Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 6); October 24, 2021

Son of a…

Why does the Markan composer name Bartimaeus and leave other beneficiaries of Jesus’ ministry nameless? There must be something interesting going on here.

“Bar-Timaeus” is a hybrid name. It is a combination of the Aramaic word for “son” (Bar) and the Greek name that likely means “honored one” or “one who is highly esteemed or valued” (Timaeus). The Markan composer translates the name for his (largely) Greek-speaking audience, just as he translates other Aramaic words in the composition. For example, the composer translates “Ephphatha” (“Be opened”) in an earlier healing story.

There may be nothing important about this boundary-crossing name, but then again, the Markan composer doesn’t generally add details just for dramatic color. The amount of detail in this brief story is notable. Those details include the name and lineage of the blind man, his personal geography, the dialogue with the crowd, the cloak, the request, and the fact that he followed Jesus. “Whenever Mark furnishes his stories with these vivid details,” Hurtado writes, “it indicates that he wished to make the accounts prominent and effective in impressing upon the reader his portrait of Jesus” (page 175).

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It may be that Bartimaeus represents and embodies the character of the communities that first heard the Markan composition. Whether one places those first performances in Palestine or Rome, it is virtually certain that these early communities were at least bilingual and bi-cultural. That would simply make these communities like the world in which they lived.

If the composition was first performed for Roman congregations (my preferred solution to the location problem), then the tension between Jews and Gentiles in the text has a clear framework. The Roman congregations, as we know from Paul’s letter to them, were struggling with the relationship between more traditional Judaism(s) and the Jesus movement. And within those communities, the tension between Jewish and Gentile Christians was heightened by the fallout from the persecutions in Rome and the Jewish War in Palestine.

If the Markan composer is seeking, among other things, to tell the Gospel story in a way that brings these communities back together, then having Bartimaeus as the parade example of an authentic Jesus follower would be a good move. He begins the story as one who lives on the edge – the edge of the road, the edge of the town, the edge of community, and the edge of survival. He moves from the edge to the center by the end of the story. I wonder how many of the composer’s listeners had made the same journey.

I imagine one of these performances of the Markan composition. Candidates for baptism into Jesus’ death and resurrection are part of the crowd late in the evening, perhaps on the eve of Easter Sunday. They listen to the story in all of its depth and drama as they consider whether they will go through with their commitments to lives of following Jesus to the cross. Perhaps these candidates in particular identify closely with Bartimaeus.

They have, perhaps, been living on the edge as well. Some of them may be enslaved persons who never quite know what the next moment will bring – a beating, a sexual assault, cleaning the latrine, or tutoring the master’s children. They may not be able to see into the next moment, much less the next day. They have heard that this Jesus character might be a source of good news in an otherwise dreary world. And they begin to cry out.

What is the significance of the title that Bartimaeus uses to address Jesus, namely “Son of David”? Hurtado notes that the title has messianic overtones in some intertestamental works and in the Christian scriptures. He suggests that “the weight of the evidence suggests that Mark understood the term as a designation for the Messiah of Israel” (page 174).

It is certainly the case that the mention of the “Son of David” creates a bridge to the material yet to come. The next event is the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. The crowd will quote the psalms of Ascent during the parade. Those quotes will include a blessing on the “coming kingdom of our father, David.”

Because of this mention of Jesus as “Son of David,” Robbins argues that “this story is not simply a discipleship story. In it the Christological image of Jesus and the response in discipleship converge.” Robbins concludes that “Christology and discipleship prove to be simply two sides of the same coin in the gospel of Mark. An erroneous Christological perception of Jesus’ activity,” Robbins asserts, “leads to improper expectations and requests, and inept discipleship activity” (page 226).

Those on the edge face obstacles to moving. They can’t see over the crowds. They can’t tell what’s going on. The ones who are already inside have no interest in being disturbed. They might even tell the edge-sitters to shut up and know their place. But the distance from desperation to faith is often not very far in the Markan composition. So, they have cried out all the more.

Jesus stops in his tracks and listens. He says to the gatekeepers and guardians, “Call those edge-sitters here. Tell them the story. Let’s ask them what they want.” So, the good news begins. “Be brave now!” they say. “Get up!” they say. “He’s talking to you.”

Here is one of those second person singular pronouns that demands our attention. Perhaps you can imagine, as can I, the performer turning to the candidates for baptism as these words are spoken. Perhaps this is a moment in the reading or the sermon to turn to particular people in your preaching audience as well. “Be brave now! Get up! Jesus is talking to you!”

It’s not even necessary that we get our theology right before we come in the door. Jesus takes us as we are. We will read in a few chapters that the “Son of David” theology of the Messiah needs some updating and expansion, as far as Jesus is concerned. It’s not wrong. Jesus doesn’t correct Bartimaeus. It’s a place to begin. It’s an entry point. But there’s so much more.

No matter how dishonored and devalued Bartimaeus is in his context and culture, he is the Son of the Honored One. Jesus treats him precisely that way. So, those who wait to enter the water hear the same acceptance and invitation. Call them over here, Jesus says. Perhaps we can help our listeners to experience that same acceptance and invitation. Call them over to Jesus! That, after all, is preaching, eh?

Our baptismal candidates have come in their old clothes. Perhaps they come in the only clothes they own. That was likely the case for Bartimaeus. He throws off that cloak and jumps up. I wonder if some of the candidates reflexively reached for their own cloaks and began to discard them. I wonder if some of them leapt to their feet in joy and excitement, knowing what was coming both for Bartimaeus and for them.

Bartimaeus’ story is their story. Bartimaeus’ story is our story. I wonder if cheers and applause broke out in the crowd as they imagined the cloak flying and the blind man springing to his feet. I wonder if we could tell the story in such a way that cheers and applause (and perhaps a few people jumping up) might happen in our congregations. Well, that’s asking a lot, but who knows?

We get another second person singular now. “What do you want that I shall do for (or to) you?” Again, the storyteller perhaps turns to those most impacted by the story and asks the question. The “fourth wall” of play-acting is pierced again. The story reaches out and grabs at least some of us with its power. Perhaps we might stop in our reading for a moment and look people in the eye. Perhaps we might ask the question again. Perhaps we might let it hang in the air for a few seconds.

I wonder if the Markan composer intended a pregnant pause at this point.

“My teacher,” Bartimaeus responds. The distance has disappeared. The chasm has been bridged. The Son of David has become My Teacher. “That I might see again,” the blind man replies. The word is “anablepo.” The preposition that begins the word vibrates with multiple meanings. Let me see “again.” Let me see “anew.” Let me “look up.” The Markan composer intends and includes all these meanings in that small sentence.

“Is that what you want?” we might ask our listeners. Do you want to see the world as Jesus sees it? Do you want to see things in a new way? That’s one of the definitions of repentance, after all. And repentance is the precursor to believing in Mark 1. Do you want to look up? For a while in the days to come, looking up in the Markan composition will mean looking up to Jesus on the cross. Is that what you want?

The son of the Honored One is addressed directly one more time. The second singulars put their hands on our cheeks and direct our gaze to Jesus. “Your trust has saved you.” We’ve discussed that declaration in some detail. Imagine our baptismal candidates as they enter into the new world of seeing Jesus. And they hear that this is a vision of healing, wholeness, salvation, and discipleship.

“And immediately,” the composer tells us, returning now to narrator mode, “he could see again (or anew or up).” The more I reflect, the more I think that seeing “anew” is the real emphasis for the Markan composer here. That new sight, even though it resembles the old way of seeing, has new outcomes. Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, to suffering, to the cross – the Way of Discipleship.

N. T. Wright notes the multiple ways that Bartimaeus is portrayed as the model disciple. He recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. He believes Jesus can help him. He leaves everything behind to follow Jesus. “As with the blind man in chapter 8,” Wright notes, “the healing of Bartimaeus is a sign that Jesus is trying to open his followers’ eyes, this time to see him not just as Messiah but as the one who would give his life to bring salvation to all” (Kindle Location 2592).

Here is what you can expect, candidates for baptism, trembling in the candlelight and community. There is drama in the story. There is, perhaps, greater drama in hearing the story. One preaching challenge would be to capture and convey that drama to our listeners.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.

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.

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

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.

Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Ward, Richard; Trobisch, David. Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It. Eerdmans. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 4); October 24, 2021

Is This a Call Story?

If the center of the Bartimaeus story is about discipleship rather than healing, then is this a “call” story? Just by asking that question we can get lost in the weeds of form criticism, never to emerge. I don’t want to do that. But I do want to work at a deeper understanding of what the Markan composer is up to in this part of the script. So, let’s see what we can do with this question.

I have needed to remember the historical situation of the first Markan audiences. Whether they were in Rome or in Galilee, many of the dynamics would have been the same. Some of the earliest leaders of the Way were killed in the forties and fifties in Jerusalem. James is one of those leaders. Peter, Paul, and others fell during the Neronian persecutions of the early sixties.

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Now, Jerusalem itself was in ruins. Palestine was fully occupied by the Romans. The Christians had fled to refuge in the city of Pella. Christians were worried about their survival and about what exactly God was up to in these events. As we can understand when we hear the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13, it looked to them like the world was ending.

The communities that first heard the Markan composition needed the encouragement of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And they needed to know that they could continue on the journey, even if their leaders had faltered, failed, disappeared, or died. Do you remember how often in the Markan composition it’s the “little people,” the outsiders, even the foreigners, who get it right? The disciples are often clueless, and yet the Good News is still good. In a time when people are looking around for leaders, the Markan composer is saying, “Look in the mirror.”

The Christian movement, the Way, seemed to be leaderless and perhaps floundering in the chaos. I imagine that a number of “leaders” attempted to fill the void. Some of them certainly took advantage of the disorder and benefitted personally. It may be that there was some heavy nostalgia for the “old” leaders and a certain romanticizing of who they were and what they were like. The Markan composition gives some reality to those romantic pictures and tells the community that they can go forward without the old leaders. They have Jesus.

So, we come to Bartimaeus. His story is the climax and conclusion of the Markan “Way of Discipleship” section of the composition. The leaders we need are perhaps not leaders at all. When the human heads are chopped off (in some cases, quite literally), the body of Christ does not die. In fact, anyone who trusts in Jesus can pick up a cross and follow him. Remember how many times in the Markan composition Jesus says, “Whoever does x can be my disciple”?

The Bartimaeus story has things that are not in common with the calls of the earliest disciples in the Markan composition. Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus as Jesus is passing by. The first four disciples are minding their own business, engaged in their daily work. Jesus initiates the conversation and extends the invitation. “Follow me,” he says to Simon and Andrew, “and I will make you to be fishers of people.”

Jesus went a little father along the seashore and found James and John, in their boats, repairing their fishing nets. “And immediately he called them,” the Markan composer reports, “and leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, they departed behind him” (Mark 1:20, my translation). In this report, the word for “called” is used in the text, the aorist form of the verb kaleo.

That verb is not found in the Bartimaeus story. On the one hand, Bartimaeus “cries out” to Jesus (krazo). When Jesus hears the commotion, he tells the crowd to call Bartimaeus over to him. The verb used there is phoneo. It can indeed mean to call to, to summon, or to invite. The crowd does call to Bartimaeus, and they tell him that Jesus is “calling” him (same verb).

So that verb, phoneo, shows up three times in one verse. Based on our past experience with the Markan composer, we should be on the lookout for something interesting when we get that sort of repetition. Menken, along with a number of scholars, finds this difference in vocabulary insignificant. I’m not at all convinced, given the extreme care the Markan composer exercises in the use of other words in the script.

That being said, phoneo is used in call stories in John and Luke. I don’t think that’s compelling evidence, however, It would not be the first or last time that the other gospel writers either missed something important in the Markan composition or sought to clarify or correct something they thought Mark may have gotten wrong. I find the vocabulary argument to be mostly an argument from silence in this regard. And I rarely find such arguments convincing.

Unlike in the call stories in Mark 1, Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go.” This is more in line with obvious healing and exorcism accounts in the Markan composition. It is the case, for example, with the woman who suffered the twelve-year hemorrhage. Jesus told her to go in peace. Jesus told the Gerasene demoniac to return to his home and share the story. In both cases the imperative verb is the same as here in Mark 10 – “hupage”.

Beavis does not wish to label this scene a “call story.” She notes that withholding this title “is no slight to Bartimaeus, in view of Mark’s uncomplimentary depiction of the Twelve…” She argues that Bartimaeus is literally blind and still sees Jesus. He follows Jesus when the disciples are not long from fleeing. He is portrayed, in fact, as “superior to the Twelve,” and “a paradigm of faith.” Bartimaeus, in Beavis’ estimation, is not a disciple of Jesus. Instead, he’s a hero of the faith. She sees the story not as a call to discipleship but rather to a prophetic role.

The Bartimaeus story has things in common with the calls of the earliest disciples in the Markan composition. The story seems to be a chance encounter with huge consequences. Jesus’ invitation means a complete change in life – leaving behind the safe and familiar and embracing the challenge and adventure of following him. The response is immediate and results in following Jesus on the Way.

Menken refers to the elements of a “call story” typically identified by form critics. Jesus passes by. Jesus sees the potential disciple, who always has a name and sometimes a family identification. The prospect is minding his (always his) own business. Jesus calls the prospect. The prospect abandons business as usual and follows Jesus. This pattern is not limited to Mark, according to the form critics but can even be found in John’s account (page 276).

In the Bartimaeus story, Menken argues, the following elements are present. Jesus is passing by. Bartimaeus is named and a brief family identification is offered. He’s about his daily business as a beggar. The crowd reports that Jesus is “calling” him. Bartimaeus abandons his spot, his cloak, and his “job” without hesitation. The response happens, in typical Markan fashion, “immediately.” And Bartimaeus followed Jesus on the Way (pages 277-278).

Menken notes that both Matthew and Luke have partially obscured some of these details. This indicates that they would each prefer to see this as a healing story rather than a call story. This is indirect evidence that the Markan composer intends this as a call story. Otherwise, why would the redactors feel a need to change it?

Menken concludes that this is mostly a call story with a little bit of a healing story added in. If the Bartimaeus story is most about calling a disciple, then Jesus’ Galilean ministry, as Menken notes, has been framed by call stories at the beginning and the end.

The Bartimaeus story has things that are not in common with other healing stories in the Markan composition. Bartimaeus is the only person who receives healing from Jesus and is also named. Simon is named, but his mother-in-law is healed. Jairus is named, but his daughter is raised. Bartimaeus is the only one healed in the Markan composition who gets to have a “job” – he’s a beggar.

And Bartimaeus is the only one healed in the Markan composition who also follows Jesus personally and physically on “the Way.” Other beneficiaries go out and tell the story or go home. But they don’t go with Jesus on the journey, at least not in the report we have in Mark. Menken notes that the report of the healing itself is unusually brief. The audience reaction is missing. The lead-up to the event is extensive.

What if it is a “call” story, but not a call to be one of the Twelve? I think that’s what is really going on here. Discipleship isn’t just for the Inner Ring. It’s not just for the chosen few. It’s for anyone, including every blind Bartimaeus along the way. Tossing aside cloaks and scattering coins is not something best left to the professionals. It’s for anyone and everyone.

In a time when leaders disappoint, disappear, and die, hope is not lost. The Church is filled with “little people” who can carry on the struggle. Anyone can take up a cross and follow Jesus on the Way. Just because there’s a shakeup in the hierarchy, that’s no reason to stop walking forward. Who knows, the next Bartimaeus may be…me?

Well, then. Just when I thought I had an out.

References and Resources

Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.

Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.

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.

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

Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.

Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 1); October 24, 2021

What About the Cloak?

“But throwing off his cloak, he leapt to his feet and went toward Jesus” (Mark 10:50, my translation). In a gospel account so often in a terrible hurry, the story of Bartimaeus slows down to examine the minutest details of the incident. Why does the Markan composer go to the trouble of describing what Barty does with his cloak? Neither Matthew nor Luke thinks the detail is important enough to take along in their revisions of the Markan account.

What’s the deal with the cloak?

Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sits along the road leading out of Jericho and up towards Jerusalem. It’s useful to remember that this is at most two weeks before Passover. So, the road is likely clogged with festival pilgrims coming from all directions to be in the Holy City for the high holiday. Business for beggars was probably pretty good, especially since some of the pilgrims wanted to do their almsgiving to the poor as part of their spiritual discipline.

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Bartimaeus learns that Jesus is coming past his spot. So, he starts crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The second part of the phrase was his usual shtick, we can suspect. But the first part, the “Son of David” part, is not. We’ll come back to that later. Jesus’ entourage likely believes that Bartimaeus wants to hit up Jesus (and his followers) for some money. So, they tell him to shut up.

Barty, however, is an experienced beggar and is not put off by a little verbal feedback. Instead, he turns up the volume and keeps up the yelling. Jesus notices and tells the crowd to call the man over. “Get up!” they tell him “He’s summoning you.” They don’t have to tell Barty twice. His eyes may not be much good, but his legs work just fine.

We come now to the “casting cloaks” part of the scene. Barty tosses away his “himation,” his outer garment. This isn’t his “chiton,” the tunic he wore next to his skin. Nor is it the “sindona,” the linen undergarment that some people wore and that was often the garment in which one was buried. This, by the way, is the garment which the anonymous young man left behind in Mark 14 when he fled naked from possible arrest for being with Jesus (but that is certainly another story).

Barty’s cloak was his outer garment. It was his shelter against the rain and his shade from the sun. It was his house by night and his office by day. He spread it out to collect the coins tossed his way. It was, in a real sense, all he had in the world. Why did he toss it off without a second thought?

“The cloak was the bedroll of such a helpless beggar,” Hurtado writes, and his throwing it away suggests that he believed that he would need it no more, that he would be healed” (page 178). If this is the case, then tossing the cloak aside (including whatever it contained) is Barty’s first act of the “faith” that will “save him” (see verse 52).

N. T. Wright invites us to sit with this text and meditate on the imagery of it – to put ourselves into the narrative and imagine how we might respond. “Sit by the roadside and listen to the crowd,” Wright invites us. “Examine your own feelings when you discover it’s Jesus coming by. Call out to him, and when he summons you, put everything aside and go to him. And when he asks you what you want him to do, go for it. Don’t look back at the small, selfish comforts of victimhood,” Wright urges, “Ask for freedom, for salvation. And when you get it, be prepared to follow Jesus wherever he goes next” (Kindle Location 2609).

Here is a first approximation of the reality of following Jesus. Relinquishing other sources of safety, security, and certainty is a function of the trust we have in Jesus to save us. We will have more to say about that matter in the next post.

The story of Bartimaeus clarifies for us the scene with the rich man and deepens the tragic nature of that encounter. Luis Menendez-Antuna writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary, “this passage provides a contrast to the failed discipleship encounter of Jesus and the wealthy man. Such contrast I see pictured in the narrative detail that informs us that Bartimaeus leaves behind the only valued item he owns.”

Culpeper discusses the references to “himatia” (cloaks, garments) in the Markan composition. Jesus says that old cloth can’t take a new patch. Jesus’ own cloak mediates healing power. His garments are transfigured along with the rest of him in Mark 9. And his clothing travels with him to the cross, where it is divided among the executioners. There are more links in this chain of references, but that brings us up to our text.

Jesus calls to Bartimaeus, and he tosses his cloak aside like an unwanted rag. It may not have been much to you or me, but it was everything Barty had – including, I suspect, that day’s receipts. Away flew the fabric. Coins scattered into the crowd. Unlike the rich man who couldn’t afford to part with his stuff, Barty lost it all to gain his sight, and his life.

“The garment, therefore,” writes Culpeper, “represents that which the disciple leaves behind to follow Jesus” (page 132). He notes similar disciple behavior elsewhere in the Markan composition. Simon and Andrew leave their nets. James and John leave their father. Peter notes that the Twelve have left behind everything to follow Jesus. There will be more relinquishing and releasing yet to come in the Markan composition.

“The garment then reiterates on another level Bartimaeus’ radical break with his past,” Culpeper continues. “Discipleship mandates that one’s former way of life can neither be patched up nor retrieved at will…For Mark,” he concludes, “the garment seems to be a narrative device which represents the old order Bartimaeus leaves behind” (page 132).

Menendez-Antuna echoes this assessment. “The cloak here is not only an aesthetic garment. For individuals living below poverty levels, the cloak is a piece that provides warmth in hostile weather conditions, a valuable piece that would allow them to sleep at night or to throw it in front of them to collect money. The garment,” he continues, “is also a sign of status and power. Although the pericope portrays Bartimaeus as belonging to the lowest echelons of social strata, the garment represents the little power he owns.”

Bartimaeus flings off his cloak and jumps toward Jesus. The actual moment when his sight is restored – that moment is barely mentioned in the story. What we might take to be the most important part of the scene, the healing, is regarded as almost extraneous to the event. We get a verse about the cloak and nothing about seeing again. I find that both shocking and interesting. We will examine this further in a post downstream.

Without so much as a backward glance (assuming that he can now glance backward), Barty hits the road with Jesus – wearing only his tunic and a smile. And that, the Markan composer tells us, is what a real disciple looks like. “In a section of the gospel particularly invested in suggesting modes of discipleship,” observes Menendez-Antuna, “Bartimaeus appears as a radical disciple that cast away his only valuable belonging.”

Jesus and his disciples and the crowd head on toward the Passover festival in Jerusalem. I have this image of Bartimaeus leading the procession, leaping and dancing with joy.

In his exuberance, he may have displayed a bit more of his anatomy than was acceptable in polite company. But even that detail may have reminded people then, as it does me now, of another dancing fool heading toward Jerusalem. David danced and sang and leapt for joy as the Ark of the Covenant was carried back to its proper place in the royal city.

Are there echoes of that happy parade here? Keep in mind that in the next scene, Jesus enters Jerusalem as the real King of the Jews, not only the “Son of David,” but the one who is bringing the “Kingdom of David, our father.” Jesus rides into the city on the back of a donkey. Before he mounts the donkey, his followers “throw” (“epiballo”) their cloaks on it. As he rides into the city, many strew their cloaks on the “way” as well as branches they have cut in the surrounding fields.

I wonder if someone had collected Barty’s cloak for him, just in case. He might have welcomed it back like an old friend. But I think it’s more likely that it ended up on the back of a donkey or on that “way” into Jerusalem, no longer Barty’s sole earthly possession but now just another tool in the journey of discipleship.

Culpeper notes the sympathetic vibrations this scene sets off in other locations in Christian scripture. He notes the call in Hebrews 12:1 (NRSV) – “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” He points to the places where Paul and his successors urge Christians to strip off or put off the old person, such as in Colossians 3:9-10 (NRSV), “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

In the Christian scriptures, stripping off our old clothing is always balanced by putting on the new – that is, putting on Christ. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ,” Paul writes in Galatians 3:27 (NRSV) “have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Bartimaeus sheds his old rags in order to be clothed in the garments of discipleship. Those are the only party clothes appropriate for one who is now journeying with Jesus on the way to the cross.

We can raise some challenging questions for our listeners and for ourselves as preachers. What am I so wrapped up in that I cannot be fully clothed with Christ? What is there in my life (and there will likely be many things) that would have the same value to me as the cloak had for Bartimaeus? Is that an impediment to my being saved? Would I part with it in order to follow Jesus? What needs to be cast off in order for me to leap and dance on the way?

I don’t think these are questions a preacher needs to answer unless I would do that for my own situation. There will be plenty for listeners to consider without steering them.

I also wonder if this is another text that would be well-served by a bit more drama in the reading. I’m not sure if the preacher should be stripping something off and leaping at the appropriate moment in the text (but I’m not sure the preacher shouldn’t). Another thought occurs — what a fantastic text for someone to interpret as a dance, perhaps during the reading.

An alternative to this re-enactment, if one has the technical resources, might be to play a brief clip from The Shawshank Redemption where Andy Dufresne escapes from prison, sheds his prisoner’s rags, and is “baptized” in the rain of his newfound freedom. In the clip I have linked, the relevant section happens about two and a half minutes into the clip. I have used this clip in a variety of settings to great emotional effect.

I started here because this is clearly much more of a discipleship (call) story than a healing miracle. It will be important to keep that in mind throughout.

References and Resources

Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.

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.

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

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 4); October 17, 2021

The Rule of Three

It’s the Rule of Three. Three is the smallest number necessary to form a community beyond a couple. It’s the smallest number necessary to establish a pattern or a trend. At least that’s true for physicists. The joke is that sociologists only need two data points, and psychiatrists just one. Theologians, of course, simply ask, “And what is the true meaning of ‘data’?” Three, then, is the required number of people necessary to walk into the bar at the beginning of a joke.

The rule of three has been the key to sloganeering at least since Julius Caesar declared “Veni, vidi, vici.” The rule has saved lives by reminding people to stop, drop, and roll. It is the structure of the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (although John Locke preferred property to happiness in the template).

Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

The rule of three structures jokes and fairy tales, folk stories and folk songs, low literature and high art (as well as most of the posts on this blog). We know the three little pigs, the three billy goats gruff, and the three Musketeers. Three ghosts visit Scrooge in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Tevye marries off three daughters in A Fiddler on the Roof. And the Deathly Hallows of Harry Potter fame number – you guessed it – three.

Being a Trinitarian Christian, I see “Threeness” stitched into the fabric of Creation. It is the rubric of Reality that reflects the character of the Creator. Even though Augustine pushed his trinitarian models, metaphors, and mysteries to the point of collapse, he was right to see Threeness everywhere he looked.

There is the “three points and a poem” school of sermon structuring. I was raised and trained in that model. I still prefer it. I always thought the poem was a gracefully gratuitous exit for the uncreative. So, I used it with some frequency when I wrote a sermon desperately in search of an ending. I was glad to see this structural model still lifted up with positive regard on the workingpreacher.org site. You can find that brief article at https://www.workingpreacher.org/sermon-development/rule-of-three.

These days there is good evidence that the rule of three is hard-wired into our human brains (and perhaps the brains of other intelligent species). We are built to see, seek out, and respond to groups of three in our environment and our experience. Threeness feels both complex and complete. It’s no wonder the fullness of Divinity – according to Christians – has the flavor of Threeness as part of the mix.

Threeness is also one of the best ways to present material that people will remember – especially if that presentation is oral/aural. The Rule of Three is ubiquitous in the Markan composition and structures the central section of the story, from somewhere in chapter 8 to the end of chapter 10. We hear three passion teachings, each with increasing intensity. We hear three discipleship descriptions, each with increasing intensity. We get three attempts by a disciple or disciples to subvert Jesus’ Kin(g)dom agenda, each once again with increasing intensity.

These three elements – passion teaching, attempted agenda hijack, and discipleship description – appear together three times in this section. The order is varied to increase interest and tension. We can examine the escalating stakes as the pattern repeats. This may give us some additional understanding and appreciation of the Markan composer’s artistry and intentions.

TextPassion TeachingAttempted HijackDiscipleship Description
Mark 8:31-9:1Son of Man will suffer, be rejected, be killed, and rise again.Peter rebukes him, setting his mind on human thingsDeny themselves, take up their cross, follow Jesus. Paradoxical saying in 8:35
Mark 9:30-49Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands. They will kill him. After three days he will rise again.Arguing about who of them was greater. Trying to stop the unnamed exorcist.Paradoxical saying in 9:35. Welcome a child in Jesus’ name. Don’t stop anyone from doing the Lord’s work. If something is a stumbling block, get rid of it.
Mark 10:32-45Son of man to be handed over to chief priests and scribes. They will condemn him and hand him over to the Gentiles. Detailed description of humiliation, torture, and execution. After three days he will rise again.James and John want leading seats at the table in “glory.” The ten are angry because they didn’t get to Jesus first.Be careful what you ask for; you may get it. The imaginary of power the world has shall not be so among you. Paradoxical saying in 10:43-44. Summary statement in 10:45.

I hope you can see that each part of the pattern escalates in tandem with the other parts. The closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more specific he becomes and the more challenging the discipleship description is. This threefold repetition is framed by the healing of the blind man in Mark 8 and the healing of Bartimaeus in Mark 10. The audience is moved from blindness to sight in this repeating pattern.

This section of the Markan composition includes additional material that illustrates the demands of discipleship in the Markan community. But I hope the table brings a bit of clarity for us to the spiral of increasing intensity. I would recommend that you read Geert Van Oyen’s 2010 article as we reflect on this pattern of progression. I want to lift a few insights from Van Oyen’s work to assist us in our conversation.

In the table above, I have highlighted the “paradoxical” statements in each of the three passages. “Paradox – not only verbal but also dramatic paradox – seems to be Mark’s preferred literary expression by which he communicates and wants to stimulate the readers’ thinking,” Van Oyen writes (page 162). I would suggest that “readers” should be replaced by “listeners,” but the point remains unchanged.

The first paradox (8:35) is, Van Oyen observes, “an example of an antithetic paradox” (page 163). “For whoever wants to save his life shall lose it,” Jesus says, “but whoever shall lose his life for the sake of the Good News shall save it.” Most scholars agree that “for my sake and” is an addition to the saying made by the Markan composer or whatever source the composer uses for this saying. That does nothing to affect the paradox.

Van Oyen makes two observations that should be carried with us in thinking about each of the paradoxical statements. The purpose of losing one’s life is…to receive Real Life. Each of the passion teachings ends with the promise that the Son of Man shall rise again after three days. The paradoxical statements are small expressions of the one Big Paradox in the Markan composition, as Van Oyen notes – that the Son of Man dies and rises again.

He notes as well that this paradox is not merely something the disciple confronts at the end of life – in the midst of a martyr’s death, for example. “Losing this life, however, does not start when death is approaching,” he writes. “It starts here and now in the reality of everyday life. Exactly how the reversal from losing to saving will happen,” he suggests, “is not clear” (page 167).

We move from the losing/saving paradox in Mark 8 to the last/first paradox in Mark 9. We go, perhaps, from how disciples live to the way that disciples lead. Disciples live by dying and lead by serving. “One could say that 9,35 is a reversal of the cultural values of Jesus’ time about authority,” Van Oyen writes, “and that it offers another concrete criterion for what it means to lose your life (8,35)” (page 169). He notes that “the foundation for why one should serve this way” is Christological – because, well, Jesus!

When we get to the third paradoxical saying, we get double for our money. In this saying, “great” is contrasted with “servant.” And “first” is contrasted with “slave.” The double paradox is not simply a parallelism but rather a progress. The second part of the saying increases the intensity even above that of the first part.

We know this paradox is offered as part of the response to James and John as they seek to hijack the discipleship agenda. Leadership among the Gentiles is not “real leadership” as far as Jesus is concerned. Those leaders are only “apparent” or “so-called” leaders.

“Authentic followers of Jesus believe in a different way of behaving,” Van Oyen writes. “They withdraw from the dominant systems because they do not seem to belong to them. They do not urge for human dominance,” he continues. “They do not keep records of service they have to perform in order to sit at the right hand in God’s glory. This perspective,” Van Oyen argues, “is the starting point for Jesus” (pages 172-173).

It may be more accurate to say that Jesus is the starting point for this perspective. His summary statement in 10:45 begins with “for.” It is a conclusion to what preceded. The paradox of discipleship is only possible because Jesus makes it so. “The paradoxes are not only anticipations of the themes of the cross and resurrection,” Van Oyen summarizes, “they are also actualizations of that theme in the concrete life of Jesus’ followers” (pages 175-176).

Van Oyen notes what is obvious to any preacher struggling with these week’s text. The paradoxes don’t sit there on the page. They confront us as readers (listeners) with the same apparently impossible discipleship descriptions. If we struggle and stumble with the paradoxes as did the Twelve (and most of the other disciples), then those paradoxes are doing at least some of the intended work assigned them by the Markan composer. We will despair only when we lose touch with the fact that each of the passion teachings concludes with “after three days he will rise again.”

That being said, Van Oyen notes that the challenge remains. “When does the resurrection as a symbol of new life become a tangible reality in the lives of people?” he asks. “In the language of the paradoxes: is it possible to experience what it means to be great in the eyes of God while one is being last of all, knowing that a theology of ‘reward’ or ‘compensation’ after death is difficult to accept at the beginning of the twenty-first century” (page 184). I’m not sure it was any easier to accept at the beginning of the first century, by the way.

Van Oyen concludes by arguing that we readers “will keep struggling to understand how the two poles of Jesus’ paradoxes can be brought together.” He suggests that we can only make sense of the paradoxes within the framework of Jesus’ overall teaching. And “only those people who will take the risk of losing their lives will come close to understanding the meaning of the paradoxes.”

Well, I don’t know…

References and Resources

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361.

McKnight, Scott. “The Center of Atonement.” https://fullerstudio.fuller.edu/the-center-of-atonement/.

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Van Oyen, Geert. “The Vulnerable Authority of the Author of the Gospel of Mark. Re-Reading the Paradoxes.” Biblica, vol. 91, no. 2, GBPress- Gregorian Biblical Press, 2010, pp. 161–86, http://www.jstor.org/stable/42614975.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 2); October 17, 2021

Whatever…

“Teacher,” James and John, the sons of Zebedee, say to Jesus, “we want that whatever we might ask you, you would do it for us” (Mark 10:35b, my translation). “Why,” we might think to ourselves (or aloud), “those arrogant so and so’s! Who do they think they are, putting Jesus on the spot like that! They’ve got a lot of nerve, don’t they?”

Well, maybe they do, or maybe they don’t. One of the challenges of direct discourse in any written document is determining the tone of the speaker. Sometimes the context makes the required tone obvious, but often it’s left up to us as the readers and hearers of the text.

Photo by Josh Willink on Pexels.com

Maybe the Thunder Bros were just wondering if it might be possible for Jesus to do something for them. Or maybe they were engaged in hardball negotiations on their future employment prospects. We can’t be entirely sure. But if we take the Markan composition seriously as an oral document, then we’ll have to make some tonal choices in our reading.

Grammatically, the question relies on verbs in the subjunctive mood. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, that the outcome is in doubt in the mind of the speaker. But it does mean that the state of affairs contemplated hasn’t yet occurred. The translation, “whatever” is the way that the combination of the particle and subjunctive verb should be translated.

Asking Jesus for something clearly was not a problem. Everyone in Mark’s account is asking Jesus for something, and mostly they get what they ask for.

Looking for perks was also not a problem. On the one hand, if there was anyone who had left behind house, brother, sister, mother, father, children, or fields, it was James and John. Jesus came along the lakeshore and promised to make them fishers for people. They dropped everything and left their father blinking in confusion.

Just a few verses earlier, Jesus made it clear that disciples who sacrificed all that would receive a hundredfold increase – not just pie in the sky in the sweet by and by, but real return on investment “now in this age.” The return was houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields (no fathers in the list, unfortunately).

The Thunder Bros can be forgiven if they missed the small addendum there – “with persecutions.” After all, the benefits package would be enough to distract anyone from hearing the rest of the sentence. So, perhaps James and John – reflecting both on their sacrifice and on the promise of reward – have simply come to collect.

It doesn’t appear that asking for the seats of honor when Jesus comes into his glory is a problem either. Asking isn’t the problem. Jesus doesn’t reprimand them for asking. It’s just that those seats have been reserved for someone else. We, who know the story, realize that the Markan composer means the two brigands who will be crucified with Jesus. But James and John had no reason to know that at the time.

What, then, is the issue here? “You don’t understand,” Jesus replies, “what you are requesting.” Boys, you don’t know what you’re getting yourselves into here. You’re biting off more than you can chew, I’m afraid. It’s not a matter of ignorance so much as it is a lack of appreciation. I think of all the times I have plunged headfirst into something I thought I knew only to discover, to my chagrin and shame, that I was now in way over my head. Such stories from my life are, as the Markan composer might say, “Legion.”

Disciples, be careful what you ask for. You might get it, but you probably won’t like it very much. In this sense, James and John are very much like the rich man in the previous scene. Perhaps he came with a sincere question, hoping for a particular answer. But he had no idea what he was getting himself into. And he walked away, shaking his head in consternation. The Thunder Bros will walk away from this conversation with a similar “run over by a theological truck” feeling.

“Are you able,” Jesus prods, “to drink the cup which I am drinking, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am to be baptized?” The cup Jesus mentions is a cup of suffering – a familiar image in the Hebrew scriptures. The baptism Jesus mentions must also refer to suffering. We can remember the proximity of Jesus’ baptism to the first mention of the execution of John the Baptist. We’ll come back to baptism later, but for now that will do for an explanation.

Here’s where James and John really step in it. Jesus gives them a chance to ask some more questions before they go on. What’s this about a cup? And this baptism thing, didn’t we already do that? Why do these verbs have a continuing sense to them, Jesus? We were thinking that the next phase was the glorification part of the journey. What are you talking about now?

Too bad for them, they don’t ask these pertinent questions. Now, I think, the arrogance comes to the fore. “But they said to him, ‘We are able.’” It’s a one-word reply, blunt and perhaps a bit aggressive – “Doon-AH-thema.” The word has those hard consonants and that decisive long-short-short pattern at the end.

Challenge accepted. Bring it on.

Well, boys, you asked for it. So here it is. You’ll get the cup and the baptism, just as you requested. The seats are already spoken for, but you’re not going to notice that. You’ll be too busy trying to keep your head attached to your neck and your body off the next available cross.

It’s easy to make fun of the disciples in the Markan composition, and I’ve done my share of that lampooning. That’s all well and good until I remember that the characters most like me in the Markan account are precisely those disciples. So, it might be worth looking at their portrayal before we go any further.

Joanna Dewey gives an assessment of the disciples as characters from the perspective of the Markan composition as an oral “document.” Performance criticism notes that oral documents have a more dramatic, conflictual tone than do written documents. That’s one of the ways to keep the audience’s attention. “Accustomed to an adversarial atmosphere,” Dewey writes, “a first-century audience hearing the gospel would probably take the negative portrayal of the disciples much less seriously than contemporary Markan scholars do” (page 90).

The disciples provide examples of how not to behave on the Way. But they also provide examples of how disciples can act in following Jesus. So, it’s a mixed portrait. “The audience is indeed called to imitate Jesus’s life and death but perceives Jesus, not the disciples, as the authority,” Dewey argues. “In the narrative, the disciples provide a means to teach about discipleship and illustrate for the listening audience both successes and failures in following Jesus,” Dewey continues (pages 111-112).

We can be very hard on the disciples, Dewey notes, and numerous scholars and commentators have adopted that perspective. But if one of the purposes of the Markan composition was to simply diss the disciples, it’s not very effective in that effort. The account has a number of positive aspects of the behavior of the Twelve. And in the end, she argues, “the acceptance of Mark’s gospel into the canon does suggest that it was not generally understood as rejecting the Twelve and Peter” (page 113).

The conflicts Jesus has with the disciples, such as in our text for this week, occur in private. That’s in contrast to the conflicts with the opponents and the interactions with the crowd, which happen in public. “Thus, the disciples are not grouped with the opponents within the narrative. Rather,” Dewey suggests, “the narrative uses the disciples to teach the hearers what following entails, to emphasize the difficulties of following, and to maintain plot interest as the disciples do and do not succeed in following” (page 114).

The disciples, therefore, are our instructors – both in their successes and their failures. Dewey asserts that even the failures of the disciples in the Passion narrative do not disqualify them as examples. “If Mark’s aim was to discredit the disciples,” Dewey concludes, “the narrative would be as unambiguous here as it is on the first two levels of conflict; it would not be possible for hearers or readers to expect the disciples’ restoration” (page 114). But since we have the Markan composition, restoration is in fact what we expect, based on history and tradition.

The Markan composition urges us to follow Jesus, not the disciples. Due to the various crises of the churches in the 60’s CE – the return of Jewish Christians to Rome from exile, the Neronian persecutions, the Jewish War with the Romans, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple – the temptation to cling to particular leaders must have been profound. We see some of that temptation among the Christians in Corinth, for example.

Any old port will do in a storm. Perhaps portraying the disciples as failures is more for the purpose of perspective than propaganda. If the Markan composition is based on the memoirs of Peter, as tradition holds, perhaps Peter himself emphasized the failings to put off later adulation and allegiance to himself.

For those of us who have mixed records as disciples in a time of crisis for the Church, the Markan composition is a source of both comfort and challenge.

References and Resources

Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Dowd, S., & Malbon, E. S. (2006). The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience. Journal of Biblical Literature, 125(2), 271–297. https://doi.org/10.2307/27638361

Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 6); October 10, 2021

At Home with the Disciples

What if the rich man had sold everything he possessed, given the proceeds to the poor, and followed Jesus? He would have abandoned his parents and his filial obligation to provide and care for them in their old age. He would have rendered his children destitute in an instant and forsaken his heritage. He would have, perhaps, forced his wife into prostitution to support herself (unless she joined him in following Jesus). He would have dishonored himself, his family, his heritage, and his village.

This is about money. But it’s about far more than that as well.

I began thinking along these lines after this week’s Zoom text study discussion with lay preachers from our Western Iowa Synod. That’s one of the weekly events that gives my faith some energy and continues to give me hope for the Church. One of my colleagues in that discussion, Larry W., wondered about the “inheritance” language the rich man brings to the salvation conversation. I didn’t have much of a response to that wondering, so I’m pursuing it further.

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

The “executive summary” is this. Jesus asks disciples to give up their biological and social families in one fashion or another. As disciples they then receive a “new” family, made up of those who do God’s will and seek God’s Kin(g)dom. That’s a consistent theme in the Markan composition. That theme is especially prominent in the story of the rich man.

“The demand to sell what one possesses, if taken literally,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “is the demand to part with what was the dearest of all possible possessions to a Mediterranean: the family home and land.” This is precisely what Jesus asks of the rich man. To interpret this text, we need to acknowledge the scope of Jesus’ command. “Thus, to follow Jesus means to leave or break away from the kinship unit (v. 29),” they continue, “a sacrifice beyond measure” (page 244).

In addition to the power of family ties here, we can think a bit further about the evaluation of wealthy people in the first-century Mediterranean. Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that wealth was a very fraught commodity in that setting. It was certainly a source of power and the basis for honor and prestige. But wealth was also morally questionable. “The ancient Mediterranean attitude,” they write, “was that every rich person is either unjust or the heir of an unjust person” (page 251).

In a social sense, wealth was theft – either in one’s current behavior or as one’s inheritance. “Profit making and the acquisition of wealth were automatically assumed to be the result of extortion or fraud,” Malina and Rohrbaugh note, “and the notion of an honest rich man was a first-century oxymoron” (page 251). It is, therefore, no accident that all the commandments Jesus quotes in verse nineteen have something to do with acquiring property improperly.

In this text, it’s clear that Jesus assumes the first-century value system in his assessment of the rich man. It seems clear to me that the rich man also assumes that value system. He has found his situation wanting, somehow, in what we might call “spiritual” terms. His material inheritance may well be in conflict with his religious and ethical longings and leanings. Perhaps he is really wondering if he can participate in the New Age, given his inherited status and stuff.

In this framework, Jesus points out the obvious course of action. But this is even more radical than cutting off a transgressing limb or plucking out an offending eye. “The word ‘rich’ describes a social condition relative to one’s neighbors,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “the rich are the shamelessly strong. To be labeled ‘rich’ was therefore a social and moral statement as much as an economic one. It meant having the power or capacity to take from someone weaker what was rightfully his. Being rich,” they conclude, “was synonymous with being greedy” (page 251).

It is, therefore, not surprising that Jesus declares it impossible for the rich to enter the Kin(g)dom under their own power. The only option was to give it all up and start over on the right path. Of course, that’s asking a lot. But discipleship in the Markan composition is not for the faint of heart (or, perhaps, for the fat of wallet).

We can see that the Twelve have done precisely what Jesus asks in this text. “Look,” Peter says, “we have left behind everything and have been following behind you” (Mark 10:28, my translation). They have left house, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields in order to follow Jesus. We have heard how the sons of Zebedee left their father to manage the fishing business on his own, for example (perhaps this extreme sacrifice is what gives the Sons of Thunder the chutzpah in the next section to ask for joint vice-presidencies in the coming administration!).

“With a word of honor (v. 29) Jesus insists that those who leave family and lands to become his followers, or ‘for the sake of the good news,’ will truly become accepted members of the family of God the patron-father,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue. “They will receive a hundredfold ‘now in this age,’ including full participation in the ‘age to come,’ that is, participation in the new society, the new family of the Patron God” (page 244). This is the “inheritance” of those who are disciples of Jesus.

Leif Vaage describes the discipleship model in the Markan composition as “a form of domestic asceticism” (page 741). I would commend the entire article for your reflection but let me share a few of Vaage’s insights here. He points to the nature of asceticism as “the effort to live ‘against the grain’ of whatever is taken to be distractingly or deceptively normative in a given cultural context, in order to experience here and now, in the singular body of the ascetic, a better or ‘larger’ life” (page 743).

Vaage argues that the household is where disciples are called to live out an alternative model of family life and the habits of discipleship. He argues that it “is precisely Mark’s conviction that the proper and most effective way to enter the kingdom of God is by redoing life at home. This,” he suggests, “may be the evangelist’s most enduring challenge to us” (page 744).

Vaage proposes four features of discipleship in the Markan composition.  (A) Discipleship takes intentional effort. This is evidenced, for example, in Jesus’ call to the rich man to divest himself of his wealth, distribute the proceeds, and follow Jesus.  (B) The Twelve, in Mark, are failed disciples. Therefore, they are not to be considered as role models for a life of discipleship. (C) Discipleship, in Mark, is “anti-(conventional) family” (page 746). We can see that in the call of the disciples, Jesus’ relationship to his own family, and the description of new family relationships in our text.

“The project of Jesus, in Mark, is not at home in the ancient Mediterranean world of normal social relations, including the patriarchal household,” Vaage argues. “Moreover, it does not seek a place in this world. The goal of discipleship is not enhanced participation in the way things are,” he continues, “neither does it seek reform of this world or any other possible improvement. Instead,” he concludes, “the first order of business for Jesus and his disciples is deep withdrawal: deliberate dissociation from so-called ordinary social reality” (pages 747-748).

Vaage’s final discipleship characteristic in the Markan composition is (D) that exemplary disciples, in this account, are “unfamiliar.” That is, the real discipleship examples are not the Twelve but rather the minor characters – especially the variety of women portrayed in the account. In addition, we can look at the Gerasene demoniac and Bartimaeus for discipleship guidance. It is their “faith” that has “saved” them.

“In fact,” Vaage summarizes, “discipleship, in Mark, requires, first, that one break all customary family ties. Following Jesus is initially an act of total renunciation,” he notes, quoting our text, “…unless, of course, one already is a social nobody” (page 752). The Twelve take this step, as Peter asserts. But there is, according to Vaage, more to the story.

People who have made such a break (or have been forced into such a break by the changes and chances of life) don’t remain outside the home in the Markan composition. Think of how many times in the account Jesus heals or releases a person and then sends that person back home again. Think as well, Vaage argues, of all the times that Jesus does his healing work “at home” (literally “in the house”). Home is where discipleship happens.

Vaage calls this home-based discipleship an “alternate domesticity.” He writes, “In Mark, the household of the disciples is neither the traditional cornerstone of the civic order (as Aristotle held the conventional household to be) nor a touchstone of imperial values (as Augustan legislation later decreed). Instead,” Vaage continues, “the household is paradoxically a contrary and even subversive social space, in which the follower of Jesus first withdraws in order, then, to ‘save his life’ there” (page 756).

Specifically in our text, Vaage suggests, this alternate domesticity “is linked to the practice of a different kind of economy” (page 758). This is a regime of divestment and generosity. If the rich man had accepted Jesus’ loving invitation (after all, that’s what it was), he would have discovered a new home and family both in the present time and in the age to come. “This last step,” Vaage comments in a footnote, “is what makes discipleship so difficult for the rich. They [we] have so much to give!” (page 758).

The fact that this alternate domesticity is “ascetical” is obvious on its face in the Markan composition and especially here in our text. Following Jesus is, in the Markan account, a strenuous, stretching, and costly way of life. As one of my confirmation students once noted, it’s about being “weird for Jesus.” The fact that this weirdness for Jesus gets acted out, in Markan terms, back in our homes makes it even more challenging.

As preachers, we can reflect on what this means for us and our listeners. I believe that small, home-based alternative Christian communities are becoming the norm in the Western world. In a strange way, the internet is facilitating this move. Thus, Mark’s voice becomes increasingly important. Our institutional commitments as Church to wealth and status, position and power, and especially to property, must be called ever more into question. The fraught nature of family life these days around political questions is one symptom of how hard it is to be “weird for Jesus” at home. Thus, the Markan composition continues to be a tract for our times.

References and Resources

DiAngelo, Robin J. “Why Can’t We All Just Be Individuals?: Countering the Discourse of Individualism in Antiracist Education.”  Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5fm4h8wm. InterActions: UCLA Journal of Education and Information Studies, 6(1) Publication Date 2010-01-25 DOI 10.5070/D461000670.

Horton, Adrian. “’It’s very culty’: the bizarre billion-dollar downfall of fashion company LuLaRoe.” https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/sep/15/lularich-lularoe-amazon-docuseries.

Jones, Robert P. “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” https://robertpjones.substack.com/p/the-unmaking-of-the-white-christian?r=m09x3&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=web&utm_source=&fbclid=IwAR3x1ubbXwm1HMXPxmG76O4uCUErS_SYSex5RA5zFXHl_7YncBDr0QaJsVs.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L.  Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4.

VAAGE, LEIF E. “An Other Home: Discipleship in Mark as Domestic Asceticism.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 4, Catholic Biblical Association, 2009, pp. 741–61, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726614.

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 8:27-38 (part 3); 2 Lent B 2021

Part Three: Minding What Matters

But, turning about and peering at his disciples, [Jesus] gave Peter a dressing down and said, ‘Get out of my face, Satan!” Jesus continued, “For you are not focusing your thoughts on the things of God but rather on things that concern human beings” (Mark 8:33, my translation).

In last week’s “Saturday Sermon from the Sidelines” I focused on what it means to “change one’s mind” when the Kingdom of God begins among us. I noted that this mind-changing experience really is more of a mind-blowing reality. In the current text, we see that Peter’s mind is not properly “blown” and remains focused on all-too-human concerns of power, privilege, and position, concerns of safety, security, and certainty. In his fear, Peter takes it upon himself to begin to correct Jesus and gets a royally humiliating dressing down in return.

Photo by Thgusstavo Santana on Pexels.com

I can’t be too hard on Peter. How can he be responsible for knowing what he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know? I’m reminded of the most famous quote from former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld. “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But,” Rumsfeld concluded, “there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

Rumsfeld was panned and parodied dozens of times for his verbose and convoluted explanation. But he’s quite right. Peter finds himself in unknown unknown territory. “We must understand that in ancient Judaism,” Hurtado writes, “there was no concept that the Messiah would suffer the sort of horrible fate Jesus describes in 8:31. Thus,” he concludes, “Peter’s response in 8:32 is in one sense fully understandable” (page 136). This talk of rejection, suffering, death, and resurrection just made no sense to Peter, and he tried to put a stop to such nonsense.

In Mark 1, Jesus calls for “metanoia” as one of the proper responses to the presence of God’s reign among us. God is on the move in the world, Jesus declares. Prepare to have your mind blown. Peter was neither prepared nor willing. So, he finds himself in league with the Satan, working at odds with the coming of God’s gracious rule.

It is no easier for us now. Metanoia always demands the deconstruction of our favored worldviews which prop up our privilege. “Until we can see the cross and the lynching tree together,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “until we can identify Christ with a ‘recrucified’ black body hanging from a lynching tree, there can be no genuine understanding of Christian identity in America, and,” he concludes, “no deliverance from the brutal legacy of slavery and white supremacy” (page xv). This is a call to have our white supremacist minds blown for the sake of the Gospel and love of the neighbor.

The verb I translated above as “focusing your thoughts” is “phroneo.” The Greeks spent a lot of time thinking about thinking. They had a number of words to describe different types of thinking. The verb here points to a general context of thinking. We might use the terms “worldview” or “frame of reference” or even “point of view.” So, Jesus is not criticizing isolated thoughts on Peter’s mind but rather his view of reality. As noted from last week, the coming kingdom of God changes everything. We can change our worldview to match, or we can find ourselves opposing the kingdom.

Years ago, I spent a week in a class with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary. He walked us through the inter-textual relationship between Mark 8 and Philippians 2. “Share this framework for thinking among yourselves,” Paul writes to the Philippian Christians in verse five, “which is in Christ Jesus…” (my translation). Paul uses the noun form of “phroneo” for what I translate as “this framework for thinking.” One of Frederickson’s points was that the “things of God” Jesus mentions in Mark 8 are best summarized by the Christ hymn in Philippians 2.

In fact, the whole argument of Philippians could be read as an expansion, a Christian midrash, on Mark 8. Paul’s call to the Philippian Christians is to “be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2). Forms of “phroneo” appear twice in that verse. This behavior means that the readers would “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility regard others better than yourselves” (2:3). That call will find its commentary concluded in Mark 10, as we will read below.

The opposite of this worldview is described in Philippians 3:19. There are many who “live as enemies of the cross,” Paul warns his readers, and not for the first time. He can’t impress on them strongly enough the importance of his encouragement here. “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame,” Paul continues, “their minds are set on earthly things.” The word Paul uses is once again a form of the verb, “phroneo.” Enemies of the cross with minds set on earthly things – that sounds a great deal like the confrontation happening in Mark 8.

If we track the plot from Mark 8 to the climax of this section in Mark 10, we can see that Frederickson is right on target. The disciples continue to focus on human concerns. They are especially anxious about their own power, privilege, and position in the coming kingdom. That anxiety comes to a full boil when James and John ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand when he comes into his royal glory. It’s time for another rebuke and some more teaching.

“It shall not be so among you,” Jesus tells them. God’s rule is about reversal – the least being the greatest and the last being first. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,” Jesus concludes, “and to give his life a ransom for many.” That’s the worldview, the frame of reference, the point of view at stake already in Mark 8. The kingdom is beginning in Jesus’ ministry. That ministry puts him on a collision course with the powers of sin, death, and the devil. Those powers will do their worst to Jesus, but Life is on the other side. Those are “the things of God.”

Jesus turns from this difficult conversation to the crowds standing with his disciples. The private call to the disciples now becomes a public declaration of what this journey will cost anyone who comes along. All of this talk of cross-bearing and life-losing might sound abstract and spiritual to us in our current situations. But, Hurtado notes, “it is necessary to emphasize that the words must be taken literally if we are to read them as Mark intended. When Mark’s first readers read these words,” he continues, “they could have understood them only as a warning that discipleship might mean execution, for in their time the cross was a well-known instrument of Roman execution for runaway slaves and other criminals of lower classes” (page 138). The cross was a tool of execution by state authorities, Hurtado reminds us, and following Jesus was bound to get one crossways with the people in power. That never ends well.

Jesus calls disciples to be more than “allies” in God’s reign. Jesus calls disciples to be “accomplices” in the work of the kingdom. I heard that helpful distinction in an ELCA-sponsored webinar on February 10, 2021, offered by Dr. Aja Y. Martinez. In a talk entitled “The Responsibility of Privilege: A Critical Race Conversation for Allies and Accomplices,” Dr. Martinez noted that “allies” are often helpers in anti-racism work but often function as tourists rather than residents.

She noted that it is far more comfortable to stand with the marginalized than to stand against the powerful, the privileged, and the positioned. Standing with the marginalized is often the posture of what she termed as “allies.” Standing against the powerful on behalf of the marginalized and vulnerable is the posture of what she termed as “accomplices.” If’s far more comfortable to be a helper from a place of strength than to be a partner from a place of vulnerability.

Accomplices, Dr. Martinez noted, put their bodies at risk for the sake of the marginalized and the vulnerable.  Accomplices are in the fight for the long haul and not for the acclaim. Being an accomplice with the Crucified – that sounds a great deal like Jesus’ call to discipleship here in Mark 8.

Finally, however, we should note that none of this is suffering for the sake of suffering. Disciples may not have the privilege of going around the cross. But the cross is also not the final destination. The goal of all of this is New Life, beginning now and never ending. “Mark’s gospel has a stark and simple structure,” N. T. Wright says in The Resurrection of the Son of God, “chapters 1-8 build up to the recognition of Jesus’ Messiahship, and chapters 9-15 build up to his death. But always, in looking ahead to his death,” Wright concludes, the chapters “look ahead to his resurrection” (page 620).

Disciples begin to live in the power of the New Life here and now. As accomplices of the cross we demonstrate that sin, death, and evil are defeated. In the season of Lent, we can and should reflect our path to and through the cross, the places where we are called to be accomplices for justice and focused on the things of God.

References and Resources

Cone, James. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY.: Orbis Books, 2011.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-in-lent-2/commentary-on-mark-831-38-5.

Du Mez, Kristin Kobes. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. Liveright. Kindle Edition.

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

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 2003.

White Male Markers

Millions of Texans went without electricity, heat, and water for hours and sometimes for days over the past week. Half a million are still without utilities, and thirteen million people are under a water boil order for the near future. In the meantime, Texas energy companies are making big bucks. “This week is like hitting the jackpot with some of these incredible prices,” according to Comstock Resources, Inc. CEO, Roland Burns.

Comstock is owned by Dallas entrepreneur and sports team owner, Jerry Jones – poster boy for white, male power, privilege and position. Stock prices for energy companies have skyrocketed while government officials blame each other for the clear failures in policy and preparation that resulted in four dozen deaths, huge physical suffering, and likely billions in property damage.

Photo by Amir Esrafili on Pexels.com

During the worst hours of the disaster, Colorado City (Texas) mayor Tim Boyd took to Facebook to make his feelings known in a since-deleted post. Boyd declared that the government is not responsible for the welfare of people who are too lazy to take care of themselves. Socialist government and bad raising, according to Boyd, have conspired to produce the situation folks in Texas now face.

All that was missing from Boyd’s post was a quote from Ebenezer Scrooge, that the foolish freezing folks should hurry up and die to reduce the surplus population.

Later Boyd issued an apology and announced his resignation. Even though he composed the entire post, and it was quoted in its entirety by news sources, he protested that it was “taken out of context.” He wished that he had chosen “better wording” (whatever that might be for such an arrogant and disgusting screed) and thought more clearly about his comments. He complains that he and his family have suffered from anger and harassment as a result of the post. And he concludes by noting that he is now a private citizen and should just be left alone.

Finally, this week we learned of the death of Rush Limbaugh from cancer at age 70. Limbaugh was the first to take full advantage of the Reagan cancellation of the Fairness Doctrine and to turn cable news into cable bullshit. I use that term in the way that Harry Frankfurt uses it in his little book On Bullshit.

Limbaugh raised the disregard of truth to a high art. He was one of the first to realize that truth is not even relevant in most current conversations. Provocation is power. Facts are a waste of time. Limbaugh was offensive, abusive, misogynist, racist, and fascist in his comments. Worst of all, he simply did it for the money, not for any principles. I am not dancing on Limbaugh’s grave. I simply report what he himself said about himself on numerous occasions.

The cavalcade of white, male supremacy continues on, even if the Marmalade Misanthrope no longer occupies the White House or has his Twitter account. It’s not a man – it’s a system. It’s a system that produces so much idiocy that I can’t even get to the Ted Cruise to Cancun or the Terry Bumstead interview that continues to make me think that he has years of dementia already behind him. White male supremacy is an inexhaustible font of foolish hypocrisy and wealthy stupidity that would be hilarious if it didn’t kill people by the thousands daily.

As this all unfolds, I’ve been reading Native, by Kaitlin Curtice. It is, among other things, a poetic summary of the nature of Whiteness and thus a commentary on events every week – not just this one. So, for my own edification, I will share some of the necessary face-slaps I have received while reading.

What whiteness cannot enslave, whiteness erases. That is not a political or ideological or theological argument. It is rather, an historical observation. This observation is for me, of course, more in the category of the privileged white male fish discovering the ocean of whiteness and maleness and privilege in which he’s been swimming for a lifetime and more. I’m late to the game and will spend the rest of this life catching up.

“A thread runs through the history of America,” Kaitlin Curtice writes in Native,

a thin line that connects people, places, moments, cultures, and experiences. This thread started when Columbus arrived and deemed Indigenous peoples savage and unworthy of life, a thread that continued as African peoples were enslaved and forced onto this continent. We see it today in hate crimes against people of color and religious minorities. It is a thread of whiteness, of white supremacy, that aims to erase culture, to assimilate those deemed “unworthy” of humanity. (page 13).

And we see it in spoiled food, broken pipes, contaminated water, and the bodies of the homeless in the streets of Texas cities.

Whiteness enslaved Black people in order to crush the life out of them like grapes and sell the juice of their labor. When that was no longer the legal system, whiteness erased Black people from the political process, from the accumulation of wealth, from quality housing, from good schools, from white churches, from our stories, and from the pages of the history white people teach, remember, and celebrate. Whiteness continues that process of erasure daily.

“Whiteness is a culture that requires the erasure of all others,” Curtice continues later in her book,

considering them less-than. It is believing in that well-known metaphor of a melting pot that we so love to hold on to in America, but erasing the value of the lives of the “other” within the narrative and in the process presenting the idea of assimilation as virtue. But really, assimilation is about power, power that puts shackles on Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color” (Native, page 45).

Whiteness has an ironic and contradictory relationship with all that is not white. On the one hand, whiteness removes all that which is not white and will not become white. On the other hand, whiteness needs the Other as the “Inferior” in order to fund what James Baldwin called the “White wage.” That wage is basically, “I may not be much, but at least I’m better than someone.” Domination in the end is a perverse dependency of Whiteness on all that is not white. That perversity harms all but the most privileged of white people along with all others.

Whiteness erases Indigenous people from the land, from power, from their stories, from their cultures, and from life. Indigenous people were not seen as “usable,” so they were then seen as “disposable.” A continent was “discovered.” Land was seen as “empty” – even if the first inhabitants had to be forcibly removed by genocide and trails of terror and tears. Culture was cut off along with hair, and language was forgotten along with oppression. The imperative was to clear out of the way, assimilate to whiteness and/or die.

White people are portrayed as adventurers and explorers who “discover” a place for the first time. The land is “uninhabited” and needs to be “developed.” In fact, white people are colonizers of spaces that must be stolen before they can be possessed. The environment must be rendered friendly to capitalist exploitation and white male supremacy. That re-formatting of the place is deadly for those who were there first. And it is highly profitable to those who continue to “own” what lies under the stolen land in places like Texas.

Land and plants and animals and people are commodities to be measured and mined, sliced and diced, packaged and sold. “We lose the ability to see things clearly when colonization sets in,” Curtice writes. “We are clouded with dreams of economy and market value, and we forget that the land is still speaking, that the forgotten are still here, and that white supremacy does not have the last word” (Native, page 33). But while it speaks, people still suffer and die.

Because this story is so familiar, so comfortable, and so well-designed for the desires of white, male supremacy, we who benefit most are privileged to believe and act as if the story describes “Reality.” We can tell ourselves stories about colonization and settling, about heroic pioneers and fantastic frontiers, about rugged individuals and bold entrepreneurs. In the telling we don’t notice (and don’t want to notice) the people who suffer and die as a result, the communities that are devastated and destroyed as a result, the planet that rebels at our irresponsibility as a result.

I wish that my Christianity had been part of the solution over the last five hundred years, but I know better. “Settler colonial Christianity is a religion that takes, that demeans the earth and the oppressed, and that holds people in these systems without regard for how Jesus treated people,” notes Kaitlin Curtice. “So to be part of a colonizing religion, I have to constantly ask, Who am I following?” (Native, pages 35-36).

As we prepare to read next Sunday about the cost of discipleship, that question faces us Christians with painful urgency.

Jesus “called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?” (Mark 8:34-37, NRSV).

White, male supremacy, using the tools of unfettered individualistic robber baron capitalism, is always trying to find out what it will “profit them.” In this Lenten season, we who desire to follow Jesus are challenged to actually try that path and see where the life really is.

More on Native in future posts, I’m sure.

Small Steps on a Large Journey

3 Epiphany B, Mark 1:14-20

A small girl had recently learned how to dress herself.  One day her mother found her crying on the edge of her bed.

“What’s wrong, dear?” the mother asked.  “Do you feel sick?”

The little girl shook her head.  “Do you know,” she wailed, “that I have to put my clothes on every day for the rest of my life?”  She fell back on the bed in tears.

That little girl had seen the lifetime of shirts and skirts, of dresses and pants, of socks and shoes.  The enormity of it all was more than she could bear.

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

We can smile at her predicament.  But wait.  What is that massive, overwhelming pile of worry that blocks your path?  What is that giant load of doubt that paralyzes you?  What is that task too great to even contemplate?

If you think about those questions, then you are ready.  You are ready to stand next to Jesus’ first disciples.  You are ready to hear the Master’s voice.  You can begin to see the large journey of small steps.  For that is what it means to be a Jesus follower.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus announces that God is on the move.  The Kingdom of God is at hand!  And Jesus is the one to make it happen.  So he recruits followers.  They are the foundation of God’s renewed people.  They are the evidence that things are changing.  They will cast God’s nets to rescue a world drowning in sin, death and evil.

Notice the invitation.  “Follow me!”  Jesus invites them to take the first small step on a large journey—just the first step, nothing more.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

In college I spent time as a dedicated atheist.  The result was days of drunkenness, disorder and despair.  I considered putting an end to such a miserable, pointless existence.

At that moment God spoke three words to me.  “There is more.”  I listened and took a small step.  Then one day, God spoke three more words to me.  “Go to seminary.”  Again I listened and took a small step.  I had no vision or command or destiny beyond that one step.  At that moment, one small step was a huge effort.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So the first question is this.  What is your next small step?  It likely doesn’t involve seminary, although for a few of you that may be a waystation on the journey.  More likely, the call is to much smaller steps.

Who is the person who needs to hear my apology?  What is the regret that needs repair?  Which habit must I change?  Which service may I offer?  What risk should I embrace?  What dream shall I trust?

What is the next small step on your larger journey?

Timing is important in such questions.  Sometimes the next step means waiting.  The first disciples were the latest in a long line of waiters.  God’s people had looked for the right Messiah for centuries.  Pretenders and posers had come and gone.  Some people had stopped looking, stopped hoping.  Expecting turned into emptiness.

 Then Jesus appeared.  “Follow me!” he said.  The waiting was over.  Waiting is preparation for acting.  When the time is right, disciples take the next small step.  Hesitation can derail the journey.  Failure of nerve can foil the plan.

So here is the second question.  What are we waiting for?  If we are waiting, then we must be preparing for the next small step.  It can be hard to wait, but sometimes it’s necessary. As I write, for example, my beautiful spouse is painting our kitchen cabinets. They are so beautiful. But it takes time for drying between coats, sanding, touching up, and re-hanging. She can see the end in her mind, but Reality is taking its own sweet time.

What are you waiting for? Sometimes the best counsel is, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” At other times, the best counsel is, “Don’t just sit there, do something!” Discerning the time is one of the most important things we can do. So waiting always requires patient and humble prayer. There are moments when God’s reality takes its own sweet time.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Jesus doesn’t send the disciples out alone.  He says, “Follow me.”  Where we are going matters less than who is going with us.

The one who goes with us is the Master of the journey.  He has been to the cross and back.  He has entered the tomb and burst free from death.  He took the worst evil could offer.  He exhausted sin and death, and sent Satan packing.

That’s our travel guide.  He goes ahead of us to clear the way and guide our steps.

At our best, we listen for his large words to shape our small steps.  So here is the third question.  Will Jesus guide your small steps on the large journey?  That’s why prayer and patience, worship and study, matter so much.  How can you take the trip if you won’t read the map?  Jesus shows us the next small step—if we take the time to listen.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

Of course, direction matters.  Most people are lost—but they’re making really good time.  Life works best when we walk toward God’s goals.

That’s what we take from that biblical comedy called Jonah.  Jonah runs in the wrong direction.  And his life becomes a shipwreck.  So it is for us.

God’s direction is always away from selfishness and toward service.  God’s direction is always toward compassion and away from hatred.  God’s direction is always toward love and away from fear.

The more we focus our energy and efforts on the needs of others, the better this church business gets.  There are those moments of almost effortless service.  There are those moments when we seem to get it right.  Those are the moments when we are moving in God’s direction.  That’s what it really means to be blessed.

Disciples take the next small step on a large journey.

So here is the final question today.  Where is God trying to bless you as you follow Jesus?  Where is God trying to bless us as we follow Jesus?  The Holy Spirit calls us in our baptism to seek the answers to those questions.  That’s where the blessing is.

One of my favorite prayers is a from the ELW service for times of travel.  Let’s close with that prayer.

O God, our beginning and our end, you kept Abraham and Sarah in safety throughout the days of their pilgrimage, you led the children of Israel through the midst of the sea, and by a star you led the magi to the infant Jesus. Protect and guide us when we travel. Make our ways safe and our homecomings joyful, and bring us at last to our heavenly home, where you dwell in glory with our Lord Jesus Christ and the life-giving Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Text Study for 3 Epiphany B, 2021, Mark 1:14-20

Keep in mind the situation of the first listeners to Mark’s story. They were, perhaps, candidates for Christian baptism who had finished their instruction in the faith. Now, they were at the worship service where they would leave behind their former lives and follow Jesus. One of the first parts of the story they hear is this call to the disciples to leave everything behind and walk into the unknown future.

Before we jump to the call of the first disciples as a counterpoint to last week’s gospel reading, we need to stop at verses fourteen and fifteen. John was not “arrested,” as the NRSV translates it. John was “handed over.” If you hear a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own arrest and execution, then you have well-tuned scriptural ears. “Thus, already in Mark 1:14 the mention of John’s being ‘handed over’ raises the specter of Jesus’ death,” Stephen Hultgren writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “For Mark, Jesus’ kingdom ministry takes place, from the very beginning,” he notes, “under the shadow of the cross.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

“Notice how Jesus picks the moment to act,” N. T. Wright suggests. “As long as John was announcing the kingdom, down by the Jordan, Jesus could bide his time. But when John is put into prison, he knows it’s time to act” (Wright, Kindle Location 359). Mark constructs the narrative in this way. He will come back to John’s handing over later in the gospel. For now, the chain of events is enough.

John proclaimed the Coming One. Jesus proclaims that the appointed time has been and is being fulfilled. The reign of God has come near and is now at hand. The proper response is twofold: repent and believe in the good news. It doesn’t take long to get from these words back to our first lesson and the response of the Ninevites. The Greek grammar in this verse lends itself well to a “now and not yet” understanding of the coming reign of God.

“It is unnecessary to enter the old debate of whether Jesus meant that the kingdom of God had actually come (realized eschatology), or whether the kingdom of God was near but not yet here (future eschatology),” Steven Hultgren writes. “It is possible that Jesus thought that both were true. Wherever he conducted his ministry, there God’s reign was actively coming into being, even if the kingdom might not come fully until the future.”

Wright suggests that the content of this repentance has a clear historical reality for Jesus’ first listeners. Wright says that Jesus’ call to repentance meant two things: “turning away from the social and political agendas which were driving Israel into a crazy, ruinous war,” and “calling Israel to turn back to a true loyalty to YHWH, their God.” (Kindle Location 368-369). If this is the case (and I believe it is), then repentance is more than a sense of personal sorrow and regret and a promise to do better. It is a reorienting of one’s life around a new set of loyalties, agendas, and priorities – God’s loyalties, agendas, and priorities.

One could wonder aloud what sorts of repentance are being called forth from us today? I suspect we are called to repent the unholy alliance between white supremacy and American Protestant (not just Evangelical) Christianity that has determined power dynamics on this continent since Columbus arrived. I suspect we are called to repent the worship of neoliberal economic theories which make the “invisible hand” of the market more of a god than the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I suspect we are called to repent the sexism, genderism and heterosexism which make a particular kind of maleness into godness. Mary Daly was correct, after all, that if God is male then male is also god. There’s more to consider, but this is a start.

We Lutherans have something to contribute to the conversation at this point. Readers can’t help but wonder at the “immediate” response of the disciples to this call. Commentators speculate endlessly on the psychology and politics and personalities of the disciples that made this possible.

Theologically, we Lutherans would point to the gracious and life-changing power of the Word of the Gospel. “Like the first four followers, we too have been caught off guard,” Paul Berge writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “But then isn’t this why we identify with this story? God in Jesus Christ comes to us in our most unexpected moments. God’s kingdom, God’s kingly reign and rule in our lives breaks in even ‘immediately’ as pure gift.”

Berge points to Luther’s explanation of the Third Article in Luther’s Small Catechism to explicate this. “I believe that I cannot my own understanding or effort believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in true faith.” Just as the Hebrew prophets found the calling power of the Word irresistible, so do the disciples. Jonah may have been able to flee the first time, but the call of God will not be denied.

Hultgren suggests that the pivot to the call of the disciples “illustrates what the urgent call of the kingdom looks like.” It is worth examining what sort of break with past and parents happens as the first disciples leave everything to come and follow Jesus. “Apart from pilgrimage, both geographical mobility and the consequent break with one’s social network (family, patrons, friends, neighbors) were considered abnormal behavior,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “and would have been much more traumatic in antiquity than simply leaving behind one’s job and tools.” (page 179). All social institutions were embedded in and dependent on family. To leave family behind was to launch into the void.

“Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into,” Wright says, “do you understand just how earth-shattering this little story was and is” (Kindle Location 348). If the first disciples are presented as models and examples for that imagined baptismal candidate (and for us), the picture presented is daunting. There is no effort to make the “cost of discipleship” painless or simple.

There is some disagreement about the economic situation which the first disciples were leaving behind. Larry Hurtado suggests, “the impression one gets here is that these four men were partners of small (or perhaps large!) businesses. They were in all likelihood ‘middle class’ economically, for the Zebedee brothers, at least, had employees in their family business (1:20)” (page 25).

Malina and Rohrbaugh disagree with Hurtado regarding the economic situation of the first disciples. “Mark, however, specifies that they left their father with the hired hands (1:20). This does not necessarily imply that these families were better off than most,” they suggest. “The tax farmers often hired day laborers to work with contract fishermen.” (page 180). So, the extra help may have been hired by their bosses rather than by their own company. This seems the more likely scenario.

While interesting, these economic details don’t impact the radical break from family and village that Jesus calls forth. Wright suggests that this part of the story connects us with the larger scriptural story of leaving family behind in response to God’s call. “The way Mark tells the story sends echoes ringing back through the scriptures, the larger narrative of God’s people,” Wright notes. “‘Leave your country and your father’s house’, said God to Abraham, ‘and go the land I will show you.’ Abraham, like Peter and the others, did what he was told, and went where he was sent. Mark is hinting to his readers that the old family business of the people of God is being left behind. God wants a new poetry to be written,” Wright concludes, “and is calling a new people to write it.” (Kindle Location 351)

“Jesus was now calling them to trust the good news that their God was doing something new. To get in on the act, they had to cut loose from other ties and trust him and his message,” Wright continues. “That wasn’t easy then and isn’t easy now. But it’s what Peter, Andrew, James and John did, and it’s what all Christians are called to do today, tomorrow, and on into God’s future” (Kindle Location 374).

Last week we listened in as Nathanael was invited to come and see and thus to relinquish his prejudices and presumptions, his hollow hatred of the other. This week, we see the truth of Bonhoeffer’s words regarding discipleship – that when God calls a person, God bids that one to come and die.” That may be the literal case for some Jesus followers. It is certainly the liturgical and sociological case for all Jesus followers. Walking toward Jesus means walking away from our dependence and reliance on any other way to find meaning and purpose in our existence.

That is the real significance of our baptism. We return now to that baptismal candidate, hearing this story in its fullness as a preparation for the plunge. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Paul asks the Romans in chapter six of his letter. It is, of course a rhetorical question. They know because Paul told them.

Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death,” Paul continues, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” To walk in newness of life does not mean keeping all the old life as well. It means entering into the Resurrection here and now and living in that reality. Living in that reality means, among other things, extending the invitation to others who might be interested in dying and rising in Christ.

What is revealed in repentance? Repentance reveals the killing power of life without God. And it reveals a new path of faith, hope, and love for those willing to entertain the possibility.

References and Resources

A Time for Burning (Full Documentary). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NMuguX7J42A3

A Time for Burning (Doctalk Show) interview with William C. Jersey. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TORZvA4pQU4&feature=emb_title

Berge, Paul. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-114-20

Hennigs, Lowell. Who Knows? Jonah, Katrina and Other Tales of Hope (Kindle Edition). https://www.amazon.com/dp/B012QGREM2.

Hultgren, Arland. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-1-corinthians-729-31-2

Hultgren, Stephen. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-after-epiphany-2/commentary-on-mark-114-20-2

Hurtado, Larry. Mark.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.

Nebraska Synod RARE Team Resources. https://nebraskasynod.org/learn/rare-resources.html.

Obituary for Raymond J. Christensen. https://www.startribune.com/obituaries/detail/129874/

Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (Kindle Edition).