Painting the Saints

Do you ever feel discouraged, or like you will never live up to the kind of life Jesus expects of his followers? If you do, the Bible offers a word of encouragement. First, I would like to share a poem by Robert W. Service called “My Madonna.” Here is the poem:

I hailed me a woman from the street,

Shameless, but, oh, so fair!

I bade her sit in the model’s seat

And I painted her sitting there.

 

I hid all trace of her heart unclean;

I painted a babe at her breast;

I painted her as she might have been

If the Worst had been the Best.

 

She laughed at my picture and went away.

Then came, with a knowing nod,

A connoisseur, and I heard him say;

“’Tis Mary, the Mother of God.”

 

So I painted a halo round her hair,

And I sold her and took my fee,

And she hangs in the church of Saint Hillaire,

Where you and all may see.

 

Why is this relevant here? This poem, although strange and a bit irreverent, with certain interpretation, expresses a great theological truth. While Service may aiming for the humor in the irony of a loose woman being the model for a portrait of the Mother of God, this irony is central to the Christian faith. Behind every icon or stained glass window displaying a saint lies a historical figure. None of these individuals were perfect, and many “saints,” like Augustine of Hippo and the apostle Peter, were deeply flawed. St. Paul even persecuted Christians before he himself joined the church. In this respect, the woman in the poem is in no way out of place.

What made every saint saintly was not that they lived a perfect and holy life in every respect, but the grace of God working in them. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence made these people saints. Every image of a saint is not a testament to a perfect life, but a life that responded to God’s grace and ever sought to deepen its relationship with God.

Imagine that the painter in this poem is really God the Father. Because Christ died for you, God looks at you as holy, no matter what flaws you may perceive yourself to have. If God were to paint your picture, you would look like a saint too! St. Peter describes the identity of Christians like this: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Pet 2:9a). We are chosen, royal, and holy, belonging to God.

All followers of Christ are called to be saints (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2), and as the Holy Spirit guides us to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, our actual lives will one day match the way God already sees us. As Paul says, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely. . . The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thess 23a, 24). Take heart, because you are beautiful in God’s eyes.

God is With Us

As a new father—my son is about to turn four months old, hooray!—one of the difficult new facts of life I have discovered is that no matter how much his mama and I shower him with love and affection, we cannot prevent him from experiencing distress, even at his tender age. One of the more upsetting things about a young baby’s cries of distress is how it can cause him to lose contact with reality. If our baby was burdened with hunger for too long, his cries could make him oblivious to the world around him, even if food—that for which he longs—is directly in front of him and within reach. Before we could meet his needs, we needed to first swaddle and shush and comfort him, reminding him that his parents are present and that he has nothing to fear. Only then will he relax and be present so we can take care of his needs.

As Christians, we can be tempted to do this to our heavenly Father as well. Have you ever been so caught up in the cares of life that you are oblivious to the love and affection God is showering upon you? I have certainly been there. If we are weighed down by anxiety and worldly concerns, God may desperately be trying to reach us and meet our needs, but just like my hungry baby, we are oblivious. Sometimes we need to be reminded that God is with us.

We lose sight of God for perfectly legitimate reasons, of course. Life offers all sorts of burdens, sicknesses, difficulties, frustrations, tragedies, and a whole slew of other problems that make our hearts heavy. Maybe we sometimes feel like the Israelites in Egyptian captivity. After Moses proclaimed to the Israelites the coming salvation and liberation by the LORD, the scriptures comment: “[The Israelites] would not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery” (Ex 6:9). If you feel enslaved by the cares of life so that even the promises of God are hard to believe, remember that the LORD was faithful and did free the Israelites, even though they disbelieved Moses’s word.

Maybe we feel like Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. Recall the story involving her in Luke 10:38-42. Martha is distracted from Jesus because of all of her chores and duties as hostess, which she found to be so important. She even passive-aggressively tries to make Jesus chide her sister Mary for not helping with the chores. But instead he turns the situation on its head and commends Mary for sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching. Is doing the laundry or the dishes—or whatever—so consuming that it distracts from listening to God’s voice? Is having our affairs in order such a priority, even out of reverence for God, that they blind us to what God wants us to see?

Whatever the cause, there may be times in life when God is seeking to speak to us, seeking to meet our needs, but we are oblivious. This is a hopeful thought! If you are burdened by cares of life and God seems far away, take heart. Our Father and our Lord is quite present and ready to shower us with love and affection, if only we take a moment to stop screaming like a baby and open our eyes. Let us learn from Mary, and take time to sit at our Lord’s feet and simply listen. What does he say? “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20b). However we feel, no matter what we are experiencing, good or bad, we are never alone. Our Father is holding us in his strong arms, and Christ is our constant companion. We have nothing to fear.

Let us take to heart the apostle Peter’s words: “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you . . . And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet 5:7, 10).

The Family of God

If you are familiar with the Gospels, you know that Jesus does some rather unexpected things in them, like throwing moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem and allowing strange women to anoint him with expensive oil. One of these things, you may have noticed, is actually something that he does not do: get married and have children. Why is this significant?

The very first thing that God says to humans (Adam and Eve) after creating them is to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”(Gen. 1:28). Essentially, God is commanding humanity to procreate, to bring forth new life. This command is then reaffirmed after Noah and his family emerge from the ark after the great flood (Gen. 8:13-19). This task to “be fruitful” is integral to human identity, being given to us even before the revelation of the Law to Moses. It is part of our purpose.

If Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s will, why does he seem to have not fulfilled this command? Surely he could not have just disregarded it? A hint may be found in Mark where Jesus radically redefines the meaning of family, saying, “Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother”(Mk. 3:35). If true family is not defined by blood ties but mutual obedience to God, maybe Jesus also fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” in a new way. How exactly did he do this?

Speaking of his coming crucifixion in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself”(Jn. 12:32). In his ministry and saving death, Jesus drew in people to fulfill God’s will by faith. Those who are gathered to Jesus make up the family of the children of God (Jn. 1:12-13). There is a powerful concrete moment of how this redefinition of family works while Jesus is on the cross itself: “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home”(Jn. 19:26-27). Jesus’ mother was losing her beloved son before her very eyes, and Christ’s disciple was losing his beloved teacher, but they were given a new bond with each other through the very crucifixion they were witnessing. These two, not related by blood, but among the first to be gathered to Christ, experienced the fruits of the mutual love that comes from being in the family of those who do the will of God.

Jesus certainly fulfilled the commandment to “be fruitful and multiply” by gathering the family of the saints, greater than all others since it will receive the inheritance of eternal life. This family, which we know as the church, is spread all over the earth, and continues to grow as Christ reigns in heaven and continues to gather God’s children to himself.

When we encounter our fellow believers then, it benefits us to remember that we do not simply share some common beliefs, but we share in something even more binding than family ties: the blood of Christ himself. The very life of us all is bound up in the mercy of our heavenly Father and the saving death and resurrection of Christ. When we consider our brothers and sisters in the faith in this way, as our siblings in the faith, how much love and forgiveness will we be able to extend to them! We are truly blessed to have God as our Father, who we may enjoy forever with the entire family of God.

A Controversial Healing

Luke 6:6-11: On another Sabbath, [Jesus] entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

In this story, we witness Jesus breaking the rules. There is an electrifying tension in the air as Jesus faces off with the Pharisees over a man with a withered hand. It may seem like madness to us that Jesus is criticized and fills people with fury over miraculously healing someone, but Jesus has done a very wrong thing here in the eyes of the Pharisees.

Underlying this face-off is really a dispute about the Sabbath. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 stipulates concerning the weekly Sabbath day that “On it you shall not do any work”(Deut. 5:14). This was well and good, but a question still remained: what exactly constituted “work”? The school of the Pharisees, to make sure that they did not violate the Sabbath, observed a large number of traditional rules that gave specific instances of what work was and was not. In following these guidelines, a person could refrain from “working” and be certain that he/she was not be breaking the Sabbath. This may be one reason why the Pharisees were popular teachers: they made the Law of Moses simple to follow.

In this story, however, we see a dark side of the Pharisees’s teaching. Their rules, designed to better help people follow the Law, were becoming more important than the heart of the Law itself, causing people to lose track of what the real purpose of the rules were in the first place. With this magnified sense of the importance of their own teachings, the Pharisees were watching Jesus’ encounter with the man with the withered hand. If Jesus were to break a rule followed by the Pharisees, it would be as bad as if he had broken the Law of Moses itself.

According to the guidelines, it was considered “work” to perform a healing on the Sabbath. The only exception to this rule was if someone’s life was in danger. Jesus knew this, but he still blatantly healed the man before him. For the Pharisees, Jesus had clearly broken the Sabbath. The man with the withered hand would not have died that day from his disability. Let us not try to decide in this instance whether Jesus actually broke the Sabbath, or only did so in the eyes of the Pharisees. If Jesus really has done “work” to heal this man on the Sabbath, what kind of statement is that making?

By having a withered hand, this man could not fully function in his community. It would have been difficult for him to work and do everyday tasks, enabling to support himself and a family. Jesus restored this man’s hand so that he could experience the fullness of life. In effect, this is Jesus’ way of saying that, while not literally dying, anyone who is not experiencing the fullness of life is not really living at all. Therefore, healing this man was truly a matter of life and death.

Imagine how this message has rung through the ages until it has reached us today. Matters of life and death are not constrained to hospitals, but in any place where people are kept from experiencing the fullness of life. If we are to imitate Christ, we ought to go out to heal those suffering from this lack, and show those in seemingly helpless situations the fullness of life that is only found in Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. How will you respond when to Jesus’ question: “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”

The Crucifixion: A Defeat or a Victory?

Mark 15:22-39: “And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, to decide what each should take. And it was the third hour when they crucified him. And the inscription of the charge against him read, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And some of the bystanders hearing it said, ‘Behold, he is calling Elijah.’ And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’

 

Reading the account of Jesus’ death in Mark can be, frankly, a little disappointing and disorienting after his high-impact ministry of teaching and miracles. It would have been a great moment for Mark to show us Jesus trusting in his Father with all his might, encouraging his disciples to have faith in his coming resurrection. But that’s not what we get. In a brutal scene, forsaken by his apostles, Jesus dies lamenting that God had abandoned him. What is this supposed to teach us? Did God really abandon His Son on the cross?

Typical for Mark’s style, there is more depth to this passage than we can see in a cursory reading. Underneath the surface, he is making a bold, hopeful statement: Jesus really is the king of Israel and the Son of God. The question is, how do we see this deeper meaning?

Understanding Mark here requires us to look back at the Old Testament, from which he is drawing. Specifically, he is taking many images from one of the Psalms. Many of the people who were the original readers of this gospel would have been very familiar with the Psalms of their beloved king David, and they would have quickly seen beyond the surface meaning of this passage into its deeper sense.

The key to the entire passage comes in verse 34, when Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Believe it or not, this is more than a desperate cry for help. Jesus is quoting the first line of Psalm 22. When we look at this psalm, and how Mark is using it here, we see that the message is quite different than it first appears to be. (I invite you to read the entire psalm to get a sense of the overall context.)

Let us look at some more important parallels between this crucifixion account and the 22nd psalm. Verse 7 reads, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Look now to Mark 15:29a, 31a: “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads . . . So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another.”

Next look at verses 16-18 of the psalm: “For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” Then, Mark 15:24: “And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take.”

Do you see the similar imagery? Mark is seeing the fulfillment of psalm 22 in the death of Christ. He isn’t the only one to see it, either. The author of the letter to the Hebrews also points this out in Hebrews 2:8b-12: “Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying (here quoting Psalm 22:22),

‘I will tell you your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’”

Our next question is: why is Mark using this imagery from the Psalm? Mark uses it to make two bold statements. First, Jesus Christ is indeed the Messiah king that everyone has been waiting for, a king worthy of as much and more honor than king David, the author of the Psalm. Linking Jesus to king David through the Psalm makes the claim that Jesus is the rightful king of Israel. Ironically in the account, the inscription put up on Jesus’ cross, mockingly labeling him as the “King of the Jews,” is entirely true.

Second, far from describing a Jesus in despair, Mark’s description of the crucifixion is a profound message of hope. With the lens of Psalm 22, we can see Mark’s interpretation of this event. In the Psalm, despite David’s dire situation, he trusts in God to save him. Out of his predicament, the psalmist says to God, “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel. In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them. To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame”(Psalm 22:3-5). Mark is telling us that despite his being nailed to a cross, Jesus, like David, remembers how God saved his ancestors, and continues to put his faith in Him. Christ’s cry at the end of his life is a cry of anguish, but it is also an expression of his perfect trust in his Father.

The Psalm actually comes to a triumphant note: “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you. For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations”(Psalm 22:27-28).

In expressing the fulfillment of this Psalm in Christ, Mark is boldly declaring that the time is coming when God will be king over all the nations, not just Israel. And, as we have seen, if Jesus is being declared a king here, then he is boldly being declared to be the LORD God Himself.

Even though in this passage Jesus appears helpless and conquered by his enemies, in actuality this is his victory over evil and death, and the declaration of his kingship over the nations. Here is the full extent of what Jesus meant when he said, “’And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’”(Mark 10:44-45).

Returning again to Hebrew’s, this passage is an example of that author’s message: “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of god he might taste death for everyone”(Hebrews 8b-9). Even though we do not yet see the world in subjection to Christ, and the world appears grim like in Mark’s account of the crucifixion, just under the surface we see that Christ has died so that we may have eternal life and he is reigning with the Father.

The closing words of Psalm 22 look toward the future, saying of Christ, “Posterity shall serve him; it shall be told of the Lord to the coming generation; they shall come and proclaim his righteousness to a people yet unborn, that he has done it.”

In the end, Mark’s message is simple. Even in the darkest and most distressing situations, Christ is king and Lord, and will deliver us from all evil.