Text Study for Palm/Passion Sunday 2022 (Part Three)

Malina and Rohrbaugh spend a fair bit of time on Zacchaeus, the Parable of the Pounds, and the Triumphal entry in the Lukan account. We can use their work to continue building our understanding of that entry and the events that follow, at least according to the Lukan author.

“How one understands this difficult parable depends on the point of view adopted,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “Westerners have long seen here a kind of homespun capitalism on the lips of Jesus. Yet if the parable is taken as a description of the way the kingdom of God functions,” they continue, “it is bitter news indeed for peasant hearers” (page 389).

To peasant ears, the parable would be very bad news. It would conform with all their experiences of rich people. The rich were those who extracted wealth from the peasants on a daily basis. They used members of the peasant class and the enslaved to do their dirty work for small rewards or continued survival.

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels.com

“The story of the pounds comes at the end of a long section of the Gospel in which Luke has interpreted discipleship as the sharing of possessions,” Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest. “However, the parable indicates that nothing fundamental has yet changed, and there is still a long way to go,” they continue, “Conflict over exactly these issues is precisely what is about to erupt as Luke’s story continues” (page 389). As we have noted previously, the parable foreshadows the things that are to come in the story and warns the readers that the journey is not nearly over.

Malina and Rohrbaugh remind us that our modern, Western, late capitalist reading of the parable has little to do with how it would have been heard in first-century peasant ears. Honorable people, in that setting, should be satisfied with what they had. Seeking more was an act of thievery. Thus, we have the ancient proverb that a rich man is either a thief or the son of a thief. “The peasant expectation,” they write, “was to maintain honorably what one had, seeking nothing in addition” (page 390).

With this in mind, we read a somewhat different parable. The two servants who increased the nobleman’s portfolio participated in this organized thievery. Thus, they receive the nobleman’s rewards and participate in his dishonor. Maintaining the financial status quo was the honorable thing to do, and it is the third servant who does precisely that. “From the peasant point of view, then, it was the final servant who acted honorably, especially since he refused to participate in the rapacious schemes of the king” (page 390).

The punishment the third servant received is precisely what peasant listeners would expect at the hands of such a powerful thief. One of the punchlines of this parable is that no good deed goes unpunished. That’s a theme to keep in mind, of course, as we read the Triumphal entry text and the verses that follow it.

“If having heard the interaction of Jesus and Zacchaeus, and having been startled at the uncharacteristic behavior of a rich man,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “Jesus’ listeners naively jumped to the conclusion that the rich had had a change of heart and that the kingdom of God was about to appear” (page 390). One of the themes of the Journey to Jerusalem in the Lukan account has been the sharing of possessions, Malina and Rohrbaugh note. Of course, this will be one of the hallmarks of the disciple community when we get into the Book of Acts as well.

The parable makes clear that, despite the exemplary conduct of Zacchaeus, nothing systemic has really changed yet. Jesus’ reception in Jerusalem affirms and amplifies that point. “As the story of the pounds makes clear,” Malina and Rohrbaugh observe, “the city indeed does not yet know the things that make for peace…Thus, the ‘king’ who comes in the name of the Lord can only weep’” (page 392).

The description of the Jerusalem Temple, then, as a “haven for thieves” makes perfect narrative and rhetorical sense. “Turning the Temple into a den of robbers, that is, into an institution seeking gain (always construed as extortion and greed),” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “is further evidence that the city does not yet understand the things that make for peace or the nature of the ‘king’ who is coming in the name of the Lord” (page 393). The story of the pounds, they argue “exists in the Temple itself.”

The narrative and rhetorical arc of Luke 19 helps us to make sense out of what might at first seem to be disparate and disconnected pericopes. “It is no wonder that the elite (v. 47), from whose point of view the king in the story of the pounds would have been a hero, opposed Jesus and sought to destroy him,” Malina and Rohrbaugh conclude. “It is also no wonder that the people, from whose point of view the king in the story of the pounds would have been a thief, hung on Jesus’ words” (page 393).

Nor is it any wonder that Jesus is crucified between two “social bandits.” They are often described as “thieves,” but the Greek term – in the Markan account — doesn’t support that translation. They were more likely revolutionary terrorists, bent on overthrowing both the Roman colonial rule and the Jerusalem elites who benefitted from and thus supported that rule. In Luke 22:52, Jesus declares that he is not such a “social bandit.” The Lukan author doesn’t use the same term as the Markan composer in describing the two “thieves,” perhaps to make sure that the title of “thief” remains with the elites and is not attached to peasants.

I’ve noted in previous posts that the Lukan author doesn’t condemn rich people out of hand. The primary demonstration of this reticence is the story of Zacchaeus. This chief tax collector engages in practices that are consistent with Old Testament regulations for reparations and restoration in the case of theft or fraud. Zacchaeus asserts that he lives in compliance with those regulations, and Jesus takes him at his word.

Zacchaeus may be viewed by the local populace as a rich thief. He “vindicates Jesus’ judgment about him,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “by pointing out that he already gives half of what he owns to the poor and (already) repays fourfold anyone he discovers has been cheated (cf. Exod. 22:1; 2 Sam. 12:6)” (page 387). The Greek grammar indicates that Zacchaeus is currently enacting restoration and making reparations when the situation calls for it. The problem is not that Zacchaeus needs to repent. The problem is that the peasant crowd doesn’t believe him.

But Jesus does. “Salvation, in the form of a restoration of this chief toll collector to his rightful place in Israel, has thus been effected by Jesus’ belief in him,” Malina and Rohrbaugh argue. “In other words, this is a healing story: the restoration of abnormal or broken community relationships (caused by the stereotyping of Zacchaeus on the part of the community) has been effected by the power of Jesus” (page 387).

If Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, as we read in Luke 19:10, then the lost are perhaps those who have been alienated from the faith community (rightly or wrongly) by how they use and/or abuse their wealth. Zacchaeus is restored to the community when Jesus ratifies that his behavior is righteous and within the parameters of compliance. The wealthy nobleman in the parable destroys community in order to expand his wealth at the expense of others. He slaughters any and all who stand in his way.

What, then, are the things that make for peace, in this narrative and rhetorical context? One of the things that makes for peace is the responsible use of wealth for the good of the community. Zacchaeus is narrated as an example of this responsible use. The community flourishes, and salvation lives at his house. The nobleman is rapacious, greedy, and power-hungry. As a result, people suffer and die.

Jerusalem elites, which example will you follow? The response seems clear to Jesus. They will follow the nobleman, as they have for the previous hundred years. As a result, people will suffer and die. Jesus is the first to go, in the Lukan account. But he won’t be the last. From the cross, Jesus declares to the weeping daughters of Jerusalem (!), “For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:31, NRSV).

That is, if this is what happens to one Jew – and a nonviolent one at that – what’s going to happen when a bunch of Jews fed up with the system engage in violent resistance? The Lukan author, writing after the destruction of Jerusalem, knows the answer to that question.

One of the challenges to many readers of the Passion accounts in the gospels is the “turn” from the joyous crowds of Palm Sunday to the raging crowds of Good Friday. How, readers wonder, could such a change take place? The temptation is to “blame the Jews” either overtly or subtly. The Lukan account encourages a far more nuanced account of the situation. The threat to Jesus was always there. It wasn’t a matter of theology but rather of political self-interest. And it wasn’t the Jerusalem elites who called the shots but rather their Roman puppeteers.

Priming people for Holy Week in this way is a lot to ask of what will likely be a somewhat abbreviated sermon in many congregations this Sunday. But this is one of the tasks of the Sunday, if we are to hear the story faithfully during the week.

Resources and References

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Kinman, Brent. “Parousia, Jesus’ ‘A-Triumphal’ Entry, and the Fate of Jerusalem (Luke 19:28-44).” Journal of Biblical Literature 118, no. 2 (1999): 279–94. https://doi.org/10.2307/3268007.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

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

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

At Home with the Disciples

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

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

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

Photo by Craig Adderley on Pexels.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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