LISTENING TO MARK PART TWO
1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26) Pages 1 to 7
2 The Journey to Jerusalem (8:26 to 13) Pages 8 to 14
3 The Passion (14 to 15) Pages 15-21
The ministry of Jesus has, up to this point, taken place in Galilee. He has shown his authority over demons, illness, the sea, and over sin. Until now no one had a clue as to his identity except the demons. Now the disciples, through the confession of Peter, have a recognition of who Jesus is. Everyone else is without understanding. This is a breakthrough, a burst of light symbolized by that healing of a blind man. Yet, as we shall see, this is just the beginning. Knowing that Jesus is the Messiah is not the same as knowing what it means to be a Messiah. Pharisees and Scribes have started controversy over cleanliness, which really means a lifestyle. His family and friends at home are shaking their heads over his behavior and the things he says. There is a constant frantic pace back and forth across the sea. The crowds are chasing him all over the place even when he withdraws to pray. With the identity of Jesus confirmed by Peter, Jesus begins to clarify and teach both what it means to be Messiah, and what the Messiah must do, and what it means to follow him. This is a turning point in Mark’s Gospel, and he makes it obvious with a geographical turn. Until now, Jesus has been in Galilee. Now he turns toward Jerusalem. This is the end of what can be called: “The Bread Section” to “The Journey Section” or “The Way.” The first of three predictions of the Passion are given to them. Peter objects making it clear that he has no idea what a Messiah is to be. In Mark’s plan, each prediction of the Passion is the occasion for another “teaching” moment. I think it is important at this point to remember that these “predictions” are not a manifestation of Divine Power, or some Divine insight in the future. The human Jesus knew very well what had happened to prophets before him. He knew of their rejection and their suffering. He had no reason to think it would be different for him. It is the same with regard to his prediction that after three days he would rise again. This is an expression of his confident hope that no matter what, his life would not be in vain and his mission would ultimately be victorious. It is a word of encouragement to his followers. So, the Teacher summons the crowd because his invitation to discipleship is extended to all. He teaches them about the cost of discipleship.
The opening event of this second part has Jesus taking those three who have become the “inner circle” up a high mountain by themselves. His Baptism, the moment when he understood his own identity, was a private affair. Now another event happens with others. On a “high mountain,” the place nearest heaven the Transfiguration takes place. Everything about this, as Mark tells it, is directed toward “them,” the three disciples. (“transfigured before them, appeared to them, overshadowed them, they no longer saw anyone with them). This is not about or for Jesus. He says nothing and he does nothing. The presence of Elijah and Moses for Mark make Jesus the eschatological, final prophet who was destined to be taken up into heaven and return at the end of time.
The journey must continue, so they come down this mountain headed for another, Golgotha. There have now been three confessions about the identity of Jesus. The first came from demons. The second from Peter. The third came from God himself. With the command to keep silent as they are coming down the mountain, we see that there is no way to understand who Jesus is until one has seen him suffer, die, and rise again. Of course, they don’t understand, and honestly, how could they understand what it means for someone to rise from the dead? This is not a common occurrence!
After this time on the high mountain, Mark resumes his sense of urgency with all this frantic crowd action. The crowd is in turmoil over something, we don’t know what it is, but they are arguing with the Scribes. It is likely over the inability of the disciples to heal a boy who is possessed. Jesus steps in, and the demon is cast out, but not without a comment on the requirement of faith. The disciples tried to cure this boy. Mark tells us they tried everything without success. Then the father of the boy shows no faith in his approach to Jesus when he says, “If you can…”. Nonetheless, Jesus responds, and the boy is healed giving occasion for the saying: “all things are possible.” For Mark, this an occasion to reveal a truth about the nature of faith meaning not that the person with faith can achieve anything he desires, but rather that God’s power is limitless with those who have the courage to expect the best from God. The father’s cry “help my unbelief” is a reminder that faith is not something one has forever, but is always a gift that needs to be renewed and refreshed.
With that, Jesus moves on through Galilee now teaching only his disciples. Then comes the second prediction of the Passion, death, and resurrection. Of course, they do not understand. To make matters worse, while Jesus is teaching them about what is to come, they are arguing about who among them is most important, about who is first.
In his response to this Jesus expounds on three deeply rooted tendencies of fallen human nature: a craving for Power, Pleasure, and Possessions. He shows how these must be countered with a lifestyle of humble service, fidelity in marriage and family, and detachment from earthly goods. Mark tells us that this all happens “in the house” making it clear that this teaching is for disciples, not the crowd. Mark tells us that Jesus sat down. Is he assuming the posture of the teacher/rabbi, or is he just tired of trying to get through to the disciples? He tells them what he thinks will become of him, and they are arguing about who will be first. I think he sat down because he was tired of trying to get through to them. But, the moment becomes tender as Mark tells us that there in that house, Jesus takes a child “in his arms”. Only Mark’s Gospel puts it this way, and he compares the child to himself: “Whoever receives a child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” It’s not about power, this Kingdom. It is about humble service. Then lest these disciples think they are special, someone comes along who is not part of their number doing good things in the name of Jesus. They object to this infringement on their privilege, and Jesus says, “Leave him alone.” It’s the old question about “them” and “us”, who’s on the inside and who’s on the outside — and what we likely have here is a peek into an internal problem troubling the early Church who first received this gospel.
He then crosses the Jordan moving into Judea and the crowds are back as well as the Pharisees who pose a silly question about marriage and divorce. This is a “test question” nothing new is being proposed or offered. The issue here is whether or not Jesus will uphold the law or not. This has nothing to do with divorce or remarriage. To make it so and start quoting these verses to support one side of the issue or the other distorts the text and misses the point. Those who ask the question are always looking for loopholes, and Jesus will have none of that. The way they pose the question reveals their search for a loophole: “Is it ever permissible, they ask. Jesus passes the test by asking them a question that reveals their effort to put their will before the will of God. In the end, Jesus does not prohibit divorce nearly as much as he elevates marriage.
Mark has Jesus elaborate on his response to the disciples by going back into the house. In this instruction, probably intended directly to the Church that receives the Gospel, the Jewish customs that allowing no rights for women gets upended. Then, the only time when Jesus becomes indignant occurs when the disciples, probably trying to protect Jesus or direct his attention to more important matters try to keep children away. It is an important scene that reveals how God feels about all his sons and daughters. Everyone gets God’s attention and deserves God’s attention. Rebuked will be anyone who sets up obstacles. This Kingdom of Heaven is available and offered to all, especially those who have nothing to offer or count for nothing in the eyes of the world. Indirectly, this passage along with sections of Acts of the Apostles formed part of the ancient Church’s rationale for the practice of infant baptism.
His journey to Jerusalem resumes when a rich man comes up calling him, “Good Teacher” asking what he must do to inherit eternal life? This incident must have made a deep impression on the apostolic community because it is found in Matthew and Luke as well. The memories of each evangelist reveal different points. Matthew is impressed with his youthfulness. Luke calls him a “ruler” suggesting that his wealth is connected with power. For Mark, it is an opportunity to reveal a very human Jesus showing real sincere emotions as he looks at this man, and Mark tells us that he “loved him.” The words of Jesus starkly contradict Judaism’s belief at the time, a belief that somehow still prevails for some, that wealth and riches are a sign of God’s favor when in fact, they are a serious danger for anyone who wishes to inherit the Kingdom of God. Once more, Peter shows the lack of understanding among the disciples who are obviously wondering what they are going to get for following Jesus. They think that they can “earn” the Kingdom of God by doing something. In response to their question, Jesus uses the humorous hyperbole of a camel passing through the eye of a needle, reinforcing his teaching that the Kingdom of God is a gift bestowed by God to anyone God might choose. Putting what we can do before what God can give is simply wrong. Throughout this section, Mark’s message focuses on discipleship as a gift that comes not from abandoning things, but rather, from God’s call and God’s gift alone. Openness to receive this creates a true disciple putting God before all else.
With that said, Mark provides the Third Prediction of the Passion with greater details as the journey to Jerusalem continues. It is the first time that Jerusalem is identified as the place for this to happen. This is the third and last time he will speak of his Passion prompting one more instruction on discipleship. The setting itself sends a message as Mark tells us that Jesus was walking “ahead of them.” There is now a sense of urgency almost as though Jesus is impatient to fulfill his mission. We are not sure who “them” refers to, but surely the disciples are included since they are about to be pulled aside once more. Nonetheless, Mark tells us that they were all moving ahead “amazed and afraid.” A sense of terror is now surely settling over them all, but Jesus moves ahead with confidence.
Mark just can’t let up on these disciples. No sooner has Jesus detailed the future he will experience, then James and John come up and ask if they can have places of honor by sitting at his right and left. It’s interesting to note that when Matthew retells this story, he is a little easier on these two. He has their mother come up and ask this question. Either way, it makes no difference. They do not understand what is going to happen to Jesus and what it means, nor do they understand what it suggests for their future as well. They are spiritually blind, and Mark has something say about that. Whatever, rank and precedence are about to be eradicated. There is some thought among the scholars that this is a later addition in an attempt to settle some controversy among the leadership of the Church. However, the response of Jesus: “to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant” is thought to be an authentic statement from Jesus without redaction. There is a pattern being followed here that Mark has used before: a prediction of the passion followed by a dispute of some kind among the confused disciples concluded by an instruction. This provides Mark with a way of repeating for the sake of emphasis his dominant theme: the lack of understanding among disciples in the face of the truth that God’s way of suffering and sacrifice for Jesus is identical with God’s way of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples. The instruction period over serving rather than being served concludes with a firm statement of identity: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” There can be further doubt about what Jesus thought was his mission, and what would be required of those who would be his disciples.
A word comes up in this instruction that is a challenge for scholars and even for us: “Ransom.” It has a variety of meanings including money paid in compensation for a crime, or to rescue or redeem a life that might be lost, or a fee handed over to the next of kin to set free a relative, or the fee paid to replace the sacrifice of a newborn. All have specific examples in the Old Testament. The verb and the noun both have their roots in the same Greek word for redemption. When Jesus says: “For the Son of man also came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” there is the possibility of thinking that this means some are left out which is incorrect. He’s not talking about the majority as opposed to the minority. The word “for” may simply mean “for the sake of” or “on behalf of” rather than “instead of.” In other words, this is not a trade-off. Jesus is not doing something so that we don’t have to. He does this for the sake of us (to show us how) not to excuse us. That’s important.
By now, they have made it to Jericho where the last healing story is told, and it sums up the goal of Mark’s Gospel as the blind man begins to follow Jesus along the way. A blind man seems to understand the message of Jesus better than the disciples. This is real discipleship, following Jesus along the way. The story begins with Jesus asking the same question he just asked James and John: “What do you want?”
Can you imagine being asked that question by Christ some day? We should have noticed that healing stories have been few and far between in this section of Mark’s Gospel. The only other one was the healing of the epileptic boy in the ninth chapter. So, we can assume that this one is an important transition.
This story in tradition has always been associated with leaving Jericho. So, in order to get Jesus there, Mark begins verse 46 by saying: “And they came to Jericho” and then immediately says: “and as he was leaving Jericho…” Now, this is the first time the title, “Son of David” is applied to Jesus. Jesus calls, and the blind man jumps up. He throws aside his cloak which would have been his livelihood since donations would have been dropped into it, he does what the rich young man could not do. This one is a real disciple, and he does not ask for place of honor. He simply asks to see.
This is a transition moment in the Gospel from a section on Discipleship to what becomes an entire section of confrontations with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Those words: “on the way” conclude the instruction on discipleship. With that, the ministry at Jerusalem begins. Since Peter’s declaration about the identity of Jesus, discipleship has been the focus of Mark’s Gospel. Now begins the ministry of Jesus.
About 500 years before Christ, a prophet we call Zechariah was actively preaching a message of reform and conversion promising that the Lord would return to his people if they would return to him. He wrote to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple and the return of more exiles. This is the shortest work among what scholars call, The Minor Prophets.” The first eight of the fourteen chapters are attributed to Zechariah, but at least two others added the rest of the chapters. In the last chapter, the prophet describes a messianic vision of the coming of the Prince of Peace. The verses describe the triumphant appearance of the humble king who would appear on the Mount of Olives, and that is where Mark opens the scene of entry into Jerusalem. The scene has more than a few hints of an enthronement procession, the first of which is the colt that the disciples are sent to bring back to Jesus. There is always some curiosity about this scene raising some questions. Did Jesus have some supernatural power that allowed him to know where and how to get the colt? Then, how is it that the disciples are instructed to tell the owner that the “Lord” needs it. The consistent reading of this episode is that Mark intended to suggest that the colt is needed for a sacred purpose. This idea is reinforced by the detail that no one had ridden on this colt – further suggesting that something sacred was about to happen. Again, Zechariah’s prophetic vision has the messianic king riding a colt.
Again, I remind you that this is not history nor a biography of Jesus. Mark’s Gospel would give the impression that Jesus made only one visit to Jerusalem. That is not what we can learn from the other Gospels. This is simply the way Mark arranges his theological focus on the mission of Jesus somewhat artificially into three separate days. Mark says he taught there day after day, yet some of the teachings especially those in chapter 14 could have had their origins in the Gapernaum ministry.
If we only had Mark’s Gospel, we would be led to think of Jerusalem as a terrible, evil place. But, Mark is writing to Gentiles. Luke and Matthew on the other hand have a partially Jewish community for their message, and Jerusalem is not, for them, such a dark and evil place. Mark’s report of the entry into Jerusalem is much more muted than we find in the other Gospels. In the others the whole “Messianic” ministry is much more pronounced. Not so here. The acclamation of the people is another detail suggesting that Mark sees this is an enthronement act in the style of the Old Testament rituals with the Arc. Spreading garments on a colt and the road are a coronation custom. The acclamation by the people is both a quotation from Psalm 118 which is sung by pilgrims approaching the Temple and taken from 1 Maccabees describing the arrival of Simon Maccabeus entering the city after their successful revolt. So, is this history or is it Theology? Unique to Mark’s Gospel, the crowd does not call Jesus either “King” or “Son of David.” It is also important to notice that the people who make up this crowd are the ones who are already with him. No one comes out of the city to greet him.
This entry is triumphal only for the followers of Jesus who still do not understand his destiny. In fact, the crowd is expressing their hope for a Messiah yet to come which they feel is near. There is here, once again, a contrast between their expected Messiah and what they get in Jesus. For Jesus, it is a pilgrim’s entry, and he is silent. The irony of this rag-tag procession is that its enthusiastic participants are wrong in their expectation that a Messiah will immediately restore the fortunes of Jerusalem. He enters as the lowly one, a hero only to the crowd who have followed him there. Ironically, he is more of a King than they think. For Mark, this is a religious procession not a political rally. The term, “Hosanna” is a religious term acclaiming salvation. It has nothing to do with power or politics.
The focus in Mark is on the sovereign authority with which Jesus acts here. His command is at once obeyed, and things turn out exactly as he says. The notion that Jesus has pre-arranged with someone to have that colt available does not fit in with Mark’s style and purpose. For Mark, Jesus is the one with the knowledge and the power to make things happen.
This year, when the Gospel of Mark is proclaimed at the start of the Holy Week Liturgy, it is difficult to keep the spirit of Mark’s lowly one with all the fuss and pomp with which we usually begin the Palm Sunday Liturgy. Nonetheless, come Palm Sunday, listen carefully with what you now understand is Mark’s intention.
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Jesus does not immediately drive the merchants and money changers from the Temple. He does go straight to the Temple, but there he only looks around then goes back to Bethany with the Twelve for the night. We should note that the Temple was in many ways both a Holy Place for Sacrifice and the primary economic engine of its time somewhat like “Wall Street.” Consequently, as we shall see, any threat or talk of its destruction is a serious matter much the way we might think of terrorists targeting the centers of our commerce. The Temple has become a market place, a noisy hubbub of business. Instead of the Temple sanctifying the city, the city was profaning the Temple. We know the story, but in Mark’s version Mark has Jesus quote Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” Only Mark add, “for all people” a phrase that would have special meaning for his mostly Gentile readers. It puts me in mind of Pope Francis speaking to the Youth in Lisbon this summer: “The Church is for everyone!”
A favorite technique of Mark shows up here. It is the insertion of a story within a story. In other words, one story is like bookends with a story in the middle. In this case, the Fig Tree story has the cleansing of the Temple in the middle of it. The two stories interpret each other and help illuminate the message. Many scholars suspect that the fig tree story is a later insertion since it is the only negative and destructive miracle of Jesus and is totally out of character for Mark’s Gospel. The truth is, it’s irrational. Why would a tree be cursed for not producing fruit when it is not the season for fruit bearing? Only when seen together with the story within the story (the Temple cleansing) does it make any sense at all. From the view point of the early Church, the fig tree is a symbol for Israel embodied in the Temple and its leaders. That symbol has roots in the Old Testament. Both Temple and Fig Tree appear to be thriving, but neither is bearing the desired fruit; both are condemned by Jesus.
The scene was in the outermost court of the Temple, the Court of the Gentiles. By the colonnades around it the Scribes were fond of teaching their pupils, and on the pavement the traders conducted their business of selling wine, salt, oil, and sacrificial animals, and at certain seasons the money-changers exchanged the Greek or Roman money of pilgrims into the Jewish or Tyrian currency that was required for payment of the Temple Tax. In Mark’s understanding, just as with the cursing of the fig tree, this action is a picture of God’s judgement on hard-hearted Israel, so the expulsion of the merchants is a sign of the divine judgement on the Temple in particular. For his adversaries, there is no escaping the implications here. The leaders are not bearing fruit, and the Temple is not what it should be. That early Church surely saw this as a symbol of God’s final judgement on faithless Israel. Then later it gets re-interpreted for his disciples. So, here comes a time to teach about Faith, Prayer, and Forgiveness.
When it comes to history, the cleansing of the Temple seems to be an actual historical event. Each of the Evangelists reports this incident, and each one in a different way with a different focus. What seems most likely is that this is a relatively minor incident in one corner of the Temple court magnified by tradition and developed along the theological lines of the Evangelist reporting. Here, Jesus cites Jeremiah 7: 11 acting as the prophet who came to purify and restore Israel to its holiness. There is a curious statement inserted saying: “And he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the Temple.” In other words, the Temple was not a “short cut” to get from one place to another. It was a sacred space. Scholars think that this phrase was inserted by the early Church to tone down the opposition of Jesus to the Temple.
The very next verse says: “He taught them.” How in the world he could shift from the disturbance he caused to a teaching moment is curious, and it serves as one more example that Mark’s Jesus is a Teacher with full authority who greatly disturbs the Jewish authorities. With the words: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations” Jesus calls an end to the exceptionalism and the exclusive privilege enjoyed by Israel. These words and this action is for Jesus, in all the synoptic Gospels, the culmination of his ministry. This act sets up the final conflict. The Fig Tree story resumes, and it has withered.
There now unfolds a series of five controversies between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders. These begin with a question put to Jesus by his adversaries. The fig tree story introduces the whole series.
(1) A question about authority.
(2) A question about loyalty over what coin should be used.
(3) A question about the Resurrection
(4) A question about the greatest commandment.
(5) A question about the Messiah as the Son of David.
This all begins with that fig tree story focusing on the failed authority of the adversaries. This gives rise to the question about the authority of Jesus. The leaders of the people see Jesus as a challenge to their authority. In this confrontation, Mark shows the authority of Jesus as he demands that these chief priests, scribes and elders of the people answer him. Jesus has walked boldly into the Temple, and they come up with their question that amounts to: “Who do you think you are?” It’s the right question for Mark, but it is asked with the wrong intention, to trap him. Instead, he traps them with a question about John the Baptist. They are afraid of the crowds who still admire John the Baptist. If they admit that John was a true prophet they are guilty for refusing to listen to him. So, they back down and say they don’t know. Jesus tells them that if by now they do not recognize by what authority he teaches, they never will. With that, it’s over for the time being.
Jesus then tells a parable about Tenants who seize the land after killing the son. They can’t have liked that story. When Mark tells the story, it is a strong reminder to the authorities of the early Church to which he writes to be careful not to claim some exclusive privilege within the Church.
Next, they send some Pharisees and Herodians in an attempt to trap Jesus with that question about which coin to use for paying the taxes. These two groups would not be friendly toward each other. The Pharisees would have been against even handling the Roman coins much less paying a tax to Caesar. The Herodians, on the other hand,
depended upon the Romans for their livelihood. It was a real trap because it was a burning issue at the time. He forces his questioners to answer for themselves, but not before embarrassing them by asking for the coin which they have in their possession inside the Temple precincts. “Busted!”.
With the next question, there is an answer: “You are wrong,” he says to the Sadducees who come with a question that is really meant as an insult. They are scoffing at the whole idea with an absurd and silly example of how many times a widow should be married in order to raise up descendants for the first husband. He disarms them by asking a question: ‘Have you not read in the book of Moses?” Suggesting that these aristocratic people who only accept the first five books of the Scriptures as authoritative is demeaning to them. Insult for insult is what Mark has us see here.
A Scribe has been listening, and he steps forward with the next question about which is the greatest commandment. This Scribe, whose question seems more sincere than hostile, finds the response of Jesus encouraging, and he hears Jesus say to him: “You are not far from the Kingdom of God.” After which Mark says: “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.”
Now Jesus takes the initiative and poses the question about who he is. In a sense, he is on the attack now, and he goes right to the heart of the matter, namely, the kind of Messiah they are expecting. They thought the Messiah would be from the blood line of David and be a King like David. Jesus maintains that being a blood descendant of David is not the important part, and that the Messiah would be greater than David. In fact, he would be so great that he could be called by the title reserved for God. Since he is greater than David, his reign can be greater than David’s. He quotes Psalm 110 to make his point, and the crowd loves this, and to them, he denounces the Scribes for seeking high places and showing off their piety, and “devouring” the houses of widows.
The final chapter of this section, thirteen, has Jesus observe the widow’s offering in the Temple. After this, he predicts the destruction of the Temple and the coming persecution switching into the Apocalyptic style of writing to describe the coming of the Son of Man, and the need for watchfulness. This section of Mark’s Gospel is probably the most difficult passage for anyone to appreciate. This writing style is simply foreign to us. It is a combination of poetry, science fiction, preaching, exhortation, and prediction. Mark does not use this style often, so when he finally does, it is easy to mess it up when it comes to understanding and interpreting.
There are two themes, two perspectives going on usually at the same time. One concerns the coming destruction of Jerusalem; the other deals with the second coming of Jesus under the title of the Son of Man. These two are interwoven: in one verse Mark may refer to the destruction of Jerusalem and in the very next verse switch to the Son of Man idea. Sometimes he puts to the two together. In both instances, Jesus is urging vigilance and readiness for both events.
This is thirty-seven verses in length and the longest speech of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel. This is his farewell speech to the disciples and it describes what Jesus means to the world as the Son of Man. The opening comment by a disciple about the size of the Temple gets it started. Jesus predicts its destruction, and it was not even finished at the time historically. It was completed seven years before the Romans destroyed it in about 70 A.D. The first disciples called are the only ones present for this: Peter, James, John, and Andrew. This would indicated that this a very special moment.
This writing style always contains descriptions of distress – wars, earthquakes, famines, and floods. The point is not a prediction, but rather that disciples should not lose faith in the face of distress because God’s plan is working itself out. Disciples are reminded that they are not alone, that the Holy Spirit will be with them. The coming destruction of the Temple is then presented along with the predicted desecration of having a foreign army inside the Temple. Jesus tells the disciples not to defend the city, but to flee because God’s plan is unfolding and they must not lose faith.
Mark then switches to the coming of the Son of Man in glory. The images are taken entirely from the Old Testament. The actual time is left open. The message is that the Son of Man will bring calm after the chaos acting as a judge claiming his kingdom. The mention of the sun darkening and stars falling is not to be taken literally. The point is that the distress of this world, the forces of evil at work in the world will eventually be conquered regardless of how powerful they seem. It ends with an exhortation to be alert and ready. What it all comes down to is that there will be evil and destruction, but there is also a promise that the forces of good will be stronger. These two themes of destruction and promise have been in the background of this Gospel since the opening prologue. This section is simply the interweaving of these two themes. With these words, the Passion is about to begin: “And what I say to you, I say to all, Watch.” Now the scene is set for the Passion which begins with Chapter 14 as the conspiracy against Jesus takes shape with Passover two days away.