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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The kingdom, God’s justice, an invitation to all (Mark 4; Pentecost 3B)

In following the Revised Common Lectionary, we’ve just returned to passages from the beginning of the good news of Jesus, chosen one, after many months away in other gospel accounts of Jesus and his activity. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/19/1-where-has-mark-gone/

The work we know as “the Gospel according to Mark” is the shortest and earliest of the extant accounts that we have. It is a story-telling narrative, moving from one incident to the next in short order. It’s a dramatic and vivid account. See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/20/2-mark-collector-of-stories-author-of-the-passion-narrative/

It’s fitting, therefore, that we hear today two of the really short stories that Jesus told. We know these short stories as parables. There is the parable of seed, scattered in the ground, that grows of its own accord (Mark 4:26–29). Then there’s the parable of the smallest seed that grows to a large shrub (4:30–32). These two short stories each reveal something about the way that God wants things to be, the kingdom of God. Such parables were typical of the way that Jesus taught his followers (4:33–34).

Parables were quite widespread in the society of Jesus’ day. They were evocative and effective means for telling stories. The most common means of entertainment in the ancient world was telling stories. This was done by word of mouth, from one person to another, or in small groups gathered in market places, courtyards or houses. Education also relied on the voice. Children were taught by word of mouth. Adults also learned by listening, discussing, debating.

Written materials were costly and only a small percentage of the population was literate. The natural tendency to tell stories was widely accepted in Jewish society, so that the most familiar pattern was that learning took place through the passing on of stories. So oral story telling was commonplace in the synagogues where Jews gathered for worship and instruction.

We can see the dominance of the oral medium most clearly in the literature which tells about the rabbis of Judaism. The story was the foundational building block for all the rabbis’ teaching activities. Beyond Judaism, we see it in the popularity of written biographies, romances, histories and adventure stories, throughout the ancient world.

Indeed, a second century Christian (Papias, the Bishop of Hierapolis) is reported as having stated that stories spoken by teachers are to be preferred as more reliable than written works (such as the Gospels)—an attitude that sounds incredible to our modern ears! See https://johntsquires.com/2020/10/15/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-new-testament-gospels-2/

A parable is an important type of story-telling. A parable is a story told in a specific way to make a single clear point. Parables are found in Jewish literature; the most famous examples in the Hebrew Bible are Samuel’s parable comparing David with a callous rich herdsman in 2 Samuel 12 and the prophet’s parable comparing Israel with an unfruitful vineyard in Isaiah 5.

Rabbis at the time of Jesus, and later, have used parables to make their point in their teachings. The Hebrew word for this form was mashal, a word meaning “to be like” or “a comparison”. Parables were told to make a point about something that may not be easily understood, by drawing a comparison with something else that was well-known or easily understood.

The mashal also opens up the possibility of a more developed form of comparison, the similitude, of which the best example is Nathan’s parable to David concerning the stolen lamb (2 Sam 12:1–4). This form flourishes in later Judaism, both in rabbinic literature, and in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ parables (“the kingdom of heaven is like…”). In fact, the parables told by Jesus follow the patterns and customs of the rabbinic mashal.

Both the parable of the seed growing in secret (4:26–29) and the parable of the mustard seed (4:30–32) are examples of a simple parable with a short plot development. The first parable moves quickly to the key point, when the farmer “goes in with the sickle, for the harvest has come”.

Judgement is integral to the message that Jesus preached. His vision of the kingdom involves standards that God imposes and that God judges. The seeds growing in secret will face this reckoning at the harvest. Our lives of discipleship will be measured by the righteous-justice of God that Jesus proclaimed. The harvest was an image of divine judgement for some of the prophets (Hosea 6:1–11, 8:1–10; Joel 3:9–16; and see Ps 126:1–6; Prov 22:8).

The second parable has a similar focus on the climax: “it becomes the greatest of shrubs”. The mustard seed grown into a shrub with branches in which the birds nest, indicates the inclusivity that is offered in the kingdom. It seems that Jesus May have been referencing the oracle of Ezekiel, about a sprig of cedar that grows so big that “under the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ezek 17:22–24).

Measured by the standards of the righteous-justice of God, the kingdom is open to those who adhere to this measure, regardless of their status or origins. This was the message of Jesus, offering hope to all who followed in his way.

This pair of parables contain two key elements of the message of Jesus: justice, and inclusivity. We find these themes in the stories told and the guidance taught by Jesus throughout his ministry. The parables convey these messages in short, sharp, dramatic style.