A Matter Of Life And Death

Where did this man get all this … Is not this the carpenter, the Son of Mary?
Mark 6:1-6


In the remote deserts of Southwestern United States, temperatures soar above 120 degrees every summer. The earth cakes and cracks. To lift one’s face to the early afternoon sun is like standing too close to the open door of a hot oven. Yet, in spite of the terrible heat, even the most isolated desert areas are home for many people. The reason is simple: there is more to the blazing desert than meets the eye. Below the parched expanse of rock, cactus and sagebrush there are pools, streams and rivers. Residents dig wells, sometimes as shallow as six feet, and draw all the water they need. And as long as they have water, they can live — even in the most blistering conditions. Because they have tapped into that precious source of life which flows beneath the visible surface, they can survive in the desert an entire lifetime.

In terms of our spiritual survival — our ultimate fulfillment — we need to discover that precious Source of Life that lies deep within our souls. We need to tap that precious Source of Life which Jesus described as “living water” (Jn. 4:10). “Whoever drinks of this water that I shall give him will never thirst,” Jesus said. “The water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14).

The largest dictionary in the English language, devotes 10,000 words toward defining the word “think” in its various contexts. The word “strike” means one thing on the sports’ page and another thing on the business page. “Dribble” means one thing to a basketball player and another thing to the mother of an infant. “Battery” means one thing to an automobile repairman, and another thing to an artillery officer. Everything derives its meaning from what precedes, what follows and what surrounds it, that is to say, from its context. Nothing under the sun exists entirely unto itself. “No man is an island,” the poet John Donne wrote. Only by seeing ourselves in the full context of that which preceded us, that which surrounds us and that which is to follow, can we come to grips with our own meaning and purpose as human beings.

In Jesus Christ, the mystery of man’s meaning and purpose is revealed as a continuum, a continuous stream in which past, present, and future all come together. In Jesus Christ, the mystery of the human condition is revealed in full context.

Our beginnings — the Divine act of creation — is revealed as an act of God’s Love and Mercy. In Genesis we read that God continues to “bestow Mercy down to the thousandth generation” (Gen. 20:6). Then Jesus comes to reveal the fullness of this Mystery and to entrust the continuing revelation of God’s Love and Mercy to His community of believers. We, then, are today’s link between the Mercy which brought mankind into being and the Mercy which lies at the end of life’s journey. “Blest are they who show mercy; mercy shall be theirs” (Mt. 5:7). In the context of Christian living, our acts of human reconciliation bind us to God’s merciful act of creation and God’s merciful act of final reconciliation, both.

In today’s Gospel episode, Jesus delivers this message to a “home town” audience. They are amazed at His words, but refuse to take them seriously. “After all,” they say to one another, “is this not he carpenter, the Son of Mary?” (Mk. 6:3). “So much did their lack of faith distress Him,” Mark tells us, “He made the rounds of neighboring villages instead” (Mk. 6:6).

We who regard ourselves as Jesus’ brothers and sisters are that “home town” crowd assembled to hear His Word. And we are free, as were the people of Nazareth, to take Him seriously or not. If we do take Jesus seriously, we will be Graced with Wisdom to understand ourselves in the context of eternity and eternal values. We will be empowered to elevate old perspectives and established ways to a new and higher level of meaning. And we will place our lives in a context wherein we make the connection between where we are going right now with where we will be going; the connection between things as they are right now with things as they ought to be.

Biology teaches us that man is the most adaptable of all living creatures. Man has fought extinction, survived and developed by adapting to a steadily changing natural environment: from the ocean, to the shores, to the land proper, to the trees, and back to the land. But these adaptations to changing contexts over the course of millions of years are no more astonishing than the development of each person’s individual life. For example, in the brief span from conception to birth we move through many different contexts. In the ocean-like conditions of our mother’s womb, while our lungs and digestive systems are developing, we depend upon the umbilical cord for nourishment. Within months our mother’s labor contractions are appropriate acts of pushing us from an old to a new context of breathing, taking on nourishment and digesting.

As a species and as individuals, man survives and develops physically by adapting to his environment. And context is a matter of life and death — not only on the physical level, but also on the spiritual level.

Throughout Second Corinthians, the Apostle Paul describes his personal, spiritual journey — from sickness to health, from weakness to strength, from anguish to joy — in terms of moving from an old to a new context. He speaks of being spiritually crushed beyond endurance, of despairing of life, of feeling like a man “condemned to death.” He speaks of affliction and doubt and persecution, of “trials, difficulties, distresses, beatings, imprisonment and riots.” He speaks of “hard, sleepless nights and fastings.” He speaks of beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, hunger and thirst, cold and nakedness. Yet, Paul, who remained steadfast in his missionary zeal despite these trials and tribulations, describes himself as weak. “I will do no boasting about myself unless it be about my weaknesses,” he writes (2 Cor. 12:5). By any standard, Paul was anything but a weak man. He was, in fact, an enormous tower of strength, as he himself well knew and often expressed. Is it false modesty that accounts for this seeming contradiction? Is Paul putting us on? Paul himself gives us the answer: it is a matter of context. In any context apart from Jesus, he is lifeless, spiritless, apathetic, vulnerable — in short, weak. In Jesus, he is alive, spirited, resolute and impregnable — in short, strong. Apart from Christ he can do nothing. In Christ he can do anything. Thus, Paul exhorts the people of the Church in Corinth to live their own lives in this context: “Mend your ways,” he says. “Live in harmony and peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you … The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ … be with you all” (2 Cor. 13:11, 12).

In Jesus’ coming we have received God’s assurance that His Kingdom of Grace is at hand. In Jesus’ coming, mankind is ushered into the final stage of adaptation. In Jesus’ coming the meaning and purpose of our lives are revealed in full context. In Jesus’ coming, we are given to understand ourselves in the context of eternity and eternal values. Henceforth, old perspectives and established values are elevated to a new and higher level of meaning. Henceforth, we are called to reorder our priorities and our values so as to bring them into harmony with the fullness of Revelation in Christ.

Henceforth, in the context of eternal values, the law of vengeance is superseded by the spirit of reconciliation; the legalism, “an eye for an eye,” is transformed into a prayer for one’s persecutors; religious leadership is transferred from the proud and self-righteous “just man,” to the humble, self-accusing, repentant sinner; the Good Samaritan — an outcast — inherits the place of honor at the banquet table, hitherto reserved for the mighty; the two Great Commandments, “Love God” and “love your neighbor” are revealed in their full context: love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable.

What are your thoughts on the subject of Acceptability?