Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mark 14-16

Mark 14:1-2: All Jesus’ talk and healing work, all his controversies with the authorities, especially in Jerusalem, have gotten him into trouble. Mark has already indicated (3:6, and others) that they were looking for a way to arrest Jesus. They fear doing so during the religious festival. Mark builds on the sense that all this negative energy of the religious authorities has to go somewhere.

Mark 14:3-9: While not completely ignoring the plot against Jesus, Mark shares a touching story about Jesus being anointed by an anonymous woman while he is sharing a meal at the home of one Simon the leper – another meal at the home of a marginalized and outcast person. All four gospels tell a version of this story, but Mark and Matthew place it in the context of the events leading up to the crucifixion. The unnamed woman pours a jar of expensive ointment on Jesus while he is sitting at table. Her actions anger the disciples who know how costly the ointment was. Couldn’t the ointment have been sold and the money used to help the poor? Jesus, instead, commends the woman’s good service, remarking that they will have other opportunities to help the poor. Why commend this woman, especially in such lavish terms (“wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”)? Crossan and Borg in The Last Week write that this woman is really the first “believer,” the first “Christian.” She gets it. She understands that going to Jerusalem means death for Jesus and she responds with extravagant generosity. Our own response to Jesus, and our response to others, may include occasions for such extravagant generosity, a generosity that goes beyond a more narrow calculation of the monetary worth of an action. How many of us criticize extravagant gifts given to a cause, knowing that if we had such resources we would dole them out more wisely? Maybe one message in this story is that we should appreciate generosity when we encounter it. Another note: “what the passage indicates is that acts of generosity toward suffering humanity do not substitute for gestures of love toward individuals – nor vice versa” (New Interpreters Study Bible)

Mark 14:10-11: As Mark often does, he places contrasting stories side by side. A woman is generous in her relationship to Jesus. She understands his teaching and his ministry, and understands that death may be just around the corner. The disciples have been slow to understand, and here is the ultimate instance of that. Instead of generous giving, Judas will seek private gain by betraying his teacher, Jesus. Money may not be his motive however – that is left shrouded in mystery.

Mark 14:12-25: In these verses we have Mark’s telling of the story of the Last Supper. Here it is a Passover meal with the disciples. During the meal, Jesus announces that one will betray him. No doubt the telling of this story is shaped by the worship practice of the early church – and the words have been passed from generation to generation as Christians the world over remember this meal. It is interesting to note that Mark does not have Jesus ask the disciples to continue this practice. He expected the world to be changed dramatically in the near future. For some, these words about “body” and “blood” are uncomfortable, archaic. While the placement of these events in close proximity to the physical death of Jesus suggests an uncomfortable literal reading, we need to remember that Jesus is speaking symbolically. He does not offer a bite from his arm or cut open a vein. This final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples has multiple resonances of meaning. It connects backwards into the public activity of Jesus and forward into his death and the post-Easter life of Christianity. (The Last Week, 113). Crossan and Borg identify for such resonances of meaning: a continuation of the meal practice of Jesus (where people were fed and where many traditionally excluded were included); a echo of the feeding of the five thousand (where what is present is used, multiplied in wonderful ways and shared); a Passover meal (in which the Israelites remembered that once they were slaves in Egypt and God set them free – this meal is about freedom as well, freedom to live in a way different from the empire, freedom from sin through forgiveness); a foreshadowing that Jesus death will have significance for their lives (how we talk about the significance of the death of Jesus is important and Christians have discussed it significance in a number of ways – the bottom line is that it is significant). In my own pastoral practice I try and recognize the variety of meanings in the rich symbolism of communion/the Lord’s supper/the Eucharist. Sometimes that means using different words than those offered in the tradition to celebrate the meal in worship and sometimes it means letting the traditional words be there for all of us to grapple with. Where do you find deep meaning in this important practice of the Christian faith?

Mark 14:26-31: Judas will not be the only failure among the disciples. All of them will desert Jesus. Peter tells Jesus he will stand by him, even if it means death. Of course his bravado is short lived. These verses also promise something after the death, a raising up.

Mark 14:32-42:
As portrayed by Mark, Jesus senses betrayal and death. He goes to pray, as he often has before in Mark. All the disciples go with him, but he asks Peter, James and John to go even further while he prays. Mark has said very little about the inner life of Jesus to this point, but here he uses very strong language to describe what was going on inside – “distressed and agitated.” The Greek implies something close to a breakdown in anguish. Jesus speaks of his soul being deeply grieved. In the midst of his anguish, Jesus remains trusting of God. He addresses God in intimate family terms as “abba” which is a loving term for father. Though he thinks he knows what he has to do, he prays that there might be another way. This moving portrait of a very human Jesus trying to live out his calling from God was a model of discipleship for Mark’s Jesus community, and remains a model of discipleship for us. Unfortunately the succeeding verses show that the disciples with Jesus aren’t the epitome of this model. They sleep while Jesus is in anguish – even Peter who has only moments ago pledged to follow Jesus to the death.

Mark 14:43-52: Mark’s action packed language comes again – “immediately.” Judas comes with a group wielding swords and clubs. He betrays Jesus with a kiss, and Jesus is arrested. One disciple begins to put up a struggle, cutting off the ear of one of the arresting crowd with a sword. Jesus poses the question of why they needed to come in the dark to arrest him. Mark’s readers know why, because arresting him on the Temple grounds risked a riot. Verse 50-52 are very poignant. All of them deserted him and fled. Mark’s economy of language emphasizes the speed of desertion and the utter loneliness of Jesus. One young man even left his clothes behind to escape the authorities. Early in the gospel, the disciples leave all to follow Jesus. Here they leave all to get away from identification with Jesus. That leaves them “naked” and afraid, without faith and hope.

Mark 14:53-65: Jesus is alone, except that Peter follows at a distance (an interesting metaphor). He is taken for examination in front of some Jewish authorities. These are temple authorities who were often the closest collaborators with the Roman occupation government. They can find nothing to charge him with and he remains silent – until asked if he is “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One.” Jesus says, “I am.” Whatever qualms he has had in Mark’s gospel up until now about people identifying him as Christ/Messiah, they are gone. His assertion leads to their verdict – death. Jesus begins to endure beatings and derision.

Mark 14:66-72: While Jesus is affirming his identity, Peter, who in chapter 8 had confessed this of Jesus, denies that he ever knew the man. He ends up broken down and weeping, reminiscent of Jesus at Gethsemane. No doubt there were member of Mark’s Jesus community who had also experienced denying Jesus and this story could offer them some comfort.

Mark 15:1-5:
The Temple authorities bring Jesus to the Roman provincial authority, Pilate. They would like to see Jesus put to death, but may not have had the authority to do that. They bring a charge of insurrection against Jesus. Pilate asks Jesus if he is king of the Jews, a rebellious political title in the midst of Roman rule. Jesus does not respond to the charges, leaving Pilate amazed. Earlier in the gospel, Jesus’ teaching leaves people amazed, now his silence does the same for Pilate.

Mark 15:6-15: Other than in the New Testament, there is no account of the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. This may mean that this story carries a theological and literary significance rather than representing a historically accurate account. That the alternative to Jesus being released is a political insurrectionist named Barabbas (literally meaning “son of the father”) may have been the gospel writers way of affirming that Jesus was the leader of a new order (the kingdom of God), but that it would not be a political order in the ordinary sense, and it would not be brought about through violent revolution. In the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70 CE, many Jews had chosen the way of Barabbas, with disastrous results. A mob is involved in helping perpetuate a travesty of justice, though we should never forget that in the end the Romans killed Jesus on their legal terms. “Crucifixion was a particularly shameful form of capital punishment used by the Romans mainly for slaves, robbers, and insurrectionists. It involved being nailed to a post or a tree.” (New Interpreters Study Bible).

Mark 15:16-20: Mocking and beating continue as Jesus awaits crucifixion. Those crucified were “left to die of exposure, hunger, thirst, shock, and the gradual suffocation resulting from being bound in a cramped position” (The People’s New Testament Commentary)

Mark 15:21-32: The beatings seem to have taken their toll on Jesus. A bystander named Simon is compelled to carry Jesus’ cross beam. Wine mixed with myrrh served as a sedative, but Jesus refuses it. Jesus is crucified between two “bandits.” The word was also used for those involved in armed resistance against Rome. Jesus is thus one of three men put to death for challenging the authority of Rome. He is taunted by the authorities and by those being crucified with him. There are few details in Mark which take any of the sharp edge off this scene.

Mark 15:33-41:
While this may have been just another death at the hands of the imperial authorities, Mark has the whole cosmos take notice of the death of Jesus. For three hours, darkness covers the land. This is literary symbolism indicating that the whole cosmos mourns the death of this person. At three in the afternoon, we hear Jesus last words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” – a quote from Psalm 22. Jesus has been abandoned by family, friends and followers. He feels utterly alone, and if only for a moment, he feels that perhaps God, too has abandoned him. But it is helpful to remember that Psalm 22 is the prayer of a righteous person for vindication. Jesus was in anguish, but perhaps not without hope. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, another symbolic statement by Mark of the world taking note of the death of Jesus. Jesus death remains a critique of the temple authorities. It also becomes a means for people to approach God directly. A centurion, a Roman soldier is the only one left to proclaim the word of faith. “Truly this man was God’s Son.” For Mark it is significant that this person was Gentile, as was most of Mark’s Jesus community. It is significant that this confession is made here – it is not just the miracle working Jesus, or Jesus the great teacher who is Son of God, but the Jesus who was both of these and also the crucified one. Sharing good news, healing others, living together in peace and love, being willing to suffer for the sake of God’s dream for the world – this was Jesus, and this was Mark’s Jesus community. Mark now strikes another quiet, hopeful note. While the disciples have abandoned Jesus, there were some women followers from Galilee, looking on from a distance.

Mark 15:42-47: “The Romans typically left the bodies of crucified prisoners on the cross to decompose and be consumed by birds and animals. In Judaism, the ultimate humiliation was to remain unburied.” (The People’s New Testament Commentary) A few hours after Jesus had died a Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus so that he might bury him. He rolled the stone in front of the tomb, though the women previously mentioned saw where Jesus body was laid.

Note on the Significance of the Death of Jesus (repeated, with small changes): All of the gospels report that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. “There is no more certain fact in history that the execution of Jesus by the Roman occupational forces in Jerusalem at a Passover festival ca. 30 CE” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). It seems almost as sure that certain of the Jewish leaders at the time collaborated in his execution. There had been an uneasy peace established between Rome and Jerusalem, and some had a stake in maintaining that peace. If Jesus was seen as a threat to that, and he certainly seems to have been, then that threat needed to be taken care of. Historically, then, this is why Jesus died. But the Christian church and Christian faith has been almost unanimous in saying that the death of Jesus had a deeper meaning, a theological and religious significance. We will encounter this again and again as we read through the New Testament. What is this theological/religious significance?

“For all his followers, Jesus’ death was a terrible, unexpected surprise that shattered their hopes” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). But the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. They later experienced Jesus as alive and vindicated by God. Their later experience forced them to reevaluate and reinterpret Jesus death. Somehow even his death must be significant. Even here God must have been at work in some way. A variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus death are offered in the New Testament and in the history of Christian theology (theologically these are referred to as “atonement theories”). “The meaning of Jesus’ death was understood in a variety of ways: as an expression of Jesus’/God’s love, as the means of God’s forgiveness, as an atoning sacrifice, as an act of sealing or eschatologically renewing God’s covenant with his people, as redemptive liberation from slavery or ransom from captivity, and in numerous other concepts and images that express the saving act of God in the death of Jesus” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). There are those in the Christian community of faith who argue that there is only one appropriate way to understand the theological/religious significance of the death of Jesus. It is probably fair to say that substitutionary atonement is the only way that many or even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus…. It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 101). Crossan and Borg wonder if there are better metaphors for understanding God and thus for understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Jesus may be said to have sacrificed his life “for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God” (The Last Week, 154), but this is a different kind of sacrifice than one required by God so that God might forgive. Walter Wink, in his brilliant book on “the son of man” traditions in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament (The Human Being) writes perceptively about the significance of the death of Jesus and about the theories of his death in the history of Christian theology. Of most views of the significance of Jesus’ death, Wink writes, “All these views share the presupposition that God had Jesus killed in order to redeem the world. None of them makes realistic sense of the fact that Jesus was executed by the religious and political establishment.” (105) Wink then rehearses many of the traditional theories and ends up with the following: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness. Each response if divinely tailored to meet our situations…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (110-111)

All of this is to say that the bottom line New Testament affirmation is that the death of Jesus, a brutal execution at the hands of legitimate authorities, has significance for our lives and our relationship to God. Just what that significance is is open to a rich variety of interpretations, and that is perhaps as it should be. Rather than argue that there is only one true way to understand the meaning of Jesus death for our lives we would do well to listen to others as they share their understandings. Such conversations have the potential to contribute a great deal to our own formation as disciples of Jesus – this Jesus who trusted God even when he felt God’s absence.

Mark 16:1-8: Here is a surprise for many Christians. Many of the earliest and best manuscripts we have of the Gospel of Mark have it end with verse 8 – “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized the; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Prior to that, the women previously mentioned go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. They find the stone rolled away and a mysterious young man dressed in white. He says, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee, there you will see him, just as he told you.” Then the women flee, saying nothing to anyone. Of course there is great irony here. Obviously the community hearing Mark’s gospel had to have heard the message about Jesus from someplace. It is almost as if one message in Mark’s gospel is – “Look, the first witnesses to the good news were often afraid and amazed, just like us, yet somehow the story got out. Its our task to do the same.” Here is another (though complimentary) view: “Mark affirms the resurrection but is wary of post-Easter revelations from the risen Lord; he intends to bind the message of the risen Lord to the preceding narrative, the story of the Crucified One.” (The People’s New Testament Commentary)

Mark 16:9-20: This longer ending to Mark’s gospel, which appears in most translations of the New Testament, though often marked off with a footnote. This ending was probably added to a copy of Mark in the late second or early third century CE. No doubt the first ending left many early Christians unsatisfied. These verses contain two appearance stories of the risen Jesus – first to Mary Magdalene, who tell the others but they do not believe her; and then to two other disciples out for a walk, who also tell the others again receiving a response of disbelief. Finally, he appears to all eleven remaining disciples, scolds them for their unbelief, then commissions them for ministry. “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” and so on. The last verses are an ascension story, followed by a verse indicating that the commission to ministry was fulfilled.

Notes on the resurrection: Many Christians will admit, even if only to themselves in the quiet of their own minds, that they struggle some with the story of the resurrection of Jesus. This situation is not helped terribly much by other Christians who assert boldly that unless you believe very specific things about the resurrection (that it was a literal bodily event that might have been captured on video were the technology available) you are not a faithful Christian. What is really essential about the resurrection of Jesus? I would like to offer some thoughts.

The People’s New Testament Commentary notes that “the resurrection of Jesus, i.e., God’s act in raising up Jesus, is central to the Christian faith.” I would agree – but what does that mean? The commentary goes on to say that resurrection is God’s action and that it is “to be distinguished from resuscitation, i.e., the restoration of a dead person to this-worldly life…. Jesus was raised to a new order of being beyond this life.” Resurrection in first century Judaism was a concept that was meant to say something about the ultimate justice of God. In the end, God’s justice would prevail – thus resurrection is an “eschatological” concept and it was sign of the kingdom of God. Another way of saying this is that in the resurrection the Christian community affirms that just as God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world was breaking into the world in Jesus teaching, healing and feeding, so it continues to break into the world through Jesus even though Jesus was crucified. “The resurrection faith of the earliest Christians was expressed and communicated in several forms: songs, creeds, sermons, and stories.” “The Gospel stories of the resurrection are thus not to be harmonized. They differ on such items as who went to the tomb and when, the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus, and the location and chronology of Jesus’ appearances.” To my mind the very variety in these stories indicates that we may be dealing with something more than an easily identifiable historical event.

Here are some comments from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, from their book, The Last Week. So Easter is utterly central. But what was it?... When we think about Easter, we must consider several foundational questions. What kind of stories are the Easter stories? What kind of language are they told in, and how is that language being used? Are they intended as historical reports and thus to be understood as history remembered (whether correctly or incorrectly)? Or do they use the language of parable and metaphor to express truths that are much more than factual? Or some combination of the two? (190) We are convinced that an emphasis on the historical factuality of the Easter stories, as if they were reporting events that could have been photographed, gets in the way of understanding them…. Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What it does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings. (191, 193) Two themes run through these stories that sum up the central meanings of Easter. Jesus lives. He continues to be experienced after his death, though in a radically new way…. God has vindicated Jesus. God has said “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. In the words of the earliest and most widespread post-Easter affirmation about Jesus in the New Testament, ‘Jesus is Lord.” And if Jesus is Lord, the lords of this world are not. (204, 205, 206)

Marcus Borg, in his own work Jesus builds on some of the themes already presented in his work with Crossan. While Matthew is the first writing we have in the New Testament (and Mark follows Matthew but was written earlier), Paul’s letters are earlier. Paul provides the earliest witness to the resurrection, and in his writings (as we shall see) he bundles together his own experience of the risen Christ with those of others who experienced him. It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Paul thought of the appearances of the risen Jesus to others as also visions…. Some Christians are uncomfortable with the thought that the experiences of the risen Jesus were visions…. But not all visions are hallucinations…. Paul’s experience of the risen Jesus changed his life. (277-278) Borg goes on discuss other aspects of the resurrection. But I am aware that a historical question can still be asked: what happened? What I am confident of is this. The followers of Jesus had experiences of him after his death that convinced them that he continued to be a figure of the present. Almost certainly some of these experiences were visions; it would be surprising if there weren’t any…. I think there were nonvisionary experiences of the risen Jesus…. I think his followers felt the continuing presence of Jesus with them, recognized the same Spirit that they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and knew the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate – the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community. And I think these kinds of experiences have continued among Christians ever since…. For me, the truth of the claim “God raised Jesus” is gounded in these kind of experiences…. And there is one more thing to say about the experiences that lie at the heart of Easter. They carried with them the conviction that God had vindicated Jesus…. There is a continuity between the post-Easter conviction that God has vindicated Jesus and the message of the pre-Easter Jesus. “Jesus is Lord” is the post-Easter equivalent of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God. (287, 288, 289) What did Easter mean to the first followers of Jesus?... First, the followers of Jesus continued to experience him after his death. They continued to know him as a figure of the present, and not simply as a figure from the past…. Second, Easter meant that God had vindicated Jesus…. To put these two meanings as concisely as possible, Easter meant “Jesus lives,” and “Jesus is Lord.” (276)

Finally, before I add a few more words of my own, a few words from George Ricker (What You Don’t Have To Believe To Be A Christian). “Christians do not agree theologically, and they never have. The essence of Christianity is not in the literal truth of the story language of the faith. In all of this I am pleading that Christians not be divided over opinions about which obvious differences exist. Christians are united in the love of God revealed by Jesus, whom we call Christ, and not by our opinions.” (69-70) Ricker imagine what an experience of the risen Christ might have been like for the first disciples of Jesus. He pictures them together sharing a meal and in the midst of that sharing they experience Jesus as present. “By the inspiration of God, the intrusion of the Spirit, they suddenly realize that it was not all over. The Lord was with them…. Jesus is dead. Jesus has a new body. They tried to kill the Christ, the activity of God, they could not. The Christ is raised in a new body.” (72-73)

What am I trying to say with all these extended quotes? Am I trying to convince you that your view of the resurrection of Jesus is wrong if you disagree with Crossan or Borg or Ricker? No. With Ricker, I am asking that we give each other permission to ask questions about this important part of our Christian faith. I am asking that we allow that people of deep and genuine Christian faith can disagree about the exact nature of the experiences of the disciples as they proclaimed that God raised him from the dead. I do think that Borg and Crossan are right when they say that the meaning of the resurrection, whatever its precise nature is to be found in the statements “Jesus lives” and “Jesus is Lord.” How do we now live our lives in light of this?

Final Note: The introduction to The Gospel of Luke will appear a little late for those reading through the New Testament five chapters a week. Material on Luke's Gospel will begin appearing here after August 6.
Mark 13

Before proceeding with commentary on Mark 13, I would like to reprint some of the remarks made prior to similar material in Matthew. Then I would like to add just a bit.

The Destruction of the Temple: In 66 CE, a massive Jewish revolt against Rome was launched, and for awhile it was successful – but only for awhile. Jerusalem was the center of the resistance movement, and it took Rome four years to recapture it, but they did. When they did, Roman troops offered sacrifice to the emperor in the Temple and then destroyed the Temple and the city. All of the gospels were composed with this war as a part of their context.

All that follows in Mark 13 needs to be read within the context of that war and its aftermath. How many of the sayings and stories reported in these chapters go back to Jesus is a matter of scholarly debate. Whether they do or not, Mark, like the other gospel writers, puts the sayings and stories together in such a way as to speak to his context. I want the focus of my notes on the New Testament to be formation rather than information, though I know I have included quite a bit of the latter. In order to help the words in the coming chapter be more formative, I think it is important to get some information on the table.

The materials in chapter 13 have to do with eschatology (a semitechnical term that means “the last things, the final things, the end of things”), judgment, and apocalypse (a word meaning “revelation” or unveiling). “Though sometimes equated with ‘the end of the world,’ it is important to realize that biblical eschatology is not about the end of the space-time world, not about the disappearance or vanishing of the earth, but about the transformation of this world” (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 252). The verses in chapter 13 have a lot to do with the end of things, but they speak about them in a particular way. “An apocalypse is a kind of Jewish and Christian literature that reveals or unveils the future in language loaded with images and symbols. Apocalyptic literature speaks of a time of great suffering followed by divine deliverance” (John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, The Last Week, 78). “Mark’s gospel thus has an apocalyptic eschatology, a technical phrase the refers to the expectation of dramatic and decisive divine intervention in the near future, one so public that even non-believers will have to agree that it has happened” (The Last Week, 82-83). In the coming chapter of Mark we will find passages of apocalyptic eschatology, but without the parables about judgment that we found in Matthew and will find in Luke. There are also references in Mark 13 to a coming of the son of man, a “second coming of Jesus.”

So how much of this goes back to Jesus? That is a matter of scholarly debate, but beyond such debate asking the question may help us ask questions that help form us in our faith. What are these stories trying to say to us, fundamentally? Do we need to adopt the exact same “apocalyptic eschatology” to benefit from that fundamental meaning, that is to be formed by the Spirit into the image of Christ.

Second Coming: Did Jesus speak about his own second coming? Most mainline scholars do not think that Jesus spoke about his second coming. To suppose that he did would require imagining that he tried to teach his followers about a second coming when they had not really understood his “first coming” very well, including not really understanding that he was going away, that is, the he would be killed…. We think the conviction that Jesus would come again emerged in the post-Easter community. The Jesus whom the rulers of this world had executed and who had been vindicated by God would soon come again to complete what he had begun. (Borg, Jesus, 179, 255). Language describing God’s future is a set of signposts pointing into a mist. The signposts may tell the truth but shouldn’t be mistaken for the reality…. The New Testament often uses the Greek word parousia, frequently translated “coming,” to express this “presence” of Jesus within God’s future recreation of the cosmos. Of course, someone who is present after a time of absence must have “come,” “arrived,” or “appeared.” But the root meaning remains “presence;” the word often used of the “royal presence” of kings and rulers. If we spoke of Jesus’ royal presence within God’s new creation, rather than thinking of his “coming” as an invasion from outside, our talk about the future might make more sense. It would also be a lot more biblical. (N.T. Wright in Wright and Borg, The Meaning of Jesus, 201-202). Language about a second coming of Jesus might best be thought of in terms of a conviction that what God was doing in Jesus, making God’s dream for the world more of a reality, would continue until it wins the day and the world is transformed.

Eschatology: Marcus Borg does a good job in his book Jesus discussing this topic. A theory many scholars maintained throughout the twentieth century was that Jesus believed and taught an “imminent eschatology.” “Imminent eschatology means that Jesus expected a dramatic supernatural intervention by God in the very near future that would establish the kingdom of God” (254). There is some significant and solid biblical evidence for this. One difficulty in holding this position is that it would mean that Jesus was wrong. Borg argues that even if Jesus believed and preached an imminent eschatology, it was a secondary theme. Borg argues that Jesus’ primary theme would have been a “participatory eschatology.” Jesus called people to participate in the coming of the kingdom. There is solid evidence for this position as well. Borg’s own words are helpful. Does participatory eschatology mean that Jesus thought the kingdom of God, God’s dream, would come about through human political achievement? By no means. I do not imagine that he thought that. It is always God’s kingdom, God’s dream, God’s will. And it involves a deep centering in the God whom Jesus knew. So did he think God would bring in the kingdom without our involvement? I do not imagine this either. Indeed, the choice between “God does it” or “we do it” is a misleading and inappropriate dichotomy. In St. Augustine’s magnificent aphorism, “God without us will not; and we without God cannot.” (260) Whatever “the end” looks like finally, and whenever it may come, the important point is that we are invited to work toward God’s dream for the world, not speculate on “end times signs.”

Apocalyptic: Recall that apocalyptic literature had as its central conviction that God’s deliverance will arrive after a time of intense suffering. That is the most important theme. Beyond the symbolic language and metaphoric timetables, there is a deep conviction of faith “namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world” (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 83). Again, it seems a misplacement of energy to spend too much time speculating on the meaning of all the symbols (remember this when we get to “Revelation”). We do better to align our lives with what God was up to in Jesus.

Judgment: I have already quoted this passage once, but it is worth repeating. Granted Jesus used language about a final judgment, did he believe in a last judgment with eternal consequences – that some people would go to hell?... It is possible that Jesus did believe in a final judgment in which some people would go to hell. It is also possible, at least equally so, that the afterlife was not a central concern of Jesus and that he used the language of a final judgment to reinforce the importance of acting compassionately. We can imagine that language working this way: you who believe in a final judgment – what do you think the basis, the criterion will be? His own answers to that question, as reported in the gospels, subvert and undermine widely accepted notions of his time (and perhaps every time). The judgment will not be based on membership in a group, or on beliefs, or on rule keeping, but on deeds of compassion. But whatever Jesus believed about rewards and punishments in a final judgment, his mission and message were much more concerned about life in this world than about our fate beyond death. (Borg, Jesus, 180-181).

Some Additional Thoughts: I have used the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan quite a bit in this blog, and anticipate that I will continue to do so. Another New Testament scholar whose work I find helpful is Walter Wink. Wink’s brilliant, but also densely written book, The Human Being offers some provocative thoughts on eschatology and apocalyptic. Both eschatology and apocalyptic deal with the end of things. “Eschatology” (which means the study of the last things) regards the future as open, undetermined, and capable of being changed if people alter their behavior. The urgency of the great prophets of the Old Testament came from their conviction that catastrophe need not happen, that even a small deviation from the course toward doom might avert it. By contrast, “apocalyptic” (which means “unveiling,” specifically visions of things to come) judges the future to be closed, inevitable, and inescapable…. Eschatology is concerned about the goal of humanity and the world; apocalyptic is consumed with the end of the planet Earth as presently constituted. Prophetic eschatology is ruthlessly realistic, yet incurably hopeful. Apocalyptic has abandoned hope and looks for divine, miraculous intervention. (158-159) From this characterization, Wink obviously holds a bit fonder view of eschatology than apocalyptic. But Wink is a complex thinker. There is a positive role for apocalyptic as well as its better-known negative. The positive power of apocalyptic lies in its capacity to force humanity to face threats of unimaginable proportions in order to galvanize efforts at self- and social transcendences…. The apocalyptic situation dwarfs our human capacity and reduces us to powerlessness. The negative response is passivity and despair; the other response is superhuman effort and assault on the impossible. (159) Was Jesus an apocalyptic thinker and preacher? How does that give light to Mark 13? The evidence seems unambiguous that Jesus had a prophetic sense of eschatology…. Most if not all of Mark 13 consists of layers of speculation about the signs that portend the end of the world. This represents a calcification of Jesus’ vivid expectation of God’s active presence and power in the world…. My hunch is that Jesus is not the author of much in Mark 13 and parallels. (162-163) The truth in the doctrine of the second coming is that Jesus’ work on earth was not finished during his lifetime…. I believe that Jesus perceived the Reign of God to be breaking in already, yet that it was still to come in fullness in God’s own time, and that Jesus rejected the desire for revenge, yet awaited god’s final judgment on sin and oppression. I see this future judgment and consummation, however, not as a historical promise, but as a mythic necessity. Whether it actually happens, it remains a beacon sustaining hope into the darkest future. (164-165)

As we begin to look at Mark 13, let me return to Crossan and Borg. Mark’s gospel thus has an apocalyptic eschatology, a technical phrase that refers to the expectation of a dramatic and decisive divine intervention in the near future, one so public that even nonbelievers will have to agree that it has happened. Whether this kind of eschatology goes back to Jesus himself is a separate question. We do not think that it does…. In our judgment, Mark’s gospel expresses an intensification of apocalyptic expectation triggered by the great war [the Jewish rebellion against Rome, 66-70 CE, which Rome eventually won, destroying Jerusalem, the Temple, and killing great number of Jews]…. From the vantage point of history, Mark’s expectation of the imminent coming of the Son of Man – the return of Jesus – was wrong. To say the obvious, it didn’t happen. But beneath Mark’s timetable, one may perceive a deeper meaning in his apocalyptic conviction. Namely, what has begun in Jesus will triumph, despite the tumult and resistance of this world. (The Last Week, 82-83)

Forgive again another lengthy introduction, but these are important themes to discuss as we read through the New Testament. There are a number of Christians who argue for very different understandings of the end times, the second coming and judgment. They remain part of the family of faith. Sometimes I find their discussions less helpful as I seek to be formed by God’s Spirit. Focusing on “making it in the end” and on the shortcoming of others has less to do with becoming Christ-like than reading the words of the gospels and asking how they speak to me about how I should live. It is o.k. to disagree about eschatology – you don’t have to think like I do on these matters. Nor do you have to think like those who seem to major in “end times prophetic thought” – and that’s the important point. It is more important that we help each other live lives consistent with the love and justice Jesus proclaimed. It is more important to foster hope in our own day and time.

Mark 13:1-4: A disciple is impressed by the grandiosity of the Temple. The largest Temple stone so far discovered is 40 feet long, 10 feet high, and 14 feet wide with an estimated weight of 500 tons. This was an impressive structure. Jesus tells the disciple that all these stones will be thrown down. By the time Mark is writing, the Temple had been destroyed, or soon would be. Some of the stones remain, however (e.g. the Wailing Wall in contemporary Jerusalem. More than a “prediction,” these words are a part of Jesus criticism of what he sees as the inadequacies of the Temple system in his time.
Peter, James, John and Andrew ask Jesus privately when this will happen.

Mark 13:5-8: Jesus begins his response. Verses 5-37 have sometimes been called “the little apocalypse” in contrast to the large apocalyptic work of Revelation. More than enough has already been said about apocalyptic literature. Signs of the coming of the end include: false messiahs and false prophets (a reference to teachers promoting violent revolution? A reference to others who speak in the name of Jesus but do so in ways inconsistent with Jesus’ own work and word?); wars and rumors of wars (unfortunately this seems to be the perpetual condition of humankind); earthquakes and famines. These Jesus calls birth pangs of the end. Notice what a hopeful image this is. Birth pangs are painful, but they are a part of the coming of new life. Mark’s Jesus community (Mark’s church) was caught in the middle of a terrible war. To see it as a birth pang gives one courage to continue forward.

Mark 13:9-13: Again, all that is put into the mouth of Jesus here reflects the situation of the Christians for whom Mark writes. Some have been handed over to councils. Some have been beaten in synagogues. Notice the opposition comes from both the religious and political authorities. These verses are also a foreshadow of what is to happen to Jesus. In the midst of these difficulties the church labors on in its mission to share the good news (verse 10). When one is arrested and put on trial one should not worry beforehand what to say. One is invited to trust God’s Spirit. The betrayal experienced may be betrayal within the family, just as Jesus will be betrayed by one of his “family members,” Judas. Those who “endure to the end will be saved.” When the end arrives, the goal of history, those who have stayed on the Jesus way will be seen to have contributed to the positive goal of God’s dream for the world. The fundamental message is that of hope and courage.

Mark 13:14-23: The “desolating sacrilege” spoken of in verse 14 is a reference to Daniel 9:27 and thus also a probable reference to the actions of the king Antiochus IV Epiphanies in 167 BCE. Antiochus sacrificed a pig on the altar of the Temple. Just how the early Christians understood the use of that image is a bit uncertain, though apparently a sacrifice to the emperor was offered in the Temple during the Roman war, before the Temple was destroyed. These images need not have been speaking to some distant future. They seemed all too real to Mark’s Jesus community. Whatever the specific meaning of the phrase, Mark seems to think his readers will understand (“let the reader understand”). Words of instruction are then given. Here is Crossan and Borg’s view of these. In this setting, these are counsels to get away from the invasion [ my note: this may be an argument to locate Mark’s church in Syria rather than Rome, but Rome had its issues, too] and to make haste – flee quickly! The point is not to become part of the violence, not to join the battle for Jerusalem. The imperatives are consistent with the nonviolence of Jesus and early Christianity. Importantly, it was not nonviolence as a passive withdrawal from the world, not nonviolence as nonresistance to evil, but nonviolence as a way of resisting evil. These early Christians were both anti-imperial and nonviolent. (The Last Week, 81). Be alert and pay attention to what Jesus has already taught. In all these verses we are encouraged to keep on the way of Jesus even when it is difficult.

Mark 13:24-27: After the suffering come cosmic signs that the world is going to be changing. The imagery used here has many antecedents in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Son of Man language comes from Daniel. “The point of such imagery is that at the end of history the One we meet is not different from the God we have already met in Jesus of Nazareth” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Once again the overall message is one of hope and encouragement in very difficult times.

Mark 13:28-31: Just as one can judge the seasons by looking at the trees, so when one sees some of these “signs” one knows that the fulfillment of God’s dream for the world is at hand. Mark seems to have expected it within the lifetime of his readers, an expectation that was not fulfilled. The more important lesson, though, is that the message of Jesus about God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world, stay true. Living in accord with that message is the way of life. It is to live with the grain of the universe.

Mark 13:32-37: Mark does give himself a little wiggle room. Finally, no one knows when all this may take place. We are encouraged to keep alert, keep awake. I don’t think this means we keep watching for signs. Too many Christians spend too much time on such efforts. I think it means we tend to our faith and life, that we seek to love as Jesus loved, that we seek justice and peace, that we foster forgiveness and reconciliation. Let’s do these things and let the end of the world take care of itself (better, let’s do these things and trust God with where it all ends).

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Mark 11-12

Mark 11:1-11: Jesus is now entering Jerusalem. Much of the material in chapters 11-15 was used by Matthew in his account of Jesus arrival in Jerusalem, trial and death. I will, then, be repeating some of the comments I made about those passages here. Entry processions were important occasions during the time of Jesus. Rome was good at pomp and circumstance, and their imperial processions reflected their power and prestige. John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, in their book The Last Week (which follows Mark’s gospel through these days) propose that there were two processions entering Jerusalem that day, one an imperial procession in which Pontius Pilate rode into the city to reinforce Roman rule during Passover week and one, the procession with Jesus riding on a donkey. Jesus ride is a distinct contrast to an imperial procession – which may have been taking place in another part of town. Here there is spontaneous joy at the arrival of Jesus. There is a sense of anticipation that something wonderful will happen. Again, one might contrast this with a sense of fear and foreboding that may have accompanied the imperial procession. Here are a few lines from Crossan and Borg’s book: Pilate’s procession embodied the power, glory, and violence of the empire that ruled the world. Jesus’ procession embodied an alternative vision, the kingdom of God. This contrast – between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Caesar – is central… to the story of Jesus and early Christianity (p. 4-5). Jesus is taking his work and message about God’s dream for the world into the heart of a city that embodied Roman domination and a Jewish collaboration with that system. Given the conflict between Jesus and both religious and political authorities to this point in Mark, you have to wonder how the authorities might deal with this wandering teacher and healer who arrives in Jerusalem with shouts of “blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Like Jesus, we are invited to bring good news about God’s love into difficult places, sharing a message that will sometimes challenge the way things are. Where are some of those places in your life or in our world today?

Mark 11:12-14: This is a rather strange story, but Mark uses it in conjunction with the story of the disruption at the Temple. In Mark’s telling, Jesus comes to the fig tree looking for figs because he is hungry. There was nothing but leaves, but it was not the season for figs! Nevertheless, Jesus is disturbed and behaves petulantly, cursing the tree by saying “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” Mark’s additional note that it was not fig season is an indication that we should read this story parabolically and symbolically. Jesus was hoping for, expecting fruit but did not find it – is there something here related to his concern for the Temple?

Mark 11:15-19: While the narrative in Mark, where Jesus disrupts Temple activity seems to indicate he shut down the entire enterprise, in all likelihood, his action was more prophetic, parabolic and symbolic. It would have been impossible for one person to shut down all the activity. Jesus did enough to disrupt some of the activity and make his point – this place was not producing the kind of spiritual fruit that it should. Perhaps Jesus was objecting to the commercial activity present in the Temple, but probably not that in itself. He may have objected to the way such activity could obscure or get in the way of ordinary people’s connection to God, hence his concern for the Temple being a house of prayer. He may have been concerned with what he perceived to be a disconnect between worship and justice. Worship of God is intended to produce fruits of compassion and justice. More specifically, Jesus may have been concerned with the way imperial Rome and certain Jewish elite centered in the Temple hierarchy perpetuated injustice. The Temple system as it was constituted was not producing fruit and Jesus symbolic action meant to show that this must come to an end. Of course with the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, all Jews needed to ask the question – “what next?” In any event, Jesus symbolic action in the Temple leads the chief priests and scribes to look for ways to eliminate this troublesome Jesus. He seems to have the crowd spellbound.

Mark 11:20-25: The saga of the fig tree is continued. It is Tuesday morning and the disciples pass by the fig tree Jesus had cursed the day before. They find it withered to its roots. Jesus goes on to encourage faith, prayer and forgiveness. “Mark here gathers independent sayings into a small catechism on faith” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Perhaps Jesus is contrasting unfruitfulness with fruitfulness. A fruitful spiritual life will be characterized, in significant ways, by faith/trust, prayer and forgiveness. To do justice and act with compassion involves a deep trust that acting in these ways really is helping fulfill God’s dream for the world, even when such action seems pointless, a whispering in the wind. Prayer can seem like “wasted time” when there is so much to be done to make the world better. It takes faith/trust to know that action that connects us with God, that slows us down some, that may heal us inside is also kingdom work. Forgiveness is powerful, intrapersonally, interpersonally, and socially. Over the past couple of years I have been struck by how central “forgiveness” is to the Christian faith. Often that has only meant “the forgiveness of my own sins so I can get to heaven.” The sense that one is forgiven by God is very important, but the importance of forgiveness is even deeper and wider. I have most recently learned more about forgiveness from Jack Kornfield, a Buddhist. Here is some material from his book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace. Traditionally the work of the heart begins with forgiveness…. It is hard to imagine a world without forgiveness. Without forgiveness life would be unbearable. Without forgiveness our lives are chained, forced to carry the sufferings of the past and repeat them with no release…. Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past. These words from the Hindu text, The Bhagavad Gita, are also powerful. “If you want to see the heroic, look at those who can love in return for hatred. If you want to see the brave, look for those who can forgive.”

Mark 11:27-33: The scene at the Temple is only round one of the controversy Jesus will engage in with members of the religious establishment of Jerusalem. Remember, they are already out to get him. Jesus returns to the Temple, and some religious authorities ask Jesus about his own authority. Jesus turns the table on them, asking them their view of John the Baptist and his baptism. The authorities are in a catch-22. If they say John was speaking only with human authority, they will besmirch the reputation of a person widely regarded as a prophet. But if they say that his authority came from God, they know Jesus will ask them why they did not respond. They gave no answer and neither did Jesus. For Mark it is clear that Jesus’ authority comes from God and those who don’t recognize that, in Jesus’ own time and in Mark’s are missing out on something important.

Mark 12:1-12: Jesus then tells a story, a rather strange, violent and tragic story. It is a story about a vineyard owner and tenants who refuse to pay their rent. The story is steeped in an unreal situation. What owner would tolerate that kind of behavior for long, and what owner, given that history would send a son? And what kind of law would give tenants rights of inheritance? Mark has Jesus use this story to make a couple of significant points. Those who have mismanaged faith in God are going to be replaced. Those who have let the symbols of faith be co-opted by imperial authorities will be replaced. Mark is also asserting that Jesus is like the son of the vineyard owner, coming to invite people to a different way. Whereas in other places, Mark has those who hear parables misunderstand them, here the authorities understand very clearly that the story is being told about and against them. Their response is to fuel their desire for Jesus’ arrest.

Mark 12:13-17: Controversy continues, though “the adversaries” change. Up to now in the chapter (beginning with chapter 11, verse 27) those who have opposed Jesus have been “chief priest and scribes.” Now we have “some Pharisees and some Herodians.” All this is language to refer to more elite persons, authorities – often people who also collaborated with the Roman imperial authority. We need to avoid the tragic mistake of Christian history which paints these persons as stand-ins for all the Jews of the time. Jesus was a Jewish reformer, not an anti-Jewish crusader. Some Pharisees and some Herodians do their best to try and trap Jesus by getting him to say something that will raise the ire of the political authorities. Jesus wisely understands what is going on and responds with wit and intelligence. Should one pay taxes? Jesus provides no definitive answer, only noting that it is the empire that issues the money and that one should give the emperor what is his and God what is God’s. In the context of other things Jesus says, loyalty to God is the highest loyalty. That need not be in total opposition to “governments” but governments can never claim our ultimate loyalty. Our final loyalty is to God and to God’s purposes in the world. The work of governments can be a part of fulfilling those purposes, but they can also overreach. We must decide in our own day and time and in our own lives how we can support God’s purposes and the ways governments might further those purposes, and how we should be critical of those aspects of government and public policy that seem to thwart God’s purposes. Another shade of meaning might be found in considering that the coins bore the image of the emperor, and thus may belong to the emperor. Human beings bear the image of God, and thus “belong to” God. By the way, the fact that these religious leaders were carrying imperial money made them a little suspect.

Mark 12:18-27: Again, the adversaries change – this time it is the Sadducees, another influential group in the Judaism of Jesus’ time (and probably Mark’s time as well). The Sadducees “belonged to the wealthy, conservative, priestly stream of Judaism associated with the temple leadership” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). The Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection and so pose a rather absurd scenario to see what Jesus might think of it. Jesus suggests that God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world, will provide for very different patterns of relationship. “The text is not a devaluation of marriage and family, but a reminder that the nature of God’s transcendent world is a mystery that cannot be captured within the categories of the present human world” (The People’s New Testament Commentary).

Mark 12:28-34: Here a scribe comes to ask a question, but rather than being hostile, this scribe appears sincere. It’s as if Mark wants to remind us that we must always be careful in painting people with too broad a brush. Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment – not an unusual question for the Judaism of the time, and Jesus response would not have been all that surprising. “That love, faithfulness, and obedience to God are more important than sacrifice is represented by a broad stream of Old Testament tradition” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Loving God, loving others – this is the heart of Jesus teaching. Jesus recognizes that this scribe gets it and has come near God’s kingdom. He is beginning to be part of God’s dream for the world. Mark invites his readers to come just as near – to have faith, to understand, to act. Jesus' exchange with this scribe is so impressive, that no more questions will be asked.

Mark 12:35-37: A controversial point is made in this text, though there is no interrogator of Jesus. Teaching in the Temple, Jesus seems to be making an obscure point about a “son of David tradition.” It helps to know that there had emerged in between the time of the last writings of the Old Testament and the time of Jesus a tradition within Judaism that the kingdom of God would come with a David-like warrior-king. Jesus seems to be saying that this category is inadequate to understand what it means to be Messiah. Jesus is inviting his listeners to see God at work in his teaching and ministry. He is the one anointed by God (Messiah means “anointed”) for this time. He is a son of David, but also the one in whom the hopes of David’s people will be fulfilled, though perhaps in a unique way. While these verses seem terribly obscure, we read, “and the large crowd was listening to him with delight.” Such delightful listening was to the chagrin of many religious authorities.

Mark 12:38-40: From controversial dialogue to direct confrontation, Jesus tells his listeners to beware of the scribes and their practices. Justice is divorced from piety, and that is not in keeping with God’s dream for the world. Matthew’s and Luke’s criticisms are longer.

Mark 12:41-44: In stark contrast to the behavior of the scribes, Jesus points out the action of a poor widow. Matthew did not include this story in his gospel. Most commonly, this passage is understood as contrasting the deep devotion of the poor widow with the public display of generosity of the wealthy. As such she (rather than the wealthy) is a positive image of discipleship: she gave all that she had. An alternative interpretation hears the passage as a condemnation of the way the poor are manipulated to give all that they have to support the temple. It does not condemn the widow, but the system that leads her to act in this way. In either case, the passage is critical of the wealthy. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 75) If Jesus is critical of the wealthy does that mean all wealth is bad? Jesus comments are probably more systemic, criticizing systems in which wealth becomes concentrated and many are left poor. In Jesus teaching, wealth can pose certain problems for one’s spiritual well-being. Please see comments on the potential problems of wealth in the blog for Mark 10:17-31.
Mark 8-10

Mark 8:1-10: Please see comments on Mark 6:30-44. The themes in this story are similar to the feeding of the 5,000. However, it is interesting to note that Mark seems to locate this feeding miracle in a Gentile region. Matthew, who also tells this story does not locate it in the same way. Mark may be using this story, along with the previous stories about the Syrophoenecian woman and the man who was deaf and mute to indicate that Jesus mission was expanding to incorporate the Gentiles.

Mark 8:11-13: Given all that has happened, the Pharisees request for a sign seems absurd. Perhaps we need to recall that in first century Palestine, there were other miracle workers than Jesus. No sign would be given – except that there had been signs all over the place. Sometimes we see what our hearts are open to seeing, and little more.

Mark 8:14-21: This is a hilarious story. Jesus, having had a confrontation with the Pharisees, seeks to teach his disciples using an image. But they take the image literally. Jesus provides the bread of life. The Pharisees and Herod starve people either through the arbitrary exercise of power and cooperation with imperial authorities (Herod) or through a misapplication of faith principles which leaves people feeling only burdened toward God. The disciples are worried only about bread. On the one hand, you could understand. Jesus keeps asking them how much bread they have. On the other hand, Jesus has not let anyone go hungry, so to worry about bread seems a bit absurd. This is a funny story – but with a serious point. Jesus asks them if they simply can’t see, if their hearts are hardened. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” Some commentators portray Jesus as being angry. I hear a deeply caring person striving to help people dig more deeply into their lives and their faith. I hear sadness, not anger. How about you? Jesus final question is straightforward, “Do you not yet understand?” From Mark’s perspective, at this point, they don’t. The journey of faith is a journey – for us all.

Mark 8:22-26: In a remarkable contrast to the disciples misunderstanding, here we have a story about the healing of a blind man. Only Mark reports this story. A blind man from Bethdsaida is brought to Jesus and is healed, but in two stages. The story is a powerful parable of the journey of faith as Mark seems to see it. It reflects the disciples own journey: sometimes blind, sometimes getting it a little (seeing trees) and sometimes comprehending almost completely. The next story shows Peter getting it.

Mark 8:27-30: You wonder why Jesus would ask his disciples anything, but he does. He wonders who people think he is. He wonders who they think he is. Peter gets it right. “You are the Messiah.” This is the first time in Mark’s gospel where a human being understands who Jesus is. He tells them to keep this to themselves, maybe in part because while they can say the words, in Mark’s gospel they have not yet grasped all that this will mean. As noted before, Caesarea Philippi contained a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the city was associated with displays of imperial power, e.g. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. It is here that Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one”). But there are ways in which Jesus does not fulfill some messianic expectations. He is not organizing to overthrow Rome militarily. He is not as strict in his interpretation of the Law as some would like. In fact, his destiny will be quite startling as the next verses will indicate.

Mark 8:31-38: One way Jesus may frustrate messianic expectations is that he will die at the hands of others. Of course, this passage is written significantly after the fact so these “predictions” come true. As mentioned before, it is not unrealistic that Jesus would have considered that his teaching and preaching and healing would attract a crowd and that such a crowd would be worrisome to Roman authorities. Nor is it unrealistic for him to have considered that the very nature of his teaching, which had elements opposed to both the religious and political authorities, would have caused a confrontation with these authorities. Peter, who was so “brilliant” moments ago, misses the point in this story. At best, he has only partially seen. Jesus then calls the disciples and a crowd together to teach. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” When we cling to a form of life that is not truly life-giving, we miss out on life. Give it up. The New Interpreters Study Bible has a special note about these verses that is worth quoting at length. By taking this requirement of suffering for Jesus’ followers out of the context of Mark’s gospel message as a whole, some Christians have supposed that it is God’s will for them to suffer and that, consequently, they should not work against their oppression or that of others. This interpretation has been especially damaging to women and third world populations colonized by Western Christians. For Mark, the suffering experienced by Jesus’ followers has a cause and a limit. The cause is the evil leaders, religious and political, who oppress those seeking truth, and the limit is the imminent return of the Son of Man at the end of the world. Read within its own understanding of the story of Jesus, Mark’s emphasis on suffering does not provide a basis for Christian masochism but instead a hope for future liberation. It is also helpful to remember that for Mark’s Jesus community, death for one’s faith was something they had seen and heard about. To follow Jesus may not mean physical suffering for most of us, but it can mean dying to certain parts of our lives, parts that are not life-giving.

Mark 9:1: This is a continuation of the previous teaching of Jesus. Here Jesus seems to teach an imminent coming of the kingdom of God with power. Just what that may mean is subject to interpretation. Jesus may have expected a complete renewal of the world in the near future. If so, that did not happen. Jesus may have expected something less, but still a coming of the kingdom with power in some different way. For Mark, the gospel writer could have been expecting a complete renewal of the world or again, something smaller. The resurrection itself is a “coming of the kingdom with power.” The primary message here is one of hope.

Mark 9:2-8: Speaking of a coming with power, the next story we have is the story of the transfiguration. This time Mark actually has a time frame in his story – six days later. The story of the Transfiguration, ending with another “prediction” of Jesus’ suffering replays the same themes as the confession and “prediction” of suffering in the previous chapter. This story evokes other themes as well (the mountain, Moses and Elijah all have significance). Perhaps there is also a commentary here about deeply moving spiritual experiences. James, John and Peter are caught up in a wonderful moment. They see clearly. They “hear” the voice of God. They would like to prolong this spiritual high. But they have to go back down the mountain into the beautiful and hurting world. It is a world where great good can happen, but also where many who try and do good are made to suffer. They must go into the world to continue the work of the kingdom, healing, hope, good news. Jack Kornfield’s words are wise ones. “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance. In the spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry…. The true task of the spiritual life is not found in faraway places or unusual states of consciousness; it is here in the present. It asks of us a welcoming spirit to greet all that life presents to us with a wise, respectful, and kindly heart.” (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry). Our churches should be places where we help people experience God more deeply, and places where we send ourselves back into the world to do God’s work. If this sounds familiar, it is also what I wrote about Matthew 17.

Mark 9:14-29: This is the last exorcism story and the next to last healing story in Mark’s gospel. While there are parallels in Matthew and Luke, Mark tells the story in a unique way, in a way that emphasizes some themes important to him. Jesus, Peter, James and John return to the group of disciples. They are surrounded by a crowd, which includes some scribes, and there is a dispute. A man has brought his troubled son to be healed. Mark portrays the son’s condition vividly. The disciples have been unable to help. Jesus seems exasperated, but we are not sure just who the “faithless generation” is. Anyway, the man brings his son to Jesus and tells Jesus he knows that he will do what he can if he is able. Jesus turns the dialogue around – “if you are able.” “All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father replies with famous words (found only in Mark), “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Jesus remark that this demon would only come out with prayer is cryptic. We are often this strange and wonderful mixture of faith and unbelief – and our lack of faith, understood as trust, gets in the way of our being the force for good and healing in the world we would like to be. The man’s cry could legitimately be our own. “God, I have faith, help me where I lack it.”

Mark 9:30-32: A second complete prediction of Jesus suffering and death, and it ends with the disciples remaining confused. They were a mixture of belief and unbelief.

Mark 9:33-37: That the disciples really don’t get it is evident by this next scene. Jesus has just said he is going to suffer and die, and the disciples are worried about who will be the greatest. Greatness is service, Jesus tells them. It is welcoming children. “In the first-century Mediterranean world, the characteristic feature of children was not thought to be their innocence but their lack of status and legal rights” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Openness to the least and the left out is what is considered great. Again, I hear echoes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.”

Mark 9:38-41: These verses continue the discussion in verses 33-37. John is worried about competition, another exorcist working in Jesus name, but who is not a part of their “community.” They have tried to stop him, but Jesus tells them not to. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Just to confuse things, other gospels have a statement that reads, “whoever is not with us is against us” (Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23). Luke’s gospel has both sayings! Mark is demonstrating a very generous spirit here, a spirit more churches in our day and time should model. Giving a cup of water to someone because of Christ is held up as a powerful act. Greatness indeed!

Mark 9:42-49: The remainder of this chapter is a series of sayings of Jesus which may originally have been separate sayings, but which Mark brings together – moving from the theme of caring for little ones. Disciples, followers of Jesus will be great in service. They will give a cup of water. They will be concerned for the least, the little ones, the weak. The language changes, then, to a stark exhortation to get rid of those things in one’s life which are a hindrance. This is metaphorical language, though a bit frightening. “Hell” translates the Greek word “Gehenna.” Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinonom. “This valley south of Jerusalem, once the site of pagan sacrifices, was later made the city garbage dump, where stench, maggots, and fire were always present” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). If we don’t care, if our lives are not about service and love and helping the little ones, not only are they not great, they are like garbage. It is as if a dichotomy is being proposed – greatness or garbage. The reality is that our lives are often a combination of both, and we help ourselves by “throwing away” that which gets in the way of true greatness. The sayings about salt don’t seem to fit very naturally, except that they are linked by the use of the image of fire. Salt had two basic functions – adding flavor and as a preservative. Both associations provided rich metaphoric material. “Everyone will be salted with fire.” This seems to imply that followers of Jesus will be tested in one way or another. It may also imply that we may, in fact, need to throw the garbage of our lives away to be the kind of salt we want to be. The second salt saying is the same one found in Matthew – an encouragement to “stay salty.” Finally, the last saying is unique to Mark. “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.” These are encouraging words for the Jesus community for whom Mark is writing and for us today.

Mark 10:1-12: The scene shifts now. Jesus, whose ministry has been centered in Galilee, is now in Judea. Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem and the dramatic conclusion of Mark’s gospel. Here, too, crowds gather “and, as was his custom, he again taught them.” But not all come to be taught. Some Pharisees come to test Jesus, asking him a question about divorce. Remember that the Pharisees are already identified as among those conspiring to destroy Jesus (3:6). Jesus responds in a very interesting way, telling the Pharisees that Moses wrote a commandment about divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) “because of your hardness of heart.” Jesus challenges the very words of their common Scripture, and he puts different texts up against each other, arguing that one is more central to God’s purposes (Genesis 2:24). This method of using Scripture seems different from those who would read the Scriptures in a literlistic, infallibilistic sense. As followers of Jesus, we should take our cue from him and read our Scriptures seriously, faithfully and creatively. We should read them along with consulting Christian tradition, our own reason and our own experience (the Methodist/Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience). All that being said, this text is less about Jesus teaching about marriage and divorce, than about Jesus asserting his own teaching authority in the midst of a controversy. Yet it speaks of the seriousness with which Jesus and the early Christian community treated marriage. We should take marriage no less seriously. At the same time, where these verses have been used to “punish” those who have been divorced, turning them into second-class Christians, we should speak boldly in saying that such a reading is not in keeping with the broad themes of Jesus teaching about love and compassion. As I wrote previously, in most cases there is an element of tragedy in any divorce, and Jesus’ teaching acknowledges this. His other teachings about compassion lead me to believe that he would not have used his strong feelings about marriage and divorce to beat up on those who had been divorced. The church has not always done the best job of showing compassion to those divorced and that is inconsistent with the overall teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith.

Mark 10:13-16: Just a few verses ago we hear Jesus talking about welcoming children. Here people bring children to Jesus and the disciples try and get in their way! Not only should children be welcomed, there is something about them that speaks strongly about the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Listen to these words from Krista Tippett, from her book Speaking of Faith. And as I watched my children move through the world, I began to imagine what Jesus meant by humility. The humility of a child, moving through the world discovering everything new, is closely linked with delight. This original spiritual humility is not about debasing oneself; it is about approaching everything new and other with a sense of curiosity and wonder. It has a quality of fearlessness, too (237).

Mark 10:17-31: If children are open to wonder, receptive to grace, often with few resources of their own – this next story is about a man who had it all (many possessions). The question about “eternal life” is another way of asking how he could participate in God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. There is irony in the story. Jesus tells the man that no one is good but God, yet the man maintains his own spiritual self-sufficiency. I don’t think the point is to put forward some sort of doctrine of the universal depravity of human beings, rather to acknowledge that there is grace in our lives, that a part of who we are is a gift. Failure to acknowledge that leads to spiritual trouble. Jesus, out of love for the man, sees that his problem is just that, a sense of spiritual self-sufficiency, a sense that he needs to earn his way into God’s kingdom. His possessions are the most tangible representation of that, so Jesus tells him to get rid of them and follow. The man leaves – shocked and grieving. This is not a broadside against material possessions, but in our day and age we need to be asking questions about the spiritual effects of a world where desiring more and more, and working harder and harder for that seems endemic to our culture and society. What might this be doing to us inside? How might this be blinding us to the plight of the least well-off in our world? How might it be preventing us from seeing so much of the beauty in the world that cannot be bought or earned? The sayings that follow the departure of the rich man lead me to just these questions. And sometimes we get so caught up in earning and spending that we find it difficult to extricate ourselves spiritually. It may seem impossible, like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle (by the way, the story about a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye” is a medieval legend – some of you may have heard this story). Jesus uses a stark image here, but he also assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. Furthermore, he offers a wonderful assurance to the disciples (and to disciples through the centuries) that they will be blessed on the way of faith. Verse 31 about the first being last and the last being first is a proverb that appears in a variety of contexts in the gospels (e.g. similar words in Mark 9:35). The journey of faith is not always easy. It can entail persecutions. It can mean leaving behind old securities. But it is the way of life.

Mark 10:32-34: The journey toward Jerusalem continues. Mark’s language here is fascinating. Jesus is walking on ahead and those who follow are amazed and afraid. Sounds like a word about Mark’s own community – following Jesus, amazed and afraid. Again comes the word about what this trip to Jerusalem will mean.

Mark 10:35-45: And important disciples just don’t get it at all. James and John ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left “in glory.” What glory? The only people who will be on Jesus right and left in the end will be two bandits also being crucified (Mark 15:27). Are they really able to give themselves as Jesus does? Mark has Jesus’ words point to a time when they will be able. Jesus then emphasizes again that greatness is service (How many times does he have to say it? Probably as often as we need to hear it) - this in sharp contrast to the imperial way of life, of lording things over others. Verse 45 summarizes an important point for Mark. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” “Son of Man” is a term Mark often uses as a term of self-reference for Jesus. The term “ransom” is important to understand. To many Christians, the word “ransom” sounds like sacrificial language, for we sometimes speak of Jesus as the ransom for our sins. But it almost certainly does not have this meaning in Mark…. The Greek word translated as “ransom”… is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives… or slaves. [It] is a means of liberation from bondage. Thus to say that Jesus gave “his life a ransom for many” means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 154). Some may wonder about my continually introducing alternative ways of understanding Jesus' death, other than as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, required by God for forgiveness. I am not trying to evade my own need for grace nor my own shortcomings. I am painfully aware of places in my life where I do and say things that are not loving and compassionate. I continue to work on these areas of my life. I trust in God’s grace for forgiveness and, at my best, have a deep sense of gratitude for life itself as a gift of God’s grace. Admittedly, I struggle with the notion that God could not forgive without requiring some kind of blood sacrifice. Such an understanding of God leaves me cold, but I know that is not the case for others. Jesus life and death, by revealing to me the depth and meaning of God’s love and the possibilities for new life free me from false understandings of myself. They free me from the unhealthy cycle of sin – guilt – self-loathing – self-justification to a place where I can receive grace and work to be a better person, cooperating with the grace and Spirit of God at work in me. For those who find the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice needed for forgiveness, a sacrifice God provides from God’s own being, helpful, I have no desire to take that away. It is one understanding of Jesus’ death within the Christian faith tradition. My only goal is to offer other faithful understandings of Jesus’ death that are also found in the tradition and which may speak to others more powerfully.

Mark 10:46-52: The journey continues as Jesus and the disciples pass through Jericho. A man named Bartimaeus is on the side of the road, and when he hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth passing by he calls out to him. The “son of David” language makes a claim about Jesus, that he is true king of God’s kingdom, and it gives an additional reason for going to Jerusalem. Jesus asks the disciples to call the man to Jesus – something Jesus still asks of disciples. “Take heart” – not a bad message for the church to share today. Bartimaeus asks to see again. Jesus responds, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way. The first Christians often thought of themselves as people of “the way.” This story, which has parallels in Matthew and Luke, is told in a unique manner by Mark. The person is named. The call of Jesus comes to each of us by name. The person becomes a model of discipleship – blindness is healed because one responds to Jesus with faith, with trust, and in faith/trust one follows Jesus on the way – even thought the way may be difficult at times.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Mark 6-7

Mark 6:1-6: Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth and goes to teach in the synagogue. People are astounded by his teaching, but then begin to ask irrelevant questions. Yes, his teaching is superb. Yes, we have heard about his wonderful work. But isn’t he that local kid – Mary’s son? Don’t we know his brothers and sisters? An initial positive response turns negative. Jesus cannot do any deeds of power, well, maybe a few, but they are limited. He is amazed at their unbelief – a very human reaction on the part of Jesus. When do parts of our own Christian tradition become so familiar to us that they lose their power to transform our lives?

Mark 6:6-13: Jesus sends out twelve disciples to extend his own work. They preach/teach and heal. Our work as the church is to be sent by Jesus to preach, teach, and heal.

Mark 6:14-29: Inserted here is as story about King Herod (Herod Antipas, Tetrach of Galilee and Perea from 4 BCE to 39 CE) and John the Baptist. Striking this ominous note right after the good news about the disciples positive work foreshadows Jesus own death and speaks to Mark’s Christian community about their own difficulties. Herod hears of Jesus and he becomes afraid that Jesus is John the Baptist come back from the dead. When one has power one is tempted to be constantly afraid of critics of that power. Herod had arrested John for criticizing him. Nevertheless, he seemed to have grudging respect for John. The same could not be said for Herod’s wife, who only had the grudge. She schemes to have John put to death. No wonder Herod is afraid. John’s preaching had spoken to him, though it left him perplexed. John’s death pointed out the capriciousness of power exercised by Herod. In some ways, the scene is being set for Jesus own confrontation with authorities.

Mark 6:30-44: Contrast Herod’s arbitrary use of power to destroy with the power Jesus has. Jesus is powerful, though in a very different way from Herod. Jesus uses his power to feed, not to kill. This is the only miracle story to appear in all four gospels. The image of Jesus who feeds the hungry was central to early Christian faith. Many levels of meaning reverberate through this symbolic story. The historical Jesus was one with compassion for the hungry, one who himself ate and drank with those who had been excluded by religious and social correctness. After Easter, stories of Jesus feeding the hungry were used to communicate God’s answer in Christ to the hungers of humanity. (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Where in your life do you need to be fed by God through Jesus?

Mark 6:45-52:
Jesus goes up a mountain to pray alone. Mark makes frequent message of this aspect of Jesus’ life. The disciples are in a boat, heading across the sea. A storm arises. Jesus walks across the water. The disciples are terrified. Jesus tells them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.” He gets in the boat with them and the storm ceases, leaving them astounded. Then Mark writes, “They did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” What a contrast to Matthew where the disciples say, “Truly you are the Son of God.” In Mark, the same disciples who have taught and healed in Jesus name, who have just witnessed the miracle of the feeding of five thousand, don’t get Jesus, don’t understand fully what he is about. Are they rocky soil? Are they unable to see what is right there before them? In the history of the church, there have been many disciples who experience this same obtuseness, who miss the point. Sometimes that’s you and me. We know the disciples don’t remain fearful and lacking in faith. Can we move beyond our fears to a deeper faith?

Mark 6:53-56: The boat lands, Jesus is recognized and the crowds form. Healing happens, even when people simply touch the fringes of Jesus garment. The “fringe” (Hebrew: tzizit) describes four tassels that were prescribed for every Jewish male, and the fact that Jesus wore these means that he understands himself as a faithful and observant Jew. The fringes were a reminder to Jews of all God’s commandments.

Mark 7:1-23:
Though he may be an observant Jew, Jesus also challenged the Jewish tradition of which he was a part. Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem criticize his eating practices, and he hold a critical mirror up to them. Mark’s need to explain Jewish custom is evidence that his gospel was written primarily for non-Jewish Christians. In verses 14-15, Jesus says that it is not what goes into a person from outside but what comes out of a person from inside that makes him or her “defiled.” He said this to the crowd, but when the crowd leaves, confused disciples ask him what he means. He elaborates. The heart is what matters. Note that Mark adds a note about Jesus declaring all foods clean. This was missing in Matthew’s recounting of the story.

Mark 7:24-30: This is one of my favorite stories in the Gospels and will be the subject of my sermon July 22. Jesus goes further from home, to the region of Tyre a predominantly Gentile area extending to the Mediterranean Sea. He would like to remain anonymous, but that doesn’t last long. He engages in an exchange with a “clever and determined foreign woman” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). She is Syrophoenecian, a non-Jew. Matthew had called her a Caananite woman. Calling her a “dog” would have been quite derogatory, a slam against her religion, culture and ethnic background. She takes Jesus’ own words and turns them in a different direction, opening up the possibility of healing – which happens. Why is this one of my favorite stories in the Gospels? Sorry, but I have to save something for my sermons.

Mark 7:31-37: “Then” another quick transition for Mark. It is a good thing Jesus takes some of those time alone moments. Here we have the story of the healing of a man who is deaf and has difficulty speaking. The story has no parallels in other gospels. It takes place in the Decapolis, a Gentile region on the east side of the Sea of Galilee. It is not inconceivable, then, that this man is Gentile, though the story does not say as much. That he is given sight and speech have tremendous symbolic significance, given that up to now many who have seen Jesus have not really “seen” him. The healing frees more than the individuals speech, those who witness it have their tongues set free. Though Jesus asks them to be quiet, they are unable to do so. They have witnessed someone who does all things well, even healing the deaf and the mute. Sometimes we need new eyes for seeing. Sometimes we need our tongues loosed to share good news.
Mark 5

Mark 5:1-20: The side of the lake on which Jesus arrives is the more Gentile side of the lake. Here we have a story about an exorcism, and I have already written some important things about such stories. Here are a couple more thoughts. The authors of The People’s New Testament Commentary say that the New Testament uses language about Satan and demons to express an understanding of evil as a transcendent power. They go on to say: Modern readers may no longer believe in evil spirits in the same way as the people of the first century, but human beings in every age confront the powers of evil at work in their own world and within their own lives. When I think of addictions, I think of an evil that can warp a person's life and something that has a power of its own. When I consider the evils of systematic dehumanization like slavery, apartheid, the Holocaust, I think of evil that has taken on a life of its own. The good news of the New Testament, the good news about Jesus, is that in Jesus we see that God finally has power over such evil. The story of the Gerasene demoniac is a vivid example of such a story. The tale is powerfully told. We have a man living among the tombs. He is strong as an ox. He howled in agony and bruised himself. Metaphorically, we see people we have known in this picture, maybe even picture certain times in our own lives. In the Greco-Roman world, evil spirits were believed to be tied to certain areas, thus the demons want to stay in this country. They are legion, a Roman military term – could there be some anti-imperial themes here? They are given permission to stay in the area, but only by leaving the tormented man. They enter pigs who, in turn, drown. Upset swineherds run off to tell others what happened. The story has some humor in it. People discover the man who had been exorcised in his right mind, and they were afraid. If this guy can move demons, what is to prevent him from moving them into me? They really don’t understand what has happened, and that God’s power is the power of love to heal and to free, not capricious power. The healed man asks to go with Jesus, but Jesus sends him off elsewhere. The man shares what Jesus has done for him in the area of the Decapolis, ten Greek cities. The man becomes a model for us – share the story of how God, how Jesus, how the Spirit, makes a positive difference in our lives.

Mark 5:21-43: The stories about Jesus' remarkable ministry continue. He crosses back over the sea and is met by a crowd. First we hear about Jairus, a synagogue leader whose daughter is deathly ill. Jesus moves to help here, but he is surrounded by a crowd of people. One woman, ill for twelve years, touches the cloak of Jesus hoping for healing – and it works. Jesus senses that something has happened. The woman comes forward and Jesus speaks tenderly to her. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” The woman’s condition would have made her ritually unclean and so someone on the margins of society. Jesus is not afraid to reach out to her and welcomes her back into the community. In the meantime, Jairus’ daughter has died. Jesus tells him, “do not fear, only believe.” We really don’t get their response except that they went with Jesus into the daughter’s room. Jesus’ touch again proves healing. They are amazed, but Jesus orders them to keep quiet. The story is here for our hearing – obviously somebody told! One of the difficult elements of healing stories is our own experience of illness and difficulty. Not all of our ailments are cured, and death cannot be postponed forever for any of us. If we are sick and not cured, though we pray for it, are we at fault? Do we lack faith? Is God capricious about who will get cured? These stories are primarily about healing, which can be different from being cured. I have a chronic colon condition which I have had since age 21. I wish I did not have it. It requires daily medication that I wish I did not have to take. It has not been cured, but there has been healing in my life in the midst of this. I think I have learned something about the human body and its limits because of this disease. I think I appreciate the wonder of the body and life in new ways. I don’t believe God gave me this disease so I could learn such things. I don’t believe God withheld a cure so I could learn from my disease. My disease just is – its origins shrouded in the mystery of my genes and their interaction with my environment. In the midst of this disease, without its disappearance, I also believe I have experienced some healing in my life, healing rooted in God’s love and God’s Spirit.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Mark 4

Mark 4:1-20: We come to the first extensive recording of Jesus teaching in the Gospel of Mark. It will primarily be parabolic. “In the Bible ‘parable’ is used for a wide range of indirect communication, including figures of speech, aphorisms, proverbs, riddles, illustrations, lessons, allegories – almost any kind of metaphorical speech” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). New Testament scholar, C. H. Dodd defined parables in this way: “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or from common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.” The authors of The People’s New Testament Commentary, where this quote was found (p. 121) go on to write: “Jesus’ parables did not deliver prepackaged meaning but challenged the hearer to respond.” Scholars agree that Jesus taught in parables. They usually also agree that many of the explanations of the parables found in the New Testament were probably the work of later Christian interpreters, though there would be disagreement about this. The first parable presented in Mark is the well-known parable of the sower, about a farmer who goes out to sow seeds and the results of his work. We have some seeds falling on a path, some on rocky soil, some in soil filled with thistles and weeds, and some on good soil. While the story presents a realistic look at current agricultural practice in the time of Jesus, the yield on the good soil would be beyond the wildest expectations of any farmer. That would certainly arrest the hearer by its strangeness. God’s action is toward abundant life. An interpretation of the parable is offered where the different soils are viewed as representing different responses to “the word of God” given by Jesus. We are encouraged to be good soil. I would also argue that we are encouraged to sow seeds of God’s love and care with liberality in the world. That the interpretation offered in verses 13-20 is probably the work of an early Christian interpreter of Jesus’ parable simply says that parables are open to a variety of interpretations. That seems appropriate as they are ways Jesus used to describe God’s dream for the world and how God might move through the Spirit to make that dream a reality. There is always a bit of mystery involved here and so we are invited to listen to the parables carefully. Here is one comment on the parable worth quoting. To human eyes much of the labor seems futile and fruitless, resulting apparently in repeated failure, but Jesus is full of joyful confidence: he knows that God has made a beginning, bringing with it a harvest of reward beyond all asking or conceiving (Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus, 150). Verses 10-12 seem to indicate that Jesus offered his teaching in such a way as to deliberately confound people. The irony is that the disciples don’t understand the parable either, and so go and ask Jesus for further explanation. One way to read these verses may be to say that the work of God’s Spirit is out there to be seen by those who wish to see it, and heard by those with “ears to hear.” Often we are both kinds of people at different times in our lives - people who see and hear and people who are blind and deaf to what God is doing.

Mark 4:21-25: If the secrets of the kingdom of God are a bit of a mystery, they are not so permanently – or rather they need not confound us permanently. Nothing is secret except that it will later come to light. Disciples are invited to pay attention. As we begin to see God at work, we will see even more of the work of God’s Spirit. Sometimes Jesus’ teaching and the Bible itself is cryptic, mysterious, secret. These verses encourage me to keep reading and listening and paying attention. Mark’s emphasis on secrecy and mystery may have something to do with his context. Could his Gentile Christian community been meeting in secret because of the authorities? Did they pass their message on carefully out of concern for being betrayed? If they have to be cautious now, later the message will come to light. In the end, they will be seen as working for the right cause, God’s dream for the world. That’s what matters. Theologian John Howard Yoder put it this way. “People who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”

Mark 4:26-29: Only Mark has Jesus telling this particular parable, and it is the only such parable in Mark. It is a story that tells of the wonderful mystery of the working of God’s Spirit. We are invited to trust that God’s Spirit may be at work in our lives and in the world even when we may not understand how. I am reminded of words of Albert Schweitzer. No ray of sunlight is ever lost, but the green which it wakes into existence needs time to sprout, and it is not always granted to the sower to live to see the harvest. All work that is worth anything is done in faith. (Schweitzer: an anthology, 162-163)

Mark 4:30-32:
God’s dream for the world may begin in small and mysterious ways, and in small ways in our own hearts and lives, but it can grow in amazing ways, becoming great and becoming inclusive. The image of the birds gathering in the branches is an image of Gentile peoples becoming a part of God’s kingdom.

Mark 4:33-34: Jesus used parabolic speech to teach, and did so “as they were able to hear.” This seems to contradict earlier statements that parabolic speech was intentionally confusing. Parables are rich and one can miss their importance. Grappling with them in order to deepen one’s faith is worth the effort. As we do so, we, too, will have Jesus “explaining” some of their meaning to us.

Mark 4:35-41: After a long day of teaching, Jesus decides to go across the sea, go to the other side. Jesus sleeps along the way (a Sunday afternoon nap after preaching?!?). A storm arises, and the disciples panic. “Don’t you care that we are perishing?” Their anxiety rises quickly! Jesus calms the storm, turns and asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith.” Given the teaching that has just gone on, we are led to wonder what kind of soil are these disciples made of? Don’t they know that God’s work can start small and grow? Still they don’t get it, even though they had some private lessons. Mark’s Jesus community must have asked the same question the disciples asked, “Don’t you care about us?” The reply is to have faith and not be afraid, not be defined by fear. It is to trust a Jesus who can calm the storms of life.