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).

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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.

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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.

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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!

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

At Home with the Disciples

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

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

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

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 5); October 10, 2021

LaLaRich

My spouse has been watching a four-part documentary entitled LuLaRich. The series details the meteoric rise of the multi-level marketing company (MLM), LuLaRoe. The company was founded by DeAnne and Mark Stidham in 2013 and was based on products first sold out of the trunk of a car by two enterprising grandmothers. In the span of a little over a year, the company went from seventy million dollars in sales to over a billion dollars in sales.

The company, mostly in the personas and personalities of the Stidhams, promised what might have been called in the first century “salvation” or even “eternal life.” The money, of course, was reported to be fabulous. But the attraction went far deeper. There was the promise of authentic community, of self-sufficiency, of security and status, and even the chance to make life better for family, friends, and community.

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 LuLaRoe promised its “consultants” that they could have it all. And they could have it all while doing “part-time work for full time money” and being good moms and spouses, staying at home and working when it worked. This vision was tailor-made for suburban white women who were lonely, lost, and needing a lift. Ultimately, the vision captured sixty-thousand such women in the system.

There was just one problem, according to the documentary. LuLaRoe was a scam, a Ponzi scheme, a pyramid fraud. The company qualifies as a “legal” MLM company because products are actually bought and sold. But the real money was made through recruiting new consultants and sucking that money upward into ever fewer pockets.

The recruits, known at the entry level as “consultants,” have lost marriages, homes, friends, family relationships, and life savings in the scheme. When challenged about such realities, those still in the system observe that such losses must be due to bad sales and business practices. They describe the system as a pure meritocracy where everyone gets exactly what they deserve.

If, in fact, the allegations of fraud are true, then it is a system in which no one gets what they deserve, good or bad.

According to the U. S. Securities and Exchange Commission, a Ponzi or pyramid scheme takes money from new investors and gives it to existing investors. The earlier one gets into the system, the more money one accumulates. The name comes from Charles Ponzi who, in the 1920’s promised investors a fifty percent return in a matter of months. The system collapsed fairly quickly.

In fact, in such a scheme it doesn’t take long for the number of investors necessary to sustain the system to exceed the number of galaxies in the observable universe. Huh, what could go wrong with that?

The documentary reminded me of my multiple encounters decades ago with another MLM, Amway. I want to say immediately that the Amway products I have purchased and used have been of uniformly good quality, even when over-priced. The Amway business model has matured significantly from the real Ponzi-like qualities of a generation ago into something much more like a genuine business today.

That being said, I thought about my experiences. A friend or colleague would approach me in a conspiratorial whisper. “Would you like to get in on a way to make a lot of money selling a great product?” they would ask. “Of course, I would,” I replied. “What’s the product?” Things began to get “hinky” (as one might say) at that point.

“Oh, I don’t want to share that just yet,” would be the reply. “Instead, let me show you first how this system works.” In those years, what followed was a series of sketches on yellow legal pads. The first two times the sketches included actual pyramids in the presentation, although I noticed that such drawing went away later.

The numbers attached to the drawings had more and more zeroes behind them. Ultimately, I would also end up retiring somewhere in my forties if I played my cards right. I was, by the way, in my twenties when I had these conversations.

But the money wasn’t the main attraction, my boss-to-be would point out. That was, of course, part of the deal – that I would become part of this person’s network of salespeople. I would join the revenue stream flowing upward from my pocket into theirs. There were also the benefits of personal and financial independence, of a community of like-minded people, of pushing a great product, of learning new skills, and knowing I did it all on my own.

Only then did the name of the company come out. “Of course,” they would say, “I’m talking about Amway. I’m sure you’ve heard some things about Amway that aren’t so good. But none of that is true. Those are just complaints from people who didn’t work hard enough and didn’t want the dream badly enough. Don’t believe those sour-grapes pickers.”

I never got into it. Not for lack of interest or desire, mind you. I just couldn’t come up with the cash needed to get started. Often my miserly tendencies create difficulties for me. But being a tightwad convinced of dollar scarcity saved me from the potential heartache of this particular journey.

It was only in seminary that I really began to think deeply about these American MLM’s and what they mean. I was studying American Civil Religion with Dr. Norma Everist, and we got to talking about Amway. Norma helped me to see that MLM’s always sell a vision of salvation rather than a system of finance.

Just think about the promises LuLaRoe made to potential consultants. It had, and has, all the elements of the “American dream.” It’s no accident that Amway has its name –“American” way, right? Wealth paves the path to salvation in such a vision. The Kingdom of God, according to such views, is built in the shape of a pyramid.

Jesus tells the rich man to sell all his possessions, give the money to the poor, and come to follow Jesus. Then he will have treasure securely held in heaven. But the rich man found these words quite depressing and went away grieved “for he was having many possessions”.

You’d think the Markan composer might want to stop for a few moments and let that sink in. But we have to consider the makeup of the audience. The composer’s listeners were not, by and large, rich people. Mark’s audience would have, perhaps, taken some pleasure in the comeuppance of another snotty rich guy. But they also knew that there was a real problem.

That problem necessitated a rushing “and” to begin verse twenty-three. Jesus amplifies the difficulty those with many possessions will have in entering the Kin(g)dom of God. The disciples are flabbergasted by these words and can hardly believe their ears. So, Jesus doubles down on the problem. It’s just plain hard for anyone to enter the Kin(g)dom. But it’s really, really hard for rich people to get in.

The disciples are astonished, perplexed, shocked, stunned – pick your word. If rich people, so obviously blessed by God with material rewards, can’t get in, “then who is able to be saved?” The disciples and the rich man share the same value system. God’s reign is a meritocracy, and the real Golden Rule is that the one who has the gold rules. If that’s not the system, then how in the world can anyone figure out the rules?

Jesus responds with an epigram. “For human beings, impossible, but not for God; for all things are possible for God.” When Jesus speaks such sentences, according to Shiner, they simply rest on his authority and require no proof (page 157). Such statements were “ideal applause lines” and marked pauses in the flow of a narrative – both to accommodate potential applause and to mark an important conclusion (notice that Mark 10:28 doesn’t begin with an “and”).

Human schemes cannot deliver what the Stidham’s promised to their prospective consultants: money, authentic community, self-sufficiency, security and status, and the chance to make life better for family, friends, and community. No human scheme, no matter how structured, allows us to “have it all.” For human beings, it’s impossible.

That’s not an empirical economic statement. It’s a theological statement. But it certainly has lots of empirical evidence to support the theology. Yet, there are lots of theologies out there, some claiming to be Christian, that promise precisely that. We live in a “golden age” of the Prosperity Gospel, both in America and around the world. That false gospel has infected every dimension of American life and perverts politics, education, ethics, and (of course) business.

I’m not surprised that the Stidham’s come from a Mormon theological background. I would not draw a causal inference from that. But there is certainly a triumphalist strain in Mormon thinking that finds MLM’s congenial. I’ve not done a study on this, but my impression is that folks of Mormon backgrounds are statistically over-represented in the formation of MLM’s and among the victims of such systems (we dour Lutherans are, I suspect, under-represented).

Jesus is clear. We can’t eat each other and expect to flourish. But that’s the promise of meritocracy in general and MLM’s in particular. Jesus offers a different vision of human flourishing in community. That’s what the last paragraph of our reading addresses.

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 17-31 (Pt. 4); October 10, 2021

Just One More (Thing?)

As I continue to read in the discipline of performance criticism, especially as it pertains to the Markan composition, I notice more details.

First, there is the placement of the “ands” (in Greek the word is kai).

Performance critics note that in an oral presentation, the function of the “and” is to keep the story moving. I was taught and used to think that the Markan composer was sloppy when it came to language. I was taught that the composer used “and” the way Americans might use “you know” or “like.” The conclusion was that “and” was sort of linguistic junk and filler put in place by a middling literary talent.

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That’s not the case. The Markan composer is quite capable of putting a full stop at the end of a story or section of the narrative. The “ands” are intentional, not accidental. When we have an “and” between separate incidents or events, the composer expects the performer and the listeners to connect the current section with the preceding section – or at least with the preceding sentence.

In Mark 10:15, we get a “solemnly sworn statement” from Jesus. “Truly I say to you (pl.), whoever does not welcome the Kin(g)dom of God as a child, that one will certainly not enter it” (my translation). We might expect the composer to leave a bit of space for reflection after that bombshell, but the script hurries on. “And embracing them [children], he blessed them, laying hands upon them” (my translation).

Jesus says it, and then he does it –without delay or hesitation. Now we might expect a little pause to celebrate that beautiful tableau and even applaud the power of this image. But there is no rest in the text. Instead, we have another “and.” There is a connection between this blessing of children and the section which follows.

We as listeners will discover if the connection is one of similarity or contrast. As preachers, we will be well served to remember that the Markan composer is setting up the story of the rich man with these two “ands.” So, the framework for viewing the rich man and his problems is through the lens of welcoming the Kin(g)dom as one welcomes a child – not for what one can get, but rather for how one is changed in oneself.

Before I leave this detail, I want to jump to verse 18. Here the conjunction is adversative rather than additive. We don’t get an “and.” Instead we get a mild “but.” The rich man does honor to Jesus and asks his deep and desperate question. As listeners we might expect another “and.” Instead, we get this. “But Jesus said to him, ‘Why is it me you are calling “good”’?” (my translation and emphasis). The rich man is not building on the understanding of discipleship we get in Mark 10:1-16. Instead, he’s taking a detour.

Again, I was taught that the mild adversatives (in Greek the word is de), were usually of no great consequence. In fact, they can be translated as “and” sometimes or even ignored. But I think that careful attention to the rhythm of the phrases and the logic of the narrative won’t allow us to skip over the “but” here.

The rich man’s question appears to be the wrong kind of question. Jesus’ response clearly verifies that assessment of the rhetorical current here.

Second, there is the repetition here of words for the number “one.” I don’t know how often the Markan composer uses forms of that word, but my recollection is that the use is infrequent. Here in our text, however, a form of the word shows up three times in five verses. Repetition in oral/aural performance means that something important is happening that needs both attention and remembering. So, let us attend and remember.

“And as he was going out into the way,” the Markan composer writes, “one who was running up to him and falling on his knees before him asked him…” (Mark 10:17a, my translation and emphasis). There are lots of ways to put this phrase in Greek, most often with the subject (“a man,” or “a person”) or perhaps with a relative pronoun. Since I’m a piker when it comes to Greek, I had to puzzle over this one a bit before seeing what was going on.

One you are lacking,” Jesus says in Mark 10:21. One what? The NRSV fills in the blank with “thing,” but that’s not really in the text. So, I read this part of the text aloud a few times and reflected on what I heard.

Jesus responds to the man’s initial and ingratiating compliment by noting that “no one is honorable except for the One God.” Then Jesus points out that the man is lacking One. Perhaps what the man is lacking is not a “thing” but rather a relationship. He comes as “one” (isolated and alone) who lacks “one” thing – a real relationship with the “One” God.

This interchange drips with irony. The man is rich, for crying out loud. That means he has it all, right? A rich man lacks for nothing. Or if he does, he goes out and buys it – if it can be bought. Yet, Jesus declares that this rich man is somehow impoverished. Whitney Shiner shares an epigram from Seneca that connects with this text. “The poor lack much: the greedy man lacks all” (page 154).

How does Jesus tell him to fix this empty spot in the rich man’s inventory? Jesus says that he should part with all this stuff. The real “lack” in his life and in his heart can only be satisfied by giving up all those things that are supposed to fill the emptiness. Many things won’t fill that existential hole in his being. Only the One can satisfy the need that the Many leaves unsatisfied.

“You have made us for yourself, O Lord,” wrote St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Perhaps this is the issue that faces the rich man. Stuff ain’t enough (no extra charge for the sermon title). But what terror awaits us when we discover that fact of life! Another epigram from Seneca quoted by Shiner makes it clear. “A greedy man does good to none: he does most evil to himself” (page 154).

“As Jesus looked into him, he loved him…” Only the Markan composition has this detail about the encounter. Matthew and Luke report Jesus’ words but not his interior state. Nor do they have the verb translated in the NRSV as “looking at.” That’s a perfectly acceptable translation, but the verb has an interesting prefix. It gives the sense of seeing deeply into something or someone. Jesus has “insight” into the man.

Even as Jesus looks deeply into the rich man and sees the man’s deep attachment to his stuff, Jesus loves him anyway. The invitation to sell what he owns and to give it to the poor is not rooted in a desire to provoke or punish. It is rooted in self-giving love. The man is very close to the answer. He lacks only the One.

Of course, that means that he lacks Everything that matters. He depends on his stuff for his safety and sanity, for his security and certainty. As Luther reminds us in the Large Catechism, whatever we depend on in life and in death – that, Luther says, is our god. The rich man’s problem, therefore, isn’t obeying one more commandment. His problem, as is the case for each of us and all of us, is idolatry.

When we hang on to our stuff, we have trouble hanging on to God or to one another. As Matt Skinner notes, Jesus doesn’t tell the man to destroy his stuff or to simply deed it to his next of kin. Instead, Jesus invites the man to return to the human family. Jesus invites him to embrace his real kinfolk who live with insecurities about food and water, health and shelter. Jesus invites him to become a real human being again.

Relinquish your stuff and rejoin the human community, Jesus says. Money buys us status, separation, and segregation. I think about the signs of conspicuous wealth in our culture. These signs all say “Private” on them. Wealthy people have private pools, private libraries, private theaters, private tennis courts and golf courses, concierge physicians, gated estates, private jets and, perhaps, even private islands (take a look at the “Pandora’s Box” report on how the wealthy hide and protect their wealth around the world at https://www.huffpost.com/?icid=hjx004).

This is not merely about the one-percenters of the world. Money buys us status, separation, and segregation. Lack of money keeps the riffraff from our doors. If they get too close, we can simply move away and lock the door behind us. This, of course, is the story of the American real estate market for the last hundred years and more. Residential segregation keeps Black people in “their place.” And housing policy keeps those same people from accumulating the wealth that might allow them to get out of that place and get closer to us.

Jesus invites the rich man to part with his private property so it can benefit the common good. He has no room for the One in his heart and no room for many people in his life. That’s true because his “many” is made up of things, not relationships. All that stuff makes him less human…and he knows it. The question is whether he will pay the price required to become a real person.

I have no room really to talk in this way. I live in the splendid isolation of a modest retirement. Introvert that I am, I need little in the way of connection in order to be satisfied. The sojourn of Covidtide has reminded me that being satisfied with myself is the same as being self-satisfied. It’s hard to fit either love for God or love for neighbor into that equation.

Why didn’t I stick with something easy, like the philosophy of mind, when I had the chance?

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 3); October 10, 2021

The “I’s” Have It

I wonder if the rich man gets it wrong from the start. No, I don’t wonder. I’m sure he does. “What shall I do,” he asks the Good Teacher, “in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation and emphasis). The rich man’s focus is on his own situation as an individual. Perhaps it is that self-absorbed and self-interested perspective that elicits Jesus’ initial ire.

Jesus responds by quoting commandments focused on the covenant community. “Inheriting eternal life” has something important to do with our relationships with one another and how we treat one another – especially the vulnerable ones in that community. It is not, at least in this text, an individual reality. Here in Mark 10, salvation seems to be a community reality rather than an individual matter.

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The argument that “being saved” is more about a community than about an individual runs opposite the assumption of most American, especially evangelical, Christianity. The possibility that human sin could have a structural dimension primarily and an individual dimension in secondary terms is regarded as even more problematic from such a perspective. In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that in the Evangelical Christian tradition as it is now expressed in America, there is no such thing as structural sin.

Robert P. Jones wrote a recent article for Time magazine entitled “The Unmaking of the White Christian Worldview.” He was kind enough to put an excerpt from that article on his social media platforms.

Jones describes his growing up years in a Southern Baptist congregation in Jackson, MS. He notes that his theological tradition was “a double inheritance.” On the one hand, he says, “I internalized a cycle of sin, confession and repentance as a daily part of my life.” This part of the inheritance was and is deeply individual.

On the other hand, the inheritance included assumed membership in a privileged community of faith. “Individually, I was a sinner,” he writes, “but collectively, I was part of a special tribe. Whatever our humble social stations might be,” he notes, “we white Christians were God’s chosen instruments of spreading salvation and civilization to the world.”

Jones argues that it has been “the power and sheer cultural dominance of white Christianity in America historically” that has allowed Evangelical Christians to hold these seemingly contradictory descriptions together. The real output of this perspective is that the intense focus on personal sin and salvation makes it possible to ignore and deny the collective and communal dimensions of sin altogether.

It’s no accident, therefore, that a rich man can ask salvation questions in the first person singular. What shall I do that I might be saved? Jesus’ response to him indicates, I think, that this is the wrong question right from the start. “How can we be the Kin(g)dom community together?” seems to be the question Jesus wants to answer. It is, however, the question that privilege refuses to ponder.

Jones expands on this theme in his book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “It’s nothing short of astonishing that a religious tradition with this relentless emphasis on salvation and one so hyperattuned to personal sin,” Jones writes, “can simultaneously maintain such blindness to social sins swirling about it, such as slavery and race-based segregation and bigotry” (page 96).

Jones reports the work of social scientists who have identified three elements in the “Evangelical Tool Kit” that make this perspective possible. Those three elements are “freewill individualism, relationalism, and antistructuralism” (page 97).

Individualism means that individuals are sovereignly responsible for their own actions. Relationalism means that all problems are rooted in individual relationships, not in laws or institutions. Antistructuralism rejects explanations for social problems that would lie in realities beyond the individual. This suspicion believes that any explanation for bad things other than individual sinfulness is out of bounds.

What is gained by the use of this toolkit? Economic inequities are the result of laziness. Governments should stay out of our school rooms, our pocketbooks, and our neighborhoods. Bad things that happen to people are their own damned faults. Good things that happen to people are due to individual merit, hard work, and accomplishment. Anything “social” or “structural” is a cultural artifact that can and should be ignored.

This discourse of individualism confers specific benefits on White people. Robin DiAngelo outlines these benefits in her article. I summarize her findings.

Individual White people can deny that race matters and that being White confers any advantages based on race. Individualism hides the generational accumulation of wealth. It denies the reality of social and historical context. It prevents any analysis of institutions and structures. It denies any power to culture and the tools of culture to shape individuals. Individualism permits color blindness and supports the myth of meritocracy. Only the privileged get to “be individuals.” And individualism keeps oppressed groups from acting as groups.

Individualism supports the status quo of White Supremacy. And it hides the structural nature of inequality. Problems are all a matter of a few bad apples in the barrel. All lives matter, so nothing systemic needs to change. Sound familiar?

Jones notes that this toolkit is not limited to those who self-identify as Evangelical Christians. In fact, it is the dominant worldview among White American Christians of a variety of theological stripes and traditions. In fact, for many of us, this toolkit simply defines what it means to be “American.” And it conveniently relieves us of any responsibility for our neighbors – especially those who happen not to be White or rich.

I am guilty, to a degree, of anachronism here. I don’t think the rich man was a prototype for White American Evangelical Christians of the twenty-first century. I do think, however, that power, privilege, position, and property operate much the same way in all human cultures and hierarchies. The more power, privilege, position, and property I have, the more likely I am to see myself exclusively as an individual with no real connections to or responsibilities for others.

“In the personal Jesus paradigm,” Jones writes, “Jesus did not die for a cause or for humankind writ large but for each individual person” (page 100). The question that makes sense in this paradigm is, “What must I do to be saved?” That’s it. “There’s nothing in this conceptual model,” Jones argues, “to provide a toehold for thinking about the way institutions or culture shape, promote, or limit human decisions or well-being” (page 100).

The rich man knows precisely how to interact with the “system” in his time. It is, for the most part, designed for him. He has kept all the commandments since he was a young man. He has had the time, the leisure, the status, and the financial resources to do whatever was required by the system. He also had the power and privilege to pretend that there wasn’t really a “system.” He was just doing the right thing, all on his own.

Jones notes that individualism allows for all sorts of moral and political sleight of hand. White evangelicals prior to the Civil War dismissed the brutality of slavery, he argues, “as acts of particular individuals rather than broad patterns; and the broad application of love and equality was denigrated as a move that illegitimately brought ‘politics’—by which they meant anything social or structural—into religion” (page 103).

Now we are, as they say, moving from preaching to meddling. That critique sounds painfully familiar to me. “Keeping politics out of the pulpit” is a way to maintain white power, privilege, position, and property – protected by the thin veneer of individual piety.

Jones writes that “the individualist theology that insists that Christianity has little to say about social injustice—created to shield white consciences from the evils and continued legacy of slavery and segregation—lives on, not just in white evangelical churches but also increasingly in white mainline and white Catholic churches as well” (page 105).

His conclusion is inescapable and devastating. “To put it succinctly,” the White Evangelical theological worldview “has often put white Christians in the curious position of arguing that their religion and their God require them to aim lower than the highest human values of love, justice, equality, and compassion” (page 105). I wonder if this critique might have traction with the story of the rich man in our text.

Why does this matter to Jones – and, I hope, to us? “Confronting a theology built for white supremacy would be a critical first step,” Jones writes, “for white Christians who want to recover a connection not just to our fellow African American Christians but also to our own identity and, more importantly, our humanity” (page 106).

In fairness to the rich man, he is simply operating from assumptions shared in the broader culture. Rich people, perhaps, get to be individuals. If they can’t be saved in that condition, the disciples wonder, then who can?

Peter points out that they have done what Jesus ask of the rich man. Jesus responds by describing the gift of community they are beginning to receive as a result. When Jesus talks about the impossible things that God will do, he describes this new Kin(g)dom. Jesus doesn’t talk about individual forgiveness and reconciliation. Jesus doesn’t launch into a treatise on justification by grace through faith. Jesus situates us in community – in relationship with all, including the vulnerable.

The Christian image of salvation is not an individual reality. Focus on the individual will lead to a privilege competition that has no part in the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Son of God. We will be “saved” together or not at all, I think.

Of course, those of us who most benefit from “individual salvation” may leave this conversation sad, for we have many possessions.

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-28-2/commentary-on-mark-1017-31-4. Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 2); October 10, 2021

You Got This!

The rich man runs up to Jesus and kneels at his feet at the moment Jesus is getting back underway on his journey to Jerusalem. Don’t you hate it when, just as you’re about to go out the door, the phone, or the doorbell rings? I’m often irritated by such intrusions in my schedule. I end up being ruder than I need to be. I don’t know if Jesus responds in this way, but it surely feels like it in the Markan composition.

Jesus rebuffs what he experiences as the rich man’s efforts to kiss up to Jesus, ingratiate himself with Jesus, and establish some sort of kinship of privilege with Jesus. I think Jesus then responds with impatience. Why are you wasting my time? “You know the commandments!” The verb tense indicates a completed past action, not an ongoing action from the past into the present. You’ve already learned this stuff! Why are you bothering me?

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You know the commandments! Jesus rightly presumes that the rich man has the benefits of privilege consistent with his status. He has likely been able to attend to his religious education far beyond the average tenure. He may be literate in Hebrew (and perhaps Greek and Latin). If not, he can certainly pay for the services of someone who is or purchase a slave as his secretary. He likely has a seat of honor in the synagogue, which he has perhaps generously endowed.

Jesus then goes on to list the relevant rules in order to remind the rich man of what he already knows. If I were performing the script at this point, I think I would be ticking the rules off on my fingers and shaking my head in mild exasperation. “Don’t murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t bear false witness. Don’t defraud. Honor your father and your mother.”

Come on, man! You’ve got this! I need to go.

He has every advantage when it comes to knowing the Torah. The rich man doesn’t dispute Jesus’ assumptions, and we should not. “Teacher,” he replies (at least he won’t make the same mistake twice), “All of these [commandments] I have been keeping since I was young.” Such confidence! “All” of these have been part of the rich man’s practice since, perhaps, his coming of age in the synagogue community. He’s got this.

That’s not an arrogant or even inaccurate description. Jesus doesn’t dispute it. Remember that Paul declares that he was “perfect” as a Pharisee when it came to keeping the Torah. It’s not that the man pretended to be flawless. Instead, he stuck strictly to the rules. When he failed, he knew what the rules were for making amends. When he got it right, he had a standard to assure him of that. “No brag,” as Will Sonnett used to say, “just fact.”

Let’s take a moment to look at this list. All these commandments come from the so-called Second Table of the Law: the commandments that structure our relationships with others in the covenant community. All these commandments also have clear implications for or direct references to property.

You might wonder a bit about that, but let’s think together. Murder is, in a very real sense, stealing the life of another human being. Adultery, in the Hebrew Scriptures and in first-century Judaism, is a property crime. One man steals the property of another man. The property in question is the sexual functioning of a man’s wife. Jesus has made it clear earlier in the Markan composition that honoring one’s father and mother has property implications. Remember the Corban controversy in Mark 7?

Commentators note that Jesus has inserted an additional commandment into the list: “do not defraud.” This insertion caused consternation very early in the history of textual transmission. Neither Matthew nor Luke includes the “extra” commandment in their parallel accounts of this part of the story. It is omitted in a number of early copies of the Markan script and is not included by Irenaeus or Clement in their quotations of the text.

Metzger’s committee does not appear to doubt the authenticity of this insertion into the list. But it gets a “C” grade from the committee, so there must be some wondering about it. They wonder if it’s really a shorthand for the “coveting” commandment(s) at the end of the list (Exodus 20:17). The committee also refers to Deuteronomy 24:14, which the NRSV renders as “You shall not withhold the wages of poor and needy laborers, whether other Israelites or aliens who reside in your land in one of your towns.”

As I try to apply performance criticism to the Markan composition, I have to wonder if the “extra” commandment was inserted in settings where it applied to some audience members and omitted in settings where it did not.

Performance critics note that this sort of “textual” fluidity was typical of such storytelling. It may simply be that this version of the performance is the one that made it into the most transcripts that landed in the hands of later scribes and interpreters. It may also be that a few of the other transcripts were also known and preserved.

If the connection to Deuteronomy 24 is actual, then I find that quite interesting. After all, the Pharisees who debate with Jesus earlier in the chapter refer to some divorce case law from the beginning of that chapter.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to propose that this section of the Markan composition is in dialogue with that part of the Torah record. While that chapter of Deuteronomy is a mixed bag in terms of focus, it is primarily about how those in power should treat (and not treat), the poor and vulnerable.

We have, therefore, the case law about the bill of divorce. Israelites are prohibited from kidnapping other Israelites and enslaving them, on pain of death. Security taken for loans is not to be held if that security puts the reputational or physical safety of the debtor at risk. Day laborers shall be paid every sunset, without fail, because otherwise they might not eat.

Widows, resident aliens, and orphans shall not be exploited. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore, I command you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:18, NRSV). Landowners shall leave sufficient grain, grapes, and olives to make gleaning worth the bother. It is the widows, resident aliens, and orphans – the paradigmatic vulnerable classes – who will benefit. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” the Lord says, “therefore I am commanding you to do this” (Deuteronomy 24:22).

Torah interpretation is a big deal in the Markan composition and especially here in Mark 10. “What did Moses command you?” Jesus asks the Pharisees in Mark 10:3. The children Jesus embraces and blesses certainly remind us of the orphans in Deuteronomy 24. Interpretation of the Hebrew scriptures is a high priority for the Composer and for the community that listens to the Composition.

Jesus seems to be saying that knowing these commandments should be enough for the rich man to figure things out on his own. He’s got this.

That plain sense of the text creates neuralgic responses on the part of many interpreters. After all, didn’t Jesus overthrow the authority of the Torah in Mark 7 when he “declared all foods clean”? Apparently not, it would seem. We know from the overall Gospel witness that Jesus comes to “fulfill” the Torah, not to destroy it. So, that’s not the answer to the conundrum here.

Does Jesus challenge the rich man in this way in order to demonstrate that no one can keep the Torah perfectly? That’s a kind of ham-fisted Protestant approach, applying Luther’s “second use” of the Law. Jesus ups the ante by telling the man to divest himself of his goods for the benefit of the poor. The man finds that impossible and goes away sad.

Perhaps that’s a parable of our inability to fulfill the Law and our need for the imputed righteousness of Christ. After all, “for human beings, impossible, but not for God! For all things are possible for God” (Mark 1027, my translation).

However, that doesn’t fit with the rest of the text. “Other preachers assert that Jesus only tests the man by issuing a demand meant to expose the futility of his supposedly self-striving piety,” Matt Skinner writes. “But such an interpretation makes a mockery of Jesus’ love for the man (10:21) and the man’s grief (10:22). If Jesus is not serious,” Skinner wonders, “why does he not chase after the crestfallen man, saying, ‘Wait! Here comes the good part! Let me show you grace now!’?”

When Peter points out that he and the other disciples have done precisely what Jesus asked of the rich man, Jesus doesn’t go “full Paul” on them and point out that they are engaging in futile efforts at works-righteousness. Instead, Jesus commends them for their sacrifice and describes the “treasure in heaven” that they are now receiving and will receive in fullness in the Kin(g)dom’s complete presence. The Second Use argument doesn’t work here.

If the rich man has got this, then he ought to go ahead and do it. As a great sage in a galaxy long, long, ago, and far, far, away, said, “There is no try; only do.” But that’s not working – not for the rich man, not for the Markan Composer, not for the listeners, and certainly not for us. We need, perhaps, to dig even deeper.

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 10:17-31 (Pt. 1); October 10, 2021

What Shall I Do?

In the Markan composition, every detail matters.

“And as he was going out into the way, a person, running up to him and kneeling down before him, asked him, ‘Honored teacher, what shall I do in order to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17, my translation). The NRSV renders the first phrase as “as he was setting out on a journey…” That translation misses the nuance of the text. The “way” was the way to Jerusalem, the way to the cross, the way of discipleship, the Way that became known as Christianity.

The audience would have heard that nuance and understood. Our text is another meditation on the nature and cost of discipleship. Those who follow Jesus on the Way do not seek to save their lives. They lose them for the sake of Jesus and the Good News. The man who questions Jesus will be asked to relinquish his whole living as a prelude to following Jesus.

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It’s no wonder he was flustered by Jesus’ word and went away flummoxed. If we experience this text as any less troubling, we’ve probably domesticated it beyond recognition.

In the previous scene, the Pharisees questioned Jesus in order to “test” him. As we noted last week, this questioning had a hostile and aggressive tone. That isn’t the case with the man in this story. He runs to Jesus. An honorable, high-status male in that context would not have run anywhere, unless his hair or his house was on fire.

The man is experiencing a serious crisis of faith, and he hopes that Jesus can help him out. “The type of question he asks is one dealing with the dimensions of a morally integral way of life,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write. “Such questions are about how to be a morally complete person, pleasing to God and one’s fellow human beings” (page 234).

He addresses Jesus as a “good” or “honorable” teacher. To us, Jesus’ response seems to be the height of rudeness, and perhaps it is. But the interchange is built into a set of cultural expectations from the honor and shame culture that Jesus and the man inhabit together. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that this is a compliment, but that in such a society “compliments indicate aggression; they implicitly accuse a person of rising above the rest of one’s fellows at their expense” (page 243).

The compliment implies that Jesus has somehow “got above his raisin’,” as some might say. That’s worth considering for a bit. In the first century Mediterranean world, rich people were always regarded with suspicion. The ancient proverb was that a rich man was either a thief or the son of a thief. Accumulating wealth was always done at the expense of others and was thus regarded as a kind of legal larceny.

If the rich man was responding to this evaluation, perhaps he was trying to make a sympathetic connection with Jesus. “Teacher,” perhaps he was saying, “you and I are both elevated above these others, each in our own way. Just as you deal with suspicions about your status and its legitimacy, so I have many of the same struggles. So, perhaps you can give a fellow high-status person a few moments of your time?” I don’t know if that’s what is happening here. And I don’t know how significant it is – except, perhaps, that the impulse to minimize or trivialize the problems of wealth is very old indeed.

Jesus does not agree to form a mutual admiration and aid society. “Jesus must fend off the aggressive accusation,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue, “by denying any special quality of the sort that might give offense to others. Such a procedure is fully in line with the canons of honor.” Jesus resists the overture both through his counterquestion and what Malina and Rohrbaugh call a proverb – “No one is honorable (good) except for the one God.”

The NRSV translates that proverb as “No one is good except God alone.” But I think that misses an additional nuance of the text. The Greek might remind listeners of the language of the Jewish confession of faith, the Shema, taken from Deuteronomy 6: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is one.” It is not any old god who is good or honorable. It is the God of Israel who is in question here.

The man has a specific question – “What shall I do in order that I shall inherit eternal life?” Christian listeners will likely hear this as a question about how to get to heaven when we die. That’s not what this question is about at all. The man was asking about how to be part of the New Age to come, when the Messiah of Israel would put all things right. While a general resurrection of the dead at the end of the current age might have been part of the man’s theological framework, pie in the sky in the sweet by and by was not.

N. T. Wright notes that first-century Jews believed that something would happen “which would make everything different. A great event would occur,” he continues, “which would bring justice and peace, freedom for Israel, punishment for evildoers (whether Jews or Gentiles), a time of prosperity when all the prophecies would be fulfilled, all the righteous dead would be raised to new life, all the world would burst out into a new and endless spring” (Kindle Location 2438f.).

Some of us hope that Jesus will encourage the man to come to a living and personal trust in Jesus. That’s the key to this “eternal life” business, we may think. Of course, that’s not what Jesus does – at least, not right away.

What shall I do in order that I shall inherit eternal life? Protestant Christians, and especially Lutherans, will hear this as an impossible question. We know that there is nothing we can “do” to inherit eternal life, no matter what that last phrase means. We are justified by grace through faith, we all know, and this is not our own doing but is rather the gift of God.

Matt Skinner notes in his workingpreacher.org commentary that some “preachers assert that Jesus only tests the man by issuing a demand meant to expose the futility of his supposedly self-striving piety. But such an interpretation makes a mockery of Jesus’ love for the man (10:21),” Skinner notes, “and the man’s grief (10:22). If Jesus is not serious,” Skinner asks, “why does he not chase after the crestfallen man, saying, ‘Wait! Here comes the good part! Let me show you grace now!’?”

In fact, our inability to do anything to deserve “eternal life” is what makes that gift a matter of grace rather than merit, a matter of faith rather than works. So, some of us hope that Jesus will launch into a great Reformation Day sermon about the futility of our works and the marvelous grace and mercy of God in Christ. Instead, of course, he starts quoting from the Ten Commandments. What the hell?

What shall I do to inherit eternal life? We know this isn’t going to end all that well. We’ve heard the story before. Perhaps there’s something specific about the man and his wealth that we don’t know. Whatever it is, we’d like an explanation that allows us to get some distance from the difficulty. Please, Jesus, say that there’s something about this particular rich person that doesn’t apply to the rest of us rich people.

Well, that’s not going to happen either.

“Here is a deeply religious person so well-attuned to his practices that he can sense that there is more out there than what he has experienced so far,” Skinner writes. “He asks Jesus about the ‘more,’ but his question focuses on what needs to be added. He seeks the limit, or the next step,” Skinner concludes, “but discovers instead that eternal life entails the surrender of one’s whole self.”

I have often found it easy, as a parish pastor, to be cynical about the tight-fisted, self-serving piety of my parishioners. More often than not, I have been wrong. I experience the man in this text as one of my many parishioners who have actually understood that following Jesus makes demands on the followers, and that those demands might impact what they (we) do with their (our) wealth. I have been privileged to serve with some incredibly generous Christians who were models of financial stewardship that often put me to shame.

The most sensitive of those parishioners understood that even their exemplary giving was not “enough.” Nothing less than our whole lives is “enough” for full life in the Kin(g)dom of God. This means much more than a financial transaction, although that’s part of it. It means a transformation of the heart, a full and joyful dependence on God in Christ for all that is good. I sometimes find that transformation exhilarating. I often find it terrifying.

“I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all,” Martin Luther wrote, “but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.” Old Marty is always good for a pithy pronouncement. And I know, based on his other writings, that this sentiment was close to his heart. I know he’s right on this one. But most of the time, I hear the words and go away sad.

I long for this text to reach me again with the life-changing hope of Christ.

References and Resources

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

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

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