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.

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