Faithfulness in the turmoil of the time: the historical context of Mark 13 (Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

This final speech of Jesus confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of his teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

For the way that this language developed over centuries in ancient Israel, and became a mainstay of prophetic language, see https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/09/the-beginnings-of-the-birth-pangs-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity. But how do we make sense of this dramatic language in the context of the post-Enlightenment scientifically-aware world of the 21st century? How do visions of turmoil and warfare, oracles about fiery destruction and fierce retribution, relate to our contemporary world?

One way of understanding this kind of language and these kinds of speeches, whether by Jesus or any number of the prophets, is to claim that these words were spirit-inspired predictions, from long ago, of the turmoil and conflict that was to take place in the future. Sometimes this is seen to relate to the times immediately in the future of the writer, in the late 1st century in the case of this Gospel passage. Other interpreters claim that such speeches are pointing forward in time, to events that will take place well beyond the time of the reader, even into our own times (that is, the 21st century).

Like the final book in the New Testament, Revelation, this speech of Jesus in Mark 13 has been interpreted of fervent believers throughout the centuries as evidence that the end of the world was at hand. Repentance, now, is the bottom line; repentance, before the end comes, and it is too late.

Another line of interpretation holds that this kind of language needs to be understood as inspired scripture, which provides us with clear doctrinal statements about what is called eschatology (the study of the end times, the last days). In which case, this book could be mined as a source for teachings about “the last days”, instructing us so that we are aware and informed, and thus able to undertake interpretation of events that are currently taking place.

It may not be that we are right in the midst of those “last days”, but we are equipped with the capacity to interpret and understand what is happening—to know exactly where we are, now, in the alleged timetable of events leading up to “the last days”.

However, there are difficulties with both lines of interpretation. Neither understanding actually reflects the nature of the literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for Mark 13.

(For some further consideration of ways of interpreting apocalyptic literature, in relation specifically to the book of Revelation, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/04/revelation-a-complex-and-intricate-world-of-heavenly-beings-and-exotic-creatures/)

But first, we need to be clear about the Historical Context within high this Gospel was written.

Jewish people of the first century lived in one of two ways. Some were members of the nation of Israel which was occupied by a foreign military force, the Romans. (The Romans called this region Palestine). Others were members of a minority group of Jews who were permitted to exist in another nation. (These are known as Jews of the Dispersion). Life in such situations demanded compromise.

For Jews living in the Dispersion, the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation. Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.

From the time that Roman troops had occupied Palestine, in 63 BCE, there was tension. It would wax and wane according to the attitudes of the Jewish leaders and the political imperatives at work through the Roman governors. In the year 66, the governor, Florus, demanded money from the Temple treasury in Jerusalem. This was too much for some Jews; hostilities broke out in various places across Palestine. The war which resulted lasted eight years; in 70 CE, the Temple in Jerusalem would be burnt to the ground, and by 74 CE, all active Jewish resistance to the Romans would be quashed.

In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished. Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day.

Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way? Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus.

The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus—the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which we know as the Gospel according to Mark)—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus. It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (1:14–15) to his parting description of apocalyptic terrors (13:3–37).

This work does not provide a clear declaration against military involvement; but this implication can be drawn from its pages. This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.

Mark tells the story of Jesus—a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. That is the focus of the story that he tells—what does it mean for us to follow Jesus in our own context? The work does not set out to answer the question, “is the end at hand?”, and not even to set out a timetable of events leading to that end. It simply asks, how best do I follow Jesus?

The last set of instructions which Jesus leaves for his disciples, delivered as he sits opposite the magnificent Jerusalem Temple (13:1), sets out the task which lies ahead for the disciples. During this apocalyptic discourse, Jesus speaks explicitly about their future commission (13:9–13). The situation will be one of persecution: “you will be beaten” (13:9), and “they [will] bring you to trial” (13:11); there will be betrayal and death (13:12), and “you will be hated by all” (13:13). False preachers will arise (13:5–6) and fraudulent claims will be made (13:21– 22).

In this context, the fundamental act of discipleship will be to bear witness to the way of Jesus: “you will stand … as a testimony” (13:9), “the good news must first be proclaimed” (13:10), what you are to say will be given by the Holy Spirit (13:11). The role of the disciple will be to remain faithful throughout these trials: “the one who endures to the end will be saved” (13:13). The need for such faithfulness is underscored by the closing words of Jesus’ teachings: “beware, keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” (13:33, 35, 37).

The political function of the apocalyptic speech of Jesus in Mark 13 (Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) comprises the beginning of longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery, drawn from the increasingly apocalyptic fervour of prophetic oracles delivered through the history of Israel. The apocalyptic character of the speech means that it certainly makes a mark!

There are some important questions to be asked about apocalyptic texts such as Mark 13. We need to locate such texts in their historical context—something I have done in https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

We also need to consider the nature of such literature, the purpose for which each of the apocalyptic oracles and speeches were given in their own time. It is important to understand the literary nature of apocalyptic writings, as well as the social-historical context in which such works came into being. The same applies for the apocalyptic speech of Jesus reported in Mark 13.

“Death on the Pale Horse” (1796)
by the American artist Benjamin West

The typical literary characteristics of apocalyptic texts are well-documented. There are a number of features which are found consistently throughout such texts, features which are striking in their impact and powerful in their capacity to invite attention. What is central to all apocalyptic writings is a clear portrayal of a stark conflict between good and evil, which often comes to a head in a grand cosmic battle. To put it in populist terms, apocalyptic texts “spin a good yarn”. They use the techniques of dramatic storytelling, or of good action films.

An apocalyptic text is typically composed in a narrative style, relaying a divine revelation which has been given to a human figure in a visionThat human figure is often someone from the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. The claim that this figure dictated the revelation is a literary device, designed to claim authority for the work; linguistic and historical analysis inevitably demonstrates that the figure claimed as author could not actually have written the work.

Often an angel will interpret the vision (or visionary journey) that has been revealed to this figure. We can see this, for instance, in Rev 1:1–2. In the case of Mark 13, however, such a revelation comes directly from Jesus, without any angelic mediation.

When relating the events of the end times, apocalyptic literature may include a chronology of events that are to occur; frequently these events are placed in the near future, giving sense of urgency to the message being proclaimed. So Jesus outlines a sequence of events that are yet to take place (13:8, 10, 14, 21).

The present time is painted in bleak tones in apocalyptic texts (13:11–13, 17–19, 24–25); by contrast, the visions of the future are bright, positive, and hopeful (13:26–31). God will ensure that the final conflict results in victory; the world as is currently known will be replaced by a glorious period. Often the visions of these end times mirror the language and ideas of creation stories, telling of how God triumphs over the primordial forces of chaos. The darkness that enshrouds the earth (13:24–25) will be replaced by glorious divine light (13:26).

In such revelations, some human beings belong to a group that will assuredly be saved—thus, Jesus refers to “the elect” (13:27); by contrast, the rest of humanity will face utter destruction. In the speech by Jesus, this fate can be inferred from the insistent repetition of “keep alert … keep awake … keep awake” in 13:33–37.

Many apocalyptic works will describe this fate in gruesome detail, often in surreal or fantastic terminology, through grand visionary accounts.

Whilst inferred in Mark’s account of the speech by Jesus, the gruesome details are added in Matthew’s version; the master will “cut the slave in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 24:51; this is repeated at 25:30, and reinforced at 25:46).

Alongside this, the fate of “ the elect” is celebrated: in the story of the bridesmaids, “those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut”, leaving the unprepared locked outside (25:10). In the parable of the talents, those affirmed are told, “I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’” (25:21, 23). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous are invited to “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34) and “enter into eternal life” (25:46). The dichotomy is clear.

So Jesus is, by and large, adhering to the conventions of the genre, as he presents his graphic portrayal of what lies on store for his followers in this speech, delivered on the Mount of Olives, opposite the Temple (Mark 13:3). An in making use of this genre, Jesus demonstrates that speaking in apocalyptic terms is actually doing political theology within a specific socio-historical context.

Apocalyptic is doing theology, in a particular way. It can best be regarded as political theology—that is, it explores faith in the context of the realities of life in the polis, the city. It often provides a counter-narrative to the dominant story of the rulers and those in power, exposing the evil of their ways and proposing an alternative world in which righteous-justice will reign supreme.

Paul D. Hanson developed a strong case for understanding the apocalyptic literature of the second century BCE and the following centuries as being the result of “a long development reaching back to pre-exilic times and beyond, and not the new baby of second century foreign parents”, as some other scholars have maintained. See https://www.readings.com.au/products/6590310/the-dawn-of-apocalyptic-the-historical-and-sociological-roots-of-jewish-apocalyptic-eschatology

The people of Israel, even from the time before they were taken into exile, lived under the shadow of the dominant world power of the time—the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom; then the Babylonians, who took the southern kingdom into exile; then, after a return under the Persians, an apparently more benign power, before the crushing power of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great and his successors.

Detail from a mosaic at Pompei,
showing Alexander the Great in battle

This pattern of an unbroken development from preexilic and exilic prophecy through to the inter testamental period and on into the time of Jesus and the early church, and the ensuing centuries. (We traced some dimensions of that in the earlier post exploring “ the end”, ***

John J. Collins writes that “Apocalyptic literature evokes an imaginative world that is set in deliberate counterpoint to the experiential world of the present. Apocalypticism thrives especially in times of crisis, and it functions by offering a resolution of the relevant crisis, not in practical terms but in terms of imagination and faith.” See https://readingreligion.org/books/apocalyptic-imagination

We might well say, from this, that the function of apocalyptic is like that if a fairy story, or a fable-or a longer book or play or film, in which the reader or viewer is invited to “willingly suspend disbelief” and enter into the story that is being offered.

Tellers of apocalyptic tales invite their listeners, living in times of crisis, to suspend disbelief, watch the vision unfolding, hear the angelic interpretation, even undertake the heavenly journey that the author retells; and to do this with expectation and hope.

Apocalyptic texts are written in the midst of despair fuelled by foreign invasion, murder and rape during the pillaging of that invasion, enforced slavery, religious repression, cultural imperialism, and societal oppression, with the loss of much-loved traditional practices and customs, disconnection from the homeland (the place where God resided), and a continuing sense of having been abandoned by God.

In the midst of all of this, readers and listeners of apocalyptic texts are invited to have hope: hope that God would act; hope that despair would be dispelled and life would flourish once now; hope that the familiarity of traditions would be reinstated; hope that the evils perpetrated by the invading oppressors would be rectified by acts of divine revenge; hope that life, even in their own time, would be transformed into a realm where righteous-justice was in force, where the evils of lawlessness were dispelled.

There are clear, sharp pointers to the political situation of the time in which works of apocalyptic are written–from the time of the Seleucid rulers (from the 180s BCE) through to the Roman conquest of Judaea (63 BCE) and on into the period we call the first century CE, when Jesus lived and then the Gospels were written. These works are political.

All of this, this, it should now be clear, is what Jesus was looking to in his parables of the kingdom, in his teachings about living with fidelity to the covenant with God, in his invitations to his followers to walk the way he walks, leading to the realm of God’s kingdom. His visions of cataclysmic times, in the apocalyptic speech of Mark 13, point to the reality that God is now acting to intervene in events, overturn evil, and institute the righteous-justice of God.

And all of this is intensely contextual, thoroughly political, firmly directed towards the injustices perpetrated under the religious and economic system of the Temple and the cultural and religious oppression of the Roman colonisers. The birth pangs that are just beginning (13:8) herald the coming good times when “the great power and glory” of the Lord is evident (13:26) as “the Son if Man … will gather his elect” (13:27), a time when “summer is near” (13:28). That is the kingdom of God, in which much fruit is borne (4:20, 28), much growth occurs (4:32), new life will emerge (8:31; 9:31; 10:34); 12:27), righteous-justice is enacted by God (12:9-11) and love of God and neighbour is practised by those in that kingdom (12:32-34). Indeed, Jesus says that “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near”, in the parallel (and expanded) account in Luke (see Luke 21:31).

Out of the darkness and despair, the agony of the birthpangs point to the hope of abundance that has been persistently proclaimed by Jesus. And so, we might pray: may that time come, may that kingdom be a reality, even in our time, even in our place; or, as Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as in heaven”.

The beginnings of the birth pangs (Mark 13; Pentecost 25B)

The Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 13:1–8) offers an excerpt from longer speech, a block of teaching which Jesus delivered to his disciples (13:3–37), some time after they had arrived in the city of Jerusalem (11:1–11). It’s a striking speech, with vivid language and dramatic imagery. As Jesus’ last long speech in this Gospel, it certainly makes a mark!

The speech is delivered beside the towering Temple, built under Solomon, rebuilt under Nehemiah (13:1, 3). That temple was a striking symbol for the people of Israel—it represented their heritage, their traditions, their culture. The Temple was the place where the Lord God dwelt, in the Holy of Holies; where priests received sacrifices, designed to enable God to atone for sins, and offerings, intended to express the people’s gratitude to God; where musicians led the people in singing of psalms and songs that exulted God, that petitioned God for help, that sought divine benevolence for the faithful covenant people

Or so the story goes; so the scriptures said; so the priests proclaimed. The holiest place in the land that was holy, set apart and dedicated to God. Yet what does Jesus say about this magnificent construction? “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:2). Jesus envisages the destruction of the Temple. Not only this; he locates that destruction within the context of widespread turmoil and disruption: “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines” (13:8). And then, to seal this all, Jesus refers directly to the fact that “the end is still to come” (13:7).

The End. Eight centuries before Jesus, the prophet Amos had declared, “the LORD said to me, ‘the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by’” (Amos 8:2). Amos continues, declaring that God has decreed that “on that day … I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9–10).

That image of The Day when the Lord enacts justice and brings punishment upon the earth, because of the evil being committed by people on the earth, enters into the vocabulary of prophet after prophet. Amos himself declares that it is “darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake. Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (Amos 5:18–20).

Isaiah, just a few decades after Amos, joined his voice: “the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up and high … the haughtiness of people shall be humbled, and the pride of everyone shall be brought low; and the Lord alone will be exalted on that day” (Isa 2:12, 17). He warns the people, “Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty!” (Isa 13:6).

Isaiah uses a potent image to describe this day: “pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labour” (Isa 13:7). He continues, “the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger, to make the earth a desolation, and to destroy its sinners from it” (Isa 13:8), and later he portrays that day as “a day of vengeance” (Isa 34:8).

Zephaniah, who was active at the time when Josiah was king (640–609 BCE) declares that “the day of the Lord is at hand; the Lord has prepared a sacrifice, he has consecrated his guests” (Zeph 1:7); “the great day of the Lord is near, near and hastening fast; the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter, the warrior cries aloud there; that day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness ” (Zeph 1:14–15).

Habakkuk, active in the years just before the Babylonian invasion of 587 BCE, declares that “there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie” (Hab 2:3); it is a vision of “human bloodshed and violence to the earth, to cities and all who live in them” (Hab 2:17).

Later, during the Exile, Jeremiah foresees that “disaster is spreading from nation to nation, and a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth!” (Jer 35:32); he can see only that “those slain by the Lord on that day shall extend from one end of the earth to the other. They shall not be lamented, or gathered, or buried; they shall become dung on the surface of the ground” (Jer 35:33). He also depicts this day as “the day of the Lord God of hosts, a day of retribution, to gain vindication from his foes” (Jer 46:10).

And still later (most likely after the Exile), the prophet Joel paints a grisly picture of that day: “the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains, a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Fire devours in front of them, and behind them a flame burns. Before them the land is like the garden of Eden, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.” (Joel 2:1-3).

Later in the same oracle, he describes the time when the Lord will “show portents in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (Joel 2:30–31). Joel also asserts that “the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision; the sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining” (Joel 3:14–15).

*****

The language of The Day is translated, however, into references to The End, in some later prophetic works. In the sixth century BCE, the priest-prophet Ezekiel, writing in exile in Babylon, spoke about the end that was coming: “An end! The end has come upon the four corners of the land. Now the end is upon you, I will let loose my anger upon you; I will judge you according to your ways, I will punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:2–3).

And again, Ezekiel declares, “Disaster after disaster! See, it comes. An end has come, the end has come. It has awakened against you; see, it comes! Your doom has come to you, O inhabitant of the land. The time has come, the day is near—of tumult, not of reveling on the mountains. Soon now I will pour out my wrath upon you; I will spend my anger against you. I will judge you according to your ways, and punish you for all your abominations.” (Ezek 7:5–8). This day, he insists, will be “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (Ezek 30:3; the damage to be done to Egypt is described many details that follow in the remainder of this chapter).

Obadiah refers to “the day of the Lord” (Ob 1:15), while Malachi asserts that “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (Mal 4:1).

Malachi ends his prophecy with God’s promise that “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes; he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Mal 4:5–6). This particular word is the final verse in the Old Testament as it appears in the order of books in the Christian scriptures; it provides a natural hinge for turning, then, to the story of John the baptiser, reminiscent of Elijah, who prepares the way for the coming of Jesus, evocative of Moses.

Another prophet, Daniel, declares that “there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has disclosed to King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen at the end of days” (Dan 2:28), namely, that “the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall this kingdom be left to another people. It shall crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

Whilst the story of Daniel is set in the time of exile in Babylon—the same time as when Ezekiel was active—there is clear evidence that the story as we have it was shaped and written at a much later period, in the 2nd century BCE; the rhetoric of revenge is directed squarely at the actions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had invaded and taken control of Israel and begun to persecute the Jews from the year 175BCE onwards.

The angel Gabriel subsequently interprets another vision to Daniel, “what will take place later in the period of wrath; for it refers to the appointed time of the end” (Dan 8:19), when “at the end of their rule, when the transgressions have reached their full measure, a king of bold countenance shall arise, skilled in intrigue. He shall grow strong in power, shall cause fearful destruction, and shall succeed in what he does. He shall destroy the powerful and the people of the holy ones.” (Dan 8:23–24). This seems to be a clear reference to Antiochus IV.

An engraving by David Martin (1639-1721) which depicts
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid Empire (r. 175-164 BCE),
desecrating the Temple in Jerusalem.

Still later in his book, Daniel sees a further vision, of seventy weeks (9:20–27), culminating in the time of “the end” (9:26). In turn, this vision is itself spelled out in great detail in yet another vision (11:1–39), with particular regard given to the catastrophes taking place at “the time of the end” (11:1–12:13; see especially 11:25, 40; 12:4, 6, 9, 13).

This final vision makes it clear that there will be “a time of anguish, such as has never occurred since nations first came into existence” (12:1), when “evil shall increase” (12:3) and “the wicked shall continue to act wickedly” (12:10). The visions appear to lift beyond the immediate context of the Seleucid oppression, and paint a picture of an “end of times” still to come, after yet worse tribulations have occurred.

***

Could these visions of “the end” be what Jesus was referring to, as he sat with his followers on the Mount of Olives, opposite the towering Temple? Later in the same discussion with his disciples, he indicates that “in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken” (Mark 13:24). This picks up the language we have noted consistently throughout the prophetic declarations, in Amos, Joel, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Ezekiel, and Daniel.

The judgement of God, says Jesus, with the “gathering up the elect from the four words, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:27), will be executed by “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory” (13:25)—language which draws directly from the vision of Daniel concerning “one like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (Dan 7:13).

So the resonances are strong, the allusions are clear. Jesus is invoking the prophetic visions of The Day, The End; the judgement of God, falling upon the wicked of the earth. And he deliberately applies these vivid and fearsome prophetic and apocalyptic traditions to what he says about the Temple. By linking his teaching directly to the question of four of his disciples, Peter, James, John, and Andrew (Mark 13:3), enquiring about the Temple, Jesus appears to be locating the end of the Temple—its sacrifices and offerings, its psalms and rituals, its wealth and glory … and perhaps also its priestly class—in the midst of the terrible, violent retributive judgements of the Lord God during the days of the end.

The language also resonates with the end section of 2 Esdras, in which God informs “my elect ones” that “the days of tribulation are at hand, but I will deliver you from them”. Those who fear God will prevail, whilst “those who are choked by their sins and overwhelmed by their iniquities” are compared with “a field choked with underbrush and its path overwhelmed with thorns” and condemned “to be consumed by fire” (2 Esdras 16:74–78). (This book claims to be words of Ezra, the scribe and priest who was prominent in the return to Jerusalem in the 5th century BCE, but scholarly opinion is that it was written after the Gospels, perhaps well into the 2nd century CE.)

All of the happenings that are described by Jesus in his teachings whilst seated with his followers outside the Temple (Mark 13:3) can be encapsulated in this potent image: “this is but the beginning of the birth pangs” (13:8). This is imagery which reaches right back to the foundational mythology of Israel, which tells of the pains of childbirth (Gen 3:16). It is language used by prophets (Jer 4:3; 22:23; 49:2; 49:24; Hos 13:13; Isa 21:3; 66:7–8; Micah 4:9; 5:3).

This chapter in Mark’s Gospel, along with the parallel accounts in Luke (chapter 21) and Matthew (chapter 24), are regarded as instances of apocalyptic material. The meaning of apocalyptic is straightforward: it refers to the “unveiling” or “revealing” of information about the end time, the heavenly realm, the actions of God.

Such a focus does not come as a surprise to the careful reader, or hearer, of this Gospel. This style of teaching is consistent with, and explanatory of, the message which the Gospels identify as being the centre of the message proclaimed by Jesus: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:14); “repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matt 4:17); “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). Each of these distillations of the message is apocalyptic—revealing the workings of God as the way is prepared for the coming of the sovereign rule of God.

Apocalyptic is the essential nature of Jesus’ teachings about “the kingdom of God”. This final speech confirms the thoroughly apocalyptic character of Jesus’ teaching. The parables he tells about that kingdom are apocalyptic, presenting a vision of the promised future that is in view. The call to repent is apocalyptic, in the tradition of the prophets. The demand to live in a way that exemplifies righteous-justice stands firmly in the line of the prophetic call. Such repentance and righteous-just living is as demanding and difficult as giving birth can be.

Mark’s Gospel has drawn to a climax with the same focussed attention to the vision of God’s kingdom, as was expressed at the start. The beginnings of the birth pangs are pointers to the kingdom that Jesus has always had in view. Jesus was, indeed, a prophet of apocalyptic intensity.

Of course, that still leaves the basic interpretive question: how do we make sense of this apocalyptic fervour in today’s world??? So to grapple with that, there’s more posts coming …..

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/faithfulness-in-the-turmoil-of-the-time-the-historical-context-of-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/11/10/the-political-function-of-the-apocalyptic-speech-of-jesus-in-mark-13-pentecost-25b/

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See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/towards-the-coming-the-first-sunday-in-advent-mark-13/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/04/discipleship-in-an-apocalyptic-framework-matt-23-25/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/16/a-final-parable-from-the-book-of-origins-on-sheep-and-goats-on-judgement-and-righteous-justice-matt-25/

https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/04/revelation-a-complex-and-intricate-world-of-heavenly-beings-and-exotic-creatures/

Jesus, the widow, and the two small coins (Mark 12; Pentecost 24B)

This week, we draw near to the end of the stories told about Jesus which we have encountered most Sundays during the year past. Since early December last year, we have been in Year B, and the book we know as the Gospel according to Mark has provided the majority of the Gospel passages for reading and reflection each week.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one (which is how this work styles itself—see Mark 1:1) does not pull any punches. It begins with the rough and ready character of John, who was dunking people in the river to signify that they had repented of their sins (1:2–8). It ends with the sombre scene of two men laying the crucified body of their leader in a tomb (15:42–47), soon after he had cried in despair that his God had abandoned him (15:34).

In the intervening period of time (unspecified in this account—although by tradition we talk about “the three years of Jesus’s ministry”) we have seen Jesus encounter people in need and people who had a vendetta against him. We have heard him debating the details of Torah requirements with other scripture interpreters, and berating them for their hardness of heart and their wilful ignoring of the commands of God. We have heard him condemn his own followers as having little faith, of being incapable of understanding him, of not comprehending even when he performs miracles in front of them.

We have heard, perhaps with horror, his interaction with a foreign woman from Syrophoenicia, in which he called her a dog, and then listened on as he went for the jugular with one of his closet followers, Peter, calling him “Satan”. We have listened to harsh words of condemnation, when he told another follower, John, that it would be better if he were thrown into the ocean than get in the way of Jesus’ mission.

Jesus in Mark’s gospel does not suffer fools gladly—in fact, he does not suffer them at all! At so many points, it seems that he just doesn’t have time for people who don’t get what he is on about. It is a wonder, is it not, that he managed to maintain a loyal following for the amount of time that he did!

And yet, woven throughout those same stories in this very work, there are moments of tender compassion and unlimited grace, incidents which show that Jesus had deep insight into the situation of others and that he was willing to go the second mile—and more—in order to attend to people in need.

He confronted evil spirits and cast them out of people who were possessed. He healed multitudes of people who were ill. He taught, patiently, provocatively, with insight into the ways of God. He provided dramatic pictures in word-form (parables, he called them) which drew simple comparisons to demonstrate the nature of the realm of God. He provided for those who were hungering, both physically and spiritually. He spent himself in word and deed, sought his God in prayer, continued incessantly on his journeying, and in the end, set his face towards the fate that he somehow seemed to sense was sliding its tentacles around his very being.

It is this Jesus, complex and multi-faceted, whom we encounter in the reading from Mark’s account, this Sunday (12:38–44). Jesus is in Jerusalem, the place where fate awaits him. He has been debating one opponent after another in the outer courtyard of the Temple: chief priests, scribes and elders; Pharisees and Herodians; Sadducees; and then another group of scribes (11:27–12:34).

Jesus bests many of these opponents; he ends this sequence of encounters with a typically harsh denunciation of the last group he was debating. “Beware of the scribes”, he is reported as saying; their pretentiousness and pomposity is evident, their condemnation awaits (12:38–40). The vulnerability of widows in the face of the power exuded by the scribes is evident, and Jesus calls them out for this,.

We hear these striking words in the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday. They come as a climactic concluding moment in the long stream of adversarial encounters, debates, disputes, and arguments that have taken place along the way, from his public announcement beside the Jordan, through the towns and villages of Galilee, on the road towards Jerusalem, in the city beside the Temple. A fitting finale, perhaps.

Yet this is not the final word. That final word, before we leave this Gospel for this year, belongs to another scene. A short, succinct, enigmatic scene. A scene in which Jesus utters no words of condemnation; by contrast, he offers affirmation, encouragement, and support for a poor widow (12:41–44).

It is a simple observation, a short reflection; not complex, not confronting, but a gently irenic end to a long sequence of interactions involving Jesus: healings and exorcisms, teaching by speaking sayings and telling stories in parables, engaging in public discussion and debate, as well as times of prayer and rest.

The widow was in the Temple; most likely in the Women’s Court of the Temple, just inside the structure, past the outdoors Court of the Gentiles. The widow was not in the Court of the Priests, where the actual liturgical processes of the Temple took place, for no females were allowed into that space. The “treasury” into which people were placing their money (12:41) refers most likely to the horn-shaped offering boxes in that courtyard.

By highlighting the widow, Jesus refers to the well-established strand within the legal and prophetic and strands of Hebrew Scriptures which underlined the importance of caring for widows, amongst others. According to Torah, the widow and the fatherless child were to included along with the sojourner in celebratory moments in Israel—when tithing (Deut 14:28–29), at the Feast of Weeks (16:9–12) and the Feast of Booths (16:13–15), when gleaning (24:19–22), and when tithing once more (26:12–13).

A widower’s brother was expected to marry a widow (Deut 25:5–10), for it was the duty of a widower’s kin to provide a widow with children if she didn’t have any. If it was not possible for a widow to remarry, it was the duty of the community to care for her (Exod 22:22–23; Deut 10:18; 24:17; Isa 1:17). The men harvesting fields were to leave a portion of the harvest behind to be gleaned and collected by the widows (Deut 24:18–21). Beyond the biblical period, in the Diaspora, a portion of the offering collected in the synagogues was be given to the widows and poor, on the analogy of the gleaning provision whilst living in the land.

The vulnerability of widows and the I,portable of providing for them is evident in many passages in the Hebrew Scriptures. Among the prophets, Isaiah proclaims God’s judgement on those who “turn aside the needy from justice … and rob the poor of my people”, including the way that they exploit the fatherless and widows (Isa 10:1–2).

Likewise, Ezekiel includes those who “have made many widows” in Israel amongst those who will experience the full force of God’s vengeance (Ezek 22, see verse 25). He observes that “the sojourner suffers extortion in your midst; the fatherless and the widow are wronged in you” (Ezek 22:7).

Jeremiah assures the people of Edom, to the south of Israel, of God’s care for them: “leave your fatherless children; I will keep them alive; and let your widows trust in me” (Jer 49:11). He encourages the people of Jerusalem with a promise that God will allow them to continue to dwell in their land if they “do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place … or go after other gods” (Jer 7:5–7).

In a later chapter, Jeremiah is instructed to tell the King of Judah, “do no wrong or violence to the resident alien, the fatherless, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place” (Jer 22:1–3). The prophet Zechariah speaks similarly: “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor, and let none of you devise evil against another in your heart” (Zech 7:10).

Accordingly, the people of Israel would regularly have sung, in the words of the psalmist, “the Lord watches over the sojourners; he upholds the widow and the fatherless, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin” (Ps 146:9). Care for widows was central to the life of holiness required amongst the covenant people. Jesus knows this commitment amongst his people, and holds firm to it.

Here in the Temple, observing the action of the widow, Jesus reinforces this central aspect of covenant life. It has been a strong thread, running through the narrative from earlier chapters. Jesus is calling the people around him to care for the weak and vulnerable among them. He has told his disciples to give up their lives (Mark 8:35) and to welcome children (9:37; 10:14–15).

He instructs men that it is wrong to abandon their wives onto the community to care for (10:5–9) and informs those in power that they ought not to abdicate their responsibility to care for the powerless (10:42–45). He criticises those who distort the functions of the Temple (11:15–17) and advises continuing adherence to the two central commandments of Torah (12:28–31).

Immediately before affirming the action of the widow, he condemns the scribes who seek public honour and yet act to “devour widow’s houses” (12:38–40)—a clear demonstration of the kind of hypocrisy that he previously criticised so vehemently (7:6; 12:5; and see the succinct saying of Matt 7:5 and Luke 6:52, and the long diatribe of Matt 23:13-31). It is a potent counterpoint: glory-seeking scribes and humbly serving widows; the one falling from a great height, the other being raised up in the estimation of Jesus.

In this scene, Jesus condemns those who would tell the weak and vulnerable to pull themselves up by their own boot straps. His words remind those in authority that their power comes with an obligation to use it for good. He provides the widow as a clear example of the kind of care that is needed. It is a message that contemporary society would do well to heed.

Love with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely (Deut 6 in Mark 12; Pentecost 23B)

In this week’s Gospel passage, Jesus engages with a teacher of the Law, discussing the priorities amongst the many laws that are to be found in the Torah scrolls (Mark 12:38–34). The discussion moves quickly to the words of the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4–5, as the first commandment to be identified as worthy of priority.

(There is a second commandment, from Leviticus 19, which isn’t in view in this post. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/26/love-god-love-neighbour-prioritising-the-law-mark-12-pentecost-23b/)

The exact wording used is interesting. The commandment is to love, with God as the one to be loved. In Deuteronomy, that love is to be manifest from the whole of the person. Most English translations render this commandment as “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (Deut 6:5).

The Hebrew word translated as heart is לֵבָב, lebab. It’s a common word in Hebrew Scripture, and is understood to refer to the mind, will, or heart of a person—words which seek to describe the essence of the person. It is sometimes described as referring to “the inner person”. The word appears 248 times in the scriptures, of which well over half (185) are translated as “heart”.

Many of those occurrences are in verses which contrast heart with flesh—that is, “the inner person” alongside “the outer person”. For example, the psalmists declare that “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Ps 73:26), and “my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Ps 84:2b), whilst the prophet Ezekiel refers to “foreigners, uncircumcised in heart and flesh” (Ezek 44:7,9). When used together, these two terms (heart and flesh) thus often refer to the whole person, the complete being.

The Hebrew word lebab, heart, is rendered by the Greek word, kardia, in Mark 12:30. That word can refer directly to the organ which circulates blood through the body; but it also has a sense of the central part of a being—which is variously rendered as will, character, understanding, mind, and even soul. These English translations are attempting to grasp the fundamental and all-encompassing. It seems that this correlates well with the Hebrew word lebab, which indicates the seat of all emotions for the person.

The second Hebrew word in the commandment articulated in Deut 6:4 is נֶפֶשׁ, nephesh. This is another common Hebrew word, appearing 688 times in Hebrew Scripture, of which the most common translation (238 times) is “soul”; the next most common translation is “life” (180 times). The word is thus a common descriptor for a human being, as a whole.

However, to use the English word “soul” to translate nephesh does it a disservice. We have become acclimatised to regarding the soul as but one part of the whole human being—that is the influence of dualistic Platonic thinking, where “body and soul” refer to the two complementary parts of a human being. In Hebrew, nephesh has a unified, whole-of-person reference, quite separate from the dualism that dominates a Greek way of thinking.

Nephesh appears a number of times in the first creation story in Hebrew scripture, where it refers to “living creatures” in the seas (Gen 1:20, 21), on the earth (Gen 1:24), and to “every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 1:30). It is found also in the second creation story, where it likewise describes how God formed a man from the dust of the earth and breathed the breath of life into him, and “the man became a living being (nephesh hayah)” (Gen 2:7). The claim that each living creature is a nephesh is reiterated in the Holiness Code (Lev 11:10, 46; 17:11).

The two words, nephesh and lebab, appear linked together many times. One psalmist exults, “my ‘heart’ is glad, and my ‘soul’ rejoices” (Ps 16:9a), whilst another psalmist laments, “how long must I bear pain in my ‘soul’, and have sorrow in my ‘heart’ all day long?” (Ps 13:2). Proverbs places these words in parallel in sayings such as “wisdom will come into your ‘heart’, and knowledge will be pleasant to your ‘soul’” (Prov 2:10), and “does not he who weighs the ‘heart’ perceive it? does not he who keeps watch over your ‘soul’ know it?” (Prov 24:12). In Deuteronomy itself, the combination of “heart and soul” appears a number of times (Deut 4:29; 10:12; 11:13, 18; 13:3; 26:16; 30:2, 6, 10), where it references the whole human being.

In each of these instances, rather than taking a dualistic Greek approach (seeing “heart” and “soul” as two separate components of a human being), we should adopt the integrated Hebraic understanding. Both “heart” and “soul” refer to the totality of a human being. The repetition is a typical Hebraic style, using two different words to refer to the same entity (the whole human being). The repetition underlines and emphasises the sense of totality of being.

The third Hebrew word to note in Deut 6:5 is מְאֹד, meod, which is usually translated as “might” or “strength”. Its basic sense in Hebrew is abundance or magnitude; it is often rendered as an adverb, as “very”, “greatly”, “exceedingly”, or as an adjective, “great”, “more”, “much”. The function of this word, “might” or “strength”, in Deut 6:5 is to reinforce the totality of being that is required to love God.

In light of this, we could, perhaps, paraphrase the command of Deuteronomy as love God with all that you are—heart and soul, completely and entirely. Love God with “your everythingness” (to coin a word). There’s a cumulative sense that builds as the commandment unfurls—love God with all your emotions, all your being, all of this, your entire being.

We find the same threefold pattern in the description of King Josiah, who reigned in the eighth century (640–609 BCE): “before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; nor did any like him arise after him” (2 Kings 23:25). Most often, however, it is used as an intensifier, attached directly to another term, providing what we today would do in our computer typing by underlining, italicising, and bolding a key word or phrase.

Rendering this Hebrew word in Greek—as the translators of the Septuagint did—means making a choice as to what Greek word best explicated the intensifying sense of the Hebrew word, meod. The LXX settled on the word δύναμις, usually translated as power (the word from which we get, in English, dynamic, and dynamite). Dynamis often has a sense of physical strength and capacity, and that resonates well with the sense of the Hebrew term as it is used in Deut 6:5. So the LXX has dynamis as the third element in the Shema commandment.

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What happens when we turn to the New Testament? Jesus refers to this commandment in his dialogue with the teacher of the Law. That conversation is reported in each of the three Synoptic Gospels. Comparing the wording of the commandment across those three synoptic accounts is illuminating.

Matthew seems to retain the greatest fidelity to the Jewish text, with a threefold formula, citing “heart, soul, and mind” (Matt 22:37). By contrast, Mark, the earlier Gospel, has chosen two words to render meod (dynamis), expanding the threefold formula to include a fourth element, “heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Mark 12:29). Luke, using Mark as one of his sources, reorders the final two elements to “heart, soul, strength, and mind” (Luke 10:27).

Curiously, none of the Gospels use the Septuagint’s choice (dynamis) for translating the Hebrew word meod into Greek. Perhaps this might be because, elsewhere in the texts of the New Testament, this word is reserved for describing a quality of God: “the power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), “the power of the Lord” (Luke 5:17), “the great power of God” (Acts 8:10), the good news which is “the power of God” (Rom 1:16), the message of the cross which is “the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18), that divine power which is extolled in heavenly hymns (Rev 7:12; 12:10; 19:1).

In place of dynamis, Mark’s version offers two different words, when compared with the Septuagint—ἰσχύος, and διανοίᾳ. The use of ischuos (usually translated as power or strength) seems closest to the intention of the LXX (dynamis), although the primary reference of ischuos is to brute physical strength. That relates to, but does not exactly correlate with, the sense of power in dynamis.

The second word chosen by Mark to render meod, the Greek term dianoia, appears also in Matthew’s account of the conversation. This is a word that refers to the mind. It is one of a number of Greek terms that refer to the rational element of the human being. Earlier dialects of Greek (prior to the Koine Greek of the first century CE) had two stem words to refer to mind: φρήν, plural φρένες, and νοῦς, from which the compound dianoia is formed.

According to Pythagoras, phrēn was a mental activity that he considered to be one of the intellectual capacities that constitute the soul (psychē), along with nous (mind) and thumos (passion). Nous was the overarching organising principle of the mind; it came to refer to the full range of rational functions—perceiving, understanding, feeling, judging, and determining. The addition of the prefix dia-, to form dianoia, intensifies the sense of understanding in an intellectual way.

So it is striking to note this Greek influence, focussing on the importance of the mind, the reasoning component of humanity—even at the very early stages of the formation of the traditions about Jesus, even prior to these two early written accounts. The author of the earliest Gospel (unknown to us; designated as Mark in the developing patristic traditions) writes an account about the Jewish man, Jesus, and his Jewish followers, that is already oriented towards Gentiles. His way of reporting the words of the man from Nazareth is already influenced by Greek notions (dianoia in place of dynamis).

But then, in Mark’s account—and only in Mark’s account—the scribe responds, affirming what Jesus has said (Mark 12:32) and paraphrasing him back (12:33)—although he reverts to a threefold formula, repeating kardia and ischuos, omitting psychē, and replacing dianoia with another Greek word for the activity of the mind, σύνεσιν (synesin). What is the force of this substitution? This would seem to underline the focus that is evident, already, in Mark’s use of the term dianoia. Both words (dianoia and synesin) emphasise the activity of the mind in the process of the loving that is commanded.

Mark’s decision to orient the commandment towards the actions of the mind (using synesin) is followed by Matthew, writing not much after Mark’s account had begun to be circulated. And Matthew’s reversion to three terms, instead of Mark’s expanded fourfold statement, reflects stronger awareness of the Deuteronomy text.

Paradoxically, Mark’s account of the response to Jesus offered by the thoroughly Jewish scribe, teacher of Torah, intensifies the Greek influence (synesin in place of psychē and dianoia). We have a pointer to the growing attraction towards the Jesus movement amongst Gentiles, even in this early, pre-written stage of the Gospel tradition. His Jewish words, and the Jewish words of his scribal conversation partner, are already being transferred into Greek conceptual terms by the time the earliest two Gospels are written.

By contrast, the later Jewish text, the Targum Jonathan on Deuteronomy (written in Aramaic) renders the command of Deut 6:5 as “Mosheh the prophet said to the people of the house of Israel, Follow after the true worship of your fathers, that you may love the Lord your God with each disposition of your hearts, and also that He may accept your souls, and the (dedicated) service of all your wealth”.

Wealth! That is a surprise! This version heads in yet another direction, taking meod as a reference to the capacity that a person has in life by virtue of the possessions and physical resources that they have at their disposal. An interesting direction to take!

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In preparing this blog, I have made use of a number of resources: the Greek New Testament UBS 4th edition; Rahlfs’ Septuaginta; Strong’s Concordance; the Hebrew Bible Interlinear; Aland’s Synopsis Quattro Evangeliorum; Targum Jonathan; and Brown, Driver, and Briggs’ Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Thanks also to Elizabeth, Elise, and Andrew, for a stimulating discussion on this topic.

Love God, love neighbour: prioritising the Law (Mark 12; Pentecost 23B)

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Deuteronomy 6:5). “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:8). These two commandments are cited in a story about Jesus engaging in a discussion with a scribe, a teacher of the Law, which ends with Jesus saying, “there is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). We hear this story in our Gospel reading for worship this coming Sunday (12:28–34).

Of course, Jesus hasn’t answered the question precisely in the terms that it was asked; he doesn’t indicate what is “the first” commandment, but which two are “greatest”. It’s like a dead heat in an Olympic race: a race when even a finely-tuned system can’t differentiate between the two winners, even down to one thousandth of a second. Both love of God and love of neighbour are equally important. Joint winners!

Both commands are biblical commands, found within the foundational books of scripture within Judaism. They were texts that Jewish people, such as Jesus and his earliest followers would have known very well. Each command appears in a significant place within the books of Torah, the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures.

The command to “love God” sits at the head of a long section in Deuteronomy, which reports a speech by Moses allegedly given to the people of Israel (Deut 5:1–26:19). The speech rehearses many of the laws that are reported in Exodus and Leviticus, framing them in terms of the repeated phrases, “the statutes and ordinances for you to observe” (4:1,5,14; 5:1; 6:1; 12:1; 26:16–17), “the statutes and ordinances that the Lord your God has commanded you” (6:20; 7:11; 8:11).

After proclaiming the Ten Commandments which God gave to Israel through Moses (Deut 5:1–21; cf. Exod 20:1–17) and rehearsing the scene on Mount Sinai and amongst the people below (5:22–33; cf. Exod 19:1–25; 20:18–21). Moses then delivers the word which sits at the head of all that follows: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart” (Deut 6:4–6). This, it would seem, is the key commandment amongst all the statutes and ordinances.

These words are known in Jewish tradition as the Shema, a Hebrew word literally meaning “hear” or “listen”. It’s the first word in this key commandment; and more broadly than simply “hear” or “listen”, it caries a sense of “obey”. These words are important to Jews as the daily prayer, to be prayed twice a day—in keeping with the instruction to recite them “when you lie down and when you rise” (Deut 6:7). As these daily words, “love the Lord your God” with all of your being are said, they reinforce the centrality of God and the importance of commitment to God within the covenant people.

See further discussion of the way that this commandment appears in the Synoptic Gospels at https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/26/love-with-all-that-you-are-heart-and-soul-completely-and-entirely-deut-6-in-mark-12-pentecost-23b/

The command to “love your neighbour” in Leviticus 19 culminates a series of instructions regarding the way a person is to relate to their neighbours: “you shall not defraud your neighbour … with justice you shall judge your neighbour … you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbour … you shall not reprove your neighbour … you shall love your neighbour” (Lev 19:13–18).

These instructions sit within the section of the book which is often called The Holiness Code—a section which emphasises the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7, 26). Being holy means treating others with respect. Loving your neighbour is a clear manifestation of that ethos. Loving your neighbour exemplifies the way to be a faithful person in covenant relationship with God.

So it is for very good reasons that Jesus extracts these two particular commandments from amongst the 613 commandments that are to be found within the pages of the Torah. (The rabbis counted them all up—there are 248 “positive commandments”, giving instructions to perform a particular act, and 365 “negative commandments”, requiring people to abstain from certain acts.)

Jesus, of course, was a Jew, instructed in the way of Torah. He knew his scriptures—he argued intensely with the teachers of the Law over a number of different issues. He frequented the synagogue, read from the scroll, prayed to God, and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and into the Temple—where, once again, he offered a critique of the practices that were taking place in the courtyard of the Temple (11:15–17).

Then he engaged in debate and disputation with scribes and priests (11:27), Pharisees and Herodians (12:13), and Sadducees (12:18). Each of those groups came to Jesus with a trick question, which they expected would trap Jesus (12:13). Jesus inevitably bests them with his responses (11:33; 12:12, 17, 27). It was at this point that the particular scribe in our passage approached Jesus, perhaps intending to set yet another trap for him (12:28).

So Jesus, good Jew that he was, is well able to reach into his knowledge of Torah in his answer to the scribe. The commandments that he selects have been chosen with a purpose. They contain the essence of the Torah. His answer draws forth the agreement of the scribe—there will be no robust debate now! In fact, in affirming Jesus, the scribe reflects the prophetic perspective, that keeping the covenant in daily life is more important that following the liturgical rituals of sacrifice in the Temple (see Amos 5:21–24; Micah 6:6–8; Isaiah 1:10–17).

The scene is similar to a Jewish tale that is reported in the Babylonian Talmud, a 6th century CE work. In Shabbat 31a, within a tractate on the sabbath, we read: “It happened that a certain non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, ‘Make me a convert, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.’ Thereupon he repulsed him with the builder’s cubit that was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, ‘What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary; go and learn it.’”

Carl Schleicher (1825–1903)
“A Discussion of the Talmud”

Hillel, of course, had provided the enquiring convert, not with one of the 613 commandments, but with one that summarised the intent of many of those commandments. We know it as the Golden Rule, and it appears in the Synoptic Gospels as a teaching of Jesus (Matt 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Some Jewish teachers claim that the full text of Lev 19:18 is actually an expression of this rule: “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the LORD.” Later Jewish writings closer to the time of Jesus reflect the Golden Rule in its negative form: “do to no one what you yourself dislike” (Tobit 4:15), and “recognise that your neighbour feels as you do, and keep in mind your own dislikes” (Sirach 31:15).

Paul clearly knows the command to love neighbours, for he quotes it to the Galatians: “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:14), and James also cites it: “you do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’” (James 2:8). Both writers reflect the fact that this was an instruction that stuck in people’s minds!

And I wonder … perhaps there’s a hint, in these two letters, that the greater of these two equally-important commandments is actually the instruction to “love your neighbour”?

Seeing and believing as Jesus passes by (Mark 10; Pentecost 22B)

The man sits on the ground, beside the road leading into Jericho. Sensing what was happening, who was passing by, what was being spoken about; unable to use his eyes, he was undoubtedly attentive through his listening ears, through the sounds he could hear, as well as the fragrances he could smell. Because of this, he knew the identity of the person passing by, so he calls out with confidence, “Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47).

Jesus pauses, engages with the man, and responds to his plea. “Go; your faith has made you well” (10:52). The man, all of a sudden, could see; all was clear, so he took his place among those following Jesus on the way (10:52).

The scene is familiar. Some chapters earlier, in Bethsaida, another blind man also engages with Jesus; and Jesus heals the man. “He saw everything clearly” (8:25), just as the second man “immediately regained his sight” (10:52). Yet the two scenes are remarkably different. The first man healed is not named; whilst the man outside Jericho is identified as Bartimaeus (10:46).

The unnamed man is brought to Jesus by some friends, begging Jesus to heal him (8:22). By contrast, the later man is initially is hindered from engaging with Jesus by the crowd, demanding that he remain silent (10:48). And whilst the restoration of sight takes place immediately in the Jericho scene (10:52), in the Bethsaida scene it takes two attempts by Jesus before the man can see.

First, Jesus performs the actions of a traditional healer, placing saliva on his eyes and touching him (8:23; on the traditional healing practices of the time, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/in-the-most-unlikely-way-touching-the-untouchable-john-9/). After that, because the man can only see imperfectly, Jesus touches his eyes for a second time; after this, the man can see clearly (8:25).

A number of interpreters have commented on the similarities and contrasts in these two scenes. They provide, it is felt, bookends to the important central section of this earliest Gospel (8:27–10:45). There are some key events that take place within these two bookends.

First, there is Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29). This is one of the high moments at the mid-point of the whole narrative of this work. It serves to remind the readers what was already declared to them at the very start of the gospel: that it was about the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God (1:1).

The other key moment in this section comes almost immediately after Peter’s confession: the scene of Transfiguration (9:2). This takes place on the top of a mountain, a traditional place for encountering the divine in Israelite stories (think Moses on Mount Sinai, Solomon’s Temple on Mount Zion, the vision of the prophet Isaiah that all the nations would stream to Mount Zion, and the place where Matthew locates the teaching of Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount”).

This key mountaintop moment contains the words from the heavens about Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (9:7). These words link back to the initial baptism of Jesus, when the same words were heard (1:11) and forward to the final scene of crucifixion, when a centurion at the foot of the cross witnesses Jesus’ death, and declares, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” (15:39). All three scenes contain the foundational statement, recognising Jesus as Son of God, reiterating the other important element in the opening verse (1:1).

There are other significant components within this central section of the Gospel. Three times, Jesus makes clear predictions of what lies in store for him in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This triple passion prediction is actually the central spine of the whole narrative. The cross is the climax of the story; the road to the death of Jesus has been in view since early in the narrative, when “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him” (3:6). From that moment onwards, the likelihood that Jesus would be caught and dealt with was strong.

Finally, after each one of these predictions of his fate, Jesus provides clear and direct teachings about the cost of discipleship. We hear “take up your cross” and “lose your life” in the first set of teachings (8:34–9:1). “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” is spoken in the second set of teachings (9:33–37), followed by guidance about taking care of “the little ones” (9:38–50).

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” is uttered in the third set of teachings (10:35–45), an expanded saying with synonymous parallelism reflecting back to the earlier teachings. And the final set of teachings ends with a clear statement about the role of the Son of Man as the model and the means of redemption for his followers (10:45).

So this story of Jesus, blind Bartimaeus, and the crowd in Jericho (10:46–52) brings to a close a rich and deeply significant sequence of scenes, which began back in Bethsaida with Jesus, an unnamed blind man, and the crowd in that town (8:22–26). The two outer scenes provide a carefully-crafted literary framing for the central sequence of scenes.

The symbolism is significant: two scenes with people unable to see, reaching out to Jesus, experience the piercing light after their years of blindness—these two scenes surround the confession of Jesus as Messiah and his transfiguration, the three predictions of what lies in store for him in Jerusalem, and the three blocks of teaching about the way of discipleship.

What was not able to be seen, is now made manifest. What was hidden, incomprehensible, is now revealed. For the disciples, there can be no excuse, and no turning back. Jesus no longer will ask, “do you not understand?” (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32), for understanding has been provided. The pathway is set. The way of discipleship is clear. As Bartimaeus joins with the disciples to follow Jesus on that way, so we who hear the story are invited also to “follow him on the way”.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/13/not-to-be-served-but-to-serve-the-model-provided-by-jesus-mark-10-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/10/14/a-ransom-for-many-a-hint-of-atonement-theology-mark-10-pentecost-21b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/21/giving-priority-to-one-of-these-little-ones-mark-9-pentecost-18b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/28/boundary-lines-and-the-kingdom-of-god-mark-9-10-pentecost-18b-to-20b/

https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/06/the-paradoxes-of-discipleship-mark-8-pentecost-16b/

A ransom for many: a hint of atonement theology? (Mark 10; Pentecost 21B)

When Jesus instructed his followers to tread the pathway of humility and submission (Mark 8:34–38; 9:35–37; 10:38–44)—the same pathway that he himself has been following as he walks towards Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31: 10:32–34)—he speaks about laying down his own life, just as he urges his followers to lay down their lives (10:45). This has been a regular refrain throughout his teachings. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/21/giving-priority-to-one-of-these-little-ones-mark-9-pentecost-18b/

However, in this particular saying, Jesus indicates that the laying-down of his life is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). Each word needs some exploration.

Ransom is a term that we associate with the forced kidnapping of a person and the demand for a payment in order for them to be released. This is not the way the term is used in biblical texts, where payment in return for release of a captive is not in view. Rather, the orientation is towards the idea that there is a significant cost involved in the process of ransoming.

The Greek word used in Mark 10:45, lutron, comes from a verb, lutrein, which means “to release”. It was a common term for the payment needed to secure the release of slaves, debtors, and prisoners of war. The noun, translated as ransom, occurs in the Septuagint. It identifies the price paid to redeem a slave or captive (Lev 25:51–52) or a firstborn (Num 18:15). It also indicates the price to be paid as recompense for a crime (Num 35:31–32) or injury (Exodus 21:30). In these instances, it translates the Hebrew word kipper, which has the basic meaning of “covering”, from the root word koper.

Another form of the word koper appears in the name of the Great High Holy Day in Judaism—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (see Lev 16:1–34; Num 29:7–11). On that day, as the cloud of incense covers the mercy seat (kapporeth, Lev 16:13), the mercy seat is smeared with the blood of the sacrificed bull (16:14) and then the blood of the goat which provides the sin offering (16:15). According to Leviticus, it is these actions which “shall make atonement (kipper) for the sanctuary, because of the uncleannesses of the people of Israel, and because of their transgressions, all their sins” (16:16).

The process of atonement in the Israelite religion was to cover up, to hide away from view, the sins of the people. This is developed to some degree in the fourth Servant Song of Deutero-Isaiah, when the prophet honours the servant because “he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). His life was understood as “an offering for sin” (53:10) which “shall make many righteous” (53:11).

Indeed, as the Song ends, it affirms that “he bore the sin of many” (53:12). The Song resonates with the language and imagery of righteous suffering as the means of dealing with, and perhaps atoning for, sins. In addition, it indicates that this function deals with “the iniquity of us all” (53:6), and through his role, “he shall make many righteous” (53:11); “he bore the sin of many” (53:12).

The notion of one atoning for many is further expounded in a later text which provides an account of the way that a righteous man, Eleazar, was martyred during the time of upheaval under Antiochus Epiphanes (175–167 BCE). The death of Eleazar was understood as a ransom; “be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them”, he prays; “make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (4 Macc 6:28–29).

The Greek for “my life in exchange for”, antilutron, is a compound word, joining the same preposition anti and the same noun lutron which we find in Mark 10:45. The preposition clearly denotes a process of exchange, in which one person performs an action on behalf of, or in the place of, another. That notion feeds into a theory of atonement known as substitutionary atonement—that one person (Jesus) stood in place of many people (humanity). However, this isn’t a strong motif in either the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah or in New Testament passages.

However, there has been debate with regard to the word “many” in both the saying of Jesus, and the Servant Song of Isaiah. Does this refer, quite literally, to lots and lots of people, or does it refer to every human being? The way that “many” appears in the Servant Song (Isa 52:14–15; 53:11–12) places it in parallel with “all” (Isa 53:6). Here, the “many” quite clearly has a universal reference, to all human beings.

The interchanging of “many” with “all” can be seen, also, in Paul’s discussion of Jesus and Adam, where “all” (Rom 5:12, 18) and “many” (Rom 5:15, 19) have the same point of reference—the totality of humanity. Indeed, this is consistent with the overall argument running throughout Romans, where the Gospel is a universal good news of righteous-justice for all. (See https://johntsquires.com/2020/07/11/the-righteous-justice-of-god-a-gift-to-all-humanity-romans/) The same universal scope, by analogy from Isa 53 and Rom 5, is applicable to the words of Jesus in Mark 10:45.

In another later Jewish text, Philo of Alexandria observes that “every wise man is a ransom for a worthless one” (Sacrifices of Abel and Cain 121). The idea of an act of one person which serves as a ransom for another then appears in New Testament texts which describe the effect of the death of Jesus for those who have placed their trust in him. Paul uses ransom language tells the saints that they were “bought with a price” (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).

Paul also uses apolutrosis, a compound word but from the base word lutrein, to describe the redemption which was accomplished by Jesus, both in a formulaic way (1 Cor 1:30) and in a more discursive manner (Rom 3:24; 8:23). The term recurs in later letters which likely were not written by Paul (Col 1:14; Eph 1:7, 14; 4:30), as well as in the Lukan redaction of the final eschatological speech of Jesus (Luke 21:28).

In another later letter attributed to Paul, most likely written by one of his students, we read of “one mediator between God and humans, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim 2:6), using the term lutron. In another later work providing guidance an account of Paul by an author at some remove from him, the book of Acts, Paul was said to have declared of the church that God “obtained [it] with the blood of his own Son” (Acts 20:28).

At the start of the book of Revelation, Jesus is identified as “the one who loves us and released us from our sins” (Rev 1:5). The verb translated “released” or “freed” in English versions is the participle lusanti, from the root verb luō, which is cognate with the noun lutron, meaning ransom.

It was the combination of such passages that led the third century scholar, Origen of Alexandria to develop an idiosyncratic theory of the atonement (the way that Jesus enables God to deal with human sinfulness). Origen’s ransom theory of atonement reads Genesis 3 as an account of Adam and Eve being taken captive by Satan; this state was then inherited by all human beings. The death of Jesus is what enables all humans to be saved; the means for this was that the blood shed by Jesus was the price paid to Satan to ransom humanity (or, in a variant form, a ransom paid by Jesus to God to secure our release).

However, none of these texts—and particularly not Mark 10:45—require this overarching theological superstructure to make sense of what they say. Origen’s ransom theory held sway for some centuries, but was definitively rejected by the medieval scholar Anselm of Canterbury. It is not a favoured theory of atonement in much of the contemporary church (though it is still advocated in various fundamentalist backwaters). Certainly, none of this should be attributed to the saying of Jesus in Mark 10:45. It is far more likely that he is drawing on the Jewish tradition of the righteous sufferer in his words.

*****

To explore the concept of atonement further, there is a very helpful study at https://www.turramurrauniting.org.au/aceaster/ace2main/ace2conv1/ and a clear summary of the seven main theories of atonement at https://www.sdmorrison.org/7-theories-of-the-atonement-summarized/

There is an abridged historical survey at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/history-theories-atonement/ and another helpful assessment of various theories at https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2018/29-march/features/features/is-there-one-doctrine-of-the-atonement-ransom-substitute-scapegoat-god

Not to be served, but to serve: the model provided by Jesus (Mark 10; Pentecost 21B)

“The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:35-45). So Jesus instructs his followers, after a bruising encounter with James and John, two of the leading followers of Jesus (10:35-40) which enraged the rest of the disciples (10:42).

The dispute was over status; James and John wanted to claim the places next to Jesus: “one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). This was not unusual in the world of that time (indeed, this is still the case in our own times). Public debate that was intended to best the other person was common in ancient Mediterranean societies. Seeking greater honour (higher status) by getting the upper hand, or the last word, in public debate, was common.

In an honour—shame society, such as that in which Jesus, James, and John lived, the culture was characterised by a constant and ongoing “challenge—riposte,” enacted in the public arena. Jesus engaged in such challenges on a regular basis; see the disputations of 2:1-3:6, early in Jesus’s time in Galilee, and later in Jerusalem, in 11:27-12:34.

Such challenge—riposte encounters typically involved the challenger setting forth a claim, through either words or actions; a response to the challenge by the persons who was challenged; then, after further back-and-forth amongst the participants, once the challenge and riposte has run its course, the verdict is declared by the public who was watching the encounter. (See a clear description of this process, as it applies in Mark 11:27–12:34, using the analysis of Jerome Neyrey and Bruce Malina, at https://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/43/43-2/43-2-pp213-228_JETS.pdf)

At this moment, Jesus critiques the common process of public disputation; he distances himself from the common cultural practice of seeking honour and working for a higher status. Those who lord it over others, who act as tyrants, are not to be the role models for his followers; “it is not so among you; but 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). Indeed, Jesus rubs salt into the wound by inferring that James and John were acting like Gentiles (10:52). That was an insult, to be sure, for good Jews (see the sayings attributed the Jesus at Matt 5:47; 6:7, 32).

This was the third time, after demonstrating their misunderstanding of what Jesus was teaching, that his disciples were directly rebuked for their attitude. First, Peter represents the disciples’ lack of clarity about Jesus (8:27–38); then a number of the disciples arguing about being great, and John fails to welcome the activity of a person casting out demons (9:33–48); and now, James and John demonstrate their continued inability to understand the attitude of Jesus towards status (10:35–40).

At least in this last scene, the other ten disciples are angry about what James and John have asked for (10:41). Far too often, on earlier occasions, Jesus has lamented that the disciples failed to understand (4:22, 13; 6:52; 7:18: 8:17, 21; 9:32). It seems that finally, at this moment, things had fallen into place for the disciples. (Or were they simply annoyed at the way the brothers promoted their own interests over the hopes of the other disciples?)

On each of those three occasions of misunderstanding, Jesus responds by correcting the inadequacies displayed by his followers: he refers to the fate that is in store for him in Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31: 10:32–34), and then he indicates that his followers must tread that same pathway of humility and submission (8:34–38; 9:35–37; 10:38–44). See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/28/boundary-lines-and-the-kingdom-of-god-mark-9-10-pentecost-18b-to-20b/

On this occasion, Jesus goes one step further. His own life—or, more precisely, the laying-down of his own life—is to be seen, not just as the model for his followers to emulate, but as “a ransom for many” (10:45). There are important observations to make about this short statement. Those matters will be the focus of a subsequent blog post.

Boundary lines and the kingdom of God (Mark 9–10; Pentecost 18B to 20B)

Last week (Pentecost 18) we heard a Gospel passage in which Jesus affirmed that “whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40). He refused to draw strong and clear boundaries around his “inner group” simply on the basis of explicit identification with him—rather, he affirmed that it is the actions of people that define where people are to be placed in relation to him. Deeds, not words, define the followers of Jesus.

That line of argument would be take up by his brother, James, in his “letter” affirming that “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26), and by another follower (by radiation, the evangelist Matthew), who quoted him as saying, “not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). It is a strong theme in the testimony to Jesus in Christian scripture: actions, not words, define allegiance to Jesus.

This week (Pentecost 19), we hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus becomes indignant with his closest followers, rebuking them for hindering children from gaining access to him. In contrast to the attempts of the disciples to keep the children at a distance, Jesus drew children close to himself and blessed them, saying, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). The boundary line which Jesus draws is clearly not based on age. The ability to articulate a complex theological affirmation is not the key criterion. Rather, it seems that a willingness to search out Jesus, a desire to be with him, is the key criterion.

Jesus has already affirmed the central significance of a child in his consideration of this issue. Mark notes that “he took a little child and put it among them” (9:36), speaking the very clear affirmation that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (9:37). Still earlier, Jesus had placed the health of a child at the centre of his focus, when approached by a synagogue leader, who pleads with Jesus, “my little daughter is at the point of death; come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live” (5:23).

We have noted that the child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power, in the society of the day; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me” (9:37). Welcoming the child is a clear manifestation of the paradox that lies at the heart of the Gospel. Jesus is the one who will walk resolutely towards death (8:31: 9:31: 10:34), becoming “the slave of all” (10:44) who will “give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

Those who follow Jesus on this pathways will need to take up their crosses (8:34), lose their lives (8:35), be “last of all and servant of all” (9:35), “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” (10:15), sell all that they possess (10:21), leave their families (10:29), and become “last of all” (10:31). (See https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/06/the-paradoxes-of-discipleship-mark-8-pentecost-16b/)

Next week (Pentecost 20), we will hear a Gospel passage in which Jesus sadly informs a man of means who prides himself on keeping all the commandments, that still “you lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21). The man left, shocked and grieving; he could not do what Jesus instructed. Jesus here draws the line of belonging or being alienated from him on the basis of whether a person is able to implement radical actions of obedience.

We have seen the way that the author of this account of Jesus (by tradition, Mark the evangelist) redraws the boundaries of the people of God, by his actions in relating to people in need (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/24/on-not-stereotyping-judaism-when-reading-the-gospels-mark-5-pentecost-5b/) and by the geography that he traverses, as he edges outside of the land of Israel (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/24/stretching-the-boundaries-of-the-people-of-god-mark-7-pentecost-14b-15b/).

We have also seen that it was the courageous rhetorical challenging of Jesus by a Gentile woman which provoked him to be absolutely clear about this more inclusive boundary (see https://johntsquires.com/2021/09/02/on-jesus-and-justa-tyre-and-decapolis-mark-7-pentecost-15b/) And again, in this incident, it is the health of a young child which draws action from Jesus (7:26, 29).

The passages in our current stream of lectionary readings reinforce the perspective already developed in these earlier sections of the Gospel (chapters 5 to 10). Jesus is not an exclusivist, drawing hard boundary lines close around his group. He is an inclusivist, looking to welcome those from beyond the traditional inner group, inviting in those on the fringe or outside this conventional group.

That’s the consistent message about Jesus in the stories that we read through the central chapters of this account. It’s the consistent theme that followers of Jesus in the 21st century need to ensure are the key markers of the Christian church today.