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

Back to Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peeking Under the Covers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

Speaking in the Shadows

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

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

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, there’s a word for our time…

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 12:35-44 (Pt. 5); November 7, 2021

Just When It Was Going So Well

I was really rooting for the systemic critique option in interpreting our text.

I know the intention of that option is to open us to the political dimensions of the Markan composition, and it has done that. Part of the intention was to walk away from valorizing victimhood and winking at victimization, especially as practiced in the values of our dominant cultural setup. The systemic critique seeks to read the text from the “bottom” rather than from the “top.”

That’s all well and good and worth pursuing. It also has the side effect of taking the spotlight off my personal relationship with my wealth and putting the spotlight on “The System.” Just as I can persuade myself that the story of the Rich Man is not really about selling all I have, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus, so the widow’s story is not really about giving my whole life to God – including my stuff.

It’s the System, I can tell myself, not me.

Photo by Anna Nekrashevich on Pexels.com

We can’t discount all the systemic critique and social justice reality in this text, nor should we. But the evidence seems fairly compelling to me that this text is first and foremost about what a faithful disciple looks like. They look like Blind Bartimaeus. They look like the poor widow. Even when we subtract the ableist, sexist, misogynist, and classist elements from these images, what is left is discipleship as offering my whole life to God, without remainder or reserve.

Just when it was going so well.

The poor widow’s story leaves me grieved, embarrassed, and ashamed. She gives her whole life, every penny, trusting that things will somehow be all right. I’ve never given my whole life for anything, no matter how I’ve tried to convince myself otherwise. I’ve never really put myself at risk without a Plan B (and C, D, and E), an escape hatch, a fallback position.

The closest I’ve come is those times when I’ve gotten fed up and said, “The hell with you all. I’m outa here.” But that’s not sacrifice. That’s mostly self-righteous pique and self-serving avoidance. That’s not discipleship. That’s escape.

The Markan composer tells this story to encourage, to motivate, and to persuade the Markan community and newcomers. This is, after all, part of the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. If the story leaves me grieved, embarrassed, and ashamed, so be it. I can imagine it had that effect on at least some of the first listeners. That response was good enough for the Rich Man. If the shoe fits, etc.

This impact of the story on me is an appropriate example of the “second use of the law” in our Lutheran tradition. It demonstrates to me my deficiencies in performance and forces me back to my dependence on the grace of God in Christ. But if that’s where I go immediately, then that grace is cheap (as Bonhoeffer so rightly noted). If I don’t sit with my grief, embarrassment, and shame for a long time, then all this second use stuff has simply backfired.

I doubt I’ll ever put myself in a place where I’m risking a lot. That’s not my default strategy. When it comes to personal discomfort and risk, I’m mostly a coward. I’m not worthy to hold the poor widow’s now-empty coin purse.

Larycia Hawkins declared during a Wild Goose interview with Barbara Brown Taylor that following Jesus should cost us. Unless following Jesus has gotten us kicked out of something or locked up for something, we are probably coming up short. If she’s right, then I don’t qualify. Loving God with my whole self means trusting God with my whole life. I think that would be a good sermon theme for this text, but I could only preach it as a hypocrite.

Loving God with my whole self means trusting God with my whole life. I’ve never done that any time with anyone, must less God. That’s my personal spiritual disability.

It’s all backwards in this story. The “rich” people give out of their surplus. It doesn’t really cost them anything. They take it out of petty cash or the fun money fund. The widow gives out of her deficit. She probably doesn’t crawl off somewhere and wait to die after she gives. This isn’t Elijah and the Widow at Zarephath. But there’s no assurance that she will eat supper that night.

These days, if I don’t have some backup groceries and a thousand dollars in the savings account, I get anxious. And let’s not go back to conversations about toilet paper shortages and gas prices!

I don’t know what to do with this widow who grieves me, embarrasses me, puts me to shame. I know she chooses to do what she does. She’s no fool. Only rich people can afford to be stupid with money.

She’s no victim, either, even if other people use the system to line their own pockets. She loves God with her whole self and trusts God with her whole life. The Temple she supports (and probably loves) may be headed for dust and ashes. But that doesn’t change who she is or what she does.

I work hard to organize my life so that I won’t ever have to make such a choice. Is that why it’s so hard for us rich people to enter the Kin(g)dom? I’ve structured my life to turn following Jesus into a lifestyle option rather than my way of life. I make contributions rather than commitments.

Maybe it’s too much to haul out the hoary story of the pig and the chicken at breakfast. But it seems appropriate to the conversation. In a bacon and egg breakfast, what’s the difference between the chicken and the pig? The chicken makes a contribution, but the pig makes a commitment.

Granted the story has all sorts of problems. The pig gets slaughtered. The chicken’s progeny is kidnapped and consumed. And it’s not nearly so amusing now that I’ve been vegan for three years. But it still illustrates the difference. At most, I’m an egg disciple rather than a bacon disciple. Does that mean I’m really no disciple at all?

What would it mean for me to really join the widow on the Way? I think it would mean, for example, paying racism reparations to a good cause in an amount that forces me to give up something I need, not just something I want. I think it means getting into good trouble when the opportunity presents itself, without a lawyer on speed-dial and bail pre-arranged. I think it means calling out negative behavior in ways that put at risk relationships I value.

I don’t think I’m up for that. I won’t even risk hurting someone’s feelings in a discussion – not because I’m so wonderfully kind, but because I don’t want anyone to think ill of me.

Is the Jesus escape hatch, the second use of the law, the only option for me? Is this story just a prod to drive me into the forgiving arms of Jesus who does what I cannot? I think that’s even worse than doing nothing. I don’t think I can treat Jesus as the “Get Out of Morality Jail Free” card (and I don’t think that’s what Luther intends in his typology of “uses”).

Jesus doesn’t come and die to let me off the hook. Jesus comes and dies to transform me to be like him.

So, I won’t go away grieving, embarrassed, and ashamed. Despair is not a solution here. It’s just despair (I hope the rich man figured that out while he had the time). Perhaps I’ve painted myself into a theological and ethical corner on this one. If so, I just need to sit in that corner for a while rather than buying a quick escape. I wonder if that’s the best we can do preaching on this text – leave our privileged audiences and ourselves dangling – no poem or happy ending.

It’s no wonder we preachers are relieved, at least in some parts of the Tradition, to go with the Reformation and All Saints texts. It’s much more fun to celebrate the Raising of Lazarus – complete with stinky corpses and clinging rags. If the emphasis of All Saints is mostly a commemoration of those who have joined the Church Triumphant, then perhaps that’s the better text. It certainly doesn’t squeeze me the way the widow does.

Or does it? After all, Lazarus has a second funeral. Before that second funeral, his life is at risk alongside that of Jesus. He has become Exhibit A in the Johannine case for Christ. I think there’s no relief here. Even Lazarus is raised up from premature death – not to live forever – but rather to follow Jesus to the cross. If Lazarus is, in fact “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (and I think he is), then he does – at least in the Johannine script – follow Jesus to the end. He gets his whole life back in order to give his whole life in faithfulness.

It seems to me that the Markan script offers these little glimpses of getting it right. We don’t get the whole story, for example, of any of the four women discussed in an earlier post. We see these flashes of dazzling discipleship – like ethical supernovae blazing brighter than a galaxy for a cosmic moment and then fading into the dust. We don’t know if the “little people” in the Markan composition were so faithful before or after the encounter. Maybe they were. Maybe they weren’t.

Maybe that’s part of the takeaway. The Twelve suffer a fantastic failure, but they must have recovered somehow and somewhat. We know much more of their stories. We can aspire to first like the last ones in the Markan script. We can admit that we are often last like the first ones in the Markan script. That’s really what life is like on the Way.

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 12:35-44 (Pt. 4); November 7, 2021

Needful Things

In an earlier post, I pointed to the six “narrative contexts” that Elizabeth Struthers Malbon outlines as we look at our text. The fourth of those contexts is that of all the women characters in the Markan composition. As I noted, the poor widow travels in the company of the woman with the flow of blood, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the woman who anoints Jesus for burial. In the other three cases, Jesus responds to the requests and the gifts with approval. Malbon argues that these women are surprising disciples who more closely resemble Jesus than do the male disciples. And they most clearly and poignantly portray lastness becoming firstness.

Mary Ann Beavis discusses these four “Women as Models of Faith in Mark” in her 1998 article. The four stories are examples of the ancient Greek literary form known as a chreia. The chreia expressed a saying or action that contained some sort of helpful hint for living. The Greek word actually means “need” or “necessity.” Chreiai (the plural form) are little stories about the “needful things” of a good life. “Ancient readers [I would say “listeners” as well] would have recognized the gospel pronouncement stories as chreiai,” Beavis asserts, “and thus ‘useful for living…’” (page 5).

Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

These little stories were found throughout ancient Greek writings and found their way into the Markan composition as recognizable ways to memorize and tell the big story. Most of the chreiai in Mark detail what Jesus does and says. But we are surprised to find these little stories featuring four women. The four stories total more than can be found in all the major pagan Greek works of the time. “Mark, of the four canonical gospels,” Beavis notes, “has the highest concentration of chreiai about women. Mark’s interest,” she continues, “would have struck a first century reader of the gospel as unusual, and as worthy of special attention” (page5).

If the Markan composer includes something that was “worthy of special attention” for the first listeners, then it should be worthy of our special attention as well. The chreia of the woman with the hemorrhage in Mark 5 has to do with her bold action in touching Jesus’ cloak. The story of the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7 focuses on what she says. The story of the woman who anoints Jesus in Mark 14 focuses again on her action.

Thus, the focus of the chreia in Mark 12 on the action of the widow – putting the two coins into the treasury – is typical of these little stories in the Markan composition. “The widow’s act epitomizes the theme of self-sacrifice which runs through the second half of Mark,” Beavis writes. “She is the only character, other than Jesus and John the Baptist, who gives ‘all her living/life…’ in the service of God, in sharp contrast with the rich man, who keeps the commandments, but cannot bring himself to part with his possessions…” (page 6).

Beavis argues that the Markan composer uses these stories to teach about discipleship. The “actual” disciples tend to demonstrate what discipleship looks like in their failures to function as faithful followers. But the little people in the Markan composition are the ones who provide positive demonstrations of following Jesus. Beavis notes the friends of the paralytic, the father of the possessed boy, and Blind Bartimaeus as instances of such positive demonstrations.

The four women are among those little people who follow faithfully. “These stories are striking because of the rarity of ancient chreiai about women,” Beavis writes, “and because they do not provide models of specifically female virtue, but of faith and discipleship in general…” (page 8). The familiarity of the story form and the surprising gender of the characters would have been both notable and effective, both for members of the Markan community and for those hearing the story (stories) for the first time.

Joanna Dewey, in her 2006 Word and World article suggests that our text “contrasts the widow’s willingness to give her whole life with the scribes’ use of their privilege to exploit others. Mark presents the widow,” she concludes, “as a model for discipleship.” I mention Dewey’s comments because she also makes an interesting suggestion at this point. “This reading may also provide an opportunity to include the story of the woman anointing Jesus at Bethany,” she notes. “In both passages, Mark is presenting women as models of service – one giving her mite and the other acting as a prophet, anointing Jesus with expensive nard” (page 26).

I don’t think I would add the reading from Mark 14 to the gospel lection for the day (but then again, who knows?). But the woman’s story would make an excellent sermon illustration if the message focused on the poor widow as an example of faithful following. As I shared in an earlier post, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon sees our text and the anointing text as one of the narrative contexts to consider. That’s one reason to include the Mark 14 chreia.

In addition, there is some important vocabulary in the latter text that would lead us to make a connection. The poor widow gives her “whole life” as faithful response to God. The woman who anoints Jesus for burial in Mark 14 is to be remembered and proclaimed to “the whole cosmos” for her work of faithful following. The Greek word for “whole” provides a through-line in this part of the Markan composition. The Great Commandment invites us to love God with our “whole” selves. The scribe evaluates the Great Commandment as having more value than all the “whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” The widow gives her “whole life.” The unnamed woman’s story is to be told to the whole cosmos.

Another reason to make a connection to this story and to remind listeners of the unnamed woman’s faithfulness is the command by Jesus in Mark 14 that her story is to be remembered always and told to all. We don’t do very well in obeying and enacting this command. This Markan story only shows up in the reading of Mark’s passion account on Palm Sunday, where it fades into the background of that huge lection. The Lukan parallel shows up as an independent reading, but again the woman is overshadowed by the Lukan dialogue about the nature of forgiveness. The woman becomes a prop rather than a disciple.

Therefore, while we have the chance, perhaps as preachers we should take the gift that is handed to us and use the woman’s story as another illustration of what it means to be a faithful follower, at least from the perspective of the Markan composition.

Dewey takes some time to focus on the unnamed woman. The woman anoints Jesus’ head, rather than his feet as in the parallel accounts. “To anoint on the head is to call that person to God’s service, to consecrate him or her for a special task,” Dewey writes. “Prophets and priests were anointed, but, above all, those chosen to be king were anointed” (page 27). Therefore, the woman functions as a prophet, much like Samuel anointed the head of David. Do you hear any vibrations of the “Son of David” question in Mark 12?

“Nowhere else in Mark is any person or action singled out for future remembrance,” Dewey continues. “As with the widow who gave her mite, the woman of Bethany is held up as a positive example. It is shameful not to read this passage in church,” she declares and again urges us to read it with the story of the widow. “Mark brackets the apocalyptic discourse with these two positive stories of women so this would be an appropriate place to include it” (page 27).

I know that on our liturgical calendar it will be All Saints’ Sunday when our text is read. This notice of the little people in Mark, and especially the women who were the faithful followers, has some nice potential for preaching on such a day. No matter how hard we try as preachers and interpreters to convey a different message, when people think of “saints,” out come the halos and heroes (mostly male in their imaginations, I suspect).

We could spend some time talking about the good news of these ordinary saints who never make headlines and don’t have anything named after them. The command to remember the story of the woman at Bethany can build upon this preaching. We may not know her name, but we know what she did. And we know that Jesus called it a “beautiful thing” that she did for him. All Saints’ Sunday can be a day when we remember all the “beautiful things” that our saints have done for the Lord and his Church in service of the gospel. Perhaps we might take a few moments during worship to have people say out loud the names of the ordinary saints who have entered the new life ahead of us and should be remembered this Sunday.

As I think about these texts, it strikes me as well that we have scriptural warrant for singling out and recognizing underrecognized and underserved groups in our congregations and in the larger world. If the Markan narrator goes to the trouble of using a well-known story form to surprise us with the faithfulness of women, then we have yet another warrant for doing the same in other ways in our lives. The Markan composer employs a sort of narrative “affirmative action” in this regard. Perhaps administrative sorts of preferential treatment for the marginalized are not such a bad thing after all.

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 12:35-44 (Pt. 3); November 7, 2021

Flashing Lights Ahead

We Christian preachers must never lose sight of the anti-Judaism that permeates our western history, our American social and political culture, and our various denomination traditions. This is especially acute for those of us in the Lutheran tribe with our connections to Martin Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism (especially but not limited to his later writings) and our connections to the evil engineers of the Holocaust. Therefore, whenever a text has the potential to lead us in anti-Jewish directions, we have to exercise great caution and issue intentional correctives.

I was reminded this morning that a helpful re-balancing of the discussion so far is available on youtube.com. I would encourage you to take an hour and watch Amy-Jill Levine’s 2012 address entitled “From Donation to Diatribe: How Anti-Jewish Interpretation Cashes Out.” You can find that video at https://youtu.be/lksnynNv6UU.

Levine notes that the interpretations of our text break down into two broad types: the widow as moral exemplar vs. the widow as exploited by the “temple domination system.” The latter interpretation is a political critique. Levine notes that the second type of interpretation was really launched by Addison’s Wright’s article, discussed in a previous post. That article was a sort of watershed moment for the interpretation of this text.

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A number of the workingpreacher.org commentaries, for example, pick up on this emphasis. “While many interpretations present the widow’s offering as an example of discipleship in keeping with loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength,” Amanda Brobst-Renaud observes, recent commentators have questioned whether the widow’s action is an illustration of systemic injustice or the devouring of widow’s houses.”

 “This gospel lesson is not about the individual behavior of one scribe,” Samuel Cruz writes, “but about the misinformed and immoral ideology that informed such behavior. Jesus confronts the beliefs and values of his day,” Cruz continues, “that maintained an oppressive system in much more authentic and powerful ways than the Colonial Roman empire could…”

The poor widow “gave it all,” Emerson Powery notes. “Jesus’ observation about the ‘poor widow’ who sacrificed the only economic resources she had left was a natural progression from Jesus’ critique of scribal abuse of the widows’ homes. In the Greek text, this passage flows syntactically from the other one without any evident linguistic break. In light of the context of conflict between Jesus and the temple leaders,” Powery continues, “this story was more likely a condemnation, rather than a commendation; that is, it highlighted the ways the ‘treasury’ (of the scribes) consumed the means of the poor.”

Levine notes that it is, especially in this interpretation, easy to change this text from a window opening us to Jesus into a mirror reflecting our own situations and agendas. This is not on the face of it inappropriate. But it is not the default interpretation either. Yet, it is a powerful way to read the text.

“Jesus was assassinated because he dared to unravel the ideology that maintained the elites in power. I can’t help but wonder what the consequences for the church might be,” Samuel Cruz writes, “if it, like Jesus, turned the values and ideologies of oppression upside down and elevated the values of the kingdom to prominence. If instead of preaching from the perspective of the upper strata of society, it began to reflect and preach from the perspective of the widow, the orphan, the migrant, and the poor. Perhaps the church would no longer be asked to do invocations for political rallies, and maybe powerful politicians will no longer attend our gatherings. I would follow Jesus in exalting the spiritual riches of the widow while letting the rich and powerful keep their scraps.”

Henry Langknecht adds additional texture to this perspective. “First of all, depending on your context and the specific nature of the hypocrisy in the community you serve, it would be powerful to preach into the first part of the gospel lesson. We’d like to identify ourselves with the widow of verses 41-44, but most of us North American Christians are the scribes of verses 38-40. Even when we live simply, we enjoy products and infrastructures whose provision devours the lives of the poor in the world. And no length of prayers can hide us and our love of what we have and what we’ve accomplished.”

I quote these observations at length because they raise critical questions for American Christians and American churches in our time and space. But as preachers and interpreters, we have to ask ourselves and one another two questions – questions that A.J. Levine pursues. Does the text before us actually say these things? And in saying such things do we fall headlong into the anti-Jewish cultural tropes and prejudices which have underwritten nearly two millennia of Christian Anti-Semitism?

In answer to the first question, despite what Wright and later commentators have written, Levine argues, the moral exemplar interpretation is the one best supported by an exegetical reading of the Markan composition. The widow gives all she has and thus is a foil to the rich man in chapter 10. The disciples protested in that chapter that they indeed left all behind, and they are commended by Jesus.

Thus, the widow is an example of someone who “gives her whole life” to the worship of God. In addition, as we have noted previously, the widow foreshadows the complete self-donation of Jesus on the cross. She prepares the listeners for that self-giving and challenges listeners to consider whether they ought to do the same in some way.

“The cruciform existence, or the life of discipleship, according to Mark, involves giving one’s life (Mark 8:34-37),” Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary. “It is important, however, to keep front and center what consumes us. If we are consumed by honor, power, social media, beauty, or money, they will eat us alive, and they ultimately leave us empty. Emptiness devours us, and it promises a life it cannot give. Part of the task of preaching is to identify hunger for Good News when spiritual junk food is readily on offer. Invite people to taste and see: when you give your whole life to God, it becomes fuller than you imagined.”

Henry Langknecht urges us to focus on this example of self-giving as discipleship and not merely financial stewardship. “A sermon I do not need to hear is the one that entreats me to be more like the faithful widow,” Langknecht argues. “If we must hear a sermon focused on her giving and her gift, let her be a Christ figure rather than a faithful disciple figure. What makes that connection appealing is the difficulty (but rightness) of the forced analogy between her worthless coins and Jesus’ life which leads to the paradox that this worthless gift brings about the salvation of the world (cf. Philippians 2!).”

What’s wrong with Wright, according to Levine? First, she argues, the scribes don’t run the Temple and don’t represent “official Judaism” (whatever that meant in the first century). Second, Jewish tradition is the source of Jesus’ temple critique, not opposed to it. Third, if Jesus was opposed to her actions, why didn’t he stop her? He had no trouble interrupting Temple business earlier in the week.

Fourth, collaboration by Temple authorities and systems with the Romans is not well-supported in historical records. Making accommodations in order to survive is not the same as actively collaborating with the oppressors (although, I would observe, that distinction gets rather slippery rather quickly). Fifth, the Temple gets destroyed in the Jewish War. If it was headquarters for the collaborators, this makes little sense. Sixth, if the Temple was so bad, why did the first Christians worship there (see the Book of Acts, for example)?

Emerson Powery offers a more nuanced view of the Temple in his comments. “Of course, despite centuries of interpretation, Jesus did not criticize the Temple directly here. Rather, he challenged the leadership to practice more just ways. Furthermore,” Powery continues, “his observation about this widow fit the pattern of several prophets who preceded him, in which widows were associated with other vulnerable people, orphans and immigrants (cf. Jeremiah 7:6; Malachi 3:5).”

Levine urges us to separate the scribes from the Temple as such. The Markan composition makes it clear that the scribes are not a monolithic group. After all, we have just heard about the scribe who almost gets it. As much as I like the melodrama metaphor for the Markan composition, that metaphor leads to flat characters and good/evil dichotomies. Levine pleads for a complicated critique of the Temple. Thus, she speaks in approving terms of Malbon’s article and work mentioned in a previous post.

The Temple, in Mark and in the New Testament is both complicit and beloved, Levine argues. The widow is both an independent and faithful moral agent and a victim of extractive and oppressive systems. Wealth is both the greatest roadblock to faithfulness and a tool for loving one’s neighbor as oneself. Poverty is both a great evil (when imposed on people) and a way to clear the path to God (when chosen voluntarily).

“This can help frame 12:41-44,” writes Micah Kiel. “This text isn’t necessarily saying that everyone needs always to give everything. Instead, the widow has decided that her money, what little of it she had, belonged to God. This text, then, consistent with Mark’s overall agenda, is about perspective and reevaluation. Those things that are valued in the kingdom of God differ from that in wider society.”

When a text tempts us into unthinking anti-Jewish images, we should notice the flashing warning sign along the way: “Danger! Complications ahead!” And we (I) must continue to proceed with caution.

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 12:35-44 (Pt. 2); November 7, 2021

Hero, Victim, Or…?

We have established the identity of the “villains” in the Markan melodrama. What about the role of the widow in this scene? Is the poor widow the hero or the victim in the story? If only it were that simple!

Many of us have heard (and some of us have preached) sermons that make the widow a heroic exemplar of authentic Christian discipleship, faith, and financial stewardship. But that interpretation makes the poor widow a mere prop for church stewardship campaigns and an emotional weapon for charlatans who are much more like the scribes in Mark 12 than like the widow. When we as interpreters valorize the widow for giving “her whole life,” we take that very life from her and make her a tool.

She becomes a tool that provides a “point” for the story. Addison Wright categorizes several of these points in his article. One point is that she gives one hundred percent, even though the raw amount is almost nothing. In this view, “the true measure of gifts is the self-denial involved, the cost for the giver” (A. Wright, page 257).

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Another point is that the amount of the gift is irrelevant. What matters is the spirit in which the gift is given, the attitude by which the gift is applied. This attitude may be self-sacrifice, surrender, total commitment, faithfulness, gratitude, generosity, humility, trust in God’s providence, and/or detachment from possessions.

Others suggest that the point is simply that real disciples give everything. Or it may be that giving should be proportional to one’s means. Or it may simply be the Markan way of commending almsgiving by the congregation.

After this inventory (which covers most of the sermons on this text I have heard or commentaries I have read), Wright notes that Jesus does in fact give an evaluation of her gift. She gave out of her “lack” while the rich gave out of their “overabundance.” But, as Wright notes, beyond this observation, there is no information in the text to support the extrapolations made in the various points above.

Jesus doesn’t describe anything interior to the widow. He simply says that she gave “her whole life.” Wright concludes, “Any statement, therefore, about the inner disposition or outward bearing of the widow is achieved only by reading into the text” (page 258). Of course, we preachers can and do extrapolate all we want (and with relative impunity). But if we want to be subject to the text, rather than the other way around, then we extrapolate at our preacherly peril.

Wright’s critique of the “example” model of interpretation here is worth quoting at length. Any such interpretation, he argues, “runs into the difficulty that there is no invitation in the text to imitate the widow, no statement that Jesus looked on her and loved her, no command to go and do in like manner, no remark that she is not far from the kingdom. That her action is to be imitated may be implied,” he continues, “but it equally well may not be implied. Jesus simply says that she gave more,” he concludes, “and he gives his reason for making that statement” (page 259).

Wright notes that if we put the action of the widow alongside Jesus’ statement about the “Corban” practice in Mark 7, that Jesus would likely have found her action to be painful rather than positive. In the Markan account, Wright suggests, Jesus “is remembered for having said that human needs take precedence over religious values when they conflict, that God gave the law not for itself but for people, and that religious values are human values” (page 261). Given the larger context of the Markan composition, it seems unlikely on the face of it that Jesus is commending the action of the widow.

Wright argues that the best way to understand the text is to look at the very immediate context of the passage. In that context, “Jesus condemns those scribes who devour the houses of widows, and then follows immediately the story of a widow whose house has beyond doubt just been devoured. What other words,” he asks, “would be more appropriate to describe it?” (page 261).

Wright concludes that Jesus, therefore, must disapprove of the widow’s gift. His assessment of the widow’s actions, Wright argues, is not praise but rather lament (page 262). Jesus does not condemn the widow and thus doubly victimize her, Wright implies (but does not state). Instead, “Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” (page 262). Wright sees the widow exclusively as a “victim” and is sure that is how Jesus sees her as well.

Worst of all, Wright argues, the widow’s tragedy is completed in the first two verses of chapter thirteen. Jesus describes the coming destruction of the Temple – the very Temple which the widow gave “her whole life” to support. “Her contribution was totally misguided,” Wright declares, “thanks to the encouragement of official religion, but the final irony of it all was that is was also a waste” (page 263).

Elizabeth Struthers Malbon both critiques and builds upon Wright’s conclusions and insights. While Wright points a microscope at the three verses preceding and the two verses succeeding the widow’s story, Malbon takes more of a telescopic approach and outlines at least six narrative contexts that can assist us in our interpretation. I’ll list those contexts here, but I’d commend the article for a fuller discussion of each.

The first context is the contrast between the widow and the scribes. This context highlights the differences between Jesus and the scribes and takes us back to the first post of this week. The second narrative context relates to the destruction of the temple. The widow’s contribution to a failing and failed institution is an ironic sign pointing to Jesus’ fulfillment of the purpose of the Temple in his own death and resurrection. The widow’s giving of her whole life foreshadows Jesus’ giving of his whole life “as a ransom for many.”

A third narrative context is the framing of Mark 13 by two stories of gifts from women. Here we have the poor widow’s gift. In Mark 14 we have the gift of anointing from the unnamed woman in the house of Simon the Leper. “The central discourse [of Mark 13] is framed by two stories about exemplary women,” Malbon argues, “in contrast with villainous men” (page 598). The gifts may be quite different in cash value “but each gift represents self-denial” (page 599).

A fourth narrative context is that of all the women characters in the Markan composition. The poor widow travels in the company of the woman with the flow of blood, the Syro-Phoenician woman, and the aforementioned woman who anoints Jesus for burial. In the other three cases, Jesus responds to the requests and the gifts with approval. It seems to me that this tempers Wright’s thesis somewhat. Malbon argues that these women are surprising disciples who more closely resemble Jesus than do the male disciples. And they most clearly and poignantly portray lastness becoming firstness.

A fifth narrative context is the overall theme in the Markan account of Jesus as “Teacher.” The widow provides Jesus with a “teachable moment” as he continues to train and prepare his disciples. His description of her behavior is prefaced with a solemn oath (“Amen”) in verse 43. “Giving one’s ‘whole life’ is required of the Messiah,” Malbon writes, “and it may also be required of his followers” (page 601).

A sixth and final narrative context is the way characters are portrayed in the Markan composition. The widow is one of the “good” little people in the Markan script. We discussed some that context in our reflections on Blind Bartimaeus.

Malbon notes that there may certainly be other contexts in which the story can and should be read. It’s not the case that any one of them is the “right” context. That’s not some sort of reader-response argument on her part. It is in the nature, rather, of the Markan composition. Reading the Markan script is complicated, just like the life of the disciple. But the Markan composition, including this story, is not a blank slate upon which we get to draw whatever we wish. “We are not free to assume that the text can mean anything,” Malbon argues, “just because it can mean many things” (page 603).

I have not run through this range of interpretive possibilities in order to argue for one or another. Is the poor widow a hero or a victim in this story? The answer, as is often case in the life of disciples, is “Yes.” Amanda Brobst-Renaud writes in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “Regardless of whether the widow’s offering is an example or a critique, it is crucial to remember that the house of God is not a place to devour widows. It is not a place where anyone should be devoured. There is a difference between giving everything and having everything taken away.”

Examining the multiple (and ironically linked) contexts in the Markan composition can move us to examine the multiple (and ironically linked) contexts of our own lives. “The text begs the question,” Brobst-Renaud writes, “What consumes our whole lives? Where do we put our energy, our finances, our time, and our patience? What results or recognition do we expect in return?”

Some of our contexts include ideologies, causes, institutions, and practices that in fact require our whole lives. For some, the world of political identities has become all-consuming and the framework for enacting existential crises. Capitalist economics claims, at least in theory, to be able to satisfy every need and explain ever failure. White supremacy is a totalizing explanation of reality that places white males at the top of the hierarchy and requires all others to know their places. Polarization is, in a very real sense, the competition of various world views to claim “our whole lives.”

Thus, we disciples must ask ourselves the most serious question. What is demanding our whole lives? Does that something deserve what we have to give?

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Text Study for Mark 12:35-44 (Pt. 1); November 7, 2021

Twirling the Moustache

The longer we read and study the Markan composition this year, the more instructive I find the metaphor of the Gospel of Mark as melodrama. Jesus is the obvious hero who goes about doing good and finding favor with the people. Every time he comes onstage, we cheer and clap and whistle our approval. But who are the villains in this saga?

Harry Fledderman makes the persuasive case that the villains in the Markan composition are the scribes. I would encourage you to read his 1982 article, listed in the “References and Resources,” for the evidence. This is particularly pertinent in the section of the Markan composition we are considering. The scribes are on stage from Mark 12:28 through the end of the chapter. In fact, the warning against the scribes in Mark 12:38-40 is Jesus’ final public teaching in the Markan account.

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Last week we heard the story of the scribe who was “not far” from the Kin(g)dom of God. But “not far” is not the same as “in.” Remember that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. The dialogue with the scribe who almost got it puts an end to the honor challenges to Jesus in the Temple during Holy Week (in the Markan account). No one had the nerve to risk looking foolish, so they kept their mouths shut and made plans behind closed doors.

As a result, Jesus takes the offensive. Who does he pursue? It’s the scribes (see Mark 12:35). “And replying, Jesus said as he was teaching in the temple, ‘How is it that the scribes are saying that the Messiah is David’s son?’” (my translation). It should be clear that the problem is not in calling the Messiah “David’s son.” After all, that is precisely the title Bartimaeus used alongside the Jericho road.

The problem is with the interpretation of what this means. The scribes, as portrayed by Jesus in the Markan composition, see this as a subordinate relationship. But Jesus takes the words of Psalm 110 (an enthronement psalm) and uses them to demonstrate that the scribes have the relationship backwards. David, Jesus says, by the agency of the Holy Spirit, wrote, “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit down at my right hand until I shall place the nations under your feet.’” (Mark 10:36b, my translation).

Verse thirty-five begins with an “and,” so there is no reason to assume that we have a new scene in verses 35-40. At the very least, the scribe who almost got it is likely still in the crowd of listeners. It would be highly unusual for that scribe to have come to Jesus alone, so it is a fairly safe bet that other scribes are still in Jesus’ audience in the temple courts. Jesus baits them into further debate, but they aren’t having it.

This unanswered theological argument is, therefore, the final demonstration that Jesus has “authority” and the scribes do not. “From the beginning of Mark’s Gospel,” Fledderman writes, “the scribes and Jesus are compared specifically on the issue of authority. Jesus’ authority is connected with his teaching,” Fledderman continues, “and it is contrasted with the lack of authority of the scribes.

We find the favorite Markan word for “teaching” in verse thirty-five. It is repeated in verse thirty-eight as Jesus publicly denounces the scribes. “Jesus’ authority is real and it can only come from God,” Fledderman notes. “The picture was clear from the beginning – Jesus has authority but the scribes do not” (page 56). Fledderman refers us to the first instance of this clash in Mark 1:22. Thus, this opposition between Jesus and the scribes in Mark is supported by the chiastic structure of the gospel account – at the beginning and the end of Jesus’ public pronouncements.

Whenever the scribes come onstage, the audience should boo, hiss, and throw popcorn at the villains. “Mark portrays the scribes as the opposite of what Jesus is and what the disciple should be,” Fledderman writes (page 57).

This makes the story of the scribe who almost got it all the more surprising in the Markan account. This story does not disprove the villain status of the scribes in the Markan composition, Fledderman argues. “In this passage Mark is saying that this state of affairs does not have to exist,” he proposes, “the scribes do not need to oppose Jesus” (page 66). But with one exception they do.

Yet, it is not the theological divergence that Jesus condemns in Mark 12:37b-39. It is the “robbery” the scribes commit by exploiting the machinery of the temple system. The scribes use the faithfulness of ordinary people against them in order to enrich and entrench themselves in the system of religio-political power. Fledderman comments in a footnote that this is why they will receive the “more severe” condemnation. “These will receive the heavier sentence,” he notes, “because they not only oppress the widows but do so on the pretext of religion” (page 66).

This comment can help us to understand the words and intent of Mark 12:40. “They are devouring the households of the widows and are using the pretext of long prayers – these shall receive the greater judgment” (Mark 12:40, my translation). The scribes and the temple system are described throughout this section of the Markan composition as engaged in a dance of deception. “In the context of the Jerusalem section,” Fledderman writes, “the long prayers must be a reference to the cult. The scribes are draining the widows’ resources,” he concludes, “by the temple costs.”

This is why we need to read and study verses 35-40 before we begin to interpret verses 41-44. Especially in this season of congregational stewardship drives in many congregations, the temptation is to focus on the widow’s offering as an example of “real stewardship.” This extracts the widow’s story from the context of the Markan account and makes her once again a victim of an extractive “temple” system.

The context makes it clear that the story is far more complicated. “The rapaciousness of the scribes is contrasted with the generosity of the poor widow,” Fledderman argues. “The scribes devour the houses of the widows (12:40), whereas the poor widow out of her want gives all that she has to live on (12:44). Although Jesus praises her generosity (12:43),” Fledderman concludes, “the tragedy of her desperate situation remains. Her house has been completely devoured” (page 67).

We will spend significant time with the widow this week, but let’s stick with the scribes for now. The Markan account portrays an intimate relationship between scribal rapaciousness and the “robbery” facilitated by the temple system. It is very easy for some of us preachers to identify the scribes with certain high profile media types who extract offerings from the vulnerable in order to purchase personal jet planes. And I’m not suggesting that we should shy away from such identifications.

In addition, we can help our listeners understand that this is also a matter of political and structural injustice. The separation between “church” and “state” that some of us take for granted (at least in theory) was not part of the system in the Roman empire. In addition to the “spiritual” power that scribes and others exploited to enrich themselves, there was the political power of the high priesthood in collaborative alliance with the forces of Empire.

Thus, it is also very easy for some of us preachers to identify the scribes with government systems that enrich the few at the expense of the many. The alliance between such governmental structures and officials and the “one percent,” the oligarchy behind much of our current American malaise is obvious even to the casual observer. That alliance looks a great deal like the collaboration between government, business, and religious power to defraud the poor in the first century imperial system.

I am always tempted to stop there and be happy that the “greater judgment” is targeted to those others. But I can’t stop there. I think about the dozens of parishioners I have known over the years who were much more like the poor widow than they were like the scheming scribes. Many of them had no business giving from their meager resources for the work of the Church. Yet, to suggest that they would do otherwise would have been to irreparably insult them and their faithfulness.

It took a while for this tension to dent my “stewardship” awareness as a parish pastor. Could I represent and sustain a system that received gifts from people who needed every penny just to survive? There was no point in discussing “sacrificial giving” with such folks. Indeed, every gift they made was sacrificial. None, as far as, I know, gave their last two pennies. But for some that was very nearly the case.

Notions of sacrificial giving, of giving until it hurts (or feels good) – these are notions that can be applied only to people of some means. Such discussions are themselves signs of privilege and critiques of our religious, economic, and political systems. I won’t resolve that tension here (as if I could). Instead, I note the model of Jesus, who praises the widow’s faith without discounting the desperate tragedy of her household economics.

Do we foster systems that build “God’s house” at the expense of widows’ houses? If so, what shall we do about that system and our places in it? If those questions don’t haunt leaders in Christian churches, then we too shall receive “the greater judgment.”

References and Resources

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

Missed it by That Much — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Read Mark 12:28-34.

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

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

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

Photo by Altaf Shah on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he went on his way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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