinners Jesus condemns to hell are rich people who won’t share, and religious leaders.

Which, as a rich, religious leader, is always a good thing to remember.

Jesus keeps rubbing people the wrong way. Shane Claiborne, one of my favourite authors, tells it like this:

“I always tell our community that we should attract the people Jesus attracted and frustrate the people Jesus frustrated. It’s certainly never our goal to frustrate, but it is worth noting that the people who were constantly agitated were the self-righteous, religious elite, the rich, and the powerful. But the people who were fascinated by him, by his love and grace, were folks who were already wounded and ostracized — folks who didn’t have much to lose, who already knew full well that they were broken and needed a Savior.”

This morning, I’m just going to let that sit with us.   As someone who has a 5 bedroom house in the suburbs and a pension plan and social capital out the whazoo, this makes me uncomfortable.  But I’m okay with that.

As Shane Claiborne also says:  “For some: Life was a mess, then you met Jesus. For me: Life was smooth and Jesus messed me up.”

Because if we are comfortable, we really won’t change, will we?     Which brings us to the final story.

Jesus Questioned about Fasting

18 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?”

19 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. 20 But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.

21 “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. 22 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.”

Jesus was asked a question about following the law and fasting, and he answered with the metaphor of new wine and old wine and new wineskins and old wineskins.  Jesus basically told his listeners that if you wanted to understand and practice following  him, it is going to involve a whole new way of life and a whole new way of thinking.

What we had, our old wineskins, served their purpose.  Old wine.

But if we want new wine, well, those old wineskins gotta go.

These stories in Mark really challenge our old wineskins.  Questions of success, safety, power… questions of economic and military might… The Roman empire answered those questions, quite well.   Old wineskins.

But the Kingdom of God is like new wine.  Good news for the poor and oppressed and marginalized and outsiders doesn’t always fit well into the categories of security and safety and wealth and power.

Jesus seems to know this right off the bat.  The new wine is about a community of people guided by love for each other, especially for those on the margins.  It takes new wine skins, new containers, to encompass this radical way of Jesus.

What these new wineskins look like, well, that’s the question to ponder, isn’t it.  It’s a question that we can ponder as individuals, as families, as friends, as a community seeking to follow Jesus.  It’s a question that will never be answered very easily, and involves some deep contemplation and reflection.  It involves trial and error, getting it right sometimes, but other times, we’re going to get it spectacularly wrong.

The good news, though, is that as we ponder Jesus and how we live because of that, I truly believe that there is enough grace and forgiveness for everyone.  For both outsiders and insiders.  For both poor and rich.  For both the weak and the powerful.  I’m sure there is even enough grace for ourselves.



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