One of the difficulties in talking about faith, in talking about Jesus, is that different folks mean significantly different things by the very same words. Often, for instance, when I am chatting with someone who is sceptical about church – or, for that matter, who is hostile to church – I’ll clue in pretty fast that we mean super disparate things by the word God. By that word, I mean something like what scripture means when, in 1John, it declares that God is love. Whereas frequently my conversation partner is using that word to mean The old, angry man in the sky.
The word hell is another example. Thanks more to Dante than to scripture, lots of people hear that word and imagine fire and pitchforks and gluttons being ironically fed more doughnuts than they could ever eat. Whereas I mean something more like those times of alienation we pefer selfishness to the love of Christ.
Or what about the words that we hear Jesus use today? What do we mean when we say Eternal Life?
If we were to ask this question on Family Feud, what would the survey tell us is the most popular answer to that question?
Well, probably something like living forever or getting into heaven. And that answer isn’t mistaken. God’s love is too big for this life to be the end. We will see again those people whom we love who have died, you and I will not be snuffed out like forgotten candles when we die.
That answer isn’t mistaken. It’s just wildly incomplete.
Karl Marx famously said that said that religion is the opium of the people, and my guess is that when Jesus and Marx met, Jesus said to him,
you’re not 100% wrong.
Because there are lots of expressions of religion, lots of expressions of Christianity, that focus heavily on living forever and not so much on life right now. And if religion is what lets us put up with injustice today or exploitation today, if religion’s promise of heaven is what makes it okay that we have neighbours living in destitution and refugees at our southern border greeted witgh cruelty an earth that is getting ever hotter, then Marx is right and we have a serious theological opiate crisis.
But, thanks be to God, getting into heaven later on is not and never was Jesus’ focus. If you want to figure out what happens after we die based on Jesus’ words, you actually have surprisingly few verses from which to draw. Jesus is not all that interested in life after death.
Jesus is really interested in life before death. Jesus is interested in life right now.
We read Jesus’ words in translation. (Translating a sacred text, by the way, is not something that every tradition does. When someone becomes a Muslim, for instance, part of the deal is that thet start learning Arabic so that they can read the Quran.) And the Gospels themselves translate Jesus. Jesus probably knew Greek because it was the language of the wider world, the language of commerce. But much like a Dutch person today who speaks English, Greek is Jesus’ second language. It is not the language that he speaks with his friends and his followers.
Most of the time, probably including in this passage, Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. Scripture reminds us of that periodically. Think of Jesus on the cross in Matthew and Mark. His dying words are recorded in Greek. But the first two evangelists think that it is so vital that we hear what our Lord says as his earthly life ends that they record his words in the original Aramaic.
The trick with translation – especially a double translation, Aramaic into Greek and then Greek into English – is that every language brings with it a way of encountering reality. I am monolingual, a fact that I regret; I wish that I spoke another language. And when I speak with people who are deeply proficient in another language, it is common for them to share that they actually act differently, that their cognition, their encounter with the world, is different when speaking and thinking in that language. My friend Eleanor says that she has a whole different set of mannerisms and even facial expressions when she speaks German!
When Jesus speaks of the food that endures for eternal life, the Greek phrase that most translations render as eternal life is zoen aionion. So here is a word that we sometimes use in English, Aeon. The scholar N.T. Wright, on whose work I am drawing heavily this morning, tells us that in the Gospels and in Paul’s Epistles alike, zoen aionion refers to the ancient Jewish belief that time is divided up into two aeons, the present age, or ho-olam hazeh in Aramaic, and the age to come, ha-olam ha-ba. The age to come is when God will bring God’s healing justice, and peace to a hurting world.
Notice that: God will bring the Kingdom to the world, not God will rescue us from the world and take us to a Kingdom somewhere else. In the age to come, God will rescue the world itself.
Wright, therefore, suggests that we translate Jesus’ words as the food that endures for life in God’s new age or the food that endures for life in God’s coming age. Maybe we could even try the food that endures for life in God’s inbreaking age.
To eat the bread that Jesus offers is to participate in the new thing that God is doing. It is to discover that God is not, and never was, elsewhere. That the Kingdom is not, and never was, elsewhere.
Think of the prayer that Jesus taught us. Listen to it through the promise of life in God’s coming age, life that is suffused with justice and healing on earth, today.
Your Kingdom come, your will be done
On earth, here, as it is in heaven.
Give us our bread
For the Kingdom and the power and the glory are yours
Later on after we die?
Now and forever.
When we talk about Jesus, about faith, about being Christians, about discipleship, remember this good news: God does not call us to patiently wait until we die so that our real lives can begin. God call us to work with God to invite the new aeon into being on earth, right here and right now.
There is not a person here who does not have the memory of being a part of a large crowd. It may have been a sports event, it may have been a musical event, it may have been to hear the Beatles, Elvis Presley or any of the popular singers of today. It may have been a political rally, it may have been a peace march, it may have been a candle light parade and on and on.
Reflect for a moment in your own mind and memory about a crowd you were in and bring back the feelings, emotions of that moment.
Crowds are influenced by many voices. Events are often staged in ways that help us to remember.
I personally can remember going to peace rallies and feeling the power of the speakers. I have felt moved to act and to take something away from the crowd in order to help others as to what it meant to be a part of a peace march or a political rally or a musical event.
Crowds can empower people. For good and for evil. When I see pictures of Adolph Hitler rallying the crowds in Nazi Germany, I cringe the way we can be captured by evil.
I have been aware at times that some people are in a crowd to cause disruption, and to bring about violence. I can remember being frightened by observing police ready to fire tear gas canisters and wondering what to do.
Crowds of people come together to influence the future….for themselves and for others. Without crowds of people, whether it being a demonstration or lines of people waiting to vote in an election…it is important for us to gather and experience others in influencing the future.
Visualize for a moment the 12 disciples of Jesus who have been taking the message of Jesus to villages in the Galilee to tell people about this person who has become their mentor, friend, leader. They are tired and weary. Jesus decided to take them to a lonely place to rest up and be revived in spirit.
They are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee. The word is out. Jesus is going to the opposite shore. And, by this time his reputation has somehow been established and those who have heard him in his teaching want to hear him again. And those who have not heard him are eager to hear him and hear for themselves.
The Jesus Movement had begun.
The Jesus Movement had arrived. Excitement and energy were flowing.
Jesus and his disciples could not go to a lonely place because the crowds followed them. The crowds of people came from far and wide.
The disciples of Jesus had to feel the excitement of being with Him. He was their friend, their teacher and their rabbi. He was a reflection of the God that was very real to them, near to them…here he was teaching, healing, not afraid to stand up to critics, not afraid to speak out, not afraid to be a prophet, a true messenger of God.
His words captured people and they felt his presence and found healing in his presence.
What happened in the lesson today in Mark?
I suppose you might say a seed was being planted in the lives of people who were seeking hope for their future. The reality of their lives was grim. The Roman occupation and the fear they lived in took away the joy of living.
What did they have to live for? Their religious leaders were colluding with the Roman authorities. Who could they put their trust in?
The policies of Herod the King were policies that led to slavery and fear. The hopeless were becoming more hopeless.
And, then a man by the name of Jesus was among them…one of their own…a man who claimed to know God, announced the Kingdom of God and presented to the people and let them know they were a part of the Kingdom of God in a way they had never heard. He taught them about love, repentance, forgiveness and let them know they were loved by God, taught them how to listen to the Spirit, and let them know how important they were individually in the eyes of God.
Here was a man among them presenting the God of history breaking into their own lives and presenting to them the Kingdom of God as a present and future reality. A relationship with the very one who had given them life…hope for the future…healing and the meaning of life…a way forward…a way that was not just an end but a beginning…precious moments of life being lived…love and action…a new reality.
The crowd listened…lives were changed.
Mom, dad, brother, sister, friend. Let’s go and hear what he has to say…yes, we feel lost. We have been betrayed by out leaders. We are seeking. But others are saying, “We are being found.” Being found by this stranger, this prophet, teacher, healer, preacher, rabbi.
Look into his eyes…touch him, hear him.
And the crowds kept coming.
One can only imagine the impact that Jesus had on the crowds but one thing is certain.
He made a difference in the lives of so many that they continued to follow him as long as they lived, well after his crucifixion and resurrection…well after he could have been forgotten. He could have just become a memory of a special moment with the crowd.
But instead, he became a memory centered around his life, death and resurrection. We are that same crowd today. Listening to him, relating to his mysterious, powerful presence. Hearing him again proclaiming his presence with us in the Eucharistic prayer.
Yes, we are in that crowd.
Yes, we are being addressed personally to be his followers.
Yes, we are being healed in mind, body, and spirit.
Yes, we are in a large crowd of witnesses that have been touched by the Spirit to follow and become a part of what our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to call “the Jesus Movement”. Here we are in the crowd.
Yes, to the now.
Yes, to the future.
Yes, to Jesus.
“Lord do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work? …” (LK 10:40)
“Do not neglect to show hospitality” Hebrews 13:2
Thanks to Fr. Martin Elfert for the invitation.
I bring you greetings from your brothers and sisters in Christ who live in Jerusalem and throughout the area of Palestine-Israel.
Today’s Gospel reading reflects a beautiful episode in the life of Jesus. He was visiting a home in a village. He was hosted by two women – Mary and Martha. Apparently, Jesus was a close friend of the family and the two sisters were very happy to see him. Mary was so excited she just wanted to sit at his feet and listen to his teaching. (This expression refers to a student who is eager to learn from his teacher.) Martha, on the other hand, was busy being a good hostess.
We are not told how many people were in Jesus’ company. We know that Jesus travelled with 12 disciples. In Luke 8:2-3, we read that there were others who travelled with Jesus including a few women. If all these came to the house of Mary and Martha, no wonder Martha was distracted and worried. If 16 people suddenly dropped in unannounced, wouldn’t you be worried? Hospitality was and is very important in our Palestinian and Middle Eastern culture.
Martha was overwhelmed with the preparations. She said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” The cultural implication is clear. It is important to begin with the expected hospitality and later to sit down and enjoy visiting with the guests.
I am reminded of my time as pastor of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Shefa Amer, a small church close to Nazareth in Galilee. We had a number of older widows in our congregation. It was important to visit them individually in their homes on a regular basis. They will leave me in the living room and go to fix the coffee. I would beg them to leave the hospitality and to come and sit down. But hospitality was very important to them. I would have to wait for the coffee and the cake before I could leave. No matter what excuses I came up with, it was difficult to make the visit short. I tried to say, I don’t drink coffee and they would insist to make me hot tea. If I said, I don’t drink tea. They would insist to bring me fruits and cookies. Hospitality is deeply built in Palestinian culture.
When Jesus criticized Martha, “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things there is need for only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, (the better portion) which will not be taken away from her.” As if, Jesus was giving a contrast between two meals. Martha was preparing the physical food while he was giving Mary and his hearers the spiritual food.
I still remember when we were discussing this text after worship at St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem during the coffee hour. Most of the women of the church took the side of Martha. Obviously, as in any other church, we had our Mary’s and our Martha’s. The Martha’s outnumbered the Mary’s. They felt that Jesus was harsh in his criticism of Martha. They felt that Martha was concerned about the right thing and Mary was at fault. Mary should have been helping her sister in preparing the hospitality first and later they can enjoy listening to Jesus. Hospitality is essential and comes first.
Interestingly, the story of the three visitors who came to Abraham is one of the most beautiful stories in the OT (Genesis 18). Abraham insisted on extending hospitality to them. He went and slaughtered a calf and prepared a meal for them; and then stood and waited on them (vs. 8). In some of our village communities, this custom still exists where the host, man or woman, will not eat with the guests but would stand and wait on them. [Incidentally, this story has been traditionally used as foreshadowing the doctrine of the Trinity.]
Be that as it may, there are references in both the Old & New Testament that express the importance of hospitality. In the letter to the Hebrews, the writer says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” I believe these words are a direct reference to Abraham’s story in Genesis 18.
Paul writing to Timothy, places hospitality as one of the qualifications or even requirement of an elder or bishop, “a bishop must be above reproach, married…, temperate, sensible respectable, hospitable, and apt teacher…” In the Gospel of Matthew (25), the meaning of hospitality is expanded. When we feed the hungry, when we give a drink of water to the thirsty, when we welcome the stranger, when we clothe the naked, when we care for the sick, when we visit the prisoners, when we do all this in the name of Christ for the least of God’s children, the vulnerable and the outcast, it is as if we have done it to Christ himself.
This expanded understanding of hospitality allows us to consider the deeper and radical meaning of hospitality today. I believe that when we champion the victims of injustice and discrimination, we are engaging in hospitality. When we take a stand for people whose human rights have been denied or violated, we are engaged in acts of hospitality.
For me, I think of Palestine my home. I think of my people who long to see the end of the illegal occupation of Israel to Palestinian land. Most people want to see Israel live in peace; but they also want to see a Palestinian state established alongside Israel in accordance with United Nations’ resolutions; the very thing that Israel continues adamantly to reject. Our Palestinian people would like to see the United States take a courageous stand for the political and human rights of the Palestinians in accordance with international law. To do justice to the oppressed is the supreme act of hospitality. “If you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it to me,” said Christ.
Hospitality is about giving. True hospitality is rooted in God’s love for the world. God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus Christ. This is the great hospitality of God, the gift of Jesus Christ. The utmost expression of Christ’s hospitality has been the giving of himself for others. His death on the cross was an act of sacrificial love, an act of hospitality for the liberation and salvation of the world. He said “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).
Before such an amazing love, we must, in response, practice this kind of hospitality towards others. Such hospitality can be expressed in taking a stand on human rights for all. It can be expressed in helping change unjust systems and oppressive structures so that the poor and oppressed can be liberated and can enjoy a life of freedom and equality. This is active and radical hospitality.
I am sure you have heard the famous saying attributed to the Brazilian Catholic archbishop Dom Helder Kamara. He was one of the main inspirer of Latin American liberation theology. He used to say, “When I help the poor, they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” True and active hospitality demands of us to ask the deeper questions and to become part of the answer and the solution. We must not be satisfied with addressing the symptoms, but the root causes that ail our communities and our world.
At our baptism we were asked, “Will you strive for justice and respect the dignity of every human being?” We answered, “I will with God’s help.”
Faithfulness to God demands of us to keep our baptismal covenant. Ultimately, the supreme act of hospitality is done when we champion the dignity and worth of every human being. Let us remember the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you do it to the least of these, my brothers and sisters you are doing it to me.
Canon Naim Ateek
Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center, Jerusalem