On Wanting the Wrong Things — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Mark 10:32-45

James and John waste no words. “Teacher, give us what we want!”

Those words take me to breakfasts at Cracker Barrel. We finish eating. We are funneled back into the retail store. Every time it’s the same conversation. “Grandpa, give me what I want!” And another grand-child learns that life is filled with disappointment.

Wanting isn’t the problem. “What is it,” Jesus asks them, “that you want me to do for you?” The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

Photo by Ayyub Yahaya on Pexels.com

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things. James and John want power and prestige, status and security, dignity and dominance. They want to rule with Jesus. Naturally, they don’t have a clue what that means.

We are created wanting. We are designed to desire. Our economy exploits our wanting. We have often enjoyed the food and the atmosphere at Cracker Barrel with the grandkids. To get what we really want, we are required to run the retail gauntlet. We are surrounded by plaques and party dresses, rocking chairs and recipe books, toys and trinkets. Our desires are carefully channeled to stimulate sales. The store shapes our desires and then tries to satisfy them.

There’s the problem. We are created wanting. But that’s not the whole story. We are designed to desire God. Nothing else will do. No matter how the retail gods tease and tempt us, we always want more. We can never buy enough, eat enough, love enough or rule enough to be satisfied. This is the curse of consumerism. Retail therapy is a symptom of the disease, not a treatment.

We are designed to desire God. Christian thinkers have known this from the beginning. “Our hearts are restless, O God,” writes St. Augustine, “until we rest in you.” Blaise Pascal describes the “infinite abyss” in each of us that can be filled only by God.

The hallmark of sin is that we settle for restlessness. The hallmark of sin is that we fill the abyss with anything and everything except for God. The problem isn’t wanting. The problem is wanting the wrong things.

This is about much more than temporary trinkets at Cracker Barrel. Now we come back to James and John. They don’t want plaques and party dresses. They want power. Subtlety is not their strong suit.

The problem isn’t wanting. The problem isn’t even wanting power. But power in God’s kingdom is nothing like power in the world. Power in God’s kingdom comes in the shape of a cross. The gospel writer knows who will be at Jesus’ right and left hands. It won’t be James and John. It will be two bandits. Above Jesus’ head will be a sign that reads, “The King of the Jews.

The world thinks this is backwards. Only the lead dog has a clear view. Everyone else has a…tail…in their face. Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. You’re either climbing or you’re falling. The one who dies with the most toys wins. Truth is a poor substitute for victory.

Jesus says power comes in the shape of a cross. “The Son of Man came not to be served,” Jesus tells all of us disciples, “but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” The purpose of this power is freedom. A ransom is paid to free a hostage. The first purpose of power in God’s kingdom is to set captives free. If you are a captive, this is good news for you. Jesus died and lives so you can be really free.

If you are a captive…but then, who isn’t! We confess that we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves. Jesus draws the powers of sin, death and the devil on to the cross with him. As we read in Ephesians, he takes captivity captive and kills those powers. When we trust him and follow him, we share in that freedom.

Still, we are captive to consumerism. Consumerism is a system that promises identity, meaning, and purpose through shopping. That’s not the definition an economist would give. But it is precisely the spiritual promise consumerism makes. Consumerism turns wanting into the goal of life. In this worldview, what we want is irrelevant. Our desire becomes our god.

It is “stewardship season” in many American Christian congregations. Someone once asked me if the goal is to increase giving to a congregation. That would be a salutary side effect of such an appeal. The goal, however, is freedom. The goal is freedom from captivity to stuff, security and certainty. Grateful giving is the best path to freedom from wanting. The goal is freedom to be the self-giving servants that God has made us to be. In part, that will be the freedom to buy less stuff.

Giving for the life and work of the Church is a tool for reaching that goal. An offertory prayer describes it well. “Merciful God,” we pray, “Everything in heaven and earth belongs to you. We joyfully release what you have entrusted to us. May these gifts be signs of our whole lives returned to you, dedicated to the healing and unity of all creation, through Jesus Christ.” Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

The world thinks serving is for suckers. Jesus is no naïve dreamer. He knows how the world works. He reminds his disciples of that. The weak are meat for the strong to eat. The world asks, “Do you want to eat or be eaten?” Jesus is hardly a utopian romantic. He simply says, “It is not so among you.

We are also still captive to self-serving power. We live in a time when power has ceased to be a tool. We live in a time when power has become the goal. “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus says, “But it is not so among you…” Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings.

When I vote, for example, I apply this litmus test to every candidate. Self-serving power violates God’s intention. Self-giving power is our vocation as human beings. Self-servers do not get my vote. Self-givers do. I must confess that the slate of people for whom I can vote appears to be shrinking by the day. But I keep looking.

Jesus comes to release all of Creation from bondage to sin, death, and the devil – ALL of creation! If I will not participate in that work of release, then I cannot receive it. We live in a time when White Male Supremacy struggles to remain the dominant system in our society. Christian denominations and churches have been central to sustaining that system for the past four centuries. We can be part of shedding that system or sheltering it. The Jesus option should be clear.

“You know that the so-called leaders of the White Christian Nationalists lord it over people of color, women, migrants, and anyone else who threatens their power,” Jesus says, “but it is not so among you.” If it is so among us – even in subtle ways – then we are not following Jesus.

Jesus delivers his clearest and most detailed teaching on the cross and resurrection. Then James and John ask for a promotion. That’s crazy talk! But that’s precisely what we White American Christians do when Jesus sets us free and we use that freedom to keep others in bondage. That is, as James Baldwin once noted, a kind of insanity.

Our release comes by means of Jesus, dying and rising. The cross changes Creation – no, restores Creation to the way God makes it, and us. That change costs those of us who are invested in the status quo of power over others. It will feel like dying. Equality always feels like loss to the privileged. So, if we’re losing power, position, privilege, and property, then things are probably working as they should.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for those of us who are privileged White Christians is developing and sustaining the moral, emotional, and institutional stamina to live through the losing. “To serve,” for us first means dealing that fragility as dominant and dominating people. We are being forced to look at our history and practice of tyranny and to sit with that for a while.

In the meantime, as church institutions, we need to practice some losing. Of course, some of that is being forced on us by a changing culture. But when will we start giving land back to Indigenous people? When will be start including reparations to Black institutions as part of our annual denominational and congregational and personal budgets? That’s the question I put to myself, and it’s painful.

Must be the right question.

The test for this is always the Jesus test. Our Lord comes to serve, to give, to die and to live. But that living is God’s gift, not the result of selfishness or fear. William Willimon reminds us that “our faith is full of people…for whom survival was low on the list of priorities.” If survival is the goal, we have failed the Jesus test. If serving in love is the goal, we have passed.

Wanting is not the problem. Wanting stuff in order to help others is not the problem. Wanting power in order to serve others is not the problem. Wanting freedom in order to worship God and love our neighbor is not the problem. Pray this week for right desire. Because of God’s great mercy, we are freed from stuff and for serving.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 6); October 17, 2021

Another Friday with Phil

If you know some of my research interests, it will come as no surprise to you that the mention of “slaves” leads to me to think of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. One of the things I love about studying that little letter is that it allows me to imagine and get in touch with real people in real relationships in a real family, home, church, and community in the first century. It’s one thing to wax academic about what these texts mean. It’s another to conduct thought experiments with Phil and his household to see how it might all play out.

What if we sift Philemon and his household with the sieve of Mark 10? Before you think I’m letting the rest of us off the hook, I am not. This is going to be hard on Phil and his household. It is just as hard, in different dimensions, on me and my household. I’ll try to come back to that before we finish this post.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Let’s begin with Phil’s marriage to Lady Apphia. I assume they were husband and wife, but that detail is not necessary to carry through this analysis. It just makes it a bit simpler for the sake of the experiment.

If we read the divorce text at the beginning of the chapter, we will see that Phil is called to see Apphia as a person in her own right and not a utility for his convenience. She is a partner in the enterprise of the household and not a piece of attractive furniture. Her sexual functioning is not his property, nor is their marriage a mere contract. Apphia is his sister in Christ as well as his spouse and is thus an equal in this newly (re)constituted family.

If Philemon was a traditional Roman, upper-class, man, this was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more.

Let’s move to Phil’s relationship to Archippus. If Archippus is the adult son of Apphia and Phil, some changes are in order in that relationship as well. He is now also a brother in Christ to Phil. He is not merely a receptacle for Phil’s bequeathed honor and estate. As with Apphia, Phil’s power “over” his son must now be replaced by power “with” and “for” his offspring.

In a culture that regarded infanticide as a legitimate means of birth control and children as subhuman until after puberty, this, too, was quite enough revolution to embrace. But wait! There’s more!

It is obvious that Philemon is “rich,” not poor. He has enough wealth to own a home where a group of Jesus followers can meet regularly for worship and community life. He is rich enough to hold at least one enslaved person, and it is likely that his household contained at least several more enslaved persons. Paul addresses him as an “honorable” man who commands respect because of his power, position, privilege, and property.

This takes us to the story of the rich man in Mark 10. I would think that such a story would not go down well with Phil and other rich people in the early Jesus movement. It doesn’t appear that Paul asked Philemon or other wealthy patrons to sell all they had, give the proceeds to the poor, and to join Paul personally in the missionary enterprise. Paul clearly depended on the patronage of some well-off people and communities to do his work. The counsel of Mark 10:17-31 was not adopted wholesale.

This adaptation was not without its problems in some of the Pauline communities. The disparities in wealth and status in the Corinthian church caused no end of mischief. The rich arrived early for the love feast (because they didn’t have real jobs) and ate all the good food. The privileged claimed that their voices counted for more in the assembly – especially, it seems, the voices of some of the privileged women (but that’s another conversation). In Corinth, wealth was making it difficult for some members to enter the Kin(g)dom of God.

The concern for property was, I think, an issue for Philemon as well. It may be that Onesimus took some property or some cash when he escaped to find Paul in Ephesus. It would seem that this tension was a fairly big deal for Philemon, since Paul offers to pay the costs out of his own pocket (and then guilts Philemon into withdrawing his complaint about the “crime”).

At the least, Paul wants Philemon to see that mutuality in Christ trumps any concerns about personal property. Paul does not appear to require divestment of wealth as a condition for following Jesus (and Paul). But he does expect that wealth will be used for the well-being of the community and not for the benefit of the wealthy.

So, Phil, stop worrying about your money. If it bothers you so much, send another gift of cash along with Onesimus when you send him back to assist Paul in things that are far more important!

So, this “Good News” deconstructs Phil’s family relationships. It calls into question the importance of his power, position, privilege, and property. The Good News calls on Phil to put love for neighbor ahead of the demands of the honor and shame system of the culture. That would be more than enough work for a lifetime. But wait! There’s more!

Let’s take a little stroll back into Mark 9 for a moment. Phil, you know those wandering hands of yours (and anything else that might be wandering) that seem to find their way on to the bodies of several of your slaves? Cut it out or cut them off! You know those roving eyes of yours that linger a bit too long on your next-door neighbor’s wife as she rests in their courtyard? Give it up or gouge them out!

Given the norms of elite sexual behavior in Greco-Roman culture, these boundaries would have made Phil the laughingstock of the local bathhouse. But wait! There’s more!

Finally, we come to the enslaved persons. First of all, they cannot be regarded as sexual, physical, and commercial utilities at the disposal of the slaveholder. Jesus followers don’t get to treat anyone that way.

Second, there’s this “ransom for many” business. The language of “ransom” in the first century, as we noted in a previous post, is really the language of manumission for enslaved persons. Phil, how can Jesus release the enslaved from bondage, but you will not? I think that’s the question that stands behind Paul’s request to Phil that he would treat Onesimus as “more than a brother.”

Enslaved persons were a substantial part of the wealth in first-century households. The release of the enslaved persons would likely crash the household economy. And the rich people would have to start doing actual human work. The last would become first, and the first last, in very practical ways. Phil would have the chance to become “great” in Jesus’ terms because he would start serving whether he liked it or not.

Is it any wonder Jesus says all that stuff about camels and needles’ eyes?

I find this experiment of processing Philemon and his household with the Markan “moral sieve” instructive and terrifying. I don’t have actual enslaved people under my roof. But I find it very hard to give up Amazon purchases even though I view the wealth of Jeff Bezos detestable. It pisses me off to have to look at the labels on my clothes, investigate how they are sourced, and determine if the clothing is ethically produced (it hardly ever is).

We made a commitment at our house almost three years ago to maintain a whole-food, plant-based diet. I did that because one day I realized that I couldn’t treat animals as edible automata. I’m not evangelistic about this choice, but it works for us. At the same time, those choices have reduced our options for socializing, made us the ongoing topic of conversation among family and neighbors, and made grocery shopping an experience in mindfulness.

If being modestly vegan takes that much effort, what does it mean to be a Mark 10 disciple? Phil, I’m not judging. I’m empathizing.

It seems that at least some of Paul’s churches chose the route of moderate accommodation to the culture. I think that’s why we find the tables of household duties in Ephesians and Colossians – tables that ratify the larger culture and make no mention of Markan discipleship. That is certainly why Christian elites continued to hold and deal in enslaved persons, in and through the Church in many cases, for centuries.

In our own context, we know how much effort, theology, and violence have gone into maintaining White Male Supremacy in and through Christian churches in America. The resources for this discussion are now voluminous. But at the least, I hope you will read Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, Robert Jones’ White Too Long, and Kristin Kobes DuMez’s Jesus and John Wayne. These works give depth and data to the White Christian Church’s complicity in the American project of White Male Supremacy.

So, Phil, what do we do about this? I’m reflecting on how best to make reparations for the rest of my life – to Indigenous people, Black people, Brown people, AAPI people. I don’t think I’m going to sell it all and give the proceeds to the people to whom that wealth is owed. But I also don’t think I can continue to do little or nothing that has a dollar sign attached to it.

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.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

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. 5); October 17, 2021

Onside with Jesus

“But it is not this way among you; rather, whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you shall be a slave of all” (Mark 10:43-44, my translation).

Whenever enslavement comes up as a metaphor for sin, discipleship, or any other theological category, we White American Christians should get nervous. The Christians Scriptures have been used for too long and continue to be used as ideological props for White Male Supremacy in our culture. I think, at least in our reflections, we are required to interrogate this metaphor and get to the other side of it.

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, my translation and emphasis). The words about becoming servants and slaves are conditioned on what the Son of Man does. That’s the logic of the text. The Son of Man ransoms the captives, releases the enslaved, frees those in bondage. That’s the Good News of the text and of the Kin(g)dom of God.

If the enslaved are freed, enslavement is ended. The only way the enslavement metaphor now makes sense is if freed people willingly take on serving. Power over others is, as we shall see below, ruled out of bounds for Jesus followers. Power “for” and power “with” are to be embraced, embodied, and enacted in response to the coming of the Kin(g)dom.

This is possible because (thus, “for”) the Son of Man has given his life a ransom for many. The Cross is an event that is accomplished, not merely an example to be followed. There is certainly an exemplary character to the Cross for Jesus followers. Jesus does, after all, invite us to take up our “crosses” and follow him. But providing an example is an outcome of the Cross, not its purpose.

The purpose of the Cross and Resurrection is to release enslaved people, to ransom those in bondage, to rescue captives. David Seeley argues in his article that the model of “servant rulership” described in our text has roots in and resonances with such thought in Greco-Roman philosophy running from Plato through the first-century Cynics. I don’t find that argument compelling. There is plenty of material in the Hebrew scriptures to support the image of “servant rulership” for the Jewish Messiah. Just read the royal psalms.

Seeley has a final section, however, on the word “lutron” (ransom), which is instructive. Up until the appearance of that word in our text, Seeley argues, the imagery would support an exemplary, “paradigmatic” view of the Cross. But when the Markan composer quotes Jesus as saying that the Son of Man came as “a ransom for the sake of many,” the notion of a paradigmatic death is left behind. Something is actually happening in the Cross.

Seeley notes that (forty years ago) Markan scholars were at pains to separate Markan theology from Pauline theology. He gives four reasons why that is wrong-headed. Paul speaks about the death of Christ as liberating people from slavery (see Romans 6). It would be hard to be a Christian in the late first-century (especially if that Christian were in Rome) and not to have heard of or given a nod to Paul. The sacramental imagery in Mark 10:38-39 sounds so very much like Paul. And the Markan composer was a sharp enough tool to figure out how to dialogue with Paul without plagiarizing or endorsing everything Paul said.

A generation ago (sigh), I spent a week with David Frederickson at Luther Seminary on the conversation between this section of Mark and Philippians 2. I didn’t realize at the time that this was a contested topic in the New Testament guild, but apparently it was. Frederickson made a strong case that “having the mind of Christ” is precisely what the Markan composer also meant when, in chapter 8, the composer accuses Peter of not “thinking the things that are of God.”

Here at the climax of the discipleship discourse in the Markan composition, we have (I think) another marker from Philippians 2. If a Jesus follower is to become a “slave of all,” that is because the One I follow has gone there first. Christ Jesus, Paul writes, “who, though being in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be gripped with both hands, but rather emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:6-7, my translation).

The Son of Man, the one in human likeness, embraces the form of an enslaved person in order to release all of Creation from bondage. It is that willing embrace, even of death on a cross, that results in his exaltation as the Name which is above every name. The Good News of the Kin(g)dom is that this is the very character of God! Jesus takes on the form of the slave in order that all the enslaved would be ransomed, redeemed, and released.

Our text “seems well on its way to presenting the Son of Man’s death in terms of paradigmatic suffering and martyrdom,” Seeley writes. “But then the term lutron is added. By using it,” Seeley continues, “Mark invites his audience to understand this death as liberation” (page 249).

Seeley argues that the Markan composer goes no further than this because the composer wants to give a nod to Pauline theology without affirming all of that theology. That strikes me as an argument from silence and a misunderstanding of the Markan composition as an oral text. The mentions of baptism and eucharist earlier in the paragraph would leave the door open for further comment by the performer if the audience setting called for it. Better to address what is in the text than what is not.

What can we draw from this part of the discussion? First, this text is an anti-slavery passage. It may have been used to undergird human enslavement by pro-slavery Christian preachers in the past. I’m not sure of that, but I suspect that was the case. In fact, the very purpose of the coming of the Son of Man is to ransom, redeem, and release the enslaved.

The Cross is not a metaphor, example, or paradigm. It is an effective event. Real people get real freedom. If nominal Jesus followers don’t do that, we aren’t following Jesus. The Son of Man has come to challenge the powers of domination that are the human norm and to change the status of those who are in captivity to those powers.

Second, therefore, disciples dismantle hierarchies. Disciples flatten power pyramids. And that happens at the systemic as well as the personal level. If we think this text is only about personal behavior, we’re wrong. If you want a place where Jesus talks about systemic evil and the need to dismantle a system, this is your text. He doesn’t point to specific Gentile rulers who are lording it over others. Instead, he describes a general system of domination that is typical of the world in which he lived. And he declares that such a system shall not be so among us.

Systems that create and sustain domination of some humans over others are not part of God’s intention or goals. Amassing power, position, privilege, and property is not a feature of following Jesus. Any system that is based on such behavior is contrary to the character of God. Like it or not, this is a political text. It is about how human communities are structured. The Gentile rulers “lord it over” others, when in fact, there is only one Lord and one God. It takes hard work and layers of self-delusion to miss this dimension of the text.

Third, Jesus followers enter “enslavement for all” (whatever that means in my situation) willingly and freely. The actually enslaved never get to choose to serve. Nor are the actually enslaved slaves of all. Only those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can choose to freely serve. And those who are freed from bondage to sin, death, and evil can only work for the freedom of others, if we are to be consistent in our Jesus following.

There may be no better expression of this text than Martin Luther’s Freedom of the Christian. Luther loved paradoxes almost as much as the Markan composer. One of his favorites comes from the great 1517 treatise. The Christian is both perfectly free, servant of none, and perfectly slave, servant of all. The freedom comes as God’s gift to all of Creation in Christ. The servitude is chosen as a grateful response for that gift and an enactment of that Good News.

Fourth, we can see why the Cross stands in the center of the Jesus way. He is clearly opposed to the normal structures of power in this world. These are the structures that make “lording it over” the order of the day. A few people gain a great deal from such systems and will fight to the death to maintain what they have. Opposing such systems of power always provokes a violent response.

We live in a time when people are doing much to dismantle hierarchies and flatten power pyramids. The systems of White Male Supremacy, European colonialism, unfettered Capitalism, and unregulated wealth are certainly receiving long overdue scrutiny, criticism, and resistance. Is it any wonder we are witnessing such violent and systematic responses? More to the point, are we American Jesus followers on the “Jesus side” of these conflicts?

Too often we are not. Perhaps a reminder of how the Good News actually works can move us a millimeter closer to that Jesus side.

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.

Seeley, David. “Rulership and Service in Mark 10:41-45.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 35, no. 3, Brill, 1993, pp. 234–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/1561541.

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. 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. 3); October 17, 2021

Ransomed for Life

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but rather to serve and to give his life a ransom for the sake of many” (Mark 10:45, my translation). I think the whole course of Christian soteriology in the Western Church has been derailed by a systematic misreading of this text. This misreading is amplified by the additions made in Matthew’s parallel. Matthew adds the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins – an emphasis not found in the Markan composition – at least not in the Markan account of the cross.

The derailment comes from the development and application of Anselm’s theory of penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). It is certainly the case that vicarious atonement is a significant part of soteriology in the Christian Scriptures. But those perspectives don’t require the Divine bookkeeping and intra-Trinitarian violence that come part and parcel with Anselm’s system.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

That being said, PSA has undergirded the Roman Catholic penitential system since the Middle Ages in Europe. Martin Luther and John Calvin both accepted it in broad and rhetorical outline. Luther pushed back on the theory, however, with an emphasis on the victory of Christ as opposed to the victimhood of Christ. Gustaf Aulen’s classic work, Christus Victor, remains required reading in that regard.

PSA is altered in so-called “five-point” Calvinism to limit the effect of Christ’s death only to the elect. This perspective notes that Jesus says the Son of Man gives his life for “many” rather than for “all.” PSA is also a required element of most accounts of Christian doctrine in the “Evangelical” world of theology these days. If you’re interested in that connection, Scott McKnight’s article is a good summary and discussion.

Does the Markan composition say that Jesus pays a debt of honor to God by dying on the cross? No, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Yet, the issue is not simple.

It would be nice if the grammar helped us out here, but it does not. The word the NRSV translates as “for” (“anti”) really should be translated as “for the sake of” (at least if Daniel Wallace knows his stuff, and I think he does). Wallace argues that this must be more than “on behalf of” another. The preposition cannot be used, Wallace asserts, in “the mere sense of representation” (page 365). The Greek word used in that case would be “huper.” But it’s not the word here.

“In summary,” Wallace writes, “the evidence appears to be overwhelmingly in favor of viewing anti in Matt 20:20/Mark 10:45 as meaning in the place of and very possibly with the secondary meaning in exchange for, while the evidence for it meaning simply the vague idea of on behalf of is suspect at best.”

This doesn’t require, however (in Wallace’s view), that PSA is THE biblical image of atonement. “However,” Wallace continues,” it is important to note that the theory of substitutionary atonement is usually based on passages involving huper.” The Markan composition studiously avoids that preposition. “Consequently,” Wallace concludes, “the issue of whether the NT writers perceived Christ’s death as substitutionary must be fought on huper’s turf as well” (page 367).

Mark uses a word that means “for the sake of,” as in “in the place of.” So, let’s think about what that can mean. Does “in the place of” require some sort of debt of honor and repayment through violence model of the Atonement? No, I don’t think so.

For example, N. T. Wright has sometimes used this analogy. A child is trapped in a burning building and will die if not rescued. A firefighter enters the building and rescues the child. In the process of the rescue, the firefighter dies, but the child survives. In a real sense, the firefighter has died “for the sake of” the child.

It’s not the case that the child had sinned and was being punished by the fire. It’s also not the case that the child owed some debt of honor to the landlord which had to be satisfied by the sacrifice of a life. And it’s not the case that the firefighter went into the building with the intention of dying as an end in itself. The risk and reality of death were certainly real possibilities as part of the rescue. But that death became a means in the process of rescue. It was never an end or a goal in and of itself.

Any and every analogy is terribly limited and falls apart at the slightest touch. That is certainly the case with this one as well. But I hope you see the point. PSA is a theological construction rooted in a certain period of time and model of social relationships. Besides that, it’s not a very good construction for what we might hope to describe as the Atonement.

I appreciate Scott McKnight’s perspective which says the Atonement is a given, and we are left to assemble images that help us make sense of it. We have a variety of images in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures for how God reconciles us to God in the midst of our alienation. It is a theological and interpretive error to make one of those images the controlling image, not only for the Atonement but for all of Christian theology.

We should find it instructive that the Eastern Church does not find a need for PSA anywhere in that theological perspective. The early Church Mothers and Fathers found themselves much closer to the Christus Victor theory of the Atonement than to PSA. Of course, they were quite capable of using PSA-like language, since that can be found in the Scriptures. But it was not the controlling metaphor or even the preferred one in descriptions of the Atonement.

One can have a marvelous soteriology without the bookkeeping and violence of PSA.

The other word in this bit of text, of course, is translated as “ransom.” It is the Greek word, “lutron.” As McKnight notes, along with many other scholars, this word has nothing to do with sacrifice as such. The metaphor here is that we humans (and by extension, all of Creation) are being held captive until a ransom is paid for our release. But the trick is that the “ransom” never gets paid.

Perhaps you’ve watched re-enactments on television or in films of a hostage negotiation. One of the tactics we often see is the offer for the negotiator or some other public safety officer to take the place of those being held captive. I don’t know if that’s a real thing in these situations, but the imagery can help us with our text.

The substitution tactic has at least two functions in a hostage crisis. First, it takes the captives out of harm’s way. That’s the primary goal of the whole negotiation. People take hostages in order to get something or to achieve a goal. If the purpose of the hostage-taking was simply to keep those particular people, it would be called kidnapping.

The something to be acquired is a ransom – a payment or concession of some kind desired by the hostage-taker. If that’s the case, then one captive is as good as another. So, the exchange takes place, and the first hostages are rescued through the substitution. But the hostage-taker still wants the ransom.

The second function of the substitution tactic is to get someone “behind enemy lines.” Perhaps, by means of face-to-face conversation, the negotiator can talk the hostage-taker into surrendering. I hope that happens as often in real life as it does in fiction. Or it may be the case that the negotiator can overpower the hostage-taker, deceive the hostage-taker, or create an opening for public safety forces to enter the situation.

I think this is the sense we have in our text. Satan has been persuaded to accept Jesus “in the place of” a Creation held hostage. It would appear that the Substitute has died during captivity. That seems to suit Satan just fine. But then, Easter! Not only does the Hostage-taker get nothing for the Victim, but the supposed Victim is actually the Victor!

This is one of the reasons in the Eastern Church that the day after Easter is observed as the day of Risus Paschalis, the Great Easter Joke. God hands Satan a bag that supposedly contains the ransom. Satan opens the bag to find it…empty (like a tomb, I think)! The joke is on Satan. So, people spend that glorious Monday telling each other jokes to celebrate and remember what really happened. Some of us have recovered that tradition in our own churches in the form of Holy Humor Sunday.

Why does this matter, except for getting something right on a theology exam? For one thing, the Markan composition does not allow us to valorize Victimhood. We’ll probably discuss this more next time, but an initial comment is in order here.

Verses 43 and 44 have been used to underwrite all sorts of oppression, injustice, and abuse. The point is not really that becoming “a slave of all” should be a life goal. It’s not. Instead, read those verses in light of verse 45. What the world takes to be servitude and enslavement – places at the bottom of the human hierarchy – may well be places of greatness in the Kin(g)dom of God. Just as Satan gets it wrong with the Cross and Resurrection, the world gets it wrong when it comes to leading and serving.

For another thing, PSA leads toward myths of redemptive violence. This topic, as well, may get a much longer treatment before we’re done. For now, however, let’s be clear. The Cross is not a goal or end in itself. It is part of the path toward Resurrection. To deny the Cross is to embrace what Luther calls the “theology of glory.” To stop at the Cross is to risk making violent vengeance not only an end in itself but a positive good.

“You understand,” Jesus says, “that the reputed ‘rulers’ of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their ‘great ones’ exercise power over them. But,” he concludes, “it is not this way among you…” (Mark 10:42-43a, my translation). Victimization of and violence toward others are not part of the Way.

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.

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 10:32-45 (Pt. 1); October 17, 2021

Some Words about Words

I think it’s important for the congregation to hear verses thirty-two through thirty-four as part of this text. I understand that the lectionary folks tend to forgo repetition in their selections. We’ve gotten the first of Mark’s “passion predictions” from chapter 8. This third passion teaching, however, sets up such a contrast with the confrontation that follows. I don’t think it’s responsible to omit it. And it’s not like the first two passion teachings (read in worship over a month ago) are still ringing in the ears of our listeners.

So, let’s begin with Mark 10:32-34. Once again, the NRSV lets us down a bit in translation. That translation reads that they were “on the road to Jerusalem.” That’s an acceptable translation, but it once again misses the fact that in the Greek they are “on the way” to Jerusalem. The rich man may have slowed the progress for a few moments. But the journey continues. They are on the way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to discipleship.

Photo by Dani Hart on Pexels.com

Now let’s move to how the words sound. This third passion teaching is a completely different critter when it is compared to the first two on the basis of how it would be heard. In verses thirty-three and thirty-four, the same two sounds are repeated eight times.

Those sounds are “oo-sin.” They comprise the plural endings of the Greek nouns, “chief priests” and “scribes.” Those sounds also comprise the endings of the Greek verbs translated as “condemn,” “hand over,” “scoff,” “spit,” “beat,” and “kill.” The Markan composer creates an intimate verbal connection between the religious authorities and every step of the process of arrest, humiliation, torture, and execution.

Whitney Shiner notes that Greek orators often spoke with a lyrical, singing delivery. “First-century Greek was a tonal language,” Shiner notes. “This means that accents were not purely a matter of stress as in English, but were pronounced with a different musical tone” (page 163). David Seal writes that long vowels and diphthongs in ancient Greek are “tuneful in nature” (page 43).

If a performer of the Markan composition were really up to her or his “game,” this part of the reading might be accompanied by a steady rumble of drums to enhance the emotional tone of the text. There is music in these verses. The question is, what kind?

I can speak from experience in this regard. The stage directions for my favorite dramatic reading of the Passion account during Holy Week includes the beating of a tympani during the move from Gethsemane to the court of Pilate. The accompaniment shifts to the martial taps of a snare drum during the horrific transit to the cross. These simple additions to the spoken text are of such emotional power that I, after more than a decade of performance, wouldn’t consider doing the reading without them.

The syllables in our verses consist of a long-short pattern. Three of them are marked with a circumflex accent, which means they had, as Shiner notes, a rising and then falling pitch. I would suggest that the long-short pattern resembles the funeral dirge pattern common in the Hebrew poetry of the psalms. The spoken language of these verses conveys the drumbeat of the executioner and the lament of mourners.

If you can, read verses thirty-three and thirty-four out loud in the Greek and listen for that pattern. Then notice how that pattern is broken by the final verb in the text, “rise up.” The long-short pattern of judgment and death is interrupted by the long-short-short ending of the verb. That aural explosion is enhanced by the fact that the three final words in verse thirty-four rhyme with a long “a” sound.

The relentless funeral march of death is halted by the eruption of Life. Unfortunately, you will only notice that if you are looking for such patterns in the Greek text. Most of us won’t do that. Even more unfortunate is how difficult that would be to reproduce in an English translation, although I think it’s worth a try. Whether that would be worth the effort, since our modern English ears are not trained to pick up the meaning of the sound, is yet another question.

These verses have a number of smaller aural features that are worth noting. The verbs for “hand over” and “rise again” have the same-sounding endings. These verbs enclose the funeral song between them. There is a parallelism between who really hands over the Son of Man and who really raises him up from the dead.

Human agents are certainly at work in this process. After all, the text makes clear in verse 33 that the chief priests and the scribes will hand over the Son of Man to the Gentiles, that is, the Romans. It is equally clear that the Gentiles will be in charge of the humiliation, torture, and death. But it is the mysterious working of God for the life of the world that really stands behind these events.

The Markan composer uses alliteration to emphasize elements of the text as well (one of the many reasons why Mark is my favorite gospel). The verbs in verse thirty-two for “amazed” and “afraid” have both alliteration and rhyme – “ethambounto” and “ephobounto.” Even in the English transliteration the combination is clear. The phonetic similarity between “th” and “ph” is obvious.

Those who watch the procession through Jericho and into Jerusalem are “shocked” (“ethambounto”) at what they see. But what does that mean? I suspect it means that they are astonished to see Jesus and his colleagues heading intentionally toward confrontation, violence, and death. Those who are part of the procession are fearful (“ephobounto”) of the same confrontation, violence, and death.

The verbs portray the differences in perspectives of observers and participants. In between the two verbs is the participle for “those who followed.” The difference between incredulity and anxiety is apparently whether one is following Jesus or watching from a safe distance. And following moves a person from one group to the other.

The verses have three verbs with the “-baino” root. The group is “going up” to Jerusalem. The word is used twice in the paragraph. This going up is a necessary “happening” – the verb that connects the two instances of “going up.” And don’t miss the double entendre of “going up.” The journey is “up” to Jerusalem. But Jesus will be lifted up on the cross and raised up after three days.

There is also obvious alliteration in the description of the torture itself. The word for “scoff” (mock) is “empaixousin.” The word for “spit” is “emptusousin.” The accent is on the second syllable in each word. Say them aloud and you’ll hear the connection. You may also notice the graphic nature of the verb for “to spit.” We carry that verbal power into English in cartoon language when spitting is verbalized as “ptooey.”* In Greek, that oral/aural experience is a real word. If I say the word with vigor, it’s best if you’re not standing to close to me!

Why in the world have I spent over eleven hundred words on these details? I’ve done that because the Markan composer spent such time and effort on these few sentences. It is paragraphs such as this that make the oral/aural nature of the Markan composition so obvious. It’s not just the written text that receives such artistic care, although that is certainly the case. The very sounds of the words themselves have been crafted and sculpted into the text for maximum effect.

If these sentences are so important to the Markan composer, then they surely must not be omitted from our reading. Instead, they are essential to bridging between the aphorism in Mark 10:31 and the tragi-comedy in Mark 10:35-42.

Many who are first shall be last and last first, we read in the former verse. If you’ve been following me for the last few weeks, you might now be looking at the text to see if we next get an “and” or a “but.” Well, friends, it’s a “but.” There’s a full stop after Mark 10:31, a chance for some reflection on this Great Reversal. In a gospel that is always in a hurry, here is one of those pauses that matters greatly.

Only then do we come to the bridge between the aphorism and the dense disciples. The drum is beating, but they do not hear it. Their ears and their imaginations are filled with visions of thrones and glories, feasts of victory, and a new administration. The disciples skip over the hard stuff, stop their ears to the drums, and rush to rule.

Not so fast, buckos, the Markan composer seems to say. We’re going to take some real time for the fullest, deepest, and most artful of the three passion teachings. If you didn’t get it the first two times (and the disciples didn’t), then perhaps this aural explosion will break through the self-absorbed noise. It doesn’t do that for the disciples in the composition, but it must have done that for at least some of the first listeners to the text.

Performance critics suggest that this sort of artful presentation didn’t necessarily happen on the first go-round. It is likely that this paragraph was the result of many performances, tweaked and tuned as the listeners responded to the words. The drumbeats built up with each offering of the story, increasing in intensity until the rising rhythm was, I imagine, nearly overwhelming.

For real effect, I wonder a couple of things in the reading of the text. Perhaps it should actually begin with verse 31, so the bridge connects both ends of the “way.” And for the adventurous among us, perhaps an actual drumbeat might accompany the first paragraph. Pause after verse thirty-one and let the rhythm begin and build a bit. Then read the paragraph ponderously. Then pause, and let the drumming stop.

You might then have some music from, say, “The Three Stooges” playing under verses thirty-five to forty-two. That might be a bit over the top, but I think it would capture the mood. Then perhaps the accompaniment would cease for verses forty-three to forty-five.

A bit adventurous, I admit. But if you try something like this, let me know.

References and Resources

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.

*Now to geek out a bit: if you’re a Star Trek fan, you know the Klingon insult, p’tak. “Translations” vary, but it is certainly not a compliment. Even Klingon carries the verbal, aural power of spitting out an insult!