One of the major themes in Mark’s gospel is how to move from being an “outsider” to becoming an “insider” in the project of God’s reign. Our reading this week gives us some insight for how not to make that move.
First, insider status does not come from a prior, “impersonal” connection to Jesus. The folks in Nazareth seem to be guilty of some combination of the “charter member” and “genetic” fallacies of insider status in the Messianic community. The sheer fact that they are from the same place as Jesus and have been part of that village for generations does not qualify them for special status. Nor does the fact that they know (or are) Jesus’ close relatives. Those facts do not translate into elevated status or privileged position.
I think immediately of experiences I have had in congregations over the years. I served a congregation where charter members of that community were still alive and active. It was not unusual, in the midst of some controversy, for one or more of those folks to stand up at a meeting and begin a small speech with the phrase, “As a charter member of this congregation…” That historical fact was intended to overwhelm any other arguments and to grant the speaker and associated members a special authority in the debate.
Even in congregations where charter members were long dead and buried, longevity is often regarded on its own merits as grounds for authoritative veto power. I think of congregations where, early on in my ministry, I was taken aside and told that “we” do or don’t do things that way here at X congregation. The “we” was clearly made up of an insider group that claimed special authority due to the average length of tenure in that group.
The genetic fallacy contains a measure of longevity privilege by default. But the real clincher is an appeal to authoritative and (sometimes) honored forebears. The most egregious example of this in my experience came in a conversation with a leading conflictor in a congregation. “My family has been part of this church from the beginning,” he declared, “four generations so far. My grandfather ran out a preacher who got too big for his britches. So did my dad. And if I have my way, I will too. That’s our job in this church.”
I can report that in this instance, the conflictor in question failed in his (self) appointed task. But my real focus is on his assumption of privilege through inheritance and biological connection. His authority did not come from the content of his argument or even his moral standing in the congregation. It was a simple function of being related to the right people and sticking to the standards of that genetic heritage.
Congregations are often structured as concentric circles of relationship and status. The “inside insiders” make up about twenty percent of the active adult membership of a congregation. They are the ones who do everything and then complain that no one else does anything. The “outside insiders” are in the next circle from the center. They complain that the insider insiders control everything and won’t listen to reason. The next circle is the outside outsiders. They are the ones who are glad the inside insiders do the work, that the outside insiders do the complaining (policing?), and that both insider groups generally ignore them.
One of the interesting aspects of Mark’s gospel is that the assumed “insiders” are not insiders at all. Jesus’ family and neighbors have no special status. In fact, they are actively resistant and hostile to his Good News campaign. The Jerusalem authorities and their Galilean delegates are the first who become last and who are cast into “outer darkness.” The Twelve seem to be insiders, but they just can’t “get it.” They take the authority they receive and use it for self-aggrandizement rather than self-sacrifice.
As I noted in the previous section, it’s the outside outsiders who actually get it and are portrayed as non-failed disciples in Mark’s account. The real target of this whole conversation is the audience of Mark’s gospel. There is some deep concern in that audience about how one becomes an authentic “inside insider,” a genuine disciple, a real member of Jesus’ “family.” I have to wonder if there were audience members who claimed privileged positions and special authority based on either the charter member or genetic fallacies. What does it take, according to Mark, for an audience member to become an inside insider?
“What it takes for the audience to become insiders,” writes Stephen Ahearne-Kroll (hereafter AK), “is not just more knowledge; it takes discipleship. Discipleship for Mark is not construed as assent to a series of faith propositions or the full acquisition and understanding of divine mysteries,” AK continues. “It is predicated on becoming connected with Jesus by following him after his call and acting like him because he is the manifestation of the kingdom on earth” (page 734).
What does this say about the original audience for Mark’s gospel? Commentators continue to debate about the place for which the gospel was composed – somewhere in Syria or Asia Minor or in Rome. I find the tradition of the church most convincing in this regard – that Mark’s gospel was composed for and presented to the churches in Rome in the aftermath of the Jewish War of 66-70 CE.
The congregations had been in some measure of turmoil since the return of Jewish Christians from the exile imposed during the persecution of the mid-40’s. The Gentile Christians were left on their own and developed ways of life and worship that deviated from traditions they had received. When the Jewish Christians returned, there was a power struggle for the “soul” of the congregations and a debate about who was “inside” and who was “outside.”
Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses this situation about a decade earlier than Mark’s gospel. Paul’s solution to the problem is for the Gentile Christians (who were in charge) to welcome and embrace their returning Jewish-Christian siblings. One of the arguments made in those churches, it would seem, is that the Jewish-Christians were more Jew than Christian and thus had been rejected for their unbelief. Paul disputes this argument, especially in Romans 9-11.
Mark’s gospel may well be evidence that Paul’s words did not put an end to the debate or the struggle. I wonder if Mark’s “solution” was a sort of “pox on both your houses” approach. Neither the “charter members” nor The Twelve come off at all well in Mark’s account. As noted earlier, it’s the minor characters who get the Gospel right and are commended for their faith. It’s the outside outsiders who repent and put their trust in the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Perhaps Mark wants his squabbling saints to realize that the same thing is true of their life together.
AK notes that “one learns the mystery of the kingdom through the action of following after the one who manifests it. Insider status comes from following after Jesus,” he continues. “Additional knowledge of the kingdom does not determine insider status but flows from it…” Even though Mark’s gospel account excludes the audience from insider status at several points, AK concludes, it also “simultaneously entices the audience with enough inclusion to want to seek the status of insider where they can live the mystery of the kingdom with others of the same mind” (734-735, my emphasis).
In his book, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz writes one of those paragraphs that I can only wish I had composed. Let me quote it here.
“Organized religion and organized crime can be frighteningly similar at times. Both tend to rely on unwavering loyalty and on participants passionately defending their own. In ministry and in the Mafia, when things are going right, you’re well fed and fiercely loved, but make one bad move, cross one wrong person— and it’s horse heads in the bed and concrete sneakers. In either house there’s often a startlingly narrow line between a holy kiss and the kiss of death and learning how to stay on the boss’s good side becomes a matter of survival” (page 25).
I’ve worked with enough conflicted congregations over the years to know that Pavlovitz’s description is hardly hyperbolic. In congregational systems where the inside insiders are thoroughly embedded and emotionally enmeshed, physical violence and death threats can be a feature of the pastor’s experience. Short of that, efforts to cut salary, reduce hours, slash benefits, and attack family members are somewhat typical. Please remember that in Luke’s gospel the home folks want to pitch Jesus headlong off the nearest cliff.
Reminding congregations that the outside outsiders are typically the ones who get the gospel the best is often a way to organize a move from one pastoral call to the next. “Despite their claims of gracious hospitality, churches are often far more aggressive than they’d like to admit,” Pavlovitz writes. “Regardless of our language about being part of the greater body of Christ, the truth is that most local faith communities feel that they are doing religion better, smarter, more biblically, more faithfully than everyone else— most especially the other churches in the neighborhood. In this way,” he concludes, “the table is almost always going to default to self-preservation, to competition rather than collaboration” (page 27).
The outside outsiders in our time are getting hammered in certain parts of the Christian universe. In our ELCA part, they are just gaslighted. After all, we have documents that say the outside outsiders are “all” welcome. In Marks’ terms, authentic disciples do that welcoming rather than merely writing about it. And I hasten to add, I am often chief among sinners in this regard.
References and Resources
Bruce Malina; Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.
MOLONEY, F. (2001). Mark 6:6b-30: Mission, the Baptist, and Failure. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 63(4), 647-663. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43727251.
Pavlovitz, John. A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Presbyterian Publishing. Kindle Edition.
VAAGE, L. (2009). An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71(4), 741-761. Retrieved June 25, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.
Walker, B. (2016). Performing Miracles: Discipleship and the Miracle Tradition of Jesus. Transformation, 33(2), 85-98. Retrieved June 23, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/90008863
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.