Ancient Answers


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Jesus, teacher of the possible

Nasruddin was walking in the bazaar with a large group of followers. Whatever Nasruddin did, his followers immediately copied. Every few steps Nasruddin would stop and shake his hands in the air, touch his feet and jump up yelling “Hu Hu Hu!”. So his followers would also stop and do exactly the same thing.

One of the merchants quietly asked him: “What are you doing my old friend? Why are these people imitating you?”

“I have become a Sufi Sheikh,” replied Nasruddin. “These are my Murids [spiritual seekers]; I am helping them reach enlightenment!”

“How do you know when they reach enlightenment?”

“That’s the easy part! Every morning I count them. The ones who have left – have reached enlightenment!

There is freedom in the ability to laugh at oneself. Nasruddin had this freedom. Unfortunately, it’s not something you’ll find in most “spiritual” people.

Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 9:17-31) brings us into the midst of a turbulent scene. A whole village is in an uproar, with recriminations and blame all around. After an amazing mountain-top experience that Jesus shared with three of his disciples, Jesus comes down from the mountain into this village where the other disciples – the ones who didn’t go up the mountain with Jesus – were incapable to heal an epileptic boy.

We usually focus on the father and the boy, other times we focus on the disciples, but rarely do we focus on the village, the social context in which this miracle took place. This is unfortunate, because the social setting is always important in the activities of Jesus.

“O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” This echoes God’s lament at the Israelites after their deliverance from Egypt:

“How long will this people despise me?” (Numbers 14:11)

“How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me?” (Num 14:27)

This raises a serious question: Is there a connection between the boy’s condition and the faithless generation? “How long has he had this?” Jesus asks. Since childhood, the father answers. Of course the Gospel writer attributes the boy’s condition to a “dumb spirit”. This is normal in a society that didn’t have medical terminology. Clearly from our perspective we say that this boy suffered from epileptic seizures. But is there a deeper spiritual message?

Does this child’s silence typify for us what happens in a society that is faithless? In such a society, there are few options available: You conform, or you get out, or you keep quiet. I’m not saying this is the reason for the boy’s silence and epileptic attacks. But I am saying that this miracle story has many levels of meaning. Perhaps not all of these levels were intended by the Gospel writer, but we as readers of the Gospel in the 21st century bring our own awareness to the miracle story. As this is the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent every year, I have had the opportunity to preach on this Gospel passage 28 times! So over the years I have been able to focus on many levels of meaning.

The central episode is the exchange between Jesus and the father: “If you can, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you can! All things are possible to the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help me in my unbelief!” This contrasts with the presumptuous attitude and arrogant self-confidence of the disciples. The father is honest. Notice he said, “Help me in my unbelief” – not “Help my unbelief,” as in all major translations. Πιστεύω· βοήθει μου τῇ ἀπιστίᾳ. The dative requires something like “in my unbelief.”

This is a healthy response, the kind that Jesus always looked for – a response that opens new awareness. I can imagine this man getting out of the suffocating society of the village. Very often enlightenment comes to those who get out, as Nasruddin joked. Get out of what? Perhaps get out of the village. But, more importantly, get out of resignation. Get out of the “impossible” trap. Get out into the wide open spaces of discipleship. The most liberating experience is to follow Jesus. And not drop out like Nasruddin’s followers. The enlightenment Jesus brings is the life of the possible. With him everything is possible.

The above was given in expanded sermon form. But the delivery of the sermon was not satisfactory, so no audio file is included.


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Prescription for Healing

 

Today’s Gospel reading follows the transfiguration. Something truly extraordinary happened on the mountain. Yes, Jesus was transfigured – but something even more important in the heart of Jesus happened: He revealed his purpose to two witnesses from the old covenant – Moses and Elijah. Luke tells us he spoke to them of his “exodus” (Luke 9:31, note footnote to the translation). Interesting, Jesus telling Moses of his own exodus! And coming down from the mountain he started to tell his three disciples about what was coming. They listened, but they did not understand. Their minds were stuck in a different way of thinking. They were dazzled by the divine light, but they did not see the true glory of Christ, the glory that would be revealed on the Cross and in the Resurrection.

So they came down, into the messy life that most people live. They came down to the noise of expectations and accusations. No wonder Jesus is angry. Who is he angry with? The father? The disciples? The crowd looking for another miracle they can take a picture of and post on their Facebook page? Because you see that’s really what religion is to most people – something they can stare at, something that they can boast about and make them feel good about themselves and give them reassurance about all the evil. And miracles are always a good boost to superficial faith. So Jesus calls them a “faithless and perverse” generation. And not just them but people of all times and places.

The ego of the disciples is damaged. Why couldn’t they do it? Because of their little faith. If they had faith, they could move mountains! Nevertheless, Mark’s version of the story makes an important addition: this kind can only be driven out by prayer and fasting. Matthew left that out, but it was too good to leave out and later editors added it to Matthew’s version of the story.

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7f28e290f1602ce9c38cb85b38b5515eMove mountains? Literally? I doubt it. Jesus was not into that kind of showmanship. Don’t forget he rejected the temptation thrown at him by the devil to turn stones into bread. Jesus authorized his disciples to heal the sick and drive out demons. But just like with Peter attempting to walk on the water, they had to keep their focus on Jesus. Faith, prayer and fasting – essential to the life of the church as community. The church is the place of healing, restoration, new life. Last week the image of the church was a boat. This week the image is that of a hospital. The Orthodox tradition has used both images of boat and hospital to describe the mission and presence of the church in the world.

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Silent no more

The healing of the epileptic boy raises some questions as to how we are to read the various healing miracles of Jesus. Matthew’s version that we read today in the Liturgy includes a word that is full of superstitious overtones: σεληνιάζεται. The English equivalent is ‘moonstruck’. Both in Greek and in English, the meaning is to say someone is acting crazy under the influence of the moon! Growing up in Greece I often heard this word being used in everyday language to describe people who were acting strange. And it was not uncommon for someone to be called σεληνιασμένος or be angrily addressed as “βρέ σεληνιασμένε!”

The father says his boy σεληνιάζεται. In English it’s usually translated to mean the boy is epileptic. Certainly that was the medical condition of the boy. But Matthew’s use of σεληνιάζεται connects his narrative to superstitious notions. Mark’s version of this healing avoids the word  σεληνιάζεται, but attributes the boy’s condition to a demon. Jesus performs an exorcism in all versions of this incident. And yet, the symptoms that Mark describes are easily diagnosed as severe epileptic seizures. So we have this problem of a medical condition being treated as demon possession and labeled by a word straight out of superstition. Not only that, but how literally are we to take Jesus’ words that if we have some faith we could tell a mountain to move and it will move? Even he never told a mountain to move! You want to give it a try?

Clearly Jesus was exaggerating, as he often did, in order to provoke some thought or reaction. And we do not know whether Jesus saw this boy’s condition as demon possession or connected to the moon’s phases. I like to think that all that talk of moon and demon were invented by the Gospel writers. But it all raises the question I started with: How should we read the miracle stories of the Gospels? Are they just miracle stories to be taken at face value, or are there further meanings and messages that can speak to us in our own situations? I believe there are such meanings and messages in all the miracle stories and healings, including the healing of the epileptic boy.

Mark tells the story of this healing in much greater detail than either Matthew or Luke. Two moments in Mark’s version warrant my attention today. (1) When Jesus asked the father how long his boy had been like this, the father answered, “From childhood.” (2) When Jesus challenged the father’s faith, the father cried out those famous words that still ring in our ears 2,000 years later: “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The father cried out for himself, for his own lack of faith! The miracle story is about faith. Matthew focuses on the faith of the disciples who could not cure the boy. Mark focuses on the faith of the boy’s father! Much more important in my opinion, because the faith of the father is also our faith – or lack of faith.

Faith is not just a personal thing. The father’s faith – or lack of it – contributed to the power of the spirit that tormented his son. From childhood, this boy had been controlled by a spirit that silenced him. From childhood, the boy lived in an environment that kept him silent. The true demons, the true powers that Jesus confronts are those that make us despair that real change,real spiritual growth,  real transformation, are impossible. It’s not by accident that this healing takes place immediately after the transfiguration of Christ.

Raphael's painting of the Transfiguration includes the episode of the epileptic boy underneath. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, failed attempts are made to heal the boy down below. (click to enlarge)

Raphael’s painting of the Transfiguration includes the episode of the epileptic boy in the bottom half. While Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, failed attempts are made to heal the boy down below. (click to enlarge)

Back in the 1960s and 70s it was common to hear about the “silent majority.” Or, perhaps it’s more correct to say, the silenced majority. We are the silenced majority when we don’t have enough faith in the power of the transfiguration, which is the power to fill our lives and our planet with the holiness and light of Christ. We are the silenced majority when we believe that the forces for evil are just too strong for anyone to conquer. That was the father’s problem. And Jesus gave him voice for the first time: “I believe, help my unbelief!” That was the turning point. And it’s the turning point for every one of us too.

Be silent no more. We believe; Lord, help our unbelief!