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.