Giving priority to “one of these little ones” (Mark 9; Pentecost 18B)

Two weeks ago, we read and heard the passage where Jesus berated Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (8:33). Jesus went on to teach about the need for those who follow him to take up their cross and lay down their lives (8:34–37). The hubris that Peter demonstrated, when he rebuked Jesus for what he was teaching, is met head-on by Jesus. He rebukes Peter for his focus on “human things”.

The nature of those “human things” is made clear in the passage that we read and heard last Sunday. “What were you arguing about on the way?”, Jesus asks his followers (9:33). No answer comes; those followers of Jesus were shamed into silence “for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest” (9:34). Arguing about who is the greatest is a clear manifestation of a focus on “human things”. It’s what human beings do, all too often–we see it demonstrated in our politics, in domestic violence, in sexual assaults, and in the constant stream of uprisings, civil wars, and international wars that are never-ending.

Jesus has been with his followers since the start of his public campaign in Galilee (1:14). By this point in his time with these followers, Jesus no time left for such matters. He teaches them here, as he has already done in the previous passage, about what lies in store for himself as he heads towards Jerusalem—betrayal, and death (9:31; see also 8:31). These are the heart of the “divine things” that he has encouraged his followers to set their minds on. Jesus is resolutely fixed on what is important to God, not what is the focus of humans.

The story we read and heard this coming Sunday (9:38–50) contains further insights into this distinction. The disciples want to exercise their authority by forbidding an unknown person from casting out demons from those possessed by them. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us”, the disciples report (9:38), expecting to be congratulated by Jesus. (Did you notice the pronoun: following US!!)

But their expectations fall flat. Jesus, once again, rebukes his followers: “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me” (9:39).

Such manifestation of authority will receive a further rebuke from Jesus yet again, at a later point in the story that is being told in this Gospel. Returning to the theme of authority, two of his followers petition Jesus: “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory” (10:37). Jesus gives them short shrift: “You do not know what you are asking” (10:38). By this time, surely, he must have been seething with frustration—will they never understand? “Do you not understand?” Is a question that Jesus has already posed to his followers, no less than four times previously (4:13; 7:18; 8:17; 8:21).

Three times, in chapters 8–10, Jesus rebukes his followers. Three times, they have acted in ways that indicate their fixation is on authority, prestige, power. Three times, Jesus has responded with a clear explanation. Each time, as they journey southwards towards Jerusalem, he recounts what will take place to “the Son of Man”; a prophetic circumlocution for describing oneself (Ezek 2:1, 3, 6, 8, 3:1, 3, 4, 10, etc). Each time, the fundamental purpose of his mission is explained in short, staccato phrases.

That purpose, and the fate that lies in store for Jesus in Jerusalem, is that he will “undergo great suffering, and be rejected … and be killed” (8:31); there, he “is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (9:31); there, he will be “condemned to death; handed over to Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him” (10:33–34). The end in view is surely sobering, cautionary, worrying, for those who follow with him. Yet each time, they revert to a focus on authority—“human things”.

This threefold description of the imminent fate of Jesus, increasing in detail at each restatement, provides an intense focus on the journey ahead. Jesus will arrive in Jerusalem (11:11) with a cohort of followers who have repeatedly failed to understand that, instead of a focus on their own authority, leading to a seat in glory, they are in company with the one who will take up his cross (8:34), lose his life (8:35), “be last of all and servant of all” (9:35), and ultimately be the slave of all (10:44). “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (10:45).

This final, definitive affirmation of his role comes after the three instances of the misguided orientation of his followers, and the three corrective teachings offered by Jesus (8:31; 9:31; 10:32–34). This sequence is surrounded by two stories of healing, symbolising the need for the followers of Jesus to open their eyes and see the reality of Jesus. In Bethsaida, a blind man seeks healing from Jesus (8:22–26). In Jericho, blind Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus for mercy (10: 46–52). The two healings clearly symbolise the need for the followers of Jesus themselves to open their eyes to see Jesus.

Despite their physical blindness, these two men have a deeper sense of the presence of Jesus as he passes by, and reach out in hope. Yet those travelling along with Jesus are impervious to what he offers, and blind to the fate that Jesus is walking towards. The irony, the penetrating incongruity, of these juxtapositions, is searing.

It is within this context that the story of the unidentified exorcist (9:38–41) is to be understood. Indeed, the sense of irony is clearly present in this story. The ministry of Jesus has incorporated the casting out of demons alongside his teaching, preaching, and healing. “Proclaiming the message and casting out demons” is how the activities of Jesus have been characterised from the start of his public activity (1:39).

In fact, the casting out of demons was integral to the charge that Jesus had given his followers earlier in their time with him: “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). And these very activities had formed 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).

So there may be some sense of self-assured certainty when they report to Jesus that “we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us” (9:38). (Yes—notice the pronoun: following US! Not Jesus—but US.) But were they not aware that Jesus was not interested in this claim to authoritative ownership of the franchise of “casting out demons”? The irony, surely, is that Jesus is more interested in the wellbeing of the person possessed, than in the delegated authority of his followers as the ones who should rightly cast out the demon.

Those following Jesus have heard his teachings explaining that his focus is on the cross, losing your life, becoming a servant, drinking the cup of suffering, and being the servant of all who “gives his life as a ransom for many” (10:45). Yet they have not understood. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”, he has just informed them (9:35). Yet they act as if they can continue to be first, lord over all. So again he will need to underscore his views: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (10:43), “whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:44).

The irony is intensified by the placement of this incident involving the unidentified exorcist immediately after the previous parable-in-action, in which Jesus took a child into his arms, and declared, “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). A child was a person with no authority, no status, no prestige or power; yet the low-status, not-important child is the exemplar, not only of Jesus, but of God, “the one who sent me”.

So Jesus teaches that how “one of these little ones” is treated, is the benchmark of faithfully following in his way (9:42–48). Not the one with authority, power, glory. But the “little one”, the child. In his characteristic parabolic-hyperbolic style, Jesus instructs his followers to respect “one of these little ones” by cutting off their hands, cutting off their feet, tearing out their eyes, placing the millstone around their necks and drown in the sea of they cause “one of these little one” to stumble. These are hyperbolic exaggerations, of course, about the importance of respecting, caring for, and prioritising “ one of these little ones” (9:42–48)—not literal instructions!

(**Caution: Do not try this at home. Do not take these words literally. But learn the lesson that they teach.)

In this passage, as we hear it this Sunday, the irony is intense. It is the child, the little one, the unidentified exorcist, who has priority, in the eyes of Jesus, ahead of those who seek authority, status, power, glory. The challenge is clear. The word is proclaimed. The Gospel is enacted. The way of the cross awaits …

The paradoxes of discipleship (Mark 8; Pentecost 16B)

The section of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one that is offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 8:27–38) contains two striking paradoxes.

It reports the paradox that the fundamental identity of Jesus was recognised by Peter—followed by a command silencing Peter from telling anyone else about this. It also includes the paradox that Jesus anticipates the public shaming that he will experience on the cross—followed by his call to his followers, to take up the cross themselves. Each paradox invites considered reflection.

The first paradox: the silence about the central identity of Jesus

Mark reports that Jesus asked his followers, “who do you say that I am?”; to which Peter answered, “You are the Messiah” (8:29). The identification of Jesus as Messiah (or Christ) is central to this book. (Messiah is from the Hebrew word to anoint; Christ is from the Greek word with the same meaning.) This identification appears in the very first sentence of the work, in what may well be regarded as the title of the book: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God” (1:1).

The identity of Jesus continues as a motif running through this Gospel. It 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 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).

The question of the identity of Jesus is posed once again in the trial of Jesus before the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem. Mark reports that the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”, to which Jesus replied, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:61–62).

And at the midpoint of the Gospel narrative, at the central climactic moment of conversation at Caesarea Philippi, the question is put by Jesus to his followers. The question posed by Jesus comes at the high point in his public ministry—just before he is transfigured, before he makes his fateful decision to turn towards Jerusalem, in the Synoptics.

The scene is located at Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of Mount Herman, to the northeast of the Sea of Galilee, in the Tetrarchy of Philip. It was the northernmost point in ancient Israel (in modern terms, it is in the Golan Heights, the Israeli-occupied territory overlooking Syria). It is as if the story needs to take us to the very edge to hear the clarifying conversation about Jesus.

And in this clarifying conversation, Peter goes to the heart of who Jesus is. Not simply one of the prophets—although he clearly stands in the tradition of the prophets. Not Elijah, the one charged with preparing the way for the Messiah, the anointed one, specifically chosen by God amongst all of humanity. Rather, it is Jesus himself who is that chosen, anointed one.

Peter has identified him accurately; Jesus is the Messiah. Yet immediately we hear the paradoxical note that Jesus “strictly charged them to tell no one about him” (8:30).

Yet, it is a striking fact that, in this gospel, Jesus never himself claims that he is the Christ. (The irony, of course, is that the term used to describe the followers of Jesus throughout the centuries, Christian, is based precisely on the claim that Jesus is the Christ.)

The closest Jesus gets to this self-identification is his clipped response to the question put to him by the chief priest, when he is asked, “are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61). Jesus admits this in two short words, “I am”, before proceeding immediately to speak about the Son of Man coming in glory.

Indeed, in his final set of teachings given to his followers outside the Temple, when he speaks about the time still to come, Jesus explicitly warns against those laying claim to such a title: “if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it; for false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect” (13:21–22). The implication is that these other claimants are false, because Jesus is the true Messiah; yet he never specifically says this.

And Jesus persists in instructing people not to spread the news about him after he has healed them or cast out demons from them. He gives this instruction directly to demons (1:24; 1:34; 3:12), as well as to a healed leper (1:43), a healed blind man (8:26), crowds who have witnessed healings (5:43; 7:36), and the disciples (8:30; 9:9). (These verses provide the basis for the so-called “Messianic Secret” in Mark’s Gospel.)

There is one place where Jesus is acclaimed as Messiah, with no come-back from Jesus: when the crowd of onlookers cry out to Jesus as he hangs on the cross: “let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (15:32). This isn’t an affirmingly positive acclamation of Jesus; rather, the term is used to mock and deride him in his helpless state.

The second paradox: the shame of the central dynamic of crucifixion

The cross is, in fact, the place where the second paradox appears in the Gospel passage set for this coming Sunday. The cross is introduced by Jesus himself, when he teaches his followers: “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).

So important is this teaching, that Jesus repeats it twice more: “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise” (9:31) and “the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles; and they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him; and after three days he will rise” (10:33-34).

I don’t think that three predictions were spoken, historically, by Jesus, as he made his way towards Jerusalem. Rather, the author of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, Messiah placed them in this strategic place in the centre of his narrative. They mark the turn on the story from Galilee, where the earlier activity of Jesus took place (1:14–9:50), towards Jerusalem, where the final days of Jesus will play out (10:1–16:8). The dynamic of the narrative indicates that, as Jesus leaves behind the days of preaching and teaching, healing and casting out demons, his focus turns to the confrontation that he knows lies in store for him.

The public nature of crucifixion was humiliating and shaming. The typical process of crucifixion involved moment after moment of humiliation, undermining any sense of honour that the victim had, increasing the sense of public shame that they were experiencing. 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). These were people whose situations or actions had generated shame.

In the case of Jesus, he is accused of treason through the inference that he is King of the Jews—a claim that was anathema to the Romans (John 19:12)—and he is crucified in the company of political rebels (Mark 15:27; Matt 27:38; the term used, lēstēs, is the one most often found in the writings of Josephus to denote a political rebel).

A public trial, followed by a public execution on the cross, was a ritual in which the accused person was shamed, through a public ritual of status degradation. Cicero, in speaking as the counsel of Rabinio, a man accused of treason, asserted that “the ignominy of a public trial is a miserable thing” and described a public execution as “the assembly being polluted by the contagion of an executioner … [exhibiting] traces of nefarious wickedness” (Pro Rabinio 11, 16).

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/26/reading-the-crucifixion-as-a-scene-of-public-shaming/

And yet, immediately after he spoke this prophetic word, Jesus issued his disciples with a call to take up their crosses themselves: “if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (8:34). He invites them—indeed, he commands them—to enter into the public shame that he will experience in his own crucifixion.

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 (8:35). 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” (8:36–37). 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/)

Then, Jesus specifies the sense of shame that is involved in “taking up your cross” and “losing your life”, but he turns the tables as he declares that “those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (8:38).

This declaration of shame reflects the shame, in God’s eyes, of rejecting Jesus. Here is the paradox: to gain honour, Jesus had to be subjected to the shame of the cross. Likewise, to gain honour as a disciple following Jesus, a person must 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 second paradox of discipleship that the passage illuminates.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/02/22/2740/

On Jesus and Justa, Tyre and Decapolis (Mark 7; Pentecost 15B)

In the selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, that is provided by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Mark 7:24–37), we see encounters that Jesus has with two different people. The first is a woman who comes to Jesus, begging for his help (7:25–26). The second is a man who is brought to Jesus by some people who beg for him to help (7:32). The woman has a daughter who is gripped by “an unclean spirit” (7:25); the man is deaf and suffering from a speech impediment (7:32).

The response of Jesus is quite different in each scene. To the woman, he is curtly dismissive, inferring that she is but a dog under the table, begging for scraps (7:27). He appears not to want to engage with her. To the man, Jesus is immediately attentive; indeed, the actions he performs reflect the typical acts of a healer—he “put his fingers into his ears, spat, touched his tongue, and sighed” (7:33–34).

On touching and spitting during a healing, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/19/in-the-most-unlikely-way-touching-the-untouchable-john-9/

The second encounter leads swiftly to resolution; the man can immediately hear and speak (7:35). The amazement of the crowd that had witnessed the change in the man leads them to bear zealous witness to Jesus to anyone who will listen (7:36–37). It is a triumphant ending to a remarkable encounter.

Not so with the woman who had come, begging Jesus to cast the demon out of his daughter (7:26). The disdain expressed by Jesus towards the woman does not end the scene. On the contrary: it intensifies the interaction. The woman responds swiftly and courageously, pushing back against Jesus: “let the children be fed first” (7:28). She will not let him get away with such a demeaning remark!

The scene ends with Jesus admitting that the woman had bested him in this public interchange: “for this statement you may go your way” (7:29). Implicit in his admission of defeat is the recognition that he had overstepped the boundaries.

There’s a fine consideration of this encounter in a book by James McGrath which has recently been published. McGrath considers the many and varied ways that Jesus learnt from women during his life, including this striking scene. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/04/jesus-growing-learning-a-review-of-what-jesus-learned-from-women/

In her response to Jesus (“even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs”, 7:28), the woman picks up on the language used by Jesus. The term “dog” was deliberately provocative, even demeaning. Some interpreters have wanted to claim that “dog” was a typical Jewish slander for Gentiles—but there is actually no evidence supporting this specific claim. Nevertheless, in general, we can sense that the words of Jesus would not have been heard by the woman as being very encouraging or supportive.

Miracle of the Canaanite Woman, from the Codex Egberti
German (Reichenau), c. 977-993, Trier, Stadtbibliothek
Ms 24, fol. 35v

What we do see in the words of Jesus is a glimpse into the character of Jesus. He reflects his Jewish heritage and culture. His reference to “children” is widely taken to refer to his own people, the people of Israel. They saw themselves as the children of God (see Exod 3:10–11; 1 Kings 6:13; Ezra 3:1; Isa 45:11; Jer 32:30–32; Hos 1:10–11; Luke 1:16; Acts 7:23; 9:15). The contrast between “the children” at the table and “the dogs” underneath is clear. If Jesus is one of the children, eating at the table, then the woman is the dog under the table, begging. The inference is clear.

The matter of territory is important in these two particular stories. One is set in the region of Tyre (7:24), which is to the north-west of the Sea of Galilee, and just outside of Jewish territory. The other is set in the Decapolis (7:31), a predominantly Gentile region across on the eastern side of the River Jordan. Both scenes clearly bring Jesus into Gentile territory.

Earlier on, Jesus left Jewish territory by crossing to “the other side” on the east of the Sea of Galilee (4:35, 5:1). He returns to Israel by boat (5:21) before once again heading east to “the other side” (6:45), not too long before these two incidents are narrated. (He returns to Jewish territory once more at 8:13).

Interestingly, while he is in Jewish territory, after the first return crossing of the lake, Jesus feeds a crowd of more than 5,000 people (6:30–44). The account of this miracle has a strong Jewish flavour: there are allusions to the Old Testament, such as how the Lord shepherds and feeds his people in the desert (see Psalm 78:18–25 and Psalm 23 — note the “green grass”). The baskets used are kophinoi, small Jewish baskets. The relevant numbers are 5 (as in the books of the Pentateuch) and 12 (Tribes of Israel).

When he heads over to “the other side”, Gentile territory, Jesus feeds a crowd of “about four thousand people” (8:1–10). In this story, the flavour is quite different: the Old Testament allusions are missing, the baskets (spuridas) are non-Jewish, and the numbers are 4 (signifying, in Jewish thought, the four corners of the world) and 7 (thought to signifying all the nations).

In both scenes there are also strong eucharistic allusions, with Jesus taking the bread, giving thanks, breaking it, and giving it to his disciples (6:41; 8:6). The pattern replicates his words and actions at the Last Supper (14:22). Is the symbolism significant? With eucharistic overtones, Jesus has fed both Jews and Gentiles, teaching by his words and actions that there are no food boundaries between Jews and Gentiles—precisely the point made in a debate located right in the centre between these two scenes, at 7:19.

Linked with the matter of territory, so also the matter of nationality of the people involved is important in these two scenes in Mark 7. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing.

Miracle of the Canaanite Woman, from Sermons of Maurice de Sully
Italian, ca. 1320-1330; Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 187, fol. 9v

The woman had been born a Syrophoenician; she is clearly a Gentile (7:26). Matthew, in reworking this story, actually makes her a Canaanite (Matt 15:22), a member of the race native to the area long before the Hebrews lay claim to the land. Most certainly, she is not a Jew.

Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God. Jesus is pushing the boundaries of his faith, deliberately engaging with people on the edge (or beyond) in territory which is outside the realms in which the rituals of purity and holiness apply—the land of Israel.

This is important when we consider how the story of the Syrophoenician woman was received and retold in later Christian tradition. Although anonymous in both passages where she appears in scripture (like so many women in the patriarchal world of the day), she is gifted with a name—Justa—in the same way that the unnamed woman of Samaria who encountered Jesus (in John 4) is gifted with a name by later Christian writers. (She gains the name Photini—and she also becomes a saint; see https://johntsquires.com/2020/03/12/from-the-woman-at-the-well-to-a-byazantine-saint-john-4-st-photini-and-the-path-to-enlightenment/.)

Hans Vischer, The Canaanite Woman Approaches Jesus
German, 1543; Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

Not only is the Syrophoenician-Phoenician woman named, but in later Christian writing, she actually converts. In the Clementine Homilies, a third century work, the story of the encounter between Jesus as Justa, as she is named, is retold, clarified, and expanded in Homily II, Chapter XIX. Jesus says to her, “It is not lawful to heal the Gentiles, who are like to dogs on account of their using various meats and practices, while the table in the kingdom has been given to the sons of Israel.”

The woman obtains healing for her daughter, not through her words back to Jesus (as in Mark 7:28), but by her actions: “hearing this, and begging to partake like a dog of the crumbs that fall from this table, having changed what she was, by living like the sons of the kingdom”. The women becomes a proselyte, changing from a Gentile to one of “the sons of the kingdom”.

Does this mean she became a follower of Jesus? The phrase “the sons of the kingdom” is found twice on the lips of Jesus, both times in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 8:12; 13:38). After healing the servant of a centurion in Capernaum (8:5–13), Jesus teaches that “the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness”. Here, the phrase refers to Jews who do not believe in him. In his explanation of the parable of the weeds (13:37–43), Jesus declares that “the field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom”, whilst “the weeds are the sons of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil” (13:38–39). Here, the phrase describes Jews who accept the message of Jesus.

Does the description of the change undergone by Justa in Homily II indicate that she had converted to Judaism, or to Christianity? The former option would completely undermine the impact of the Gospel narratives, in which, as we have seen, her Gentile status is critical to the narrative. But the Homily is resolute, providing this clear explanation: “For she being a Gentile, and remaining in the same course of life, He would not have healed had she remained a Gentile, on account of its not being lawful to heal her as a Gentile.” So she had no choice. She had to convert. Jesus would not dare to heal a Gentile!

Ironically, this later patristic assertion that the woman converted undermines the very testimony of the Markan account. It is for her saying—not her faith—that Jesus commends her (7:29) and heals her daughter. (This is in contrast to the version told by Matthew, where Jesus explicitly commends her for her faith; see Matt 15:28).

James Tissot, Jesus and the Canaanite Woman; French, 1888-1894
New York, Brooklyn Museum. (This interesting late 19th-century image
by Tissot shows the moment in a more archaeologically correct
setting and costume than in many medieval depictions.)

There is a further reference to Justa through her daughter, who lived in “Tyre of Phoenicia” and was familiar with Peter and other followers of Jesus—suggesting a conversion to Christianity. Later in the Clementine Homilies, in Homily III, Chapter LXXIII, Clement, Aquila, and Nicetas are instructed by Peter to travel to Tyre and stay in the household of “Bernice the Canaanite, the daughter of Justa”.

Then, in Homily IV, Chapter I, we read that the same three believers arrived in Tyre and lodged with “Bernice, the daughter of Justa the Canaanitess”, who lavished hospitality on them for some time. “She received us most joyfully; and striving with much honour towards me, and with affection towards Aquila and Nicetas, and speaking freely as a friend, through joy she treated us courteously, and hospitably urged us to take bodily refreshment”, writes Clement.

Bernice had certainly learned from her mother Justa the importance of providing generous, welcoming hospitality, with good food on the table, ensuring that her guests had no need to beg for the scraps. Her encounter with Jesus left a lasting impression on Justa.

*****

The front image is by Peter Gorman, Exorcising the Canaanite Woman’s Daughter; sauce-crayon on paper; 1990, еsize:36х50, from https://www.erarta.com/en/museum/collection/works/detail/G081009103/

The images above have been taken from http://imaginemdei.blogspot.com/2014/08/ilustrating-miracles-canaanite-woman.html

*****

My thanks to Elizabeth Raine, with whom I have had many discussions about this woman and the way she is portrayed in the two Gospel accounts.

Wash your hands (Mark 7; Pentecost 14B)

Wash your hands. It’s a simple instruction.

Wash your hands! It’s guidance that has been particularly pertinent over the past 18 months, as we have grappled with the dangers of transmitting a novel coronavirus which has been responsible for a global pandemic. Wash your hands—carefully, thoroughly, singing “Happy birthday to you” through twice.

So the opening verses of the Gospel passage offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday sounds quite relevant: “when the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem gathered around him, they noticed that some of his disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them” (Mark 7:1–2). Eating without washing hands, to us, is not a wise thing. Surely, the same applies to the disciples of Jesus, back 2,000 years ago?

Well, it’s not that simple. It’s not just a matter of washing your hands, using soap and warm water, for 30 seconds—not in the biblical text. It’s a more complex and nuanced matter, in this biblical story. The author of this Gospel makes it quite clear that it’s not just a matter of “wash your hands”.

The opening phrase identifies that it was the Pharisees and some scribes who noticed what the disciples were (or rather, weren’t) doing.

That’s significant, because they were the people amongst the Jews who attends carefully to all the details of what the Law required the people of Israel to do. The scribes and the Pharisees devoted their lives to teaching and explaining each of the 613 commandments and ordinances that were included within the books of Torah (the books of the Law—the first five books of Hebrew Scriptures).

So they knew that washing hands before eating was a part of life that included many details. There were quite a number of factors involved in preparing to eat. It was a complex matter—as, indeed, was attending to each of those 613 laws.

This complexity is signalled in a significant aside as the story is told (marked by parentheses in our Bibles), as we read that “the Pharisees, and all the Jews, do not eat unless they thoroughly wash their hands, thus observing the tradition of the elders; they do not eat anything from the market unless they wash it; and there are also many other traditions that they observe, the washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” (Mark 7:3–4).

In terms of the “many traditions” that the Pharisees valued, the washing of hands included a number of factors. How much water would be sufficient to cleanse the hands? From what vessel can the water be poured onto the hands? How much of each hand should be washed when performing this action? What water is acceptable, and what will not be acceptable? Who is required to perform this action? Is everyone required to do this? What might make the handwashing ineffective?

Now, before we come down heavily on the scribes and the Pharisees, and accuse them of legalism and of being fixated on details and of placing heavy burdens on the people, let’s remember the ways that our own court system operates today. We have laws, covering all manner of situations, addressing many different actions. Each law has a number of sections and subsections in the relevant legislation.

Then each magistrate or judge applies that law to the specific situation before the court. Case law develops, providing precedents for this situation of that situation. Before you know it, you are looking at a whole bookcase full of documentation that is required to be known, before actions can be assessed under the law.

The Pharisees and the scribes were doing the same. They were exploring all the options, all the possibilities, in applying the law. And they were teaching the people, instructing them in how to attend to the commandments and ordinances that were given by God to the people through Moses—and through the line of interpreters which followed on over the ensuing centuries.

Eventually, the accumulation of explorations and considerations about these commandments and ordinances were written down—some centuries after the time of Jesus—in a document which we know as the Mishnah, a Hebrew word which comes from a root word meaning “repetition”. The Mishnah contains the teachings of rabbis from centuries past, which were learnt by male Jewish students by study and repetition.

One of the tractates in the Mishnah is entitled Yadaim, which means “hands”. It is the eleventh of twelve tractates in the sixth order of the Mishnah, which is entitled Tohoroth, meaning “purities”. The whole section deals with the distinctions between clean and unclean, and provides guidance on how to maintain the state of purity, or being clean.

The Orders and Tractates of the Mishnah, a compilation
of discussions about the commandments and ordinances
made under Rabbi Judah ha-Nazi in around 320CE

Yadaim provides a detailed discussion of washing hands prior to eating, and canvasses precisely those questions that I posed above. It is important to note, however, that the matter of washing hands before eating is not simply (as we would understand it) a ritual which is designed to remove germs and ensure that no infections occur. It is not about physiological cleanliness and medical health. Rather, it is about holiness, about being clean before God, about being in a right state when sharing in a meal.

The commandment to wash hands does not actually appear in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are instructions to wash hands prior to various actions, involving a person with a discharge (Lev 15:11) and in sacrificing a heifer in relation to an unsolved murder (Deut 21:6). There is also an instruction for the priests to wash their hands and their feet with water from the bronze basin before they approach the altar of sacrifice (Exod 30:17–21).

However, the practice of washing hands before praying is attested in a document some two hundred years before the time of Jesus. The Letter of Aristeas (written around 150 BCE) reports that the 72 translators of the Septuagint, “following the custom of all the Jews, washed their hands in the sea in the course of their prayer to God” (Aristeas 305). Some decades later, one of the Sibylline Oracles states that “at dawn, they [the Jews] lift up their holy arms toward heaven, from their beds, always sanctifying their flesh with water” (Sib. Or. 3.591–93).

A prayer of blessing for the washing of hands—
a later rabbinic development beyond the time of Jesus

The argument, then, for the development of the practice that the scribes and Pharisees advocated, is that a faithful Jew would pray before eating—a prayer of blessing, in gratitude for the food—and thus would wash their hands before praying. Thus, always washing hands before eating would have been commonplace by the time of Jesus.

It is often argued that what the Pharisees and scribes have done, is to extrapolate from the requirement placed upon the priests before they enter the presence of God (Exodus 30) to apply the principle to all faithful Jews as they approach the meal, a time of fellowship with God (Mishnah tractate Yadaim).

This is not an unreasonable line of argument. The Pharisees and the scribes did precisely this over and over again, with regard to all manner of actions prescribed for the priests. The enterprise of the Pharisees was to take the instructions placed upon the priests in Jerusalem as they conducted their daily rituals in the Temple, as guidelines for the way that faithful Jewish people in towns and villages were to act as they went about their daily business. The Law, in their view, was not simply for the elites in one place; the Law was God’s instruction to all the people, on how to be faithful to God, reverent and devout, in every aspect of their lives.

The Law was a gift that was provided by God, to ensure that the people of Israel maintained their state of being as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for [God’s] own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), in obedience to God’s declaration, “you shall be holy, for I am holy” (Lev 11:44, cited at 1 Peter 1:16).

To be consistently and thoroughly holy—set apart, consecrated, dedicated to God—means that each mundane action in daily life is to be carried out in ways which reflect the faith of the people, their ongoing commitment to the covenant relationship with God. They were to live in a way that invited God into every aspect of life—including, in this instance, preparations for eating at table. Washing hands before praying before eating ensured that each meal was seen as a holy action performed by a holy people.

A Jewish prayer of blessing for the washing of hands

However: Jesus appears to be arguing against this, when he declares, “you leave the commandment of God and hold to human traditions” (Mark 7:8). What do we make of this direct and clear negation of the Pharisees’ position?

The first factor to note is that whenever Jesus engages in debate and discussion with the scribes and the Pharisees, he is actually engaging them on their home ground, undertaking the very activity that they took part in each and every day. Debating the details of Torah, exploring alternate interpretations, posing options for application, was the very essence of the work of the Pharisees. Quoting one passage of scripture as counterpoint to another passage already cited (as Jesus does in Mark 7:6–13) was a standard element in such debates.

Exaggeration and over-statement was also integral to these debates, as the participants pushed and probed the case put forward by their opponents, contesting the claims made and advancing counter-claims with gusto. Jesus is doing precisely this in his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. He most likely was quite assertive—it was the style of such debates—and could well have been aggressive and controversial in such debates.

See https://asiasociety.org/countries/religions-philosophies/art-debate-jewish-style

However, a second factor is that this narrative is not an eye-witness report, direct from the time precisely when the encounter occurred. Rather, it is a narrative created in the oral traditions of the early church, not written down into the form we have it until some decades after the event. This context is important.

The way that the canonical Gospels portray disputes between Jesus and other Jewish teachers of the Law reflects the context in which tensions between Jews in the synagogues and Messianic Jews (followers of Jesus) had become heightened. Portraying the interaction as an aggressive, polemical encounter reflects the life setting within which the narrative is written. The encounter has most likely been exaggerated and intensified because of the context in which the written narrative was shaped.

After all, once the early followers of Jesus (who were overwhelmingly Jews) had made the decision that Jesus was in fact their long-awaited Messiah, and then articulated this decision within their local communities of faith (the Jewish synagogues where they participated in faith-based activities), they were criticised, corrected, disputed, denounced, and eventually, so it seems, expelled from all synagogue involvement. It was an increasingly unhappy environment. So, portraying the interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees in Mark 7 as an aggressive, polemical encounter reflects the life setting within which the narrative is written. The encounter has most likely been exaggerated and intensified.

The conclusion that Jesus reaches, “what comes out of a person is what defiles him” (7:20; see also verses 15 and 23) does not overturn the laws of purity, taught and advocated by the scribes and the Pharisees. Rather, it is the distinctive contribution to the debate about purity that Jesus makes; that our morality is shaped and influenced by what we have internalised, by the very ways that we live each and every day, by the principles that guide and even determine our actions. And that, after all, is what the scribes and the Pharisees were seeking to inculcate amongst the people of the covenant. How we live influences what we believe, and what we believe shapes how we act.

So: wash your hands! And make sure that all that you do reflects all that you believe and hold dear.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/24/stretching-the-boundaries-of-the-people-of-god-mark-7-pentecost-14b-15b/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/21/in-defence-of-the-pharisees-on-humility-and-righteousness-luke-18/

Stretching the boundaries of the people of God (Mark 7; Pentecost 14B, 15B)

Here’s a Bible Study that I wrote a few years ago, which canvasses some of the key issues that we will encounter in the Gospel readings for the next two Sundays, drawn from Mark 7 (Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23 and Mark 7:24-37).

The hearers and readers of this earliest Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus, Messiah, struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation. As they did so, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13) and his encounters with a range of people who were regarded as being either “on the fringes” of Judaism or beyond the limits of God’s people.

They treasured these stories because they showed that, as Jesus traveled outside the Jewish homeland and encountered marginal people, he indicated that the kingdom would include Gentiles and people who were regarded by many Jews as being “on the outer”: people disabled by physical ailments, and mentally ill people (that is, demon-possessed)—and even, in the patriarchal society of the ancient world, women, who occupied places “on the edge”.

People who were considered unclean by the priests were considered to be beyond the realm of God’s chosen people. Jesus’ interactions with these people reflect his belief that they ought to be considered as able to belong to God’s people. The stories of such encounters also indicated that Jesus came into conflict with the dominant authorities of the day—the scribes and Pharisees, as well as the priests and Sadducees—as he engaged with these people, and debated the issues with his contemporaries.

These stories mark out the territory, as it were, for the renewed people of God, as Jesus understood them. A sociological understanding of these passages points to the role that they play in defining the boundaries of the group of “Jesus-followers”, and in providing identity markers for members of this group.

Skim read through Mark 6:45–9:1.

A. Notice the geographical markers (6:45; 6:53; 7:1; 7:24; 7:31; 8:10; 8:13; 8:22; 8:27).

Locate each place on a map of ancient Israel.

What characterises the area that Jesus travelled to in 6:53–8:13?

What races might be represented in the crowd that follows Jesus during this visit?

Comment: Mark refers to “the other side” (4:53 and 5:1; 6:45)—that is, across on the Gentile side of the Sea of Galilee. He is making the point that Jesus twice intentionally left Israel—a region considered holy by all Jews—and travelled into Gentile territory. One rabbi is recorded in the Mishnah as commenting, “the lands of the Gentiles are unclean”. Jesus’ visit makes a clear statement that stepping on Gentile land does not automatically render a person unclean.

B. Read Mark 7:1. Who comes to hear Jesus at this point in the story? Where do they come from? What do they debate in the following verses?

Comment: The Pharisees and scribes were experts in interpreting Torah. Here, Jesus has a vigorous debate with them. They discuss the procedures which are necessary to ensure holiness. Jesus disagrees with their interpretations. He cites scripture to refute their views (Isa 29:13 at Mark 7:6–7; Exod 20:12 and Deut 5:16 at Mark 7:10) and argues that these texts must take priority over the oral traditions developed by the rabbis. This was exactly the way that the Pharisees argued themselves.

Jesus debates the Pharisees using their own methods, but he comes to a different result. In his concluding remarks (7:18–23) he sets out different criteria for true holiness.

C. Read Mark 7:19. What is the impact of this narrative comment? What does it say about the nature of the community that is formed by the followers of Jesus?

Now read Mark 7:21–22. Compare this list with the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17) and notice the similarities.

Comment: Jesus does not the reject purity system of Judaism. The ethic he proposes remains faithful to his Jewish faith. Yet the criteria for “belonging” are made wider and less exclusive. Mark interprets Jesus as relaxing the food laws (7:19); this will allow for Jews and Gentiles to mix more freely. (Other Gospel writers had a different interpretation of this incident—Matthew omits this sentence and Luke deletes the whole scene from his Gospel.) Yet, for Jesus, the fundamentals (7:21–22) still apply. Mark presents him as redefining and radicalising his Jewish faith—not rejecting it.

D. Read Mark 7:24–37. What is the impact of these two healing stories?

How significant is the location of these healings?

How does Jesus relate to the main person in each story?

What message do these stories convey about who is included in the people of God?

Comment: Tyre (7:24) is just outside of Jewish territory. The Decapolis (7:31) is a predominantly Gentile region. In each story, Jesus encounters a person who is unclean: a Gentile woman who has been in contact with her daughter, who is possessed by a demon; and a Gentile man who is physically disabled in speech and hearing. Contact with such people would make a person unclean and thus alienated from the holy people of God.

Jesus ignores these taboos and extends the boundaries of the people of God. He does this reluctantly at 7:27, only after conceding that the woman has won her point in debate with him (7:29, “for saying that…”). He does it willingly at 7:33–34, but then urges the healed man to keep quiet (7:36)—although the man just cannot keep quiet! In each case, Jesus’ actions were provocative.

E. Where else on this journey does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?

(Note Mark 6:56 and 8:22–26.)

Where else in this Gospel does Jesus encounter such marginalised people?

(Start with Mark 1:21–26 and skim through until Mark 10:46–52.)

How does Jesus interact with such people?

(Note especially Mark 5:34 and 10:52.)

What is the effect of the inclusion of so many stories about Jesus encountering marginalised or unclean people? What message does it convey to the followers of Jesus who heard and retold these stories? What kind of community might they aim to create, as a result of these stories?

F. Finally, note the promise that Jesus makes to his disciples at Mark 14:28. It is repeated at Mark 16:7. What significance might there be in the fact that it is Galilee, not Jerusalem, where the risen Jesus will meet his disciples?

Comment: Galilee is where Jesus preached and healed. Jerusalem is where he was tried and killed. It is as if the new community of faith will thrive in precisely those areas outside of the control of the Jewish authorities. This community will not reject its Jewish origins and heritage; but it will interpret them in a more inclusive and yet more radical manner.

*****

This blog draws on material in MARKING THE GOSPEL: an exploration of the Gospel for Year B, by Elizabeth Raine and John Squires (self-published 2014).

What’s in, and what’s out (Mark 6; Pentecost 8B)

At this time of the year, every Year B, the lectionary strays away from choosing the Gospel readings from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the Gospel of Mark. Next week, we will launch into a series of five weeks of readings drawn from John 6. That chapter revolves around the motif of Jesus as “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51). Because of this looming focus, the Gospel passage provided by the lectionary for this Sunday is curiously shaped. It takes two separate sections of Mark’s Gospel, and omits a large section that sits in between these two passages.

The story of the feeding of the crowd of “about 5,000 in all” (John 6:1–14) which we will read next Sunday replicates the story omitted from this Sunday’s reading, where the Jesus was able to feed a crowd comprising “5,000 men” (Mark 6:44).

The lectionary provides the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) and omits the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). It also omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52)—a story paralleled in Matt 14:22-33). Thus, we have a curiously disrupted passage for consideration.

We need, then, to consider, both what’s in, and what’s out, in this week’s lectionary selection.

What’s in: three key terms

The selection offered by the lectionary includes reference to Jesus taking his followers aside, to rest (6:31). We know well the words that Jesus spoke, offering rest to his followers (Matt 11:28–30). But we perhaps give little thought to the need that Jesus had, along with this followers, to rest from the bustling business that he engaged in. Mark states it well: “many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat” (6:31).

Jesus moves away to a deserted place with his followers. He goes into the wilderness. The Greek word used here, eremon, is significant. This is where Jesus goes when he is tested by God (1:12), immediately after he had been completely immersed in the water by John the baptiser, resident in that wilderness (1:3, 4).

It was in the wilderness that Israel came to know its essential identity: a people, beloved by God, rescued from slavery, called into covenant, equipped for the battles of entry into the land, as the great myth from the past declared. It was, likewise, in the wilderness that Jesus came to know his mission in life, and where he came to know his identity as the Son of God, chosen for that mission. So it is fitting that he moves to a deserted place, seeking respite from the crowds.

Yet the crowds will not let the healer and his followers rest; they continue to press on Jesus, and as they saw him, with his followers, in the boat, they hurried on foot to that deserted place, “and arrived ahead of them” (6:33).

The response of Jesus is instructive. Here we find a second significant term. He “had compassion for them”, the NRSV reports (6:34). The distinctive Greek term used (esplangnisthē) appears here, and in the parallel of Matt 14:14 (as well as an editorial comment at Matt 9:36).

The term refers to that deep-seated churning in the gut that takes place when an emotional cord is struck. It is a profound and penetrating feeling. The same term is found in the paired story of the feeding of the 4,000, where Jesus tells his followers, “I have compassion on the crowd” (Mark 8:2, par Matt 15:32).

Such compassion is characteristic of Jesus on many occasions. The term has already appeared in Mark’s report of the leper who came to Jesus, seeking to be made clean, where it describes the way that Jesus responds to him (“moved with pity” in the NRSV, reflecting a textual variant in Mark 1:41, par Matt 10:6). It’s also used to characterise the way Jesus deals with two blind men near Jericho (“Jesus in pity touched their eyes”, NRSV Matt 20:34).

Other places where the word appears are in the story of the mute boy who suffers convulsions (Mark 9:14–29). The father of the boy begs Jesus to cast out the spirit which possesses the boy, imploring him, “if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us” (9:22). Jesus responds by rebuking the spirit, which leaves the boy (9:25–27).

In the orderly account which we attribute to Luke, the compassion of Jesus is noted when he interacts with a widow who is mourning her dead son (Luke 7:13), and is also found within two of the parables told by Jesus, reported only in this Gospel. The Samaritan has compassion (Luke 10:33), as does the father when he sees his prodigal son returning home (Luke 15:20).

A third important idea is found when the author implicitly draws an analogy between Jesus, and a shepherd (6:34). In the book of signs, Jesus explicitly calls himself “the good shepherd” (10:1–18). This evokes the scriptural imagery of the good shepherd as the true and faithful leader in Israel (Num 21:16–17; Ezek 34:1–31; Jer 23:4). The phrase also alludes to the people as the sheep who are cared for (Pss 95, 100; Ezek 34:31).

People who are “sheep without a shepherd” recall the description of Israel in Hebrew Scriptures (Num 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17, par 2 Chron 18:16; and Judith 11:19). The narrator’s reference in Mark 6:34 contains these deep scriptural resonances. The compassion demonstrated by Jesus fits with his role as shepherd of the sheep.

A third key idea is contained in the brief statement that the compassion of Jesus is expressed as “he began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). The teaching activity of Jesus runs through this Gospel. Jesus teaches beside the sea (4:1), in the synagogue (1:21–27; 6:2), beside the lake (2:13; 4:1–2; 6:34), in the villages (6:6), and as he and his followers walk along the way towards Jerusalem (8:31; 9:31).

When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, he is said to be teaching the crowd in the courtyard of the Temple (11:15–18). A little later, some Pharisees and Herodians approach him, observing that “you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God” (12:14). “Day after day I was with you in the Temple teaching”, he says to the armed crowd sent from the Jewish authorities to arrest him (14:43–49).

The same emphasis on his teaching is found on the other Synoptics (Matt 4:23; 7:28–29; 9:35; 21:23; 22:33; 26:55; Luke 4:31–32; 5:17; 6:6; 10:39; 13:10; 13:22; 19:47; 20:1; 21:37; 23:5).

What’s out: two substantial scenes

So much for what’s in this week’s selection. What about what’s out?

First, the Gospel offering provided by the lectionary includes the surrounding sections (Mark 6:30–34, 53–56) but omits what it surrounds—the feeding narrative (Mark 6:35–44). That feeding story is also retold by the other two evangelists. In the book of origins (Matt 14:15–21), the crowd comprises “about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21). In the orderly account of things fulfilled (Luke 9:12–17), the crowd is recorded, as in the Markan source, as being “about 5,000 men” (Luke 9:14).

The scene is reminiscent also of the parallel scene of feeding “4,000 men” recounted at Mark 8:1-10 and also at Matt 15:32-39; although Matthew indicates that there were “4,000 men, besides women and children”. (Luke omits this story.)

In each of those cases, the accounts provide the opportunity for Jesus to model the traditional pattern of a Jewish meal, as he “looked up to heaven, and blessed, and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41; Matt 14:19; Luke 9:16; and again at Mark 8:6 and Matt 15:36). This prefigures the familiar pattern from the last supper (Mark 14:22; Matt 26:26; Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24; and see also Acts 20:7, 27:35).

So Mark recounts the scene: “And taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people. And he divided the two fish among them all. And they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. And those who ate the loaves were five thousand men.” (Mark 6:41–44).

And the resonances with the central Christian ritual, the remembrance of the last supper, are surely strong and deep.

Second, the lectionary omits the account of Jesus walking on the water (Mark 6:45–52) which plays an important role in Mark’s account. By omitting this, the lectionary has excised the important reference to Jesus crossing over “to the other side”, from the Decapolis across to Bethsaida (Mark 6:45).

In this earliest Gospel, Jesus had left Jewish territory earlier, when he crossed “to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes” (5:1), then returned “to the other side” (5:21), where he visited “his own country” (6:1) before venturing again across “to the other side” (6:45–52).

This maritime movement makes an important symbolic point for the the author: the ministry of Jesus incorporated not only territories in Jewish areas (to 4:41, then 5:21 to 6:44) as well as the Gentile territories. Jesus firstly crosses into the Decapolis (5:1–20), where he cast out multiple demons from the tomb-dwelling man, sending them into the nearby pigs. (This story is also omitted by the lectionary during this particular year.)

One of the striking aspects in this story is that this man, possessed by an unclean spirit, fettered in chains, dwelling beside tombs, self-harming and acting inappropriately (5:2–6), becomes the first active missionary in this Gospel; after the encounter with Jesus, “he began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marvelled” (5:20). A pity we missed that this year.

Jesus is active on “the other side” again from Mark 6:53, when he enters the regions of Gennesaret (6:53). Subsequently, Jesus is located at Tyre and Sidon (7:24), and then “the region of the Decapolis” (7:31), before returning to Bethsaida (8:22) and Caesarea Philippi (8:27), in Jewish territory.

These geographical references are treated variably in the later accounts which used Mark as a source. Matthew retains Genessaret (Matt 14:34) and Tyre and Sidon (15:21), but removes the reference to the Decapolis (15:29). The geographical references from Caesarea Philippi onwards then appear in his ongoing narrative. Luke omits the whole section containing these earlier references (Mark 6:53–8:26), removing the clear indication that Jesus spent quite some time on Gentile soil.

Omitting the “crossing over” movement in the narrative lessens the significance of this observation: much of what takes place in the ensuing four chapters, takes place on Gentile soil. This is very important for our understanding of the stories that Mark reports. We need to hear that in mind as we read the later stories in this section of the Gospel: Jesus is “on the other side”, moving amongst the Gentiles of the Decapolis.

Shake off the dust that is on your feet (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is set forth (1:16–18; 1:19–20; 2:13–14). Jesus calls people to follow him. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/29/just-sandals-and-a-staff-and-only-one-tunic-mark-6-pentecost-6b/

The narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one that ensues provides a sequence of events in which individuals, groups, and crowds all respond to this charge to follow Jesus. In this narrative, Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out, walking alongside him.

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

Later in this narrative, leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples 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).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). And Jesus instructs them to “read the room” when they are welcomed into the houses in the villages and towns they visit. They are to be sensitive to the reception that they receive.

“So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent”, Mark reports (6:12). But with the caveat: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” So Jesus advises his followers (6:11). What did it mean, in the ancient world, to “shake the dust off your feet”?

Dust is central to who we are as human beings. The story of the creation of human beings indicates that the man was “formed from dust of the ground” before God breathed the breathe of life into him (Gen 2:7). But in the foundational myth that is told in the earliest chapters of scripture, dust is at the centre, also, of the punishments that are handed out after the sin committed by Adam and Eve.

The serpent, as a result of its role in tempting them, is told, “Because you have done this, cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life” (Gen 3:14; Isa 65:25).

The man is told, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19).

Dust is used as a sign of cursing in various stories: in the plague of dust (Exod 9:8-10); in the ritual for cursing an unfaithful wife, when dust from the floor of the tabernacle is mixed into the water of bitterness (Num 5:11-31); in the destruction of the golden calf (Deut 9:21); and in various punishments by the Lord (Deut 28:24, Ps 78:27, Isa 25:12, 26:5, 2 Sam 22:43, 2 Ki 53:7, 2 Chr 34:4).

And the action of shaking out one’s clothing is integral to the scene in Nehemiah, where the leaders of the people who have returned to the land are required to “shake out their mantle” as a sign of their agreement to the economic arrangements made (Neh 5:13). Nehemiah warns them: “so May God shake out every man from his house and from his labour who does not keep this promise”. Shaking out has a sense of judgement, of being cursed by God.

However, in association with the tearing of clothes, the placing of dust on a person’s head is also a symbol of repentance. Joshua repents of the sin of Achan by tearing his clothes and placing dust on his head (Joshua 7:6). Ezekiel speaks of the people of Tyre, lamenting, as “they cast dust on their heads and wallow in ashes” (Ezek 27:30). Jeremiah reports that “ the elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young women of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground” (Lam 2:20; see also Isa 25:12; 29:1–4).

The three friends of Job see him coming, and they “raised their voices and wept, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads toward heaven”, before they then sat, grieving with him, “on the ground seven days and seven nights” (Job 2:12–13). Dust means mourning and repenting.

In like manner, after being raped by Ammon, Tamar put ashes on her head and tore her robe (2 Sam 13:19), as did Judas and his brothers when preparing for battle (1 Macc 3:47) and when they entered the ravaged temple (1 Macc 4:39).

The same actions involving dust are performed by Judas after being deceived by Simon (2 Macc 10:25), Jews at the news of Nicanor’s imminent invasion (2 Macc 14:15), and grieving daughters and mothers in Jerusalem when the victorious Ptolemy attempts to enter the temple (3 Macc 1:18). We might also note the messengers who arrive with torn clothes and dirt on their heads (1 Sam 4:12; 2 Sam 1:2, 15:32). These are all stories involving grief and despair.

Job himself uses dust and sackcloth to signify that “my face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:15–16). As a result, he laments, “ God has cast me into the mire, and I have become like dust and ashes” (Job 30: 19). Returning to dust is the final state for those punished by God (Job 34:5; see also 10:9; 17:6; 20:11; 21:26; Ps 7:5; 22:15; 90:3; 104:29; Isa 26:5; Lam 2:21)—or, indeed, for all human beings (Eccles 3:20; 12:7).

In the end, though, Job “repents of dust and ashes” (42:6). He has had enough of being repentant. The book ends with a return of the defiant Job. He will have no more use for the dust and ashes of repentance.

In a number of scriptural incidents, dust is used in curses signalling divine punishment. Shimei, for instance, casts dust into the air to curse David (2 Sam 16:13). When Deutero-Isaiah speaks of the coming salvation that God will bring, to remove the punishment of exile, he exhorts Jerusalem to “shake yourself from the dust and arise” (Isa 52:2).

Dust had been a sign of the place of mourning, the place of despair, the place which signifies worthlessness and emptiness. Dust had been where the poor sat (1 Sam 2:8; Amos 2:7); it was where the enemies of Israel were pressed down and beaten into fine particles by the Lord (2 Sam 22:4 3; 2 Ki 13:7; Job 40:13; Ps 18:42; 44:24–25; 72:9; 83:13; Isa 41:2; Micah 7:17). Now, the people were called to leave that dust behind and move on in hope.

Jesus instructs his followers to shake the dust off their feet “as a testimony against them” (6:11). This seems to be an action warning the listeners that they are liable to judgement because they have failed to repent. However, the phrase could also be translated, “as a witness for their benefit”, suggesting that the action was intended to provoke the listeners to think further, after the disciples have left, about their message of repentance?

This latter sense is how the same construction functions earlier in Mark’s narrative, where the cleansed leper is to show himself to the priests “for a proof to them” (1:44). But later in the narrative, the very same phrase (eis martyrion autois) describes the function of the disciples defending themselves when on trial before “governors and kings” (13:9).

Could the action of shaking the dust off their feet signal that there would be hope, in the future, from the message of good news that the disciples proclaimed? The implication would be that this is the hope that they carry, and their “witness for the benefit” of their unwilling hosts is that this hope. This hope travels on with them as they journey onwards, with their proclamation of repentance. It also rests, along with the dust, with those they leave behind, who have not yet come to that point of repentance.

Or could the action of shaking off the dust have the function of warning recalcitrants—a graphic demonstration of the warning, ‘God will turn you to ashes if you do not repent’? As the disciples move on to the next town, they were leaving behind a warning with an implicit demand for their repentance.

That seems more likely to be the effect of the phrase, “as a testimony against them” (6:11). Certainly, that’s how it is understood in the parallel account in Matthew, where the action of shaking off the dust (Matt 10:14) is immediately followed by a reference to the fate experienced by Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement (Matt 10:15).also ev

This is ident in the Lukan parallel, where a slight tweaking of the Greek makes it clear that this is understood as “a testimony against them” (Luke 9:5). Then, in the Lukan doublet of the sending out of the 72, the saying about the day of judgement (here referring only to Sodom) clarifies the expected judgement beyond doubt (Luke 10:12).

By implication from these later interpretations of the action, shaking the dust off the feet and moving on would appear to provide a sign of judgement to those who refuse to accept the message of the disciples, and repent.

Just sandals and a staff—and only one tunic (Mark 6; Pentecost 6B)

Mark’s Gospel emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; “follow me” is an important refrain from the beginning of Mark’s story. In three early scenes, the command of Jesus, “follow me”, is met each time with an immediate response: Simon and Andrew follow him (1:17), then James and John follow him (1:19), and then Levi the tax collector follows him (2:14). Each leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.

These scenes set the pattern for the rest of the narrative bout the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one: Jesus challenges people to respond to him with an active, informed discipleship; to leave the comfort of the familiar and set out following him. He reiterates the call, “follow me”, in later scenes (8:34; 10:21).

The disciples in the narrative of Mark’s Gospel readily demonstrate this response. The disciples, and indeed a larger crowd, did indeed follow Jesus in his journeys around Galilee (2:15; 3:7; 5:24; 6:1; 10:28, 32, 52) and then southwards towards Jerusalem (11:9). Indeed, a group of women who followed him in Galilee continue all the way to Golgotha, watching from a distance as he dies (15:41).

But following Jesus is not just about walking along beside him. The Gospel account makes it clear that followers are to step beyond Jesus, to walk out ahead of him, into unchartered territory. Following Jesus (discipleship) involves being sent forth (mission). And Jesus does this very thing with his followers. He sends them out, on mission.

On the very first occasion when Jesus gathers 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). To be with him, following as disciples; and to be sent out, engaged in mission.

As the Gospel then reports how Jesus speaks and acts, the meaning of this discipleship and mission 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 from the start of the narrative (1:39). His earliest message was clear: “the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, believe the good news” (1:15). His activity, also, was striking: he rebukes unclean spirits (1:23–26), “healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons” (1:34).

These same activities form the basis for the work of the twelve as they leave Jesus and undertake his mission in the wider community (6:7–13). In this enterprise of mission, the disciples 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).

As they undertake this mission, the followers of Jesus are to be characterised by an ascetic mode of dress (6:8–9) as they undertake their public proclamation (6:10–11). Both elements deserve careful attention.

“He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in their belts— but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics.” So Jesus instructs his followers (6:8–9). In the parallel passages for this incident, Jesus is even more strict. In Luke, he prohibits sandals as well (Luke 10:3), and in Matthew, he prohibits both sandals and staff (Matt 10:10)

The description of the mode of dress for the followers of Jesus given here is often compared with the form of dress of a wandering philosopher, particularly of a Cynic philosopher.

Cynic philosophy is named after Diogenes of Sinope, who lived c.400–325 BCE. Diogenes was known as “the dog” (kunos, in Greek) because of his shameless and primitive style of living. Diogenes was given the nickname ‘the dog’ because of his shamelessness. He used to live in a barrel with his only possessions being a robe to wear and a stick to walk.

There are many stories told about Diogenes’ rebellious and nonconformist character. Those who promulgated his philosophy of life, called Cynicism, lived equally simple, basic lives. Sandals, a staff and a cloak characterised many of them (although it seems that a double cloak was worn by many).

Was Jesus telling his disciples to emulate the Cynic philosophers? They were itinerants, travelling from town to town, speaking their views with frankness and then moving on to the next town or village. The followers of Jesus were also to be itinerant, travelling from place to place, boldly proclaiming their message, and staying nowhere for too long.

The second century document, The Didache, clearly instructs followers of Jesus not to remain for more than two or three days in any one place (Didache 11–13). Jesus here is a bit more lenient; he doesn’t set a time limit, but instructs his followers to move on if they meet resistance. In this way, still, they were to emulate Jesus, as “the Son of Man who has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

It’s not at all clear that Jesus knew Cynic philosophy; the evidence of Cynic activity comes from places outside Israel. The Cynics were active long before Jesus, but continued on into his time, and beyond. Diogenes lived four centuries before Jesus, and adherents to his type of philosophy are known three centuries after the death of Jesus.

The second century CE writer, Diogenes Laertius, includes accounts of a number of key Cynic philosophers in his large work, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. The second century CE philosopher and orator, Dio of Prusa (nicknamed Chrysostom, meaning “golden-mouthed”), noted how many wandering Cynic philosophers were encountered in every town or village.

In his 32nd Oration, Dio describes the typical Cynic: “posting themselves at street-corners, in alley-ways, and at temple-gates, [they] pass around the hat and play upon the credulity of lads and sailors and crowds of that sort, stringing together rough jokes and much tittle-tattle and that low badinage that smacks of the market-place.”

Dio’s criticism continues: “they declaim speeches intended for display, and stupid ones to boot, or else chant verses of their own composition, as if they had detected in you a weakness for poetry. To be sure, if they themselves are really poets or orators, perhaps there is nothing so shocking in that, but if in the guise of philosophers they do these things with a view to their own profit and reputation, and not to improve you, that indeed is shocking.”

For Jesus to be calling his followers to a way of life that could be seen as comparable to this way of living, would be quite a challenge—and quite a shock.

Indeed, there may be a sign of differentiation from the Cynics. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported as saying that the features which distinguish a Cynic are “his provision-bag (peran) and his staff and his big mouth” (Arian, Discourses of Epictetus 3.22.50). Jesus states that his followers should carry a staff, and speak their message—but here he prohibits them from carrying a provision-bag (peran, 6:8).

Another point of differentiation may be the command not to put on two tunics (6:9). The Greek word used is chiton. The chiton was a knee-length tunic worn as an undergarment; Josephus reports the common practice of wearing two chitones when travelling (Antiquities 17.136).

Musonius Rufus (Epistle 19) notes that Cynics typically wore two tunics—a tribon over their chiton. The tribon was a more humble garment than a chiton, so the outward appearance projected by a Cynic would have been, quite deliberately, that of a person of very lowly status. But for Jesus, the direction to wear only one tunic reflects an even more ascetic mode of living.

Was Jesus deliberately projecting an image—and a reality—deliberately differentiated from the Cynics? Certainly, direct contact by Jews with wandering Cynic philosophers was most likely reasonably rare. And I think that Jesus isn’t advocating specifically that his followers emulate the Cynics.

Jesus has his own reasons for the call he makes. Being on the move and not tied down to one place, and living simply without all the extraneous baggage, reflected an ethos that Jesus wished to cultivate. The focus was to be on the message and the key actions of the disciples, not on any extraneous or additional elements.

Perhaps what is in mind here is the Exodus story, in which the Israelites prepare themselves to be on the move, with minimal complications. They are to wear their clothes (which lasted them the whole time—Deut 8:4, 29:5). They are to fasten their belt and carry their staff (Exod 12:11), and wear their sandals (Exod 12:11; Deut 29:5). They are to take no bread—God will provide in the form of manna and quail, falling from heaven.

The attention of the disciples, as they engage in mission, proclaiming the message, healing, and casting out demons, is to be directed entirely to the task at hand. They are directed away from carrying too many accoutrements, worrying about provisions, and to focus on the task of proclamation and healing. In this way they are to follow the example and pattern of Jesus.

For that is what he himself taught: “do not be anxious, saying ‘what shall we eat?’ or ‘what shall we wear’?” (Matt 6:31). And that is what Jesus himself did: “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt 8:20; Luke 9:58).

On not stereotyping Judaism when reading the Gospels (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The interlinked stories of the dying girl who had lived for 12 years (Mark 5:25–34) and the woman who has bled for 12 years (Mark 5:21–24, 35–43) are stories with a Jewish focus. They each contain the number 12, a very important number in Judaism. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/23/on-twelve-in-the-stories-of-the-bleeding-woman-and-the-dying-child-mark-5-pentecost-5b/

These two stories each tell of a way that Jesus offered hope to the woman and the girl. And they each deal with matters of protocol and behaviour within the Jewish holiness system.

Holiness was central to the people of Israel. Those who ministered to God within the Temple, as priests, were to be especially concerned about holiness in their daily life and their regular activities in the Temple (Exod 28-29; Lev 8-9). The priests oversaw the implementation of the Holiness Code, a large section of Leviticus (chapters 17–26), which explained the various applications of the word to Israel, that “you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2; also 20:7,26).

As well as overseeing the various offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought to the Temple, the priests provided guidance and interpretation in many matters of daily life, including sexual relationships and bodily illnesses, as well as the annual festivals and other ritual practices.

In the towns and villages of Israel, by contrast, the scribes and Pharisees provided guidance in the interpretation of Torah and in the application of Torah to ensure that holiness was observed in daily living. They undertook the highly significant task of showing how the Torah was relevant to the daily life of Jewish people. It was possible, they argued, to live as God’s holy people at every point of one’s life, quite apart from any pilgrimages made to the Temple in Jerusalem.

So the encounter of the bleeding woman with Jesus had implications in terms of how he interacted with someone suffering from a physical illness. This was a matter regulated by various laws, including, most prominently, a comprehensive catalogue of laws relating to skin diseases, or leprosy (Lev 13–14) and, more relevant to this story, bodily discharges (Lev 15).

These laws specify that, if blood was being discharged from the woman as menstrual blood (“her regular discharge from her body”) that required specific actions to deal with the uncleanness that this produced (Lev 15:19-24).

If it was for other reasons (“a discharge of blood … not at the time of her impurity”) another set of laws applies (Lev 15:25-30). The woman herself is not seen as unclean; but anything she touches, anything she sits or lies on, is regarded as unclean. The processes for maintaining a clean status in her household, avoiding these items of furniture, or even direct contact with the woman, would have been onerous.

Furthermore, the request of the synagogue leader to Jesus could possibly bring him into contact with a dead body—a matter that was regulated by laws (Lev 22:4; Num 5:1-2, 9:6-12, 19:11-13). Jairus says that the girl is “at the point of death” (5:23). The cries of the crowd (“your daughter is dead”, 5:35) and the weeping and wailing of the people outside the house (5:38) suggest that the rituals of mourning for a deceased person had already begun. Nevertheless, Jesus assures Jairus that the girl is not dead, but sleeping (5:35).

Another strongly Jewish element in the story of the bleeding woman in her belief that, if she touched the clothing of Jesus (most likely the fringes or tassels), she would be cured. Whilst the laws relating to bleeding indicate that the “direction” of things is that an unclean state touching a clean state renders the clean state unclean, the direction is reversed in this story. The power that resides in Jesus is able to overcome the uncleanness associated with the woman (5:29).

The way that Christians have often read the Levitical prescriptions has been to dismiss the so-called “cultic laws” and maintain adherence only to the moral imperatives embedded within the pages of details about ritual and worship. From this perspective, the stories included in the section of Mark’s Gospel that we are focussing on, it is said, reveal that Jesus ignored or dismissed the prescriptions of the Law. Jesus is seen to validate the attitude that the laws in the Old Testament are no longer valid.

But neither of these Gospel stories give any warrant for such a negative approach to the Holiness Code. In neither case does Jesus actually breach the provisions of the Law. Indeed, the way that the Law functions is misunderstood in so many Christian readings of this story, as well as other parts of the Gospels.

Rather than operating as a constraining imposition, the Law actually deals with real life situations and provides ways that these situations are to be dealt with or managed. The woman with a discharge “beyond the time of her impurity”, for instance, could remove her uncleanness by offering two turtle doves or two pigeons (Lev 15:29–30).

The Pharisees, it is often said, imposed numerous demands on the people. They “made a fence around the law”—a phrase derived from the opening words of Pirke Aboth (The Sayings of the Fathers), a tractate in the Mishnah. The tractate begins:

“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be patient in [the administration of] justice, raise many disciples and make a fence round the Torah.”

Making a fence around the Law is apparently derived from Deut 22:8, which in one translation instructs that when you are building a house, you must build a fence around the rook, roof in order to avoid guilt should someone fall off the roof.

The Pharisees were operating as ancient fence-makers (or gatekeepers, if you will), ensuring that people operated within the bounds of what was required by the Law. Of course, each time a particular law is invoked in a specific situation, it needs to be applied to that situation, interpreted as to how it might apply. That goes for laws in society today, as much as it does for laws in the ancient Jewish society.

The criticisms that Jesus makes of those who follow the Law and teach the Law need to be seen as debates taking place within Judaism, not as criticisms made from outside Judaism. Jesus was a Jew, living in Jewish lands, trained in understanding the Torah, engaged in applying it to situations in life. His words reflect his interpretation of the Law, not a rejection per se of the Law, as he participates in the culture, practices, and customs of his people.

Christians and Jews have had difficult relationships over the years. The difficulties have been based on misunderstandings, accusations, and the damaging intensification that comes through polemical debate, where careful listening and understanding have been absent. That has been the case, sadly, when matters associated with the application of the Law is concerned.

The Gospel passage for this Sunday reminds us of this lack of appreciation, and invites us to commit to a positive appreciation of Jewish traditions and practices, recognising that Judaism continues as a living faith today, and acknowledging that Jesus was engaged in interpretation, not rejection, of the Law. And in the midst of this, he offers hope to a woman who had suffered for 12 years, and a girl of 12 who was on the point of death.

On ‘twelve’ in the stories of the bleeding woman and the dying child (Mark 5; Pentecost 5B)

The Gospel reading that is offered by the revised common lectionary this coming Sunday is a two-for-one deal. The story of Jesus’ encounter with a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5:25–34) is surrounded by the story of his encounter with one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus and his dying daughter (5:21–24, 35–43).

Jesus heals the woman who reached out to touch his clothing, telling her, “daughter, your faith has made you well” (5:34a) and commanding her to be healed (5:34b). Jesus reassures the synagogue leader with the exhortation, “do not fear, only believe” (5:36), informs him that his daughter “is not dead, but sleeping” (5:40), and raises her with the Aramaic phrase, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!” (5:41).

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is simply a favourite technique employed by the writer of this Gospel. There are a number of stories that are connected in this way (often called “intercalation”, or “sandwiching”). The scene at the family home wraps Jesus’ engagement with his family around an interaction with the scribes (3:22–30). The sending out of the disciples and their return bookends the account of the death of John the baptiser (6:7–30).

The words and actions of Jesus in relation to the fig tree by the road are placed around his actions in the Temple forecourt (11:12–25). The plot to arrest and kill Jesus encompasses the account of the woman in Bethany who anoints the head of Jesus (14:1–11). Other examples are found in the apocalyptic discourse (13:5-27), the scene of the final meal (14:18-25), and the scene of Jesus before the Sanhedrin, with Peter’s denial immediately before and after this scene (14:53-72). It appears to be a favourite technique in this Gospel.

Why are these stories connected? Perhaps it is the significant number 12 that links these stories? The woman had been bleeding for 12 years; the girl was 12 years of age. The woman had been bleeding since the child had been born. Was there a connection?

I’ve recently read an explanation that draws on the preserve of 12 in both stories as the linking point. James F. McGrath, in his recently-published book, What Jesus Learned from Women (cascade, 2021), notes that the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years was in danger of being considered ritually impure, and thus of being ostracised from community life. Jairus, as ruler of the synagogue, was responsible for ensuring that the requirements for ritual purity were maintained.

The number 12, McGrath suggests, provides a reminder that “these very women whose stories highlight the danger of ritual impurity associated with women in that ancient society are nevertheless part of the people of Israel, and thus worthy of healing and restoration into that community” (p.115). Indeed, as he notes, “women were the ones who made them ongoing existence of the tribes of Israel possible generation to generation thought their reproductive role and power”.

Certainly, 12 was an important number for the Jewish people who were the main characters in the stories told in Mark 5. The prominence of 12 makes the stories seem especially Jewish.

There were 12 sons of Jacob (Gen 49:1–28), then 12 tribes of Israel (Deut 27:12–13). On the table in the Tabernacle were placed 12 silver plates, 12 silver dishes, and 12 golden plates (Num 7:84–89), and the breastplate of the priest contained 12 precious stones (Exod 28:21) as emblems of the 12 tribes as they camped round about the Sanctuary.

Moses built an altar at the foot of Mount Sinai with 12 pillars (Exod 24:4) and Joshua had the people take 12 stones from the River Jordan to be placed as a memorial to their entry into the land (Josh 4:1–10).

As the story continues in the Gospels, Jesus chose 12 apostles as his inner circle (Mark 3:13–19 and parallels in Matt 10 and Luke 6; and John 6:67–71). Jesus indicates that this signified the link between his movement and the traditions of Israel (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30; and see James 1:1). When Jesus feeds the great crowd of 4,000 people beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:1–9), there are twelve baskets of bread left over (Mark 8:19). In another account, with 5,000 men beside the Sea of Galilee (John 6:1–14), the leftovers are again collected in twelve baskets (John 6:13).

And in the final dramatic visions written about the promised future by the aged seer John, the number 12 figures prominently. We see this first in the vision of a woman wearing a crown with 12 stars (Rev 12:1). The number then appears in the architecture of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:10), with its 12 gates with 12 angels and the names of the 12 tribes (Rev 21:12), and its 12 foundations with the names of the 12 apostles (Rev 21:14). Finally, there are 12 pearls on these 12 gates (Rev 21:21) and 12 fruits on the tree of life (Rev 22:2).

Is the emphasis on 12 in these conjoined stories in Mark 5 underlining the Jewish setting, and pointing to the centrality of Jewish matters in the story? It’s a fascinating hypothesis.

My wife, Elizabeth Raine, suggests that the significance of the 12 relates to being able to be married. The adult woman in the story is able to marry once her bleeding of 12 years has ended. She is healed (5:29), saved (5:34, often translated as “made well”), and made clean (5:34b). The girl, brought back from the brink of death at 12 years of age, is approaching the time when women were able to be married.

Whether you think this is a legitimate explanation, or not, it is certain that the two stories offer hope for both women. Their encounters with Jesus have each been life-changing.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/24/on-not-stereotyping-judaism-when-reading-the-gospels-mark-5-pentecost-5b/