Thursday, March 26, 2015

019-Beginning to See

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

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

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

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

(From Discussion Outline, First Thoughts)

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

A bumbled healing

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

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

There are other considerations for this story:

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

A correct declaration

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Feasting: Mark, location 8425.

[4] Feasting: Mark, location 8489.

Monday, March 16, 2015

018C-Bread and Boat, Again and Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 9, 2015

018B–Bread and Boat, Again and Again

Miracles are ambiguous.

We continue our discussion in Mark chapter 8. This session we get through another quarter or so of the originally planned material. Specifically we discuss vv. 11-13. The remainder will be picked up next time.

imageThis is a short passage that seems to be almost randomly placed, interrupting the main flow of the narrative in chapter 8; which consists of the feeding of the four-thousand followed by multiple boat trips across Lake Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee), and miracles on either side of the boat journeys. But we’ve been seeing that Mark’s crafting and placement of text is quite intentional. The two sections on either side of vv.11-13 deal with the nature of bread and feeding. Thus 8:1-21 might be yet another example of Mark’s “sandwich rhetoric” where vv.11-13 is the filling. If so, there is something here that is quite vital to the understanding of the entirety of the “sandwich.”

The key to interpretation and understanding is found in verse 11:

The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. (ESV)

The New International Commentary: Mark explains the phrase “sign from heaven”:

The concept of a sign is intelligible from the OT and later Jewish literature. It signifies a token which guarantees the truthfulness of an utterance or the legitimacy of an action…

The recognition that a sign is primarily an evidence of trustworthiness, not of power, sheds light on this verse. It indicates that the demand for a sign is not a request for a miracle. Jesus' miracles are never designated as signs in Mark's Gospel, nor were they considered to be signs by the Pharisees. They regard Jesus' miracles as ambiguous actions whose meaning must be confirmed by a sign. They had witnessed his mighty works but had concluded they were of demonic agency (Ch. 3:22–30). That is why the Pharisees demand a sign in spite of Jesus' deeds. The request for a sign is a demand that he demonstrate the legitimacy of his actions.[1]

imageOne of the key allusions of a “sign from heaven” is likely to Elijah on Mt. Carmel calling down fire from heaven to vindicate YHWH over the powers of Baal and his prophets. Jesus could perform all the miracles he wanted, but in Jewish tradition even infinite miracles were insufficient to “prove” the agency of the power and motivation behind the miracles. Miraculous works and workers were a dime a dozen in those days (or at least the reports of miracles…). Healing the sick and multiplying food didn’t prove anything significant, or so they believed.

The opponents of Jesus wanted him to prove that his power came from God by something only God could do, at least according to their traditions. And this Jesus would not do. He refused. Why did he refuse? The answer is not as obvious as we may have been commonly led to believe. It hinges on the word “test” which is the same word used in the account of the wilderness temptation. It means “to tempt.”

The problem with the wilderness temptation was not entirely that if Jesus had succumbed, he would have sinned. A key element of the temptation account (the details which are in Matthew and Luke) is that by succumbing to the temptations, Jesus would have allowed himself to fit into the people’s expectations of the Messiah; he would have allowed himself to be defined by religious and cultural traditions and expectations. This he could not do, because God and his purposes cannot be defined by humans.

When the Pharisees come to “test” Jesus, the same dynamic is at work. They are there to approve or disapprove of Jesus’ claims and works. If he gives a sign, he falls into the very temptation that Satan had tempted Jesus with initially.

In Reading Mark its author writes,

If Jesus were to accede to their demand, he would be implicitly acknowledging their right as the religious establishment to define and categorize him according to their standards of legitimation (Waetjen 1989, 140). This, of course, he will not do.[2]

The New International Commentary states a similar interpretation,

Jesus' refusal of a sign has important historical and theological significance. Historically, the demand for a sign expressed the desire to judge Jesus according to norms defined by scribal interpretation… He had already pronounced the scribal norms decayed and sterile (Ch. 7:1–23) and he now rejects their pretentiousness categorically. Theologically, the demand for unmistakable proof that God is at work in Jesus' ministry is an expression of unbelief. It represents the attempt to understand the person of Jesus within categories which were wholly inadequate to contain his reality.[3]

The question for us is, how are we Christians like Pharisees today? In what ways are we demanding that Jesus and God fit into boxes of our making? Boxes of our doctrine and traditions? In what ways have God’s failure to meet our expectations and desires of him led us to doubt and unbelief? And perhaps more pointedly in the context of Mark chapter 8, how is God’s seeming over-inclusiveness been a source of stumbling to us? In what ways have we tried to demand that other people seeking Jesus first fit into particular boxes?

[1] NICNT: Mark, 8:11.

[2] Reading Mark, 8:10-26.

[3] NICNT: Mark, 8:12.