Friday, 15 November 2013

Scorpio (2): The Ransom


 

Mark 10:46-52

And they came to Jericho, and when he, his disciples and a large crowd left Jericho, Bartimaeus, the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. Hearing that it was Jesus the Nazarene, he began to cry out and say, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many people told him to keep quiet, but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ They called the blind man, saying, ‘Cheer up and get up. He’s calling you.’ Throwing off his coat, he jumped up and went to Jesus. Jesus said in response, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘Rabbi, let me see again!’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Go. Your faith has saved you.’ And at once he could see and he followed Jesus on the road.

Story: Diluting the Wine 

Many years ago, the mayor of a village in China wanted to prepare a big feast for the whole village. He called together his chief advisers and told them of his plan. ‘I shall be happy to provide all the food,’ he said, ‘but I want you to supply the wine. Each of you must bring a wineskin filled with your finest wine. We will pour them all into a common pot so that the people can help themselves.’
The advisers told their leader that this was a very good idea: a party makes the people happy, and happy people work hard and commit fewer crimes. ‘It will bring our people closer together,’ said one.
            However, not everyone was pleased. One of the advisers, a young man called Chang, thought to himself: ‘A wineskin full of wine will cost me a pretty penny. I’m not prepared to sacrifice my best wine so that the village rabble can get drunk. In fact, I’m not even prepared to give them my poorest wine. I’ll take water instead. No one will notice if the common pot of wine is slightly diluted.’ He felt very pleased with his money saving plan, and when he told his wife she congratulated him on his cleverness.
            When the big day arrived, Chang went to the well, filled a wineskin with fresh water, and gave it to a servant to carry to the feast. As they approached, they could hear the merrymaking and the music, and smell the delicious aromas of the spices the cooks had used in preparing the huge vats of food. It looked like being a day to remember!
            In the middle of the village square stood a gigantic pot, into which each of the mayor’s advisers was invited to pour the contents of his wineskin. As they did so, the crowd cheered wildly, impressed by the great generosity of their leading citizens. Chang poured his water into the pot.
            Everyone sat down and listened impatiently as the mayor gave his speech; they were eager to get down to the serious business of eating and drinking! After the speech, the people began to fill their plates with food from the long tables, and their goblets with wine from the big pot. But as each of them took a drink, the look of expectation on each face changed into one of puzzlement. ‘This is not wine,’ they said, ‘this is water!’ Sure enough, every one of the advisers had brought water, thinking as Chang did that ‘no one will notice if the common pot of wine is slightly diluted.’
            The mayor was disgusted with his miserly and hypocritical advisers. He stripped them of their position, and ordered them all to pay a big fine.

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Written in November 2007
The Ransom

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. (John Donne)


The Crucifixion (Dali)
In last Saturday’s Thinking Anew column in the Irish Times, G.L. (the authors of these columns are always identified by their initials only) wrote: ‘Jesus belongs to the world, not the church… he died for all and not a few’. It’s the sort of statement that theologians and preachers will use routinely, because it encapsulates a very prominent and important strand of the orthodox Christian message: that in some way the death of Jesus has had a profound effect upon the whole human race.
            Different Christian groups interpret this idea differently, from the ultra-liberal, who see Jesus as an enlightened and brave man, whose sacrifice on behalf of his principles set an example for the rest of us to follow; to the ultra-conservative, who see the death of Jesus as a cosmic transaction in which the price of human sin was paid to satisfy the requirements of God’s justice, and so make ‘salvation’ available to those who believe.
            This latter position has never had any prominence within Unitarianism for a number of very obvious reasons. First, it implies that God in some way demanded a blood sacrifice in reparation for the accumulated sins of the human race, a distasteful implication which seems to do little to exalt the image of the Creator. Second, it is difficult for us to understand how the death of one person, no matter how exalted, could have such a cosmic impact. We can understand how heroic military actions on the part of individuals can have quite far reaching effects on the outcome of a war, or how parents can sacrifice their lives for their children, but how one death two thousand years ago can affect me now is difficult for me to comprehend. Of course, millions of books and articles have been written, and millions of sermons have been preached on the topic, but the very notion remains bizarre, primitive, repugnant even, to liberal Unitarian ears.
            Repugnant or not, there is no getting away from the fact that such ideas have a strong scriptural warrant. They are clearly expressed in Paul’s influential Letter to the Romans, and in the Letter to the Hebrews, which, although probably not written by Paul, is generally attributed to him because it is undoubtedly influenced by Pauline theology.
Traces of such thinking can be found in the Gospels, too. In what I have called the Scorpio section of Mark, Jesus says: ‘For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). The word ‘ransom’ is from the Greek lutron, which, according to Strong’s Bible Dictionary, means ‘to loosen something with a redemption price’, or, to put it in more colloquial terms, ‘to pay the price of someone’s freedom’. We are all familiar with the idea of buying a slave out of slavery, buying oneself out of an apprenticeship, paying off a football manager before his contract is up, paying a sum to kidnappers to release someone from captivity; even redeeming an item from the pawnbroker’s. All of these help us to understand the concept of ‘lutron’, or ‘ransom’.  
         So, Mark is telling us that the suffering and death of Jesus will be a means of bringing about freedom for many people. Nowhere does he say that God demands the sacrifice, but it is still difficult for us to grasp the idea, and even more difficult for us to warm towards it.   
          One reason for the difficulty is that we have gradually become estranged from the thinking which gave rise to the notion. We live in a fiercely individualistic culture, which sees human beings as discrete, separate entities, forever imprisoned in our singularity. ‘My life is my own,’ we say, ‘and I can do with it what I wish. As long as I do not act in a way which infringes the rights of another, I can do as I like’. This is one of the cornerstones of Western liberal thinking. When we hear the question, ‘Whose life is it anyway?’ – when the legitimacy of suicide is being discussed for example – we tend to answer, unequivocally, ‘It’s mine’.

Such thinking, which has developed in the West since the time of the Renaissance, – and which found its most celebrated contemporary expression just twenty years ago, when Margaret Thatcher famously declared, ‘There’s no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families’ – would have seemed very strange to the people who wrote the Bible. They were aware of connections among people which we have long since disregarded – to our cost, I fear. For example, the idea that we all share a common humanity is expressed very graphically in the mythological story of Adam and Eve. It may not be a very popular myth now, post Darwin, but by concentrating on its scientific implausibility we are neglecting its spiritual insights: we are fostering division among cultures by overlooking - or even totally ignoring - the idea of human solidarity which the myth teaches, an idea which alone can save us from destructive racial conflict.

The story of Achan in chapter 7 of the Book of Joshua is one such story. The Israelites are in the process of conquering the Promised Land, and have just taken Jericho, but they suffer grievous setbacks in their attempt to conquer the city of Ai, and Joshua asks God why he seems to have deserted them. God tells him that someone disobeyed his command not to plunder anything from Jericho, and consequently, Joshua’s people are being punished. By a strange process of elimination, the culprit is found. It is Achan, of the tribe of Judah. Buried beneath the ground in his tent they find a beautiful Babylonian robe, two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold weighing fifty shekels. The story continues:
 
They took the things from the tent, brought them to Joshua and all the Israelites and spread them out before the Lord. Then Joshua, together with all Israel, took Achan son of Zerah, the silver, the robe, the gold wedge, his sons and daughters, his cattle, donkeys and sheep, his tent, and all that he had to the Valley of Achor. Joshua said, ‘Why have you brought this disaster on us? The Lord will bring disaster on you today.’ Then all Israel stoned him, and after they had stoned the rest, they burned them. Over Achan they heaped up a large pile of rocks, which remains to this day. Then the Lord turned from his fierce anger. Therefore the place has been called the Valley of Achor (Disaster) ever since. (Joshua 7:23-26)

 
A horrible story indeed, and taken purely literally it does nothing to endear the God of the Bible to us. How unjust, we think, to kill and then burn everything that belongs to a criminal – his family, his livestock and his possessions! Surely it would be enough to punish the culprit alone. But using Maimonides’ principle we can look beneath the surface of the story and find the truth it is expressing. And it’s a simple but important one: that ‘guilt’ is not to be imputed to an individual alone, and the effects of an action are not restricted to those who seem to be immediately involved. It is a commonplace of contemporary sociology to say that it takes a village to raise a child; and when things go wrong, there are more people to bear the blame than we generally think. ‘No man is an island,’ wrote the English poet John Donne. We are part of a whole, and what we do, and even what we think, affects the whole.
 
            St. Paul makes a similar point in the First Letter to the Corinthians (chapter 12), where he compares the group of believers to a body, composed of parts which are so interconnected that ‘if one part suffers, every part suffers with it, and if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it’ (vs.26). Anyone who has ever had toothache or stubbed a toe knows that the malfunction of an apparently small and insignificant member can have an overwhelming impact on the whole body!
            It would appear that so called ‘primitive’ peoples are more aware of these inter-personal connections than we are. I recently came across an account of the greetings employed by members of the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa. The most common greeting, equivalent to ‘hello’, is ‘Sawu Bona’, which means ‘I see you’, and the reply is ‘Sikhona’ – ‘I am here’ -, implying that until you see me I do not exist. Mary Kay Boyd comments, ‘It’s as if, when you see me, you bring me into existence’. She goes on to explain that the Zulu expression ‘Umuntu ngumentu magabantu’ means ‘A person is a person because of other people’, implying that a person’s identity is based upon the fact that he or she is seen by others.
            In our opening words this morning, we heard similar sentiments:
May we know once again that we are not isolated beings
But connected in mystery and miracle, to the universe
To this community and to each other.
  
Such ‘hidden’ but real connections are part of what the zodiacal sign Scorpio symbolises. Six months ago, in the spring, the flowers sprouted above the earth in individualised beauty; but, in the Scorpio season, the vegetation is ploughed back into the soil, where it rots to produce the nutrition in which the new seeds can take root. Now is the time for the ‘underground’ activity of tangled root fibres, and those mysterious processes which take place away from human scrutiny, but which are absolutely vital to the nourishment of biological life.
            Scorpio symbolises the hidden links between past and present, life and death, individual and community, which is why the Catholic Church has designated November, the Scorpio month, as the time for us to remember the Holy Souls, those members of the human community who have passed into the unseen world, but who are still connected to us by invisible threads.
            Such ideas will help us to explain what the Gospel of Mark means when it says that ‘the son of man must give his life as a ransom for many’. The ‘Son of Man’ is, as I have explained before, you and I. ‘Son of Man’ is a Hebrew expression which means nothing more than human being, and the suffering of a human being, the experiences of a human being, the noble achievements of a human being, affect the whole human race. We are in this together; ‘when one rejoices, all rejoice; when one suffers, all suffer,’ says St. Paul. We all bring our individual bottles to the party. ‘I am a human being, and nothing human is alien to me,’ wrote the Roman poet Terence. The selfless suffering of someone like Jesus ennobles me; the unspeakable cruelties of someone like Hitler, diminishes me. I cannot dissociate myself from the collective, either spatially or temporally. What my ancestors did is still affecting me; what I do affects the generations to come. Someone can suffer so that I don’t have to suffer, just as my suffering can benefit others. When my brother Barry was dying in 2001, I took a profound lesson from his brave, uncomplaining attitude, which gave me untold strength when, in the following year, I came face to face with my own possible death. Einstein expressed this idea very succinctly:


From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: That we are here for the sake of others… for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day, I realize how much my outer and inner life is built upon the labours of people, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received.


Which brings us to the very last story in the Scorpio section of the Gospel. As Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho – remember, as I said last time, Jericho is the lowest inhabited city on earth and therefore symbolically the ideal place to discuss the hidden depths of things – they encounter Bartimaeus, a blind man who is begging by the roadside. ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ he shouts. ‘What do you want?’ asks Jesus. ‘Lord, give me back my sight!’ he replies.

Jesus heals Bartimaeus (Poussin, 1650)
            Bartimaeus is blind. Whenever we come across blindness in the Bible we should realise that we are dealing with spiritual blindness not physical blindness. Why is he spiritually blind? Because he understands salvation as something that will come to his people from outside. The expression ‘Son of David’, which he’s shouting at Jesus, was a conventional messianic term; he sees Jesus as a liberator, a military leader who will throw off the shackles of Roman oppression and lead the people to freedom. But the whole of this Gospel teaches us that this is erroneous. Salvation never comes from outside. Not from politics, not from economics, not from some external divine deliverer, not from some charismatic human leader. Salvation will only come when we understand who we are, how we are linked to each other, and how our actions and even our thoughts affect each other. Jesus cures Bartimaeus of his spiritual blindness, and the once-blind beggar accompanies Jesus ‘in the way’, towards Jerusalem, the City of Peace. If we want to follow him there we must overcome our own blindness, by acknowledging, cherishing, and strengthening those hidden ties which bind us one to another.
 
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