LENT 2021 – Bible Study
Our dear colleague, the Priest in Charge on Tenerife (South) Rev’d John Poole invited us to share his Bible Study with you.
For each Friday until Easter a bible study will be published here which we hope you will enjoy.
It might be good to start by reading the first few chapters of Mark before you begin the study.
A Lenten encounter with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark
Walking with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark
Week 8: He is risen! The end of the beginning
For our final study on the Gospel of Mark you need only read chapter 16 verses 1 – 8.
Mark’s Easter story, the first of the Gospel accounts, may come as a surprise. It is only eight verses long and contains no information about Jesus meeting his disciples or anyone else following his resurrection. It is now almost universally accepted that verses 9 – 20, written in a different style, are not by Mark himself but were added sometime during the following century. After the other Gospels had included appearances and conversations of the risen Lord with his followers, it was presumably considered that a Gospel could not possibly be concluded without such details, although some scholars have argued that Mark’s original conclusion was somehow lost.
In Mark as in the later Gospels there are no witnesses to the resurrection itself. The narrative states that it has already happened. As an event it is naturally a mystery. It comes as a shock, certainly to the women who go to the tomb early in the morning, to discover that the large stone covering the entrance to the tomb has been rolled back. No explanation is given or any details of the women’s reaction.
In the tomb they see a ‘young man’ in a white robe and seated – not exactly who you would expect to see when going to visit the dead, any more than being able to find someone at that early hour who would be able to roll the stone from the entrance to the tomb! The women are more amazed because this is no ordinary young man. He is clearly an angel. We find angels appearing in biblical texts to explain that something supernatural has happened, something that God has done which is beyond the expectation or explanation of mortals. The news is typically prefaced by those familiar words of assurance, ‘Do not be afraid.’ The news this time is that he, Jesus, ‘has been raised. He is not here…… go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’
It would be a distraction to speculate about the reality or identity of such messengers. The writer introduces them to enhance the report of the divine initiative that has taken place. But most of all he wants us to focus on the message itself. Here, he wants us along with the women to grasp the news that Jesus has been raised from the dead by the hand of God. We read that the women are seized with trembling and, for the moment at least, they are afraid and are unable to say anything to anyone. Perhaps we too are being encouraged to receive the amazing news of the resurrection in silence. Leaving us somewhat in suspense, Mark concludes his Gospel. We are left with an empty tomb, from which the women and we, the readers, are asked to divert our attention. Jesus is not there; that is not where we will find him. We are not to seek for the living among the dead.
We are left with the promise that the disciples will see the risen Jesus. That promise has been repeated several times in the Gospel, in fact, each time that Jesus has predicted his execution by the authorities. And after the Transfiguration event (chapter 9), Jesus ordered the three disciples with him not to tell anyone what they had witnessed until he had risen from the dead. Several other passages also look forward to fulfilment beyond where the Gospel ends. Clearly Mark himself would have known about the appearances of the risen Lord. He would no doubt have read or heard of the early testimony of Paul (1 Corinthians 15) which lists a series of appearances to the apostles, to others and to himself, a testimony no doubt dating back to when Paul was converted, perhaps no more than three or four years after the death of Jesus. The most important fact is that without the experience of the resurrection, the Gospel would not have been written. Without the Easter event the disciples would surely have disbanded very quickly. However much they had been loyal to Jesus in his lifetime, his crucifixion would have left them disillusioned, and doubtful about his authenticity, and they would have no doubt soon returned to their old Jewish thinking and practices. In short, the story, the proclamation and the power of the Gospel is authenticated because it is written and read through the perspective or lens of Easter. It is written because Jesus lives. He is a figure of the present, not just the past. The resurrection reveals the identity of Jesus, which would have been mostly if not completely hidden during his earthly lifetime: he is Lord and Christ. His mission and sacrifice have been vindicated by God. He is greater than the powers that put him to death, and it his way that is God’s way, rather the ways of the powers that ruled his world.
The other Gospel writers may have been somewhat embarrassed by Mark’s lack of resurrection appearance stories even if their own sources and traditions of the risen Lord may have been unknown to Mark. However, Mark’s brief and mysterious conclusion is most appealing. We are left to ponder something ordinary human reasoning cannot cope with. Like the women at the tomb we are at first moved to amazement, awe and even trembling, and to silence. And then we are being urged to seek the Lord whom death could not contain. The news of the empty tomb is calling us forward, inviting us to move from being observers to participants in the life and ministry of Jesus and his vision of the kingdom of God.
The Gospel of Mark began with these words: ‘The beginning of the Gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ The sense is that the Gospel, and the career of Jesus himself, is but a beginning. We must go back and read the story again and again, and absorb its message and invitation. And then, with the Gospel in our hearts, we must go forward, into the world, into our communities, there to heal the wounds and dis-eases of troubled lives and to challenge the world’s unjust practices and muddled priorities. Wherever we go, Jesus has already gone ahead of us. Our task is to follow him, live and share his good news and help him build the kingdom of God that he lived and died and lives again for. And what is more, he lives in us. It is to be through us that others will see the risen Lord.
The real end of Mark’s Gospel has not been lost as some have thought. It has simply not yet been completed. The rest of the story is to be written by us, the participants. We have a job to do. In word and deed, we have a Gospel to proclaim.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may well be others!)
What is most distinctive or memorable about the Gospel of Mark for you?
What new insights do you have about Jesus and his ministry, and who is Jesus for you now?
Mark’s story is ultimately our story as well. How have you felt your own experience connecting with that of the Gospel, and what difference has this made on your faith journey?
Week 7: The Last Supper, the ‘Trial,’ the Cross
For the account of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life we read from the beginning of Mark chapter 11 and continue to the end of chapter 15. We commemorated his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and also recalled his act of expelling the traders from the temple the following day As the week drew on Jesus spent much time in the temple area teaching the crowds who gathered round him and engaging in various disputes with the religious authorities. All this time the plot against him was thickening and one of his disciples arranged to hand him over to the temple authorities with a view to him being tried and executed. We pick up the story on the Thursday evening, from chapter 14: 18.
Jesus, with all twelve disciples, including Judas Iscariot, come to an upstairs room where their Passover supper has been prepared. Jesus reveals that one of them will betray him. More than half of Mark’s account of Thursday night focuses on the failures of the disciples, indeed this is a common theme of the whole Gospel. There are various reasons why Mark should give this matter such attention. There is the obvious one that they frequently may have failed to understand him, and what following him meant for them. However, we must also consider the community to which Mark first wrote. Did lack of faith and understanding among some of them influence the way he wrote about the disciples? During the Last Supper, the Passover meal, Jesus shares a loaf of bread and a cup of wine with the disciples, and he utters words which would make this event the source and core of the principal act of Christian worship, the Eucharist. There are several deep and interconnected meanings to be drawn from this shared meal. To put them very briefly, the Last Supper and consequently the Christian Eucharist is the celebration of a new Passover from bondage to liberation, and participation in the way that leads through death to new life; it demonstrates God’s justice against human injustice, in particular expressing God’s will that all people have sufficient food for life; it is the continuing communal encounter with the risen Christ; it is the focus, inspiration and guide of our way of life as Christians; it represents our values and what we are as people of God; it is our regular expression and pledge to live by the great two-fold commandment – to love God completely and our neighbour as ourselves.After the meal, Jesus and his disciples walk outside the city wall to the Garden of Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives, where Jesus, troubled and knowing that the end was coming, prays earnestly and asks his disciples to stay awake and wait and watch with him – again, something they fail to do! Then after being identified by Judas, who approaches with an armed gang sent by the religious authorities, Jesus is arrested. The disciples flee. Peter alone follows to see what will happen, but as predicted by Jesus, when questioned by others he denies three times that he ever knew him.The sham trial before the high priest and his council takes place. Jesus is found guilty of blasphemy and is condemned as deserving death. He is to be handed over to the governor, Pontius Pilate early the following morning. The collaboration between religious and imperial authority will ensure his death. It is important to stress that the temple authorities are not be identified with the Jewish people. The crowd of pilgrims, Jesus’ listeners during the week did not turn against him as is often thought. They are his supporters, otherwise the authorities would not have needed a Judas to hand him over.Dawn breaks on Friday. The temple authorities take Jesus to Pilate. He appears before the Roman governor in the courtyard of the palace of the late king Herod the Great where Roman governors stayed when they were in Jerusalem. Pilate looks at Jesus and asks, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ We should read his question to be one of scorn and mockery. Jesus makes a non-statement, ‘You say so.’ Words of courage and contempt in the face of tyrannical power. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus does not speak again until the moment of his death.We read that at festival time Pilate used to release a prisoner as requested by the people, an act of amnesty. Historically, this is problematic. If this ever did happen, it would not have been because of the people’s request. Imperial power was not exercised in such a way. You didn’t ask the people what they wanted. However, when we think of the make-up of this crowd, it is just possible to imagine that Pilate acted as if he were doing them a favour, but no doubt more for his own amusement. This crowd would not have been made up of people who had listened to Jesus with delight earlier in the week. The Roman authorities would not have let just anyone into the precincts of the governor’s residence. Those who shouted, ‘Crucify him!’ were almost certainly a smaller selected mob who were doing well out of the regime, or who had been significantly bribed or otherwise enlisted to say the ‘right things’ at such a public gathering. However, it is highly unlikely that someone called ‘Barabbas’ actually existed. The very name meaning ‘son of the father’ suggests someone made up. He may have been written into the story as a symbolic character indicating that by the time the Gospel was being written, the Jewish people, the children of the Jesus generation, had chosen the way of a Barabbas – violence and insurrection against Roman rule, instead of the non-violent Jesus way. This had led to tragic consequences including the destruction of the temple, around the time that Mark was writing.Pilate issues the order for Jesus to be crucified. He is flogged, mocked, dressed in a purple cloak and a painful crown of thorns, then saluted with more mockery and false homage. Then he is struck and spat upon, stripped of the robe they put on him and taken out to be crucified. No details are given about the actual crucifixion of Jesus except the time of day, 9.00 in the morning. We are also told that a man called Simon, from Cyrene (in North Africa) was enlisted to help Jesus carry the large wooden beam that would form the horizontal part of the cross. This Simon appears to need little introduction. He is the Father of Alexander and Rufus who were presumably well known to Mark’s community and first readers. This reference to a named person could also indicate that he was a reliable witness and source of the event as it happened.Crucifixion, as we have already considered, was reserved particularly for those who challenged Roman rule. It was brutal, humiliating and very public. We are told that two others were crucified with Jesus. Although usually described as bandits in English translations, the Greek word identifies them as those who had been involved in armed resistance like the eponymous Barabbas. They join in the taunting of Jesus. Only in Luke’s version is one of them shown as repentant. At 3.00pm Jesus breathes his last. He took six hours to die on the cross. We can scarcely imagine what a dreadful, painful experience it would have been. His last words are from the opening verse of Psalm 22: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ These are the only words spoken by Jesus that Mark reports. It should be noted that it is a Psalm that ends in hope. God hears the prayer of the psalmist and saves him. Then Mark gives two interpretive comments about the death of Jesus. The first is the tearing of the curtain in the temple. The curtain formed a barrier between the people and the sanctuary, the holy of holies. Like the darkness at noon this event should be understood symbolically rather than as something actually remembered. It indicates God’s judgement on the temple and the corrupt system of religion it had come to represent. It affirmed that through the death of Jesus, the barrier between God and humanity had been removed, a barrier which had been so strongly emphasised in the Jewish religion of the time. When Mark wrote, the temple had probably already been destroyed, so it was fitting for him to stress that God was now fully accessible apart from the temple. God was now to be found in a temple not made by human hands. There was now a New Temple in the person of Jesus himself, which could not be destroyed. Through him the love of the God of Israel now extended to the whole world.The second interpretive comment of Mark is the statement ascribed to the centurion in command of the soldiers who crucified Jesus: ‘Truly this man was Son of God.’ The Gospel began with the words, ‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ Mark’s story of Jesus draws to an end with a statement that represents countless multitudes of pagan or gentile people who would be converted by the message of the Crucified One, people who would come to confess that truly, this man is the Son of God.This dramatic and remarkably subversive declaration is followed by a report of some women watching from a distance, followers of Jesus who looked after him in Galilee and on his journey to Jerusalem. Among them is Mary Magdalene. Some of these women will be at the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning. We will join them in our final walk with Jesus through the Gospel of Mark and see what that new day reveals for us.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may well be others!)
What were the forces that collaborated to bring about the trial and execution of Jesus, and how are these same influences still at work in the world today?
How do you think Peter’s denial of Jesus shaped the rest of his life and ministry?
How do we deny Jesus in our own lives today?
A major portion of Mark is devoted to the discourses on discipleship.
What have you learned about following on ‘the way,’ and how have you been called to follow Jesus?
Week 6: ‘We are going to Jerusalem…..’
This week’s study covers Mark chapter 8 verse 27 to the end of chapter 10.
You may like to read it through first and have the section to refer to as you read the following.
Leaving Bethsaida, Jesus and his disciples go to Caesarea Philippi in the far north of Galilee. Here, Peter makes his ‘profession of faith’ in Jesus, acknowledging that he is greater than any prophet. He is in fact the Messiah. Among first century Jews there were various opinions about what the Messiah would be like, but a belief held in common was that he would by anointed by the Spirit of God and he would usher in God’s new order for Israel and the world. Peter is acknowledging that Jesus is the one for whom Israel had been waiting, whether or not he understood how this would work out. However, the ‘Messianic secret’ of Mark’s gospel is maintained as Jesus orders the disciples not to speak about him publicly in this way. For Mark, the message about Jesus’ true identity as Messiah and Son of God was not proclaimed by Jesus himself, and would only be revealed after his resurrection. The central message of the ministry of Jesus in this, the earliest Gospel, is always about his words and deeds that proclaim the coming kingdom of God. Following Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus makes the startling statement that the vocation of the Messiah will lead to death at the hands of the authorities, followed by raising from death by the hand of God. This prediction is made three times. After the first such statement Peter rebukes Jesus saying that this surely must not happen. Jesus rebukes him back, telling him that this is purely human rather than divine thinking. He then teaches that if any would go with him on ‘the way,’ they must also take up their cross and follow him. At this time the cross meant only one thing – crucifixion, the torturous Roman form of execution reserved particularly for those who opposed imperial authority. Other criminals, including murderers, may well have been executed but not by crucifixion. Crucifixion was not simply designed to be excruciating (from where we get that word), it was public and humiliating with a message that declared, ‘this is what we do to those who defy the Roman Empire.’ So ‘taking up the cross’ had not yet developed into a metaphor for covering a whole range of burdens and sufferings that may result from being a follower of Jesus. After the first declaration of Jesus about what will happen to him in Jerusalem, we have the story of the Transfiguration on a high mountain (chapter 9: 2 – 8). The voice of God that spoke to Jesus at his baptism, saying ‘You are my Son, the beloved,’ now speaks to an inner group of Jesus’ disciples, ‘This is my Son. Listen to him.’ What is it they are to listen to? In the context of this section it is surely the message that Jesus is going to Jerusalem where the powers that be will kill him, and then God will raise him. So they must listen to him, and follow him on his way. Following Jesus ‘on the way’ has three essential meanings. For some it has meant the ‘total way,’ martyrdom, as it did for Jesus himself. For everyone, however, it involves a process of personal transformation – dying to an old way of living and rising to a new way of living, or from being self and worldly-centred to being God-centred. There is an important third meaning to consider. Jesus didn’t just die, he was killed, executed by the powers that ruled his world. Being Christian, being a follower of the Jesus way, is about saying a big NO to systems such as killed Jesus. It means opposing injustice and violence (though never with more violence), and standing against many other ways of the world in the name of the kingdom of God. It is about coming to see the world as God sees it rather than being complicit with what much of society and culture considers to be normal or natural.
As Jesus reaches the territory of Judea, he gives some important teachings in response to questions that are put to him. They are complex and we can only summarise them for now. The Pharisees ask him about divorce, which the ancient Law of Moses allowed. What does Jesus think? It is a trick question, of course, designed as always to trap Jesus into saying something contrary to the revered Law of the Jews, especially the Ten Commandments. Jesus never contradicts the Law. He always goes back to root meanings or to other important scriptures. Divorce was permitted because of people’s hardness of heart, he says, but it was not God’s original intention (he quotes Genesis chapters 1: 27 and 2: 24. Furthermore, in what was a male dominated society, where women’s rights were few, Jesus upholds the equal dignity and responsibility of both marriage partners. No reaction from the Pharisees is recorded but when Jesus is alone with his disciples, they question him about his teaching. Given his teaching on the divine intention for marriage, he makes a completely logical definition of adultery. In marriage as in every area of life, Jesus appeals to his listeners to aim for the highest ideal. Faithfulness and integrity are at the heart of his message. But his teaching cannot be used today (but sadly still is) as a weapon to condemn, marginalise or exclude those for whom the married state has not worked out or is not possible.
When people bring children to Jesus for him to touch and bless, he uses it as an opportunity to teach the disciples to receive the kingdom of God as a child so that they can enter it. Children are innocents, wholly dependent on the gifts, care and protection of others. The kingdom is a community, a family, that is inclusive and open to all society’s ‘little ones,’ including children.
There follows a teaching about the lure of wealth. Mark tells us that a man of wealth approaches Jesus to question him. The man asks Jesus what he must do to ‘inherit eternal life.’ From the Greek translation in the Gospels eternal life is another name for the kingdom of God. It is not exclusively about ‘going to heaven.’ Jesus responds by quoting most of the Ten Commandments to which the man responds that he has kept them from his youth. Jesus does not challenge him on this but says that there is one thing he lacks. He should sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and he will have treasure in heaven. ‘Then, come,’ says Jesus, ‘follow me.’ But the man goes away grieving for he cannot give up his possessions. Several times in the Gospels Jesus criticizes wealth and the wealthy, and many Christians have felt uncomfortable with this, especially those who have considerable wealth. It is worth remembering that the early Church relied on its wealthy members because they had properties large enough to accommodate the community for worship and fellowship. Their resources helped the fledgling Christian communities to survive. In order to exist, the local churches today also require the financial commitment of their members, in accordance with their means. It is not wealth as such that Jesus condemns. In his time, the wealthy were part of the ruling elite, just one or two per cent of the population. Up to two thirds of the production of the vast majority peasant class, went to these wealthy people. The wealthy were either collaborators with the imperial power, or they were complicit with it. The system as it was served their interests. So Jesus’ teaching was shaped by the conditions of his time, and that is where we should begin when we read of his attitude to wealth. Wealth went hand in hand with indifference to poverty and suffering, as it has so often since then. To relate it today and to the global reality, probably everyone reading this is in the top eight per cent of the world’s population in terms of wealth.
How might such wealth be used to further God’s passion for a different kind of world?
After more debate with his disciples and a further prophecy of his Passion, Jesus is asked by two of his disciples, James and John, if they might sit either side of him in his glory! What!? Clearly, the still haven’t ‘got it.’ In spite of the Transfiguration experience which they shared, they are still not hearing or understanding Jesus. They think that following him will lead to greatness and privilege, something that Jesus is clearly not offering. The great in the world are tyrants, Jesus is saying. Whoever wants to be great in the kingdom of God must be a servant to all. This scene is followed by the healing of blind Bartimaeus. As well as regaining his physical sight he has more insight than the disciples just referred to. His faith that Jesus could heal him leads him not simply to see again, but to see the Jesus way. He calls him ‘my master’ and he follows him along the road. This road leads to Jerusalem, to the cross and resurrection. That is where today’s journey now brings us.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may well be others!):
How is the meaning of the phrase ‘take up your cross’ different for us today than it was in Jesus’ world?
What do you feel are your own crosses?
How do we view wealth and the wealthy in our own culture, and how do our attitudes contrast with those of Jesus time?
How are we called to use our financial and material resources to reflect the values of God’s kingdom?
The last section of Mark ended with the healing of an unnamed blind man at Bethsaida (8: 22 – 26) and today’s section ends with the restoration of sight to Bartimaeus. What do you notice as you compare the two accounts?
On a metaphorical level, what do these stories suggest about our own blind spots with regard to understanding Jesus and his call to us – how do our eyes need to be opened?
Week 5: The Galilee Ministry part 3 – feeding the multitudes; the purity of faith
This week’s study covers Mark chapter 6 verse 1 to chapter 8 verse 26. You may like to read it through first and have the section to refer to as you read the following.
We have now reached our fifth study but are only just arriving at the halfway point of the Gospel of Mark! So having established Mark’s major Gospel themes, what follows over the next two to three weeks will be a careful selection of events, with summaries and inevitably some omissions as we journey to the climax of the Jesus story. We will pass over the execution of John the Baptizer which occupies a significant part of chapter 6, other than to identify it as a portent for the fate of Jesus who saw himself in some sense as continuing what John had begun. According to Mark, Jesus began his ministry only after John had been arrested. How threatening was the message of the kingdom of God to the rulers of the time! Jesus would have been aware that if they could do away with John, they could do the same to him.
Prior to this account, we read of Jesus returning to his home village of Nazareth. His initial reception among the population is positive. ‘Many who heard him were astounded,’ and wondered how he had attained such wisdom as they heard him preach in the synagogue. But the mood changes. It appears that they cannot accept that he is anything other than a simple craftsman. He is a ‘tekton,’ a word usually translated as ‘carpenter’ but could also apply to other trades. He is only the son of Mary whom they know, and the unusual mention of his mother rather than his father may well indicate that she had been a widow for some considerable time. We read that Jesus could do no ‘work of power’ there. Mark’s stress is that Jesus heals only when there is faith in him. Jesus’ response to the widespread lack of faith in him at Nazareth is to identify himself with Israel’s prophets of old. Like them, he is rejected among his own people.
We move on to the second great ‘nature miracle’ of the Gospel. There are two multiplication of loaves or feeding of the multitude stories in Mark (chapter 6: 30 – 44 and chapter 8: 1 – 10) where Jesus feeds a large crowd of thousands of people with just a few loaves and fish. At the beginning of the first story, the disciples, here called apostles, of whom there are now twelve, have just returned from a mission. Jesus had sent them to proclaim conversion, to heal the sick and to cast out evil spirits as he himself had been doing. Jesus calls them to go away with him to a place of peace and quiet where they can rest for a while. Some hope, for it is not long before the needy crowds catch up with them. Jesus does not send them away but uses the opportunity to teach them. It gets late and the people would need to eat, but all that can be found among them are five loaves and two fish. However, after settling the people in groups Jesus takes the loaves and fish, blesses them, breaks the bread, and gives it to the disciples to distribute to the people. On the surface this is another spectacular story, so once again we should consider its parabolic or metaphorical power. As it is written for later readers including us, there must be layers of meaning beyond its apparent literal sense. What is Mark trying to tell us?
Firstly, the story would have reminded the first readers, if not us immediately, of how God fed Israel’s ancestors in the wilderness with manna, the bread which appeared like dew on the ground each morning (see Exodus chapter 16). The Gospel implication is that Jesus is the new Moses who feeds the people of God in their own wilderness experience.
Secondly, we cannot underestimate the importance in the story of the people being fed. This was an impoverished people, and bread, real food, is the material basis of life. The kingdom of God will include everyone in the world being able to get their fair share of food, the ‘daily bread’ that we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer after the petition asking for the coming of God’s kingdom. When food passes through the hands of Jesus there is enough for everybody, and more than enough. This is a story about God’s desire for the whole world to have an equal share of food.
Thirdly, the story has obvious Eucharistic overtones. The actions of Jesus at the Last Supper are clearly stated here: ‘He took, he blessed, he broke, he gave.’ Here we find a sort of prototype of what we do and receive regularly as Christians. Of course, it fits much better with the early Christian Eucharists which would have involved a full meal rather than just a token wafer bread and a sip of wine. But we can still recognise this story as reflecting our own worship experience and the meaning of Jesus for our lives. He is the spiritual food that satisfies all our hungers.
Chapter 7 brings us to another conflict scene with some Pharisees and Scribes who have come from Jerusalem. This time, Jesus’ disciples are criticised for eating without washing their hands. This is not about hygiene but, once again, about purity rules which required a ritual form of hand washing before eating. But the issue as Jesus confronts it is much bigger. He calls these critics ‘hypocrites’ who pay homage to God with their lips but not with their hearts. Quoting from the prophet Isaiah he tells them that they have confused human traditions with divine commandments. The confrontation and its reasoning is well explained in the text so needs little further comment. But the dispute extends into the issue of food laws. Jesus declares that it is not what goes into a person that defiles but what comes out. It is from within, from the heart, that evil intentions are produced. Purity is about what is in the heart, not in the practice of rituals and customs.
There follows a scene set outside the traditional boundaries of the Jewish homeland. Jesus and his disciples go to Tyre, north of Galilee in what is modern day Lebanon. Even here Jesus is recognised, and a Gentile woman approaches him and begs him to heal her daughter of an unclean spirit. After initially rebuffing her because she is not one of the ‘children’ (meaning of Israel, a Jew) to whom Jesus’ ministry is principally directed, the woman retorts that even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs, a reference perhaps to God-fearing Gentiles who admired the Jews and their religion and even attended the synagogues. Jesus is impressed by the woman’s remark and declares that her daughter is already healed. A story like this would have encouraged Mark’s first readers who were themselves predominantly Gentile as evidenced by the writer’s need to explain some Jewish customs. Here was confirmation of the mandate for the early Church’s mission to the Gentile world that had been launched by St Paul.
Jesus leaves this Gentile territory and travels to another, taking a circuitous route back to the east side of the river Jordan, to the Decapolis region where he had cured the Gerasene demoniac. On that occasion the fearful people had begged him to leave the area. Now they come to him in hope that he will cure one of them, a man suffering from deafness and a speech impediment. Jesus does so. The symbolism of this healing for Mark and his readers could be that Gentiles were once ‘deaf and dumb’ towards God but are now able to hear the gospel. They respond in faith to the words and works of Jesus.
Following the second ‘bread miracle’ which we have already covered, Jesus and his disciples journey by boat to the district of Dalmanutha, a place that has not been located on any known map but was presumably somewhere on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. The Pharisees approach and ask Jesus for a sign from heaven. His refusal to comply suggests that if his message is not clear to them, neither will be a sign or miracle. Jesus’ works are motivated by compassion; they are done to help someone but not to prove something. In any case, if these critics do not believe in him, then performing a healing or some other work will not do any good, as they simply will not ‘get it.’ Even his own disciples don’t yet ‘get it,’ or ‘get him,’ as the next verses show: ‘Do you still not understand, still not realise? Are you hearts hardened? Have you eyes but do not see, ears and do not hear? These could also be questions for some people in Mark’s own community, and they could be questions for some of us. Where faith in Jesus is to come from, Mark has not yet made clear, but one thing is clear: faith does not come from the performance of signs and wonders.
Jesus’ ministry in Galilee and the surrounding districts is approaching its conclusion. He travels by boat with his disciples to Bethsaida, in the north-east corner of the Sea of Galilee. Here a group of people bring a blind man to Jesus in the hope of a cure. The healing he gives is different than usual in that the man’s cure is not immediate but gradual. There is a theological theme here that fits into Mark’s Gospel plan. It refers to the disciples’ own ‘blindness’ – their lack of faith and recognition of who Jesus really is. The healing of the blind man in two stages symbolises the disciples’ gradual growth to full sight. The full vision of who Jesus is will be revealed through his cross and resurrection.
We are now almost ready for the journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Spiritually speaking, it is the way that every Christian must travel in order to live in the kingdom of God.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may well be others!
How do you imagine Jesus was formed by his experiences of growing up in the small, rural village of Nazareth?
How have your life and attitudes been influenced by the place where you grew up?
What do the feeding of the multitude stories tell us about the kingdom of God, and the relationship between physical and spiritual needs?
Week 4: The Galilee Ministry, part 2: Parables and events that give cause to wonder
You may like to read Mark chapters 4 and 5 and have the text to refer to you as you read or listen to the following commentary.
There are two major themes in these chapters: Jesus the teacher, and Jesus the performer of mighty deeds, which we usually call miracles. A miracle is a word which literally means ‘cause to wonder.’
Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds who flocked to hear him using a form of story known as parable. Although a parable is a made-up story, it means an account that is ‘thrown alongside’ an actual event or experience, usually something the hearers can identify with from their own lives. The parable has a meaning and a moral which enables the hearers to see something they might not otherwise see. There is little doubt that the parables recorded in the Gospels were remembered and eventually written down because they were repeated often. Jesus, as an itinerant teacher probably used a story many times, perhaps in longer or shorter versions and with variations, and what we have is probably the general gist and essential message. Parables would initiate thought, imagination, invite the listeners into the story, and provoke questions and debate. Parables would be surprising, even shocking some or all of the audience sometimes. For example, the parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son recorded in the Gospel of Luke would have been extremely challenging to many in view of the religious and social sensitivities and boundaries of the time.
The parables are not usually explained; they are left to the people to work out the meaning for themselves, but Mark records that Jesus explained them to his disciples when they were alone together. The disciples’ frequent lack of understanding (and faith!) is a feature of the Gospel. The first parable recorded by Mark is the familiar Parable of the Sower or Soil. It explains why only a relatively few people are able fully to respond to the message of the kingdom of God. The parable prompts the hearers and readers to consider: ‘What kind of ‘soil’ are we? How well rooted or shallow has our faith become? Is it possible to become a different kind of ‘soil,’ one that yields a harvest in terms of faith?
After relating a number of different parables about the kingdom of God, we read that Jesus crossed the lake (the Sea of Galilee) with his disciples. On the way we have an account of the first of a number of ‘nature miracles.’ A storm suddenly erupts, and the disciples are frightened but Jesus remains asleep. Having crossed the Sea of Galilee by boat several times I can certainly attest to the speed in which a squall or storm can arise. It happened on one occasion and most of the people on our boat got a thorough soaking as well as feeling quite scared. But the storm subsided as quickly as it came. Like the captain of our fairly robust vessel, did Jesus simply understand that the storm was normal and would be brief, and so was able to reassure the disciples. As there were fisherman among them who would have known the lake and its habits well, their fear seems surprising.
With this story, it would be useful to look at a further incident on the lake (see Chapter 6: 45 – 52). We read that having been delayed, Jesus walked over the water to catch up with his disciples in the boat. Is there more going on here than a straightforward and remarkable story of the human Jesus performing spectacular works over nature?
If the parables of Jesus are not about factual events but nevertheless provide true stories, perhaps we can also discover the meaning of these nature miracles as lying beyond or deeper that what appears on the surface. Or, to put it another way, whatever we may believe actually happened, let us move on to think about what the stories mean.
In the Hebrew Bible the sea, as well as being a huge body of water, is a symbol of power and fear. It is sometimes associated with evil; it is the place of monsters (for example, see Isaiah 51 and Daniel 7). The sea could be destructive to life. But God is shown as having power over the sea (for example, see Psalm 107). In the Exodus story God parts the sea so the Israelites can pass through safely, then immediately sends the waters back to engulf the pursuing Egyptian army.
If we read Mark’s two accounts metaphorically, their meaning becomes clear. Firstly, there are overtones of the Easter experience. The disciples were in fear when Jesus ‘slept’ in death following his crucifixion. Their fortunes changed when he appeared to them, risen from the dead. Their fear was replaced by the calm reassurance of his presence. Their courage returned. For all of us the stories outline how Christ, the risen Lord, comes to us in our hour of need, our darkness. He calms the storms and troubled waters of our lives. He enables us to walk with him through those storms and on those waters. We do not need to sink beneath the waves of doubt and fear, because he is present and holding us up. This is surely the message of hope that Mark is trying to convey to his readers. Like Jesus himself, he is telling us the truth in the form of a parable.
The language of parable or metaphor is also involved as we reach the next scene, following the crossing of the lake. Jesus heals another man with an evil spirit, but there is more going on here. The presence of pigs suggests that Jesus and his disciples have arrived in Gentile territory. The Gerasene demoniac, as he is called, is possessed by ‘an unclean spirit’ and he lives in close proximity to corpses and tombs, all indicating a person and a place that are ‘impure,’ a definite no-go area for Jews. But this is not, and never is, an obstacle for the healing, saving work of Jesus. A further meaning to the story is suggested by the name of the demoniac, ‘Legion.’ A legion was a large Roman military unit. It is possible that the demoniac is being presented here as a symbol of the impure and pagan power that ruled the Jewish homeland. If this is the case, the casting out of the demons into a herd of pigs that then rush headlong into the lake could be a sign, a declaration that the kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and peace will in due course overcome and replace the violent power of Rome, and indeed of all the unjust kingdoms and empires of this world. The casting out of Legion becomes a sign of the path of liberation that brings about the healing and transformation of the individual and of the whole world. This is certainly an interpretation of the story which has as much impact for us today as it would have in the time of Jesus.
This story in chapter 5 is followed by an account of Jesus healing two females, the twelve- year-old daughter of Jairus, a local synagogue leader, and a woman who had suffered with a non-specified flow of blood for twelve years. The one story is sandwiched in the other. While Jesus is on his way to the home of Jairus, the woman in the crowd reaches out to touch his clothes in the faith that she would be healed. Jesus is aware of her touch and declares to her that her faith has saved her, and he tells her to go in peace and be free of her sickness.
Like the Gerasene demoniac, the woman’s condition made her ritually ‘unclean’ and socially isolated. Impurity was not considered a sin and it was sometimes unavoidable, as in menstruation, sexual relations, the burying of the dead or even stepping on a grave. But it was regarded as contagious. Both stories show Jesus also being made impure by his physical contact with the sufferers, but in healing them he breaks down this imposed social and religious barrier. And if Jairus’ daughter was actually dead, rather than sleeping or in a coma as Jesus describes it, he would again be officially subject to the condition of impurity, but yet again he shows his mastery over it. As far as the family and the crowd are concerned, he has brought a dead child back to life.
From the story of the stilling of the storm on the lake to the healing or raising of Jairus’ daughter we find two major themes. Firstly, the importance of faith and confidence in Jesus and his power to heal and save. The faith of Jairus and of the woman with the flow of blood is shown in contrast to the fear and lack of faith of the disciples on the stormy lake. Secondly, there is the clear message of the power and authority of Jesus over forces that are opposed to God. He rebukes and silences the destructive power of waters and demons; his rule is greater than whatever ‘Legion’ represents; he has power over impurity, a complete disregard for such alienating prohibitions due to the religious mentality of the time. He even has power over death, and the power to awaken living people to new life. We have now covered the central themes of the whole Gospel and we will meet them again as we continue.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may be others!)
Parables have many layers of meaning. How do these stories continue to speak to you today? Can you think of a modern-day parable that calls into question accepted norms?
How does the metaphorical meaning of ‘the sea’ as outlined here enhance or challenge your understanding of the stories recorded by Mark? What are the storms in your own life, and how has your faith in Jesus calmed them?
What do the stories of the healing of the woman with the flow of blood and the raising of Jairus’ daughter tell us about faith? What part does your faith play during sickness (your own or of someone close to you) and in living through the current pandemic?
Week 3: The Galilee ministry, part 1: Healings and Exorcisms
Our introduction of Jesus in Mark concludes with the call of his first four disciples. This week we accompany Jesus as he begins his ministry. It may be worthwhile reading or re-reading Mark 1: 21 – 45, and chapters 2 and 3, or at least have the text to refer to as you read or listen to the following.
Following the arrest of John the Baptizer, Jesus launched his ministry in Galilee, the territory in the northern part of the Jewish homeland where he grew up. We find him busy on a Sabbath day in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, which became the centre of his Galilee ministry.
Jesus and his four disciples are in the synagogue for Sabbath day worship which would have been normal for them. Jesus is given the opportunity to address the congregation. We are told that his teaching style caused amazement because ‘he taught them with authority, not like the scribes.’ The usual scribal style was probably in the tradition of reflecting on the Jewish Law and relaying the interpretations of previous rabbis or teachers.
Whilst in the synagogue Jesus casts a demon out of a possessed man, then on leaving, goes with his disciples to the home of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, either knowing or finding her to be suffering from a fever. Jesus heals her, and it is of some amusement to read that she got up and began to serve them. They were able to get their Sabbath day lunch!
In the evening as the Sabbath ends, Jesus heals many who were brought to him who were sick or demon-possessed. It seems that the whole town turned up to witness this.
The next scene takes place early the following morning before dawn. Note how Mark is very specific about times and days, something that we will see throughout his story of Jesus. But now he wants us to see how important prayer was in Jesus’ life, and that no activity was possible for him without quality time set apart for contemplation and communion with God. Jesus goes to a place where he can find solitude and the disciples have to go looking for him. Then with them, and their news that everybody is looking for Jesus, they leave Capernaum to visit the neighbouring villages and spend some days travelling around Galilee.
The chapter finishes with a leper, a ritually unclean person of the time, approaching Jesus in faith that he can heal him. Jesus, moved with compassion does as he asks, then orders him to go to the priests who will certify his cleanness and permit his restoration to the community. He further orders him not to say anything about it, but as his good news is clearly too good to keep to himself, he goes off and tells everyone, so that Jesus could not go anywhere in public, and people continue to search for him.
A word about ‘demon possession’ and ‘leprosy’ as the Gospel calls them. Jesus ministered in a world of primitive medical science. Mental illnesses especially were widely understood as possession by evil spirits. In the gospels, the difference between a physical healing and an exorcism (casting out of an evil spirit or demon) is bound to be somewhat blurred. And leprosy as described in the gospels has a wider meaning than the affliction known today as Hansen’s disease. It could include any number of skin diseases. But all of them had the consequence of the sufferer being regarded as unclean and forced to be isolated from the rest of the community.
Jesus’ healing activity flowed out of his intimacy with God and God’s will for human life. They were works of the heart and visible signs of the kingdom of God in the world. As Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God through word and deed, God is presenting Godself in a decisive way. The evidence that the new age is dawning is that blindness, deafness, lameness, uncleanness of any sort, and death itself, are ended. These categories of disease are not always or necessarily names of physical conditions but importantly they are metaphors for spiritual ones. To see the way of Jesus requires sight, the message of the good news needs to be heard, to follow Jesus means to be able to walk his way, the good news of the kingdom God has to be lived, even as it brings life. Whatever physical healings Jesus performs, the story always contains important elements of spiritual transformation, or a moving forward in discipleship. This is a surely a major reason for them being written about. They are telling us how Jesus’ healing works relate to us, the readers.
Chapter 2 of the Gospel begins with Jesus healing a paralysed man. It may be that this man did not have a paralysis in the modern sense, but whatever his condition, he was bed-ridden. It is interesting to note that Jesus heals him by using words of forgiveness from sin. This may reflect the understanding that many of the common peoples’ sicknesses were attributed to their apparent sin, and they were made to be outcasts, excluded from society and synagogue, and they believed themselves to be excluded from the love of God. It could be that this man could not walk because he was heavily burdened by sin and guilt and a conviction that he was forsaken by God. His faith in the authority of Jesus to forgive sins may have been all he needed to get up and walk again!
This scene introduces a series of conflicts between Jesus and the religious authorities. The conflicts include his authority to forgive, which they see as blasphemous, his practise of inclusive meals, the fact that he is seen eating with despised tax collectors, one of whom he even calls to be his disciple, and other sinners whose company they reasoned that no man of God would ever entertain. There is further conflict with them over religious practices such as fasting and Sabbath observance, and perhaps most surprisingly, Jesus is in conflict with his family. Without going into all the possible issues, this scene stresses that for Jesus the kingdom of God is his most important family, a family that is open and accessible to all, and this now has greater priority than his own human family.
To the allegation of the scribes that Jesus’ power to heal is as a result of his own alliance with evil, his response is harsh. Not to discern the work of the Spirit in Jesus, is ‘life-threatening.’ The message is that refusal to recognize the presence and love of God being demonstrated in the work of Jesus is a form of spiritual death.
In these scenes of conflict, Mark announces the major theme of his Gospel. Jesus’ passion for the kingdom of God will lead to a final and fatal conflict with the religious and political authorities who ruled the land. Here, in chapters 2 and 3 of the Gospel, the shadow of the cross is already being cast over the life and mission of Jesus.
Some questions to ponder and pray about (there may be others):
As you read about the healing works of Jesus, what message do they convey about the power of Jesus to heal in your own life or the life of someone you may be praying for?
What are the issues that are raised against Jesus, and how do these issues relate to conflict among religious groups in our own time?
As you reflect on these first three chapters, what is the image of Jesus and his ministry that Mark presents for us?
What is the characteristic of Jesus that most challenges you or the Church of today?
Week 2 – The ‘Way;’ the good news; the kingdom of God
At the beginning of the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptizer is introduced as a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: ‘Look, I am sending my messenger ahead of you who will prepare your way. A voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.’ (from Malachi 3: 1 and Isaiah 40: 3)
The way of the Lord is a major theme of Mark’s Gospel. ‘The way’ (also translated as path or road) is a metaphor for the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The way evokes ancient Israel’s journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land, and later the return of the Jewish exiles to that homeland from Babylonia in the 6th century BC. Both journeys were undertaken through a desert or wilderness and ended with a crossing of the river Jordan. So John’s baptism of people, including Jesus, in that river evokes a sense of something new and final being created: a people who, having repented, are baptized as if passing through the waters of the Jordan in preparation for entry into a new promised land – the reign or kingdom of God.
The gospel as ‘the way of Jesus’ does not primarily focus on belief in who Jesus is, but on a way of life to be followed, that is, his way of life. (‘Belief’ in ancient times meant much more than intellectual assent. It indicated loyalty and commitment to a person or cause). We read in the Acts of the Apostles (9:2) that the earliest name for the new Christian movement was ‘the Way.’ They were followers of the way of Jesus.
Mark reports that Jesus journeyed from Nazareth to where John was baptizing in the Jordan, a little to the north of where the river meets the Dead Sea. It would have been a journey of about 100 miles on foot. It is hardly likely that Jesus walked there to be baptized straightaway. ‘Mark’s account suggests that Jesus’ decision to be baptized indicates an acceptance of John’s call to repentance and an identification with John’s message and vision.’1 It is widely thought in scholarly circles that before his baptism, Jesus spent time in John’s community and even may have been one of his disciples. The evangelists writing as they were long after the event and in the knowledge of Jesus’ true identity obviously found such a possibility difficult to articulate, and even embarrassing. The superiority of Jesus over John right from the start is something they felt necessary to stress, but Mark alone is silent on the matter. With him there is no hint of a ‘rank issue’ between John and Jesus.
What Mark does clearly indicate is that the arrest of John by Herod Antipas, the regional vassal king, was the trigger for Jesus to begin his ministry. ‘The time is fulfilled,’ Jesus proclaims, ‘the kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent and believe in the gospel.’ For Mark (and the other evangelists after him) the gospel is about ‘the kingdom of God.’ So what is this kingdom, and what did it mean for Jesus, for Mark, and for early Christianity?
‘Kingdom’ was, and still is, a political term. The long-suffering people of Jesus’ world knew all about life in the kingdoms of Rome and of Herod. We may wonder why Jesus didn’t use a term like ‘family’ or ‘community’ of God. ‘Kingdom of God’ would therefore surely have meant a society and system that would be loyal to the God of Israel, and what life would be like if God alone were king and the rulers of this world were not.1
This makes sense when we consider the petition in Jesus’ own prayer, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Your kingdom come….on earth as it is in heaven.’ It is asking that God’s rule, God’s system of justice and values, become the norm for the earth just as they are for heaven. This does not deny, of course, that the kingdom of God will reach fulfilment and perfection beyond this life, but first and foremost for humanity, it is about the transformation of this world. It is God’s desire for the earth: a world of justice, love and peace.
At the time of Jesus, after centuries of domination and suffering under foreign rulers and the power of wealthy elites, this is the kind of world that many Jews dreamed of. It is the world envisaged by the great prophets, such as Isaiah and Micah, who both proclaimed God’s will for a just, peaceful and settled future for the people (See Isaiah 2: 4 and Micah 4: 1 – 4).
Jesus proclaimed that this kingdom of God is near or ‘at hand.’ Many people thought that it would be imposed on the world by God, that God would bring an end to the world as we know it. John the Baptist appears to have seen it this way. His call was for people to repent and be baptized before it is too late! But Jesus clearly had something different in mind. He taught his hearers that the kingdom is something that is accessible and can be entered now. He appealed to people to ‘repent,’ which literally means to change your mind and your ways, turn your life around, more than about your sin and need of forgiveness. It is best captured by the image of return to God from the ‘exile’ or separation where you now live. When we can do this, we can enter the kingdom of God. It has no borders except human hearts and minds that can stubbornly imprison us in the way of life we have now.
Jesus then called his hearers to ‘believe’ (to commit to, to love, to live by) the good news of God, and God’s vision of a very different kind of life and world than the one we have now. Mark’s introduction or prelude concludes with Jesus calling his first disciples to ‘follow me,’ to learn and grow to live by his vision of how God wills that life should be for humanity, and for these disciples to be ‘fishers of people,’ who draw others to this good news of God.
At once they follow Jesus, leaving the old life behind. Because what could possibly be better than what he has to offer?
Questions to ponder and pray about (there may be others!):
How has your own understanding of Jesus evolved over time, and what has influenced your thinking?
To repent really means to turn your life around, to go beyond the mind you now have. What does this change of direction mean for our individual lives and our relationship with others, and how are we challenged to move outside our normal comfort zone?
To believe in the good news involves commitment to God and God’s kingdom. What must we do to live out this commitment?
(1.Marcus Borg, ‘Meeting Jesus in Mark,’ p.24; 2.p.29)
Week 1 – Friday after Ash Wednesday
With the inability, once again, of being able to offer the possibility of a Lent course, I would like to share some thoughts from my own Lent study this year. Our recent Archdeaconry Synod had as its theme, the words of the glorified Christ from the book of Revelation: ‘Behold, I stand at the door and knock.’ (Rev. 3: 20). He promises that if we open the door he will come in to us, he will share more of himself with us. In offering some insights each week on Jesus through the Gospel of Mark, I will try and open that door to Jesus or hopefully open it just a little wider. You are welcome to join me.
Suggestion: Read the whole Gospel of Mark either in one go or perhaps 2 – 3 chapters a week, which should take you through Lent, and it would be advisable to have a Bible to hand as you read the following.
Introduction to the Gospel | Its historical context | The titles of Jesus
This year the Gospel readings in our Sunday Eucharist are predominantly from Mark. Mark is now universally accepted as the first Gospel to be written and provides a main source for the slightly later Gospels of Matthew and Luke. These three are known as the Synoptic Gospels because their stories of Jesus follow a similar pattern. Before Mark, the only Christian writings in existence that we know about were the letters of Paul to the various Churches, probably all written in the 50s of the first century.
But in or around the year 70, some 40 years after the historical life of Jesus, an early Christian known later as Mark put the story of Jesus into writing for the first time. It was during a time of war, the Jewish revolt against Roman rule, which resulted in Jerusalem being devastated and the Temple destroyed. It was catastrophic. Jewish belief held that God was especially present in the Temple, and that God had promised to protect Jerusalem and the Temple forever.
This is the context in which Mark wrote his Gospel, his good news about Jesus. It was essentially a book of consolation. For it told that God was still with his people. In Jesus, the presence of God was much nearer and greater than in any temple.
Mark’s opening words are: ‘The beginning of the gospel (or good news) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ The sense is that the whole book is but a beginning. It is good news that continues to unfold. It is not just about the past. We are being invited to meet Jesus now and learn what he is about and how we as his followers today can live according to his way and continue to make him known.
While Mark immediately affirms that Jesus is Son of God and Messiah, Jesus does not make this claim about himself in this Gospel. Such claims are made about him ‘in private,’ what is generally known as Mark’s ‘Messianic Secret.’ It is probably more historically factual that Jesus made no claim of divinity or greatness for himself, or even knew about his divine identity in his earthly lifetime. His focus, words and works were totally centred on God and with the coming kingdom of God.
We need to aware that all the Gospel writers (evangelists) wrote post-Easter. Their faith and knowledge of Jesus was shaped by the experience of the Resurrection and their relationship with the risen Christ through the Spirit in the life of the Church. So much of what they wrote about Jesus would therefore have been interpreted in the light of the resurrection, from the perspective of who Jesus became for the first Christians following the Easter event. In varying degrees, Mark and the other evangelists ‘read back’ this understanding into their story of Jesus’ earthly life. Both pre-Easter memory and post-Easter interpretation are involved in the compilation of the Gospels, and we must see that as quite natural.
Let us begin our meeting with Jesus in Mark by considering how he is introduced to us: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ is not, of course, Jesus’ last name but a title from the Greek word christos, that translates the Hebrew word for ‘messiah.’ It means one anointed, particularly by God (e.g. see Psalm 2:2). It was the title of the ancient kings of Judah and Israel, and even of a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, who in the 6th century BC allowed the Jewish exiles in Babylonia to return to their homeland (Isaiah 45: 1).
By the time of Jesus, Messiah (capital M) meant a specific future leader who would liberate Israel from the oppression of its Roman rulers. Mark declares at the beginning of his Gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the long expected anointed one of Israel. (However, fairly soon the Christ would come to mean for Christians someone much greater and more universal than the Jewish Messiah, see, for example, John 1, Hebrews 1; we can consider this in more detail later). Mark also identifies Jesus as ‘Son of God.’
The status of Jesus as the Son of God was probably first proclaimed only after his resurrection. St Paul (Romans 1: 1) appears to confirm this, but this does not deny that Jesus was already Son of God in his earthly lifetime, only that it became clear following the first Easter.
However, in Jesus’ time and following, there was another ‘Son of God’ in the world. Augustus, the first Roman emperor who ruled from 31BC to 14AD was hailed in pagan Roman theology as ‘the Son of God,’ the Lord and Saviour of the world who had brought ‘peace on earth.’ Subsequent Roman emperors were also considered divine.
Such titles sound so familiar to us as Christians, and here Mark is naming the conflict that would ultimately lead to the death of Jesus. Perhaps we can now understand just how politically subversive the Gospels were in the time and context in which they were written as they applied the exalted titles of the emperor to the itinerant Jew from Nazareth. In a (comfortable Western?) world where many people believe that religion and politics do not mix or even do not conflict, we have clear Gospel evidence that Christianity, as well as being a reform force within Judaism, also began as a peaceful but thoroughly anti-imperial, anti-establishment movement that hailed the superiority of its leader over the rulers of this world, who would build a kingdom far greater than that of any Roman emperor. Towards the end of the Gospel (15: 39) a Roman centurion, a gentile foreigner, declares that this Jesus was truly Son of God. In that scene beneath the cross, Mark presents us with an image of the Roman Empire testifying against itself!
Questions to ponder: Are you surprised by the historical and political context and message of the Gospel?
What does or might it say about our relationship as Christians with the political status quos of our own day?
To what extent does your faith conflict with the conventions or assumptions of your nation or culture?
Contact: Rev’d John Poole
T: +34 922 74 20 45
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