The Greatest Distance, by Carrie Johnson
Since starting Seminary*, I’ve written so many papers that I’ve lost count! That seems to be the way of it in Seminary and I keep reminding myself that I love to write! Most of the papers have become a blur in my mind, but a few months ago I wrote a paper that I will not soon forget. It was one of the hardest papers that I’ve had to write – not because it was super long but because it was ridiculously short! The assignment read as follows: Submit a 2 page essay analyzing and explaining as precisely as possible the meaning of Mark 3:1-6 within its larger literary and socio-cultural contexts. In plain English that means that I had to take the story of the healing of the man with the withered hand and interpret the significance of that story within the larger message of Mark while paying attention to the fact that Mark was written to a first century Jewish audience in a time and place very different than 21st century America. And I had to do all that in 2 pages! Anyone who knows me at all knows that brevity is not one of my strengths!
I did the assignment and I thought it came out pretty well. You see, in this passage, the Pharisees are watching Jesus, ready to pounce on him if he heals this man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. They care nothing for the man, but only for their rules and Jesus gets angry with them because their hearts are so hard. Right before this passage are two short parables where Jesus speaks about putting new wine into old wineskins and sewing a patch of new cloth onto an old cloak. Jesus reminds us that both of these things would be terribly foolish because the expanding of the new wine as it ferments would destroy the old wineskin and the shrinking of the new cloth would tear the old cloak and make an even larger hole. Both of these parables point out that the religious system of the Pharisees’ had no room for Jesus. He was the new wine that would destroy the old wineskin of their rules and regulations. In my paper, I pointed out that Jesus’ message required a heart that desired obedience – something that the Pharisees did not have.
To be honest, I was pretty proud of that paper but my professor’s comment took me aback. She said that I needed to personalize the message of Mark 3:1-6. What did that mean!? I was fairly certain that I had done what she asked me to do. So I went to her and asked her what she meant. She looked me right in the eye and told me that Jesus did not fit into the box I had constructed for him. She challenged me to let Jesus leap off the pages of my Bible and confront me with life-altering truth. She suggested that I might be “sterilizing” the message of Jesus to fit my own world-view.
A few weeks ago, I came to the parable of the new wine and old wineskins again during my devotions and suddenly I understood what my professor meant. When I read the passage this time, the words of Jesus smacked me right between the eyes. Suddenly I realized that I was the old wineskin. I was the one who, like the Pharisees, wanted Jesus to fit into my existing framework. I assumed Jesus liked the things I liked, went to the places I like to go and wanted to help the people that I wanted to help. But Jesus refuses to fit into my categories and boxes. And if that is true, then my only choice is to fit his system. On my own, I can’t do that. On my own I will default to rules and regulations. On my own I will make a box and try to squeeze Jesus into it. But the Holy Spirit can make me new. He can keep me flexible so that I can stretch and learn and change. He can make me into a new wineskin – someone who listens and obeys. He can change my heart so that I love the things Jesus loves and he can change my will so that it comes in line with God’s will.
I am fond of saying that the greatest distance in the world in the 12 inches between my head and my heart. So often, the truth of the Bible lies on the pavement of my mind. I understand it. I can articulate it and teach it to others. But I am discovering that it is only when that truth moves from my head to the soil of my heart that I experience it and truly know it. Only then am I changed by the truth of the Bible. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of living as an old wineskin. I want His truth to sink deeply into my heart and change me so that I stop living in my old patterns of sin. I want to be continually changed so that each day I look more and more like my Savior. I deeply want to be made new.
*Carrie is currently working on an MA in Professional Studies, focusing on Women’s Ministry, at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, NY.