Missed it by That Much — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 12:28-34.

“And Jesus, observing that he answered wisely, said to him, ‘You are not far from the Kingdom of God” (Mark 12:34a, my translation).

It was Major League baseball player and manager Frank Robinson who first said, “Close don’t count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” The quote appeared in the July 31, 1973, issue of Time magazine (http://www.espn.com/classic/000728frankrobinsonadd.html).

The gospel of Mark works like a labyrinth. Have you ever walked a labyrinth – as a spiritual discipline, for example? When you walk a labyrinth, you can see the “goal” of the walk at all times. The center of the labyrinth is completely visible, as is the entrance/exit to the labyrinth.

Photo by Altaf Shah on Pexels.com

A labyrinth is not a maze. The purpose of a maze is to cut you off from knowing your location. During the Halloween season in our part of the country, we often have the opportunity to wander in “corn mazes.” These are paths in cornfields designed to give the wanderers the scary sense of being lost amidst the tall stalks. Between the rustling of the stalks and the complexity of the maze, it can be a disorienting and discounting experience.

A labyrinth is disorienting in another way. Just when you think you’ve gotten to the center of the installation, the path takes you back to the beginning again – sort of like life. That’s what the composer of Mark’s gospel is doing at the end of this reading. The composer has gotten us nearly to the end of the story. But for a moment we find ourselves back at the beginning.

“The right time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near,” Jesus declares in Mark 1:15, “change your perspective on the world and put your trust in the Good News!” (my translation).

Of course, this proclamation takes us to the very first words of the Markan composition. We hearers know that this “good news” is “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” We have walked all the way to Mark 12 only to find ourselves right back at the first seven words of the Gospel.

The scribe commends Jesus for getting an “A” on his theology exam. Jesus declares that love for God and love for neighbor comprise, as a matched set, the foremost of the commandments. “Good answer! Good answer!” the scribe replies. This dual invitation to whole-person love for God and neighbor is worth more than “all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”

The scribe is “not far from the Kingdom of God” in that assessment. But close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. “Not far” is apparently not close enough.

In the great old sitcom, “Get Smart,” secret agent Maxwell Smart (played brilliantly by Don Adams) uses a number of running gag lines to cover up his various mistakes. Whenever Smart has a massive fail, he will turn to his colleague or his superior and declare with an absolutely straight face, “Missed it by that much!” Usually, the line is accompanied by Smart’s thumb and index finger about an inch apart. Of course, he “missed it” by much more than that.

I have to wonder if that’s part of the point the Markan composer is making here. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, but not in the Kin(g)dom of God. The scribe may have missed it by that much. But, to pile up the cliches and catchphrases even further, when it comes to the Kin(g)dom of God, perhaps a miss is as good as a mile.

But what can this all mean for us? Does the Markan composer want us to know that this Kingdom business has no margin for error? Losing a basketball game by 2 points or 200 is still a loss. Do we walk away wondering if we, too, have missed the Kin(g)dom by that much?

No, I don’t think that’s the issue here – either for the Markan composer or for us. Remember, the Markan composition is like a labyrinth. When you walk a labyrinth, you get close to the center at least once before you’re sent back to the outside again. The key is to keep on walking. It would seem that this is precisely what the scribe did not do.

Jesus bested the Pharisees, the Herodians, and the Sadducees in a series of public debates about Hebrew scriptures. The scribe liked what he heard. It’s not clear if he liked the public humiliation of the competition or the content of Jesus’ teaching, or both. It doesn’t really matter. He agreed with Jesus and commended the excellence of his teaching.

And then he went on his way.

I served in a congregation where one fellow visited more often than most of the members attended. He was complimentary of my sermons, pleasant at fellowship time, and even made the odd financial contribution. But he resolutely refused any and all overtures regarding membership in the congregation.

One day, I decided to cater to my curiosity. I bought him a cup of coffee and asked the obvious question. Why don’t you join the congregation? Is there something wrong with us? “No, Pastor,” he said with a smile. “I like you all just fine. I enjoy the sermons. I appreciate the music. I feel welcomed by folks.”

This wasn’t helping me. “Why, then,” I asked, “don’t you want to become part of the congregation?”

“Well, you see, Pastor, if I join, then you folks will expect things of me,” he smiled. “And I’m not interested in that.” At least he was honest. For that I was grateful. And our conversation had no effect on his attendance.

It would seem that actually being “in” the Kin(g)dom of God cannot be a spectator sport. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It would seem the scribe (and my pleasant spectator) missed it by that much. But what did they miss?

God commands what is good for us. Full stop. No exception or equivocation. If we are “commanded” to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then that must be what’s good for us. God longs for complete communion with you and with me and with all of Creation. That’s what that foremost commandment means.

The scribe was that close to full communion with the Creator of the universe. And then he went on his way. At least the rich man in Mark 10 had the good sense to be grieved about missing out. Our friend, the sensible scribe, didn’t even notice what he was missing. He didn’t even bother with a follow-up question.

This foremost of the commandments contains within it an astonishing assertion. God desires, God longs for, God yearns for complete communion with you, with me, and with every bit of Creation. God so desires that complete communion that God comes to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As far as God is concerned, nothing in all of Creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God only commands what is good for us. And God only commands what God will do through us. Complete communion is a mutual relationship. By the power of the Holy Spirit, God sends Jesus into my heart, soul, mind, and strength. That’s what makes this mutual relationship possible.

Of course, God doesn’t take hostages. God doesn’t capture slaves. I have the “freedom” to respond like the scribe – make a pithy observation and then wander off on my own. It’s a terrible sort of freedom, this freedom to walk away from God, but it’s real.

That being said, I don’t think God ever stops pursuing, inviting, and wooing us back into the complete communion with God for which we are created. I wish the scribe had seen what was staring him in the face when he was so near to the Kin(g)dom. But I also believe that all such scribes among us – starting with me – are the focus of God’s unending and steadfast love.

Of course, this foremost commandment is a two-sided coin. God commands what is good for us. God commands what God will do through us. And what God does through us is what God does to us. Since God loves us — heart, soul, mind, and strength – God loves our neighbor in the same way. And God invites us, through Jesus, to be active partners in that loving.

This, of course, is precisely where my pleasant spectator understood the Christian gospel very well. Complete communion with God results in complete communion with whoever and whatever God loves. So, we are invited to love our neighbors as we ourselves are loved. As Martin Luther puts it, we are called to love our neighbors as Christ loves us.

I don’t have to work out for you what that means for you. I do know that this flip side of the commandment coin can be hardest to implement with those who are closest to us. It’s with those who are near to us that it’s easiest to miss it by that much. So, this loving business is daily effort and discipline.

That takes us back to the labyrinth. No matter where we’re at on this journey of following Jesus, the first key is to keep on walking. Sometimes we’re closer to the center. Sometimes we’re farther away. But let’s resist the temptation to be merely spectators. Let’s not walk off the field and watch from the sidelines. Let’s keep asking questions and taking steps.

Maxwell Smart has another running gag. He suspects some bad news. “Don’t tell me I fell off the horse,” he tells Agent 99. “You fell off the horse,” she says. “I asked you not to tell me that!” He replies. Mark urges us to listen to what we’re told and to keep walking.

Even if we’ve asked him not to tell us that…

Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 6); October 31, 2021

Burning Daylight

What’s the point of this game we call “Life”? That’s the question that drives Jack London’s most profitable and well-read novel (at least during his lifetime), called Burning Daylight. I was familiar, of course, with The Call of the Wild and White Fang, his best-known tales. But I did not know the story of Elam Harnish, aka “Burning Daylight,” the subject of this 1910 work.

I was attracted to the title based on a simple search of the Web. Over the last decade and more, I had adopted the cliché that “we’re burning daylight.” In other words, time is fixed, finite, and flying, falling away at breakneck speed. Not a moment is to be wasted. Not a second is to be lost. There is so much that can be done and experienced and known and so little time to pack it all in.

Photo by WARREN BLAKE on Pexels.com

As I searched the cliché for a different project, I came upon London’s book. Here is, of course, another example of my perspective. How many more great books have I missed simply because I have not been paying attention? A whole universe full, in fact. But that’s another conversation.

Elam Harnish comes on the stage as a brawny, brawling, larger than life prospector in the years leading up to the Yukon gold rush. Part I of the book details how he builds a fortune of eleven million dollars based on daring, Yukon-sized gambles that risk life and limb and contain a vision as big as the man himself.

Daylight, as the main character is known, is not particularly interested in the wealth as such. For him, it’s the “game.” The higher the stakes the better. “A man played big,” London wrote of his protagonist. “He risked everything for everything, and anything less than everything meant that he was a loser” (page 5). The big game produced big bucks. But Daylight learned that the winnings were really of a different sort – the real game was played for power.

In Part 2, Daylight heads south to San Francisco. He brought his money and his nerve to a far bigger playground and to a game called “high finance.” “Big man as he had been in the Arctic game,” London wrote, “it merely showed how much bigger was this new game, when a man worth eleven millions, and with a history such as his, passed unnoticed” (page 105).

Daylight did not remain unnoticed for long. In this second act of London’s morality play, Daylight takes on the robber barons of both coasts. He faces a steep learning curve and doesn’t always win. But in the end, he doubles his millions and more. Yet, the game takes its toll on him in heart, soul, mind, and strength.

“Finance was poker on a larger scale,” London observed, through Daylight’s musings. “The men who played were the men who had stakes. The workers were the fellows toiling for grubstakes. He saw the game played out according to the everlasting rules, and he played a hand himself. The gigantic futility of humanity organized and befuddled by the bandits did not shock him,” Daylight observed. “It was the natural order. Practically all human endeavors were futile” (page 136).

The price to play was steep. His heart became hard to the suffering of others. His soul became bitter and cynical after seeing so much greed, venality, cowardice, and malice. His mind would not rest, because there was always another play, another deal, another crisis, or catastrophe. His strength waned from lack of exercise, too much booze, too little sleep, and too much cruelty. It was not so much that he played the game. The game was playing him.

This was, Daylight thought, simply in the nature of things. “It was life, and life was a savage proposition at best. Men in civilization robbed because they were so made. They robbed just as cats scratched, famine pinched, and frost bit” (page 136). Equipped with that perspective, Daylight made a killing as a financier, and was slowly killing himself in the process. I would not presume to improve on London’s own assessment.

“The grim Yukon life had failed to make Daylight hard. It required civilization to produce this result. In the fierce, savage game he now played, his habitual geniality imperceptibly slipped away from him, as did his lazy Western drawl. As his speech became sharp and nervous, so did his mental processes. In the swift rush of the game, he found less and less time to spend on being merely good-natured. The change marked his face itself” (page 137).

Part II of the book takes a more human turn as we come to know Dede Mason, the one great love of Daylight’s life. Spoiler alert! If you want to read the book for yourself to find out how things end, you should probably skip down a few paragraphs.

Dede leads him to see the truth of his life. “And was it worth it?” Daylight wondered to himself. “What did all his money mean after all? Dede was right. It could buy him no more than one bed at a time, and at the same time it made him the abjectest of slaves” (page 263). Winning the game, Daylight discovers, is a losing proposition in the end.

What is the point of the game? Is it consuming or communing? Elam Harnish played the consuming game for all he was worth. He played according to the few “rules” of that game, and he came out the winner. What he discovered was that in consuming others, he was himself consumed by the game, playing it simply for something to do.

And he discovered that the game took away his humanity.

We are created by God for communing, not for consuming. God desires to have all of me – my whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and whole strength. Thus, the only appropriate response to God is to give my whole self to God.

This is the language either of consuming or communing. If it’s consuming – if I am to be eaten whole – that’s the work of sin, death, and the devil. God seeks self-giving union with all of me. We are made to give ourselves completely to God. That’s why we find such satisfaction and meaning in complete self-giving. That will be salvation for Burning Daylight at the end of the story (not to give too much away).

Such complete communion is nearly as scary as being consumed. The Markan composition has a remarkable play on words that is lost in the NRSV translation (unnecessarily so, in my humble opinion). This complete union with God (and as a consequence with neighbor) is worth more than “all whole burnt-offerings and sacrifices.”

The play comes with the word “whole.” It’s not just all our heart, soul, mind, and strength that God desires. It’s the “whole” of our selves that God calls into union with God in Christ, like the “whole burnt-offerings” (you might want to think of the “living sacrifice” language in Romans 12 in this regard). Just as the “whole burnt offering” is completely consumed on the altar in the Temple, so we are to be taken up into God as a “whole.” That could mean that we evaporate into oblivion, and that’s what scares us.

Or it could mean that we are transformed completely into what God created us to be from the beginning.

That, of course, is what God intends. The point of the game is union with God and with one another. In that union, we become most fully ourselves. If, on the other hand, the point of the game is consuming (winning), then everyone loses in the end. And, as Burning Daylight discovers to his chagrin, that winning makes us progressively less human – less whole in heart, soul, mind, and strength.

What prompts this question about the point of the game? It can certainly be prompted by losing – by losing a loved one, a job, a dream, a child, an illusion. If a person has been working to win and the work doesn’t pan out, we can be driven to seek meaning and purpose elsewhere. I suspect that at least part of the current “Great Resignation” in the job market involves people who were losing at this game and have been forced to wonder if it’s the right game at all.

The question can, paradoxically, also be prompted by winning. No matter how banal the insight, it is indeed true that the one who dies with the most toys still dies. This is part of the point of London’s book, I think. Daylight wins the game, repeatedly. But he cannot claim what matters most to him in the end, even though he has won. He can only find real victory by resigning from the game.

If this reminds you of our conversation about the rich man in Mark 10, that’s not accidental. I think that one way to read the Markan composition from Mark 8:26 through the end of Mark 13 is with this question in mind. What’s the point of the game? Perhaps it is a political restoration of Israel. Perhaps it is accommodating the Roman imperial regime. Perhaps it is wealth and possessions. Perhaps it is raw power – even in Jesus’ glorious reign.

But none of these strategies produces a real “win” in the Kin(g)dom of God. It is as my dad often wondered. What would that dog do if he ever actually caught the car he was chasing? Then what’s the point?

It is the losers who win in the Markan composition – climaxing with our hero, Blind Bartimaeus, dancing with Jesus toward the cross. Perhaps this is the real revolution of Luther’s Reformation – the insight that the Church of his time was simply playing the wrong game. That’s a question for the White church in our own time and place as well. White male supremacy and the racist status quo are simply the wrong game for Jesus followers.

It is even more a question for the political and economic players of our time. Will we resign from consuming one another and consider communing with one another? It’s clear that we must answer soon, one way or another. After all, we’re burning daylight.

References and Resources

Campbell, Antony F., SJ. God First Loved Us: The Challenge of Aceepting Unconditional Love. Paulist Pr. Kindle Edition.

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Furnish, Victor Paul. “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 10, no. 2, [Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc, Wiley, Blackwell Publishing Ltd], 1982, pp. 327–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017773.

Greenlee, Mark B. “Echoes of the Love Command in the Halls of Justice.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 12, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 255–70, https://doi.org/10.2307/1051616.

HEIL, JOHN PAUL. “The Narrative Strategy and Pragmatics of the Temple Theme in Mark.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1997, pp. 76–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43723803.

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

London, Jack. Burning Daylight. Kindle Edition.  

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.

Manning, Brenna. The Furious Longing of God. Colorado Springs, CO.: David C. Cook, 2009.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

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

Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 4); October 31, 2021

You Can Be Replaced, You Know

Mark 12:28-34 provides an excellent opportunity to compare and contrast the parallel accounts in Matthew 22:34-40 and Luke 10:25-28. As we view these texts together (that is, “synoptically,”) we can get more of a sense of the intentions, emphases, and themes of each of the gospel composers.

My first exegetical course at Wartburg Seminary was “Luke’s Revision of Mark,” taught by Dr. Ray Martin, of blessed memory. The course was a revelation and epiphany for me in understanding how texts work in the Gospel accounts.

In retrospect, I think the title of the course probably claimed too much, however. Of course, Luke revised some materials from his “copy” of the Markan script. We can see with little effort, for example, that Luke places our text in a very different setting than does Mark. The dynamics of the text and the relationships between the characters are different. If it weren’t for the great commandments in the text, we might wonder if they were related at all.

Photo by Anete Lusina on Pexels.com

But to say that Luke “revised” Mark is to create the impression that the Markan composition is somehow more “original” than the work of Matthew or Luke. That impression is what “originally” drew me to deeply into the Markan work. It appears to be the case that the Markan composition came into written form earlier than either the Matthean or the Lukan compositions. It also appears to be the case that Matthew and Luke had “copies” of the Markan composition, or at least parts of it, as they did their work.

My point, however, is that each of the Synoptic composers was working from a set of early and developing traditions. The Markan script is not significant merely because it is earlier in the timeline. The Markan composer has intentions, emphases, and themes not found in the Matthean or Lukan works. Matthew and Luke have their own intentions, emphases, and themes. It’s not that any of them got it “right” (or “wrong”) for that matter. Each is a distinctive witness, necessary for the witness and service of the Church through the ages.

One of the emphases in the Markan composition appears to be a focus on the Jerusalem temple. We get some of that focus here, especially in the scribe’s words in Mark 12:33b – that the double love commandments “is greater than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” What does that assessment mean for the scribe in the story itself? What does that assessment mean for those who first heard the Markan composition performed? And, of course, what does that assessment mean for us as contemporary hearers of the text?

A number of scholars argue that Jesus portrays himself in some way as replacing the Jerusalem Temple. I think we need to reflect carefully on that assessment. If we put ourselves into an historical space where both Jesus and the Temple are in operation (the years of Jesus’ earthly ministry), then it would seem that Jesus puts himself in competition with the Temple. His words and actions seem to reject the Temple and the Judaism associated with it. But that’s an anachronistic view of the Gospels.

Heil’s article is an excellent summary of the Temple theme in Mark 11-16 and will be a resource for our reflection from now until the end of this preaching year. Heil offers this conclusion after his examination of the various texts. “The Marcan narrative invites its audience to become the community that supplants and surpasses the temple by implementing in their lives Jesus’ teaching within the temple (11:1-12:44) and outside the temple (13:1-37), but they are able to do so only with the empowerment of Jesus’ death and resurrection (14:1-16:8)” (page 100, my emphasis).

Heil lays out the specifics of this Markan theme. In chapters 11 through 13, Jesus authorizes the listeners to become God’s new house of prayer for all peoples. Jesus calls them to pray with both faith and forgiveness. They are to be people who worship the God of the living, not the dead. They rely on Jesus as the cornerstone of this new temple. And this new temple is the place where authentic worship happens by means of total love for God and neighbor (see page 100).

Just as Bartimaeus cast away his cloak in order to follow Jesus, so the poor widow gives her whole life as an offering to God in the temple. That is the standard of discipleship in the new temple. That standard is possible, not because of human virtue, but because of God’s victory over death on the cross of Jesus. The curtain protecting the Holy of Holies is torn in two from top to bottom. And Jesus is loose in the world.

All of this is certainly true and an accurate reading of the Markan text. If, however, the Markan composition is coming into written form in the aftermath of the Jewish War of 66 to 70 C.E., the “replacement” of the Temple is a non-issue. The Temple is in ruins. Jerusalem is destroyed. The Jewish rebels have been defeated and executed. There is nothing at that point for Jesus to “replace.”

Instead, the question, at least for Jewish Christians, really seems to be something more like this. Since the Temple is no more, now what do we do? I can’t help but think of Peter’s question in John 6 at this point. Lord, to whom shall we go? The issue is not, therefore, some kind of replacement or supercessionist theology. It’s a matter of a desperate search for an anchor in a chaotic and rapidly changing world.

Jesus is portrayed in each of the Gospels as that anchor, at least for those who follow him on the Way of the Cross and Resurrection. Hurtado argues that “in Mark 11-16 a claim surfaces again and again that Jesus in some way replaces the temple as the central place where God manifests himself” (page 202). Wright offers a similar perspective in his popular commentary (Kindle Locations 3046ff.). That’s certainly true as far as it goes, but this assessment can quickly lead into ascribing an anti-Jewish bias to the gospels.

I think Hurtado is guilty of the kind of anachronism I described above. “Mark’s readers would have seen the scribe as anticipating their belief that the temple rituals were expendable and thoroughly secondary to the higher obligations reflected in the two commandments cited. Jesus’ commendation of him,” Hurtado concludes, “seems to underscore this position” (page 202).

No, that doesn’t follow, from my perspective. If, in fact, temple rituals were impossible by the time of the Markan composition, then it makes no sense to argue that they were “expendable.” It would seem that early Christians maintained contact with the Temple and those rituals as long as that was possible. It was when the structures, system, and community in Jerusalem were destroyed that alternative ways of thinking had to be considered.

This process certainly must have begun prior to the Jewish War, at least for those Christians who were geographically separated from Jerusalem. Just as synagogue worship and community arose in the Diaspora following the destruction of the first temple, so Christians at a distance would likely have felt less need for and less allegiance to the Temple than did those who were closer. But the discussion in the Markan composition shows that the Temple was a theological challenge for the Markan community, regardless of where they were located.

Perhaps we can think about our own situation as the Church in the Western world. It’s not that most Christians really want to abandon Church as we’ve known it for the last five hundred years or so. Most of us were not looking for a seismic shift in our institutions (although we probably should have). Instead, the shifts are happening in spite of us and without us. The question is not what should replace what we have. The question is much more since the Church as we know it is going away, now what do we do?

The counsel we find in the Markan composition is to return to the core of our theology and practice. N. T. Wright asks, “when the crisis comes, what remains solid in your life and the life of your community? Wholehearted love of God and neighbor? Or the mad scramble of everyone trying to save their own skins?” (Kindle Location 3053).

We are preaching in a time of similar dislocation and even chaos for the Church in the Northern and Western world. The Covid-19 pandemic took people out of their traditional worship spaces and practices and forced us to consider new ways of doing and being Church. While it appears that many of us will return to our previous practices over time (unless some other crisis occurs), the question has been raised? How necessary are our buildings, our organizations, our practices and patterns?

We are preaching in a time when traditional lines of theological consensus are crumbling. Robert P. Jones has written, for example, that we are witnessing the end of White Christian America. I cheer that ending and hope the process accelerates. But for those of who were part of that structure, now what? If our five centuries of White Male Supremacist Christianity are over, if our dependence on the Doctrine of Discovery is a house built on sand, if we who have been so accustomed to being in charge for so long must give up the reigns of power, then what?

It’s not that the former consensus is being replaced. It is being destroyed. In the wake of that destruction, will we seek the central anchors of our confession – to love God with all our being and our neighbors as Christ loves us? That’s a question, perhaps, that this text engages for us.

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

Furnish, Victor Paul. “Love of Neighbor in the New Testament.” The Journal of Religious Ethics, vol. 10, no. 2, [Journal of Religious Ethics, Inc, Wiley, Blackwell Publishing Ltd], 1982, pp. 327–34, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40017773.

Greenlee, Mark B. “Echoes of the Love Command in the Halls of Justice.” Journal of Law and Religion, vol. 12, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 255–70, https://doi.org/10.2307/1051616.

HEIL, JOHN PAUL. “The Narrative Strategy and Pragmatics of the Temple Theme in Mark.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 59, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1997, pp. 76–100, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43723803.

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

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Tuomo Mannermaa. Two Kinds of Love: Martin Luther’s Religious World (Kindle Locations 201-203). Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

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

Text Study for Mark 12:28-34 (Pt. 1); October 21, 2021

Say What?

Let’s begin by situating our text in the larger structure and context of the Markan composition. There is no end to the proposals for how to structure the Gospel of Mark as we have it and how the various pieces of the account fit together. Many of the proposals have their relative merits, and none should be taken as reflecting the “mind of Mark.” We don’t have access to that insight, and it’s not obvious from the text we have. So, any proposed structure or outline is really a heuristic device – a tool to assist our study and interpretation. That is certainly true of what I’m going to propose.

It appears that Mark 10:46 is the conclusion of and punchline for the “Way of Following” section of the Markan account (from Mark 1:16 to the end of chapter 10). Mark 11 leads off with the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem. I think this story serves as the mini-prologue for chapters eleven through thirteen. This section focuses on the Jerusalem Temple and the related political and religious establishment. The section concludes with the Markan “Little Apocalypse,” which helps the audience of the composition to interpret and deal with the destruction of the Temple and the defeat of the Jewish rebels in 66-70 C.E.

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If you’ve read some previous posts on the Markan composition, you will know that chiasm is one of the Markan composer’s favorite techniques for organizing material. It’s always worth looking for chiastic structures, both large and small in the composition. I am reading Mark 11:11 through the end of chapter thirteen as a loose sort of chiasm with some small structural elements thrown into the mix.

The reason for examining and analyzing such structural elements is not merely to show off (although I’m certainly not above that failing with some frequency). Instead, the purpose is to try to discern some of the emphases and purposes of the Markan composer in telling the story. As I have noted in the past, these structural elements helped those who presented and performed the Markan composition to keep things organized in their memories.

I want to suggest this loose sort of structure.

AMark 11:11-25Fig Tree and Temple IncidentIntercalation
BMark 11:27-33Jesus’ authority (in the Temple) 
CMark 12:1-12Parable of the Wicked Tenants (who kill the son)Allegory
DMark 12:13-34Questions in the TempleRule of 3 with a twist
C’Mark 12:35-37David’s SonNote son in the Parable
B’Mark 12:30-44Jesus critiques Temple/Scribes 
A’Mark 13:1-32Little ApocalypseFig Tree image as climax

Just as the Triumphal Entry serves as a connection to the previous section (especially the story of Blind Bartimaeus), so Mark 13:32-37 serves as a connection to the Passion account proper, especially with the emphasis on keeping awake. In just a few paragraphs, the central disciples will not be able to keep their eyes open while Jesus prays in the garden.

The center of a chiasm usually contains the most important theme in that section of the Markan composition, whether the chiastic structure is large, as in this case, or small. I read the set of three questions in the Temple as the center of the structure, so we need to pay close attention to what is happening here.

In addition to the chiasm, we get another example of the Markan composer’s use of the Rule of Three, but with a striking twist. The chief priests, the scribes, and the elders, in Mark 11:27-33, have challenged Jesus’ authority to interpret scripture and to attack the Temple system. So, they are the primary audience for the Parable (Allegory) of the Wicked Tenants.

They sought to restrain and/or arrest Jesus, and they were afraid of the crowd, the Markan composer tells us. They were afraid because they perceived that he spoke the parable for, against, or about them (the preposition is ambiguous). As a result, they vacated the scene.

Different sets of debate partners now come onstage for honor jousts with Jesus. These debates are still happening in the Temple. There is no indication of a scene change. The original “odd couple” in the Markan composition, some Pharisees and Herodians, try to trap him with a political question. The Sadducees pose a riddle about the Resurrection – a possibility they regard as scripturally impossible.

We would expect the third question to be another hostile challenge to Jesus (and it is portrayed as such, for example, in Luke). But it is not. That’s the really interesting piece here. “Nothing in Mark’s story prepared the reader for this conversation between Jesus and this Jerusalem scribe,” Emerson Powery writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “Nothing!” The scribes, for the most part, align themselves with the opposition. The listeners are reminded that the scribe overhears the previous dispute.

We are prepared, as were (I assume) the first listeners, for this scribe to be the most critical and obtuse of all. Yet, this one is not far from the Kingdom of God. Apparently, the joke’s on us this time around! The scribe appreciates Jesus’ responses to the other debaters, both in terms of content and style. The scribe noted that Jesus answered “well” – which can mean both of good quality and honorably.

“Part of the shock of this story was the agreement of the Jerusalem scribe,” Powery writes. This scribe chose to engage with Jesus rather than to trap him. The scribe takes Jesus’ critique and analysis even further when he argues that the love Jesus describes is of a value surpassing all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices. Powery notes that this seems to be “an implicit temple critique.”

Why does the Markan composer choose this particular story/memory to include in the composition, and why does the composer put it in this place in the narrative? “The answer is probably that Mark wanted to show that the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish establishment was not based on a rejection of the OT or a complete disavowal of the law by Jesus,” Hurtado proposes, “but instead on the refusal of the Jewish authorities to accept Jesus as the final interpreter of the Jewish law” (page 201).

Was there a constituency among the Temple establishment that held an anti-Temple bias? Powery wonders this but dismisses it. “It is hard to imagine an anti-Temple scribe in Mark’s narrative, so it is better to assume otherwise,” he argues. But that doesn’t mean he disagrees with Jesus at this moment. “In fact, this individual scribe, in a collectivist society, probably represented many Jewish leaders who appreciated Jesus’ teaching,” Powery suggests. “We find hints elsewhere in the Gospel narratives (cf. Luke 7:3-5).”

The punchline in this three-part joke is that a scribe agreed with Jesus. Powery notes that this should give us pause about assuming the mindset of those who might debate with us, at least on matters of faith. “Stories like this one, rare as they are within the Christian canon, must drive us to become more willing to open up to the other,” Powery argues, “including the faithful people within our own religious tradition and those without.”

The larger question in this section of the Markan composition is the basis and nature of Jesus’ authority – especially when it comes to challenging the administration of and practices in the Jerusalem Temple. Scribes were essential to maintaining both that administration and those practices. Thus, Hurtado argues, “the point of this passage seems to be to show that Jesus’ criticism of scribal tradition did not amount to a rejection of the validity of the OT law as a revelation of God. Rather,” he continues, “Jesus’ reply to the scribe…shows what Jesus saw the proper point of the law to be” (page 201).

“This isn’t designed as a ‘new religion’, a way of life somehow different from what pious Jews sought after,” N. T. Wright agrees, “This is the fulfilment of the law and the prophets” (Kindle Location 3039).

Certainly, one of the things to take from this text is that we are listening in on an intra-Jewish debate. This is not an attempt on the part of the Markan composer to portray Jews as bad and Gentiles as good. The debates about the Temple, in the actual time of Jesus, had to be about reform rather than replacement. Of course, by the time the Markan composition achieves written status, reform is no longer an option. The Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed.

Yet, the debates about the authority and meaning of the Hebrew scriptures must have remained live issues for the Markan community. For the composer to have a story at hand in which a Jewish authority figure commends Jesus for his accuracy and orthodoxy must have made a significant impact on those debates within the Markan community – especially if we locate that community in the fraught environment of Rome following the Neronian persecutions and the Jewish War.

“There is no limit to the amount of work to be done in the church in correcting anti-Old Testament bias,” Sarah Hinlicky Wilson writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “The habits of disdain toward Judaism and the faith of Israel run very deep, almost as old as the church itself, and will not be corrected easily. But preachers can and should take every opportunity,” she urges, “to inculcate a better take on the Hebrew Scriptures within the Christian canon.”

References and Resources

Freeman, Tzvi. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/1438516/jewish/Mitzvah.htm.

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

Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present In Faith: Luther’s View Of Justification. Kindle Edition.

Powery, Emerson. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-4.

Wilson, Sarah Hinlicky. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-31-2/commentary-on-mark-1228-34-5.

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