What can love hope for? A review.

Bill Loader is widely-known, much-consulted, and greatly loved across the Uniting Church. He has had a fine career as a leading biblical scholar, teaching for decades at Murdoch University and publishing prolifically with prestigious international publishers.

This academic career has sat alongside an active involvement in the Uniting Church, preaching in local Congregations, teaching regular sessions with lay leaders, and forming ministers and deacons for their ministries. His website with its scholarly yet accessible discussions of lectionary texts (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/home.html) attracts regular readership, not only from Uniting Church people, but from preachers right around the world

Out of this wealth of experience comes this slim but rich offering: ten succinct chapters (most only ten to twelve pages long) on topics of key theological import: the significance of Jesus, the good news for the poor, how to understand the cross, the place of other faiths, God’s wrath and God’s justice, the place of the Law, miracles and faith, God and love–and, of course, marriage and sexuality. All in 110 pages.

Each chapter ends with a focused “question for reflection”, to encourage ongoing consideration of the topic at hand. The book itself ends with a bonus afterword, setting out Bill’s personal journey “from fundamentalism to fundamentals”. The afterword concludes, “we all walk with some grit in our shoes in religious and cultural contexts where its awareness is possible even if, by and large, its removal is not” (p.130).

Loader seeks to work with the irritants provided by this “grit” in a constructive and hope-filled way, to indicate how, in the midst of contentious discussions, people of faith are able to discern “what brings life and health”. In Chapter 5, whose title also provides the title of the book, he concludes that we ought “to be a just and caring society that is inclusive and to care for the world and its future inhabitants” (p.46).

It’s no surprise that the enduringly contentious issue of marriage and sexuality is addressed (in chapter 10, the longest chapter). Bill Loader has made many contributions to the long-running discussions of these matters–leading workshops and producing resources pitched at a popular level, undergirded especially by the academic research and writing undertaken during his five years as a professorial fellow with Australian Research Council funding.

This chapter makes clear the two key pillars of his well-considered views: one, that Paul reflects the common first century belief that “all people are heterosexual”, so anyone identifying as homosexual is “in an unnatural state of being as a result of sin” (p.111); and two, that in some circumstances “it is not appropriate, indeed it is irresponsible, to apply what Paul says” to contemporary situations (also p.111).

Thus, Loader affirms that “the Bible does not tell it all on these matters any more than it did on matters of women and divorce” (p.112). Such honesty about matters hermeneutical is to be commended. As is the case in each chapter, the reader is invited to give serious personal consideration to how biblical passages are to be brought into engagement with contemporary situations and considerations.

But the book is not just about marriage and sexuality. There is much more that is explored in its pages.

Chapter 5 (whose title, as we have noted, provides the title for the whole book) begins with a further observation about the process of interpretation: “There is a 2,000-year gap between believers in today’s twenty-first-century world and those of the first century”, such that “to engage the writings of the New Testament is to engage in a cross-cultural encounter with all the respect and opportunity for learning and enrichment which that entails” (p.35).

Starting with the fact that New Testament texts expect a return of Jesus within the lifetime of those then alive, the chapter canvasses the eschatological vision of the kingdom, various parables of Jesus, the function of the risen Jesus, and the resurrection body, leading to the conclusion that we, today, are to “reconfigure our approach to hope, retaining the central [first century] substance, but not their notions of timing and manner of its achievement” (p.45).

In this way, Loader models the task of the interpreter, be they preacher, Bible study leader, scholar, or individual disciple. Immersion into the culture, customs, languages, perspectives of the ancient texts is as important as thoughtful, reflective consideration of what is heard and seen in the text, in the light of contemporary understandings, insights, and perspectives. (Somewhat like what paragraphs 5 and 11 of the UCA Basis of Union affirms.)

There is much more to be said about this delightful book; but only one comment needs to be made here. This is a book worth buying, reading, studying (alone or with others), and engaging with wholeheartedly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coping in the aftermath of COVID-19: a global perspective, a local response

Now that 2020 is behind us, and 2021 lies ahead of us, we are beginning to consider how we might deal with the aftermath of the pandemic. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread around the globe, bringing the COVID-19 disease to millions of people—including some that we may know personally.

We have been dealing for many months now, with the lockdowns, restrictions on gatherings, inability to travel, loss of worship and fellowship times, greater vigilance with hand washing and social distancing. Coping with all of these factors requires careful attention, and patience.

One thing is for certain: life is going to be different post-COVID. For my part, I reckon that we will be pushed back to living our lives much more locally. Whilst we see the pandemic still raging in so many countries around the world, in Australia we have been fortunate to have been spared the very worst of the situation. It has felt bad, but (excepting those grieving for the loss of a loved one from COVID-19), it has been nowhere as bad as it has been for many millions of people in other countries.

For us in Australia, I would think that there will at least be regional connections that will be possible in the good times, and hard lockdowns that may come in the difficult moments. There will be minimal international travel for many more months (even years) yet, and limited interstate travel, fluctuating from time to time between “open borders”, limited travel, and “hard borders”.

We know we won’t be controlling the spread of the virus and the rate of infection until vaccinations have been rolled out; indeed, that assumes that current vaccinations will be effective against the newly-emerging variants of the virus.

So what is clear, is that nothing will “stay the same” for any real length of time. We will be shifting and shuffling week after week, for at least another year. We will just have to adjust and accept this. We have these shifts and changes in recent ones, with the Avalon and Berala clusters in Sydney, and now the Holiday Inn cluster in Melbourne.

These changes and adaptations will apply to our daily lives in society, as much as to our church lives in congregations and faith communities.

As I was thinking about this a few days ago, I started reading a newsletter from one of the NGOs that Elizabeth and I support—an organisation that works in the poorest and most needy countries of the world. It does good work: bringing fresh water supplies and sustainable “climate-smart” farming methods to local communities, developing local industries that will provide support for families, providing medical and psychological support to strengthen the mental health of communities, responding to crisis situations in countries with poor infrastructure, and (for the past year) offering guidance in appropriate COVID-safe practices.

The pandemic has hit us—and it has hit others around the world. But as we reflect on how we have been impacted, let us remember that people who are poor and vulnerable have been hardest hit by the impacts of the pandemic. Here are some key examples.

Hand hygiene. In the poorest tier of nations, 3 out of 4 people do not have immediate access to clean water and soap. How do they do their “20-second hand wash singing Happy Birthday” multiple times each day? (See the discussion by the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention at https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/hygiene/ldc/index.html)

Job insecurity. Half of the world’s workers (1.6 billion people) rely on jobs in the informal economy. They don’t have job security with equitable pay and conditions. When the pandemic hit, many of the people saw their jobs either disrupted for a time, or closed down. (The World Bank provides statistics on this and other aspects of the global economy at https://datatopics.worldbank.org/jobs/topic/employment)

Medical services. Over 40% of all countries have fewer than 1 medical doctors per 1,000 people and fewer than 4 nurses per 1,000 people. By comparison, the figure for Australia is just over 20 doctors and 12 nurses per 1,000 people. (The data is based on World Health Organisation statistics; see https://www.who.int/data/gho/data/themes/topics/health-workforce)

Ratio of doctors to population (per 1,000)

Gender-based violence. Calls to helplines have increased five-fold in some countries as rates of reported intimate partner violence increase because of the stresses introduced by the pandemic. Women are always the vast majority of victims in such situations. (See the discussion by UN Women at https://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures)

Poverty. And, as a summary headline, this NGO estimates that the pandemic will mean that another 163 million people will be living in poverty by the end of this year. Add to that, the impact of the other huge and long-term crisis that we are facing—climate change—will push yet another 132 million people into poverty by the end of this decade. These are very sobering statistics.

If we really do “love our neighbour”, as Jesus commanded us to do, we will be concerned not only for the neighbour who usually sits beside us in church, and the neighbour we pass at the local shopping centre who is homeless and asking for money … but also the neighbours who are hit hard because they live in nations where poverty, violence, unemployment, and poor hygiene are rampant — neighbours for whom the past year has been even more difficult and challenging.

We can assist by supporting UnitingWorld, Act With Peace, UNICEF, UNHCR, Oxfam, TEAR Fund, Red Cross, Medicins Sans Frontièrs, or our choice of another reputable organisation that works on the ground in third world countries. It’s an integral part of being faithful followers of Jesus.

This whispering in our hearts: potent stories from Henry Reynolds

I have recently finished reading This Whispering in our Hearts, by the doyen of living Australian historians, Henry Reynolds. (Thanks to Barbara Braybrook for loaning me her copy and suggesting I read it, because she thought I would appreciate it. I have, and I did!)

The whole career of Reynolds has been devoted to researching and writing about the Indigenous peoples of Australia—including his investigations of the stream of violent confrontation and massacre of indigenous peoples in what he has, memorably, called “The Frontier Wars”.

The book tells a story that all Australians need to know. It is an inspiring narrative with potent stories. We need to hear the words, sense the passion, know the sagas of our recent post-invasion history.

Time and time again, as I was reading the book, I found myself greatly appreciating its accounts of courageous, deeply-committed people in early Australian society. They saw and spoke out against the terrible racist attitudes towards Australian Aboriginal people, and especially the many massacres that have peppered our history since the late 18th century.

However, I found it equally a rather depressing account. I had to read it in “chunks” of a chapter or two at a time. I needed to let the information in each chapter settle in my mind, as the battle between passionate advocates and redneck racists was played out over decades.

The book is based on Reynolds’ research into debates, and actions, that took place in white Australian society throughout the 19th century, into the early 20th century. There are numerous quotations from all manner of primary sources—letters, speeches, sermons, pamphlets, newspaper articles, books, and more.

“All over Australia there were men and women who stood up and demanded justice for the aborigines”, writes Reynolds (p.xvi). The book tells the stories of nine such men and women—although, truth be told, only one, the 20th century activist Mary Bennett, is a woman.

Mary Bennett, pioneering feminist and advocate for Indigenous Australians

The others canvassed include Lancelot Threlkeld, George Augustus Robinson, Louis Giustiniani, and Robert Lyon (active in the 1830s and 1840s); John B. Gribble and David Carley (from the 1880s); and Ernest Gribble (from 1926 to 1934).

Pictured: Lancelot Threlkeld (top);
G. A. Robinson and Louis Giustiniani (middle);
Robert Lyon, John B. Gribble, and Ernest Gribble (bottom).

The regions of Australia under scrutiny include the colonies of New South Wales (Threlkeld and Robinson), the Swan River (Giustiniani and Carley), Queensland (with fascinating quotations from letters published in the press in the 1880s), and then Western Australia (both Gribbles, father John and then son Ernest).

The title comes from the closing line of a public lecture delivered by a Sydney barrister, Richard Windemyer, in 1842, a year before he was elected to the Legislative Council. Windemyer had set out to undermine the words and actions of humanitarians who had been advocating for the rights of Aborigines, but ended with the wistful observation, “how is it our minds are not satisfied? what means this whispering in the bottom of our hearts?”

Richard Windeyer (1806-1847),
journalist, barrister and politician

That whispering is still with us, into the 21st century, as we have lived through the High Court judgements of Wik and Mabo, the Stolen Generations Report and the Royal Commission into Deaths in Custody, the Reconciliation March and the National Apology, and the Statement from the Heart at Uluru. And still, despite these and other important happenings, the life expectancy of indigenous Australians is lower and their incarceration rates are far higher than the Australian average; and awareness that white Australia is premised on living on stolen land is still low amongst the general population.

The most recent NAIDOC Week slogan–Always Was. Always Will Be.–has much distance to go to before it gains traction amongst the general Australian population. As Reynolds notes in the final paragraph of the book, “if true reconciliation is ever consummated in Australia and justice is not only done but seen to be done … after 200 years, the whisper in the heart will be heard no more” (p.251). What he wrote in 1998 remains still the case today. We wait in hope …

*****

From the earliest days, Reynolds reports, there was a clear awareness that the indigenous peoples had the right to possession and ownership of the land, and the British colonisers were there because of an act on invasion. Before Cook, Banks, and the crew of the endeavour had set sail, they were in receipt of instructions from James Douglas, President of the Royal Society until his death in 1768, which clearly stated, “they are the natural, and in the strictest sense of the word, the legal possessors of the several Regions they inhabit”.

James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton
(portrait with his family by Jeremiah Davison, 1740)

Douglas continued, “no European nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle among them without their voluntary consent”, and asserted that “shedding the blood of these people is a crime of the highest nature”, and that “conquest over such people can never give just title … they may naturally and justly attempt to repel invaders who they may apprehend are come to disturb them in the quiet possession of their country” (quoted on p.xii).

The book recounts how all nine of these people, along with others, advocated for Aboriginal people, and how all nine of them encountered various pushbacks—arguments, rejections, persecutions or sackings. In the face of strong community resistance, biased legal judgements, and pure racist political leadership, these people continued their prophetic tasks of advocacy, social work, political strategising, and grassroots activism.

The courage, persistence, and zeal of these nine humanitarians, advocates and activists, and of the many others who worked with them, is offset, at times, by the character evaluation that Reynolds provides. Robinson was “thought to be a tiresome and discredited officer, a pompous, prickly upstart” (p.55). Ernest Gribble was “relentlessly self-centred, tactless, self-righteous, courageous” (p.181). Mary Bennett was “excessive in her righteous passion” (p.241).

Yet the dogged, even intransigent, nature of their various characters was probably what fitted them for the roles they undertook, in the face of massive public opinion oriented in the opposite direction. The closing chapter of the book documents the very significant shift that occurred in the aftermath of, first, the 1926 Forrest River Massacre, and then the 1928 Coniston Massacre.

Both of these massacres occurred in Western Australia, long the heart of racist repudiation of any rights for Aboriginal peoples. This shift in the 1930s was only possible because of the persistent and penetrating critique of the time, driven from the eastern states, with leadership from Elizabeth Bennett and active participation from Christian churches.

The commitment of Christian voices throughout the decades is one striking element in the story that Reynolds tells. He cites a number of early clergymen who argued that discrimination against “the Natives” was contrary to the clear teaching of scripture, by which all races are “of one blood” (drawing on the old translation in the King James Version of Acts 17:26).

Ministers of religion were frequently at the forefront of activism in colonial Australia. Their advocacy for the view that black-skinned people are humans with the same capacities and rights as white-skinned people was clear; but, sadly, not compelling enough. After a century and a half of British settlement, the federal parliament actually legislated for a racist policy, popularly known as the White Australia policy.

Before I read this book, I knew about some of these activist-advocates (for instance, I had blogged about Gribble senior in https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/18/dark-deeds-in-a-sunny-land-the-expose-offered-by-john-b-gribble/).

However, there was much that I did not know. This year, as we approach Invasion Day, January 26, commemorated officially as “Australia Day”, I think it is appropriate that we remember, and give thanks, for those who in years past have spoken and acted in support of the First Peoples of Australia and its surrounding islands, as Henry Reynolds reminds us.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/08/always-was-always-will-be-naidoc2020/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/08/13/affirming-the-sovereignty-of-first-peoples-undoing-the-doctrine-of-discovery/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/01/16/the-profound-effect-of-invasion-and-colonisations/

Textual interplay: stories of Jesus in Mark 1 and the prophets of Israel (Year B)

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/

“Let’s get down to business”: beginning the story of Jesus (Mark 1; Epiphany 3B)

“Before I begin, let me give you the genealogy of Jesus, so you know this is about a real person” (so says the author of the book of origins, whom we label as Matthew).

“Before *I* begin, let me tell you the backstory that led up to all of this” (so we read in the orderly account of the things fulfilled amongst us that we attribute to Luke).

“Well, before I begin, let me explain why it’s important to believe that Jesus is the Son of God” (in the book of signs, as the author we name as John launches into his Gospel).

By contrast: “Let’s get down to business”, says Mark. And so he does!

The first chapter of Mark’s Gospel rips right in to the story. No preface, no prologue, not set up; just straight down to business. The various scenes in this opening chapter are offered in the revised common lectionary in Year B, largely during the season of Epiphany.

First, the striking moment when Jesus of Nazareth was declared to be the beloved Son, anointed by the Spirit, equipped for his role of proclaiming the kingdom of God (Mark 1:1-13, offered in the lectionary back during Advent, and part-repeated two Sundays ago for the Baptism of Jesus). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/12/01/advent-two-the-more-powerful-one-who-is-coming-mark-1/

Then, the succinct summation of the message of Jesus; just four short, snappy phrases: “the time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near, repent, believe in the good news” (1:14-15). See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/24/the-kingdom-is-at-hand-so-follow-me-the-gospel-according-to-mark/

This summary is followed by two compressed accounts, told in formulaic exactitude, in which Jesus calls four of his key followers, brothers Simon and Andrew (“follow me; they left their nets, and followed him”), and then brothers James and John (“he called them; they left their father, and followed him” (1:16-20). Mark 1:14-20 is the Gospel passage offered in the lectionary this coming Sunday (24 January).

These two call narratives establish the nature of the movement that Jesus was initiating. He sets out a call to all four brothers; an exclamation, to which they must respond: “follow me!” The call invites a specific, tangible, and radical response: “leave everything”. And both encounters result in a new, binding commitment to Jesus: they “followed him”. The same pattern repeats with Levi in 2:14, and then with others (2:15; 8:34-36; 15:41). A rich young man comes to the brink, but then pulls away at the last moment (10:21).

Ched Myers offers a good exploration of how this scene establishes the dynamic of radical discipleship which permeates Mark’s Gospel, at https://inquiries2015.files.wordpress.com/2002/08/02-1-pc-mark-invitation-to-discipleship-in-ringehoward-brook-discipleship-anthology.pdf

After these stories of announcement and call to follow, there comes a scene in a synagogue, revealing the authority that Jesus had, in calling people, to command “the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, [to] come out of him” (Mark 1:21-28—the lectionary Gospel for 31 January).

This scene defines the cosmic dimension in which the story of Jesus is set, as he grapples with unclean spirits (1:23-26; 3:11; 5:1-13; 6:7; 7:14-29), also identified as demons (7:24-30; 1:32-34, 39; 3:14-15, 22; 5:14-18; 6:13; 9:38). Jesus is a human being, situated in first century occupied Palestine—but he is engaged in a contest in a cosmic dimension.

Ched Myers offers a compelling interpretation of the scene in the synagogue: “The synagogue on the Sabbath is scribal turf, where they exercise the authority to teach Torah. This “spirit” personifies scribal power, which holds sway over the hearts and minds of the people. Only after breaking the influence of this spirit is Jesus free to begin his compassionate ministry to the masses (1:29ff).” See https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/01/29/lets-catch-some-big-fish-jesus-call-to-discipleship-in-a-world-of-injustice-2/, and the complete commentary on Mark by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988).

This is followed by a number of scenes (Mark 1:29-39) which are offered in the lectionary for Sunday 7 February. We begin with a pair of complementary scenes—the first set in the hustle and bustle of the village, where Jesus heals the sick and casts out more demons (1:29-34); the second an early morning start, where Jesus prays “in a deserted place” (1:35-37). This contrast is deliberate, and instructive. Both settings are vital for his project of radical discipleship.

This latter scene evokes an earlier scene, immediately after the public dunking of Jesus in the Jordan river (1:9-11), when Jesus spends a highly symbolic forty days “in the wilderness” (1:12-13). Although it was the Spirit which drove him into wilderness (1:12), it was Satan who tested Jesus during this period (1:13). And that seminal encounter sits alongside the first public declaration of Jesus as “beloved Son”, made over the waters of the Jordan (1:11).

The author then provides a characteristic summation of the activity that Jesus was called to do: “he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:38-39). Subsequent summaries in this vein appear at Mark 3:7-8, 4:33-34, 6:12-13, 6:56, 10:1. The opening chapter sets the pattern of behaviour by Jesus.

A final, intensely emotional scene brings this substantial opening sequence to a close. Jesus is approached by a leper, seeking to be “made clean” (1:40-42). The way Jesus responds to this need is striking: what the NRSV translates as “moved with pity” is actually better rendered as “being totally consumed by deep-seated compassion” (1:41). An alternative textual variation renders the emotions of Jesus more sparsely: “and being indignant”.

The command to adhere to the law by bringing a sacrificial offering to the priests for his cleaning (as any teacher of Jewish Torah would advocate—Lev 14) is, strikingly, expressed in the typical manner of a wild magic healer; the NRSV translation, “sternly warning him”, is better expressed as “snorting like a horse”—the use of striking, dramatic language being a characteristic feature of ancient healers (1:43-44).

The final scene collects all the activity of the opening chapter into the bustling energy of the swarming public square. Jesus can no longer remain isolated or removed; “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45). This passage, along with other section of chapter 2, appears in the lectionary only in a year when Easter is later and thus the season of Epiphany is extended by further weeks.

*****

It is worth our while considering the flow of events and sequence of scenes that Mark provides, as he hurriedly “gets down to business” in his narrative of the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one. Why has this author chosen these particular scenes? What insights into Jesus, and his followers, does he want to offer us, as his story gets underway?

One clue is in the way that he portrays Jesus: Jesus is intensely religious (1:9-11, 35), articulately focussed on his key message (1:14-15, 22, 39), building a movement of committed followers (1:16-20), regularly living out his faith in actions alongside his words (1:26, 31, 34, 39). Jesus was energised by personal contacts with individuals: the brothers whom he called (1:17, 20), the man in the synagogue (1:25), Simon’s mother-in-law (1:30-31), and a begging leper (1:40). In the midst of all of this, he makes sure that his central message (1:14-15) is conveyed with clarity and passion (1:27, 39, 45).

Jesus is nourished by quiet moments, in his wilderness testing (1:12-13) and in early morning prayer (1:35), and yet is consistently immersed in the public life of his community. Mark most likely exaggerates, but he does indicate that Jesus was with “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem” (1:5), teaching a crowd in the synagogue in Capernaum (1:21), 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), told that “everyone is searching for you” (1:37), and touring throughout Galilee (1:39), where “people came to him from every quarter” (1:45).

It is an holistic portrayal of Jesus, setting the scene for the story that follows. Jesus is passionate and articulate, compassionate and caring, energised and engaged, focused on a strategy that will reap benefits as the story emerges. And yet, as we know, that passion and energy will also lead to conflict, suffering, and death; a conflict already depicted in some of these opening scenes, as the story commences, but soon to make its presence felt in full force as the narrative continues.

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

The kingdom is at hand; so follow me. The Gospel according to Mark (Year B)

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

Life in such situations demanded compromise. For Jews living in the Dispersion (also called the Diaspora), the degree of compromise might vary—but compromise was inevitable. For those living within Israel, the need for compromise was a constant irritant. Some groups, like the Sadducees and the priests, accepted the compromises and did well out of them. Many common folk simply made the best of the situation.

Others resented what was imposed on them. They looked back to an earlier time in the history of Israel, when the troops of another foreign force, the Seleucids, held power in Israel. An honoured group of Jews, the Maccabees, had led an armed insurgency which brought victory over the Seleucids in the years 167 to 164 BCE. For a time, Jews had ruled Israel once again.

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

In this setting, amidst the battles fought in Galilee, Samaria and Judaea, apocalyptic hopes were inflamed. Many of the Jews actively fighting the Romans believed that their actions would help to usher in the long-promised kingdom of God. This kingdom would represent a new era, in which God would reign over Israel and foreign troops would be banished.

The term apocalyptic describes this attitude. It comes from the Greek word apokalupsis, which mean ‘unveiling’ or ‘revealing’. It indicates a belief that God would act to unveil, or reveal, the new era.

Perhaps a significant number of the followers of Jesus also believed that the kingdom of God was drawing near, as Jesus had proclaimed some decades earlier, in the events of their own day. After all, Jesus spoke the language of apocalyptic and told stories about the kingdom that God had in store for his people.

Should the followers of Jesus, then, join with the rebel groups in rising up against Rome? Was the way to the kingdom to be won through conflict, martyrdom, and military victory? Or was there another way?

Remarkably, one writer chose to answer these questions by writing about the way which would have been chosen by Jesus. The earliest written account that we have for the life of Jesus, which opens with a declaration about the beginning of the good news of Jesus—which we know, by tradition, as “the Gospel according to Mark”—appears to deal with precisely these issues as it assembles and reshapes many of the stories told about Jesus.

It is strongly marked by apocalyptic overtones, from the urgent message which Jesus utters (the kingdom is at hand, 1:14–15) to his parting description of
apocalyptic terrors (there will be earthquakes and terrors … you will be hated by
all … there will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the
creation … the powers in the heavens will be shaken … they will see ‘the Son of
Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory
, 13:3–37).

This Gospel was written for first century Jews who were who were caught up in a fervent hope that the kingdom of God was soon to be ushered in, but who were also struggling with what it meant to follow the way of Jesus.

So Mark tells the story of Jesus, a person who submitted to his death, at the hands of the Romans, without raising any weapons in defence. The way of Jesus, according to Mark, was the way of suffering obedience and faithful discipleship. The answer to the questions posed lay in following the way of Jesus. And this Gospel particularly emphasises the necessity of faithful discipleship; follow me is an important refrain (1:17, 19; 2:14; 10:21).

The high cost of this following is also made clear in Jesus’ teachings. As the earliest readers of this Gospel struggled to live out their faith in a vibrant but challenging situation, they remembered and treasured stories about Jesus’ travels to Gentile lands (4:35–5:21; 6:45–8:13). During these travels, Jesus showed that the kingdom would include people who were regarded by many Jews as being unclean, dishonoured, and beyond salvation: disabled people, Gentiles, women, and mentally ill (i.e. demon-possessed) people.

So this account of Jesus is infused with drama and intensity as the story moves from one incident to the next. Yet, the whole Gospel is a carefully-crafted piece of literature. The structure of the work conveys the significance of Jesus and the necessity of faithful discipleship in the midst of suffering. (See my outline of this Gospel below.)

Mark writes to help believers understand what it means to follow Jesus and to take up our cross (8:34) in the time of expectant waiting as the kingdom is at hand (1:15). Just as Jesus crossed over the margins of society, so must we; as Jesus suffered, so may we; but as he lives, so may we know the presence of God’s chosen one with us. The Gospel story is an invitation to follow Jesus along this pathway.

This year we have the opportunity to listen to the story of Jesus as it is offered in this Gospel. Each Sunday, the lectionary offers a selection from the beginning of the good news of Jesus the chosen one. May we listen, hear, engage — and be transformed.

An outline of the story told in the beginnings of the good news about Jesus

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 2012).