Sunday, November 23, 2014

015-Loaves to Stones

Being with Jesus is insufficient; he must be allowed to lead.

“One might wonder which is more troubling,
the presence of Jesus or his absence.”[1]

Another Sea Crossing and Storm

The crowd has had their physical needs fully satisfied by the provision of bread and fish. In Mark’s gospel, only the disciples know what has happened. Mark does not state the reason(s) why Jesus commands the disciples to cross over to “the other side” and abruptly dismisses the crowds before going away by himself to pray. According to John’s account of the miracle provides a possible reason, which has some historical basis, and should be included as a possibility.

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. (John 6:15 ESV)

imageWhatever the reason the disciples are away from Jesus when the winds and sea turn against them and they struggle to reach their commanded destination: Bethsaida. Mark has Jesus “seeing” their struggles but only going out toward them in the “fourth watch”, in the final hours before dawn. Why did Jesus wait so long?

Mark writes that Jesus’ intent was to “pass by them” (v.48). It seems an odd phrase but can be read as an allusion to God passing by Moses on Sinai, and of Jesus’ intent to lead the disciples to safety, as a good shepherd leads his flock (echo back to the previous story of the feeding).

Jesus’ presence does not have the desired effect upon the disciples. Rather than recognize Jesus, they think it is a water spirit come to destroy them, and they react in horror and fear.[2]

imageJesus speaks to them, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid,” to calm them down.[3] He gets in the boat and the wind and sea return to calm. They are astonished but do not recognize the significance or the revelation of Jesus’ identity. The reason given by Mark for this failure to recognize Jesus is that “they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” (v.52)

In spite of the disciples having been with Jesus, having been sent out to do as Jesus had done, having witnessed Jesus as Shepherd just hours before, they have failed to recognize Jesus. Even after Jesus uses phrases that allude to Old Testament identifiers of divinity, they do not understand. Instead of experiencing peace, they are amazed – which in Mark, is usually a description of unbelief. (In the first storm calming, they are filled with great fear, 4:41).

Their failure of theological imagination is complete. Rather than understanding the epiphany of God-in-Christ represented by Jesus as he passed by, they feared a demonic attack of some sort. Having followed him more and less faithfully in the preceding days, they had grown accustomed to the ‘normal’ form of his presence among them, teaching and healing the people. But in their own situation of distress, they were unable to ‘see’ his encouraging manifestation of the divine presence on their behalf.[4]

As far as faith goes, the disciples are no better off than Jesus’ opponents and the rocky soil of the parable. The Complete Jewish Bible translates 6:52 as follows: “for they did not understand about the loaves; on the contrary, their hearts had been made stone-like.” It is as if the loaves of the bread of life that the disciples have been given have been turned to stone – the exact opposite of what Jesus was tempted to do at the beginning of his ministry (recorded in Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark).

Missing the Mark

imageThey reach shore, but not the intended destination. They end up in Gennesaret, the western shore, rather than Bethsaida, on the eastern side. They end up on the same side as they started, the more-Jewish territory, rather than “the other side,” the predominantly Gentile side. Jesus original intention was to take his ministry to the Gentiles[5], but it had been thwarted[6]. But as the next couple chapters in Mark will show, Jesus will eventually make it there.

As the company went ashore and traveled about the crowds recognized Jesus, quite in contrast to the disciples out on the sea, and came to him with their requests for healing. Their thinking about Jesus and his power was rather magical, however. Yet unlike the disciples, they recognize he who can help. The peoples’ “faith,” if it can even be called that, is primitive and even superstitious[7], yet Mark implies to his audience that this is greater than what the disciples possessed during the sea crossing[8].

Jesus chooses to meet the peoples’ needs, not because they have any great faith, but because he is compassionate. Jesus certainly desires that they understand who he is and why he does what he does, but he realizes that is beyond their comprehension. Therefore he does no teaching. It does not matter to him that they may never come to understand. He is not motivated by “opening the door to evangelism” but simply by compassion.

They are not interested in following. They are interested in getting: getting what they want, getting relief from their suffering, getting deliverance from their affliction. We do not know if those who sought Jesus out in Gennesaret for healing also intended to join his movement. We only know that they wanted something. That is what happens when the people all around sense there is a divine presence in their midst, even if those whom the Son of God has called to be his community do not understand who he is… That he is an effective teacher and compassionate human being is beside the point. Their plea is, ‘What can you do for me? Now!’ By the end of the Gospel, the crowd will have forgotten his good deeds and will turn against him.[9]

On Boundaries

imageThrough the next couple of chapters, the question about Jesus’ identity continues in the background until he explicitly asks it of his disciples in 8:27. With this question comes a related question, “Who is included in the gospel?” The next chapters reveal God’s inclusiveness and a re-drawing of boundaries.

Remember, the Pharisees’ hearts are also hardened. Mark describes what that hardening is about (3:1–6). The Pharisees with hardened hearts are sure they know where the boundaries of the community of God’s kingdom lie—in their case, with those keeping the law, particularly the law of the Sabbath. Can it be that the disciples’ hearts are also hardened because they are so sure they know where the boundaries of the kingdom lie?[10]

A church that has been very comfortable in its cultural context is finding the culture around it radically shifting… The age of the culturally established Christian church is gone. The church is, again, sent by its Lord to cross over to the other side. There are adverse winds blowing against the church on this crossing, and the crossing is over ‘the sea’—‘the deep,’ in biblical language—the symbol of threatening chaos.[11]

Left on their own, and then with Jesus but in fear, the disciples failed to break boundaries that limited God’s work and power. Only with Jesus in the lead do fears subside and faith rise. Only then can disciples/apostles transcend cultural, social, and religious boundaries to meet the needs of all (literally, all) people included in the gospel audience.

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 6865.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 6:48-50. “The disciples reacted to Jesus' appearance with terror, convinced that they had encountered a water spirit. The popular belief that spirits of the night brought disaster is illustrated by a tradition preserved in the Talmud: ‘Rabbah said, Seafarers told me that the wave that sinks a ship appears with a white fringe of fire at its crest, and when stricken with clubs on which is engraven, ‘I am that I am, Yah, the Lord of Hosts, Amen, Amen, Selah,’ it subsides.’”

[3] Reading Mark, 6:31-56. “Continuing the imagery of the new exodus, the narrator has Jesus identify himself with the self-designation of Yahweh, ‘I am’ (Exod 3:14, Is 41:4, 43:10-11). Thus the author of Mark provides the audience with a definitive answer to the question raised by the disciples in the previous sea- rescue story: ‘Who then is this?’ (4:41). The promise of deliverance is reinforced by an echo of Deutero-Isaiah's ‘Don't be afraid’ (Is 43:10, 43; 45:18; 51:2). Sadly, none of this provides clarification for the disciples, who remain ‘utterly astounded.’”

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 6698.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 6741. “Going to the other side in Mark’s language means going to Gentile territory. It means going to the unknown, going to the foreign, going to the other side of humanity. No wonder the disciples were made, or as the Greek word more strongly suggests, forced to go.”

[6] Reading Mark, 6:31-56. “It soon becomes apparent, however, that without Jesus 'leadership the disciples are not going to make it to gentile territory; again they are meeting with opposition, as in 4:35-41.”

[7] UBC: Mark, 6:53-56. “This is another summary account of Jesus' ministry (like earlier examples in 1:39; 3:7-12), only this summary makes no reference to Jesus teaching or exorcising demons but concentrates on his healings… The attitude of the people is an almost superstitious reverence for Jesus as a wonder-worker, including the idea that even his clothing contained healing power (6:56; cf. 5:28)… Mark's attitude toward the popular notoriety of Jesus as a wonderworker is that Jesus did indeed do such works but that the crowd's perception of Jesus was all too shallow and incomplete by the standards of the Christian gospel.”

[8] Feasting: Mark, location 6911. “Already, allusion has been made to the contrast between the disciples’ slowness to trust the calming presence of God in their experience on the sea (vv. 45–52) and the villagers’ readiness to place the sick near Jesus. In this way, Mark reminds us that faithfulness is not always of the authorized sort.”

[9] Feasting: Mark, locations 6965, 6996.

[10] Feasting: Mark, location 6770.

[11] Feasting: Mark, 6747.

Monday, November 17, 2014

014-What’s More Important Than Proclamation?

If you’re evangelizing because you feel or think you have to,
you might be doing it wrong.

Sermons can form people into active disciples of Jesus who, by feeding the hungry and performing other acts of kindness, become the means by which his divine compassion is extended to the world and his commandments are kept.[1]

A “Successful” Mission?

The disciples return from their first assignments in which Jesus does not accompany them. They have proclaimed the gospel, cast out demons, and healed the sick. They report back to Jesus. Though the results are not described, there is nothing to imply that we should not see their mission as having great success, so much so that the people are continuing to swamp them to the point that they are unable to take care of even their basic, personal needs such as eating meals.

From a “success” perspective then, the grade seems to be A+, both to them and for us moderns looking in. But is that what Jesus saw? The story of the feeding of the five-thousand may show us something more important than proclamation and acts of service, when it comes to true evangelism of the kingdom of God.

Prophecies Fulfilled

imageThis entire story is full of echoes and allusions back to the Old Testament, particularly of shepherds as metaphors for leaders of the people. Among these allusions, Psalm 23 plays a important part in this story with its mention of green pastures, a banquet table among enemies, a cup overflowing, and goodness and mercy. In contrast to the “banquet of death” (Herod’s birthday banquet / John the Baptist’s execution) immediately preceding the feeding account, what we see in the feeding story is a different kind of king, kingdom, and principles.

Its position in the Marcan framework after the account of Herod's feast juxtaposes the sumptuous oriental aura of the Herodian court with the austere circumstances in which Jesus satisfied the multitude with the staples of a peasant's diet. In spite of the tetrarch's pretensions to royalty, the people are as leaderless as sheep who possess no shepherd. In contrast to the drunken debauchery of the Herodian feast, Mark exhibits the glory of God unveiled through the abundant provision of bread in the wilderness where Jesus is Israel's faithful shepherd.[2]

Also strongly present in the feeding story is the allusion to Moses and manna.

The wilderness setting of the feeding miracle (6:34- 35) reminds the audience of the Isaian theme of the new exodus and of God's miraculous provision of manna during the original exodus (Exod 16).[3]

What Motivates Jesus?

imageJesus is tired and so are the disciples. But something prompts Jesus to take care of their needs: first their spiritual hungering, their desire for genuine leadership, and then their physical needs. It’s not Jesus’ desire to enlarge his kingdom, to provide more signs, to publicize himself or his deeds.

The miracle took place before the multitude, but there is no indication in the Marcan text that they had any realization of what was taking place. The simplicity of the meal Jesus provided is congruous with his general reluctance to perform miracles and give signs; there was nothing extraordinary in the peasants' fare which would call attention to itself. The messianic meal remained hidden from the thousands. The event is intended to be revelatory to the disciples alone.[4]

So why does Jesus stop to minister in spite of their exhaustion and need for rest? It is compassion.

“Compassion” is a weak rendering of what was going on within Jesus. The Greek word (splanchnizomai) refers to a churning of the gut. Jesus was churning on his insides because those in the crowd “were like sheep without a shepherd.”[5]

The disciples have, to this point, learned what and how ministry is done – through proclamation, through freeing people from their “demons,” and through actions that relieve their sufferings – but they haven’t yet learned the “why.” It’s quite possible they thought all of this was to eventually lead to an earthly kingdom to replace the Roman Empire. Dramatic acts, heroic acts, powerful acts – with good publicity – would attract greater and greater numbers.

Who Is Jesus and What Is the Kingdom?

Jesus wants them to understand that the kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of the world. It is not about putting the leader on a pedestal. It is not about doing things for the leader. It is not about amassing power and influence. Rather, it is about letting all of that go so that each member of the kingdom will learn to have compassion and show it in ways that don’t necessarily bring attention to the evangelist or the kingdom.

By this radical turn of conventional wisdom regarding power and kingdom, the disciples and all who read Mark’s account, are forced to ask, “Who is Jesus?”

What we have noted about the feeding account here amounts to a clear indication that Mark intends his readers to see the event as disclosing not only Jesus' miraculous power but also the secret of his person and significance. That is, the feeding miracle is really more about Jesus than bread and, like everything else in Mark, it presses the reader to consider who Jesus, the Son of Man, really is.[6]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 6679.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 6:35-44.

[3] Reading Mark, 6:31-56.

[4] NICNT: Mark, 6:42-44.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 6540.

[6] UBC: Mark, 6:30-44.

Monday, November 10, 2014

013-Thorny Ground

Herod Antipas wasn’t necessarily evil – but he was weak…
And that could be just as problematic.

The placement of this sordid story, which turns
Herod’s birthday party into a banquet of death,
is by no means accidental

Mark once more employs “sandwich” rhetoric to emphasize the message he wants to communicate. This time a story of Herod and the circumstances of John the Baptist’s execution are placed in the middle of a story involving Jesus sending out his disciples as apostles for ministry work. The “bread” layers on the outside are very thin, and in fact the closing of the rhetoric involves just one verse (v.30). Between the sending out and their return is the story that will take our attention this time.

The story is told as a flashback, and when taken alone it seems a bit out of place. What is Mark attempting to communicate by this particular placement and extended treatment?

Who Is Jesus?

imageThe story opens with speculations as to the identity of Jesus. Herod is quite certain that it is the resurrected John the Baptist, or at least someone working magical powers using the Baptist’s spirit. The others in his court speculate that it might be Elijah or one like the prophets of old. The irony is that while unclean spirits and demons have correctly recognized Jesus’ identity, no human so far has done so.

The Jews were anticipating a return of Elijah to usher in the Messianic Age. John himself had spoken of Jesus as one greater than himself, the one who was to come. But what John would never realize is that he was the Elijah who was to come. Mark, in his use of rhetoric and parallels to the Old Testament stories of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah, weave this present story to show his audience that John was, indeed, the Elijah to come.

So who then, is Jesus? This may be the most important question for everyone. Jesus will ask the disciples about himself in just a short while (8:27-30).

Who Is Herod?

imageHerod Antipas never held the title “King” though he coveted it. Mark uses the title, perhaps because it was common usage to refer to him, or perhaps more because of the irony.

The royal title had been denied to Antipas by Augustus. Goaded by the ambitious Herodias, it was Antipas' request for the title of ‘king’ which officially led to his dismissal and exile in A.D. 39. Mark's use of the royal title may reflect local custom, or it may be a point of irony. Herod had modeled his court after the imperial pattern, and it is possible that the irony of designating him by a title he coveted, but failed to secure, would be appreciated in Rome where his sentence had been sealed.[2]

In any event Mark is weaving a story in which he presents a banquet with a “king” and then in the next story (6:30-44) he presents another “banquet” story with a different “king.”

What Mark shows his audience about Antipas is that, just like Ahab of old, he is weak and vacillating. The true source of power is Herodias who works behind the scenes to manipulate Antipas. Antipas covets power, prestige, influence, and approval. Herodias uses these to her advantage to get what she wants.

Antipas is not necessarily completely evil. There is still a place in his heart and mind where he is able to discern what is right, and is even attracted by it. This story is a battle between what is right and what is desired.

The First Passion Story

The Gospel of Mark contains two "passion narratives," the first of which reports the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist.[3]

imageMark chooses to include details that will parallel Jesus’ passion story. Pontius Pilate, too, is weak and vacillating. He, too, knows what is right but succumbs to his desire for approval and to maintain his power among the people. A message is dispatched from his wife to try to influence his choice. In this case it would have been better if Pilate had listened to his wife. By these specific choices, Mark foreshadows Jesus’ road to execution.

This story provides no example of “working together for good” (c.f., Romans 8:28) through John’s death. Sandwiched between the story of the apostles’ sending out and return, what it shows is that we should not be surprised when bad things happen to good people for no visible future purpose. The call for Christ’s followers is not success, but faithfulness, just as was seen in John’s life and ministry.

It is as though Mark wants his readers to realize that despite high hopes for the ministry of Jesus and his disciples (6:6b–13) and the exciting things happening all around (6:14a, 30–56), sometimes bad things do happen to good people. These setbacks to God’s best and brightest hopes for the world must not be allowed to derail faithfulness to God’s kingdom among Jesus’ disciples, whether in first-century Jerusalem or Rome or twenty-first-century America.[4]

Thorny Ground

imageThe parable of the soils (4:3-8, 14-20) describes a number of soils. It was noted earlier that this parable could be taken as the lens with which to interpret the entire Gospel According to Mark. When we do this we can see that the religious leaders and the friends and family in Nazareth are examples of the soil on the path. They are so fixated on the mundane nature of Jesus that the gospel fails to take any root.

Antipas can be seen as an example of thorny ground. The seed (sown by John) appears to sprout and even start to take root, “but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (4:19).

Because he failed to allow the gospel to grow, and by his deliberate rejection of the many warnings and admonitions sent to him, Antipas may also an example of one who commits the “sin against the Holy Spirit” (3:29) showing the logical end of continued refusal to acknowledge and accept the correct source of the gospel.

The next story will show the public high point of Jesus’ ministry, with thousands gathering to hear and experience him. But like the shallow soil, what is received with joy won’t last in many of them as the true nature of the kingdom of God becomes more clearly seen, until at the end many who praised Jesus turn against him.

Jesus, he argues, has been rejected from the beginning. That he should die for his message of transformation should come as no surprise; but along the way, his message has taken root in some, and his death will be like a seed that will become newness of life in the resurrection.[5]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 6392.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 6:14-15.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 6:17-29.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 6341.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 6316.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

012-Summary Cycle Two

Christians are simultaneously disciples and apostles. 

Compared with the Twelve,
we act as though we were sent out to be tourists
rather than disciples in the world.
We plan, pack, and go.

Rejection in His Hometown (6:1-6a)

imageJesus’ initial cycle of teaching of his disciples has come to a conclusion and he sends them out as apostles. But first, he makes a stop in his hometown (probably Nazareth) where the people reject his teachings because they cannot believe that a hometown boy they’ve known all his life could possibly have wisdom (spiritual understanding), power, and authority beyond what even their authorized religious leaders have.

People cannot get beyond the shared assumptions and biases that stem from the most local of cultural institutions, the family and the village; one might as well be in Plato’s cave, where people mistake for reality the shadows they have always been familiar with.[2]

They hear Jesus’ words and hear about his activities. They recognize that they are not mere human words and actions. But what then could be the source? Like the scribes that questioned the source of his authority earlier (3:22-30) Jesus’ family and neighbors may harbor dark suspicions. Jesus cannot openly perform “mighty works” in his own hometown because to do so might only deepen their suspicions and work to further alienate them from him.

The people of Nazareth are like the seed that fell beside the path; they never take root. Their opinions about who Jesus is stand in their way. Jesus 'combination of human ordinariness and divine power makes no sense to them.[3]

Apostles Sent (6:6b-13)

imageRejection does not stop Jesus from his work. He goes on to other places. The work is also much lager than what one individual can accomplish.

The gospel demands judgment: either acceptance in faith, or rejection through disbelief. Jesus has experienced both and now he sends out his disciples with instruction to expect both kinds of response when they proclaim and act on behalf of his authority.

Jesus sends them out with what seem like extreme instructions: don’t take anything with you. Be at the mercy of those to whom you minister. Part of the reason may be that this was meant to be a short-term mission rather than a long-term lifestyle. Another is that the transparency with which they came, not seeking anything on their behalf but to simply be served with gratitude, shows that the apostles were not trying to manipulate their listeners.

Multiple commentaries note that these instructions were not meant to be prescriptive to all missionaries. Some, too, note the discrepancies in detail across the gospels in regards to these instructions and suggest that each gospel writer may be offering his own commentary on what was handed down as Jesus’ words. That said, we should also remain open to those times when God does call people to go without having time to prepare adequately.

What is most important is that Christians not stay confined inside their own bubbles, but to venture outside, to take risks that may be uncomfortable and challenge them. And while doing so to be vulnerable and transparent about their lives and motivations.

Our problem is that most of us would like to be disciples all our lives and never have to risk ourselves and our dignity by becoming apostles. We like the comforts of the cocoon rather than the uncertainties of the wider world.[4]

Summary: Cycle Two

imageSuccess of an apostle is not measured by how many people accept the gospel. Success is measured by how faithful she is to Christ’s commission. The work of the apostle is to sow. God is responsible for the soil and growth.

When the gospel is sown, expect all kinds of responses. Some may be mere dismissal, but at other times it may be quite hostile, even to the point of death. The apostle should not be disheartened by the seeming lack of growth or fruit. The power of the gospel guarantees that it will be fruitful in the end, where it meets good soil.

Could it be that Mark intended the parable of the Sower and Jesus’ explanation of it (4:1–20) to serve as an interpretive guide for all of these problems of speaking and hearing about the kingdom of God?[5]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 6238.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 5894.

[3] Reading Mark, 6:1-6.

[4] Exploring Mark, p. 131.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 5888.

Friday, October 17, 2014

011-Power to Restore Relationships

Salvation is primarily a restoration back into community.

This passage is a perfect example of Mark’s use of his “sandwich rhetoric” in which the first story is interrupted by a second, and then the first resumes after the second.

“… What Mark has joined together the preacher should not put asunder.”[1]

imageThe two stories are meant to be read together and interpreted together. The messages Mark wants his audience to understand are found in the similarities and contrasts between the stories.

In the two stories we find first, a daughter of a synagogue ruler who is sick to the point of death; secondly, an adult woman who has been suffering from menstrual hemorrhaging for twelve years.

Both stories deal with the issue of impurity: death and menstrual bleeding. Impurity meant a person was cut off from regular social contact and from access to the Temple and God’s presence. For Jesus, it is not merely physical healing that matters, it is whole-life wholeness. That is what he brings to both women.

Having crossed geographical boundaries to release a gentile from bondage to the Destroyer, Jesus returns to Jewish territory where his healing power crosses traditional impurity boundaries to restore life to two suffering women.[2]

In both stories the one who suffers is female.

Both stories are also, of course, stories of women, and belong to Mark’s focus on Jesus’ regard for and attention to women.[3]

In the first, the father is an advocate; but in the second, the woman has no advocate. Jesus stops first to work with the one who is the lowest of the low, the one who has no one to speak for her.

“Twelve years” is common to both. The girl is born around the same time the woman begins to have her health problem. Twelve years is also the age at which Jewish culture recognized a girl becoming a woman.

Jesus instructs both the woman and the father on the topic of faith. For the woman, it was her faith, not her touch, that gave her healing. For the father, Jesus encouraged him to continue to have faith in spite of the reality of death.

His response, "fear not, only believe," was a call for intense faith. Jairus had exercised faith when he came to Jesus in the confidence that he could save his daughter. He had witnessed the healing of the woman which demonstrated the relationship between faith and divine help. But he was now asked to believe that his child would live even as he stood in the presence of death. Such faith is radical trust in the ability of Jesus to confront a crisis situation with the power of God.[4]

Both women are called “daughter” by Jesus. It is an affirmation that both have been fully integrated into family. But whose family? Their biological ones, or Jesus’? Or better perhaps, the answer is both.

Jesus as a healer who integrates people more fully into community… The woman is one of several figures in Mark whose healing by Jesus enables them to be (re)integrated into various dimensions of society… The primary effect of Jesus’ healing is thus not personal but social… The salvation or wholeness that the bleeding woman experiences (“Your faith has saved [sōzō] you”) is social and communal (v. 34; cf. v. 28). Jesus’ healings are one of three strategies he employs to (re)integrate social outcasts into community.[5]

In both stories, Mark’s narrative emphasizes that it is faith, not rituals, that is the basis of God’s power. For the bleeding woman, she had a semi-magical view of Jesus which he corrects by bringing attention to her faith For the daughter, his act of restoring life to her involves on lengthy ceremony, ritual, or incantation, but a simple command.

imageBoth stories are about faith. On one level it is about human faith, but at a deeper level it is about God’s faithfulness and compassion. It is a story that when even human faith falters, God’s faithfulness is able to carry us through.

“Fear not, only believe…” The present tense of the Greek imperative means to keep believing, to hold onto faith rather than give into despair. With respect to his daughter’s circumstances, Jairus’ future is closed; but with respect to Jesus it is still open. Faith is not something Jairus has but something that has Jairus, carrying him from despair to hope.[6]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 5621.

[2] Reading Mark, 4:1-5:43.

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 5473.

[4] NICNT: Mark, 5:35-37.

[5] Feasting: Mark, locations 5775, 5790, 5805, 5807.

[6] Exploring Mark, page 125.

Monday, September 29, 2014

010-Power to Redeem and Recreate

The New Creation begins with Jesus. 

The next section of Mark, 4:35-5:43 includes three or four miracles stories. (NICNT counts the first two as a single exorcism story, making the total count three.) These four stories are all related in that they deal with the realm of the unclean and the dead. Together they picture Jesus’ power over impurity, disease, and demons.

Calming of the Storm and Sea

imageThe first story of this session’s passage is about the calming of a storm on the sea. The context is that the sea and storm represent the forces of chaos attempting to overtake and destroy Jesus and his family, his disciples. The demons are responsible and present in the winds of the storm. In response Jesus rebukes the wind. The language Mark uses represents that of an exorcism. The result is that a “great calm” settles on the sea.

In ancient mythology, only deities had the kind of command over nature that was displayed in this story. The disciples see and experience this, and their response is fear. They are starting to realize that Jesus is the Creator of the Genesis 1 account. Through his command over nature, Jesus demonstrates that all creation is under his command. All the damage sin has caused to the world, Jesus demonstrates that he has power to recreate. Jesus foreshadows the full realization and recreation of his future kingdom.

This story also bears some similarities and also striking differences with the Jonah account. What is important for Mark’s audience are the differences. In Jonah, God is outside the human trial, and not only that, he is portrayed as the one sending the storm to punish Jonah for his disobedience. In Mark’s storm account, God (in Jesus) is present with his people in the storm and it is not God, but demons, that are shown to be the cause of the storm. I see Mark correcting misunderstandings about God through this account.

The Demoniac and the Pigs

imageIn the second story of this session we read the longest narrative in Mark. In a writing style known for directness and terseness, Mark expends a large amount of ink providing numerous details.

In this account we are given a picture of what evil and demons seek to do to people. With the demoniac, they have almost succeeded. From all appearances, he is no longer a human being. He cannot speak for himself and all his actions are self-harm.

Where all other people fear this man, Jesus has no fear of him. Jesus sees the kernel of humanity that is still present, and the potential that is still there. He removes the demons from oppressing the man.

The demons are allowed to complete their work of destruction through the herd of pigs. I believe Jesus allowed this to occur because his disciples and the former demoniac needed to see that the demons returned to their source, their abode – the sea – and perished, no longer able to wield their power over them.

The townsfolk were understandably upset and afraid. They too, like the disciples, probably recognized divinity in Jesus. In their legends and myths, the presence of a deity on earth is never a good thing, and it is understandable that they wanted Jesus to leave.

Jesus does not insist on staying but commissions the former demoniac as his first apostle to the Gentiles. He has no doctrine or creed to teach, but simply a testimony of God’s mercy. This is the heart of evangelism. This is the seed of the gospel that, when planted, will bear fruit.

This is Mark’s retelling of the second creation account of Genesis 2. The demoniac is recreated and given back his dignity of a human being. He is commissioned and given a task by God to sow seeds (to garden?) of the gospel in the lands given to him to steward. Jesus demonstrates his power to recreate humans beings in God’s image. Nothing unclean or evil can stand before him.

Again I see some parallels with the Jonah account. They are not exact parallels, but both Jonah and Jesus go to minister to Gentiles in non-Hebrew lands. Both are stories of God’s mercy. I see Mark using the second part of Jonah’s story to emphasize that Jesus’ actions follow historical precedent.

Illustrations of Jesus’ Teachings

Through these stories of Jesus’ power, Mark illustrates the “seed parables” of chapter 4. The gospel’s power is found not in the words of teaching, but in the testimonies of God’s mercy shown to his people.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

009-More Seed Parables

Evangelism is about letting go of our human desire (need?)
to maintain control, especially over ministry.

This session continues and concludes Mark’s example of how Jesus taught the people that came to him. By comparing the words arranged and recorded by Mark in this section to where these appear in the other Synoptics, we get an understanding of the methods and intent of the gospel writers.

The aphorisms from which this section has been constructed are traditional in character and occur elsewhere unrelated to each other… By inserting this block of material into the discourse on parables he sheds light on his distinctive understanding of these words of Jesus.[1]

Mark did not record a specific instance of Jesus’ teaching, but arranged together what one might have looked like to communicate Mark’s own understanding of the gospel. In other words, what is recorded may not be what Jesus originally intended his words to say, yet still remains true and faithful to the gospel intent. Truth does not depend solely on factual or historical accuracy or precision.

A Collection of Sayings

imageVerses 21-25 are a collection of various proverbial and parabolic sayings of Jesus placed together to make the point that hearing and heeding Jesus’ words are of vital importance. It matches the corresponding “C” section of verses 10-12.

In the earlier set Jesus told his disciples that the secret of the kingdom was being revealed to them, but was being hidden to everyone else. In this session’s “C’” section Mark tells us, through Jesus’ words, that the hiding is not forever, but for the precise reason that the kingdom will be revealed in the future. Most of the people are not yet ready to hear and see the full revelation, and so its unveiling is being done through parables.

The disciples are being given an early preview of the kingdom. Through their hearing and appropriating of the words, they will be given additional wisdom and knowledge. They will be given the opportunity to participate in the revelation of the kingdom.

Precisely because there is going to be an unveiling which unravels the enigma and reveals the mystery [of the kingdom of God], hearing with true perception is important now… If the word of proclamation is appropriated with eagerness and joy, in like measure a rich share will be received in the eschatological revelation of the Kingdom, and “even more shall be given…” What will ultimately be received in the Kingdom of God will depend upon that which a man possesses of it now. Present possession depends upon hearing, upon appropriation or rejection of the word of the Kingdom that has been scattered like seed… Only those who penetrate the mystery in the present will share in the glory which is yet to be revealed.[2]

Parable of the Growing Seed

imageMark returns to giving an example of Jesus’ public teaching with the second parable involving a seed. What is of most interest in this parable is not what is there, but what is missing: the work of the farmer between sowing and harvesting.

This is a parable that hits at the center of human desire: to do something to make something else happen. It hits at the heart of church and evangelism. It tells us that beyond sowing seed, the church cannot control anything. In fact, as the first parable shows, the church cannot even control where the seed lands. The church can do things to possibly influence the environment to encourage sprouting, growth, and harvest, but it cannot control the environment.

And that’s okay. That’s the other message of this parable (as well as all three of the seed parables). Success of the gospel is quite guaranteed apart from any effort on the part of Christians and the church. The power of the gospel is inherent in its message. When it finds receptive ears, it will sprout, grow, and bear fruit, quite apart from anything the church or Christians do or don’t do.

This theme of God's reign as gift, not achievement, is present in the parable of the seed that grows automatically. The farmer merely sows the seed. After that, all he does is “sleep and rise,” not knowing how the seed is growing, not calculating what the result will be. This certainty of success parallels the first parable in which abundance results despite the failure of many seeds to mature.[3]

In regards to this parable and how it might apply to the modern church, the commentary Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, has some vital warnings.

We have not been commissioned to manipulate, dominate, or coerce people to join our fellowship of believers; neither is it necessary for new converts to accept a particular political perspective. Further, we must not reduce evangelistic efforts to culturally limited recruitment of members who ‘look like us…’[4]

The kingdom of God produces its fruit by its own internal power, a power that the sower does not understand and does not control. The process is mysterious, hidden, ambiguous, and sometimes stressful and frustrating. Clergy (pastors, teachers, evangelists, missionaries) do not control how the kingdom grows…[5]

The kingdom of God grows because of its inherent God-given nature, not because of the efforts of its custodians… This relieves the church of an immense burden. It can do nothing to hasten the coming of the kingdom… It is impossible to rush the kingdom. It will take its own time, and its advance is ordinarily imperceptible…[6]

Parable of the Mustard Seed

imageThis third parable of the seed is one that has been heard and interpreted frequently. It probably makes allusion to the vision of a mighty cedar of Ezekiel 17:

On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. (v.23 ESV)

It should be noted that both Luke and Matthew write of the mustard seed growing into a tree. In regards to this difference Feasting: Mark notes,

In light of that expectation [a great, conquering kingdom], Luke and Matthew appear ill at ease with Mark’s diminutive expectation. Luke forces the parable into Ezekiel’s mold and says that the mustard seed grows into a tree (13:9). Matthew, on the other hand, combines Ezekiel and Mark, and explains that “when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Matt. 13:32). Mark, the most spare, and the most botanically accurate, says the seed becomes a shrub… Agnes Norfleet, in an unpublished paper on this text, notes that “by keeping it a shrub Mark is differentiating the kingdom Jesus proclaims from past prophetic dreams of glory and hope to be like the other nations.”[7]

This parable is often interpreted to be about small beginnings of our ministries and evangelistic efforts, and how if we work hard we will someday see a good result. Or it is about how our ongoing work for God, no matter how small, will have large results. The focus is often on the smallness of the seed.

But is this parable about us? No!

Mark records an extended introduction to this third parable where Jesus wonders and ponders how the kingdom of God can be explained. Thus the parable is not about us or our work, but about the Christ and the kingdom.

The parable’s point is that the kingdom of God will never make a splash in the world, that it will never make sense in human/worldly terms, that it will always look fragile and with apparent insignificance.

This parable is concerned with the enigmatic present manifestation of the Kingdom as embodied in Jesus' person. Its appearance may be characterized by weakness and apparent insignificance—but remember the mustard seed. The day will come when the Kingdom of God will surpass in glory the mightiest kingdoms of the earth…[8]

For Jesus’ listeners that certainly expected a splashy, mighty, conquering kingdom, this parable was a severe correction that would have mystified and baffled them.

For us, particularly in a nation (United States) that has always been friendly to Christianity, that has had Christians in the social majority for much of its history, it also provides a very necessary corrective. If we are looking for growth and greatness, we are looking for the wrong thing. If we are hoping that by our efforts we can make this into a “Christian nation” (not that it ever was), our efforts are disastrously misguided. If we are hoping that by encouraging everyone in our churches to go and witness so that we can have a grand revival, this set of parables tells us it won’t happen.

The Message of the Parables

These three parables reveal the nature of God’s kingdom in this world. It will not look like anything humans expect or desire. It can only be apprehended through faith. The growth of the kingdom does not occur through any human effort, but through the inherent power within the gospel itself. The work of the church is to sow seeds of the gospel. The church is not to force or coerce growth, because it can’t (and may only harm the growth if an attempt is made).

Just as Jesus spoke in parables to provoke thought and mystery, our gospel proclamation, in both words and deed, ought to leave plenty of room for questions and mystery. We need to leave room for God to work so that the seed is allowed to sprout when it is ready, to grow on its own schedule, and to bear fruit when it is fully ready.

Churches and Christians can set aside worries and fears that they aren’t doing enough or working hard enough, because success of the gospel is assured. We can relinquish our need to control the results of ministry and evangelism. We can rest assured that even when we see no growth, or even what appears to be retreat, the gospel is still advancing and growing.

Our task is to remain faithful to Christ, to imitate his character and actions more and more, and in so doing we sow seeds that will sprout, grow, and bear fruit on God’s schedule.

[1] NICNT: Mark, 4:21-25 introductory text.

[2] NICNT: Mark, 4:24-25.

[3] Reading Mark, 4:1-5:43, discussion of B-B’.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 4723.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 4744.

[6] Feasting: Mark, locations 4660, 4686.

[7] Feasting: Mark, location 4879.

[8] NICNT: Mark, 4:30-32.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

008-The Main Parable

The Gospel is One Big Parable.

imageUp to this point in the Markan account, the audience has not seen the contents of Jesus’ teachings. In chapter 4 we are provided with a sample of Jesus’ teachings. Through these few examples Mark gives his readers a taste of the ways in which Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God.

The material of 4:1-34 is arranged chiastically as shown here:


This session concerns A, B, C, and D. As such all conclusions remain tentative.

The following is the summary of the parables of 4:1-34.

The author of Mark uses the parables and sayings of Jesus to explain why the proclamation of God's reign is meeting with resistance and to assure the audience that despite the apparent lack of progress, God's reign will eventually burst forth in amazing fruitfulness.[1]

The parable of the sower (or seeds or soils) is frequently interpreted parenetically; i.e., as exhortation or warning to believers. Some of these interpretations include:

  • That we’re to cultivate and weed the soil (i.e., mission field)
  • That we’re to strive to be fertile soil (i.e., work hard to produce fruit)
  • And we’re to avoid being one of the unproductive soils (i.e., avoid the attractions of the world)

But the parable and its explanation are best understood to be descriptive.

… The allegorical interpretation is not parenetic in character… Neither seeds nor soil can change their nature, and the failure of the seeds to take root, or to flourish once they have taken root, is attributed to the influence of Satan, as we have seen. The Markan Jesus is not warning the disciples to be good soil; rather, he is warning them (and the overhearing audience) that even as the reign of God takes root and flourishes in some quarters, it will provoke opposition, persecution, and seduction from the forces of evil. It is the nature of the reign of God to provoke opposition; it cannot be otherwise.[2]

The context in which this parable is to be read and interpreted is that of the immediate circumstances in which Christians were facing trials, persecutions, and possibly death. Perhaps some were being forced out of their homes and away from their families while some who once worshiped together were renouncing the faith they had once received with joy and eagerness. Through this parable the early Christians understood that the very same gospel that draws people to Christ can also elicit opposing responses.

imageThere is nothing in the parables to exhort people to become better soil, to grow, or to bear fruit. Rather the only exhortation is to listen and understand the parable itself: that the gospel elicits different kinds of judgment from the people that come into contact with it, and that it is not the fault of the gospel nor the ones who sow, but rather it simply is.

The parable must also be understood in the context that the gospel is a hidden secret, a mystery, until the Passion and Resurrection. Even then, the gospel remains a mystery to those who refuse to exercise faith.

The parable of the sower is a description, not an exhortation.

[1] Reading Mark, 4:1-34.

[2] Reading Mark, 4:1-34.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

007-Misunderstood and Misinterpreted

Those in God’s family are the ones
who are open to doing his mysterious will.

Two major topics concern us in this passage:

  1. What is the unpardonable sin?
  2. Who is inside God’s family and what is a primary characteristic?

The two seem unrelated, yet Mark’s arrangement of rhetoric in these verses suggest that they are very much related. This is the first instance of a clearly arrange “sandwich” rhetoric. Verses 20-21 begin an episode involving Jesus and his family. Verses 22-30 interrupt the family story to interject a confrontation with the scribes. Verses 31-35 resume the family story interrupted earlier.

For the original audience of this text, this passage serves as a reminder that Jesus himself suffered rejection from his immediate family and thus it should not surprise his followers when they are too. It is an encouragement to understand that the new family composed by Jesus is not based on blood relations, but on behavior. (Wait! That sounds like salvation by works! No, behavior is the outward display of one’s heart condition. Heart and action are one unit.)

Family – Part One

imageJesus returns home to Nazareth (some say Capernaum, but I think Nazareth makes the best sense here). He is outside with the crowd, teaching, healing, and exorcising (though not mentioned specifically, we can assume his activities do not change from earlier). He and his disciples are so busy none of them even stop to eat.

The family thinks Jesus has become insane with his obsession. They are ashamed of his behavior. They are afraid of what the authorities might do in response to Jesus’ direct confrontations with them. So they act to intervene. They plan to forcibly seize Jesus and make him stop.

How often do we see God working in ways that contradict our traditions and desires? Do we want “seize him” and make him do what we want? Do we ever want to control God?


The scribes make a lengthy journey from Jerusalem to check out Jesus’ activities. The conclude he is possessed by Beelzebul and that his activities are a result of demonic power.

imageMark places the statement of the scribes close to “he is insane” statement by his family to show his audience that neither group believed in Jesus; that both statements have a degree of difference but in matter of faith they are identical.

When the scribes accuse Jesus of having Beelzebul and of using that demon's power to perform exorcisms, the audience would have understood that the charge was that of practicing magic. Magicians were believed to have gained control of spirits that they could call upon to do their bidding…[1]

Jesus’ family wanted to control Jesus. Who was really possessed?

Jesus responds to the second accusation (that he is working through demonic power) by a set of parables (argument from analogy). He points out how illogical their statements are. He concludes the series of parables with one about a thief and a strong man.

The clear implication is that Jesus is the thief who binds the strong man, Satan, in order to plunder his house. Jesus as thief! Jesus binding someone! Jesus plundering a house! I have never seen a stained-glass window featuring this as an image of Christ.[2]

The Unpardonable Sin

Jesus responds to the first accusation (that he is possessed by Beelzebul) by discussing the sin of blasphemy that cannot be forgiven. It needs to be understood that Jesus is not introducing a new concept, but simply pointing out that the scribes’ own traditions warns about blasphemy that cannot be forgiven.

This solemn warning must be interpreted in the light of the specific situation in which it was uttered. Blasphemy is an expression of defiant hostility toward God… The scribal tradition considered blasphemy no less seriously than did Jesus. “The Holy One, blessed be he, pardons everything else, but on profanation of the Name [i.e. blasphemy] he takes vengeance immediately.” This is the danger to which the scribes exposed themselves when they attributed to the agency of Satan the redemption brought by Jesus… In this historical context, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit denotes the conscious and deliberate rejection of the saving power and grace of God released through Jesus' word and act… The failure of the scribes to recognize him as the Bearer of the Spirit and the Conqueror of Satan could be forgiven. The considered judgment that his power was demonic, however, betrayed a defiant resistance to the Holy Spirit. This severe warning was not addressed to laymen but to carefully trained legal specialists whose task was to interpret the biblical Law to the people. It was their responsibility to be aware of God's redemptive action. Their insensitivity to the Spirit through whom Jesus was qualified for his mission exposed them to grave peril. Their own tradition condemned their gross callousness as sharply as Jesus' word. The admonition concerning blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is not to be divorced from this historical context and applied generally.[3]

imageThe unpardonable sin is one in which a person becomes so confused that good is evil and evil is good. It is the case where a person becomes so convinced of his “rightness” that nothing can convince him or her otherwise. The scribes were so convinced that their interpretations and traditions were correct that the only way they could explain away Jesus’ activities was to attribute them to Satan.

It is one thing to stick to one’s tradition. It is another to deny the possibility that God might have something new to say, even if it comes through your presumed enemy.[4]

In what ways might we be dismissing or wrongfully attributing acts of God to something evil? Are we so steeped in our Christian and denominational “tribalism” that we only see right within ourselves and cannot come to see God at work in other “tribes” out there, even ones that don’t claim to know Christ? Can our zeal for doctrinal purity lead us on the path toward the unpardonable sin?

Those who are most rigidly convinced they are right may be in the most danger of the unpardonable sin.

Family – Part Two

The family narrative resumes. Jesus’ family have come to where he is teaching, but they cannot make their way into the crowd. They are outsiders. Jesus, too, is on the outside but he is among his family. His family relay a message to Jesus. The crowd near him notifies him that his family is calling for him outside.

Jesus asks a question of the crowd, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” and then proceeds to answer it himself.

And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother." (vv.34-35, ESV)

imageJesus is outside the confines of culture and tradition, but he is inside his family. All those who do God’s will are also his family. In contrast those who seek to control him or those who refuse to acknowledge the motivation and source of his activities are outside his family.

The idea of control and magic come back around and would have been understood easily by Mark’s original audience, but not necessarily so with us today:

The clinching argument against the charge of practicing magic is the claim that Jesus and his family "do the will of God." This was a common argument made by ancient miracle workers who were accused of being magicians… In the ancient world, the pious instrument of the gods distinguished herself or himself from the magician by insisting that whereas the magician forced the gods to do the magician's will, the pious miracle-worker did only the will of the gods. Thus, when the author of Mark portrays Jesus and his followers as those who "do the will of God," he is relying on commonly accepted modes of argumentation to make his point. Such a defense was a necessary component of any biography of a wonder-worker in antiquity because the person that one group claimed as a holy man would inevitably be regarded as a magician by competing groups…[5]

Jesus, the Feminist

Among the details of these last verses is often missed Jesus’ pointed rejection of patriarchal culture and religion, and instead his support for an inclusive, egalitarian community.

imageOut of nowhere Jesus introduced “sister” in verse 35. Not only does he add sister, but he never mentions “father” anywhere in his description of his new family, the church. What should we make of this? Is this just random familial relationships that Jesus picked blindly from a bag? Or is Mark using this specific statement to help us understand something greater and deeper in Jesus’ words? I believe it is this latter.

In a patriarchal society, to omit “father” from a description of family relationships would have been unthinkable. For Jesus to do so had to have been intentional and with a point. Jesus is saying that within his family, the only father is God himself. No one else in his family is granted the kind of authority that was taken as normal for fathers in their society. In other words, the kind of top-down, authoritarian, hierarchical authority has no place in the church.

Secondly, by including “sister” as well as leaving “mother” in the list of family members as he looked around his followers, he acknowledges the existence, value, and importance of women disciples in his family. They stand alongside the men as equal in all respects in his new family. The men are not to have special roles over the women and vice versa.

Whereas Mark’s context is a patriarchal one, through the use of “sister” and “mother” the writer declares the presence of women in the ministry of Jesus…

In declaring, “Here are my mother and my brothers” (v. 34), Jesus also does not mention “father.” First-century-CE society was rooted in a patriarchal (male-rule), patrilineal (male-descendency), patrinomial (male-naming), and patrilocal (male-placement) society. What an assault this is to concepts of family embedded in Mark’s society! Although the following quote is related to Luke’s community, it is still apropos in addressing the social hierarchy in Mark’s day just a decade earlier: “The status of a woman was tied to that of a male relative. Her identity and social belonging were situated outside of her self and her gender.” Mark’s Jesus attempts to reconfigure this gender order.

This group is not patriarchal. Mothers have a vital role to play. God is now the head of the household. This group is not male exclusively. It includes sisters who are on par with brothers in the work of Jesus.[6]

Closing Thoughts

God’s family consists of those who are curious and open-minded, who believe confidently yet are flexible to see God working in ways and through agencies that are non-traditional and not necessarily part of the approved “tribe.” God’s family consists of those who are ready to see family members wherever they may be found.

There is only one leader, father, and “head” in God’s family. It is God himself. Everyone else is an equal member.

Jesus deliberately and forcefully chose to confront not only spiritual misunderstandings and misinterpretations, but social and cultural ones as well. In doing so he raised the value and dignity of women and other marginalized people in his society.

Are we following Jesus’ examples and doing God’s will?
Are we inside or outside?

[1] Reading Mark, 3:20-35.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 3837.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 3:28-30. Emphasis mine.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 3751.

[5] Reading Mark, 3:20-35.

[6] Feasting: Mark, locations 4007, 4012, 4020.

Monday, August 11, 2014

006-Mixed Reactions

Gospel proclamation is not just words. It must free the oppressed and captives. If it doesn’t it isn’t the gospel.

In this passage Mark wraps up the account of Jesus’ first ministry tour around the Galilean region. Responses to Jesus are mixed, but rare is any kind of genuine faith and repentance that is expressed. The crowds are merely curious, the disciples are confused, and the establishment is hostile.

Healing and Killing (3:1-6)

imageJesus returns to a synagogue, probably in Capernaum, where the story began. The environment is decidedly hostile by this time. Jesus is given the silent treatment by all: by those who wish to snub him and by the rest who are fearful of expressing any opinions of their own in case they too, are targeted.

Jesus could have avoided all the controversy if he merely waited until after the Sabbath to heal. But the Kingdom of God does not wait. The Sabbath is a weekly invasion of the Kingdom into the world. Healing and restoration to wholeness of body, spirit, and relationships is most appropriate to take place on the Sabbath.

This story does not give any indication as to the man’s spiritual condition or his faith. Jesus’ compassion trumps all—he heals without question. There is nothing recorded of the man’s thoughts and actions afterward. Was there any kind of gratitude or repentance? The text does not say. Yet Jesus still healed.

This story is a challenge to us as modern Christians. Will we offer help to those who appear undeserving, who might merely be there to take advantage, to those who won’t express gratitude, to those who might even turn against us?

Doing good, caring for neighbor, trumps all regulations. What does that say to us today, whether we protest rules and regulations within the life of the church, or advocate for change in culture and politics? What trumps what? What priorities matter? Jesus’ fierce testimony silences the critics. Either they have decided already and do not seek debate, or they have nothing to say—or both. Either way, their silence both angers and saddens Jesus. Again, to what suffering and injustice is the church silent today?[1]

The irony is that the guardians of spiritual tradition go to plot the destruction of Jesus on the Sabbath day.

A Tour Summary (3:7-12)

imageMotifs from the opening stories are condensed in these few verses: withdrawal, wilderness, sea, the crowd, healing, exorcism, confrontation.

The news about Jesus’ deeds have spread far beyond Galilee and people arrive from a very large area to hear about him and experience his manifestations. Once more there is no mention of repentance, yet Jesus continues to heal, exorcise, and restore people. Jesus asks for nothing in return.

Jesus demonstrates what genuine compassion does.

Jesus’ compassion is not merely a feeling of pity; his compassion focuses on wholeness and justice on behalf of those in need. Real compassion entails actually getting to know people, understanding their needs and concerns, and sharing resources even at personal cost. Compassion may also mean shared suffering.[2]

Jesus demonstrates what the Kingdom of God looks like. The Kingdom is not primarily about a place, but about shared relationships in an environment of mutual acceptance.

Healing carried great weight in a society that viewed illness as punishment from heaven. The healings set off a chain reaction as word spread among the villagers of Galilee. Remember that healing touched more than the individual; it restored the family and kinship relations.[3]

Selection of The Twelve (3:13-19)

imageI see this as kind of a closing of the first unit and an introduction to the next. Jesus opened his ministry by announcing the arrival of the kingdom, calling people to repent and believe the gospel, and by calling some disciples to follow him. In this passage Jesus selects twelve to further the discipleship process: to observe Jesus in action and to imitate him in proclamation and exorcism. In the following chapters we are given snapshots of more of Jesus words and deeds.

It is important to understand that Jesus desired every disciple that is named here, including Judas Iscariot who would later betray him. But in a sense, all the disciples betrayed Jesus to one degree or another.

In whatever way Christians may theologize about Judas, then and now—predestined pawn, kingdom-hastening agent, mistaken militant, would-be powerbroker—even the earliest apostolic community included the presence and the reality of the demonic, a timely reminder for those who would attribute some mythic purity to the first-century church.[4]


Disciples of Jesus are to first learn what the gospel is. And they are sent out to proclaim and live it. The gospel is that the kingdom of God has arrived. It can only be entered through repentance, that is, by choosing to turn one’s steps toward drawing nearer to Jesus and to follow him. The kingdom of God is good news because it is a community in which all are accepted, where oppression and addictions finally end, where relationships are restored, and where wholeness is found.

But this kingdom is not yet fully here. We live in an in-between time where we experience some of what the kingdom promises but the evils of the world still affect the church.

Christ has great expectations of us and has no intention of lessening them. We disciples often fail to meet them, but that is no reason for despair, because all things are possible for God.[5]

[1] Feasting: Mark, location 3082.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 3340.

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 3404.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 3506.

[5] Feasting: Mark, location 3654.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Back from break

I’ve been away for a few weeks, which explains why it’s been quiet here. A new post on the next section from Mark should be up after this coming Saturday. In the meantime, if you’re interested, here is the sermon I preached at the Lutheran church today. It was on the Loaves and Fishes, something that we will be getting to in a few chapters during our travel through Mark.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

005-When Beliefs Impede Truth

For humankind, holiness is found in learning to become fully human. Jesus’ incarnation is our example of becoming fully human, fully holy.

The stories Mark includes in the passage that we discussed today asks the question, what is genuine holiness? The scribes and Pharisees had one response to the question. Jesus demonstrated something quite different from the understanding of the former. What we see is Jesus restoring people to full humanity and full equality. We see an allusion to the Creation account to recover the true meaning of holiness.

When we read the gospel accounts we most often identify with the disciples and followers of Jesus, because as Christians, we are. We do mention and talk about how we shouldn’t become like the Pharisees of old, but we view them mostly as ancient-day equivalents of groups today that oppose Christians. This is unfortunate because modern Christianity, especially American Christianity, bears far more parallels with the Pharisees than we’d like to think.

When Jesus walked the earth and when the gospels were written down, Christianity was an oppressed and marginalized religion. Its adherents were, at least at times, considered criminals. Even in the best of times they were looked upon with suspicion for their rejection of Empire.

imageHowever, American Christianity is not oppressed or marginalized, no matter what some groups might say about “being persecuted.” It is in the position of power and privilege, and it is a dominant force in public discourse. In the gospel stories, Christians must put themselves in the shoes of Jesus’ opponents and honestly ask ourselves how we might be like them in treating the marginalized and oppressed. We must ask ourselves how we are drawing boundaries on who is in and out, and how we might be “enforcing” the boundaries. We have to ask ourselves how our versions of Christianity might be painting “outsiders” as less-than-fully-human by our words, attitudes, and deeds.

Call of Levi

Jesus calls a tax-farmer, a tax-collector, to follow him. Tax-collectors were considered traitors to the Jewish nation, a collaborator with the enemy. They were seen as even less than lepers – there were provisions for lepers to attend synagogue, but tax collectors were excluded completely. If Levi was collecting fish taxes from the fishermen, what did Simon, Andrew, James, and John think when Jesus gave the invitation?

imageLevi is a collaborator. A true freedom-fighter would have nothing to do with such a weasel, except perhaps to murder him as an enemy of the revolution.[1]

As with earlier accounts, there is no mention of confession of sins and wrongdoing; there is no mention of repentance.[2] Levi simply follows. Jesus does not require a confession or declaration of repentance before he allows a person to follow and be a disciple. The person’s actions declare far more than mere words from mouths. Levi certainly turns away from his past, but his past is not the focus. There is no dwelling on past sins, on remorse, or even restitution. The focus is on following Jesus. This continues Mark’s vision of repentance.

The Feast

The story abruptly transitions to a banquet setting. According to Luke, this feast was hosted by Levi in his home. But Mark leaves the setting ambiguous and the language used lends greater weight to the feast being hosted by Jesus in his home.[3]

Middle Eastern banquets are not strictly private affairs. To show the generosity and graciousness of the host, all in town are tacitly invited and allowed to attend.[4] Thus Mark shows that Jesus invites everyone to his “Messianic banquet.” The scandal is not so much in who is invited but who shares the seats of honor with Jesus around the banquet table.

Jesus allows the tax-collectors and “sinners”[5] to share the table with him. He eats from the same plates and drinks from the same cup as they! Jesus associates with the unclean! A “holy person” is deliberately choosing to associate with the “unholy.”

To go and sit down at that table and to enter into fellowship with this group would violate their idea of “holiness.” For them, Bible and tradition drew clear boundaries around who and what was “pure” and “ritually clean.” Holiness was performed out of love and respect for God, using proscribed sets of rituals that were carefully passed down through tradition. The “righteous” remembered the grace that God extended to them. In return, they performed the rituals and abided by the major divine laws for conduct and behavior.[6]

The complaint is that Jesus sets a bad example as a holy man by welcoming known sinners into his circle. In the minds of these critics, Jesus should have disassociated himself publicly from such sinners and should have summoned them to repentance and study of the religious law as a precondition for any social acceptance. These critics were desirous of upholding a religious standard and of chastening and perhaps reforming transgressors.[7]

imageThe scribes and Pharisees were sincere in their beliefs and in their reasons for adhering strictly to their doctrines. We must not assume evil of them.[8] They genuinely wanted what was good for their nation and for their people. They sincerely believed that if all would just follow their interpretation of scripture, the Messiah would arrive and all would be better in the world. They weren’t creating boundaries between righteous and unrighteous, clean and unclean because they were malicious, but because they wanted to motivate “sinners” to repentance. In other words, the motivations behind the scribes and Pharisees bear some considerable parallels with modern Christianity.

The big issue the scribes and Pharisees had with Jesus is that he allowed table fellowship without first requiring visible “repentance” from the “sinners.” Jesus was saying, “Come to me, share a meal, and repentance will naturally follow.” Jesus didn’t draw boundaries. All are invited. But he allows people who are uncomfortable with the kind of people he associated to draw themselves out of his circle. In other words, people bring judgment upon themselves. People decide for themselves whether they are in or out.

Those who want to be insiders in Jesus' group must envision themselves reclining next to people whose politics and behavior they find disgusting, and eating out of the same dish with them…[9]

Weddings and Fasting Don’t Mix

The banquet motif continues with this next incident where Jesus is asked why his disciples don’t fast. In response Jesus tells his questioners that it is inappropriate and rude to the host to fast during a wedding feast.

The traditions of the Pharisees designated Mondays and Thursdays each week as days to fast. They did this to express remorse for the past sins of the nation, for repentance for current sins, to express piety, and to look forward to the coming of the Messiah. Disciples of John the Baptist fasted for probably these same reasons. The Baptist had proclaimed the nearness of the Kingdom and thus it would have made perfect sense to express piety in anticipation of the coming.

The puzzlement of those who questioned Jesus on this issue was caused by the fact that Jesus proclaimed the near arrival of the kingdom of God, the day of salvation, but was not showing what his critics regarded as proper preparation by mourning over its delay.[10]

For the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist, repentance and holiness were symbolized through self-denial. Once again Mark shows that both of these concepts were demonstrated quite differently in the actions of Jesus. Two vastly different visions of holiness are on display. Through two parables – the garment-patch and the wine-wineskins – Jesus conveys the message that holiness according to the law is obsolete. The new has come. The old must pass away, or it must adapt.

Lord of the Sabbath

imageThe third story involves the holiness of the Sabbath. The Pharisees question Jesus about actions of his disciples. This is more than a mere academic question. They believed that perfect adherence of the Sabbath by all Jews would usher in the Messianic Age.[11] For a teacher of the Law to condone or sanction breaking of the Law is unthinkable and defeats its very purpose. In their minds, Jesus is acting against the nation!

In response Jesus alludes to a story of David when he “breaks” the Law regarding scared food. This Davidic incident takes place while he is running from Saul, the anointed king of God. In doing so Jesus identifies himself as the leader of fugitives. Jesus defends the actions of his disciples. Note that the disciples did not ask Jesus first or get his permission before “harvesting.” Rather they do so, and in response to accusations, Jesus defends them.

Jesus casts his lot with the oppressed and the marginalized. The Sabbath commandment in both Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 is given to remind the Hebrews that all humankind was created equal and deserve a time to rest. On the Sabbath people are commanded to relate to one another as equals. It doesn’t matter that outside of the Sabbath one is master and another slave, male and female, citizen and non-citizen, parent and child – on the Sabbath power, privilege, hierarchies, and authorities must be subordinated to equality (c.f., Galatians 3:28).

The Sabbath is a reminder that all humankind was created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and that it was very good (Genesis 1:31). When God declares the seventh day holy (Genesis 2:3), I believe it includes all of creation. The day by itself would be meaningless without all that came before and all that it represents. Thus I believe the seventh day represents completeness, perfection, Shalom, and holiness.

Humankind is holy at the end of Creation Week. It is at the Fall that humans become less than human. With the Incarnation, Jesus comes to reverse the Fall and restore humanity to its fullness. Humanity does not become holy by trying to become more like God. Humanity becomes holy by learning to become fully human as was originally intended in Creation. By becoming fully human, the image of God is restored. By becoming fully human, we become the image of God.

It isn’t wrong to want to bear the image of God, but I think for far too long Christianity has taught the wrong means. It has taught holiness that bears much resemblance to the kind of holiness espoused by the Pharisees of old. I believe what we need is to embrace the kind of holiness Jesus demonstrated: that of becoming fully human as God originally intended for us. And part of the gospel is to help those around us become more fully human. If we do not, we risk missing Jesus just as the Pharisees missed him. We can be so sincere in holding onto beliefs we are convinced are right that we miss Truth.


Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath because he chose to fully embrace humanity and taught his followers to do the same.

To side with Jesus will mean for the audience of the Gospel the loss of any claim to righteousness, the loss of the prerogative of avoiding unpleasant people, and the loss of absolute certainty about biblical interpretation.[12]

[1] Reading Mark: 2:13-14.

[2] Feasting: Mark, location 2665.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 2:17.

[4] Bailey, Kenneth E. Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, p. 246, footnote 15.

[5] NICNT: Mark, 2:15-16. “The term is technical in this context for a class of people who were regarded by the Pharisees as inferior because they showed no interest in the scribal tradition.”

[6] Feasting: Mark, location 2676.

[7] UBC: Mark, 2:13-17.

[8] UBC: Mark, 2:16 note.

[9] Reading Mark: 2:15-17.

[10] UBC: Mark, 2:18-22.

[11] UBC: Mark, 2:23-28.

[12] Reading Mark: 2:18-22.