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/

Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children (Matt 2; Christmas 1A)

In the orderly account in which Luke tells the story of the first Christmas, we become engrossed in a story that is always presented in gentle, romanticised ways. It is a story about a pregnant woman and her partner, an angel appearing at the time of conception to the mother-to-be, announcing good news of great joy.

It is a story that reports how, nine months later, the angel appeared again, to some shepherds in the fields. It is a bucolic pastoral scene, or so we think. (Luke 1–2).

There is also a census and a journey, a choir of angels singing songs, announcing peace, declaring good news, celebrating joyfully. And there is an overfull stable, necessitating the birth of the child in a temporary location, and finally a child who is laid in a manger with his mother and father by his side. But all is calm, all is serene, all is gentle. So we believe. So we sing. So we think.

By contrast, in the book of origins, as Matthew tells that same story, we are invited into a different saga, with a different tone. Whilst there is a baby, with mother and father, in this version, there is no manger, no shepherds, and certainly no choir of angels.

In fact, there is just one angel, and this solitary angel speaks only with the father, not with the mother, not once, but three times in all. And each time, the message is ominous: she is pregnant! you must leave, now! and, hurry back home!

There is no announcement of good news of great joy. There is no census and no journey, at least, at the point of birth. But there is a tyrannical king, a set of visitors from foreign places, a prophecy that enrages the king, and a response which terrifies the visitors, who rapidly leave to return to their homeland.

And the story as Matthew tells it continues with a violent pogrom, the slaughter of innocent babies. “Herod was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men” (Matt 2:16).

It continue with a rushed journey by the father and mother and their infant child, travelling as refugees seeking safety in a foreign place. They return home some time later, only after the tyrannical despot has died. This later part of the story is featured rarely, if at all, in the classic depictions of the Christmas story.

The festival of Epiphany, celebrated after the Twelfth Day of Christmas on 6 January, invites us to think about the journey made by these wise men. The journey is romanticised by the fact that they bring gifts to the infant and his family—gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

The gifts, it is claimed, are symbolic of what is to come. The gold is considered to symbolise the royal status of the child, as he is of the line of David. The frankincense is connected with the Temple cult, and thus considered a symbol of the priestly role eventually to be played by the child.

Then, there is myrrh, which Christian tradition links with the death that will be experienced by the infant when he has grown to maturity—death at the hands of a Romans, who offered him wine mixed with myrrh as he hung dying on a cross. The story of origins already prefigured the story of ending.

That part of the story—the gifts that the wise men brought—feeds into the romance and wonder that Luke’s version offers (at least, in the way it is usually understood). But the horror, the terror, the violence, the grief, of the events perpetrated under Herod, are not in view. Because Epiphany is about revelation, about light shining forth, about God being known and experienced in the midst of ordinary life.

This year, perhaps we might pause, and wonder: how does the story of Herod’s murderous rampage reveal the presence of God in the story?

I have no answer … just a question. How is God present, evident, shining forth, at such a time?

It is a question that is pressing, given the context in which I, and many Australians, have experienced Advent, Christmas and Epiphany this year.

As the bushfires rage, inflaming and destroying, purpling plumes of smoke into the air and ravaging forests, ecosystems, native animals and stock, as well as human property and human lives—the question seems ever more pertinent: where is God in this catastrophe?

As the early followers of Jesus found hope in the midst of the story of terror and violent destruction, so may we search, explore, and yearn for hope in this current situation.

On hymns that include the story of Herod’s rampage, see https://johntsquires.com/2020/01/03/herod-waiting-herod-watching-herod-grasping-holding-power-matt-2/

For prayers that are appropriate for a time in the midst of bushfires, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/22/we-wait-and-hope-and-grieve-anticipating/

and

https://greaterfarthantongueorpen.wordpress.com/2020/01/01/415/

For a reflective prayer on the wise men, see http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/12/make-it-now.html

For an overall comparison of Matthew with Luke, see https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

Herod waiting, Herod watching, Herod grasping, holding power (Matt 2; Christmas 1A)

The book of origins is unique, within the New Testament (and, indeed, within the whole literature of antiquity) in reporting a savage, indiscriminate pogrom, ordered by King Herod, and carried out under his watch—the murder of all infant males under two years of age within Bethlehem (Matt 2:16-18).

The story hardly ever features in any Christmas or Epiphany services or sermons. However, a number of contemporary hymn writers have turned their attention to this story. Shirley Erena Murray, a Presbyterian from Aotearoa New Zealand, is right on the money when she highlights the violence and fear at the heart of the story, claims that the infant in the story has “come to plead war’s counter-case”, and articulates the hope that “goodness will outclass the gun, evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.”

Summer sun or winter skies, Christmas comes —

shepherds, angels, lullabies, words recorded by the wise:

read it in the book — take another look . . . .

Shadows track the hawk in flight, Christmas now —

children born in fire and fight, silent night a violent night,

hawks are in control of a nation’s soul

There where terror plies its trade, Christmas now —

children learn to be afraid, minefields of distrust are laid,

evil is in force on a winning course

Child of peace, God’s human face, Christmas now —

come to plead war’s counter-case, bring the dove a nesting place,

though her wings are torn, though her blood is drawn

Winter skies or summer sun, Christmas comes —

still the threads of hope are spun, goodness will outclass the gun,

evil has no tooth that can kill the truth.

That is why the ancient story resonates so strongly with our situation today. Not because “it really happened, exactly like this”, but because it takes us to the centre of our humanity and reveals the depth of God’s presence in our midst. We ought to sing more about it!

http://www.hopepublishing.com/html/main.isx?sitesec=40.2.1.0&hymnID=430

Another contemporary hymn writer who has turned his attention to the story of Herod’s tyrannical rampage against the male children in Bethlehem, is the British Methodist, the Rev. Dr Andrew Pratt. Here is a powerful hymn which he has written about this story.

Herod waiting, Herod watching,

Herod grasping, holding power,

Herod fearful for the future,

Herod counting every hour.

 

Now the thing that he was fearing:

love and justice, peace and health,

here embodied in a person,

God incarnate, heaven’s wealth.

 

This was more than he could stomach,

human wine skins tear and rend.

Herod’s dream had been confounded,

human power had met its end.

 

Many children now were crying,

temper triumphed, babies dead.

Mary, Joseph made an exit,

every step was filled with dread.

 

Into exile they were driven,

fear would ripple through each life:

Jesus challenged vested interests.

Gracious love fuelled hate and strife.

 

And the children still are crying,

forced to war and harmed by hate.

Still our world is deaf to hear them,

still our loving comes too late.

© Andrew Pratt 18/11/2010

First after Christmas, Matthew 2: 13 – 23,

Herod, Holy Innocents, the flight into Egypt.

https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/herod-waiting-herod-watching

What a pity that this potent story, full of pathos, and so resonant with events in the world in which we live today, has all but faded from view in the story that is recounted each Christmas. There are clear words in these carols which show how the story challenges political values and policies and how it connects with the deepest feelings of human existence.

For more on Epiphany, see next post