Mark: a Gospel full of questions (Mark 4; Pentecost 4B)

The short story provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 4:35–41) is just seven verses long, but it contains four potent questions.

Jesus and his disciples find themselves in a boat that was sinking into the lake. This upheaval has been caused by a “great windstorm” (4:37). Jesus, however, is asleep. The ensuing dialogue is instructive. During this dialogue, the four questions are posed.

First, the disciples wake Jesus and ask him, somewhat accusingly, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Having been woken up, Jesus commands the storm to be still (4:39), but then he poses two short and incisive questions, in return, to the disciples: “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” (4:40).

The episode ends with yet another question. The disciples, “filled with great awe” at what had happened, mused to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). And that’s where the story ends.

Four questions. Four different requests to consider. That’s how the incident progresses. And through those questions, that’s how we think more about Jesus.

It is questions that are in focus, today, in considering this passage, and indeed, this Gospel—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Indeed, many interpreters argue that Mark’s Gospel can best be characterised by the central question of Jesus: “who do you say that I am?” (8:29). The identity of Jesus is, indeed, central to this Gospel (as it is, also, in the other canonical Gospels).

A passage earlier in the Gospel, Mark 1:21–28, contains another confronting question, which a demon-possessed man asked of Jesus in the early stages of his public ministry: “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24). Now this is a question worth pondering.

In Mark’s Gospel as a whole, there are (according to the NRSV) no less than 118 questions. Since there are 668 verses in total in Mark’s Gospel, this means that the reader (or hearer) of this Gospel is confronted with a question, on average, every 5.66 verses! (Why not try reading a couple of chapters through, looking out especially for the questions?)

Some of these questions are simple conversational enquiries—the kind of questions that we ask one another every day. “should we go there? should I do this? do you have any? can I get you something?” and so on. Some questions are genuine requests for information, and reflect people who really want to learn from Jesus—“what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:17), or “which commandment is the first of all?” (12:28), or “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (13:4). Jesus, good teacher that he is, responds with information and insight; he takes the opportunity to convert the question into a step forward in the life of discipleship.

Indeed, Jesus himself follows the rabbinic practice of teaching by questioning—he often poses a question which leads the disciples, or the crowd, into further discussion and debate (see, for instance, 3:33; 4:30; 10:3; 10:51). It is interesting to note that this is often how Jesus uses scripture; he does not simply quote it, but he says, “have you not read that…?” or, “do you not known the scripture which says…?”. (Look at 11:17; 12:10; and 12:26.) This style invites conversation and leads to deepened understanding. Scripture is not being used to squash debate, but to open up insights about God. Now that is an insight worth recalling and preserving in our current context!

As Mark tells his story, some people pose questions to Jesus which are quite sharp—and may be designed to create controversy or to challenge the authority of Jesus. For instance: “why does this fellow speak in this way? it is blasphemy! who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7); “why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16); “why do your disciples do not fast?” (2:18); “by what authority are you doing these things?” (11:28); “is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” (12:14). Jesus did not shy away from the challenge to his honour and authority that such questions posed. According to Mark, he was a public debater of the first order.

Indeed, Jesus poses pointed questions of his own for his disciples and the crowds who follow him. Think about the provocations and challenges in these phrases of Jesus: “why are you afraid? have you still no faith?” (4:40); “do you also fail to understand?” (7:18); “do you still not perceive or understand? are your hearts hardened? do you have eyes, and fail to see? do you have ears, and fail to hear?” (8:17–18); “you faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? how much longer must I put up with you?” (9:19). There is certainly no “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” in this Gospel!!

The teachings of Jesus are demanding: to his disciples, he asks, “for what will it profit a person to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (9:36); or, with eyes fixed towards the cross, he prods them further: “are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (10:38). For their part, the disciples are not afraid to confront their leader when required, as we have seen: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (4:38). Discipleship means entering into the rough-and-tumble of these difficult questions.

Theologically, perhaps the most challenging question in the Gospel is when Jesus quotes the Psalmist: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Is this an expression of the deepest despair of a human being who feels alienated, abandoned, utterly alone? Mark gives a great gift to followers of Jesus in all generations, when he takes us to the heart of the struggle which Jesus faced on the cross. This question shows us the human dimension of Jesus, as he was confronted by the starkness of life and death.

Of course, the identity of Jesus remains the central motif of this Gospel. It is the focus of the very first verse (“Jesus, Messiah, Son of God”, 1:1) and is reiterated in a variety of ways in statements made at crucial moments in the story (see 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:45; 14:62; 15:39). But it also forms a recurring question, asked by many characters throughout the story.

We can’t read Mark’s Gospel without being confronted, again and again, by this question, in whatever guise it comes:  “what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” (1:24, from a possessed man); “who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, from the disciples); “what have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:6, from the Gadarene demoniac); “where did this man get all this? what is this wisdom that has been given to him?” (6:2, from his extended family in Nazareth).

Once he is in Jerusalem, Jesus encounters the same question from the High Priest: “are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (14:61); and from the Roman governor: “are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2). So, the key question remains for us: “who do people say that I am?” (8:27, asked by Jesus)—a question which he immediately sharpens into “who do you say that I am?” (8:28).

This year, as we meditate on Mark’s Gospel in our personal devotions, as we hear it read in worship, as we prepare sermons to preach from it, or however it is that we encounter it—may the questions it poses strengthen our discipleship, expand our understanding and deepen our faith.

The kingdom, God’s justice, an invitation to all (Mark 4; Pentecost 3B)

In following the Revised Common Lectionary, we’ve just returned to passages from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, after many months away in other gospel accounts of Jesus and his activity. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/

The work we know as “the Gospel according to Mark” is the shortest and earliest of the extant accounts that we have. It is a story-telling narrative, moving from one incident to the next in short order. It’s a dramatic and vivid account. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

It’s fitting, therefore, that we hear today two of the really short stories that Jesus told. We know these short stories as parables. There is the parable of seed, scattered in the ground, that grows of its own accord (Mark 4:26–29). Then there’s the parable of the smallest seed that grows to a large shrub (4:30–32). These two short stories each reveal something about the way that God wants things to be, the kingdom of God. Such parables were typical of the way that Jesus taught his followers (4:33–34).

Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice. Children were taught by word of mouth. Adults also learned by listening, discussing, debating.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted in Jewish society, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world.

Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears! See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-2/

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

Both the parable of the seed growing in secret (4:26–29) and the parable of the mustard seed (4:30–32) are examples of a simple parable with a short plot development. The first parable moves quickly to the key point, when the farmer “goes in with the sickle, for the harvest has come”.

Judgement is integral to the message that Jesus preached. His vision of the kingdom involves standards that God imposes and that God judges. The seeds growing in secret will face this reckoning at the harvest. Our lives of discipleship will be measured by the righteous-justice of God that Jesus proclaimed. The harvest was an image of divine judgement for some of the prophets (Hosea 6:1–11, 8:1–10; Joel 3:9–16; and see Ps 126:1–6; Prov 22:8).

The second parable has a similar focus on the climax: “it becomes the greatest of shrubs”. The mustard seed grown into a shrub with branches in which the birds nest, indicates the inclusivity that is offered in the kingdom. It seems that Jesus May have been referencing the oracle of Ezekiel, about a sprig of cedar that grows so big that “under the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ezek 17:22–24).

Measured by the standards of the righteous-justice of God, the kingdom is open to those who adhere to this measure, regardless of their status or origins. This was the message of Jesus, offering hope to all who followed in his way.

This pair of parables contain two key elements of the message of Jesus: justice, and inclusivity. We find these themes in the stories told and the guidance taught by Jesus throughout his ministry. The parables convey these messages in short, sharp, dramatic style.

In his house, out of his mind (Mark 3; Pentecost 2B)

This Sunday, we rejoin the earliest and shortest account of the story of Jesus, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, which we know as the Gospel according to Mark. Early in the year, we read passages from chapters 1 and 8. This week, we pick up in the middle of chapter 3, as Jesus “went home” (as the NRSV reports).

In fact, the Greek simply notes that Jesus went “into a house” (εἰς οἶκον, 3:20). Is this the same house that was referred to, in Capernaum, at 2:1? The notion that it was his family home comes from the fact that his family came out of the house to meet him (3:21), and then his mother and brothers are noted once more, later in the scene (3:31).

Jesus, of course, is known as coming from Nazareth (Mark 1:9, 24; 10:47; 16:6; Matt 21:11; 26:71; Luke 4:16, 34; 18:37; 24:19; John 1:45–46; 18:5, 7; 19:19), but Matthew’s account explicitly states that he moved from Nazareth to Capernaum (Matt 4:13). Yet the occasion when Jesus returned to his hometown is inevitably located at Nazareth (Mark 6:1–6 and the parallel, Matt 13:55-58).

If this is the family home, in Capernaum, it is an interesting location; there is very little in the Gospels, apart from this scene, that brings the adult Jesus into direct contact with his family. So this is a distinctive scene.

However, it is also a typical, somewhat unremarkable scene, in that Jesus is found in a house. He has previously been in the house of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum (1:29) and then of Levi the tax collector (2:15). Later, he is found at the house of a synagogue ruler (5:38), a house of an unidentified resident (7:17), a house in the region of Tyre (7:24), the house of an epileptic child (9:28), another house in Capernaum (9:33), a house in Judea (10:10), and the house of Simon the leper in Bethany (14:3). Indeed, Jesus instructs his disciples that, when they go out to proclaim the kingdom of God, they are to enter houses (6:10).

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is regularly to be found in houses. Yes, he taught in the open spaces in public (2:13; 2:23; 4:1; 10:1), and engaged with people whom he encountered as he was walking along the road (3:7–12; 5:1–2; 5:21, 35; 6:53–56; 7:1–2; 8:22–26; 8:34; 9:14–15; 10:13, 32–34, 46). Jesus was to be found at times in synagogues (1:21–28; 1:39; 3:1–6; 6:1–6) and, once in Jerusalem, in the Temple precincts (11:11, 15, 27, on through to 13:1).

However, whilst travelling around Galilee, Jesus consistently undertook his ministry in houses. That, say some interpreters of this Gospel, most likely reflects the reality that the followers of Jesus, in the decades following, were gathered most often in houses—not in the Temple (except for the idealised account that Luke offers in the early chapters of Acts), not even in the synagogues (although some would have been there), but in houses.

These houses were the sites for hospitality, which was so important in the cultural practices of the day (see https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/hospitality-in-the-new-testament) One scholar describes the house as “the dominant architectural marker” in Mark’s Gospel (https://open.library.ubc.ca/media/download/pdf/24/1.0070991/2 — this is a whole thesis on the topic!)

The work of Carolyn Osiek on the importance of the house for the early church is most significant in this regard (see her overview from a 1995 address at http://www1.lasalle.edu/~dolan/2003/Osiek.pdf). “The local house church or apartment church”, she writes, “provided, among other things, a sense of communal life and individual commitment, theological pluralism, a base for mission, and a model of the universal church.” (See p.21 of this article).

The prominence of the house is certainly reflected in the letters of Paul, who refers often to “the church in the house of …” (Rom 16:5; 1 Cor 11:22, 16:19; Col 4:15; Philemon 2; and 1 Tim 5:13). The early Jesus movement was a house church movement! The standard work in this area has long been the book by Australian scholar Robert Banks, on Paul’s idea of community (http://www.lifeandleadership.com/book-summaries/banks-pauls-idea-of-community.html).

*****

When Jesus comes out of his house in Capernaum, some onlookers describe him as being “out of his mind” (ἐξέστη, 3:21). This is a term that literally means that he was “standing outside of himself”, as if in a kind of dissociative state. It may be that this was the reason that Jesus was returning to his family?

The encounter doesn’t go well, however. Scribes have come from Jerusalem. They have already been antagonistic towards Jesus, questioning whether Jesus was blaspheming (2:6–7), and casting doubts on his choice of dinner guests (“why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners.”, 2:16). There will be further disputation with scribes (7:1–5; 9:14; 12:28, 38–41) and they will be implicated in the plot to arrest Jesus (11:18, 27; 14:1, 43, 53; 15:1) and in his death (8:31; 10:33).

These scribes—hardly friends—articulate what others present may well have been thinking: “he has Beelzebul” (3:23). The charge of demon possession correlates with the accusation levelled at John 10:20. This sits as the fundamental reason for perceiving Jesus as being “out of his mind”.

Beelzebul (Βεελζεβοὺλ), “the ruler of the demons”, is known from earlier scriptural references to Baal-zebub in 1 Kings 1:2–6, 16, where he is described as “the god of Ekron”, a Philistine deity. There is scholarly speculation that Beelzebul may have meant “lord of the temple” or “lord of the dwelling”, from the Hebrew term for dwelling or temple (as found at Isa 63.15 and 1 Kings 8.13); or perhaps it was connected with the Ugaritic word zbl, meaning prince, ruler.

Jesus refutes the charge in typical form, by telling a parable (3:23–27) that ends with the punchline about “binding the strong man” (τὸν ἰσχυρὸν δήσῃ). This potent phrase encapsulates something that sits right at the heart of the activities of Jesus in Galilee—when he encounters people who are possessed by demons, and when he casts out those demons, he is, in effect “binding the strong man”.

The notion that a demon would bind the person that they inhabited is found at Luke 13:16, and in the book of Jubilees (5:6; 10:7-11). The book of the same title by Ched Myers provides a fine guide to reading the whole of Mark’s Gospel through this lens (see https://chedmyers.org/2013/12/05/blog-2013-12-05-binding-strong-man-25-years-old-month/)

The accusation that refers to “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (3:29) may well reflect this claim that Jesus was demon-possessed (3:30). That is a claim that cannot be allowed to stand, that cannot be justified in any way—and thus, that cannot be forgiven or set aside. This is a critical dimension for the Jesus who is active in Mark’s Gospel.

We may think of Jesus as a preacher, a story teller, delivering parables and aphorisms. Much of Mark’s account, however, is focussed on the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus.

Some of the most striking stories told of Jesus were those relating the miraculous deeds he performed: curing lepers, healing the sick, casting out demons, controlling the forces of nature, even raising the dead. Jesus, it was recounted, was able to cure illnesses such as a fever (1:30–31), leprosy (1:40–42), paralysis (2:1–12), haemorrhaging (5:25–29), deafness (7:31–37), and blindness (8:22–26).

He is said to have engaged in conversations with demons which were possessing individuals, and he was able to command the demons to leave those individuals (1:23–26; 5:1–15; 7:24–30). In some cases, demonic possession was manifested in the body in medical ways: epilepsy (9:19–29), or an inability to speak (9:32–33), coupled with blindness (12:22).

The action of “casting out” or “driving out” a demon (3:22, 23) is expressed in a word which contains strong elements of force. The phrase is ἐκβάλλει τὰ δαιμόνια. The verb is used regularly to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38). It first appears in the account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness—here, however, it is the Spirit who casts Jesus out into the wilderness. The story reflects a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. (The more developed dialogues in Matthew 4 and Luke 4 expand on this understanding of the encounter.)

On the first occasion when Jesus has gathered all twelve apostles together, he gives them a twofold commission: “he appointed twelve…to be with him and to be sent out to proclaim the message and to have authority to cast out demons” (3:14–15). As the Gospel then proceeds to report how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship is spelled out. The apostles—and other followers—have the opportunity to learn from his teachings and to witness his actions while they are with Jesus, and then to replicate these teachings and actions through their presence in other places.

“Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus are characterised (1:39). These same activities form the basis for the mission of the twelve as it is reported at 6:7–13. They model their words and deeds on Jesus: “they proclaimed that all should repent…they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:12–13).

Their mission is to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) and a focussed mode of proceeding (6:10–11). Their attention is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus, confronting the powers and casting them out of their strongholds. This is what is at stake in the scene we read this Sunday (3:20–35).

The final section of this scene (3:31–35) depicts the breach between Jesus and his family—those who had earlier come to greet him and care for him in his state of being “out of his mind” (3:20–21). No longer are they to function as his family; those who are closest to him, “whoever does the will of God”, now serves as his brother, sister, mother. The work of challenging and exorcising “the ruler of demons” is deeply costly. The challenge to follow him is likewise incredibly costly.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one

This week, after the long haul of Lent–Easter–Pentecost, the Revised Common Lectionary resumes a weekly offering from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus. We are offered Mark 3:20–35 as the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday.

We know this work as the Gospel according to Mark. The manuscript this text contains an opening verse which may well have served as the title for the work: the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one (Mark 1:1).

As we resume weekly excerpts from this Gospel, it is good to remember how this work came into being.

Jesus did not write an account of his life. In fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader.

Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

The story of Jesus is told, first, in the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).

In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.

The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.

This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.

There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).

But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!

The conflict between Jesus and the authorities is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated; the shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity. The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. The people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level. The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).

The plot hatched by the authorities led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers, all knowledge of him was denied by another, and all abandoned him at his point of need. The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them.

Yet the account found in the beginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).

This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.

Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.

Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)

Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.

4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

To conclude this series of blogs about the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, the narrative which we know as the Gospel according to Mark, let us review the structure of the Passion Narrative in the Gospel of Mark.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/, https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/, and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/

Here, we will note that the Passion Narrative is not only about who Jesus was; it is also about the way of Jesus, how those who follow Jesus are to live their lives in the light of Jesus’ example and pattern. This is conveyed through the narrative structure.

There is a careful symmetry in the structure of the Passion Narrative. Almost every scene is balanced by another scene.

The two scenes of the Prelude balance the two scenes of the Postlude. In each case, Jesus is attended by his faithful followers, both men and women. The scenes in Gethsemane and Golgotha also balance each other. Memories of the “great distress and trouble” of Jesus as he prays in Gethsemane (14:33) are evoked by the “loud voice” (15:34) and “great cry” (15:37) of Jesus as he dies at Golgotha.

The core of this narrative revolves around the distress and agony of Jesus—an emphatically human depiction of Jesus—with the cry, “why have you forsaken me?” (15:34) at the very heart of Mark’s depiction of Jesus.

The balancing of scenes continues in the two trial scenes. At the centre of both narratives stands the central issue of the identity of Jesus.

To the question of the High Priest, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61), Jesus replies quite directly, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man…coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). To Pilate’s enquiry, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (15:2a), Jesus responds, somewhat enigmatically, “You have said so” (15:2b).

Both trials also include direct agitation against Jesus: the Council hears false witnesses concerning the destruction of Temple (14:56) whilst the chief priests agitate the crowd to call for Pilate to release Barabbas rather than Jesus (15:11).

Both trials show the leader of the trial moving outside the regular processes: at 14:63, the High Priest says “why do we still need witnesses?”, contrary to the requirements of Jewish justice (Deut 19:15); whilst at 15:15, Pilate bends in order to “satisfy the crowd”, which is not in accord with Roman justice!

Both trials end with a clear call for death of Jesus: “they all condemned him as deserving death” (14:64) and “crucify him” (15:13,14). Each is followed by acts in which Jesus is tormented (14:65; 15:19) as well as by words in which Jesus is mocked for his impotency: “prophesy” (14:65), and “Hail, King of the Jews” (as Jesus is dressed in mock regalia; 15:18).

In between these two trials scenes, there stands the centrepiece of the whole Passion Narrative: the account of Peter’s denial (14:66–72). This is the only scene that is not balanced against another scene. The story of Peter’s denial is a powerful story which stands alone as the heart of the narrative. It takes us to the very centre of the way of Jesus.

In this scene, Peter exemplifies the disciples’ consistent failure to understand Jesus. Mark has pointed to this failure on many occasions. Even after Jesus’ had twice fed large crowds of people (6:30–44; 8:1–10), the disciples doubt his capacity to provide food (8:17–21). After Jesus first speaks of the fate in store for the Son of Man in Jerusalem (8:1–10), Peter fails to understanding what Jesus means (8:32–33).

After the second such prediction (9:30–31), all the disciples demonstrate their lack of understand (9:32). After the third and most extensive prediction of the sufferings due to the Son of Man (10:32–34), James and John show their selfish ignorance when they seek heavenly power for themselves (10:35–40).

Once in Jerusalem, there is a series of further misunderstandings by the disciples: the false bravado of Peter and “all of them” (14:29,31), the failure of three disciples to watch and pray (14:37), and then the ultimate act of desertion by all the disciples (14:50). Peter’s increasingly vehement denials (14:68,70,71) thus climax the sequence in a devastatingly dramatic manner!

This is the story which sits at the very heart of the account of Jesus’ betrayal, trials, crucifixion and death. The story sets the failure of Peter into stark contrast with the faithfulness of Jesus. The model for believers is to be Jesus, the righteous sufferer, rather than Peter, the evasive denier.

What Peter did, by denying Jesus, was what other followers of Jesus are not to do. Instead, they are to walk the way of Jesus, following him as he endures suffering. This is the potent message of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel according to Mark, written for those struggling under Roman occupation and yearning for the release of God’s rule.

The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship.

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

The earliest (and shortest) Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, makes a strong and enduring contribution to telling the story of Jesus. See my earlier posts at https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

This is the claim that the suffering and death of Jesus was the very essence of his task. The whole narrative of Mark’s Gospel is shaped to direct attention to the events that take place in Jerusalem at Passover. The death of Jesus assumes central importance.

Shaping the story to focus on the passion

Of course, some decades before this Gospel took shape as a written work, the preaching of the early followers of Jesus — all Jews — had drawn on Hebrew Scripture. If the accounts in Acts offer any reliable insight into that preaching, then telling the story of a Jesus and explicitly referring to his death in early sermons was par for the course. (But we have all of this mediated through the author of this Gospel, so we cannot be certain about this claim.)

Some letters of some of those early followers survive, and these letters provide clear and direct evidence for what was the practice of believers in the 40s and 50s. Some of the authentic letters of Paul give indications that even before him, there were simple credal-like statements which focussed on an understanding of the sacrificial nature of the death of Jesus (Gal 2:20; 1 Thess 4:14, 5:9-10; 1 Cor 15:3; 2 Cor 5:14-15; Rom 3:24-25, 5:8).

In the last three chapters of Mark (where the final sequence of events for Jesus in Jerusalem are recounted), we can see further pointers to this central theme.

The prelude to the Passion Narrative recounts two significant meals (14:1–31): one, when a woman anointed Jesus in anticipation of his burial (14:8), the other, the last meal of Jesus when he foreshadowed his death. After the first meal, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas is foreshadowed (14:10–11); after the second meal, the denial of Jesus by Peter is predicted (14:26–31).

The Narrative itself has three main sections, each with two parts. Section One (14:32–52) is based in Gethsemane, where Jesus prays before he is arrested. Section Two (14:53–15:20) revolves around the trials of Jesus, first before the High Priest and the whole Council and then before Pilate, the Roman Governor. In between these trials, Peter denies any knowledge of Jesus. Section Three (15:21–41) is based at Golgotha, where Jesus is crucified and dies.

As a postlude to these scenes, Mark recounts the burial of Jesus and the discovery of the empty tomb on the third day (15:42–16:8). The whole narrative contains a slowly building sense of the inevitable which climaxes in the death of Jesus. All has pointed to this moment; and at the climactic moment, the centurion declares the essential nature of Jesus (15:39).

Table: The Passion Narrative in The Gospel of Mark

Prelude (14:1–31) Two meals: at Bethany, at Jerusalem

Section One (14:32–52) Jesus in Gethsemane

Section Two (14:53–15:20) Jesus on Trial

Section Three (15:21–41)      Jesus at Golgotha

Postlude (15:42–16:8) The Tomb: burial, discovery

How are we to make sense of this death? The Passion Narrative of Mark (as, indeed, in all four canonical gospels) relates it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. He takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.

Jesus, the righteous sufferer

In this Passion Narrative, the author of the beginning of the good news recounts the death of Jesus by relating it to the figure of righteous person who suffers injustice. The author of this Gospel takes great pains to show that Jesus remains faithful to his calling despite the pressures he faces.

The Gethsemane scene draws on imagery from Hebrew Scripture to underline this. The narrative evokes the suffering of the faithful righteous person, a figure found especially in the Psalms.

Like the righteous sufferer, Jesus laments that he is “deeply grieved” in the face of his death (14:34), using the same language as the psalmist (Psalms 42:5,11; 43:5; also 42:6; 55:4; 61:2; 102:9–10; 116:3; and most graphically, 22:14–15).

Jesus continues in prayer, using the language of the prophets who pointed to the divine judgment which Israel would suffer (“remove this cup” evokes the cup of divine judgment; see Psalm 75:8; Isa 51:17; Jer 25:15–16; Ezek 23:31–34; Hab 2:16–17; Lam 4:21). Thus the prophets are used to interpret the suffering which Jesus faced.

Yet this image is transformed from vindictive revenge, to vicarious suffering, in the context of Mark’s Gospel—”the cup” has already been identified with the passion of Jesus at Mark 10:38–39.

The Golgotha scene also contains this orientation. What takes place is interpreted with reference to scripture; here, the allusions are both subtle, and more direct. The cry which Jesus utters at the ninth hour, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” (15:34), is a clear reference to Psalm 22, by quoting its first verse.

As Jesus approaches his death, the psalm focuses attention on the stark moment of utter dereliction. Here, Jesus identifies with the righteous sufferer, who hopes for salvation but still experiences utter desolation. (It may also be important to observe that the psalm moves from the despair of lament (22:1–21) to the hope of thanksgiving (22:22–31). Is this what was intended by the author of the Gospel?)

Indeed, the Golgotha narrative draws extensively on Psalm 22 to express what Jesus experienced on the cross. The dividing of garments and casting of lots (15:24) alludes to the same actions endured by the righteous sufferer at Psalm 22:18 (this is made explicit at John 19:23–24).

Those passing by mock Jesus, wagging their heads at him (15:29), in the fashion of Psalm 22:7, “all who see me mock me”. The taunt, “let him save himself” (15:31–32) reflects the prayer of the righteous sufferer (Psalm 22:8, “he committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him”).

The offer of wine mingled with myrrh (15:23) evokes Psalm 69:21, which once more is made explicit at John 19:28–30a (this is explicitly “to fulfil the scripture”).

Later reflection, within the early church, recognized that what took place at Golgotha could be understood in the light of the understanding of suffering in the Hebrew Scripture; what happened to Jesus was recognized as fulfilling scripture, as the later addition of 15:28 (added in some ancient version of Mark’s Gospel) indicates (referring to Isa 53:12).

The scenes at Gethsemane and Golgotha are thus steeped in the language and imagery of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is through this Jewish heritage that understanding of this death can be found.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/23/4-the-structure-of-the-passion-narrative-in-mark/

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

2 Mark: collector of stories, author of the passion narrative

This blog follows on from my earlier reflections on the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we know as the gospel according to Mark. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/

The stories which were originally told about Jesus were individual stories. Over time, however, some of the story tellers began to make collections of similar or related stories. Instead of just one story of a miracle, a particular story teller might have a repertoire of four or five such stories. Rather than speaking a random assortment of individual wise sayings which seemed to have little relation to one another, another story teller might collect a number of sayings which relate to a common topic, or have certain words or ideas in common. Such collections were undoubtedly made at the oral stage—that is, by those who were well-practised at telling stories in the market place, in a courtyard, at the synagogue or at a gathering in a large house.

So it is quite likely that various collections of stories about Jesus made their way around the scattered groups of Jesus followers, still by word of mouth, before they were eventually written down. It is also quite likely that oral collections were known and used by the writers of the Gospels found within the New Testament. There are various signs of such oral collections of stories in each of the canonical Gospels—not the least in Mark’s Gospel, the shortest of the four Gospels.

Stories in Mark’s Gospel

In the first half of Mark’s Gospel, many stories of healing and exorcism can be found. A careful look at the structure of Mark 1–8 reveals two obvious clusters of miracle stories. Mark 1:21–2:12 is a collection of miraculous deeds performed by Jesus in Galilee, beginning and ending in Capernaum (see 1:21 and 2:1). Mark 4:35–5:43 links a pair of intertwined miracles in Galilee (5:21–43) with another pair of miracles performed across the Sea of Galilee in Gentile territory (4:35–5:20).

Immediately before this second collection of miracles stories, there is almost a full chapter devoted to the parables of Jesus (Mark 4:1–34). Another later chapter contains a collection of sayings which each relate to the coming apocalyptic era, when the kingdom will be ushered in (Mark 13:1–37). Whilst there are both parables and apocalyptic sayings elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, these particular sections appear to hold together very strongly, suggesting that they came to the author of Mark’s Gospel already in this interrelated form.

Just before this apocalyptic chapter, there is a string of incidents which reveal how Jesus engaged in honour-shame contests; that is, verbal combat with a number of opponents. Mark 11:27–12:41 contains stories which tell how Jesus was able to better his opponents on a number of matters. It is highly likely that this also was an oral collection of ‘conflict stories’ gathered around the theme of conflict between Jesus and the authorities in Jerusalem.

Mark 9:33–50 is yet another section of the Gospel which contains a collection of individual stories that seem to have little in common with one another. Indeed, verses 40–50 are simply short sayings of Jesus linked together rather abruptly. This might be an example of the tendency to gather together many small, isolated sayings of Jesus to form a larger collection which can be told by the story teller.

The narrative of the passion of Jesus

It is highly likely that, alongside these collections, there was another collection of materials made about Jesus, before the Gospels we know were actually written: the story of Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem: his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial.

This collection was probably made in the early decades after Jesus had been crucified, so that later followers of Jesus could know what took place years before in the last days of Jesus’ life. It reads as a flowing whole, rather than as a collection of isolated stories thrown together for convenience. It follows Jesus through a series of interrelated events.

This part of the Gospel story (chapters 14–15 in Mark) is known as the passion narrative, as it tells about what Jesus suffered in his final days. (“Passion” comes from the Latin word passio, meaning suffering.)

The writer of Mark’s Gospel seems to have been the first person (as far as we know from the evidence) who drew together a number of expressions about the way of Jesus, and worked them into a single, cohesive whole, in a continuous narrative style. The distinctive contribution of the author of this work is that all of these stories are incorporated into the larger story which Mark tells—the story of how it was that Jesus came to be arrested, tried, crucified and buried.

Mark’s Gospel is structured with two main parts: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16). The second part forms the climax to the whole work. Indeed, the author of Mark has shaped his account so that the passion narrative, placed in the concluding section of his work (telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem), forms the climax to the whole work.

Likewise, the author of Mark has shaped the first part of his account (telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem) so that there are many short, but significant, pointers to the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem. So important is the role of the passion narrative as the focal point for the whole work, that the Gospel of Mark has been described as “a passion narrative with an extended introduction”.

It is this pattern—collections of stories about Jesus in Galilee followed by a journey to Jerusalem and the account of the passion of Jesus—which was adopted (but also adapted) by the authors of the the book of origins (the Gospel of Matthew) and the orderly account of the things fulfilled among us (the Gospel of Luke). Along with the belief that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, there is a widespread belief amongst scholars that a version of Mark’s Gospel was actually used as a written source by the authors of these other two Gospels.

These three Gospels are known as the Synoptic Gospels, from the Greek word syn-opsis, meaning “looking together”. They have this name because it is possible to lay them out, side by side, and look at the same time at the same story in all three Gospels. These Gospels (along with John’s Gospel) are also called Passion Gospels, because they all come to a conclusion with the passion of Jesus.

So the author of Mark’s Gospel makes some important contributions to Christian literature—writing the earliest Gospel and influencing the authors of the other early Gospels. He also places his mark on Christian history by shaping the way that the story of Jesus would be remembered throughout Christian history.

Outline of the storyline of The Gospel of Mark
Jesus is baptised by John (1.1–11)
and tested in the desert in Judea. (1.12–13)
He then moves to Galilee, (1.14–15)
where he preaches, teaches, heals and exorcises. (1.16–9.50)
When Jesus returns to Judea, (10.1–52)
he comes to Jerusalem and enters the Temple, (11.1–25)
engages in controversy with the authorities (11.27–12.44)
and instructs his disciples. (13.1–37)
After sharing a last supper with his disciples, (14.1–25)
Jesus is arrested, tried and crucified. (14.26–15.41)
Then he is buried in a tomb (15.42–47)
which is subsequently found empty. (16.1–8)

See further https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/22/3-mark-placing-suffering-and-death-at-the-heart-of-the-gospel/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/23/4-the-structure-of-the-passion-narrative-in-mark/

This material was drawn from MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel of Mark, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

1: Where has Mark gone ?

This year in the calendar of the church is what is called Year B. That means that, for the most part, the Gospel reading will be drawn from the earliest, and shortest, account of the life of Jesus that we have in our Bibles: the work that starts, the beginning of the good news of Jesus, which we call, by tradition, the Gospel according to Mark. (In Year A, we have passages from Matthew; in Year C, selections from Luke.)

Except that, with one notable exception, Sunday readings from some weeks ago, right through until Pentecost (this year, falling on 23 May) are not drawn from Mark! Where has Mark gone?

We are in the midst of readings, during Lent, from John (7—28 March); then there will be readings, during Holy Week, once again from John (29 March to 2 April). We will hear an excerpt from Matthew on Holy Saturday (3 April); stories from John and Luke on Easter Sunday (4 April); and then another string of passages from John during the season of Easter (11 April to 16 May).

Pentecost Sunday designates part of John 15, and then Trinity Sunday offers John 3. Stories from Mark are nowhere to be seen. Where has Mark gone?

(To be fair: the lectionary has to do this, if it is to provide a good selection from the Gospel according to John, as that Gospel doesn’t have it’s own year. So its passages are spliced throughout Lent and Easter in all three years.)

The one exception to this Mark-drought is Sunday 28 March. If you celebrate this as Palm Sunday, then a passage from Mark is offered (Mark 11:1-11)—although an alternative from John is provided! If you celebrate this as Passion Sunday, then the whole passion narrative in Mark’s Gospel is offered (Mark 14:1—15:47)—with an alternative being a shorter excerpt from that extended narrative (Mark 15:1-39, with 40-47 as an option).

So it will not be until June before we return to the weekly diet of stories from the beginning of the good news—6 June, to be precise, where we pick up the narrative with Jesus in his home town, surrounded (as is usual in this Gospel) by a crowd, being criticised by his family and accused by some Jerusalem scribes (Mark 3:20-35). Hardly a propitious place to rejoin this early Gospel story.

(And even then, there is a five-week interruption in August, when we hear all bar a handful of the 71 verses in John 6 !)

So: I plan on offering a series of blogs leading up to Passion Sunday (28 March) which deals with elements in the story that Mark first told—at least in written form—about what transpired in Jerusalem, at Passover, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate.

But first, some general comments about this earliest and shortest Gospel.

*****

We know that Jesus did not write an account of his life; in fact, we know of nothing enduring that he wrote. In the New Testament, we have four accounts which relate how Jesus called followers to travelled with him around Galilee, and then to Jerusalem, where they witnessed his arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader. Subsequently, they attested that he had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. We have four of these accounts. They each have their own distinctive features.

The story of Jesus is told, first, in the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one, the shortest account. We know this, because of Church tradition, as the gospel according to Mark. This work, it is clear, forms the primary source for two subsequent accounts of Jesus: the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one (the gospel according to Matthew) and an orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us (the gospel according to Luke).

In this earliest written account of Jesus, we find stories told by Jesus, and stories told about Jesus, which had already been circulating in oral form for some decades. It is likely that some of these stories had already come together in short collections.

The distinctive contribution of this collated story was twofold. First, it places side-by-side a number of different traditions, or collections of stories, about Jesus. Second, these stories are arranged in a dramatic way, beginning with the stories about Jesus in his native area of Galilee, and culminating in the account of Jesus’ passion in Jerusalem.

This work thus provides a much fuller ‘story of Jesus’ than any of the individual oral stories about him. Isolated incidents are placed within a larger context. Individual sayings and deeds of Jesus are grouped together with similar sayings or deeds. Episodes are linked together to form a coherent account of who Jesus was and what it meant to follow his way.

There are two main parts this account of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: telling stories about Jesus in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem (Mark 1–10) and then telling what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem (Mark 11–16).

But this account of Jesus is more than just a compilation of existing stories. It is infused with vigour and intensity. The story moves from one incident to the next; yet the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. A sense of drama runs through the Gospel. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is a movie script!

*****

Central to this narrative is a story of conflict. Jesus is set into conflict with the authorities from early on. It is hinted at in the claim that Jesus speaks blasphemy (2:7), and then is revealed in full in the plot that is initiated (3:6). The shadow of destruction hangs over Jesus from the beginnings of his activity.

The tension mounts, from the early days in Galilee, towards the events that will take place in Jerusalem. His own family called him crazy (3:21), the people of his own town took offense at what he was preaching (6:3), and even his closest disciples seemed unable to grasp what he was teaching them (see 8:21; 9:33; 10:35–40).

The popularity of Jesus as he entered Jerusalem was fleeting, even though he acquitted himself so well in arguments with the leaders in Jerusalem (11:27–12:40). His actions in the Temple forecourt were controversial (11:15-17) and it is clear that this incident raised opposition to him to a high level (11:18). The final teachings he gave his disciples begin with a prediction of the destruction of the Temple before recounting the apocalyptic woes that are in store (13:3–37).

The plot hatched by the authorities (12:12; 14:1-2) led them to stir up the crowd to call for his death. Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest followers (14:10, 43-46), all knowledge of him was denied by another (14:30; 14:66-72), and all abandoned him at his point of need (14:50). The tragic climax of Jesus’ death is a scene of utter abandonment: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (15:34). Only some—a group of faithful women—watched from afar (15:40) before they came to provide an honourable burial for the man who was condemned and dishonoured (16:1)—but precisely there, a surprise awaits them (16:2-7).

*****

Yet the account found in the beginning of the good news is still more than a dramatic account of a tragic death; for this work appears to be a kind of political manifesto, advocating the way of Jesus in a situation of deep tension and widespread conflict. The whole Gospel conveys the significance of Jesus and his message about the kingdom: “the time is near!” (1:15).

This story reveals the key fact that faithful discipleship will mean enduring suffering, as Jesus did. He writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up the cross (8:34). These were potent words in the Roman Empire; death by crucifixion was the fate in store for criminals, especially those engaged in any political activities which the Roman authorities perceived to be a threat to the peace of the Empire.

Jesus’ injunction to “take up your cross” was advice which was loaded with danger. Was he advocating resistance against an oppressive Roman rule? The story which is told in this Gospel addresses issues which were pressing on the lives of those who told it, read it, and heard it.

Almost all of this work, the beginning of the good news, appears in basically the same order, in the two following accounts—the orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us and the book of origins of Jesus, chosen one. (We know these works as the Gospel according to Luke, and the Gospel according to Matthew.)

Both of these accounts expand the story, incorporating additional material—some is found in both accounts, other stories are recounted in one or the other of the orderly account and the book of origins. So the contribution made by the beginning of the good news is significant, and enduring.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

3 Mark: placing suffering and death at the heart of the Gospel

4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

Disturbance, disruption, and destabilising words (Mark 8; Lent 2B)

The Gospel passage that is offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38) is filled with elements that disturb, disrupt, and destabilise.

Disturbance. The disturbing element comes in the words that Jesus speaks, about a crisis that he sees ahead for himself and his disciples. Jesus declares that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

The crisis will plunge Jesus and his followers into the depths of death: first, a trial and a verdict; then, a crucifixion and a burial. Although he warns them of this (here, and twice more on later occasions), they seem not to be prepared for this sequence of events when it eventually transpires.

There is a curious end to the words Jesus spoke: “after three days, rise again”. How did the disciples understand this? Why did they not show any understanding of this, when Jesus was crucified and buried?

In my reading, this prophecy placed on the lips of Jesus is the work of the author who crafted this Gospel narrative. The author knows the end of the story. He seeds these words into the narrative to give greater authority to Jesus, portraying him as a person in tune with the way of God, knowing in advance the fate in store for him.

But the fact that when these things happen, the disciples fail to remember, let alone comprehend, what Jesus had said, makes me suspicious. Death by crucifixion was a fate reserved by the Romans for political rebels and criminals. How could the disciples not remember that Jesus was identifying himself with this marginalised, despised group?

Immediately after this passage, Mark narrates the Transfiguration (which was offered by the lectionary two weeks ago, on the Sunday at the end of Epiphany, the season of light). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/08/transfigured-lives-in-the-here-and-now-mark-9-and-1-kings-2/

And after that revelatory mountaintop event, the same prophecy of Jesus that he uttered (according to Mark) prior to the Transfiguration, is repeated and expanded, on two further occasions, in the narrative that follows. Mark asserts that Jesus persists with his prophecy.

Soon after the transfiguration, after returning to the level plain, Jesus repeats his words, that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again” (9:31), and then offers a variant of his central claim on his followers: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35).

This is followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

These three predictions, followed immediately by challenging teachings, form a central pivot point in the overall storyline of this Gospel. They pivot from the activities of Jesus in Galilee (chapters 1-8) and the fateful events that take place in Jerusalem (chapters 11-16). The pivot is emphasised by the bracketing, around this whole section, that is provided by two accounts of Jesus healing blind men: first in Bethsaida (8:22-26), then later in Jericho (10:46-52). These bracketing scenes cry out: do the followers of Jesus not see what he is saying?

This is a literary device, intentionally planted here by the author, to sharpen the focus on to the central characteristic of following Jesus. And that is what Jesus then elucidates, with piercing insight, for the first time, after the prophetic words of 8:31.

Disruption. The teaching which Jesus provides is destabilising for his followers. Jesus leads into this destabilising teaching with a dialogue that creates a clear disruption for the disciples. This disruption comes in the interchange between Jesus and Peter (8:32-33).

Peter, acting and speaking on behalf of the disciples (and perhaps on behalf of us as well?) is affronted by talk of suffering, rejection, and death—to say nothing of resurrection! His rebuke of Jesus (8:32) is quite understandable; after all, he was the one chosen by God to bring renewal to Israel. How could he do this, if he is to die as a criminal, hanging on a cross?

However, Jesus appears quite clear about what his fate will be: it is as if he has entered into a covenant with God which involves suffering, and leads to death. At his baptism, he was declared to be the beloved son with whom God was well pleased (1:12); then, at his transfiguration, he was reaffirmed as beloved by God, the to whom people should listen (9:7).

Those passages sound like Jesus will be accorded a prominent position, well on the pathway to glory. Perhaps that is how the disciples understood those words.

Jesus, however (at least, the Jesus whom Mark portrays to us) appears to know the inner dynamic involved in this divine recognition. He knows of the necessity of suffering and death. (The Greek uses the tiny word dei, signalling the inevitable fate, the inescapable future: the Son of Man must suffer.

This pathway is set to follow the way of the Servant of Israel, set out in the series of great poems reflecting on the fate of the servant (Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:13). For in each of these songs, the servant faces opposition, harassment, violence–and then, “despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”, he encounters his fate: “he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases … he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed … by a perversion of justice he was taken away … he was cut off from the land of the living” (Isa 52:3-5, 8).

That Jesus saw the relevance of these songs to his mission is signalled in various places in Mark’s narrative–see, for instance, his words at 10:43-45, on being a servant, and especially 10:45 (“giving his life as a random for many”).

The disciples are focussed on the promises and possibilities in following Jesus; they can see only a wonderful glory. Jesus himself is portrayed as being aware of the very different dynamics he will face as he walks the pathway to a new future.

Destabilising words. So Jesus articulates what this pathway entails. What he says to his followers is thoroughly destabilising (8:34-38). Because in what he says, he turns things right upside down. (This might be behind the accusation raised against followers of Jesus in Thessaloniki, where they were known as people who have been “turning the world upside down”, Acts 17:6).

Jesus begins by relating discipleship to the fate that he has predicted is in store for himself, personally: it is a pathway to the cross. As he will be crucified, so his followers must “take up their cross” (8:34). Not only he, but also they, will be identified with the fate of hardened criminals and treasonous rebels.

In the Roman world, crucifixion was variously identified as a punishment for slaves (Cicero, In Verrem 2.5.168), bandits (Josephus, War 5.449-451), prisoners of war (Josephus, War 5.451), and political rebels (Josephus, Antiquities 17.295).

In the narratives that recount the crucifixion of Jesus, it is not so much the physical torment of Jesus which is highlighted (although, admittedly, a slow death by suffocation whilst hanging on a cross for hours, even days, was a terrible fate). Rather, it is the various ways in which Jesus was shamed: he was spat upon, physically struck on the face and the head, verbally ridiculed and insulted, and treated contemptuously.

This is the way of Jesus; and the way of his followers. Instead of saving their life, the followers of Jesus are instructed to lose their life.

Instead of aiming to “gain the whole world”, and thereby “forfeit their life”, a follower is, by implication, to let go of all hopes of “gaining the world” (8:35-37). To gain the world was presumably referring to occupying a position of power, prestige, and popularity–precisely the kind of issues that later writers, Matthew and Luke, reflected in their more detailed accounts of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness. (See https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/)

Jesus ends his words by referring to a central cultural element: that of shame. The ancient Mediterranean world was infused with a set of values and practices shaped by a clear and unambiguous honour—shame culture. Everyone had their place in that culture; to act inappropriately would mean that a person was seen to be out of their assigned place, disrespectful of the honour code, meriting the assessment of others, for them to be ashamed of that person.

The honour—shame culture runs through the Hebrew Scriptures. The ancient Hebrews affirmed that honour belongs primarily to God (1 Chron 16:27), so that God could bestow honour on those who were faithful to his ways (Ps 92:14-15). The same idea is expressed in the version of Isa 28:16 which is cited at 1 Pet 2:6, which modifies the ending to provide explicit reference to the claim that God will not shame believers.

God can thus honour human beings (Ps 8:5), even those regarded as shameful (Zeph 3:19)–and conversely, God could shame those accorded honour by humans (Isa 23:9). Paul later reflects this in one of his letters to Corinth (1 Cor 1:27).

Honour was likewise praised by Greek philosophers as “the greatest of all external goods” (Aristotle, Nic. Eth. 1), whilst Xenophon considered that honour was what differentiated humans from animals (Hiero 7.3).

Philo of Alexandria, bridging both Jewish and Hellenistic worlds, affirmed that “fame and honour are a most precarious possession, tossed about on the reckless tempers and flighty words of careless men” (Life of Abraham 264).

Of course, identification with the cross, in Jesus’ earlier saying (8:34), would be a cause of shame, not of honour (Heb 12:2). It would be seen by other humans as being shameful.

However, that’s not the case in God’s eyes, as Jesus articulates it; the cross would become the badge of honour for the followers of Jesus, not the mark of shame.

So the declaration of shame in this last verse (8:38) reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. This section ends with yet another paradox: to gain honour, a person must follow Jesus, take up the shameful instrument of punishment (the cross), lay aside all desire to gain prestigious and powerful positions of honour, give up any claim on life itself, and (as Jesus later asserts), live as a servant, being willing to be dishonoured for the sake of the shame of the Gospel.

And that’s the challenge that confronts us in this passage: disturbing, disrupting, destabilising as that may be.