Shake off the dust that is on your feet (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is set forth (1:16–18; 1:19–20; 2:13–14). Jesus calls people to follow him. See

The narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one that ensues provides a sequence of events in which individuals, groups, and crowds all respond to this charge to follow Jesus. In this narrative, Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out, walking alongside him.

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

Later in this narrative, leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). And Jesus instructs them to “read the room” when they are welcomed into the houses in the villages and towns they visit. They are to be sensitive to the reception that they receive.

“So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent”, Mark reports (6:12). But with the caveat: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So Jesus advises his followers (6:11). What did it mean, in the ancient world, to “shake the dust off your feet”?

Dust is central to who we are as human beings. The story of the creation of human beings indicates that the man was “formed from dust of the ground” before God breathed the breathe of life into him (Gen 2:7). But in the foundational myth that is told in the earliest chapters of scripture, dust is at the centre, also, of the punishments that are handed out after the sin committed by Adam and Eve.

The serpent, as a result of its role in tempting them, is told, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen 3:14; Isa 65:25).

The man is told, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Dust is used as a sign of cursing in various stories: in the plague of dust (Exod 9:8-10); in the ritual for cursing an unfaithful wife, when dust from the floor of the tabernacle is mixed into the water of bitterness (Num 5:11-31); in the destruction of the golden calf (Deut 9:21); and in various punishments by the Lord (Deut 28:24, Ps 78:27, Isa 25:12, 26:5, 2 Sam 22:43, 2 Ki 53:7, 2 Chr 34:4).

And the action of shaking out one’s clothing is integral to the scene in Nehemiah, where the leaders of the people who have returned to the land are required to “shake out their mantle” as a sign of their agreement to the economic arrangements made (Neh 5:13). Nehemiah warns them: “so May God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise”. Shaking out has a sense of judgement, of being cursed by God.

However, in association with the tearing of clothes, the placing of dust on a person’s head is also a symbol of repentance. Joshua repents of the sin of Achan by tearing his clothes and placing dust on his head (Joshua 7:6). Ezekiel speaks of the people of Tyre, lamenting, as “they cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes” (Ezek 27:30). Jeremiah reports that “ the elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lam 2:20; see also Isa 25:12; 29:1–4).

The three friends of Job see him coming, and they “raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven”, before they then sat, grieving with him, “on the ground seven days and seven nights” (Job 2:12–13). Dust means mourning and repenting.

In like manner, after being raped by Ammon, Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her robe (2 Sam 13:19), as did Judas and his brothers when preparing for battle (1 Macc 3:47) and when they entered the ravaged temple (1 Macc 4:39).

The same actions involving dust are performed by Judas after being deceived by Simon (2 Macc 10:25), Jews at the news of Nicanor’s imminent invasion (2 Macc 14:15), and grieving daughters and mothers in Jerusalem when the victorious Ptolemy attempts to enter the temple (3 Macc 1:18). We might also note the messengers who arrive with torn clothes and dirt on their heads (1 Sam 4:12; 2 Sam 1:2, 15:32). These are all stories involving grief and despair.

Job himself uses dust and sackcloth to signify that “my face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:15–16). As a result, he laments, “ God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30: 19). Returning to dust is the final state for those punished by God (Job 34:5; see also 10:9; 17:6; 20:11; 21:26; Ps 7:5; 22:15; 90:3; 104:29; Isa 26:5; Lam 2:21)—or, indeed, for all human beings (Eccles 3:20; 12:7).

In the end, though, Job “repents of dust and ashes” (42:6). He has had enough of being repentant. The book ends with a return of the defiant Job. He will have no more use for the dust and ashes of repentance.

In a number of scriptural incidents, dust is used in curses signalling divine punishment. Shimei, for instance, casts dust into the air to curse David (2 Sam 16:13). When Deutero-Isaiah speaks of the coming salvation that God will bring, to remove the punishment of exile, he exhorts Jerusalem to “shake yourself from the dust and arise” (Isa 52:2).

Dust had been a sign of the place of mourning, the place of despair, the place which signifies worthlessness and emptiness. Dust had been where the poor sat (1 Sam 2:8; Amos 2:7); it was where the enemies of Israel were pressed down and beaten into fine particles by the Lord (2 Sam 22:4 3; 2 Ki 13:7; Job 40:13; Ps 18:42; 44:24–25; 72:9; 83:13; Isa 41:2; Micah 7:17). Now, the people were called to leave that dust behind and move on in hope.

Jesus instructs his followers to shake the dust off their feet “as a testimony against them” (6:11). This seems to be an action warning the listeners that they are liable to judgement because they have failed to repent. However, the phrase could also be translated, “as a witness for their benefit”, suggesting that the action was intended to provoke the listeners to think further, after the disciples have left, about their message of repentance?

This latter sense is how the same construction functions earlier in Mark’s narrative, where the cleansed leper is to show himself to the priests “for a proof to them” (1:44). But later in the narrative, the very same phrase (eis martyrion autois) describes the function of the disciples defending themselves when on trial before “governors and kings” (13:9).

Could the action of shaking the dust off their feet signal that there would be hope, in the future, from the message of good news that the disciples proclaimed? The implication would be that this is the hope that they carry, and their “witness for the benefit” of their unwilling hosts is that this hope. This hope travels on with them as they journey onwards, with their proclamation of repentance. It also rests, along with the dust, with those they leave behind, who have not yet come to that point of repentance.

Or could the action of shaking off the dust have the function of warning recalcitrants—a graphic demonstration of the warning, ‘God will turn you to ashes if you do not repent’? As the disciples move on to the next town, they were leaving behind a warning with an implicit demand for their repentance.

That seems more likely to be the effect of the phrase, “as a testimony against them” (6:11). Certainly, that’s how it is understood in the parallel account in Matthew, where the action of shaking off the dust (Matt 10:14) is immediately followed by a reference to the fate experienced by Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement (Matt 10:15).also ev

This is ident in the Lukan parallel, where a slight tweaking of the Greek makes it clear that this is understood as “a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). Then, in the Lukan doublet of the sending out of the 72, the saying about the day of judgement (here referring only to Sodom) clarifies the expected judgement beyond doubt (Luke 10:12).

By implication from these later interpretations of the action, shaking the dust off the feet and moving on would appear to provide a sign of judgement to those who refuse to accept the message of the disciples, and repent.

Just sandals and a staff—and only one tunic (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is met each time with an immediate response: Simon and Andrew follow him (1:17), then James and John follow him (1:19), and then Levi the tax collector follows him (2:14). Each leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.

These scenes set the pattern for the rest of the narrative bout the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out following him. He reiterates the call, “follow me”, in later scenes (8:34; 10:21).

The disciples in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel readily demonstrate this response. The disciples, and indeed a larger crowd, did indeed follow Jesus in his journeys around Galilee (2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 6:1; 10:28, 32, 52) and then southwards towards Jerusalem (11:9). Indeed, a group of women who followed him in Galilee continue all the way to Golgotha, watching from a distance as he dies (15:41).

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

On the very first occasion when Jesus gathers all twelve apostles together, he gives them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve … to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.

As the Gospel then reports how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship and mission is spelled out. The apostles—and other followers—have the opportunity to learn from his teachings and to witness his actions while they are with Jesus, and then to replicate these teachings and actions through their presence in other places.

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus are characterised from the start of the narrative (1:39). His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).

These same activities form the basis for the work of the twelve as they leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). Both elements deserve careful attention.

“He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” So Jesus instructs his followers (6:8–9). In the parallel passages for this incident, Jesus is even more strict. In Luke, he prohibits sandals as well (Luke 10:3), and in Matthew, he prohibits both sandals and staff (Matt 10:10)

The description of the mode of dress for the followers of Jesus given here is often compared with the form of dress of a wandering philosopher, particularly of a Cynic philosopher.

Cynic philosophy is named after Diogenes of Sinope, who lived c.400–325 BCE. Diogenes was known as “the dog” (kunos, in Greek) because of his shameless and primitive style of living. Diogenes was given the nickname ‘the dog’ because of his shamelessness. He used to live in a barrel with his only possessions being a robe to wear and a stick to walk.

There are many stories told about Diogenes’ rebellious and nonconformist character. Those who promulgated his philosophy of life, called Cynicism, lived equally simple, basic lives. Sandals, a staff and a cloak characterised many of them (although it seems that a double cloak was worn by many).

Was Jesus telling his disciples to emulate the Cynic philosophers? They were itinerants, travelling from town to town, speaking their views with frankness and then moving on to the next town or village. The followers of Jesus were also to be itinerant, travelling from place to place, boldly proclaiming their message, and staying nowhere for too long.

The second century document, The Didache, clearly instructs followers of Jesus not to remain for more than two or three days in any one place (Didache 11–13). Jesus here is a bit more lenient; he doesn’t set a time limit, but instructs his followers to move on if they meet resistance. In this way, still, they were to emulate Jesus, as “the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

It’s not at all clear that Jesus knew Cynic philosophy; the evidence of Cynic activity comes from places outside Israel. The Cynics were active long before Jesus, but continued on into his time, and beyond. Diogenes lived four centuries before Jesus, and adherents to his type of philosophy are known three centuries after the death of Jesus.

The second century CE writer, Diogenes Laertius, includes accounts of a number of key Cynic philosophers in his large work, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The second century CE philosopher and orator, Dio of Prusa (nicknamed Chrysostom, meaning “golden-mouthed”), noted how many wandering Cynic philosophers were encountered in every town or village.

In his 32nd Oration, Dio describes the typical Cynic: “posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, [they] pass around the hat and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place.”

Dio’s criticism continues: “they declaim speeches intended for display, and stupid ones to boot, or else chant verses of their own composition, as if they had detected in you a weakness for poetry. To be sure, if they themselves are really poets or orators, perhaps there is nothing so shocking in that, but if in the guise of philosophers they do these things with a view to their own profit and reputation, and not to improve you, that indeed is shocking.”

For Jesus to be calling his followers to a way of life that could be seen as comparable to this way of living, would be quite a challenge—and quite a shock.

Indeed, there may be a sign of differentiation from the Cynics. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported as saying that the features which distinguish a Cynic are “his provision-bag (peran) and his staff and his big mouth” (Arian, Discourses of Epictetus 3.22.50). Jesus states that his followers should carry a staff, and speak their message—but here he prohibits them from carrying a provision-bag (peran, 6:8).

Another point of differentiation may be the command not to put on two tunics (6:9). The Greek word used is chiton. The chiton was a knee-length tunic worn as an undergarment; Josephus reports the common practice of wearing two chitones when travelling (Antiquities 17.136).

Musonius Rufus (Epistle 19) notes that Cynics typically wore two tunics—a tribon over their chiton. The tribon was a more humble garment than a chiton, so the outward appearance projected by a Cynic would have been, quite deliberately, that of a person of very lowly status. But for Jesus, the direction to wear only one tunic reflects an even more ascetic mode of living.

Was Jesus deliberately projecting an image—and a reality—deliberately differentiated from the Cynics? Certainly, direct contact by Jews with wandering Cynic philosophers was most likely reasonably rare. And I think that Jesus isn’t advocating specifically that his followers emulate the Cynics.

Jesus has his own reasons for the call he makes. Being on the move and not tied down to one place, and living simply without all the extraneous baggage, reflected an ethos that Jesus wished to cultivate. The focus was to be on the message and the key actions of the disciples, not on any extraneous or additional elements.

Perhaps what is in mind here is the Exodus story, in which the Israelites prepare themselves to be on the move, with minimal complications. They are to wear their clothes (which lasted them the whole time—Deut 8:4, 29:5). They are to fasten their belt and carry their staff (Exod 12:11), and wear their sandals (Exod 12:11; Deut 29:5). They are to take no bread—God will provide in the form of manna and quail, falling from heaven.

The attention of the disciples, as they engage in mission, proclaiming the message, healing, and casting out demons, is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. They are directed away from carrying too many accoutrements, worrying about provisions, and to focus on the task of proclamation and healing. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus.

For that is what he himself taught: “do not be anxious, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we wear’?” (Matt 6:31). And that is what Jesus himself did: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

Values and Principles in the context of a pandemic (revisited)

Cases of COVID-19 continue to occur in Australia. Lockdowns and enforced periods of isolation have taken place in numerous locations over the last few months; they are taking place again now across the country; and given the slow vaccine rollout and the emergence of variants that spread far more easily and rapidly, they will take place again in the future.

As these new strains of the virus emerge with greater rates of infections, uncertainty continues as to how long and and how hard the restrictions will be needed, and where the next outbreak will occur. In this context of uncertainty, people of faith would do well to reflect on how we respond to the guidance provided by our leaders.

Our faith offers us some support as we navigate the difficulties and dangers that we find ourselves in. There is comfort, as well as guidance, in the beliefs we hold, and in the ways that they are applied to our current situation of pandemic. Whether we gather together for worship and fellowship, or we are gathering-apart by online means, there are principles which hold good for us.

My thoughts follow on from my earlier biblical and theological considerations in and repeat what I wrote in a subsequent post,

So here are some key principles, along with some associated biblical passages that, in my thinking, shape our ethos and inform how we make responsible ethical decisions about how we gather as church.

1. Gathering for worship is important, but safety of people is more important

We know that, across society, there are many people who are vulnerable, who needs our particular care, support, and attention. Whilst gathering-together for worship, prayer, discussion, fellowship, and conversation, is highly valued, our highest priority must be to act in a manner that ensures the lowest risk for people in society, that offers a safe place and safe manner for people to gather-together.

We have committed to being a Safe Place some years ago, and whilst we have applied that to matters such as the safety of children and young people, the physical arrangement in our buildings, and acceptance of diversity. Can we now apply that to the matter of community health and wellbeing?

The psalmist reflects, “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now rise up,” says the LORD; “I will place them in the safety for which they long” (Psalm 12:5). In another psalm, we hear the prayer, “O Lord, let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever” (Psalm 40:11). We need to echo that sentiment and follow that commitment to safety as we gather together.

2. The weakest or most vulnerable is the test for any decision we make

The people who have high risk of infection are those who have the following vulnerabilities: an impaired immune system, one of a number of chronic medical conditions, age, and people with Aboriginal and Islander descent.

Paul writes to the believers in a number of his communities, exhorting those who are “stronger” to attend to “the weak”, with the fundamental principle that “orientation to the needs of the other” undergirds everything. That orientation should govern how we think about, and how we act in, the days ahead. Those who are most vulnerable in terms of age or health should be the litmus test for anything that we consider doing when we gather-together.

Our own personal needs (or desires), the hopes and wants (or desires) of a community of faith, need to have this first consideration governing all that they decide. As Paul writes:

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2:3-4)

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (Rom 14:13)

You can read more about this way of operating in Romans 14:1-15:13. This would form an excellent focus for a Bible Study to go alongside a Church Council discussion of what steps can be taken as we consider gathering-together once more.

3. Relationships with others are our first priority. Loving our neighbour takes priority over programs and activities

“Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Relationships with other people are given priority in this passage, and in the teachings of Jesus throughout the Gospels. That’s a fairly simple observation, but it is incredibly potent in the current situation. How do we ensure that we are “loving our neighbour” in what we decide and what we do together?

Jesus places this as the second “greatest commandment”, alongside the first, of loving God. We need to hold these two aspects in tension, and ensure that we do not focus solely on “loving God” (and doing that in the old, familiar ways, unthinkingly), but we hold together “loving our neighbour” with “loving God”, and that we prioritise these over “returning to business as usual”. If business as usual is just about ourselves as a group, then our higher priority needs to be about how we operate in relation to all those around us.

4. We have a commitment to the common good—the good of all people in society

Almost a decade ago, the Uniting Church adopted a snappy slogan which expressed our commitment to “the common good”. This has been a rallying cry at many gatherings where matters of social justice are being addressed and advocated for—refugees and asylum seekers, affordable housing, care for the creation and environmental policies, sheltering the homeless and feeding the hungry, for instance.

Now, in this challenging time, we need to apply that same commitment “to the common good” to the question of what the implications are when we gather-together, after a time of gathering-apart. We need to ensure that whatever steps we take do contribute to that common good, not simply to the benefit of the group gathering together—be that Congregation, Church Council, Fellowship Group, Bible Study Group, our informal lunch gathering at the church.

And let us remember that “the common good” is itself an important biblical marker:

“So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” (Gal 6:10)

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor 12:7)

5. We need to ensure the safety of vulnerable people in leadership (ministry leaders, both ordained and lay)

“So the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.” (Num 11:16-17)

This story from the Hebrew Scriptures demonstrates that God was concerned to take care of the leadership of the people of Israel. The seventy Elders were he people. appointed to assist Moses in his growing role as a leader of the people in a stressful and challenging time (as they journey through the wilderness, seeking a way to the promised land). The story from of old has strong resonances with our current situation!

If we accept that God demonstrated concerns for the pressures on Moses, can we see that this provides an analogy for the way that we offer care for our leaders, especially those who are vulnerable themselves, or living in a household with another vulnerable person?

Pressures on ministry leaders (both those ordained, and those lay people who are providing local leadership) to lead their people in gatherings should not be countenanced, until such time as it is clear that all the required protocols can be, and are being, adhered to, and they are not in any position of extra vulnerability because of this. That requires careful discernment and wise leadership at the local level.

See also

See also

SUE: Canberra’s new Pink Sleepbus

Men in Canberra who are without a home have been able to sleep safely under the Safe Shelter scheme for the last decade. The Uniting Church has been at the forefront of assisting such men, with overnight sleeping available on the Northside at St Columba’s church hall in Braddon, and breakfast and associated services available each morning at the Early Morning Centre at Canberra City Church in Civic.

Where do women who are homeless find shelter at night? The limited spaces available in homeless shelters mean that many sleep rough—in door alcoves, under bushes, or, for the more fortunate, in their car, or couch surfing in the homes of friends. Until now. Until the coming of SUE, the Pink Sleepbus.

In a partnership including the Tuggeranong Uniting Church and the National Council of Women in the ACT, Sleepbus is about to open a service for women only, based in the Southside of the national capital. Already the Blue Sleepbus is operating in Queanbeyan, with beds available for men and women. SUE, the Pink Sleepbus, will be the first of its kind—offering safe sleeping for women, including women with children, as well as associated services such as breakfast and information about what services are available locally.

The Rev. Elizabeth Raine has had a concern for homeless women for some time. When she ministered at City and St Columba’s, she saw the value of “stop-gap” services—limited as they may be. They don’t solve the housing crisis for society, but they do offer support, care, and nourishment for those who live on the streets. When she moved to Tuggeranong, Elizabeth began exploring with her Church Council how the Congregation might reach out to needs in the community. Replicating the model of Safe Shelter, but for women, was on the cards.

Then the church became aware of the possibility of hosting a Sleepbus. Elizabeth had been involved in the Southside Homeless Initiative, which became aware of the initiative underway in Queanbeyan. Juanita Flett, of the National Council of Women in the ACT spearheaded a fundraising drive in late 2019, raising the $100,000 that is required to bring a Sleepbus to the area. By early 2020, everyone was poised, ready to go—and then COVID hit.

“We know that more than half the homeless in Canberra are currently women, and we know that the homeless rate of women over 50 is currently rising—not just in Canberra, but right around Australia”, the Rev. Raine said. She cited the most recent census data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which shows:

• over half of Canberra’s homeless population are women

• 59% of people accessing ACT homeless services are women

• 53 percent of Canberrans living in low-income households are women

• older single women are the largest growing cohort of homeless people in the ACT.

“That situation is a real concern to us as compassionate people of faith”, Elizabeth said. “When I read the Bible, I see that God charged the people of Israel with providing special care for the vulnerable members of society—widows and orphans, with no males to protect and support them—as well as the “aliens in the land”, foreigners residing in Israel (Deut 10:18, 14:28–29, 16:11,14).

In his teachings, Jesus praises “whoever gives a cup of water to drink” (Mark 9:41), and in the parable of the sheep and the goats he indicates that whenever you shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give a drink to the thirsty, “you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40).

“So we’re hoping that those women who are housed in very vulnerable circumstances can find a place on the Pink Sleepbus, to at least get a good night’s sleep, clear their heads, think properly, and hopefully access services that will give them a more permanent solution to their situation. That’s the least we can do for them.”

The bus is a large bus which can sleep up to 22 women each night—each in their own separate pod. Each pod (see picture above) is air-conditioned and comes with a mattress, pillows, sheets, blankets (washed daily), USB charging, portable toilet, fire extinguisher, lockable door and a television with a special channel showing services in the area for pathways out of homelessness. Inmates from the ACT Corrective Services unit, the Alexander Maconochie Centre, have been making sheets, quilt covers and pet beds for the bus.

The bus also has a special purpose-built larger pod (pictured below) that can cater for women with children, with two double bunks in its own area. There is a storage area running underneath the sleeping pods that includes pet pods, so that if women are travelling with their pets, there is somewhere for their pets to stay overnight.

The women are met each night by volunteers from local service groups and workers from employers who have a community service scheme. The pods are cleaned thoroughly each morning by a new set of volunteers, and fresh linen is provided for each night’s stay.

The front of the bus has its own self-contained section, where a caretaker sleeps at night. Juanita Flett explained that “the bus is really an emergency stop-over for the women; it’s not meant to be a permanent solution, it just provides a safe sleep for that night, and then the women can face the next day after having a good rest.”

“One of the contributing factors for some women who find themselves experiencing homelessness is trying to get away from a violent situation at home”, Juanita continues. However, the lack of available crisis and transitional accommodation in the ACT is also often a leading factor for women returning to abusive relationships and unsafe housing situations.

The ABS data indicates that over half of ACT women experiencing domestic and family violence become homeless in the first year post-crisis. “We are well aware of that”, says Juanita. “Given the extra challenges that this presents for those women, having a trained caretaker on hand at all times is important.”

Elizabeth adds, “With safety concerns in mind, the caretaker is able, if the situation requires, to drive the bus away from the scene to a safer location. Simon Rowe, the CEO of Sleepbus, has ensured that local police and other services are aware of the operations of the Sleepbus and are on hand to intervene should any situation escalate to that point.”

Simon Rowe (Sleepbus), Rev. Elizabeth Raine (Tuggeranong Uniting Church), Juanita Flett (National Council of Women ACT)

Juanita notes that “the bus is surrounded by CCTV. At night, the pods are completely blacked out, so you can’t see into them—nobody could know who is in a particular pod. All the CCTV cameras are connected to the caretaker’s cabin, and there is also security on call.” “Yes—the bus is on wheels”, Elizabeth noted, “so it can be moved if a desperate situation arose. That’s one of the things that originally appealed to us.”

The Pink Sleepbus will be stationed at Tuggeranong Uniting Church’s car park for three nights a week to start off with—Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Elizabeth notes that “We expect it will take some time to build up the service, for people to develop a trust in the volunteers who meet them. We want people to know that if you’re sleeping rough and you’re not getting a good night sleep, you don’t need to keep doing that. You can sleep on the Sleepbus, have a good breakfast, and be pointed to some of the local services that can assist you longer-term.”

Local community workers estimate the homeless population in Tuggeranong, in Canberra’s south, to be about 40 people sleeping rough at any one time, but they say it is hard to know. Georgie Fowler, President of the Tuggeranong Rotary Club, is involved in the Safe Shelter for men that operates in Tuggeranong. “The leading cause of homelessness is legal issues and family crisis,” Ms Fowler said. “So that surprised us, because there’s a common misconception that drugs and alcohol and general substance abuse lead to those situations—but that’s not the case.”

SUE the Pink Sleepbus was launched on Saturday 19 June in the car park of the Tuggeranong Uniting Church in Wanniassa, with a good crowd of almost 100 people from the Uniting Church, the National Council of Women ACT, and a number of local service organisations (SeeChange, Rotary, Lions, Communities At Work, and others).

Local members Nicole Lawder and Mark Parton attended the launch.

Mark Parton MLA, Rev. Elizabeth Raine, Nicole Lawder MLA

The bus is sponsored by ICON Water and some other local businesses, and is named after the late Sue Schreiner, feminist, lawyer, and ACT community activist. Ms Schreiner, the first woman from the ACT to be admitted to the New South Wales Bar, was a staunch advocate for finding solutions to homelessness.

SUE was “open for business” on Friday 25 June, the first night that she was stationed at the Tuggeranong Uniting Church, with a number of volunteers on hand to welcome women who were looking for a comfortable, safe, and warm sleep for the night.

Elizabeth with some of the volunteers on “opening night”

For information on Sleepbus, see

To contribute to the costs of the Canberra Pink Sleepbus, go to

See also

On not stereotyping Judaism when reading the Gospels (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The interlinked stories of the dying girl who had lived for 12 years (Mark 5:25–34) and the woman who has bled for 12 years (Mark 5:21–24, 35–43) are stories with a Jewish focus. They each contain the number 12, a very important number in Judaism. See

These two stories each tell of a way that Jesus offered hope to the woman and the girl. And they each deal with matters of protocol and behaviour within the Jewish holiness system.

Holiness was central to the people of Israel. Those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The priests oversaw the implementation of the Holiness Code, a large section of Leviticus (chapters 17–26), which explained the various applications of the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7,26).

As well as overseeing the various offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought to the Temple, the priests provided guidance and interpretation in many matters of daily life, including sexual relationships and bodily illnesses, as well as the annual festivals and other ritual practices.

In the towns and villages of Israel, by contrast, the scribes and Pharisees provided guidance in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. They undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

So the encounter of the bleeding woman with Jesus had implications in terms of how he interacted with someone suffering from a physical illness. This was a matter regulated by various laws, including, most prominently, a comprehensive catalogue of laws relating to skin diseases, or leprosy (Lev 13–14) and, more relevant to this story, bodily discharges (Lev 15).

These laws specify that, if blood was being discharged from the woman as menstrual blood (“her regular discharge from her body”) that required specific actions to deal with the uncleanness that this produced (Lev 15:19-24).

If it was for other reasons (“a discharge of blood … not at the time of her impurity”) another set of laws applies (Lev 15:25-30). The woman herself is not seen as unclean; but anything she touches, anything she sits or lies on, is regarded as unclean. The processes for maintaining a clean status in her household, avoiding these items of furniture, or even direct contact with the woman, would have been onerous.

Furthermore, the request of the synagogue leader to Jesus could possibly bring him into contact with a dead body—a matter that was regulated by laws (Lev 22:4; Num 5:1-2, 9:6-12, 19:11-13). Jairus says that the girl is “at the point of death” (5:23). The cries of the crowd (“your daughter is dead”, 5:35) and the weeping and wailing of the people outside the house (5:38) suggest that the rituals of mourning for a deceased person had already begun. Nevertheless, Jesus assures Jairus that the girl is not dead, but sleeping (5:35).

Another strongly Jewish element in the story of the bleeding woman in her belief that, if she touched the clothing of Jesus (most likely the fringes or tassels), she would be cured. Whilst the laws relating to bleeding indicate that the “direction” of things is that an unclean state touching a clean state renders the clean state unclean, the direction is reversed in this story. The power that resides in Jesus is able to overcome the uncleanness associated with the woman (5:29).

The way that Christians have often read the Levitical prescriptions has been to dismiss the so-called “cultic laws” and maintain adherence only to the moral imperatives embedded within the pages of details about ritual and worship. From this perspective, the stories included in the section of Mark’s Gospel that we are focussing on, it is said, reveal that Jesus ignored or dismissed the prescriptions of the Law. Jesus is seen to validate the attitude that the laws in the Old Testament are no longer valid.

But neither of these Gospel stories give any warrant for such a negative approach to the Holiness Code. In neither case does Jesus actually breach the provisions of the Law. Indeed, the way that the Law functions is misunderstood in so many Christian readings of this story, as well as other parts of the Gospels.

Rather than operating as a constraining imposition, the Law actually deals with real life situations and provides ways that these situations are to be dealt with or managed. The woman with a discharge “beyond the time of her impurity”, for instance, could remove her uncleanness by offering two turtle doves or two pigeons (Lev 15:29–30).

The Pharisees, it is often said, imposed numerous demands on the people. They “made a fence around the law”—a phrase derived from the opening words of Pirke Aboth (The Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate in the Mishnah. The tractate begins:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.”

Making a fence around the Law is apparently derived from Deut 22:8, which in one translation instructs that when you are building a house, you must build a fence around the rook, roof in order to avoid guilt should someone fall off the roof.

The Pharisees were operating as ancient fence-makers (or gatekeepers, if you will), ensuring that people operated within the bounds of what was required by the Law. Of course, each time a particular law is invoked in a specific situation, it needs to be applied to that situation, interpreted as to how it might apply. That goes for laws in society today, as much as it does for laws in the ancient Jewish society.

The criticisms that Jesus makes of those who follow the Law and teach the Law need to be seen as debates taking place within Judaism, not as criticisms made from outside Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, living in Jewish lands, trained in understanding the Torah, engaged in applying it to situations in life. His words reflect his interpretation of the Law, not a rejection per se of the Law, as he participates in the culture, practices, and customs of his people.

Christians and Jews have had difficult relationships over the years. The difficulties have been based on misunderstandings, accusations, and the damaging intensification that comes through polemical debate, where careful listening and understanding have been absent. That has been the case, sadly, when matters associated with the application of the Law is concerned.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday reminds us of this lack of appreciation, and invites us to commit to a positive appreciation of Jewish traditions and practices, recognising that Judaism continues as a living faith today, and acknowledging that Jesus was engaged in interpretation, not rejection, of the Law. And in the midst of this, he offers hope to a woman who had suffered for 12 years, and a girl of 12 who was on the point of death.

On ‘twelve’ in the stories of the bleeding woman and the dying child (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The Gospel reading that is offered by the revised common lectionary this coming Sunday is a two-for-one deal. The story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5:25–34) is surrounded by the story of his encounter with one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus and his dying daughter (5:21–24, 35–43).

Jesus heals the woman who reached out to touch his clothing, telling her, “daughter, your faith has made you well” (5:34a) and commanding her to be healed (5:34b). Jesus reassures the synagogue leader with the exhortation, “do not fear, only believe” (5:36), informs him that his daughter “is not dead, but sleeping” (5:40), and raises her with the Aramaic phrase, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (5:41).

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is simply a favourite technique employed by the writer of this Gospel. There are a number of stories that are connected in this way (often called “intercalation”, or “sandwiching”). The scene at the family home wraps Jesus’ engagement with his family around an interaction with the scribes (3:22–30). The sending out of the disciples and their return bookends the account of the death of John the baptiser (6:7–30).

The words and actions of Jesus in relation to the fig tree by the road are placed around his actions in the Temple forecourt (11:12–25). The plot to arrest and kill Jesus encompasses the account of the woman in Bethany who anoints the head of Jesus (14:1–11). Other examples are found in the apocalyptic discourse (13:5-27), the scene of the final meal (14:18-25), and the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, with Peter’s denial immediately before and after this scene (14:53-72). It appears to be a favourite technique in this Gospel.

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is the significant number 12 that links these stories? The woman had been bleeding for 12 years; the girl was 12 years of age. The woman had been bleeding since the child had been born. Was there a connection?

I’ve recently read an explanation that draws on the preserve of 12 in both stories as the linking point. James F. McGrath, in his recently-published book, What Jesus Learned from Women (cascade, 2021), notes that the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years was in danger of being considered ritually impure, and thus of being ostracised from community life. Jairus, as ruler of the synagogue, was responsible for ensuring that the requirements for ritual purity were maintained.

The number 12, McGrath suggests, provides a reminder that “these very women whose stories highlight the danger of ritual impurity associated with women in that ancient society are nevertheless part of the people of Israel, and thus worthy of healing and restoration into that community” (p.115). Indeed, as he notes, “women were the ones who made them ongoing existence of the tribes of Israel possible generation to generation thought their reproductive role and power”.

Certainly, 12 was an important number for the Jewish people who were the main characters in the stories told in Mark 5. The prominence of 12 makes the stories seem especially Jewish.

There were 12 sons of Jacob (Gen 49:1–28), then 12 tribes of Israel (Deut 27:12–13). On the table in the Tabernacle were placed 12 silver plates, 12 silver dishes, and 12 golden plates (Num 7:84–89), and the breastplate of the priest contained 12 precious stones (Exod 28:21) as emblems of the 12 tribes as they camped round about the Sanctuary.

Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai with 12 pillars (Exod 24:4) and Joshua had the people take 12 stones from the River Jordan to be placed as a memorial to their entry into the land (Josh 4:1–10).

As the story continues in the Gospels, Jesus chose 12 apostles as his inner circle (Mark 3:13–19 and parallels in Matt 10 and Luke 6; and John 6:67–71). Jesus indicates that this signified the link between his movement and the traditions of Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; and see James 1:1). When Jesus feeds the great crowd of 4,000 people beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:1–9), there are twelve baskets of bread left over (Mark 8:19). In another account, with 5,000 men beside the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1–14), the leftovers are again collected in twelve baskets (John 6:13).

And in the final dramatic visions written about the promised future by the aged seer John, the number 12 figures prominently. We see this first in the vision of a woman wearing a crown with 12 stars (Rev 12:1). The number then appears in the architecture of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10), with its 12 gates with 12 angels and the names of the 12 tribes (Rev 21:12), and its 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14). Finally, there are 12 pearls on these 12 gates (Rev 21:21) and 12 fruits on the tree of life (Rev 22:2).

Is the emphasis on 12 in these conjoined stories in Mark 5 underlining the Jewish setting, and pointing to the centrality of Jewish matters in the story? It’s a fascinating hypothesis.

My wife, Elizabeth Raine, suggests that the significance of the 12 relates to being able to be married. The adult woman in the story is able to marry once her bleeding of 12 years has ended. She is healed (5:29), saved (5:34, often translated as “made well”), and made clean (5:34b). The girl, brought back from the brink of death at 12 years of age, is approaching the time when women were able to be married.

Whether you think this is a legitimate explanation, or not, it is certain that the two stories offer hope for both women. Their encounters with Jesus have each been life-changing.

See also

Forty four years on …

After many years of careful conversation, three Protestant churches decided to join to form the Uniting Church in Australia—44 years ago, on 22 June 1977. The rhetoric was “we are a movement, not a denomination”. They were heady days. The new church issued a Statement to the Nation. There was front page newspaper coverage of the opening service of the new church. There was great optimism about what the future held.

44 years down the track, the Uniting Church has developed a clear identity and carved out a distinctive place within Australian society. We have made mistakes, followed some unhelpful paths leading to dead ends, and not always provided good, transparent, informed decisions. But we are human, flawed, striving, hopeful. We press on.

As the Uniting Church, we have a distinctively open and unconstricted theology, faithful to our reformed and catholic heritage, but contextualised to the contemporary Australian situation. We celebrate multicultural and linguistic diversity and exhibit a warm acceptance of LGBTIQ+ people. Across the church there is a clear and strong commitment to social justice, advocating for refugees, working to effect better housing policies, arguing against the excessive gambling addiction in society, decriminalising drug usage, and other issues.

We have a consistent and thoroughgoing commitment to living sustainably, honouring the creation, and working with community organisations devoted to environmental care. We have an enduring covenant with the First Peoples of the land, an openness to ecumenical and interfaith engagements, and a strong commitment to mission in other countries that means working carefully with partner churches and supporting local initiatives.

In each of these areas, we have ideals, goals, visions, and we have dashed hopes, failed enterprises, inadequate realisations. Yet we press on.

We still talk with orthodox, catholic, conservative, evangelical and pentecostal siblings, but don’t feel constrained by their dogmas or traditions, or by what we perceive to be their restrictions and limitations. We seek to set out in fresh directions, following untested pathways, sailing into unchartered waters, knowing that this means pushing the envelope, risking being criticised or unfriended or worse. Sometimes the fresh initiatives work well, sometimes they fail spectacularly. But at least we try—and we press on.

It’s a good place to be! We are appreciated by so many people in society. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the comment, “If I went to church, it would be to a Uniting Church”. Well, it’s OK not to go to church, but it’s great that church folk can work with others in the community on projects of mutual interest, to the benefit of all. “Uniting for the Common Good” has been one of our catchcries in recent years. “Where the wild God is” is the current theme for our consideration—we go where God is already at work.

Earlier this year I had this piece on the identity of the Uniting Church posted to the Assembly website. I thought it was worth reposting today, the 44th anniversary of the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia. See

See also and

World Refugee Day 2021: “when I was a stranger, you welcomed me”

Today, 20 June, is World Refugee Day. On this day, people around the world celebrate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. It stands at the beginning of Refugee Week; in Australia, this is always held from Sunday to Saturday of the week which includes 20 June (World Refugee Day).

The first Refugee Week events were organised in Sydney in 1986 by Austcare (Australians Caring for Refugees). Austcare’s mission is to assist refugees overseas, displaced people and those affected by landmines to rebuild their lives, through the expert delivery of development programs in partnership with local communitities and other agencies.

In 1987, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) became a co-organiser of the week, and the week became a national event from 1988. RCOA took on responsibility for the national coordination of Refugee Week from 2004.


The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) was established in 1951, when it was estimated that there were just 1.5 million refugees around the world. The UNHCR has most recently estimated that during 2020, for the first time in recorded history, the number of people forcibly displaced had reached over 80 million.

According to the UNHCR, there are now 82.4 million forcibly displaced people, as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or events seriously disturbing public order in their countries of origin. 35 million of these people are children, aged under 18 years. 1 million of these children were born as refugees; in the years 2018 to 2020, an average of between 290,000 and 340,000 children were born into a refugee life per year.

Over half of these people (48 million) are classified as “internally displaced”, meaning that they are homeless within their own country. About 26 million are officially classified as refugees, meaning that they are “unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.” This is the definition in the Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees—an international agreement which Australia signed in 1951, the year it was published.

A further 4.1 million people are classified as asylum seekers. Under Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to seek asylum The 1951 Refugee Convention prohibits states from imposing penalties on those entering ‘illegally’ who come directly from a territory where their life or freedom is threatened. (Terms such as ‘illegals’, ‘queue jumpers’ and ‘boat people’ are both inaccurate and unhelpful—even though they appear in the media with saddening regularity, they are terms that should be avoided.)

More than two thirds of all refugees currently under the UNHCR’s mandate come from just five countries: the Syrian Arabic Republic (6.7 million), Venezuela (4.0 million), Afghanistan (2.6 million), South Sudan (2.2 million), and Myanmar (1.1 million).

The countries which are currently hosting the most number of refugees are Turkey (3.6 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Uganda (1.4 million), Germany (1.1 million), Sudan (just over 1 million), and the Islamic Republic of Iran (just under 1 million). Developing countries host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, and the Least Developed Countries provide asylum to 27 per cent of the total.

An analysis by the New Internationalist magazine reveals the inequities in how refugees are distributed around the world:

Between January 2009 and December 2018, Australia recognised or resettled 180,790 refugees. This represented 0.89% of the 20.3 million refugees recognised globally over that period. Australia’s total contribution for the decade is ranked 25th overall, 29th per capita and 54th relative to national GDP. It is clear that, as a wealthy and robust country, we can do much better than this.

Some years ago, the Australian Human Rights Commission provided information on the number of refugees in Australia, and on various issues relating to refugees, as this graphic shows:

After intense and extended pressure, the Australian Government eventually reduced the numbers of children being held in detention. However, as recent events concerning the Murugappan family of Biloela have shown, there are still children being held in detention in this country.



Christians have a particular responsibility to welcome refugees and assist them to become fully functioning members of society. This responsibility reaches back well into the origins of the mother religion of Christianity, the faith of the people of ancient Israel.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God charged the people of Israel with providing special care for the “ aliens in the land”, foreigners residing in Israel (see Deut 10:18, 14:28–29). There were specific provisions that “sojourner in the land” were to be accorded the justice due to all Israelites (Exod 22:21–24) and they were to be included in two of the major festive celebrations each year—the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Booths (Deut 16:11, 14).

In the Gospels, Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats and indicates that “whenever you welcome the stranger, shelter the homeless, feed the hungry, and give a drink to the thirsty … you did it to me” (Matt 25:35–40). See

Hospitality was a central virtue in ancient Jewish society, and was well practised by the early Christians (Mark 6:10; Matt 10:11–13, 41; Luke 10: 8–9; Rom 12:13, 15:7; 1 Tim 5:10; 1 Pet 4:9). The importance of welcoming “the stranger” is emphasised in Christian letters (Heb 13:2; 3 John 5), and Paul encourages the Corinthians to consider “the outsider” in their worship (1 Cor 14:13–17).

The Uniting Church has had a long commitment to refugee issues, advocating for the rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and working on the ground to welcome and support refugees as they start to live within Australian society. In 2003, the National Assembly resolved:

a) to note the important call of the gospel to welcome the stranger;

b) to commend and celebrate the work of those within the Uniting Church and wider community who work with refugees and asylum seekers as they commence resettlement within Australia;

c) to celebrate the work which has been undertaken by the NCCA National Program for Refugees and Displaced Persons over many years and for the creation in late 1998 of an ecumenical committee to support this work;

d) to commit the Uniting Church in Australia to ongoing support for refugee and asylum seeker resettlement in Australia.

A major resource on working with refugees, Shelter from the Storm, was adopted at the 2015 Assembly; see

See also


The theme for Refugee Week in 2021 is UNITY. The themes of Refugee Week in the past 16 years have been: Year of Welcome (2020), A World of Stories (2019), #WithRefugees (2018), With courage let us all combine (2015–2017), Restoring Hope (2012–2014), Freedom from Fear (2009–2011), A Place to Call Home (2008), The Voices of Young Refugees (2007), Journeys (2006) and Different Past, Shared Future (2005).

In explaining the 2021 theme of UNITY, the Refugee Council of Australia says:

“The volatility of life in recent times has shown us unequivocally that we need to work together often merely to survive, let alone to thrive and progress. Let’s take the opportunity to start afresh and rebuild our lives together. To count our blessings and to put them to work. Existing and emerging communities. Working together. The powerful potential of Unity. The special brew of ideas from all over the world that created our great way of life can continue evolving if we work together. Let’s not stop now, let’s move forward unified.

“In 2021, we are calling on you to help build a more cohesive community during Refugee Week. Whether hosting a local meal, a community event or attending an online event to hear from people all over the world, join us as we call for the spirit of unity as we recover from the isolation we have all endured in 2020. Stronger. Safer. Healthier. Happier. Together.”


Mark: a Gospel full of questions (Mark 4; Pentecost 4B)

The short story provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 4:35–41) is just seven verses long, but it contains four potent questions.

Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a boat that was sinking into the lake. This upheaval has been caused by a “great windstorm” (4:37). Jesus, however, is asleep. The ensuing dialogue is instructive. During this dialogue, the four questions are posed.

First, the disciples wake Jesus and ask him, somewhat accusingly, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Having been woken up, Jesus commands the storm to be still (4:39), but then he poses two short and incisive questions, in return, to the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40).

The episode ends with yet another question. The disciples, “filled with great awe” at what had happened, mused to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). And that’s where the story ends.

Four questions. Four different requests to consider. That’s how the incident progresses. And through those questions, that’s how we think more about Jesus.

It is questions that are in focus, today, in considering this passage, and indeed, this Gospel—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Indeed, many interpreters argue that Mark’s Gospel can best be characterised by the central question of Jesus: “who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The identity of Jesus is, indeed, central to this Gospel (as it is, also, in the other canonical Gospels).

A passage earlier in the Gospel, Mark 1:21–28, contains another confronting question, which a demon-possessed man asked of Jesus in the early stages of his public ministry: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24). Now this is a question worth pondering.

In Mark’s Gospel as a whole, there are (according to the NRSV) no less than 118 questions. Since there are 668 verses in total in Mark’s Gospel, this means that the reader (or hearer) of this Gospel is confronted with a question, on average, every 5.66 verses! (Why not try reading a couple of chapters through, looking out especially for the questions?)

Some of these questions are simple conversational enquiries—the kind of questions that we ask one another every day. “should we go there? should I do this? do you have any? can I get you something?” and so on. Some questions are genuine requests for information, and reflect people who really want to learn from Jesus—“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17), or “which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28), or “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus, good teacher that he is, responds with information and insight; he takes the opportunity to convert the question into a step forward in the life of discipleship.

Indeed, Jesus himself follows the rabbinic practice of teaching by questioning—he often poses a question which leads the disciples, or the crowd, into further discussion and debate (see, for instance, 3:33; 4:30; 10:3; 10:51). It is interesting to note that this is often how Jesus uses scripture; he does not simply quote it, but he says, “have you not read that…?” or, “do you not known the scripture which says…?”. (Look at 11:17; 12:10; and 12:26.) This style invites conversation and leads to deepened understanding. Scripture is not being used to squash debate, but to open up insights about God. Now that is an insight worth recalling and preserving in our current context!

As Mark tells his story, some people pose questions to Jesus which are quite sharp—and may be designed to create controversy or to challenge the authority of Jesus. For instance: “why does this fellow speak in this way? it is blasphemy! who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7); “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16); “why do your disciples do not fast?” (2:18); “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28); “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (12:14). Jesus did not shy away from the challenge to his honour and authority that such questions posed. According to Mark, he was a public debater of the first order.

Indeed, Jesus poses pointed questions of his own for his disciples and the crowds who follow him. Think about the provocations and challenges in these phrases of Jesus: “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” (4:40); “do you also fail to understand?” (7:18); “do you still not perceive or understand? are your hearts hardened? do you have eyes, and fail to see? do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17–18); “you faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? how much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). There is certainly no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in this Gospel!!

The teachings of Jesus are demanding: to his disciples, he asks, “for what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (9:36); or, with eyes fixed towards the cross, he prods them further: “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38). For their part, the disciples are not afraid to confront their leader when required, as we have seen: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Discipleship means entering into the rough-and-tumble of these difficult questions.

Theologically, perhaps the most challenging question in the Gospel is when Jesus quotes the Psalmist: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Is this an expression of the deepest despair of a human being who feels alienated, abandoned, utterly alone? Mark gives a great gift to followers of Jesus in all generations, when he takes us to the heart of the struggle which Jesus faced on the cross. This question shows us the human dimension of Jesus, as he was confronted by the starkness of life and death.

Of course, the identity of Jesus remains the central motif of this Gospel. It is the focus of the very first verse (“Jesus, Messiah, Son of God”, 1:1) and is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.

We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes:  “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).

Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).

This year, as we meditate on Mark’s Gospel in our personal devotions, as we hear it read in worship, as we prepare sermons to preach from it, or however it is that we encounter it—may the questions it poses strengthen our discipleship, expand our understanding and deepen our faith.

The Murugappans of Biloela

Let’s not get carried away with today’s news about the Murugappan family, held for so long in detention on Christmas Island, but soon, apparently, to be reunited in community detention in Perth, whilst the two daughters receive medical attention.

And let’s use their names—Priya and Nadesalingam Murugappan, who have been in Australia for almost a decade, and Kopika and Tharunicaa, who were both born in Australia. They are not just “the Biloela family”, even though they did settle into that community in Queensland some years ago, nor are they just “the Tamil family” being held in offshore detention. They have names.


So let’s not get carried away with today’s news that the Murugappan family will be reunited in Perth. First, the timing of the announcement today is deviously designed to draw attention away from the revelations made last night by Four Corners on ABC-TV, that the PM had been influenced by a close friend, a devotee of QAnon, to include the signal phrase “ritual abuse” in the Apology to victims of sexual abuse in institutions that he delivered in October 2018. Strike One for devious strategy. See

Second, the Murugappan family will continue to be held in community detention in Perth. They are not being permitted to return, ultimately, to the life that they had made in the Biloela community—where they were well-accepted and greatly loved. They are still to be held in limbo, not yet permitted to be considered as legitimate refugees within Australian society, not yet permitted to make application for permanent residency, not yet permitted to plan for a longterm future in this country. The heartless policy of this government remains clear and obvious.


Third, this is just one small sampling of people who for years have been held—in direct contradiction to international law—in offshore detention. ThenRefugee Council of Australia reports that there are currently 1,483 people in closed detention (367 of whom came by boat, seeking asylum), while there are another 537 being held in community detention. That’s over 2,000 people being held in limbo—some of them for many years—while an unresponsive and heartless system defers any real action in responding to the situation of these people.


Fourth, and most troubling, let’s not forget that our government policy of detention and restriction (including minimal access to health services) has seen no less than twelve refugees and asylum seekers die whilst in detention under the care of Australia. And whilst there has been community response in each case, the government policy has remained steadfastly heartless and unresponsive. And the whole Australian community has been complicit in allowing this terrible situation to continue.


Finally, the situation with the Murugappan family exposes the lie that Australia is built on, and operates by, a “Judea-Christian ethic”. Our two decades of heartless refugee and asylum seeker policy have been in breach of international law and contrary to the principles articulated in scripture by prophet, sage, evangelist, and apostle. Welcome the stranger, care for the outcast, offer hospitality to the visitor, provide water to the thirsty and food to the hungry: commands that were central to the ancient Israelite ethos, that continued to be advocated in the teaching of Jesus, and that are central to the ethic of faithful Jews and Christians today.

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