4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shaping the story to focus on the passion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table: The Passion Narrative in The Gospel of Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus, the righteous sufferer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stories in Mark’s Gospel

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

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

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

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

The narrative of the passion of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Where has Mark gone ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 The structure of the passion narrative in Mark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forty days, led by the Spirit: Jesus in the wilderness (Mark 1; Lent 1)

This week we once more read and hear from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, the chosen one, which we attribute to the evangelist Mark. We hear specifically this Sunday from the very beginning of the story that Mark tells, about the very early stages of the public activity of Jesus.

We have already read about John the baptiser during Advent (Advent 2), and heard Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus (Epiphany 1). Now, in this week’s Gospel reading (Lent 1), Jesus is baptised, plunged deep into the water, from which he emerges changed (1:9-11).

This scene is sometimes regarded as Jesus attesting in public to a deeply personal religious experience that he had in his encounter with John, who had been preaching his message of repentance with some vigour (1:4-11). His encounter with John deepens his faith and sharpens his commitment.

The relationship between Jesus and John is interesting. In the orderly account of things being fulfilled, which we attribute to Luke, it is clear from the start that John is related to Jesus (Luke 1:36). By tradition, they are considered to be cousins–although the biblical text does not anywhere expressly state this.

It seems also that some of the early followers of Jesus had previously been followers of John himself. This is evidenced in the book of signs, which we attribute to the evangelist John. Andrew, later to be listed among the earliest group of followers of Jesus, appears initially as one of two followers of John (John 1:35-40). They express interest in what John is teaching (John 1:39).

Andrew is the brother of Simon Peter, later acknowledged as the leader of the disciples of Jesus. He tells his brother about Jesus. It is Peter who comes to a clear and definitive understanding of the significance of Jesus, even at this very early stage: “we have found the Messiah” (John 1:41). Andrew and John are thenceforth committed disciples of Jesus.

Was Jesus engaging in “sheep-stealing”? Certainly, the dynamic in the narrative is of a movement shifting away from John the baptiser towards Jesus the Messiah; the juxtaposition of these two religious figures can be seen at a number of points (John 1:20, 29-34, 35-36; see also 3:22-30).

See further thoughts on John the baptiser in John’s Gospel at https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/07/the-witness-of-john/ and https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/16/john-the-baptizer-and-jesus-the-anointed-in-the-book-of-signs-the-gospel-of-john/

None of this is in view in the account we read in this Sunday’s Gospel. The rapid-fire movement in this opening chapter simply takes us from John, baptising in the Jordan, to Jesus at the Jordan and then in the wilderness, and on into Galilee, beside the lake and in Capernaum (Mark 1:1-45).

See my comments on the character of Mark 1 at https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

Mark has no concern with exploring the relationship between Jesus and John. He wishes only to indicate that, at the critical moment of the beginning of the public activity of Jesus, it was through contact with John, his message and his actions, that Jesus was impelled into his mission.

*****

The Gospel account moves quickly on from the baptism, to a very different scene, set in the wilderness, where Jesus is tested, challenged about his call (1:12-15). The wilderness was the location of testing for Israel (Exod 17:1-7; Num 11:1-15; Deut 8:2). By the same token, the wilderness was also the place where “Israel tested God” (Num 14:20-23), when Israel grumbled and complained to God (see Exod 14-17, Num 11 and 14). Wilderness and testing go hand-in-hand.

The reference to Jesus being forty days in the wilderness evokes both the “forty years” of wilderness wandering for the people of Israel (Exod 16:35; Deut 2:7, 8:2, 29:5; Neh 9:21; Amos 2:10, 5:25), as well as the “forty days” that Moses spent fasting on Mount Sinai (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9-11,18,25; 10:10).

Forty, however, should be regarded not as a strict chronological accounting, but as an expression indicating “an extended period of time”, whether that be in days or in years. It points to the symbolic nature of the account.

We see this usage of forty, for instance, in the comment in Judges, that “the land had rest forty years” (Judges 5:31, 8:28)–a statement that really means “for quite a long time”. Likewise, Israel was “given into the hands of the Philistines forty years” (Judges 13:1) and Eli the priest served for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18).

David the king reigned for 40 years (2 Sam 5:4, 1 Kings 2:11; 1 Chron 29:27), his son Solomon then reigned for another 40 years (1 Kings 11:42; 2 Chron 9:30), as also did Jehoash (2 Kings 12:1) and his son Jeroboam (2 Kings 14:23). If we take these as precise chronological periods, it is all very neat and tidy and orderly–and rather unbelievable!

Other instances of forty point to the same generalised sense of an extended time. Elijah journeyed from Mount Carmel to Mount Horeb “forty days and forty nights” (1 Kings 19:8), whilst the prophet Ezekiel’s announcement of punishments lasting forty years (Ezekiel 29:10-13) is intended to indicate “for a long time”, not for a precise chronological period. Jonah’s prophecy that there will be forty days until Nineveh is overthrown (Jonah 3:4) has the same force.

So the story of the testing of Jesus for “forty days in the wilderness” is not a precise accounting of exact days, but draws on a scriptural symbol for an extended, challenging period of time.

Details about the conversation that took place whilst Jesus was being tested in the wilderness are provided in the accounts in the Gospels attributed to Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13). This is not the case in Mark, where the much shorter account (1:12-13) focusses attention on the key elements of this experience: the wilderness, testing, wild beasts, angels–and the activity of the Spirit.

For more on Jesus in the wilderness, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/08/sacred-place-and-sacred-scripture-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-2/ and https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/05/a-testing-time-forty-days-in-the-wilderness-1/

*****

The Markan account of this period of testing is typically concise and focussed. The constituent elements in the story continue the symbolic character of the narrative.

The note that “he was with the wild beasts” sounds like the wilderness experience was a rugged time of conflict and tension for Jesus. However, commentators note that the particular Greek construction employed here is found elsewhere in this Gospel to describe companionship and friendly association: Jesus appointed twelve apostles “to be with him” (3:14); the disciples “took him [Jesus] with them onto the boat” (4:36); the man previously possessed by demons begged Jesus “that he might be with him” (5:14); and a servant girl declares to Peter that she saw “you also were with Jesus” (14:67).

If this Greek construction bears any weight, then it is pointing to the companionable, friendly association of the wild beasts with Jesus—a prefiguring of the eschatological harmony envisaged at the end of time, when animals and humans all live in harmony (Isaiah 11:6-9; Hosea 2:18). The wilderness scene has a symbolic resonance, then, with this vision.

Alongside the wild beasts, angels are present—and their function is quite specifically identified as “waiting on him” (1:13). The Greek word used here is most certainly significant. The word diakonein has the basic level of “waiting at table”, but in Markan usage it is connected with service, as we see in the descriptions of Peter’s healed mother-in-law (1:31), the women who followed Jesus as disciples from Galilee to the cross (15:41), and most clearly in the saying of Jesus that he came “not to be served, but to serve” (10:45). The service of the angels symbolises the ultimate role that Jesus will undertake.

Finally, we note that the whole scene of the testing of Jesus takes place under the impetus of the Spirit, which “drove him out into the wilderness” (1:12). This was the place that Jesus just had to be; the action of the Spirit, so soon after descending on him like a dove (1:11), reinforces the importance and essential nature of the testing that was to take place in the wilderness.

And the action of driving out is expressed in a single word which contains strong elements of force—the word is used to describe the confrontational moment of exorcism (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 9:18, 28, 38) and is also used with great force at 11:15. The testing in the wilderness becomes a moment when Jesus comes face to face with his adversary, Satan—and casts his power aside. The more developed dialogues in Matthew and Luke expand on this understanding of the encounter.

*****

Both of the key elements in this reading (baptism and testing) serve a key theological purpose in Mark’s narrative. They shape Jesus for what lies ahead. They signal that Jesus was dramatically commissioned by God, then rigorously equipped for the task he was then to undertake amongst his people. The two elements open the door to the activities of Jesus that follow in the ensuing 13 chapters, right up to the time when the long-planned plot against Jesus, initiated at 3:6, is put into action (14:1-2).

Of course, this story is offered in the lectionary each year on the first Sunday in the season of Lent. It serves as an introduction to the whole season. Jesus being tested in the wilderness points forward, to the series of events taking place in Jerusalem, that culminate in his crucifixion, death, and burial.

The narrative arc of Mark’s Gospel runs from the baptism and wilderness testing, through to death at Golgotha and burial in a tomb. The weekly pattern of Gospel readings during Lent follows a parallel path, from the wilderness testing of Lent 1, to the entry into Jerusalem on Lent 6, the farewell meal on Maundy Thursday, and the death and burial on Good Friday.

That is the path that Jesus trod. That is the way that he calls us to walk.

Transfigured lives—in the here and now (Mark 9 and 1 Kings 2)

Every year at this point of the year, the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we read the story of Jesus on the mountain, when “his clothes became dazzling white”, and—quite amazingly—Moses and Elijah appear alongside him (Mark 9:2-8). This is a story which pierces the constraints of history, which gathers three greats of the faith together.

Alongside this story, on each of the three years in the lectionary cycle, we read a companion story from Hebrew Scripture. This year, we read a story about Elijah—the moment when he passes the mantle of his prophetic leadership to Elisha, and “ascended in a whirlwind into heaven” (1 Kings 2:1-12). This story also breaks open the constraints of how we normally see life, as the whirlwind whisks Elijah into the heavens.

Both stories are pertinent for the times we are living; both stories are relevant to the context of a global pandemic, rolling lockdowns, restrictions on social gatherings, and constraints on “life as normal” (at least as we knew it up to this point in time).

Both stories invite us to look carefully for those moments when things suddenly look different from what we were expecting. We had become so accustomed to life with no limits on travel, no constraints on gathering, shaking hands and hugging, eating together without a second thought, visiting friends and family in other suburbs, other cities, whenever we wished. All of those things have changed over the last year. Life is different. Our patterns of behaviour are different. Life looks very different.

Both stories invite us to undertake a process of discernment; to perceive how the heavenly realm is breaking into the earthly realm; to sense how the barrier between heaven and earth is opened wide. That’s the special gift of these stories at this time of the year, as this season of Epiphany draws to a close. Where is God, in what is happening to us now?

In Celtic Christian spirituality, such moments when we perceive just how different things are, are called “thin places”. The thin place offers an opportunity to glimpse a different dimension, to review the regularity of our lives, to grasp a vision of the deeper things of faith, to sense a deeper reality in the midst of the mundane.

Now, describing the onset of a global pandemic as a “thin place” is a big call. We need to be careful about how we describe an event that has resulted in millions of deaths, caused deep grief to many millions of people, stretched already over-stretched medical resources to breaking point, ensured that hundreds of millions of people will have long term enduring medical conditions well into the coming decade (and beyond), and upturned the way of life of almost every human being on the planet.

But could it be, that in this moment of challenge, overturning established patterns, reshaping familiar practices, reimagining ways of living—could it be that this was in fact a “thin place”, a moment when a force from beyond breaks into the mundane, when heavenly realities reset earthly patterns?

The stories in our readings this week invite us to consider how this might be.

******

The story of the Transfiguration tells of the moment that Peter, James, and John perceived Jesus in a new way. No longer did they see him as the man from Nazareth. In this moment, they see him as filled to overflowing with divine glory. He was not simply the son of Joseph; he was now the divinely-chosen, God-anointed, Beloved Son (Mark 9:7).

Jesus brings the heavenly realm right to the earthly disciples. They had the possibility, in that moment of time, to feel intensely close to the heavenly realm, to stand in the presence of God. They symbolise the desire of human beings, to reach out into the beyond, to grasp hold of what is transcendent—to get to heaven, as that is where God is (see Gen 28:10-12 and Deut 30:12; Pss 11:4, 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19; although compare the sense of God being everywhere in Ps 139:8-12).

But how were they then to get to heaven, the perceived dwelling-place of God?

Elijah. The story of Elijah, known to these Jewish men from their religious upbringing, hearing the stories of scripture, offers one possibility. The account in 1 Kings 2 indicates that it might, indeed, be possible for a human being to go straight to heaven, to be with God. This was the experience of Elijah.

Elijah did not die; he was simply whisked up directly into heaven. He had a “get out of gaol free” card, as it were; go straight to heaven, do not pass the moment of death, go straight to heaven. If it was possible for him—could it not also be possible for us?

Elijah, on the mountain, standing beside the shining, dazzling figure of the transfigured Jesus, represents this possibility. Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Elijah?

Moses. Standing next to Elijah, however, was Moses. And Moses represents another, very different, way of gaining access to the presence of God. It was to Moses that the commandments of the Torah were given. It was to Moses that every tiny detail, every instruction and regulation and commandment of the Torah, was given, so that he might pass them on, in turn, to the people of Israel.

Following the way of holiness and obedience that was set forth in the Torah, was another way by which faithful people might gain access to heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obedience to the Law was the pathway, in this case.

Those who would diligently and scrupulously keep all the commandments which Moses had instructed, would find their pathway to heaven set forth with assurance. Such people would be finding heaven as their place of destiny, after they had achieved fulfilment of the laws. (Perhaps the claim of the rich man in Mark 10:17-20 reflects this kind of understanding.)

Were the three followers of Jesus thinking about this possibility as they saw Jesus, transfigured, alongside Moses? Did they envisage a pathway to heaven through their faithful obedience to all the prescriptions of Torah? After all, Jesus had explicitly affirmed those who keep the commandments as “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:28-34).

However, the larger story of Jesus, told in the various accounts created by the early evangelists, makes it clear that, for Jesus, and for those who follow him, neither of these pathways are, in fact, the way to gain access to the heavenly realm where God dwells.

******

Jesus. For Jesus, in contrast to Elijah, ascending into heaven in order to be with God, and Moses, advocating adherence to Torah in order to be with God, the aim is to bring the kingdom of heaven, and all that entails, into life on earth in the here and now.

“Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ( Mart 6:10) is what Jesus is said to have instructed his followers to pray. His was a mission, not to enable his followers to ascend into heaven, but to bring down to earth, from the heavenly realm, the rule of God.

The moment of being transfigured, for Jesus, was a moment that signalled the gracious presence of God on earth, amongst the creatures of God’s creation. The transfigured Jesus, shining forth the glory of God on the mountaintop, symbolised the possibility, for his followers on the mountain, and for his followers in subsequent times and places, that they might have the glory of God shining from their lives in the here and now.

For us, today, as followers of Jesus in own time, that means that we are called into a commitment to serve others who are around us, to work for justice for those we encounter, to seek to do what is right here and now, to love our neighbours—immediate and far away—as we love ourselves and love God and God’s ways.

As we do this, we might realise that keeping the law offered in the covenant with God is integral to our discipleship; and whilst we fix our vision on the ultimate goal (heaven—the kingdom of God—the vision of God’s way—whatever we might call it), the work that we undertake in the here and now is actually the full realisation of that ultimate goal.

As the story of Jesus itself indicates, the way that Jesus took to realising the reality of heaven on earth is through submission and death. The Apostles Creed affirms that Jesus “descended to the dead; on the third day he rose again”. Jesus models the pathway of dying to self in order to rise as a new self. All of this takes place within this life, for the sake of this life.

Following Jesus. The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is surrounded by teachings which highlight this central element for his faithful followers. Immediately before ascending to the mountaintop, Jesus states that “the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (8:31).

He follows this with a clear word of commission to his followers: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (8:34-35).

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

And for a third time, some time later on, Jesus declares, “we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again” (10:34-35), followed, once more, by clear instructions to his followers: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (10:43-44).

This is what it means to perceive the glory of God in our midst in the transfigured Jesus, and to commit to follow him in all of life—here, now, in the present. And this story invites us to look at our present times with new eyes—to see the glory of God in our midst in unexpected and enlivening ways!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/26/bringing-his-exodos-to-fulfilment/

The whole city? (Mark 1) Let’s take that with a grain of salt

Should we take everything we read in the Bible as clear, unquestionable fact? I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean that we toss everything out. We need to be critically discerning.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading is a case in point (Mark 1:29-38). There’s a brief reference to a crowd scene, outside the house of the mother-in-law of Simon Peter, in Capernaum. After the healing that took place inside, word spreads, and people begin to gather outside. That then provides the basis for the healing and exorcising activities of Jesus (1:29-34).

How big was the crowd that gathered outside the house? Mark makes the claim that “the whole city was gathered around the door” (1:33). Now that is some crowd: the whole population, outside one house in the town!

It is thought that the population of a town like Capernaum in the first century would have been about 1,500 people. So that’s quite a crowd squeezed into the street next to this little house!

For myself, I take such a claim with a pinch of salt. (That’s a saying that is thought to have originated with Pliny the Elder, who included a recipe for an antidote to poison, in his Natural History, that included “a grain of salt”.)

In other words, whilst there is some truth to what is said, let’s not take it uncritically, unthinkingly, literally. There were lots of people there; but not every one, not every single inhabitant of Capernaum. Mark most likely is here exaggerating.

He has already indicated that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5). After his teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), he becomes renowned “throughout the surrounding region of Galilee” (1:28), visited by “all who were sick or possessed with demons”, indeed by “the whole city” (1:32-33).

Then he is told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and so he sets off, touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). Much later in the story, Mark declares that in Jerusalem, “the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching” (11:18).

Lots of exaggerations there!

We find the same in Luke’s writings. For instance, after they were arrested in Philippi and incarcerated in prison, Paul and Silas are praying. Suddenly, we read that “a great earthquake” shakes open the prison doors (16:26). The universal scope of the earthquake’s impact (“all the doors opened … everyone’s chains unfastened”) is striking, but perhaps a Lukan exaggeration. Everyone was set free? Really?

This is characteristic of the Lukan narrative—notice how many times “all” the people say, or do something (Luke 3:21, 4:14, 20, 22, 28, 36, 40, 5:26, 6:17, 19, 7:16, 17, 29, 8:37, 40, 52, 9:43, 13:17, 18:43, 19:7, 48, 21:38, 23:5, 48, 49; Acts 3:11, 4:16, 9:35, 17:21, 19:10, 19:17, 22:12, 26:4). That’s a lot of “all the people” doing things and saying things in complete unison! I take this as a sign of his literary licence. He’s a garrulous story-teller, not a clinical historian.

And Matthew is not immune from the same tendency. Some of the sayings of Jesus that are reported in this Gospel reveal the same tendency to extremism, hyperbole, exaggeration. For instance, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away… and if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell”. (Matt 5:29). Who obeys that command?

And similarly, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt 7:3) Who has ever had a log of wood in their eye? A splinter, maybe— but not a log. And when Jesus condemned the Pharisees , he berated them as “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:24). Again: imagine swallowing a camel. Urgh. That has to be excessive exaggeration, told for dramatic impact, and not an actual documentary description.

So let’s not get hung up on rigid literalistic readings of scripture. Let’s allow for the artistic input of each evangelist—and, indeed, for the creative impact of Jesus himself, as he exaggerates and overdraws his words for the sake of making an impact. And let’s read with careful attention to the symbolic sense of the story, rather than focussing on the words as the literal truth.

And have that pinch of salt at the ready!!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/21/textual-interplay-stories-of-jesus-in-mark-1-and-the-prophets-of-israel/

Textual interplay: stories of Jesus in Mark 1 and the prophets of Israel

The Revised Common Lectionary is shaped with deliberate intention, offering a selection from Hebrew Scripture each week, alongside a portion of the designated a gospel for the year (this year, Year B, it is Mark). For about half the year, there is no specific intention to correlate the Hebrew Scripture passage with the Gospel passage. In some seasons, however, there is a careful selection of the Hebrew Scripture passage, so that it resonates with and complements or intensifies themes in the Gospel passage.

This appears to be the case in the season of Epiphany, during Year B. Whilst the Gospel sections largely trace the opening scenes of Mark (1:1-3:6), the Hebrew Scripture sections are drawn from a range of Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, 1 Samuel, Jonah, Deuteronomy, Malachi, Hosea, and stories about Elisha in 2 Kings. (Not all of these passages, nor all of Mark 1:1-3:6, appear in Epiphany in 2021; in other years, when Easter is later in the year, the season of Epiphany stretches over more weeks, as the image below indicates.)

The selection of a prophetic passage alongside, and directly oriented towards, a Gospel passage, invites readers and hearers of these scripture passages to explore in creative ways what themes are highlighted. Back in Advent 2, Isaiah 40:1-11 was offered alongside Mark 1:1-8, the account of the activities of John the baptiser in the wilderness. The logic of this is clear; the Gospel actually directly quotes Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:2b-3, depicting John as “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’.”

On the feast of the Baptism of Jesus, Hebrew Scripture passages underline the breaking open of the heavens for the voice of the Lord to be heard (Ps 29:3-9 and Gen 1:3; see Mark 1:11). The words of that heavenly voice are drawn from Psalm 2:7 (“you are my Son”) and Isaiah 42:1 (“with you I am well-pleased”).

In following weeks, there are clear resonances of theme between the two selections. On Epiphany 3 (24 January), both Jonah 3:1-10 and Mark 1:14-20 recount call stories. We read the story of Jonah, called to proclaim God’s message to the city of Nineveh, alongside the story of Andrew and Simon Peter, John and James, called to become followers of Jesus.

Jonah is effective in his proclamation to Nineveh, which in turn provokes God to change his mind about the calamity that he had promised for them. That is power!! But this was the second call that Jonah had received (3:1); the first had ended in quite a catastrophe (Jonah was thrown overboard and swallowed whole, 1:15-17).

Andrew and Peter, John and James undergo a period of learning-on-the-road with Jesus, before they start to proclaim with power. Theirs was a slowly-evolving call, requiring diligent attention and persistence. And other calls following this pattern are narrated by Mark—Levi (2:15), a crowd following him (8:34-36), and women in Galilee (15:40-41).

On Epiphany 4 (31 January), words attributed to Moses in Deut 18:15-20 are placed alongside Mark 1:21-28. These passages address the question: once we are called by God—then what?? Deut 18 contains a story about the promise God made to Israel, to “raise up a prophet”, while Mark 1 tells the story of the man possessed in the synagogue in Capernaum, who was exorcised by Jesus.

Both stories focus on the distinctive nature of faith in the particular contexts of these stories. The prophet of Israel stands over against “other gods” (Isa 40:20). Jesus of Nazareth is recognised as one who speaks “a new teaching—with authority” (Mark 1:27).

Both stories indicate that being faithful to the call will place us in challenging, daunting, perhaps even threatening situations. Faith is a call to trust in God as we enter into those situations. How is your call being challenged? How are you responding?

On Epiphany 5 (7 February), Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39 offer stories at the start of a significant period of ministry; an unnamed prophet of Israel, speaking to the people as they prepare to step into the wilderness, journeying to the promised land; and Jesus, interacting with people soon after his own wilderness experience (Mark 1:12-13). Both passages are set at the start of a significant period of time; both stories reveal important things about the nature of God, and the ways that God engages with human beings in their lives.

God is portrayed as powerful and sovereign in Isaiah 40; that was comforting and reassuring for the journeying Israelites. God comes with power, also, in Jesus; yet in his humanity, Jesus needs time to replenish and rejuvenate (Mark 1:35).

His example tells us that we need to hold in balance the desire to do great things, with the need to care for ourselves and remain connected with God.

In other years, we would follow on to explore the interplay of passages in Mark 2 and 3 with excerpts from 2 Kings 5, Isaiah 43, Hosea 2, and Deuteronomy 5. But this year, Epiphany ends on 14 February, the last Sunday before Lent. On this day, the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus, in the presence of Moses and Elijah (Mark 9:2-9) is linked, quite understandably, with the account of Elijah ascending into heaven, after his mantle is passed on to Elisha (2 Kings 2:1-12).

This account contains the second of three occasions in Mark’s Gospel where we encounter the voice of God, affirming his Son, in the words, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” (Mark 9:7; cf. Ps 2:7). The other instances are at the Baptism of Jesus (1:11) and at his Crucifixion (15:39, although this affirmation is placed on the lips of the centurion who was guarding him).

The three occurrences of this affirmation encompass the whole Markan narrative within this clear claim about Jesus—echoing the very title of this work: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God “ (1:1).

Readings for Epiphany 2021, from the website
of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library in the USA,
http://divinity.library.vanderbilt.edu/

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/01/18/lets-get-down-to-business-beginning-the-story-of-jesus-mark-1/

and https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/