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Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 6); November 14, 2021

Who Wants to Know?

In the film, Men in Black, James Edwards has just witnessed the reality of aliens living among humans on earth. Kay, his recruiter to MIB, is explaining the situation as they sit on a bench in Battery Park. “Any given time, around fifteen hundred landed aliens are on the planet, the majority right here in Manhattan,” Kay lectures. “Most aliens are decent enough, just trying to make a living.”

“Cab drivers?” Edwards asks. “Not as many as you’d think,” Kay replies. He pauses thoughtfully and then resumes the lecture. “Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either. They’re happy. They think they’ve got a pretty good bead on things.”

Edwards is beginning to grasp the situation. “Why the big secret? People are smart,” he argues, “they can handle it.”

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Kay shakes his head. “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Everything they’ve ever ‘known’ has been proven to be wrong. A thousand years ago everybody knew as a fact, that the earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, they knew it was flat. Fifteen minutes ago, you knew we humans were alone on it. Imagine,” Kay murmurs, “what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Men in Black is a clever meditation on the price of blissful ignorance versus the cost of knowing what’s really going on. It is, in fact, an “apocalypse” in an intentional fictional format. There are things going on under the surface of life that most people don’t know and don’t wish to know. But those things are matters of life and death, not only for the few who are in the know but for the whole world.

It is the job, in fact, of the MIB agents to make sure that as few are in the know as absolutely necessary for the safety of the planet. As they pursue a rogue alien through the streets of New York, Edwards fires his (alien) weapon, creating mayhem and chaos.

“We do not discharge our weapons,” Kay scolds, “in view of the public.” Edwards (now known only as “Jay”) is not impressed. “Can we drop the cover-up bullshit?! There’s an Alien Battle Cruiser,” he contends, “that’s gonna blow-up the world if we don’t…”

Now it’s Kay’s turn to be unimpressed. “There’s always an Alien Battle Cruiser…or a Korlian Death Ray, or…an intergalactic plague about to wipe out life on this planet,” he explains, “and the only thing that lets people get on with their hopeful little lives is that they don’t know about it.”

“And Jesus said to him, ‘Are you seeing these great buildings? Not even a stone upon a stone will be left here which has not been torn down’” (Mark 13:2, my translation). The anonymous disciple looks at the surface, but Jesus sees deeply. “’Say to us when this will be,” the Fallible Four later inquire in private, “and what will be the sign when all this is about to come to completion.” I wonder if they later wished they hadn’t asked for quite so much information.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty adept at avoiding information that makes me uncomfortable or forces me to change my thinking and behavior. When the stock market takes a dive, I’m far less likely to check on my retirement plan. When there’s bad news nationally or locally, I’m very good at finding ways to avoid reports and updates. When there’s a funny sound in the rear brakes of the car, I hope that I can drive it less (and that some sort of miraculous automotive self-healing might take place). If I don’t go to the doctor, I won’t know which biological bombs are ticking away in my aging body.

“Humans, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Don’t want one, either.” Far too often that’s the case for me. And I’m not exceptional, as far as I can tell. I want things to go well, to be stable, and to make me blissfully ignorant and self-assuredly happy.

That’s all well and good as long as things are well and good. When blissful ignorance serves my needs and interests, however, then it’s time to question that blissful ignorance. For example, one of the realities that undergirds White supremacy is the sense of “White innocence” created by willful White ignorance. As long as we White people do not “see race,” we don’t have to deal with it. And if we put ourselves in spaces that are exclusively White, then we can sustain our ignorant innocence. We can persuade ourselves that we “have a pretty good bead on things.”

But a significant part of the gospel method, at least in the Markan composition, is to pull back the curtain and reveal things as they really are. The first-century imperial system took land and wealth from the most vulnerable and transferred it to the most powerful. The cultural values of the time put those who were different in some way into a variety of unclean and excluded categories. At least some of those who were supposed to be the helpers abused and oppressed those who most desperately needed the help.

The Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is that these underlying systems are not what God creates. And they are not the way God intends the world to be. These forms of hierarchical value and systematic oppression are passing away – and that’s the good news. That’s the good news unless I am one of those who is benefitting from those systems. Then it is in my interest that the truth remains buried under layers of ignorant innocence and willful deception.

Truth tellers are not welcome by most of us most of the time. In fact, if they can’t keep their mouths shut, someone will shut their mouths for them. That’s as good a description of the crucifixion of Jesus as any I can propose.

I was part of a couple of conversations the other day that make this all the more pressing for me. Someone shared a difficult exchange during a church meeting. A vocal member was criticizing a church representative for the failings of a denomination. In particular, the member didn’t want to hear any more about diversity, equity, inclusion, peace, justice, and systemic change – not from the pulpit and not from the preacher.

“Leave my ideology alone,” the member demanded, “and stick to theology.” I thought immediately of the discussion of ideology and the Theology of the Cross in Douglas John Hall’s The Cross in Our Context. Hall offers a definition of “ideology.”

“By ideology I mean a theoretical statement or system of interpretation that functions for its adherents as a full and sufficient credo, a source of personal authority, and an intellectually and psychologically comforting insulation from the frightening and chaotic mishmash of daily existence” (page 25).

In other words, the purpose of ideology is the opposite of apocalyptic. Ideology hides reality in order to keep the privileged in power and the advantaged agnostic. Apocalyptic uncovers reality in order to dismantle the power of privilege. To use another science fiction film image, ideology is the blue pill of The Matrix – the one that allows the collaborator to enjoy imaginary steaks in blissful and willful ignorance.

“For the ideologue,” Hall continues, whether religious or political, it is not necessary to expose oneself constantly to the ongoingness of life; one knows in advance what one is going to find in the world….The ideological personality,” he observes, “(and in our time there are many such personalities) is constantly on guard against the intrusion of reality, of the unallowable question, of the data that does not ‘fit’ the system; therefore,” he concludes, “the repressive and suppressive dimension is never far beneath the surface of the ideological inclination” (page 25).

Hall argues, quite rightly, that the Theology of the Cross is anti-ideological at its core. It is “apocalyptic” in the deepest sense. The Theology of the Cross uncovers and makes known what is really going on under the covers of human ideologies. That’s why it is so dangerous to systems of power and privilege. That’s why Jesus’ ministry takes him to the Cross…and Jesus followers with him.

Ideology is always, Hall argues, the Theology of Glory. Theology of the Cross is a “great refusal,” he writes. “It refuses any system of belief that capitalizes on and exploits human need…the fallen human need to control and repress truth, to hold to comforting and comfortable partial truths or even downright falsehoods that can seem to assuage the soul’s thirst for certainty and ultimacy, and so avoid unprotected exposure to the abyss of meaning over which finite existence is suspended” (page 29).

It’s no wonder we don’t really want to know. But refusing to lift up the covers on what’s really happening requires the suffering and death of the people and the planet that subsidize our willful ignorance. Pick your -ism and see what it costs someone for the privileged (probably you and me) to remain in blissful ignorance. When I do that, I see that I am crucifying them so that I can avoid my own cross.

The Theology of Glory, Hall summarizes, “is invariably tempted to be a theology of sight, not faith; finality, not hope; and power, not love” (page 33). This is the “theology” (actually the ideology) that drives and underwrites the dominant but decaying culture of Christian Nationalism and White Supremacy. The truth is, as Hall notes, that the world is full of pain, and God loves the world. The Cross uncovers that Truth and calls us to announce it.

Fifteen minutes ago, I was able to ignore that truth. I wonder what I’ll ignore tomorrow.

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

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.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Hall, Douglas John. The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World. Fortress Press, 2003.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.

Men in Black movie script: https://sfy.ru/?script=men_in_black.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 5); November 14, 2021

Watch Yourself!

If the function of the Markan composition is more impact than information, then what is that intended impact? It is hard to proclaim faithfully from the text if we can’t come to some modest understanding of that intention. Elizabeth Shively offers this proposal in her article. “My thesis is that Mark’s Gospel functions as persuasive rhetoric by telling the story of Jesus so as to reveal the only world that is reasonable for its audience to inhabit. It does this, in part,” she argues, “by employing apocalyptic language in order to restructure community identity” (page 382).

What does that phrase “community identity” mean? I think many of us would describe our identity as the way we are seen by others. I am a white, male, cisgender, reasonably well-educated (in the European sense), lower middle-class, Christian, Midwesterner. That’s not all that others see about me, but that’s a good start. I get those identifying marks from my communities and often regarded those marks as “given.”

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But community identity is much more a matter of how I see than how I am seen. I see my reality from the perspectives of whiteness, maleness, cisgenderness, etc. In this way, my identity (and that of my community) is not so much given to me as I impose it on my experience. Realities outside of my body don’t become “experience” until I interpret them. Interpretation happens through lenses and within a framework. The lenses and the framework are internal to me and my community. They don’t exist objectively out in “the world.”

It is, therefore, no accident that some of the miracle stories in the Markan composition are about changes in perceptual abilities. Blind people are now able to see, because of Jesus. Deaf people are now able to hear, because of Jesus. In the case of Bartimaeus, that change in perceptual capacity makes it possible for him to follow Jesus on the way to the cross. Identity shapes perception.

And identity describes position. I perceive through my lenses which begin to shape the experience. I interpret that experience from my position in life. Identity both shapes and responds to my perspective. My perspective is my view of the world – my worldview. It’s no surprise that following Jesus means “changing my mind,” that is, accepting a different view of the world.

I notice, therefore, how many times words for “seeing” show up in the Little Apocalypse. Do you see these big buildings? Watch out for yourselves (twice)! When you see the desolating sacrilege; they will see the Son of Man; when you see the fig tree. Keep your eyes open since you don’t know the day or the hour. Keep watch! Of course, there are a few auditory allusions as well, but the Discourse focuses primarily on seeing.

The reliable markers of community identity will fail the disciples as they have failed Jesus during his earthly ministry. Governing and religious authorities will reject the changes in perspective and position that following Jesus requires. Biological family members will hand over the troublemakers – those who have taken the name of Jesus. There will be no limit to the displacement and distress.

But those expected sources of identity – family, community, religion, government – they are passing away. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple is an example of that passing, although it is not the definitive and final example of that passing. There is one source of identity that is stable and lasting – that of following Jesus. The one who endures to the end will be saved. Heaven and earth will pass away, but Jesus’ words will not pass away. So, keep watching.

Pablo Richard, discussed in an earlier post, represents what Shively calls the “resistance literature” approach to apocalyptic in general. While Richard’s arguments are directed toward the Book of Revelation, they are, as I noted previously, equally applicable to the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13. These resistance literature interpretations “agree that Mark is written to address the audience’s experience of oppression and social alienation under Roman and Jewish authorities. Accordingly,” she continues in describing this approach, “Mark employs apocalyptic language in the service of political discourse, which functions to shape a social group that resists the dominant order” (Ibid).

Shively notes that additional research demonstrates the limitations of this approach. Some apocalyptic literature is, in fact, political resistance literature. But some works are more focused on “social injustice,” while others address “temptations that plague the flesh” (page 389). The Markan composition has elements of apocalypse not only in chapter thirteen but scattered throughout the composition. While we can use the analytical tools applied, for example, by Richard, to the Book of Revelation, the approach to the Markan account is not and cannot be the same.

“Although we cannot ascertain the particular social setting of Mark with certainty, evidence internal to the Gospel suggests that Mark seeks to explain the suffering and death of Jesus and his followers,” Shively argues (page 390). “The main rhetorical function of Mark’s apocalyptic discourse is to persuade the audience to testify and suffer for the sake of Jesus and the gospel,” she continues. “Nevertheless, the function of Mark’s discourse extends to challenge visions of the world espoused by Rome and the ruling authorities” (Ibid).

Shively proposes that in the Markan composition, Jesus is not so much creating a resisting movement as he is forming a new family. “Jesus forms a social group, that is, a community gathered for a particular purpose and organized around shared customs,” she argues. “Particularly, Jesus restructures kinship ties to form a new family organized around ‘doing God’s will’” (page 392). This community has a family identity that is defined by practice rather than blood relationship. “Ultimately,” Shively concludes with a nod toward Mark 13, “Jesus’ new family not only transcends the borders of kin and ethnicity to participate in a cosmic conflict, but also transcends the borders of time and space to enjoy an eschatological existence” (page 393).

The Little Apocalypse, according to Shively, develops and describes the nature of this family in light of the destruction of the Temple and the coming of the Son of Man. “Jesus’ point is that the destruction of the temple may be a harbinger, but it is not the end of all things, as the disciples appear to believe,” Shively writes. “The end will come only after Jesus’ followers endure the kind of suffering that the disciples have resisted so far in the narrative” (page 393). She notes that the Parable of the Householder, at the end of the discourse, shows the new household at work – resisting, testifying, suffering, and dying, until Jesus returns.

What does this mean (for us)? Shively argues that the community created by the text (or performance, I would add), is a theological reality with political ramifications. “It exists as an alternative social reality because it follows Jesus, not because it resists, reorders or manages socio-political power structures,” she argues. “Because it follows Jesus, the community faces opposing power structures that it may then resist, reorder or manage” (page 402). The Markan community does not exist as a community of resistance per se. The values and practices of following Jesus, however, create the conflicts that make resistance necessary.

“Apocalyptic discourse provides the resources for Jesus’ followers to form and maintain their identity as those who proclaim the gospel in the context of a hostile environment and who live self-sacrificially even in the face of death,” Shively concludes. “Mark gives the audience eyes to see what human vision would otherwise miss about the experience of rejection, suffering, domination and power, in order to shape a new community, inspire it to hope, and compel it to action” (pages 402-403).

Identity is perhaps the fundamental field of struggle in American culture at this time. What does it mean to be a “real American”? What does it mean to be a “real Christian?” What does it mean to be a “real man” or a “real woman”? People have been asking those questions for the last hundred years or so in a variety of venues, but there is a particular and sometimes violent urgency to the questions these days.

Will we White American Christians, for example, continue to assert that being White American Christians (with a firm commitment to fixed gender identities and roles as well) is the definition of and norm for what it means to be fully and authentically human? That has been the perception and perspective of our community for the last five hundred years. But it seems that this perception and perspective are passing away – or at least that they should be passing away.

Will we economically privileged Christians assert that a capitalist model is the only way to describe and organize what a faithful congregation looks like? Will we maintain our idolatries of numbers and real estate, of “profits” and success at the expense of love for God and love for neighbor? So far, that is the order of the day. But Christian bodies that maintain these perceptions and this perspective are passing away, and some are doing so rather quickly.

Will I embrace the likely discomfort and perhaps even the suffering that real changes in perception and perspective will produce for me? Am I ready for life as I have known it to pass away (and good riddance)? I’m not at all sure of that. I think I am continuing to look for the community that will help me to find that identity. But will I take yes for an answer when I find it?

That remains to be seen…

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

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.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Shively, Elizabeth E. “What Type of Resistance? How Apocalyptic Discourse Functions as Social Discourse in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 37.4 381–406. Web.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 4); November 14, 2021

Friends, it’s time for fundraising at workingpreacher.org. I’ll be making my contribution soon, and I hope you will as well. There’s a dollar for dollar match available through November 30th that makes this even more effective. Just go to the site and follow the instructions. Thanks!

It’s About “You”

We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.

“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.

“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.

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Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.

The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

I just want to point out the “apocalyptic” verbs in Dein’s comments: revealing, brought into sharp focus, exposed. These verbs describe the impact of apocalyptic scripting and literature on the audience and readers.

All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.

How would the Markan performer present this part of the script? There may be clues to such performances in the text. And those clues may help us to experience the text a bit more like the first audiences did. I would encourage you to read Mark 13 aloud several times and try to experience what it would be like to speak these words aloud to a living audience. I find that this affects my responses as an interpreter.

The text begins in a “third-person” mode. We are spectators as the anonymous disciple raises his question about the temple. But that indirect mode of address quickly turns to a “second-person” perspective. “Are you seeing these large buildings?”

The shift goes from “him” to “you” very quickly. There is a brief respite from that in-your-face conversation back to the third person for a moment in verse 3. I can imagine the performer turning more directly to the audience and looking people in the eye. Even though the audience would not be looking at the Temple in person, many in the crowd would be able to recover images of that Temple in their imaginations.

Remember that the text is spoken after the Temple has been reduced to ruins. Inviting the listeners to bring the Temple to mind would likely lead them to feelings of fear, anger, grief, and shock. At least some may have worshipped in the Jerusalem Temple before its destruction. Some may have witnessed that destruction as they escaped from Jerusalem one step ahead of the Roman occupiers. I am moved by this imaginative effort at some empathy which deepens the pathos of the text.

If that was the experience of those early audiences, it’s no wonder that there is a small break, perhaps, between verses two and three. The listeners have been smacked in the mouth, rhetorically, with memories of tragedy and trauma. They probably needed a moment to recover before the onslaught continued. I imagine the whole crowd taking a deep breath after verse 2 and the performer allowing for and even imitating that pause.

The four disciples speak the anxieties of the audience in their questions. The listeners are drawn back in because they too would like to know the underlying code if that’s possible. The performer turns from the third-person narration back to the second-person (plural) confrontation.

This is the power, as is so often the case in the Markan composition, of the quoted dialogue. “See that you are not deceived,” Jesus says. I cannot imagine playing this line in any way other than looking at the listeners right through the “fourth wall” of the performance. This direct address doesn’t let up until the end of chapter thirteen.

Joanna Dewey argues that “in the very oral performance of these speeches, Jesus is made present to audiences. The hearers of the Gospel experience being directly addressed by Jesus” (page 117).

I would argue, in fact, that the Little Apocalypse is framed by direct addresses to the audience. There is the initial order to look at the great building and to look to oneself. And there is the final admonition to one and all to keep watch. Dewey says this final admonition “is easily understood in the context of oral performance, for performers often make asides to their audiences in character” (page 118).

The focus of literary criticism and interpretation of scriptural accounts is typically on the meaning of what has been written. We preachers try to figure out “the point” and then translate that to our current settings. The focus of performance criticism, however, is to help us experience the impact of what is being spoken. Meaning and impact are certainly related. But the Markan composer is not merely in the business of information transfer. The composer is in the business of provoking responses.

Dewey argues, in line with most Markan scholars now, “that the Gospel of Mark was composed around 70 CE, in response in part to the First Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. I agree that it is ‘hot memory,’” she continues, “serving that present situation, not an attempt to preserve some earlier pristine past” (page 111).

This makes the Little Apocalypse a critical section for understanding the Markan composition. I have often been reminded by commentators that the narrative of the composition could flow uninterrupted from the Poor Widow’s Offering to the beginning of chapter 14 without the inclusion of chapter 13. In fact, that may have been the shape of the script until the events of 66 to 70 CE in Judea.

With Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins and prisoners being executed in Rome, it became not only necessary but critical to include some interpretation of those events in the Markan composition. This doesn’t require the proposal that the Markan composer either made up the Little Apocalypse or hijacked it from some other source. Jesus’ words, or some reasonable facsimile thereof, made sense in the days of his earthly ministry. But they took on real urgency once there was no longer “one stone left upon another.”

With this narrative framework in mind, the address to the audience takes on a bit more clarity. “I would argue,” Dewey writes “that Mark is simply separating the expectation of the return of the Son of Humanity from the events of the Roman-Jewish War” (page 115). Part of the impact of the direct address is to shift the attention of the audience from those “prophets” who saw the destruction of the Temple as the “end” and to the narrative that sees it as the “beginning.”

Times of disorientation, dislocation, and disintegration lend themselves especially to the machinations and manipulations of false messiahs. While government authorities will persecute the Jesus followers and family members will betray them, it is only the false messiahs who will mislead and deceive them.

Dewey, following Werner Kelber, argues that these false messiahs are, in fact, leaders of the Markan community. These are not, Dewey argues, to be seen as equivalent to The Twelve or their successors. Instead, they are leaders who arise, I take it, in the midst of the crisis and seek to lead the community in the direction of end times speculation rather than in the direction of patient endurance.

In my parish ministry, I learned that whenever a crisis of meaning or identity faced the dominant culture in the United States, one or more parishioners would approach me and ask, “Pastor, do you think we’re in the End Times?” In my pastoral youth, I discounted such questions with overly long disquisitions on the nature of apocalyptic and our hope in the gospel. I wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I was neither pastoral nor helpful.

After a while, I began to answer the question with a qualified “yes.” While I take seriously the reminder that eschatological calendars and timetables are both a waste of time and bordering on heresy, I also know that we often find ourselves at “the end of the world as we know it.” The Millennium Bug, the Iraq War (either version), Hurricane Katrina (or others), the 2008 financial crisis, the election of Barak Obama, Antiracism protests, Covidtide, and a dozen other events have produced the question in congregations I served – and for very good reasons.

After more of a while, I began to answer the question with “I hope so.” This is the Good News of Christian apocalyptic discourses. It is not that we are about to experience the Rapture or Armageddon, to ride with the Four Horsemen or to flee to the mountains beyond Judea. Instead, I hope we are always witnessing a fresh outbreak of the Kin(g)dom of God drawing near. I hope that we are always, as Jesus followers at least, changing our minds and putting our trust in the Good News.

Let the reader understand…

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

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.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 3); November 14, 2021

Back to Beginnings

“A beginning,” Frank Herbert wrote in Dune “is a very delicate time.” The Markan composer knows this narrative and historical truth well. He winds up his audience with threats of false messiahs (a running theme in the Dune series, by the way), wars and rumors of wars. The birthing of all this upheaval shall be “necessary,” the composer declares, but contrary to expectations it is not yet The End (Mark 13:7).

It may be that the Markan composer uses that indefinite Greek verb, dei, to indicate that all of this upheaval is God’s mysterious doing. When you hear these things, Jesus says, don’t be caught off guard. Things are happening within God’s intentions, no matter how frightening things may seem. The surface appearance is not all that is going on here.

Nonetheless, things will be difficult. International chaos will be mirrored by the shaking of the very ground under our feet. There shall be hunger – whether for food or God’s word, or both is left unclear. These things are the beginning of the birth pains. There is no connective between this last phrase and what precedes it, neither additive nor adversative. The “but” included in the NRSV translation of verse 8b may be permitted from the context but does not occur in the text itself.

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There is no paragraph or section break between verses eight and nine in the critical editions of the text. From a performance critical perspective, we might make the case for that break since there is a “but” near the beginning of verse nine. Nonetheless, there is (as far as I can tell) no clear indication if the “birth pains” are a conclusion to verses five through eight or the beginning of verses nine through thirteen.

The right answer is probably “yes.” This beginning refers to all of the eschatological woes listed in verses five through thirteen. For that reason, I think it is a significant error to stop reading at verse eight in public worship this week. As I continue to reflect on the text, I think I might re-read the story of the widow’s offering at the end of chapter twelve and then read through verse thirteen.

I know that the “punch line” about the beginning is perhaps less uncomfortable than the “punch line” about being saved through enduring to the end. Well, preacher friends, that is (as they say) why we get the big money. The focus on patient endurance (Greek = hupomene and related terms) is a hallmark, certainly, of apocalyptic in the Christian scriptures.

The word appears at least six times, for example, in the Book of Revelation. John the Revelator shares in both the persecution and the patient endurance of the congregations in Asia Minor (1:9). He commends the patient endurance of the believers at Ephesus (2:2), Thyatira (2:19), and Philadelphia (3:10). He commends nonviolent resistance to persecution and describes it as “patient endurance and faithfulness of the saints” (13:10). In 14:12, he describes that patient endurance and faithfulness of the saints as keeping the commandments and holding fast to the faithfulness of Jesus.

This theme of patient endurance to the end is point two in the three-part structure of the Little Apocalypse. The eschatological woes are the beginning of something, not the end (verses 5-8). The faithful will endure to the real end, even though things may get even worse (verses 9-22) This endurance will come as the gift of the Holy Spirit, most audible in the form of testimony during trials. The spiritual posture of the faithful must be watchful discernment (verses 23-37).

As always with the Markan composition, details matter. These things are “the beginning.” If we have listened to the Markan performance from chapter one, verse one, our ears will perk up at this moment. “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the composer declares in the first words of the script (Mark 1:1). It is this Good News which is turning the world “right side up” as Richard Swanson would put it. Any beginnings are rooted in and flow out of that beginning.

The proper response to that Good News is to know that the proper time is now fulfilled and that the Kin(g)dom of God has drawn near. Jesus calls us to “change our minds” and put our trust in that Good News. If apocalyptic is an uncovering of what’s really going on, then the ability to see, hear, and understand what’s really going on requires that changed mind, which goes by the humble title of “repentance.”

This change of mind cannot arise naturally or spontaneously. Instead, it is formed first by Jesus’ teaching. An anonymous disciple marvels at the scale of the Temple architecture and construction. Jesus offers a bit of perspective, noting that the grand structure shall be “thrown down.”

Before I go on to Jesus’ private teaching, it’s worth pausing for a bit on the verb used at the end of verse two. It certainly means “to be thrown down” or destroyed. However, I noticed that this is also the word that gives us our English words, “catalysis” and related terms. It literally means to “loosen something down.” A catalyst is a compound that actually facilitates other reactions, in part by dissolving or breaking down old things in order to produce new things.

The Markan composition is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That Good News can only be appropriated by a change of mind that puts living and dying trust in that Good News. The “old order” is dissolving, sometimes slowly and sometimes in the suddenness of catastrophe. It takes trained and formed eyes to see and ears to hear the rustles of the beginning that is really closer to us than our own breath.

The “Fallible Four” – the Markan composer’s favorite foils for Jesus’ private teaching – ask the obvious questions. When will these things be? And what is the sign when all these things are about to come together in the end? Not so fast, Jesus instructs them. Disciples don’t get to skip the middle bits. It will be messy – worse before it gets better – but hang in there. Pregnancy produces progeny. Labor leads to birth.

At our house, we are fans of the BBC series, Call the Midwife. These days that is about the only “appointment TV” on our weekly schedules. The writers tell a variety of human, social and cultural stories in the drama. But they never lose touch with the real reason the midwives do their work. All the stories remain in the service of bringing children to birth. Every episode has at least one (and often several) depictions of women in labor and delivery, moving from the agony of the contractions to the ecstasy of the delivery. In the end, that’s what it’s all about.

We can get caught up in the details of our life dramas, since that’s what we live intimately day in and day out. That was likely a risk for the Markan community as well. Amanda Brobst-Renaud refers to a recent article by Simon Dein on the relationship between current crises and apocalyptic thinking in our own contexts. That article is available online and worth a firsthand read.

“Pandemics,” Dein writes, “indicate the fragility of life and the world, chaos, engender paralysing anxiety that the world is dissolving, a sense of detachment and raise significant issues of meaning resulting in existential crises.” He suggests that such a crisis puts into doubt our accepted systems of symbolism, significance, and sense. As a result, we cast about for other explanatory systems to manage the mess.

“Our current plausibility structures upon which the existence of society is dependent are (sic) threatened,” Dein writes, “and we are urgently in need of alternative sociocultural contexts to provide structures of meaning.” I would suggest that this need explains at least to some degree, for example, the phobias regarding masks and vaccines and the continued attraction of informal apocalyptic schemas such as the QAnon conspiracy cluster. More on that, perhaps, later.

Dein notes that apocalyptic literature, therefore, is not only “religious” in background and context. In fact, I would argue, that we live in an era of hybrid religio-secular apocalypses resulting in such things as the “Christian Nationalism” at the root of the January 6th insurrection. From that perspective, the Covid crisis is uncovering a decay in the “Real America” of Christian Nationalist mythology. Since this is an existential crisis, it’s no wonder that as many as a third of the proponents of this mythology believe that public violence will be the result and solution.

The Covid crisis also provides the opportunity for more “left-leaning” apocalyptic scenarios. I find these more based in evidence and less in ideology, but such views are not without their own mythologies. That being said, Dein puts it this way. “The Covid crisis is revealing health care inequalities, class divisions, unequal distribution of power, and the fact that the most important workers in American society are among the least paid. Health inequalities have been brought into sharp focus and the crisis has exposed the structural disadvantage and discrimination faced by parts of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.”

All that being said, Dein reminds us that the fundamental perspective of apocalyptic literature in the end is that of hope. Things are not as they ought to be. The current situation is dissolving under the weight of its own dysfunction. Something new is being born among us. The question is not whether we face an apocalyptic crisis. Humans always face such crises, to one degree or another. The question is, rather, whether we have placed our hope in One who brings the beginning to birth.

References and Resources

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-33-2/commentary-on-mark-131-8-5.

Dein, Simon. “Covid-19 and the Apocalypse: Religious and Secular Perspectives.” Journal of religion and health vol. 60,1 (2021): 5-15. doi:10.1007/s10943-020-01100-w.

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 2); November 14 2021

We began this year of the Markan composition on November 29, 2020, with a reading from the last half of the Little Apocalypse. I am re-running that text study both as a reminder of this full circle and because there’s good stuff here.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

Happy New Year! We begin a new year in the life of the church on the first Sunday in Advent. This year we will use the Gospel according to Mark as our major lens for seeing Jesus and our primary matrix for hearing the call to discipleship. In its original form, Marks’ gospel may have been a sort of narrative catechism for new believers in the congregations in Rome (if that’s the actual location). The focus is on what it means to live as followers of Jesus, as disciples.

We begin the New Year, as we always do, in such a strange way. We begin with a text that talks about the end of the world (or so we think). “In America,” write Matthew Barrett and Mel Gilles, “everyone believes in the apocalypse. The only question is whether Jesus or global warming will get here first.” (Gross, Matthew Barrett; Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth, p. 9). We could add several other doomsday scenarios given the realities of 2020. In fact, we’re not at the end of anything.

We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working. That’s really the message of Mark 13. There will be an end, just not now. Panic is over-rated. Patience is undervalued. So, keep awake and keep working.

Mark 12 ends with the story of the widow’s offering at the temple treasury. This little narrative prepares the ground for Jesus’ prophetic words against the exploitive, extractive, collaborative system of the Jerusalem temple and the temple leadership. The widow gives “her whole life” to God as she makes her offering. Soon, Jesus will give his whole life as the offering for the healing of the world. The temple will no longer be the place where such sacrifices are made.

Jesus uses apocalyptic texts and imagery to deliver this prophetic critique. Our gospel reading is the climactic third of that critique. The disciples express wonder at the astonishing size and beauty of the temple before them. Jesus says that soon it will all come tumbling down. The disciples rightly wonder when this catastrophe will take place.

“The place to start to understand this passage,” notes Tom Wright, “is in the middle, at verse 8: ‘These are the beginnings of the birth pangs.’ (Mark for Everyone, KL 3138). Mark is all about beginnings rather than endings. His title for the dramatic narrative he produces is found in chapter one, verse one: “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ…

Thus, this isn’t the end of anything. It’s a strange way to start a year, unless you understand this. Tribulation isn’t the end of anything. It’s what we will endure if we are faithful. Christians need not look for trouble. It will find us if we’re doing what we are called to do. And the trouble that finds us will be what the late John Lewis called “good trouble.”

The Greek word for “judgment” is “krisis” from which we get our English word “crisis.” A crisis is, to use the current jargon, an inflection point — a point of no return, a decisive moment which determines what comes next. It is a fork in the existential road, a branching of the universe into new territory. A crisis may be the end of the world as we know it, but it is also the beginning of a world we cannot yet see.

“The world is going to be plunged into convulsions, Jesus says; and his followers, called like him to live at the place where the purposes of God and the pain of the world cross paths with each other,” observes Tom Wright, “will find themselves caught up in those convulsions.” (Kindle Location 3170).

It’s always the end of the world somewhere. I think about this insightful bit of dialogue from the film, Men in Black. Kay scolds his younger partner: “We do not discharge our weapons in view of the public!” Jay is not impressed. “We ain’t got time for this cover-up bullshit! I don’t know whether or not you’ve forgotten, but there’s an Arquillian Battle Cruiser that’s about to…”

Then comes a bit of trademark MIB philosophy. “There’s always an Arquillian Battle Cruiser, or a Corillian Death Ray, or an intergalactic plague that is about to wipe out all life on this miserable little planet,” Kay retorts, “and the only way these people can get on with their happy lives is that they do not know about it!” [For another day: this is also a way to understand the way racism functions in our culture – not an accident that the film is called Men in Black].

Of course, Jesus is not advocating for a safe god who keeps us in blissful ignorance. Rather Jesus points to the faithful God who walks with us into the changes and challenges of faithful living in the here and now. “The safe god asks nothing of us, gives nothing to us,” writes Mark Buchanan. That god

never drives us to our knees in hungry, desperate praying and never sets us on our feet in fierce, fixed determination. [That god] never makes us bold to dance. The safe god never whispers in our ears anything but greeting card slogans and certainly never asks that we embarrass ourselves by shouting from the rooftop…A safe god inspires neither awe, nor worship, nor sacrifice. (Your God is Too Safe, page 31).

Jesus is not describing a safe god. Nor is Jesus describing “the end of the world.” But he is describing the end of the world as we know it (and the beginning of a new – or it renewed – order). Wright makes the point clear.

Had it been the end of the world, what would have been the point of running away so frantically? No; but it was the end of their world, the close of the way of life that had failed, by the combination of injustice towards those inside and revolutionary violence towards those outside, to obey God’s call to be the light of the world. (Kindle Location 3240).

It’s instructive to observe the bifurcation of the QAnon movement in the wake of the recent election. For some members, the result has produced a crisis in faith since the predicted outcome did not materialize. For others, the strategy is to double down, recalculate, read the signs again and continue the delusions. It’s no surprise that the mysterious center of all this baloney — the anonymous and eponymous Q — has simply counseled patience and watching.

On the other hand, True Q believers are advocating a variety of narratives and responses, many involving some form of violence. Christians should hear clearly in our text the warning against listening to false messiahs and prophetic pretenders. That warning was potent in the first century and pertinent in the twenty-first century.

Regarding Mark 13, Larry Hurtado writes, “it is helpful to note that the dominant theme of the whole passage is a warning against being deceived by false claims about the end being near and by individuals who will try to pass themselves off as prophets – or even something more (vv. 6, 21).” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

So, Hurtado suggests that Mark had a particular pastoral concern for his listeners/readers. “Thus, Mark’s primary purpose,” Hurtado continues, “was not to inflame speculation about the time of the end of the world, but rather to urge caution and wisdom. He cared more,” Hurtado concludes, “about the welfare of his readers than about encouraging them to try to calculate the details of God’s future plans” (page 212). In a time when the QAnon conspiracy myth walks in the front door of some churches (well, at least figuratively in Covid-time), the words of Mark 13 are noteworthy.

There will be an end to history at some point, Jesus says, but this ain’t it, friends. The destruction of Jerusalem was a huge deal, but life went on. The utter chaos of 2020 is a huge deal, but life goes on. Most of us never met a crisis we didn’t enjoy, but that’s not the role for Christians. We are to wait patiently, to endure faithfully, and to continue to work while it is daytime. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Panic is over-rated. Preparation is under-appreciated. Patient endurance is the platinum standard for disciples. Wright says it well: “But it is also important for us to remind ourselves of our own call to watch, to be alert. The judgment that fell on the Temple is a foretaste, according to other passages in the New Testament, of the judgment that will fall on the whole world.” (Kindle Location 3308).

I have two questions still to address. First, where is the “good news” in this part of Mark’s gospel? It is in the narrative yet to come. The crisis will come to its climax on the cross. The forces of sin, death and evil will be drawn to a single point in time and space. God takes on and takes in all the powers of anti-life and defeats them in the death and resurrection of the Beloved Son. Today’s text is the beginning of the birth pangs. In a few weeks we will remember and celebrate the Festival of the Incarnation when those birth pangs produce a child in a manger, who is Christ, the Lord.

The second question is, who benefits from misreading this passage as a text of terror? “We are surrounded by fear,” writes Scott Bader-Saye, “just to the extent that we are surrounded by people who profit from fear.” (page 14). Let us not be distracted by the fear-vendors among us. We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

Bader-Saye continues. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger. It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good.” (page 22). It’s hard to improve on that line. But it does give me a chance to squeeze in a great Harry Potter quote. “’Dark times lie ahead of us,’ Dumbledore warns Harry, ‘and there will be a time when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.’”

That is, of course, always the choice facing Jesus followers. For Christians, Jesus tells us, this time is all the time. “Courage is the capacity to do what is right and good in the face of fear,” writes Bader-Saye. “We become courageous when we learn to live for something that is more important than our own safety.” (page 67).

Can our congregations be places where we can speak our fears safely and honestly? “To speak our fear to another is to begin to loosen the grip that fear has on us. To make fear take form in speech is to name it as something that can be confronted, not confronted alone but in the community of those willing to speak their fears aloud and thus begin to subdue them.” (Bader-Saye, page 71). What a gift to the world if our congregations could become and be such places!

We’re burning daylight. So, keep awake and keep working.

References and Resources

Bader-Saye, Scott. Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Grand Rapids, MI.: Brazos Press, 2007.

Buchanan, Mark. Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can’t Control. Sisters, OR.: Multnomah Publishers, 2001.

Carvalho, Corrine. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3485

Gross, Matthew Barrett, and Gilles, Mel. The Last Myth: What the Rise of Apocalyptic Thinking Tells Us about America. Promotheus Books, 2012.

Hartwell, Drew, and Timberg, Craig. “‘My faith is shaken’: The QAnon conspiracy theory faces a post-Trump identity crisis.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2020/11/10/qanon-identity-crisis/

Hogan, Lucy Lind. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2278

Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.

Jervis, L. Ann. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=180

Lange, Dirk. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1131

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Kindle Edition. Augsburg Fortress Press, 1992.

Wendland, Kristin. https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2253

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (2nd Edition, Kindle). Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

Text Study for Mark 13:1-37 (Pt. 1); November 14, 2021

Peeking Under the Covers

Mark 13 is often referred to as the Markan “Little Apocalypse.” Jesus discusses the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in response to the gee-whiz comments of one of the disciples in Mark 13:1. We should note that the Markan composition is performed and transcribed during and after the Jewish War of 66-70 CE. Therefore, the described destruction is now accomplished fact. We can talk later about why that is important in the Markan composition.

For now, however, I want to focus on and remind us of the nature of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and beyond. While the Book of Revelation is, perhaps, the best known and most studied apocalyptic document around the first century, it is by no means the only such document. It demonstrates characteristics that can help us to understand and interpret other apocalyptic documents, such as Mark 13.

The Greek verb, apokalupto, means to “reveal” or to “disclose.” The literal meaning, when we take the word apart, means something like “to remove the cover” or “to bring out from hiding.” Apocalyptic literature uncovers what is happening far more than it seeks to predict what will happen.

Photo by David Huck on Pexels.com

Apocalyptic literature is a kind of prophecy, but it is prophecy in the sense of most prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures. It is not foretelling so much as it is forth-telling. Pablo Richard, in his book, Apocalypse, offers several guidelines for interpretation here. While he is speaking specifically about the Book of Revelation, most of his guidelines are applicable to Mark 13 as well. So, I will share selections from those guidelines to assist us in our grappling with the text.

Richard notes that apocalyptic literature arises in times of persecution. In particular, such literature comes to the fore in situations of chaos, exclusion, and ongoing oppression. The eschatology (discussion of the “last things”) in such literature takes place in the present of the composer rather than in the future.

If, for example, the Markan composition comes to light during and after the Jewish War and the persecutions before, during, and after it, then the discussions of persecution, trial, family division, and the need for endurance were issues for those listening to the composition. It may be that the “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14ff.) has already taken place and needs to be interpreted. The necessity for alertness is clearly addressed to the listeners in Mark 13:37.

Richard notes that Revelation (and, I would say, Christian apocalyptic in general) is about the process of history rather than events at the end of history. Therefore, for example, the little parable of the fig tree (Mark 13:28-31) shows how history really works. Apocalyptic literature uncovers the work of God in and through history as well as the work that transcends that history. So, we have both the description of the earthly tribulations and the expectations of cosmic disruptions in Mark 13:24-27.

The Little Apocalypse unites apocalyptic and prophecy, I would argue, just as does the Revelation to John. As in the case of John’s apocalypse, some of this “prophecy” is almost certainly after the fact, pointing to events that had not yet happened in Jesus’ time, but which had taken place by the time the Markan composition was performed. The Little Apocalypse explains and interprets far more than it predicts.

Apocalyptic literature brings together eschatology and politics. We can certainly see that in Mark 13. And Richard urges us to interpret apocalyptic literature in the historical context in which it arose.

Therefore, the Little Apocalypse made sense to those first performers and listeners. It helped them to understand, interpret, and endure their experiences as Jesus followers. If the Little Apocalypse became meaningful only in our time, as some interpreters would argue, it is unlikely that it would have been preserved by all those people confused by the opaqueness of a document not meant for them.

“The content of revelation is the reality of heaven,” Richard writes, “that is, the transcendent world of the presences of God in history. The opposite of revelation is covering up,” he continues, “what today we would call ideology. Ideology serves to conceal injustices and legitimize domination. Apocalypse un-conceals the world of the poor and legitimizes their struggle for the reign of God, which is life and liberation. This liberation is therefore,” he concludes, “good news for the poor” (page 37).

I think it is critical to remember the way in which the Markan composer frames the Little Apocalypse. Last week we read and studied the basis for the Little Apocalypse in the critique of the greedy scribes and the offering of the poor widow. Jesus sat “opposite” the Temple treasury in Mark 12:41. That word can have the sense of being in contradiction of or in opposition to something. It’s important to remember that position, not only in terms of geography but also in terms of theology.

Then in Mark 13, Jesus leaves the Temple and sits “opposite” the Temple, gazing on it from the Mount of Olives. The word for “opposite” is the same as in the previous passage. By now we should know that such repetition is neither accident nor coincidence in the Markan composition. Something interesting is going on here.

Following the Little Apocalypse is the story of the woman at Bethany who anoints Jesus’ head. The text begins with the brief reminder that the chief priests and the scribes were looking for an opportunity to remove the troublemaker (or to put down a dangerous disruptor, depending on your perspective). The woman is scolded for wasting money that could have been given to the poor. Woman, money, poor – the Markan composer wants us to see that this is connected to the other piece of the frame in Mark 12.

I find it most helpful to read apocalyptic literature as a method of theological and social analysis rather than as mere history or fantastic prediction. The method is to uncover Reality, insofar as it is possible, from God’s point of view rather than from the view of human power structures. The analytical framework of the Little Apocalypse, therefore, is about the exploitation of the poor for the sake of the Jerusalem elites in the first century. What can we take from the analysis for our own Way of discipleship? That’s part of the question for this week.

When an ideological system perceives challenges and threats to itself, it responds first with falsehood. I can’t help but think of the pseudo-messianic claims of the previous president, for example. “I alone can fix it,” he declared in 2016. I live in a neighborhood where there is flag promoting the candidacy of that former president in 2024 with the slogan, “Saving America Again.”

The Markan composer notes that many will come in Jesus’ name and say “I am.” If you recall the extended discussions of that phrase in connection with the Gospel of John, you will remember that this assertion vibrates with claims of divinity. Those vibrations take us all the way back to the call of Moses in Exodus. The ones who make such claims will deceive many and lead them into error. “Astray” is not just being lost here. It is being mistaken.

A threatened ideological system will seek to displace the blame for problems on to outside agents and structures. Every autocrat needs a credible and demonic enemy or two. “Wars and rumors of wars” are useful for maintaining the level of anxiety necessary to keep people from risking resistance.

These days the threats are caravans of migrants overwhelming the southern borders of the United States and rabid socialists overwhelming the moral resources of the individualist, capitalist regime. Always lurking in the background, and now in the open, is the bugbear of the black beast, ready at a moment’s notice to rape white women and steal white property. Many are led into error these days by such ideological nonsense.

When messianic promises and demonizing the Other are not sufficient to maintain power, then actual violence is employed. The description in Mark 13:9-13 is specific and precise. I suspect that some of the listeners to Markan composition could nod in remembrance of their own experiences, finger their own scars, and mourn those who had not endured or survived.

Wherever the Markan composition was produced and performed, there would likely be in the audience refugees from the Jewish War who had fled to the mountains to escape the disaster. There were those who left everything to get away. There were some who lost children on the trip. In the midst of the chaos and dislocation, there would certainly be those who still claim to be the only ones who could fix it.

The framing of the Little Apocalypse in the Markan composition leads us to believe that the “problem” was the Imperial system of wealth extraction, undergirded by the public theology of the emperor as savior and son of a god. The Jerusalem Temple and its functionaries had a complicated relationship with that system and that theology – neither all good nor bad. But in the end, that system could tolerate no resistance. And the oppressed could not the tolerate the deception and theft. There was war.

We can ask ourselves, in this time of dislocation and deconstruction, what ideologies are being uncovered for what they truly are? The ideology of Christian Nationalism, which is the framework and foundation of four centuries of White Supremacy on this continent, is perhaps the most obvious candidate for discussion here. There is a great uncovering happening in our time. And the response is predictable – messianic promises, externalized threats, and violent suppression. While that response was more in the shadows in the past, it is now quite in the open and is celebrated by at least a third of the population (far more among so-called “Evangelical Christians”).

I don’t know that most of us white preachers are going to make that direct connection in our sermons this week (unless we have our walking papers prepared for execution). But at least we might raise the question, after helping people to begin to understand what Mark 13 is about. What systems are being uncovered among us now for what they truly are? Will we resist and testify? Or will we retreat and ossify?

For me, at least, the verdict is (I am sad to say) still in doubt…

References and Resources

Richard, Pablo. Apocalypse: A People’s Commentary on the Book of Revelation. Orbis Books, 1995.

The Fab Four — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 12:35-44

The Fab Four

Konstantin Stanislavski is regarded as the “father of modern acting.” He was the one who first said, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Prior to his time, the bit players and extras in productions didn’t do much acting. Mostly, they just filled in the spaces between the lines of the “big” actors.

Stanislavski rejected this understanding. He required the same depth, commitment, and quality from all his actors – big or small, headliners or extras. This demand revolutionized the theater experience for both the actors and the audience.

In our text, we witness the performance of one of the bit players and extras in the Gospel according to Mark. The poor widow may have a small part in the drama. She is, however, anything but a small actor. The poor widow is, in fact, one of the “Fab Four” in the Markan gospel account.

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Mark’s gospel features four unnamed women. They are the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5, the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7, the poor widow here in Mark 12, and the woman who anointed Jesus in Mark 14.

These women are some of the so-called “little people” in Mark’s gospel. That means they aren’t one of the Twelve so-called “official” disciples. Nor are they among the named characters who have larger roles in the drama. Instead, they come on stage. They play their parts and speak their lines. Then they leave the stage, not to be mentioned again.

The four women are, in the language of the theater, bit players and extras. They might not even rate a mention in the credits at the end of the film or on the back of the program. Yet, these four women – the characters I want to call the “Fab Four” – reveal more about who Jesus is and what following him means than most of the other characters in Mark’s script.

These four women have similar roles in the Markan drama. Each of them takes the initiative. The woman with the hemorrhage seeks Jesus out and takes the risk to touch his robe. The Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus and walks right into the house where he’s staying. The poor widow expresses her devotion to God in the Temple with her whole living. The unnamed anointer comes uninvited, not only into the house, but into the space reserved for the invited male guests.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like. These are not small actors. Nor do they have small parts.

These four women are outsiders to “The System” – the status quo that keeps them sick, rejected, poor, and segregated. They do not allow, however, “The System” to keep them in their places. The woman with the hemorrhage has had enough of ineffective treatments. The Syro-Phoenician woman has had enough of limited access. The poor widow has had enough of gifts evaluated by size. The anointing woman has had enough of men controlling access to worship.

Mark wants us to see that this is what disciples look like.

They, however, are not identical. The “Fab Four” each have their own roles and performances. The despair of the bleeding woman drives her to courageous faith. The determination of the Syro-Phoenician woman empowers her to get what she seeks. The devotion of the poor widow requires even a corrupt and broken system to convey her gift to God. The discernment of the anointing woman is beyond that of any of the men in the room.

These women engage in the dance of trust. It is a complicated step that I won’t often get right. Trusting Jesus as my Lord often requires this combination of desperation, determination, devotion, and discernment. The recipe is never quite the same twice in a row. But this complicated dance plays out in the Markan drama for those with the eyes to see it.

Martin Luther describes one function of the “Law” in God’s Word as driving me deeper into my need for Jesus. Luther gets that right. This text drives me deeper into Jesus’ loving embrace. That doesn’t happen as resignation or fear. Rather, I am driven by a joyous hunger to have what the Fab Four have. There is more to this discipleship biz, and I want it.

Yes, perhaps the way to relate to these four women is to contract and nourish a case of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “holy envy.” I know it was Krister Stendahl who coined the phrase. And Taylor always gives due credit. But she puts additional flesh on Stendahl’s theological bones in this phrase.

I can envy the widow for her deep devotion, her “ruthless trust” (as Brenna Manning would name it). I can envy her for shedding her last bits of financial and cultural baggage. After all, as that great philosopher, Kris Kristofferson, once said, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

I can envy her the adventure of not knowing what comes next and the excitement of finding out. I can envy her love without anxiety or limits. I can envy her desire to love God, not for what she can get but rather “for nothing.” I can choose to feel ashamed by her example or inspired by it. I think the Markan composer longs for us to see the Fab Four and know that there are no small parts in the Good News of the Kin(g)dom of God – not even for me.

I am convinced that the Christian gospels are not, in technical terms, “wisdom” texts. They are not advice on how to get along in the world as it is. That work is left for books like Proverbs in the Hebrew Scriptures and, perhaps, James in the Christian Scriptures. No, the Christian gospels are apocalypses. They seek to uncover the world as God intends and destines it to be.

Each of the Fab Four is an apocalyptic actor, revealing more about the Kin(g)dom and Jesus’ role and identity in that Kin(g)dom. They demonstrate that God’s healing love flows into the world. They show that outsiders have faith – often more than the insiders. They demonstrate what it means to give one’s whole life for the sake of love. And they point to Jesus as the true Messiah, King of Israel, and Son of God.

In my envy, I am challenged as a disciple to live an apocalyptic life as well. I don’t mean that I should focus on end times prophecies. No, I’m claiming the real meaning of “apocalyptic.” Jesus followers are called to live lives that reveal the living and loving presence and power of God in Jesus Christ for the sake of each person and the whole cosmos. The four women do that in the Markan composition. They show us that we can do that in our lives as well. There are no small parts in the gospel drama, and no one is a small actor.

The Fab Four also uncover The System in its tragic brokenness and terrible power. The critique in the poor widow’s story, for example, is not that the Temple is financially extractive. The problem is that the widow is abandoned with only two pennies to her name. The fact that this widow exists is Exhibit A to prove that The System is broken and corrupt. The rich have a surplus because the widow has a deficit – and vice versa.

Each of the Fab Four reveals, in her own way, a place where The System is broken. The bleeding woman requires us to look at our health care system and know that it penalizes the poor not only for being poor but for daring to be sick. The Syro-Phoenician woman reveals our anti-Other prejudices now expressed in rejection of the migrant. The poor widow reveals our exploitation of the many to enrich the few. The anointing woman shows up in our discounting of the witness and voices of women – especially in churches.

The four women remind us that where we look determines what we see. If we look at the rich donors and the big stones of the Temple, we will not see the poor widows, the bleeding women, the desperate mothers, the grieving prophets of the world. We dare not look at the beneficiaries of The System and expect to see anything other than support for the status quo.

The Kin(g)dom of God is most clearly revealed in the people The System regards as bit players and extras. We who follow Jesus know where to look. It takes immense, self-serving effort to avert our gaze and look in all the wrong places. The Fab Four remind us to abandon that habit of the averted gaze.

The small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into a bigger apocalyptic story next week. Jesus tells us that a system which can treat this poor widow in this way is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own hypocrisy. More on that next week, but (spoiler alert), we should be very worried.

More important, however, the small apocalypse we experience in the story of the poor widow leads us into the biggest story of all. She gives her whole life in trusting response to God’s goodness. This is a preview, a foreshadowing, of Jesus as he gives his whole life in trusting response to God’s call and for the sake of all.

In the gospel drama, there are no small parts. Please, God, help me to stop being a small actor.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-6.

Cruz, Samuel. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-5.

Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.

Kiel, Micah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-2.

Langknecht, Henry. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-3.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-4.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.

Text Study for Mark 12: 35-44 (Pt. 6), November 7, 2021

Speaking in the Shadows

In her book, Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor remembers a letter she received from a Jewish psychiatrist after some ten years in pastoral ministry. The psychiatrist had been reading some of Taylor’s published sermons. While he appreciated much in those messages, he noted that Taylor was still using what he called “the language of contempt.”

Taylor was puzzled by this phrase and asked for clarification. The man noted that she used phrases such as “the burden of the law” or “the righteousness of the Pharisees.” While Taylor used these expressions with good intentions, she noted that she had not “the slightest idea how they sounded to Jewish ears.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Taylor’s dialogue partner noted that the phrases were imprecise and venomous, regardless of the intention. “In short,” Taylor writes, “he showed me how casually I appropriated the language of the New Testament without thinking about how the past twenty centuries affect its hearing today” (page 88). While I spent a previous post pointing out some of the ways in which we can read our text while straining out the venom, I felt a need to go back and audit this week’s work to see where else I have fallen short.

When I read the gospel accounts, and especially the Markan composition, I have to remind myself and my conversation partners that most of the fights in the Christian scriptures are no longer my fights. That’s true in the simple, historical sense that those fights have been settled (or at least they’re over). It’s also true in the complex, historical sense that I live in a far different time and place than did the first Jesus followers.

Taylor notes in her book that at least some of us Christians want to think and live as if there have not been twenty-one centuries between Jesus’ earthly ministry and our daily lives. Some of us want to think and act as if we can go directly from the text of Christians scriptures to interpretation and application in this moment. For those of us who live after pogroms and the Holocaust and the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue, that arrogant assumption is both wrong and deadly (for Jews, at least).

There’s the real danger that we will make those first-century fights into allegories of and proxies for our contemporary fights. I think Martin Luther did some of that when he made Jewish law the proxy for “The Law” in his theology. I think he did more of that when he made “the Jews” into proxies for the medieval papacy and the penitential system. The problem with that facile exchange is that real Jews paid the real price instead of the papacy.

We should be clear as preachers, and I should be clear as a commentator, that the scribes in the Markan composition do not represent a minority opinion among first-century Jews on the marks of the Messiah. As Taylor notes, Jesus “simply did not do what Jewish scripture said a messiah would do. He did not restore Jerusalem. He did not rebuild the Jerusalem temple. He did not usher in the age of peace on earth, so that wolves and lambs lay down together and no one learned war anymore” (page 84).

Most of us Christians, Taylor observes, expect Jesus to do these things when he returns, “but that is where Jews and Christians part ways. When Jesus’ followers began to worship him,” she concludes, “those who confessed faith in the one God waved good-bye to the those who saw God as three” (page 84). And, I remind myself, it wasn’t just the scribes who thought Jesus was off the track. That’s the majority position of the Twelve until after the crucifixion and resurrection.

What I am asking of myself is to be precise and specific whenever the potential for anti-Jewish “language of contempt” is a temptation (which is most Sundays in Christian preaching). The problem with the scribes in our text is not being “Jewish.” The problem is that some of them were greedy and as a result were violating the standards of their own teaching.

But, “Jew” and “greedy” have been combined a million times in the last two millennia. The image of the rich, greedy Jew has been used to underwrite horrific acts, policies, and regimes. We should note that this image never disappears. It goes underground for a while, only to re-emerge when useful to those who want to be the next incarnation of institutional Anti-Semitism. A brief survey of current right wing political literature and pronouncements in this country and around the world will demonstrate that the “greedy Jew” has returned as a trope to legitimate persecution and violence.

Thus, this is fraught territory for preaching and commenting. Clarity, specificity, and lots of caveats should be the order of the day. For example, when it comes to the marks of the Messiah, Jesus is the one skating on thin theological ice here. No one could have expected in advance that the Messiah would look like Jesus, crucified and raised.

While Jesus was on the margins of messianic interpretation, he was in many ways more conservative than his dialogue partners. Think about the number of times Jesus returns to an earlier and deeper level of the tradition to make his points. He’s not creating new categories or systems. He is going back to the meaning and intent behind the texts. The way that Jesus is “radical” is that he goes to the “root” (Latin = radix) of the issues in the text.

For example, the care for widows, orphans, and sojourners is a central tenet of the Tanakh (the “Old Testament” for us Gentiles). This is not a new invention. Jesus is not breaking new theological ground here.

In addition, whatever the Temple system was, that’s not my fight. My fight is with oppressive, extractive, and exploitative systems in the here and now. It’s a lot more comfortable to focus on “the Temple,” because I don’t have a dog in that fight. If I focus on the here and now systems, there’s a problem. In those systems I’m much more a scribe than a widow.

We do business at a local bank. My spouse works for another large banking corporation. My ELCA retirement plan dollars are invested in the stock market and depend on that market for income. I have a daily vested interest in the success of those institutions. Then I read a paper on how private banks and the private banking system have continued to practice discrimination against a variety of minority groups because diversity, equity, and inclusion are seen as conflicting with their real bottom lines (See Packin and Nippani article). Well, that’s a problem — for me.

Even the language of the scribes as “villains,” which works so well in performance criticism terms, is loaded language in our preaching. Sigh. Perhaps it’s too much to ask for people to see the textual “villains” without transferring those feelings to the descendants of the “villains.” I probably need to leave that imagery on the sidelines.

Does the Markan account itself argue here that the Temple “deserved” destruction? Perhaps it does. If so, that is an after the fact argument, since the Temple was dust and ashes by the time the Markan account is put into writing. Perhaps this is simply hindsight bias (“you see, we knew it all along!”). The problem is that this argument slides far too easily into one that says Jews deserve destruction because of their “resistance” to Jesus. We get that already in Matthew 27 – “his blood be upon us and upon our children.”

The writer of Matthew’s gospel has much for which to answer on that count. But no one was required to put that into practice or to read it as blanket permission to kill Jews. That blood is upon us Christians and upon our ancestors. We can pray and preach in such ways that it might not be upon our children and grandchildren as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor describes these dangerous descriptions as “the shadow language in the New Testament.” I went to public worship recently for the first time in eighteen months. It was Reformation Sunday, and my ears were tuned to this shadow language. The images of Jewish ignorance, Christian triumph, and ecclesiastical success raked my ears like fingernails on the proverbial chalkboard. How many times have I done that to my listeners? Dozens. Hundreds. I don’t know.

Taylor notes that “the language of contempt is not the only shadow language in the New Testament. There is also the one that uses the rhetoric of men first,” she continues, “followed by silenced women and obedient slaves. There is another that divides reality into opposed pairs, pitting church against world, spirit against flesh, light against dark. There is even one,” she notes, “that glorifies suffering for suffering’s sake, leading some Christians to hurt themselves – or others—for reasons that have nothing to do with the gospel” (pages 104-105).

I write this blog mostly for the benefit of some dedicated lay preachers who are doing their best to be faithful in their proclamation. I’m glad the rest of you come along for the read. I’d like to make that task simpler, but then I would fail them. “The purpose of staying on the lookout for languages like these,” Taylor concludes, “is to prevent them from becoming uncontested parts of the Christian worldview” (page 105).

There is no harder work than looking at how I see, listening to how I hear, and auditing how I speak. It’s not really something I can do for myself with anything approaching reliability. That’s one of the reasons why preaching is a communal activity at its best, not a solo effort. Trusting Jesus, as Taylor reminds us, does not lead to owning God. Let’s help one another refrain from making that property claim.

Now, there’s a word for our time…

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “Women as Models of Faith in Mark,” https://www.academia.edu/13080771/Women_as_Models_of_Faith_in_Mark.

Brobst-Renaud, Amanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-6.

Cruz, Samuel. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-5.

Dewey, Joanna. “Women in the Gospel of Mark.” https://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/26-1_mark/26-1_dewey.pdf.

FLEDDERMANN, HARRY. “A Warning about the Scribes (Mark 12:37b-40).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 52–67, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716182.

Kiel, Micah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-2.

Langknecht, Henry. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-3.

MALBON, ELIZABETH STRUTHERS. “The Poor Widow in Mark and Her Poor Rich Readers.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 1991, pp. 589–604, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43718348.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-32-2/commentary-on-mark-1238-44-4.

Taylor, Barbara Brown. Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others. HarperOne, 2019.

WRIGHT, ADDISON G. “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament?—A Matter of Context.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 256–65, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43709756.