Thursday, June 4, 2015

023-Not One of Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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