The Naked Man – pt. 47

loaves-and-fish

For the setting and a cast of characters for this series, click here.

Mark walked into the courtyard from the house, greeting Simeon before sitting down next to his mother. She offered him a platter of dried fish, and he popped one in his mouth, chewing slowly as he surveyed the gathering. “Rachel seems happy tonight,” he observed. Miryam’s face creased into a wide smile as she said, “Yes! You know how she continues to feel bad about not being able to contribute to the shared meal, no matter how often I tell her that there’s always enough, regardless of what each person brings. Well, apparently she bumped into an old friend of her family in the marketplace this morning, and when he heard about the challenges she and her sisters have faced since losing their father, he bought her a sackful of food.” She gestured to the platter. “That fish you’re enjoying? She brought that, along with those loaves of bread. And a couple of skins of wine.” Mark regarded Rachel again. “Such generosity – this food could have fed them for days. And we would not have known that she had hoarded it.” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “That reminds me of another of Peter’s favorite stories…” He washed down the fish with some wine before standing to address the ecclesia.

“In telling the story of what happened to John, I interrupted the story of Jesus sending the twelve out to proclaim the message of repentance, and to heal people of disease and the demonic. Let us hear what happened when they returned. The apostles gathered together with Jesus, and they reported to him all that they had done and taught. And Jesus said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a wilderness place and rest a while.’ For there were many people coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they went away in a boat to a wilderness place by themselves. But they were not to enjoy the promised rest just yet.

“The people saw them going, and many recognized them, so as the disciples headed out in the boat with Jesus, the crowds ran ahead on foot from all the cities, and got there ahead of them. And when Jesus went ashore, he saw a great multitude, and he felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Mark lifted his cup to his lips, and offered a grateful smile to Rachel, acknowledging her generosity, before placing it back on the low table before him.

“Throughout our story we find the promise of G_d providing rest for G_d’s people in this very setting: the wilderness. We find it in the Law and the Prophets, and now Jesus offers the ancient hope of rest to the crowds gathered in the wilderness to hear him teach. For we are people of the new exodus, those who have been liberated from the power of sin and death by the new Moses.”

“And,” interjected Simeon, “by the new Joshua: Yeshua of Nazareth.” He stood to address those gathered. “As Yohannan has told us the story of Jesus each night, we have seen that those responsible for the welfare of G_d’s people failed to care for them. Whether it be priests, or teachers of the Law, or ‘kings’ such as Herod, we were indeed like sheep without a shepherd. This was the concern Moses brought to G_d in the wilderness, after which G_d appointed Joshua to be Moses’ successor. This was the concern G_d expressed through the prophet Ezekiel, as well as making the promise to one day send a faithful shepherd who would provide rest for G_d’s people in the wilderness.” He searched his memory for the text before saying, “‘I will feed my flock, and I will lead them to rest. I will seek the lost, bring back the scattered, bind up the broken, and strengthen the sick; but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with judgment.’ Well, as the lost, and the broken and the sick gathered around Jesus, the fat and the strong plotted against him.” Simeon nodded at Mark, then took his seat once more.

“Thank you Simeon,” said Mark. “Now, when it was already quite late, Jesus’ disciples came up to him and said, ‘The place is desolate and it is already quite late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.’ But Jesus answered and said to them, ‘You give them something to eat!’ And they said to him, ‘Shall we go and spend two hundred denarii on bread and give them something to eat?’“

“That’s a pretty disrespectful response,” observed Yiftach. “If I’d spoken like that to Simon bar Giora…well, let’s just say he would not have been best pleased. But two hundred denarii – that’s a year’s wage for most of us gathered here. Just how many people are we talking about out there in the wilderness?”

“Five thousand men,” responded Mark.

How many?” returned Yiftach in an incredulous voice…

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The Naked Man – cast of characters

Olive-Tree-in-Courtyard-of-the-Church-of-the-MultiplicationSetting

We are in Jerusalem in CE69. A Roman army is encamped outside the walls, awaiting orders to besiege the city. The call has gone out throughout Judaea and Galilee – all faithful Jews must rally to the defense of Jerusalem. Inside the walls, the city is a tinderbox. Simon bar Giora is ‘master of Jerusalem’, his army of 15,000 having been welcomed into the city by the Council. But in the Temple, his rivals John of Gischala and the Zealots control the outer and inner courts respectively.

In the courtyard of a home in the Upper City, members of a controversial group meet each night to hear what one man has to say about such troubling times. The group are members of The Way, a sect within Judaism that believes that Jesus of Nazareth – a man denounced by the Council and crucified by the Romans outside this very city over three decades ago – is in fact the long awaited Messiah, and has been raised from the dead by G_d. The man is Mark, author of the Gospel which bears his name. He has come home to encourage the ecclesia that meets in the house he grew up in.

Cast of characters

Mark:               or, Yohannan Marcus, author of the Gospel

His family:
Mother:          Miryam, host of the ecclesia
Brothers:       Benyamin – a member of the Council
[Benyamin has four grandchildren (Samuel, Deborah, Miriam and David). Their father, Joseph (Benyamin’s son) died a year ago.]

Daniel – a Zealot

Simeon:          An elder of the ecclesia, who wrote to Mark asking him to come from Rome to address the members of the Way

Yiftach:           A long-time follower of Simon bar Giora, who is intrigued by the Way, but who is preparing to fight when the siege begins

Rachel:            A young woman of high class who has experienced a drastic change in status, and who is now grateful to join the gathering for the food and welcome she receives

Adina, Devorah and Ya-el:  friends of Rachel who find themselves in similar circumstances

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The Naked Man – pt. 46

st-john-the-forerunner-icon-croppedMark continued his account of John’s imprisonment. “Now a strategic day came when Herod gave a banquet on his birthday for his lords and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee; and when the daughter of Herodias herself came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests; and the king said to the girl, ‘Ask me for whatever you want and I will give it to you.’ And he swore an oath to her, ‘Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you; up to half of my kingdom.’”

“That must have been some dance,” Yiftach commented. “Indeed,” Mark said. “Although I’m sure they were more impressed by the fact that it was Herodias’s daughter than they were by her performance.” “Perhaps,” responded Yiftach, “but that’s about as big an oath as Herod could make. He was clearly very…impressed.” Adina spoke up. “I’m surprised he managed to say anything, what with his tongue hanging out as far as it no doubt was. Well, did she ask for half his kingdom?”

“No,” Mark responded. “She went out and said to her mother, ‘What shall I ask for?’ And, without hesitation, Herodias said, ‘The head of John the Baptist.’ Immediately she came in a hurry to the king and asked, saying, ‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter.’” Adina pulled a face as she said, “That’s disgusting.” Yiftach nodded in agreement as he said, “And some pretty dark humor, given the setting. I bet her request sobered Herod up pretty quickly! What did he do?”

Mark continued. “Although the king was very sorry, yet because of his oaths and because of his dinner guests, he was unwilling to refuse her. Immediately the king sent an executioner and commanded him to bring back John’s head. And he went and had him beheaded in the prison, and brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl; and the girl gave it to her mother.”

“So,” Yiftach responded, “he takes John’s head to save face in front of all his powerful friends. Because his drunken oath is more important than a man’s life.” “Well,” said Mark, “at least, this man’s life. But clearly what he had done weighed heavy on his mind, because, remember, when he heard about Jesus, Herod’s first thought was, ‘John, who I beheaded, has risen!’ It seems Herod may have regretted killing G_d’s prophet, and feared G_d’s judgment for doing so. Certainly, when Aretas of Nabatea invaded Herod’s tetrarchy a few years later to avenge the dishonoring of his daughter when Herod married Philip’s wife, the stinging defeat Aretas’ and Philip’s forces inflicted on Herod was seen by many as G_d’s judgment for his killing John.”

“What did John’s followers do when word got out about his death?” asked Yiftach. Mark answered, “When his disciples heard about this, they came and took away his body and laid it in a tomb.” “As would eventually happen to Jesus,” said Miryam. Attention in the courtyard shifted to the diminutive figure in her customary chair. “Just as with John, Jesus would also be arrested, imprisoned and then killed. Not as a result of a conspiracy between an angry mother and her daughter, but a conspiracy between powerful men in the Temple and the Roman state.” She sighed. “And just as John’s death foreshadowed Jesus’ death, insofar as his disciples inherited the same mission – to preach repentance and the coming of the Kingdom of G_d – their ever-present reality was that they might inherit the same fate. And wherever gatherings like this one proclaim that same message and refuse to accept the narratives of the powerful, we risk sharing the fate of both.”

Heaviness fell over the ecclesia. Mark rose to his feet once more and spoke. “There are indeed other gatherings like this throughout the Empire where ordinary people like you and I risk much because they belong to the Way. And some have indeed shared in the suffering of John and of Jesus.” He paused, as well-known and beloved faces came to mind. Then his voice rang out across the courtyard. “But they are willing to do so because they believe what Herod feared: that G_d’s prophet has risen from the dead. And while we, too, may one day share in their suffering, we, too, will share in the resurrection. May we go forth from this place tonight in that sure hope…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 45

prophet-speaks-to-king-croppedThe mood in the courtyard was subdued during the meal. There had been fresh outbreaks of violence overnight, with some of Simon bar Giora’s troops attacking temple-goers who they accused of being zealots. Complaints by the victims’ families to the Council had been met with disdain: the ruling elite apparently dismissed the incidents as merely “security concerns.” I wonder what Benyamin has to say about all this, thought Mark as he got to his feet to address the gathering.

“Last night Ya’el asked a question about the threat of violence that hung over the disciples after they were sent out by Jesus. The power of G_d was at work in them as it was in Jesus, and they were casting out demons and healing people. Now ‘king’ Herod heard of this, for Jesus’ name had become well known; and people were saying, ‘John the Baptist has risen from the dead, and that is why these miraculous powers are at work in him.’ But others were saying, ‘He is Elijah.’ Still others were saying, ‘He is a prophet, like one of the prophets of old.’ But when Herod heard of it, he clearly feared that John had indeed returned to haunt him, for he kept saying, ‘John, whom I beheaded, has risen!’”

Yiftach spoke up. “King Herod? That’s old fox was never king!” “No,” agreed Mark, “but it wasn’t for lack of trying.” Seeing some confused looks among those gathered, Mark explained. “Herod Antipas was tetrach of Galilee and Perea for four decades, but his sights were always aimed higher than that. Caesar Augustus refused to give him the royal title he craved, but he kept using it anyway, apparently goaded into doing so by his second wife. His own people would never own him as their king: the Herodian dynasty was half-Jewish, but they showed little interest in keeping the Law unless it was expedient to do so. Antipas was a prime example of his family’s disregard for our people. When he built his capital city, he named it Tiberias, no doubt hoping to curry favor with the new Emperor, but the site he chose was an ancient cemetery, which meant any who chose to settle there would be perpetually unclean. But it was his marriage more than his aspirations to monarchy that drew the ire of John.

“Herod had sent and had John arrested and bound in prison on account of Herodias, the wife of his brother Philip, because he had married her after repudiating his first marriage to the daughter of Aretas IV of Nabatea. Now, John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’ So Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death but could not do so; for Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.”

“But,” Yiftach interjected, “not enough to do what John said apparently.” “Indeed not,” responded Mark. “He was right to be afraid of John. The flouting of G_d’s Law always drew the attention of G_d’s prophets. The people listened when John spoke out against Herod’s re-marriage, and I imagine some heard a call to insurrection in John’s critique. And with the ongoing threat of the insulted and incensed Nabateans to the East, attempting to silence John by imprisoning him was only natural. But Herod stopped short of killing him, despite the urging of Herodias. So she formed a plan to remove the threat John posed to her marriage and to her husband’s honor, waiting patiently until just the right moment to put it into action…”

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Best books of 2016 – fiction

I love ‘Best of…’ lists, especially ‘Best books’ lists. Here’s my annual offering – I hope you find something to look for on your next visit to the library! (Note: although I read the following books last year, many of them were not published in 2016.)

img_0491my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry – Fredrik Backman

My favourite novel this year. Blurring the lines between fairy tale and reality, the author introduces us to Elsa, an “almost 8 year-old” whose granny invented a magical fairyland for her called “the Land-Of-Almost-Awake.” Granny sets Elsa the task of delivering letters to people she needs to apologize to. As she meets each person, Elsa begins to make connections between her granny’s beloved fairy tales and these people. Laugh out loud funny in places, devastating in others, heart breakingly beautiful and broken throughout. A triumph.

With racism, xenophobia and nationalism front and center in our newsfeeds this year, I chose to immerse myself in fiction set in World War 2 and the Shoah, to remind myself just how terrifying these movements can become.

rose-under-fireI began with Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein. A harrowing account of life in Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp, told from the perspective of an 18 year-old American transport pilot, mistakenly sent there after being captured. An unrelentingly painful and disturbing narrative that somehow still manages to capture the beauty of unlikely friendships forged in unbearable circumstances.

thread-of-graceA Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. Regardless of genre, Russell never disappoints. A powerful portrayal of the new-to-me story of how Italian peasants hid tens of thousands of European Jewish refugees during the German occupation of Italy from ’44-’45. Compelling characters, unflinching and brutal, her story allows no fairy-tale ending for the main characters.

salt-to-the-sea-by-ruta-sepetysSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. Four characters flee from the advancing Russian army in Poland, trying to get to ships the German army has arranged to evacuate the populace and wounded soldiers. As the story unfolds it becomes a rarely-told account of the worst maritime disaster ever: 9,000 people (5,000 of them children) drowning in icy waters after a Russian submarine torpedoes the Wilhelmina Gustloff.

berlin-boxing-clubThe Berlin Boxing Club by Robert Sharenow. I read this in a single sitting. An absolutely riveting story of a German Jewish teenager in the late ’30s who does not identify as Jewish, which makes the narrative voice quite different than similar novels. Boxing becomes his salvation and the occasional mentoring he receives from champion and German hero Max Schmeling leads to a tense and brutal conclusion. Fantastic.

the-hummingbirdThe Hummingbird by Stephen P. Kieran. Deborah Birch is assigned to be the latest hospice nurse for a crotchety retired professor. As she slowly earns his trust, they are both surprised by what they gain from each other: he, someone to read him his controversial final book about a WW2 Japanese pilot who fire-bombed the Oregon forests; she, insight into her PTSD-suffering husband. Absolutely riveting, beautifully written, with an authentic, hopeful ending.

how-the-light-gets-inIn murder mysteries, How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny was the standout this year. The ninth outing for the Québécois opens with Chief Superintendent Francouer decimating Chief Inspector Gamache’s homicide unit, his blatant intent to drive Gamache into retirement before he uncovers the details of the conspiracy he has long investigated. Gamache returns to Three Pines following the murder of an old friend of a village resident, and the various plot lines unfold with increasing tension before the breath-taking climax. Simply stunning. Again.

the-stagesThe Stages by Thom Satterlee offers a fascinating first-person perspective for a crime thriller. An American expert in Kierkegaard who lives with Asperger’s becomes the chief suspect in a murder enquiry in Copenhagen. His inability to appreciate other peoples’ emotions continually creates problems for him during the investigation. Very different, very enjoyable.

open-seasonI’m always on the look out for new series in this genre, and the standout character I discovered this year was Joe Pickett, C. J. Box’s Wyoming game warden. The series opener is Open Season, in which a series of murders leads to Pickett’s uncovering of a conspiracy centering on a small mammal his daughter finds. A cracking adventure, with a likable character.

the-well-of-ascensionIn fantasy, The Well of Ascension, the second book in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series was the clear winner. Truly worthy of the appellation “epic,” the story continues with Elend Venture awakening to the new world wrought by the destruction of the immortal Lord Ruler. But he and his beloved Vin have no time to enjoy his dream of a more just society, as three rival armies descend upon his capital city to besiege it. Vin becomes entangled with Elend’s half-brother, a fellow Mistborn, as well as coming to believe that she might be the messiah-like figure of legend to bring about the true new world. Sanderson’s ability to create compelling fully-realized worlds is quite amazing.

Children’s fiction

Our kids continue to be voracious readers – I think Maggie averaged 3 books a week this year. Of the ones I read with them, these three were my favourites:

breaking-stalins-noseBreaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Velchin captures the brutalizing fear and suspicion endemic of Stalin’s Russia through the eyes of Sasha, a middle-schooler whose whole world is turned upside-down in just two days.

the-graveyard-bookThe Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is a novel inspired by and highly reminiscent of the Jungle Book. A toddler is saved from his parent’s murderer by ghosts, who raise him as Bod (“Nobody”) in their graveyard. A series of short adventures unfolds as the boy grows up, culminating in the revelation of why he was targeted for death. Fantastic, as Gaiman always is.

dodger-by-terry-pratchettDodger by the sorely-missed Terry Pratchett, is the story of a street urchin in Victorian London who makes a living scavenging in the sewers. He saves an upper class girl from being kidnapped, and then, with the unlikely assistance of Charles Dickens, the police and some noblemen, saves the realm from a political nightmare, and possibly war. Fabulous.

Well, that’s my ‘best of fiction’ list for another year. If you’d like to see my recommendations from previous years, click here: 2013, 2014, 2015.

(I link to Amazon as a convenience and as a participant in their Associates Program. I encourage you to buy books where you want to see them sold. Or check them out of your local library.)

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The Naked Man – pt. 44

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“Jesus summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits; and he instructed them that they should take nothing for their journey, except a mere staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belt; but to wear sandals; and he added, ‘Do not put on two tunics.'” Mark took a sip of wine before continuing. “When Jesus initially called the twelve to be with him, he told them he would send them out to preach and have authority over unclean spirits, and now the time had come to do just that.

“As they went, they would proclaim the same message as Jesus, and as John the baptizer before him: ‘Repent!’ Jesus’ instructions forced the disciples to rely on the hospitality of others. Take no bread, no money – not even a change of clothes. Jesus had been rejected by his own and from that point on relied upon the kindness of strangers, as would his disciples as he sent them out.

“And he said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave town. And any place that does not receive you or listen to you, as you go out from there, shake the dust off the soles of your feet for a testimony against them.'” Yiftach spoke up. “That sounds familiar. When we traveled with Simon bar Giora, we were always looking for safe houses – places we could stay overnight, with maybe a loaf of bread to share. People sympathetic to the cause. But we never stayed longer than a night, for fear of a neighbor turning us in to the Romans.”

Mark nodded. “I’m sure not everyone was pleased to see your band arrive in their village. And certainly not everyone welcomed the twelve – nor the message Jesus’ disciples carried. Occasionally no one could be found to host them, and Jesus was clear what they were to do when that happened: a visible break with that community – not even taking the dust of the place with them. But those villages where hospitality could be found became central to the mission of Jesus as he and his disciples traveled around Galilee over the years.

“And so the twelve went out and preached that people should repent. And they were casting out many demons and were anointing with oil many sick people and healing them. The kingdom of G_d was coming on earth as it is in heaven. Some were glad to see it – many were not. But always the threat of violence hung over their heads.” Why?” asked Ya’el. “I could see people refusing to host them. But doing violence to them?” Miryam sat forward. “It wasn’t the villagers that caused such concern. It was Herod.” “Herod? Why? How would he even know what they were doing?” Miryam replied somberly. “He may not have done. At least at first. But he had certainly heard about Jesus. And what Herod had done to John gave them cause for great concern.” Ya’el leaned in. “Why? What did Herod do to John?” Miryam turned towards Mark, who responded. “Perhaps we should save that story for when we gather tomorrow night…”

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The Naked Man – pt. 43

Rejection Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.

Having settled his mother in her seat, Mark surveyed the courtyard as people continued to arrive for the evening gathering. He noted Yiftach in typically animated conversation with a friend. He also noted with interest Adina’s occasional sideways glance at Yiftach and the smile she tried to hide behind a hand. He rose to his feet and the courtyard gradually grew quiet.

“After the dramatic events in Capernaum, Jesus left there and came to his home town, Nazareth, and his disciples followed him. Word about what had happened in Capernaum went ahead of him, and when the Sabbath had come, he began to teach in the synagogue; and the many listeners were astonished. They said, ‘Where did this man get these things, and what is this wisdom given to him, and such miracles as these performed by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, and brother of James, and Joses, and Judas, and Simon? Are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.”

“Wow, that’s quite the put-down,” said Yiftach. Mark gestured for him to elaborate. “Well, they make it sound like he’s the last person who should be doing those kinds of things. Teaching with wisdom and authority, healing.”

Devorah spoke up. “And ‘son of Mary’? Why would they say that? Why not, ‘son of whatever his father’s name was’?” “Why would they say that?” asked Mark. Devorah’s cheeks flushed as she responded. “Well, they’re you know, questioning his…” Her voice tailed off. Yiftach finished her thought. “They’re saying he’s a bastard.” “Quite so,” said Mark. “And,” continued Yiftach, “saying, ‘Isn’t this the carpenter?’ is dismissing him as just the local handyman. As if someone with thick callouses and muscles couldn’t possibly say the things he was saying. Or do the things he was doing.”

Miryam leaned forward and spoke. “And so they can dismiss both him and his message. The Kingdom of G_d that Jesus proclaimed threatened to overturn all they knew and understood – it truly was dangerous. So they call him illegitimate and ignorant and have an excuse to take offense. And then reject him.” Devorah’s brow wrinkled as she asked, “How did Jesus respond?” Mark continued. “And Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his home town and among his own relatives and in his own household.'”

“Even in his own household?” Ya’el asked, a note of astonishment in her voice. “Apparently so,” said Mark. “Even his own brothers seemed to have a hard time accepting him. At least, to begin with.” “I can understand that,” said Yiftach. “It’s not always easy to accept the ‘local boy made good.’ And when it’s your oldest brother… I can see them being a little puzzled by all the fuss – maybe even angry. Resentful. I imagine their neighbors laughing at them behind their backs. ‘There goes James – I wonder what that crazy bastard brother of his is up to now.’ That’s got to be hard. And confusing.”

Miryam noticed the flash of pain that crossed Mark’s face, and knew that he was thinking of his own brothers, just as she was. She spoke up. “And yet James would come in time to embrace his brother as the Messiah. He led the church here in Jerusalem for thirty years, and presided at the Council where the question of just how the gentiles would participate in the Kingdom of G_d movement was settled.” She offered Mark an encouraging smile, who returned it gratefully. Ya’el noticed the exchange, and looked confused, not understanding what lay behind it.

She continued. “Jesus had already redefined family when he said, ‘The one who does the will of G_d is my brother and sister and mother.’ But saying this in his hometown marked his break with kinship structures. Only those who were open to the gospel he proclaimed and the new order he was bringing would experience what G_d was doing wherever he went.” “Indeed,” said Mark. “Jesus could do no miracles there in Nazareth except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them. And he wondered at their unbelief. For there were many in Nazareth who needed what Jesus had to offer, but their suspicion of the local boy prevented them from receiving it. So he left to go around the neighboring villages teaching. That was Jesus’ last public appearance in a synagogue on the sabbath.”

Devorah shook her head slowly and said, “How sad. To be rejected by your own people. By the ones who surely ought to know better.” Miryam responded. “Heartbreakingly so, my dear. But this incident just points ahead to the time when Jesus – the Messiah – will ‘come home’ to Jerusalem and there also be rejected, with truly terrible consequences.”

“And so,” Mark said, “his own people having rejected him, Jesus continued with those he had chosen and who had chosen him. He summoned the twelve and began to send them out in pairs…”

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