The Rule of Three
It’s the Rule of Three. Three is the smallest number necessary to form a community beyond a couple. It’s the smallest number necessary to establish a pattern or a trend. At least that’s true for physicists. The joke is that sociologists only need two data points, and psychiatrists just one. Theologians, of course, simply ask, “And what is the true meaning of ‘data’?” Three, then, is the required number of people necessary to walk into the bar at the beginning of a joke.
The rule of three has been the key to sloganeering at least since Julius Caesar declared “Veni, vidi, vici.” The rule has saved lives by reminding people to stop, drop, and roll. It is the structure of the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (although John Locke preferred property to happiness in the template).
The rule of three structures jokes and fairy tales, folk stories and folk songs, low literature and high art (as well as most of the posts on this blog). We know the three little pigs, the three billy goats gruff, and the three Musketeers. Three ghosts visit Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Tevye marries off three daughters in A Fiddler on the Roof. And the Deathly Hallows of Harry Potter fame number – you guessed it – three.
Being a Trinitarian Christian, I see “Threeness” stitched into the fabric of Creation. It is the rubric of Reality that reflects the character of the Creator. Even though Augustine pushed his trinitarian models, metaphors, and mysteries to the point of collapse, he was right to see Threeness everywhere he looked.
There is the “three points and a poem” school of sermon structuring. I was raised and trained in that model. I still prefer it. I always thought the poem was a gracefully gratuitous exit for the uncreative. So, I used it with some frequency when I wrote a sermon desperately in search of an ending. I was glad to see this structural model still lifted up with positive regard on the workingpreacher.org site. You can find that brief article at https://www.workingpreacher.org/sermon-development/rule-of-three.
These days there is good evidence that the rule of three is hard-wired into our human brains (and perhaps the brains of other intelligent species). We are built to see, seek out, and respond to groups of three in our environment and our experience. Threeness feels both complex and complete. It’s no wonder the fullness of Divinity – according to Christians – has the flavor of Threeness as part of the mix.
Threeness is also one of the best ways to present material that people will remember – especially if that presentation is oral/aural. The Rule of Three is ubiquitous in the Markan composition and structures the central section of the story, from somewhere in chapter 8 to the end of chapter 10. We hear three passion teachings, each with increasing intensity. We hear three discipleship descriptions, each with increasing intensity. We get three attempts by a disciple or disciples to subvert Jesus’ Kin(g)dom agenda, each once again with increasing intensity.
These three elements – passion teaching, attempted agenda hijack, and discipleship description – appear together three times in this section. The order is varied to increase interest and tension. We can examine the escalating stakes as the pattern repeats. This may give us some additional understanding and appreciation of the Markan composer’s artistry and intentions.
|Text||Passion Teaching||Attempted Hijack||Discipleship Description|
|Mark 8:31-9:1||Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again.||Peter rebukes him, setting his mind on human things||Deny themselves, take up their cross, follow Jesus. Paradoxical saying in 8:35|
|Mark 9:30-49||Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands. They will kill him. After three days he will rise again.||Arguing about who of them was greater. Trying to stop the unnamed exorcist.||Paradoxical saying in 9:35. Welcome a child in Jesus’ name. Don’t stop anyone from doing the Lord’s work. If something is a stumbling block, get rid of it.|
|Mark 10:32-45||Son of man to be handed over to chief priests and scribes. They will condemn him and hand him over to the Gentiles. Detailed description of humiliation, torture, and execution. After three days he will rise again.||James and John want leading seats at the table in “glory.” The ten are angry because they didn’t get to Jesus first.||Be careful what you ask for; you may get it. The imaginary of power the world has shall not be so among you. Paradoxical saying in 10:43-44. Summary statement in 10:45.|
I hope you can see that each part of the pattern escalates in tandem with the other parts. The closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more specific he becomes and the more challenging the discipleship description is. This threefold repetition is framed by the healing of the blind man in Mark 8 and the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10. The audience is moved from blindness to sight in this repeating pattern.
This section of the Markan composition includes additional material that illustrates the demands of discipleship in the Markan community. But I hope the table brings a bit of clarity for us to the spiral of increasing intensity. I would recommend that you read Geert Van Oyen’s 2010 article as we reflect on this pattern of progression. I want to lift a few insights from Van Oyen’s work to assist us in our conversation.
In the table above, I have highlighted the “paradoxical” statements in each of the three passages. “Paradox – not only verbal but also dramatic paradox – seems to be Mark’s preferred literary expression by which he communicates and wants to stimulate the readers’ thinking,” Van Oyen writes (page 162). I would suggest that “readers” should be replaced by “listeners,” but the point remains unchanged.
The first paradox (8:35) is, Van Oyen observes, “an example of an antithetic paradox” (page 163). “For whoever wants to save his life shall lose it,” Jesus says, “but whoever shall lose his life for the sake of the Good News shall save it.” Most scholars agree that “for my sake and” is an addition to the saying made by the Markan composer or whatever source the composer uses for this saying. That does nothing to affect the paradox.
Van Oyen makes two observations that should be carried with us in thinking about each of the paradoxical statements. The purpose of losing one’s life is…to receive Real Life. Each of the passion teachings ends with the promise that the Son of Man shall rise again after three days. The paradoxical statements are small expressions of the one Big Paradox in the Markan composition, as Van Oyen notes – that the Son of Man dies and rises again.
He notes as well that this paradox is not merely something the disciple confronts at the end of life – in the midst of a martyr’s death, for example. “Losing this life, however, does not start when death is approaching,” he writes. “It starts here and now in the reality of everyday life. Exactly how the reversal from losing to saving will happen,” he suggests, “is not clear” (page 167).
We move from the losing/saving paradox in Mark 8 to the last/first paradox in Mark 9. We go, perhaps, from how disciples live to the way that disciples lead. Disciples live by dying and lead by serving. “One could say that 9,35 is a reversal of the cultural values of Jesus’ time about authority,” Van Oyen writes, “and that it offers another concrete criterion for what it means to lose your life (8,35)” (page 169). He notes that “the foundation for why one should serve this way” is Christological – because, well, Jesus!
When we get to the third paradoxical saying, we get double for our money. In this saying, “great” is contrasted with “servant.” And “first” is contrasted with “slave.” The double paradox is not simply a parallelism but rather a progress. The second part of the saying increases the intensity even above that of the first part.
We know this paradox is offered as part of the response to James and John as they seek to hijack the discipleship agenda. Leadership among the Gentiles is not “real leadership” as far as Jesus is concerned. Those leaders are only “apparent” or “so-called” leaders.
“Authentic followers of Jesus believe in a different way of behaving,” Van Oyen writes. “They withdraw from the dominant systems because they do not seem to belong to them. They do not urge for human dominance,” he continues. “They do not keep records of service they have to perform in order to sit at the right hand in God’s glory. This perspective,” Van Oyen argues, “is the starting point for Jesus” (pages 172-173).
It may be more accurate to say that Jesus is the starting point for this perspective. His summary statement in 10:45 begins with “for.” It is a conclusion to what preceded. The paradox of discipleship is only possible because Jesus makes it so. “The paradoxes are not only anticipations of the themes of the cross and resurrection,” Van Oyen summarizes, “they are also actualizations of that theme in the concrete life of Jesus’ followers” (pages 175-176).
Van Oyen notes what is obvious to any preacher struggling with these week’s text. The paradoxes don’t sit there on the page. They confront us as readers (listeners) with the same apparently impossible discipleship descriptions. If we struggle and stumble with the paradoxes as did the Twelve (and most of the other disciples), then those paradoxes are doing at least some of the intended work assigned them by the Markan composer. We will despair only when we lose touch with the fact that each of the passion teachings concludes with “after three days he will rise again.”
That being said, Van Oyen notes that the challenge remains. “When does the resurrection as a symbol of new life become a tangible reality in the lives of people?” he asks. “In the language of the paradoxes: is it possible to experience what it means to be great in the eyes of God while one is being last of all, knowing that a theology of ‘reward’ or ‘compensation’ after death is difficult to accept at the beginning of the twenty-first century” (page 184). I’m not sure it was any easier to accept at the beginning of the first century, by the way.
Van Oyen concludes by arguing that we readers “will keep struggling to understand how the two poles of Jesus’ paradoxes can be brought together.” He suggests that we can only make sense of the paradoxes within the framework of Jesus’ overall teaching. And “only those people who will take the risk of losing their lives will come close to understanding the meaning of the paradoxes.”
Well, I don’t know…
References and Resources
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.
McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.
Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.