You Can Be Replaced, You Know
Mark 12:28-34 provides an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the parallel accounts in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28. As we view these texts together (that is, “synoptically,”) we can get more of a sense of the intentions, emphases, and themes of each of the gospel composers.
My first exegetical course at Wartburg Seminary was “Luke’s Revision of Mark,” taught by Dr. Ray Martin, of blessed memory. The course was a revelation and epiphany for me in understanding how texts work in the Gospel accounts.
In retrospect, I think the title of the course probably claimed too much, however. Of course, Luke revised some materials from his “copy” of the Markan script. We can see with little effort, for example, that Luke places our text in a very different setting than does Mark. The dynamics of the text and the relationships between the characters are different. If it weren’t for the great commandments in the text, we might wonder if they were related at all.
But to say that Luke “revised” Mark is to create the impression that the Markan composition is somehow more “original” than the work of Matthew or Luke. That impression is what “originally” drew me to deeply into the Markan work. It appears to be the case that the Markan composition came into written form earlier than either the Matthean or the Lukan compositions. It also appears to be the case that Matthew and Luke had “copies” of the Markan composition, or at least parts of it, as they did their work.
My point, however, is that each of the Synoptic composers was working from a set of early and developing traditions. The Markan script is not significant merely because it is earlier in the timeline. The Markan composer has intentions, emphases, and themes not found in the Matthean or Lukan works. Matthew and Luke have their own intentions, emphases, and themes. It’s not that any of them got it “right” (or “wrong”) for that matter. Each is a distinctive witness, necessary for the witness and service of the Church through the ages.
One of the emphases in the Markan composition appears to be a focus on the Jerusalem temple. We get some of that focus here, especially in the scribe’s words in Mark 12:33b – that the double love commandments “is greater than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” What does that assessment mean for the scribe in the story itself? What does that assessment mean for those who first heard the Markan composition performed? And, of course, what does that assessment mean for us as contemporary hearers of the text?
A number of scholars argue that Jesus portrays himself in some way as replacing the Jerusalem Temple. I think we need to reflect carefully on that assessment. If we put ourselves into an historical space where both Jesus and the Temple are in operation (the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry), then it would seem that Jesus puts himself in competition with the Temple. His words and actions seem to reject the Temple and the Judaism associated with it. But that’s an anachronistic view of the Gospels.
Heil’s article is an excellent summary of the Temple theme in Mark 11-16 and will be a resource for our reflection from now until the end of this preaching year. Heil offers this conclusion after his examination of the various texts. “The Marcan narrative invites its audience to become the community that supplants and surpasses the temple by implementing in their lives Jesus’ teaching within the temple (11:1-12:44) and outside the temple (13:1-37), but they are able to do so only with the empowerment of Jesus’ death and resurrection (14:1-16:8)” (page 100, my emphasis).
Heil lays out the specifics of this Markan theme. In chapters 11 through 13, Jesus authorizes the listeners to become God’s new house of prayer for all peoples. Jesus calls them to pray with both faith and forgiveness. They are to be people who worship the God of the living, not the dead. They rely on Jesus as the cornerstone of this new temple. And this new temple is the place where authentic worship happens by means of total love for God and neighbor (see page 100).
Just as Bartimaeus cast away his cloak in order to follow Jesus, so the poor widow gives her whole life as an offering to God in the temple. That is the standard of discipleship in the new temple. That standard is possible, not because of human virtue, but because of God’s victory over death on the cross of Jesus. The curtain protecting the Holy of Holies is torn in two from top to bottom. And Jesus is loose in the world.
All of this is certainly true and an accurate reading of the Markan text. If, however, the Markan composition is coming into written form in the aftermath of the Jewish War of 66 to 70 C.E., the “replacement” of the Temple is a non-issue. The Temple is in ruins. Jerusalem is destroyed. The Jewish rebels have been defeated and executed. There is nothing at that point for Jesus to “replace.”
Instead, the question, at least for Jewish Christians, really seems to be something more like this. Since the Temple is no more, now what do we do? I can’t help but think of Peter’s question in John 6 at this point. Lord, to whom shall we go? The issue is not, therefore, some kind of replacement or supercessionist theology. It’s a matter of a desperate search for an anchor in a chaotic and rapidly changing world.
Jesus is portrayed in each of the Gospels as that anchor, at least for those who follow him on the Way of the Cross and Resurrection. Hurtado argues that “in Mark 11-16 a claim surfaces again and again that Jesus in some way replaces the temple as the central place where God manifests himself” (page 202). Wright offers a similar perspective in his popular commentary (Kindle Locations 3046ff.). That’s certainly true as far as it goes, but this assessment can quickly lead into ascribing an anti-Jewish bias to the gospels.
I think Hurtado is guilty of the kind of anachronism I described above. “Mark’s readers would have seen the scribe as anticipating their belief that the temple rituals were expendable and thoroughly secondary to the higher obligations reflected in the two commandments cited. Jesus’ commendation of him,” Hurtado concludes, “seems to underscore this position” (page 202).
No, that doesn’t follow, from my perspective. If, in fact, temple rituals were impossible by the time of the Markan composition, then it makes no sense to argue that they were “expendable.” It would seem that early Christians maintained contact with the Temple and those rituals as long as that was possible. It was when the structures, system, and community in Jerusalem were destroyed that alternative ways of thinking had to be considered.
This process certainly must have begun prior to the Jewish War, at least for those Christians who were geographically separated from Jerusalem. Just as synagogue worship and community arose in the Diaspora following the destruction of the first temple, so Christians at a distance would likely have felt less need for and less allegiance to the Temple than did those who were closer. But the discussion in the Markan composition shows that the Temple was a theological challenge for the Markan community, regardless of where they were located.
Perhaps we can think about our own situation as the Church in the Western world. It’s not that most Christians really want to abandon Church as we’ve known it for the last five hundred years or so. Most of us were not looking for a seismic shift in our institutions (although we probably should have). Instead, the shifts are happening in spite of us and without us. The question is not what should replace what we have. The question is much more since the Church as we know it is going away, now what do we do?
The counsel we find in the Markan composition is to return to the core of our theology and practice. N. T. Wright asks, “when the crisis comes, what remains solid in your life and the life of your community? Wholehearted love of God and neighbor? Or the mad scramble of everyone trying to save their own skins?” (Kindle Location 3053).
We are preaching in a time of similar dislocation and even chaos for the Church in the Northern and Western world. The Covid-19 pandemic took people out of their traditional worship spaces and practices and forced us to consider new ways of doing and being Church. While it appears that many of us will return to our previous practices over time (unless some other crisis occurs), the question has been raised? How necessary are our buildings, our organizations, our practices and patterns?
We are preaching in a time when traditional lines of theological consensus are crumbling. Robert P. Jones has written, for example, that we are witnessing the end of White Christian America. I cheer that ending and hope the process accelerates. But for those of who were part of that structure, now what? If our five centuries of White Male Supremacist Christianity are over, if our dependence on the Doctrine of Discovery is a house built on sand, if we who have been so accustomed to being in charge for so long must give up the reigns of power, then what?
It’s not that the former consensus is being replaced. It is being destroyed. In the wake of that destruction, will we seek the central anchors of our confession – to love God with all our being and our neighbors as Christ loves us? That’s a question, perhaps, that this text engages for us.
References and Resources
Furnish, Victor Paul. “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 10, no. 2, [Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc, Wiley, Blackwell Publishing Ltd], 1982, pp. 327–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017773.
Greenlee, Mark B. “Echoes of the Love Command in the Halls of Justice.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 12, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 255–70, https://doi.org/10.2307/1051616.
HEIL, JOHN PAUL. “The Narrative Strategy and Pragmatics of the Temple Theme in Mark.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1997, pp. 76–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43723803.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.
Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.