Thursday, June 4, 2015

023-Not One of Us

God gave up control over himself (Jesus)
so that the world might know peace.

When humans are given power over God, what happens? We kill him.

In this section Mark gives us the response of God to any charge that he uses his power to establish and maintain control over his subjects. This is a unequivocal denial of that kind of power.

But it is the kind of power the disciples want and expect. And maybe with present-day disciples (aka, Christians) as well.

Like the disciples, we desire to be in charge, to have the authority, power, recognition, honor, and prestige. We are willing to serve, but only from a position of power. We are willing to minister, as long as we are in charge and serving in our comfort zone.[1]

tiumentseva / 123RF Stock PhotoThe disciples had been arguing about which of them would be the greatest (i.e., have the greatest power of control over others). Jesus’ response to them is that the idea of power over another, hierarchies, and (in my opinion) the concept of leadership should not even be a question that enters the minds of genuine followers of Christ. Jesus uses a child as an illustration of this kind of discipleship.

“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (v35b)

This is how many translations render Jesus’ response. But a more proper translation is in the form of a prediction rather than an imperative.

Jesus predicts that those who are now concerned about being first will in the future be the last and the servants of all (9:35). Gundry correctly notes that the Markan Jesus does not say, “Whoever wants to be first must be last,” but rather, “Whoever wants to be first will be last” (Gundry 1993, 509). By casting this formula for greatness as a prediction rather than as an imperative, the evangelist remains consistent with the emphasis on the priority of grace that pervades this Gospel and prepares for the announcement in 10:27 that the salvation human beings cannot achieve is “possible for God.”[2]

This struggle for power and control is illustrated in the next section, where John comes to Jesus and speaking for all of the disciples he asks Jesus to command an unnamed person from casting out demons in Jesus’ name. This unnamed person doesn’t “belong” to the right group and may know very little of Jesus’ teachings. (Irony: just a little while earlier, these disciples in the “right group” had been unable to cast out demons, while this unnamed person is able to do so.)

Jesus directs their attention to what matters: that another person is helping to bring the kingdom of God into the world. It is not group membership or knowledge (and substitute doctrine here), but kingdom actions, that determine whether one is inside or outside the kingdom.

What is important for true disciples of Jesus is not their pedigree, not their genealogy, not their connections, not even their personal familiarity with Jesus. What is important is their devotion to Jesus’ devotion to God and to their conjoined service to humanity… This passage of Scripture makes it clear that what binds Christians together is not first and foremost our coordinated activities to advance ourselves, such as our congregations or denominations, but rather our service to the world in the name of and at the command of God.[3]

The section ends with a collection of short sayings tied together by catchwords and phrases. It should be read as hyperbole and metaphor – both the self-mutilation and the “eternal fires of hell”. Jesus using metaphors that are based on people’s understandings of cosmologies of that time does not necessarily make them a literal reality.

The theological challenge for church leaders today concerns the task of separating ancient cosmologies of a literal, physical hell from theological understandings about God and human nature.[4]

imageIt should also be noted that “sin” in this section is not sin in general, but skandalizo or the causing of one’s self or of another to fall or stumble. In the overall context of this section, it is the narrow-mindedness and the desire for power and control that 1) excludes others who are followers of Christ, and 2) tempts a person to pursue the wrong things in life to obtain peace and security.

When all the impurities in our lives have been removed (burned off or salted), that is, all of the distractions, all of the lies and misplaced priorities, all of the greed and guilty pleasures, have been removed, what remains is peace. That is what Jesus wants for us: peace. The question persists, however: Are we willing to pay the price? Is peace worth the cost? Will we simply settle for a false and ultimately unsatisfying alternative?[5]

The Christian life is about learning to give up control. The disciples didn’t want to know more, and we don’t either. But Jesus’ words to us is that this is the only path to genuine peace. God gave up control over himself so he could bring peace to the world. Might our call be the same?

[1] Feasting: Mark, locations 9738-9741.

[2] Reading Mark, 9:30-10:31.

[3] Feasting: Mark, locations 9930-9932, 9933-9934.

[4] Feasting: Mark, locations 10135-10137.

[5] Feasting: Mark, locations 10297-10300.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

022-A Botched Exorcism

The presence of Jesus does not resolve all questions, but it allows
the honest admissions of fear and doubt.

“I believe; help my unbelief!” (v.24)

Copyright: Christian circles, it is often heard that “Jesus is the answer,” or that “all doubts are erased in the presence of Jesus.” Now these may be partially true in some circumstances. But what the story of the father whose the son suffered from torment of an unclean spirit shows, coming closer to Jesus and being in his presence doesn’t always bring answers and doubts don’t magically disappear.

In fact the opposite seems almost the case in this story. At the beginning, the father likely had confidence that Jesus and his disciples could solve his problem. But the disciples failed and Jesus wasn’t anywhere near. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, the whole situation had turned into a fiasco with the disciples and the scribes arguing. The father is no longer certain that even Jesus could do anything about his son.

The son is brought to Jesus. Where is the father…? The text doesn’t say. I imagine that the father is close to his son. Violent convulsions hit the son. The father is desperate. He is in the presence of Jesus. He admits to his fears and expresses his honest doubt about, yes, Jesus. Jesus offers words of assurance. A glimmer of faith is restored – just enough for the father to grab and hold, and offer a prayer mixed with hope and fear.

One of the messages of this story is that as we draw closer to Jesus, it’s okay if our questions and uncertainties don’t magically disappear. Maybe it is in the very presence of Jesus where it is safest to express our fears and doubts, about Jesus himself, even.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

021-The Transfiguration

Jesus is himself the new Tabernacle of divine glory.
His word and deed transcend all past revelation.[1]

Stock Photo - LVIV, UKRAINE - JUNE 06, 2012: The internal painting of the church of St. Anne, dedicated to church holidays. This image - an illustration of the Transfiguration. The author - Ivan Protsiv.That the Transfiguration event occurred is not the question—it is found in the three Synoptic gospel accounts. The question is: what is its meaning? From the reactions of the three disciples who witnessed it, Peter, James and John, they had no idea what it meant. Or if they did, they thought the kingdom had come in its full glory and Jesus’ work was over. They could build tents (or booths) and simply enjoy the glorious existence.

But that’s not what happened. The glory goes away and they must descend the mountain.

It appears that much later, as the apostles and the first Christians processed the event in light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they found and gave meaning that they could relate to from the Old Testament accounts. In relating this story, Mark borrows language and imagery from Moses: from the six days of preparation preceding his ascent up Sinai; the glory, the cloud, and the voice on Sinai; Moses’ prophecy of another prophet appearing like him and “to listen to him” (Deut. 18:15).

Isaiah 52:13-15 functions as a prelude before the Suffering Servant account of Isaiah 53:1-12. In a similar manner, Mark’s second half of the gospel account includes the Transfiguration account, the assurance of Jesus’ glory, before moving fully into the Passion narratives.

The two great prophets the Jewish people were expecting as heralds of the new kingdom were Moses and Elijah. In the Transfiguration they explicitly make their appearance, but they are only seen by a select few. Everyone else does not get to see Moses and Elijah… Or do they? Jesus’ explanation of the event as they descend the mountain reveals that John the Baptist takes on the functions of Elijah, and Jesus is the new Moses. This is the new Sinai, the new Moses, and the new revelation.

And what is the new revelation? The voice commands its hearers to “listen to him.”

The exhortation has bearing upon all of Jesus' words, but has particular relevance to the new instruction Jesus had been giving to his followers concerning the necessity of his sufferings and of their participation in his humiliation. There can be no doubt that Mark intended his congregation in Rome to take this word to heart.[2]

The way to the kingdom must travel through suffering and humiliation. The disciples could not accept it, and Peter tried to rebuke Jesus, because this revelation, to their minds meant a failure of Jesus’ mission. They could also not fathom the idea that there would be time between Jesus’ resurrection and the glory that they had just seen.

What perplexed them was what this rising from the dead of the Son of Man could mean… The disciples' real question is, What have death and resurrection to do with the Son of Man? They possessed no categories by which they could distinguish between Jesus' statements concerning his resurrection and those concerning his parousia, and the relationship between these two distinct events remained obscure… The place of Jesus' passion and death, together with his resurrection, was the unexpected and incomprehensible middle term between the present and the magnificent future assured by the transfiguration. What bothered the disciples specifically, then, was the phrase "from among the dead," together with the implication that time would yet remain before the consummation for the proclamation of what they had seen.[3]

For nearly two-thousand years now, followers of Jesus have been troubled by these same questions. Why does Christianity (the kind that tries to imitate Jesus’ life and value people as he did) frequently appear weak and disrespected? Where is the power and glory of the risen Christ? Why must there be this lengthy middle period between the resurrection and the parousia? Why must we go through this period? Why must we, at times, suffer hardships and loss?

We would much rather have the miracle-working Jesus: the one who heals diseases, raises the dead, calms the storm, drives out demons, and feeds the multitudes. We’re not really that eager for the Jesus who walks into rejection, humiliation, suffering, and death. And we certainly don’t jump at the chance to follow him into that.

Jesus doesn’t provide answers to these questions: both ours and the disciples’. What Jesus offers is a mystery: both the suffering Jesus and the glorious Jesus are one and the same. This mystery is assurance that whatever we are called to face, Jesus has already walked through it, that he walks through it with us, and that what appears as failure is in fact the path to final glory.

When the Son of Man is raised from the dead, questions will arise that the story of the transfiguration will help answer. As if in response, the young man at the tomb in Mark 16:1-8 speaks for the whole community that declares, “Jesus has been raised. You will not find him in the tomb. If you want to see him, go to Galilee, even as he told you.”

Mark’s readers have no way to “go to Galilee” except to return to the beginning of the story, which begins in Galilee, and then follow Jesus through his journey. This trek takes readers through his baptism into a world where Jesus lives and behaves already as a resurrected one amid all the ills and threats that only those who already have death behind them need not fear. Jesus touches the unclean, but instead of becoming unclean, everything around him becomes clean (e.g., 5:1-43). He walks on water, and just as in Luke’s and John’s postresurrection appearance stories, disciples can look right at Jesus and not recognize him (6:47-56). Where is the risen Jesus? He remains unrecognized and at large, loose with his healing powers in a world overrun with threats against life and wholeness.[4]

[1] NICNT: Mark, 9:8.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 9:7.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 9:10.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 9137.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reblog: The Myth of the Dying Messiah

Simon J. Joseph, Ph.D. writes in his blog,

Did any pre-Christian Jews expect a messiah to suffer and die for their sins? If there was such a thing, Jesus' first followers didn't seem to know anything about it. That's because there was no such ancient Jewish prophecy. Those who "see" evidence of a suffering-and-dying messiah in pre-Christian Jewish texts and traditions are reading this motif into the Scriptures with the eyes of faith.

This goes along with what we have been seeing in our discussions of the Markan gospel.

Read the rest of the blog entry here.

Monday, April 27, 2015

020-The Meaning of the Christ

Seeking stability and security through agencies and powers
of this world is demonic.

Possibly the harshest rebuke that comes out from Jesus’ mouth is directed toward Peter (and implicitly to the rest of the disciples). Just as Jesus has earlier rebuked demons and storms, Jesus rebukes Peter. He calls Peter an agent of Satan. Why is this? Because Peter’s version of the Messiah, the Christ, has no room for rejection by the powers of this world, and humiliation and suffering through them. Peter saw Christ as the means through which he could personally achieve prosperity, stability, and obtain security; and Christ as a means by which the Jewish people and nation could achieve the same.

In other words, Peter had a prosperity gospel of his own, based upon worldly standards, not heavenly ones. He associated righteousness with power and privilege. He believed wealth and social status were synonymous with piety and sanctification. Unfortunately, Peter failed to see the inconsistency between his personal political theology and his personal social situation: if he were a true disciple, why was he poor? This is a very human error even today. Furthermore, Peter was selfish. He focus was on what might accrue to him as a disciple of Jesus when Jesus came into power. Peter possessed an insight about Jesus’ true identity, but he failed to place his own hubris in check.[1]

In other words, Peter was encouraging Jesus to take another route to messiahship, one that was easier, more comfortable, and possibly less demanding. It is in that spirit that Jesus rebuked Peter, as a public witness to his steady faith in God’s way and will for his life.[2]

Lest we be too harsh, however, we need to recognize that none of the followers of Jesus could have possibly understood that the Christ would bring about a new kingdom through the means of suffering, humiliation, death, and resurrection. It would be like trying to explain the color blue to someone who is blind from birth. It could only happen after her blindness cured and her brain begin to be wired to recognize sight. It would be like trying to explain music to someone who has never heard harmony and rhythm. It could be learned, but only through experience and repeated hearings of musical elements.

We must understand that in ancient Judaism there was no concept that the Messiah would suffer the sort of horrible fate that Jesus describes in 8:31. Thus Peter's response in 8:32 is in one sense fully understandable.[3]

Likewise the disciples see and hear; but their blindness and deafness are only partially cured. They recognize now that Jesus is the Christ, but they do not have the language nor the experience to comprehend what that means. For Peter, the language of rejection and suffering meant failure; for Jesus, it meant success.

This formal rejection of Jesus would have meant for Peter and the Twelve that Jesus' mission was a failure. The reason why Peter takes Jesus in hand to rebuke him is Peter's conviction that Jesus is the Christ means that God is with him and that he cannot fail.[4]

Peter, again representing the disciples as a group, rejects Jesus' reinterpretation of Messiahship. He "rebukes" Jesus as arrogantly as he and his fellows "rebuke" the parents of the children in 10:13… The refusal to accept the necessity of the Messiah's death is the program of Satan, Jesus 'cosmic opponent (1:13; 3:22- 27).[5]

In Mark’s telling of the gospel, Jesus must be rejected and suffer humiliation, be killed, and then be resurrected before the meaning of the Christ can be fully comprehended by the disciples. And as the ending of the gospel account reveals, even then it was not immediately understood.

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 8551.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 8598.

[3] UBC: Mark, 8:31-9:1.

[4] UBC: Mark, 8:31-9:1.

[5] Reading Mark, 8:31-9:29.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

019-Beginning to See

A correct declaration of faith is
not the same as having faith.

There is nothing random or haphazard about the placement of the stories and teachings in Mark. The two pericopes discussed here are no exception.

Leading up to these verses we’ve seen Jesus defying the cultural and religious traditions regarding the Messiah, of Jesus breaking down boundaries and traditions, and of the people wondering who Jesus is. We have seen how the individuals and groups in power and exercising authority – represented by Herod and the Pharisees – trying to force Jesus to fit into their schemes.

We have heard Jesus warn his disciples about the “leaven of Herod and of the Pharisees,” and we have heard Jesus call the disciples blind and deaf. It is in this context that the next verses are to be read and interpreted.

(From Discussion Outline, First Thoughts)

imageMark 8:27-33 are seen by most scholars and commentators as the very center of the Markan gospel account. These verses provide a climax to the first half of the account and function as a hinge to tie the second half to the first. The text for this session includes a part of this critical, central passage. We leave the remainder for next time.

A bumbled healing

The first pericope is a narrative in which Jesus appears to have some difficulties in fully healing a blind man. It is the only such case in the entire corpus of all the gospel accounts. This story is itself appears to be an illustration of the entire Markan account. At the halfway point, the disciples have a vague understanding of who Jesus is, but they do not see clearly. More healing must take place. However, at least in Mark’s account, the disciples never see clearly.

imageJesus is the Messiah that to these disciples looks like a tree walking around. Even more disturbing is the fact that they never achieve clear sight or understanding—not in Mark’s narrative. Commentators like to say that the resurrection was the moment that full sight came for the disciples—but not in Mark… This inability of the disciples in Mark to achieve sight is a source of tension. It is the same tension that Mark’s nonending creates. The rhetorical function of Mark’s ending forces the reader to exclaim in horror, “No! It cannot end that way! The good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, cannot, must not end in fleeing, fear, and silence![1]

There are other considerations for this story:

  • Relation to two other key healing episodes in 7:31-37 and 10:46-52, both in rhetoric and in theme.
  • Relation to Isaiah 35, particularly vv. 5-6 and the overall context of the chapter.
  • That perhaps Mark intentionally depicts Jesus as “weak” in contrast to the disciples’, Herod’s, the Pharisees’, and the crowd’s expectations.[2]

A correct declaration

This next section (vv.27-30) is the first half of the critical centerpiece of the gospel account. This takes place “on the way” to Caesarea Philippi.

The geographic context for this story is significant. Jesus had just been in Bethsaida, the northeast fishing town on the Sea of Galilee that belonged to Philip’s tetrarchy. Caesarea Philippi was further north in this territory and was to be distinguished from the much larger coastal city of Caesarea Maritima. Herod the Great had named this inland Caesarea in honor of Augustus. He also had a temple of white marble built and dedicated to Augustus in the city (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.10.3). The imperial overtones underlying the geographic location of the story are clear. Mark has Jesus identified as the Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, indeed a royal figure, precisely here in a city dedicated to another king, and from Mark’s perspective a lesser, earthly king. The eventual irony of the charges against Jesus, that he was the “King of the Jews” (15:26), is already anticipated in 8:27-30.[3]

imageThe phrase “on the way” will eventually be revealed as “code” for “the way to Jerusalem and the cross.”

For the first time since 1:1, Mark uses the title, Christ. It is in the most politically charged setting that its second use appears. To declare Jesus as Christ is to disavow all other claims of power as less than Jesus. He makes the disciples declare this openly, yet commands them (as he did with the demons) to keep silent about it. It is all strange and bizarre.

A part of the interpretation of this text surely has to do with its original Roman audience. They too, were facing the question of who Jesus is, and what does it mean to declare him as Lord (against Caesar). This story is provided to give the audience comfort and encouragement that the first disciples had to decide who Jesus was and where Jesus fit in the hierarchy of powers, and that they confessed the dangerous declaration.

On the other hand is the command to keep silent. This will have to wait until next time. This is the reason why Mark’s second half exists. In the second half the disciples (and the audience) learn what “Christ” really means, as opposed to what they expected.

Peter’s “correct confession” is deceptive. It points out an important reality: we can have what appears to be everything in order—words, actions, and so on—and still have it very wrong.

Correct confession can be deceptive. It can mask false discipleship, idolatry, and even a perspective that Jesus attributes to Satan. A perfectly correct mission statement does not reveal the true discipleship of either the pastoral staff or the congregation that appears to follow it to a tee.[4]

[1] Feasting: Mark, locations 8291, 8295.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 8269. “In this episode of the healing of the blind man, Mark makes Jesus appear weak, in order to say something important about who Jesus is, who the disciples are, and what Jesus is doing to form them into the kind of followers and leaders they need to be… Jesus’ apparent weakness is a vehicle for Mark to convey something that is at the heart of true discipleship.”

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 8425.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 8489.

Monday, March 16, 2015

018C-Bread and Boat, Again and Again

The greatest temptation for the Church:
Fitting Jesus into a box.

We finally complete study #18 which was supposed to be a single study, but ended up taking three sessions. This session takes up the puzzling statement Jesus makes about “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod” (8:15 ESV).

imageIt is not too difficult to see that the leaven (or yeast) has something to do with the corrupting influence of the Pharisees and Herod. But why are the disciples being warned about it, and what precisely are the corrupting influences? Finding the solutions to these questions requires taking in (once more) a much broader context – this time far back to at least chapter 3 and looking forward into the next chapters. This reveals something about the warning: Mark probably didn’t intend his audience to figure it out right when the statement was made, but rather to have something in the back of their minds to ponder as they read and hear the rest of the gospel text. For our purposes, because we are modern Westerns and we like answers, so I attempt to provide at least some closure to these questions.

For both Pharisees and Herod, the gospels have shown that their primary question is “Who is Jesus?” and they have some ideas about who he is. For the Pharisees, Jesus is a wonder-worker whose source of power is uncertain (thus the request for a “sign” in 8:11-13). The Pharisees had earlier attributed Jesus’ power to demons (3:22). Herod was certain that Jesus was John the Baptist, returned to torment him (6:16). Between these two were Jesus’ family who though he was mentally unstable (3:21) and the people who adored his words and acts, but really didn’t know much beyond that. In a little while the disciples will be asked the same question, “Who am I?” by Jesus.

The picture that is developing in the Markan account is that every person has an idea about who Jesus is. If Jesus doesn’t fit into their “box” of the description of the Messiah, they find ways to explain Jesus in some other way. Throughout this unit (chapters 6-8) Mark is describing how Jesus defies categorizations, boundaries, and expectations.

So why the warning? I think Mark includes it as something vital for the Church to understand. The Church, and the Christians who compose it, desperately want Jesus to fit into our expectations, boundaries, and categories. We form creeds, doctrines, and statements of faith to make concrete the mysteries of Christ and God. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then we use those to define the boundaries of what is orthodox vs. what is not; and we use that to determine who is inside and who is outside (the boundaries of grace, even). We form committees, congregations, councils, and denominations to enforce the boundaries. We play into the human games of power and tradition.

Hence Mark’s inclusion of Jesus’ warning against the leaven of the Pharisees and of Herod. Jesus broke boundaries, he diminished the importance of traditions, he spoke against establishments of power, he went where no one expected him to go, he offered healing and salvation to those least likely seen as “deserving.” The Church is supposed to continue in Jesus’ footsteps. But instead, for much of history, the Church has been in pursuit of power and of establishing traditions to conserve what it has attained