“Watch” says Christ Jesus to us today. “Watch.” It is an experience that involves no activity. Doing it requires attention not action. There is nothing to do when you watch except pay attention. We know how that works. We’ve all watched things and people. We watch a football game, we watch children at play. We watch them grow up, and our loved ones grow old. We don’t do anything except pay attention and sometimes that’s the hard part, attention. I suspect that is why Jesus speaks so sternly and passionately to us his disciples. We get distracted and fail to pay attention. When that happens, we miss things, things that are important.
This season of Advent that we begin today is all about watching and paying attention. It is about focus on things that matter. It is about paying attention and therefore being attentive to the presence of God. It has nothing to do with “You better watch out, you better not cry because you know who is coming to town.” For that matter is not about something that tradition says happened in Bethlehem a long time ago. Neither is it just about a future that we sometimes call “The end of time.” It is about now, because the message of the Gospel is that the Kingdom of God is at hand. What is to come is already here. We have been too busy to watch and be attentive to the truth and the reality that by the Incarnation, by the birth of God’s son, God is no longer off in the clouds listening to angels sing. God has taken human flesh and human life, and we need to pay attention and watch; watch how powerfully and beautifully that human flesh and life can accomplish God’s wish for us to be one, to be love, to be healed, to be saved.
We are reminded today to watch, to pay attention to anyone, to any human life that fails to reveal Godliness. We are reminded today to pay attention to ourselves as well lest others fail to see God through our words and deeds. We need to watch that.
If we are watching and pay attention, we will not sleep. We will not sleep well when another who shares this life with us is sleeping on the street. If we are watching and paying attention to the hunger in this world, we will promote and encourage public policies that address human hunger rather than just feel badly cleaning our overloaded plates because Mom reminded us of starving children around the world.If we are watching as Christ Jesus insists, we will see what needs to be done for all who long to know the mercy of God. And, as we watch, we might do well to remember that God is watching too, watching to see whether or not we are sleep or awake and attentive. It would surely be better were we not found sleeping. On my part, I don’t think it would be an acceptable excuse.
November 26, 2023 at St William Church in Naples, FL
We have spent a year since last November with Matthew’s Gospel and its emphasis on God’s Kingdom. It is then no surprise that near the end a King emerges whose rule is defined in terms of judgement. A ruler has the power to separate good from evil. A ruler establishes the rules and enforces them. But, there is surprise in this scene over how this works out. We close this year of Matthew with the last thing Jesus has to say to us. Jesus is already in Jerusalem, and his enemies are meeting to destroy him. It is a solemn moment and these are serious words. No longer does he speak with the image and language of parables. Now it is straightforward with a direct, unmistakable revelation from God.
We get three images of Jesus Christ. They are all important. This is not an either-or choice. These images reveal Christ as he is today. A Kingdom has a King, but this King is not going to be like any other King. He may well be powerful, but he is merciful. This no warrior King who destroys and then rides gloriously into town with the spoils of war. This King in Matthew’s Gospel has been sorting out divine judgment all along. Wheat verses chaff, fruitful tree versus the unfruitful, houses built on rock versus those built on sand, weeds or wheat, good fish and bad fish, those with wedding garments or those without, those with enough oil and those without, and now he separates once more, but he separates like a Shepherd.
This second image continues to reveal Christ as he is today. This Shepherd/King’s power comes from intimate union knowing each one by name, and a life of love that includes laying down his life. This power is different from the monarch removed from his people. The only way to be lost or condemned by this King is to reject the shepherds love. Such people seal their own fate and chose to be separated for all time from this empowering love.
A third image may at first be less noticeable, but Matthew introduces that third image of the King when it’s time for the judgement. When the King says: “Whatever you did to the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Or “Whatever you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.” With that, we get the third image that reveals Christ as he is today. I can never get away from two sayings that must connect: “I will not leave you” and “The poor you will always have with you.” There is something being implied by those sayings.
What emerges from this final scene in Matthew’s Gospel is a clue on how and where to find Christ today along with a revelation about how the final judgement will go for us. There will be no quiz about how often we went to Church, how many commandments we broke or kept. No one is asked about their marital fidelity, sexual purity or their prayers. What does concern the King, the Shepherd, and the needy is how the saddest members of the society were treated. Matthew leaves us with an image of Christ, born into a refugee family on run from King Herod; abandoned, alone, poor, naked, ridiculed, and even buried in a stranger’s tomb. There is the image of Christ today. Our place in his Kingdom will be determined by our ability to reach beyond ourselves to bring justice, peace and reconciliation into the lives of everyone.
November 19, 2023 at St. Peter and St. William Churches in Naples, FL
This is another one of those “not fair” parables, and at the first stirring of that feeling, you know to go deeper. Then, when you know that it is against Jewish laws to charge interest, this is even more “unfair” since the other guys get praised for doing something that is wrong while this man is called wicked and lazy for keeping the rules and playing it safe. I found a helpful hint about this in the response of this third man. He calls the master “a hard man.” What I do think is that the third man was clearly afraid. He could not take any risks. He had to “play it safe.”
Matthew is writing to Church that has much to fear from persecutions. They were facing big changes as more and Gentiles found their way into what was primarily a Jewish/Christian community. They are afraid of the persecutors and afraid of change. He writes to encourage that church, just as he writes to us today, and Christ speaks to us today about having the courage to confront fear with hope and courage. It is a timely message. There is plenty of fear being used on us these days. Instead of offering us hope and a pragmatic workable solution to the problems we face in our society, those running for public office just want to frighten us by telling us what danger there is from the policies of their evil opponents. At the same time, there is fear lurking within our church, and it started a while ago after the Vatican Council in the 70s. Fear of a changing Church leads to closed minds, ears, and hearts. Add to that the individualism of this age which nurtures the “I’ll do it my way” attitude “because I can” puts our unity is in danger.
At another level, we must keep in mind that there was no capitalism when Jesus spoke these words. Increasing wealth by investment never crossed their minds. They had a notion that there was a limited amount of good. There is only so much wealth to go around and an increase to one person takes from another. Someone with more than they needed would be seen as greedy and wicked.
What we are given here is also a warning about being seduced into an unjust system while encouraging disciples to expose greed for the sin that it is. There is no reason to think that the man with all the goods represents God. That’s not what this parable is about. It comes just like last week with a warning to be ready – a reckoning is coming. What we see at the end is what can happen to those who blow the whistle on the rich and powerful. The parable also encourages disciples to find ways to stand together as they confront unjust systems and not to be found in a vulnerable solitary position like the third man.
This parable is not about the stock market. It is about fear and greed. Throughout the whole of the Gospel, there are more warnings about the dangers of money than anything else, so those of us with it are well advised to be vigilant in stewardship. In the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this is the third of three parables stressing the need for disciples to be found faithful when Christ comes again. In contrast to slaves who live in fear, in the face of greed, with a master who punishes those who do not go along with his plans for amassing more and more wealth, disciples learn to live with trust in God whose provident love gives them the courage to work for justice while waiting for the fulfillment.
November 12, 2023 at St. William and St. Peter Churches in Naples, FL
This Gospel Parable is not about sharing. It is about waiting which is something most of us do not like to do. Since it is about waiting, then it is also about time which is something we can neither hurry nor stop. Most of us rush through time to get things done. When we are not getting things done, we think we are wasting time. But the real waste of time is the way we rush through it. In hurrying to prepare ourselves for things not yet upon us, we end up unprepared for what is here. Sooner or later, our gas runs out. We live in time, and if we’re smart and faithful, we also know that there is something we refer to as the “end time” or the “time of fulfillment.” What we have with this parable is both: the waiting time and the fulfillment time when the banquet begins and the door is shut.
What this parable offers us is a contrast between two ways of living in time and a suggestion about which one is better. One is for the foolish and the other for the wise. The point of telling and retelling this parable over the years is that we have to decide which one we choose to be, foolish or wise. It’s a little like life here in Southwest Florida and how we live through and with the threat of hurricanes. Some watch the weather, they keep batteries and flashlights, water and maybe some canned goods on hand with plenty of gas in the car. Then there are some who just play another round of golf, dismissing the odds and predictions certain that the storm will go another way. We know how that works out, and in theory, none of us want to foolish.
Most of the sermons and commentaries I have heard and read on this parable focus on the foolish virgins which never makes much sense to me. This parable is about wisdom and how wise people live their lives in the present with an eye to the future. This is no warning against taking nap. Both the foolish and wise sleep. This is a warning about forgetting why we are here, waiting for the banquet, knowing that it might be a long wait. The parable is less about oil than it is about being prepared for the long wait. The foolish have gone off somewhere when the wait is over. There is here an obvious reminder that we ought not forget why we are here and wonder off somewhere distracted by whatever is a problem at the moment.
What if those foolish ones had stayed where they were and not wandered off. I like to think that they would have made it into the banquet because this is not about oil. It is about knowing why we’re here and not wandering off because the wait is longer than we thought it would be. It also reminds us that we cannot and should not assume that someone else is going to do what we should be doing. If we do not want to shudder before the words: “I do not know you,” there is still time, but maybe not much.
1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26) Pages 1 to 7
2 The Journey to Jerusalem (11 to 13) Pages 7 to 14
3 The Passion (14 to 15) Pages 15 to 21
With Chapter 14, the passion narrative begins. In some ways, it is the beginning of the end. In Mark’s usual way of inserting stories within stories, the priests and scribes seek to kill Jesus, a woman anoints his body for burial, Judas seeks to betray him. This last part of the Gospel gathers up the major themes of the Gospel into a great drama that grows with intensity. There are frequent time notices given, the days preceding Passover, the watches of the night in which Jesus is betrayed, the hours of the day he died. Time is marked in smaller units and events reported in great detail as the drama builds in intensity and significance.
This is then, a continuous narrative with a coherent chronological sequence. This movement is linear. It goes from the upper room to the garden to the betrayal, on to Jewish trial and Peter’s denial to the Roman trial and condemnation, to crucifixion, death and burial. Along the way, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, let down by the inner three in the garden, abandoned by all the disciples, and on the cross seemingly abandoned by God. Three times he is mocked: at the Jewish trail, at the Roman trial, and on the cross. Only the women stand by him throughout, though at a distance. They witness his death “from afar”. They see the place where he is buried, and go to anoint him when the sabbath has past.
Until now, the Gospel has been made up almost entirely of small independent pieces loosely strung together. It will be different now. Jesus has almost always been in the company of his disciples. Now he is isolated and goes to his death alone. The fact that Jesus is without his companions, goes to his death alone, dramatically establishes the uniqueness of his way to the cross, and demonstrates that the disciple is never above or equal to his master but can only follow him in “cross bearing” at a distance. The structure is basically the same in all four Gospels with much less adaptation than the earlier parts of Mark’s Gospel. What is unique in the Gospel is that Mark does not dwell on the personal suffering or the wounds of Jesus. Instead, these two chapters emphasize interpretations of this death and its implication for being a follower in the world dominated by the brutal power of the Roman-Jerusalem alliance of elite men. Even though we can be fairly sure that there was some earlier record of the events from which they all wrote their Passion accounts, we must keep in mind that this is not biographical, and it is not history. The motive here was to uphold the innocence of Jesus and that his death was, contrary to all appearances, according to the will of God.
As I said, many themes come together here: the rejection of Jesus by his enemies, the failure of his friends, and the unfolding revelation of his true identity and mission. His prophecies are fulfilled: He is rejected, mocked and killed by the authorities, betrayed by Judas, and denied by Peter. As Son of Man he gives his life as a “ransom” for many. Remember that the word, “ransom” does not mean a tradeoff. 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. Throughout Jesus is still the teacher. He teaches that his inevitable death means suffering for his followers in the difficult times until his return in power. The direction of this drama moves to a climax and seems to be complete, with a stone rolled against the door of a tomb to mark the end. The burial, however, is not the end; it is just a void form which bursts a new beginning.
It’s as though there is silence at that point, but by Chapter 16, the first eight verses break the silence. The resurrection reverses the tragedy, vindicates the suffering Son of Man as Christ and Son of God, and makes the story become “Good News” (Gospel). At this point, the original Gospel ends to be completed in the lives of its readers. Some early readers, we suspect, knowing how the story came out in the mission of the apostolic church, felt compelled to round off the abrupt end. Two different endings were written, the longer of which appears and verse 9 through 20. With that summary, let’s look at these last chapters which are really not an end, but a beginning for us.
In the first verses, we get an example of how Mark inserts stories within stories. As the chapter opens, Mark reports the conspiracy in just 2 verses, then he tells of the anointing at Bethany for 9 verses, finally he returns to the conspiracy. This time it is Judas. What we get is two parts of a conspiracy, one from authorities and the other from within the disciples, Judas. While their opposition is different, Mark uses the same language as they are both “looking for a way.” There is great concern with this conspiracy. There is fear of a riot because the town is full of pilgrims and Jesus is popular. The feast itself carried a subversive narrative concerning freedom for a subjugated people from a dominant ruling power. The leaders, in league with the Romans gambled on being able to contain the people power that the festival recalled. The Romans had no problem showing their military power intimidating locals and bolstering the morale of the elite. The time reference in the first verse adds to the suspense all building now toward the crucifixion. For Mark this adds a theological dimension by relating the death of Jesus to the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened bread.
In Mark’s usual way, we get a story within a story. The narration of the capture gets interrupted by another story. We should note that in Mark’s telling of the anointing, the woman is not identified nor is she called, “sinful.” She is simply, “a woman.” As Mark unfolds his account, the shame of it all is upon the men. The praiseworthy character is a woman. Her “alabaster jar of nard” was a globular vase made of alabaster and containing an oil extracted from the nard plant native to India. It very aromatic and very costly. The value Mark assigns to this ointment is equivalent to the annual wage of a day laborer. There is a very clear contrast here that carries through to the end. Men murder, women comfort. Hatred is contrasted to love. Judas receives money for a betrayal. She spends money for his anointing. They are at Bethany which is at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Ironically, the Mount of Olives is to be the place Zechariah announced would be the site for the return of the Son of Man. The setting is the home of a leper! In that culture, men ate alone. She breaks the taboo by crashing the party, so to speak!
There is an interesting contrast here between this woman and the person in the next episode, Judas. This unnamed woman gives up money for Jesus and enters the house to honor him. A man with a name, Judas gives up Jesus for money and leaves the house to betray him. Mark has us move from one meal to another; from the house of Simon in Bethany to another meal in Jerusalem. This section begins with another “time stamp.” It is the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and preparations for the Feast make up the first of three elements here. The second is the prediction of betrayal while at the supper. The third is the covenant meal itself.
With this “time stamp” it is almost as though we have a countdown. Mark follows the Passover events from Exodus rather than Leviticus or Numbers which also record the events of Passover, but slightly differently. Mark, following Exodus calls this the day they sacrificed the lamb (14 Nisan) “The First Day of Unleavened Bread.” The point of indicating the time is to draw attention to the fact that Jesus died during the Jewish feast of liberation. The Passover was a celebration of Liberation much like the Fourth of July marks our independence or freedom from England. Mark insists that the last meal Jesus ate was Passover, the commemoration of God’s deliverance from bondage. The whole description in Mark affirms the Jewish heritage of Jesus and his followers. They were doing it right.
Finding a place for the supper is significant. It is possible that Jesus had made these arrangements ahead of time, but far more likely, this is Mark’s way of showing that God orders this event. With morning preparations complete, there is a shift in time and place. Mark tells us that it is now evening (Thursday = Nisan 15), so Passover has begun, and they are at supper. The focus now sifts to the “the Twelve”, and there are two incidents at the supper. The first has to do with the betrayer. The second focuses on Jesus and his relationship to the disciples, and by his action and words Jesus interprets his impending death and points to the coming of the Kingdom. The verse, “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” We cannot miss the verbs: took, blessed, broke, gave. Already by Mark’s time, these words were shaping the action of the Eucharist. The word, “Cup” is used by Mark, not “wine” with symbolic significance. This use shows up three times in the Gospel. 1) when James and John seek first places, 2) at Gethsemane, and 3) here at the supper. In all three texts, God gives the cup which is the cup of death related to the blood of the covenant. When at table Jesus speaks of MY blood, he is establishing a new covenant. There is here, an interruption of the normal ritual of this meal. When Jesus speaks these words, they are not the “right” words, and this departure from the tradition surely got the attention of the disciples. There is something new happening here.
They leave the Passover singing – usually Psalm 118 which begins: “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,” and at the end comes these words: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” So, they go much as they came in, but with a note of victory and the glory to come.
They leave Jerusalem for the Mount of Olives where three events occur. 1) The prediction of abandonment, 2) Peter’s denial, 3) the arrest. The drama narrows to the three leading disciples on the one hand and Jesus on the other. Peter makes his brave promise to share in the death of Jesus. Clearly, he has not listened nor understood what is to come. The repeated warnings to be watchful and awake have fallen on deaf ears. He falls asleep. It is interesting to note that when Jesus rebukes Peter, he does not use his new name, Peter. He calls him by the name of his old life, “Simon.” The three Jesus has taken with him, Peter, James and John, were there for the raising of a dead girl, the transfiguration, and teaching on the Mount of Olives. Jesus instructs them to stay awake, using the same verb as in the parable of the absent and unexpectedly returning master. Three appears three times. Being awake, or watchful or vigilant, will be a key quality for followers in the absence of Jesus. They fail.
As Mark tells the story, Jesus has no martyr complex. It is a contest between human will and the will of the Father. It is the will of Jesus that the cup pass. He does not want to be put to the test. He wants some other way to fulfill God’s purpose for him. This is a dramatic and powerful struggle. With great distress and anxiety, Mark tells us that Jesus “Threw himself on the ground.” This is a terrifying scene. Jesus is utterly alone. Yet, he refuses to abandon the will of the God, and the die is cast, and he says: “Enough.” It is over.
Several key terms give this passage some power. WATCH, HOUR, CUP, PRAY. All of these terms get deeper and more powerful significance than they have on the surface. Then, “Suddenly,” Mark says the betrayer is at hand, and the action shifts from a lonely struggle to a mob scene which includes a crowd sent by the religious authorities, Judas, Jesus, the whole group of disciples, and mysterious young man. For Mark Jesus behaves with fearless human dignity. His courage and words are in stark contrast with the behavior of others in the scene. He stands as a model for the church when under persecution.
The kiss from Judas is more than a common greeting. He calls Jesus, “Rabbi” thereby indicating that he is a disciple. No disciple would ever kiss the Rabbi. It is an insulting break of tradition. There is no respectful friendship here. There is a break in their relationship. Insult is followed by violence. A disciple standing by strikes off the ear of the high priest’s slave with a sword. Mark does not name Peter as the disciple. Only John’s Gospel does so. In this Gospel, Mark shows us how useless and ineffective violence is. What’s really important is that the disciples fled the scene. The anonymous “young man” darts into the action long enough to leave his clothes behind and run off naked. Who is this? Why is this reported? Since the earliest times and the oldest commentators, there have been every sort of guess imaginable. The answer is: We don’t know.
Mark’s style and his way of telling a story with another story inside is at its best here. The trial scene is set within the account of Peter’s denial so that each story interrupts the other. It is a mistake to call this a “trial,” at least with our ideas of justice. This is misleading. Imperial dynamics do not permit a “fair trial.” Jesus is a Galilean peasant in their eyes, aman of low status against the local powers. What happens before the highest council of Judaism, the Sanhedrin is not a “trial”. There is a presumption of guilt. The procedure is strictly followed as set by the book of Numbers and Deuteronomy. This why there must be two witnesses. Of course, the whole thing is irregular because the verdict is predetermined and the evidence is false. However, in their eyes, he is guilty. He did speak blasphemy, and he did mix politics with religion which is treason. There are two charges against Jesus: He claimed he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days; and he claimed to be the Christ, the Son of God.
At no point in this Gospel does Jesus claim that he would destroy the Temple, or that in three days he would build another. In spite of this, those mocking Jesus on the cross refer to this false claim. The silence of Jesus to this first charge increases the tension in which the high priest puts the second crucial question: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Even though Peter and demons have said it was so, Jesus has never claimed either title for himself. Now, with the drama of the Passion underway with no longer any possibility for the crowd to misunderstand the meaning of his claim, Jesus answers: “I am.” At this point in the drama, there should be a thunder clap or a roll of the drums. He said; “I AM.” This is what Moses heard at the burning bush. This is a claim to the Divine Identity, and it seals his fate. It is a moment of courage, something said at the cost of his condemnation. This is blasphemous. What’s more, the whole expectation for a Messiah is thrown into question now. How could this Galilean possibly be a Messiah? This is not what they expected, and they refused the plan of God. He and his idea are condemned. They will not have it or have him.
Immediately Mark switches the story to Peter and his denial. By doing so, he contrasts the behavior of Jesus when accused and that of Peter. Jesus shows courage. Peter shows cowardice. Jesus is upstairs questioned by the High Priest. Peter is downstairs questioned by a servant of the High Priest. Jesus confesses his identity and future role that will bring down the status quo. Peter denies knowing Jesus. For the persecuted community to whom Mark is first writing, there is a message. Jesus loses his life through steadfast witness ultimately saving his life. Peter tries to save his life but loses it by avoiding the way of the cross and being ashamed of Jesus. None the less, he wept. Is it over an opportunity lost, or is it the beginning of repentance leading to a hope reborn?
Another Chapter and another “trial” begins. The power of the Chief Priests, Elders, and Scribes, those, so-called-authorities is really not power at all, so they turn to Roman and Pilate. Mark tells us that they “handed him over” to Pilate using the same words Jesus used in his prediction of what would happen. What is revealed here is a very dangerous social alliance between the occupied and the occupiers. There is an alliance of power here determined to keep things as they are. There is to be no change especially if it costs them their power and privilege. It is misleading to see Pilate as a weak and spineless character who is the victim of Jewish pressure and forced against his will to crucify Jesus whom he thinks is “innocent.” Rome did not appoint weak and spineless governors. He is wise and astute here balancing several factors. He knows that if his allies see Jesus as a threat he must also be a threat to Pilate. Yet, he can’t give in to their demands instantly or he looks weak. Instead, he conducts a poll manipulating the crowd making them beg for crucifixion. He makes them dependent upon him elevating his power.
The same pattern is used before Pilate: interrogation, condemnation, mockery. By setting up both trials, the rejection of Jesus is complete, both by religious authorities and now by civil authorities. To these two, Marks adds a third; the crowd, because Mark is interested in drawing the Civil Authorities into complicity so that both Jews and Gentiles are implicated. Now it is the fourth watch of the night, Mark tells us. Evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning marks the passing of time in watches.
The question asked by Pilate, “Are you the King of the Jews?” is identical in all four Gospels. This is a shift from the question of the High Priest who asks if he is the Messiah. Pilate wants to know if this is a political or civil threat. The response of Jesus: “You say so” leaves Pilate shaking his head. From that moment on, Jesus is silent and it amazes Pilate. A sub plot emerges with this trial over Barabbas. Only in Mark does the crowd take the initiative to ask for Barabbas. There is no historical evidence for this practice of releasing a prisoner at Passover. However, with this story, Mark depicts this miscarriage of justice in a way which, ironically, reveals the supreme truth about Jesus. Though sinless, he dies that sinners may live.
Roman governors needed one skill above all others: the ability to keep crowds quiet or under control. Pilate is good at it. When he asks if the crowd wants the King of the Jews released, he tricks the crowd into being the judge, and he looks like their benefactor when he says, “Release FOR you.” It’s also a referendum on their loyalty to Rome. If they said otherwise, they would be in big trouble. Pilate stacked the deck. So, the phrase comes again: “They led him away.” The Roman custom of whipping the condemned is fulfilled which also the prediction of Jesus and the fulfillment of what is said in Isaiah 50:6. “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.” To tie all these things together, Mark once again says: “They handed him over.” The second mockery occurs – now it’s the Gentile Roman Soldiers. A third is yet to come. Jesus goes to death as the King of the Jews.
There is something wild about this scene showing rival authorities fighting for power. The chief priest, elders and scribes have religious authority which they can exercise only by manipulating a Roman Governor and an excitable crowd. Pilate possess all the real authority. The crowd is manipulated by the chief priest, elders, and the scribes. In the middle of this stands one quiet figure who claims no authority but shows it with quiet dignity. We, like Mark, are left to see the real king and real authority. The fundamental issue here is the true nature of authority. In contrast to authority imposed from above, this is authority that comes from obedience to the will of God. The real authority we see is not someone bossing people around or telling them what to do, but Jesus exercises authority by service, through love, thereby revealing in revolutionary terms the way the ultimate Power of the universe works.
The regal image of the King is developed very carefully in the details Mark gives us. Historical records of victorious kings returning from battle confirm the theological theme at this point in the Passion. Soldiers are present. The reference to the Praetorium or “Governor’s” headquarters evokes the Praetorian guard in triumphal processions. Jesus wears a purple robe. Historian Josephus reports that Vespasian and his son Titus were clothed in purple, and that color was worn by people of high status. Jesus wears a crown. Jesus receives derisive honor from the soldiers who hail him as the King of the Jews, and they kneel before Him.
Everything in Marks Gospel builds toward one event told in only 21 verses, and the crucifixion in only four words without dwelling on the bodily suffering and violence of this crucifixion. A condemned person was ordinarily forced to carry one’s own cross-beam. Jesus was either not able to carry it after the whipping or refused to carry it in defiance of “customary expectations.” It was not out of the ordinary for the soldiers to requisition someone to do their work. So, Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service, perhaps unwillingly. Again, the details are few but full of meaning. Crucifixions were carried out in public areas. It was a billboard announcing Rome’s dominance. Jesus refuses “wine mixed with myrrh” offered to him. Perhaps this is a pain dulling mixture, but may also be in fidelity to his declaration that he will not drink wine until he drinks it new in the Kingdom of God.
All through this scene, there are treads of Psalm 22, a Psalm of Lament. These Psalms typically involve three groups of characters. The first party, the psalmist, seeks to be faithful to God’s purposes in difficult circumstances through which he suffers and cries out to God for help. Then, there is a second group made up of enemies who oppose this faithful person and cause considerable suffering though hostility and unjust actions. The third character is God. From the outset, the psalmist laments or complains that God is inactive and powerless, even absent, in the midst of suffering. Then toward the end of the psalm the psalmist experiences God’s deliverance and praises God. In Psalm 22 the suffering involves physical injury, social hostility, life is in danger, bones are out of joint, dry mouth, and clothing taken and divided by lots. He complains that God has forsaken him, is distant, and does not respond to his cries. I think it is important here to remember that this is not an historical report, but a theological interpretation of the death of Christ.
The inscription put on the cross is a reminder to anyone passing by that threats to Roman power will not end well. He is crucified with two others who threatened the Roman order. “Bandit” can also mean “rebel.” “Insurrectionist” means a terrorist. This scene of Jesus crucified with rebels on his left and right recalls the previous conversation between Jesus and John and James. They sought places of honor at the right and left of Jesus. In response to them, Jesus challenged them about sharing in his death. Ironically, they are absent. The drama is excited by time notices again. It was the third hour (9:00am). Then there was darkness from the sixth hour (Noon) until the ninth hour (3:00pm). The three hours of darkness at midday is not just a dramatic pause, but an allusion from the prophet Amos (8:9). Mark gives this whole scene a strong Roman slant stressing the fact that Gentiles finally kill him, yet a Gentile is the first after his death to recognize and proclaim a Son of God.
Themes from Mark’s whole Gospel come together here: the hostility of the religious authorities, the failure of his disciples through misunderstanding, betrayal, denial, and flight. Not a single disciple is present. Mark’s principal theme comes into focus now: Jesus Christ is King. Tried and mocked as King of the Jews, mocked as King of Israel, Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is the Messiah, King and Son of God. Women are looking on from afar doing what disciples should do, but do not.
The death of Jesus is an important mark in order to make the Resurrection so powerful. Darkness at the death of an important person was a common literary motif for mourning. Two other signs have attracted a great deal of discussion: a torn Temple Veil and a centurion’s declaration at the cross, “Truly this man was God’s Son.”
There were two curtains in the Temple; an inner curtain separated the holy of holies from the rest of the Temple and tan outer curtain separating the Temple from the forecourt. It is not clear which one is referred to, and it probably does not matter. Some might like to interpret this as a judgement on the Temple or as the opening of access to God. The verb is in the passive “was torn” in the sense that God did the tearing. That passive voice verb was used at the Baptism of Jesus as God revealed the identity of His Son. The second sign of the centurion’s confession is the first time a human has said this. Before it was only the demons. Yet, perhaps this is a sarcastic yet ironic sneer about the crucified Jesus. Its tone is derisive. It is impossible to decide which this is. Both interpretations have value. Regardless of what the centurion meant, believers know. Rome is now given a secondary importance.
There is no avoiding or missing the point that Jesus dies abandoned by men. Mark provides a dramatic reversal by suddenly telling us that a group of women followers were present, looking on from a distance. Three are named, but it is a sizeable group. Their loyalty or their courageous presence is tempered by Mark who shows us that they “followed at a distance”. This is the same word Mark used to describe Peter’s following “at a distance.” The text suggests that these women kept vigil at the cross all day from the time of crucifixion at nine o’clock in the morning, through the noon-time darkness and his death around three in the afternoon and on to the evening removal of Jesus from the cross and his entombment which is guided by a man named, Joseph. The timing on the evening of day of Preparation before the Sabbath is noted. Joseph is introduced by his place of origin, Arimathea in Samaria. This suggests a family tomb close to Jerusalem, a family of some means. There is a sense of haste about this scene. The body is not washed or anointed, tasks women normally performed for the dead.
Mark would have us understand very clearly: Jesus died. If he died, then he was buried. He was buried in a certain place on a certain day by a certain person or persons. It was the Preparation Day at sun down, Friday. “A respected member of the council who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” is named “Joseph of Arimathea.” He is not called a disciple. They are gone. Joseph does what they should do, looking for and waiting. He is not passive in this wait however, he took courage and went to Pilate asking for the body. To verify that Jesus really died, there is the conversation between Pilate and the Centurion. The primary detail for Mark is the sealing of the tomb with a large stone. This is important as controversies arise before the end of the first century lasting into the fourth century. He died. He identified with us in our death. His incarnation was so real that he was buried. There is no part of us that he has not assumed for by the grace of God he tasted death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)
Often times, an ending is not the end, and that’s the case with the Gospel. In Mark a dead man rises from the tomb, and the Gospel ends in the middle of a sentence! In Chapter 16 the women find the stone rolled away when they come to anoint the body. A young man dressed in white is sitting on the right side, a place of honor. He tells them not to be alarmed, that Jesus has been raised, and that they should go and tell Peter and the disciples that Jesus has gone ahead of them to Galilee where they will see him. The use of the passive voice is important. It suggests divine action has intervened to raise Jesus. Then with these words the Gospel of Mark ends: “So, they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid.”
Through all of this Gospel Mark has been preparing us for the triumphant victory over death, just as Jesus was preparing his disciples. But there is a sense in which no one could be prepared for the resurrection. The resurrection is not the awakening of a corpse. It is God’s decisive intervention in time and history by which human existence is radically and forever transformed. The resurrection is the final stage in God’s mighty act of deliverance freeing humanity from sin and restoring communion with Him. The silence Jesus has imposed all through the Gospel of Mark is now reversed. Yet, the response is silence.
It is totally reasonable to ask and wonder why the Gospel could end like this. All through this Gospel Mark has portrayed misunderstanding, fear, failure and flight on the part of chosen disciples. Everything he has reported overturns all human ways of thinking. Now, with the last verse, Mark has finally brought us right into the center of the story. Now we are face to face with the announcement of victory over death leaving us to decide how we must respond.
The longer ending accepted as inspired by the Holy Spirit did not appear until the late second century. The author seems to have been familiar with all four Gospels drawing from Matthew, Luke, and John. What is consistent in the story is that the Lord takes the initiative in appearing to people. They do not just “find” him. Significantly the first person to whom he appears is a woman out of whom he had driven seven demons, someone who might seem the least reliable. Furthermore, His risen body is such that he is not recognized until he makes himself known. As always before, Jesus reprimands the disciples when he finally appears to them, but that does not invalidate their commission. Slow to believe they are to proclaim the gospel to every creature. No longer just the chosen people, but all the world. Belief is not enough however, an action is required, being Baptized, an action of God by which a believer is united with Jesus in his death and resurrection and incorporated into the church.
Mark knows that we are well aware of how the story unfolds and goes on. Peter and the disciples see the risen Lord, and their encounter with him becomes the bedrock of the apostolic proclamation of the Gospel that spread throughout the Roman Empire. This is not because the women succeeded in following their commission, but by the power of God who is able to overcome every human failure. We are living with Mark’s Gospel in times that call for a new Evangelization bringing this Good News not only to mission lands but to the secularized post-Christian cultures all around us. We must allow ourselves to be filled with the same enthusiasm, joy, hope, and courage that followed Pentecost. Mark shows us that every word of Jesus is reliable, and we are all invited to accept in faith the testimony of his resurrection. The story has no end because it continues in the life of every disciple of Jesus for all time.
Unlike Mark’s Gospel that seems to have no ending, this talk does. I leave it with you now with the hope that the Holy Spirit will bring this Good News to life within you first for your own renewal in faith and then for the continual renewal of our Church which sometimes seems so afraid of the future, so timid, so ashamed of its failures as was Peter. We cannot look backward and pretend that earlier days and ways were better. If we do, we are like those women who were so afraid of what it might mean to live with and in the presence and power of God.
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.
1 The Ministry in and around Galilee (1:14 to 8:26)2 The Journey to Jerusalem (11 to 13)3 The Passion (14 to 15)
LISTENING TO MARK PART ONE
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 to 21
When we pick up the Bible and open it to the Gospels, we ought to wonder how those words came to be on a page since the “Good News” was first passed on by word of mouth, and the message being passed on concerns what the messengers experienced as they heard and saw Jesus Christ. In other words, they are giving us the Christ they heard and saw. For us, so long after that time, it is quite possible to wonder if what we have on paper was made up by the Church, because the Christ of the New Testament is sometimes at odds with the Christ of other ancient writings that are not included in the New Testament. We have no way of knowing outside of the Bible if the Christ of the Gospels is the Christ of history. In other words, asking if he really said that, really did that, or how he did it is a question that has no answer. As I have repeated over and over again in the talks about Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel, this is not history. This is theology. We must also remember that whatever date gets set for the writing of a Gospel, the preached Gospel came before them all. All of the Gospels owe their existence to the fact that the eyewitnesses were dying, and those who actually saw and heard Jesus speak were fast disappearing. The exact principal by which some writings were determined to be included in the Sacred Scriptures is not clear. However, it was highly likely that a writing was retained and included only if it was believed to have come directly or indirectly from the circle of those who had known Christ when he was incarnate. It was accepted on apostolic authority if an apostle was believed to be either the author or the guarantor.
Rome, the center of Gentile civilization is the ultimate and final destination of Peter and Paul. Probably there, as a companion of Paul and a disciple of Peter, a man tradition has called, “Mark” set about the task of putting into writing what he could gather from Peter and any others who had actually heard Jesus speak. There is every reason to believe that Mark had some earlier writings now lost to us that would have recorded things Jesus said and things Jesus did. But for the most part, this is a one-source Gospel and the preaching of Peter is the source.
As a piece of literature, it is short, blunt, and somewhat clipped in style. In some instances, the details vary from the other Gospels when describing the same incident. At first it seems to be a chronological report of the Lord’s life, but in the end, it is almost chaotic as it seems to dart abruptly from one location to another. Considering the source, what we have are the memories of the aging Peter. Mark, careful to leave nothing out, gives us Peter with no addition or subtraction. As a piece of literature then, it is a simple and direct record of what was remembered from what Jesus said and did. This is not to imply that somehow Mark’s Gospel is inferior to Matthew and Luke. On the contrary, he was actually a pioneer and preserved for us material that might have been lost had it not been for his writing. He selected, adapted, and presented traditional material, and he arranged it with great care. He wrote for a community with a firm Christian tradition knowing what he was about with great theological sophistication.
This Gospel is written more as a sermon that serves to motivate. So, by telling the story of Jesus, Mark challenges readers to faithful discipleship. He wants to reveal God’s plan of salvation, and he presents that in and through the life of Jesus Christ. It is through human life that God saves the world. Ultimately it is a call to action that is most clearly heard at the conclusion as a call to action and conversion. His focus is on one’s personal choice to act.
When he wrote, a decision to become a follower of Jesus was very radical. It could mean disapproval and outright rejection from friends and family. It could require close fellowship with people previously shunned, slaves, Roman soldiers, Jewish nationalists, and public sinners. For the educated it could mean being laughed at for the absurdity of following a carpenter from a backwater village who was executed as a criminal. For some it could also mean imprisonment, torture, and death by the brutal Romans. Mark himself is one of these people whose life has been changed. He is excited about it, full of joy, and anxious to share his “good news”.
He was writing for a mixed community with Gentile and Jewish backgrounds. Where they are is only a guess. Mark is not preoccupied with geographical precision. However, they are somewhere in the Roman Empire, probably Syria, which would be close to the events of the Jewish War. Because he is aware of the Gentile converts he takes great care to translate Jewish expressions, customs, and Aramaic expressions for those living in Rome. He wants to knit these two peoples closer together with Jesus as the bond of that union. Most believe it was written soon after or immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70. This traumatic event raised a problem for Mark’s community which he had to face. Some believed that the destruction of the Temple would be followed immediately by the end of the world, and that did not happen. This makes Mark very conscious of living “between the times.” Victory is the destiny of the faithful, but life in the here and now is real, and it can be grim.
Of special concern for Mark is the power of Imperial Rome as he stresses over and over again the deeds, the strength, and the determination of Jesus to overcome evil forces. Conflict is constant in Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus is the cause of it. He is in conflict with the authorities both religious and political. There is conflict with the disciples who are overwhelmed by Jesus and his demands. They are hard of heart and full of fear. They constantly misunderstand. In the end, they fail him. As with Matthew, Luke, and John, the ultimate focus and the motive for writing is the Passion, which may have been written first with the other chapters, written later, leading and pointing toward the Passion. One third of this Gospel is devoted to the last week of Jesus’s life.
“Who is this?” is the question that drives Mark’s Gospel from the moment Jesus brings calm to the sea up to the moment when Peter finally speaks up and expresses the faith of the apostles, and on to one final moment at the death of Jesus. One of the most striking elements in this Gospel is the reluctance of Jesus to reveal himself as Messiah. He only refers to himself as the “Son of Man”. Jesus calls disciples to faith that requires suffering, and so until they pass through the suffering, there is to be no talk or mention of who he is. This is what gives rise to what students of Mark’s Gospel call “The Messianic Secret.” Yet, we know the secret and so do the first readers of Mark’s Gospel. What unfolds in this Gospel by watching the characters who do not know what we know is an unfolding of what Jesus must undergo and what that means for those who follow him.
Mark is a storyteller with an eye for detail especially in the miracle stories. Details are abundant and given in a vivid style, and one incident follows on another in an almost breathless narrative. He also shows himself to be a rare and fine theologian.
More than any other Gospel, Mark emphasizes the miracles, healings, and exorcisms of Jesus. There are 678 verses in Mark, and 1/3 (198) recount miracles. If you like numbers and statistics, there are 18 miracles stories. Thirteen of these are healing stories. The rest are exorcisms. In our day, these raise some questions: Did those events really occur by supernatural intervention? “Do demons really exist?” “Do miracles happen today?” In Mark’s day, these were not questions. Demons existed and troubled people, and there were miracles everywhere. So, Mark never addresses those questions. Supernatural intervention, while extraordinary, was common to the time, and attributing certain illnesses to demons was equally common. We cannot go further with this without my reminder, something I have said time and time again in these talks about the Gospels. “This is not history! This is theology.” It is ridiculous to ask “What really happened?”. That is simply a distraction from what matters, and why we have the Gospel. There is no way to answer that question. What matters is, “What did this happening really mean?”
With that, let us step into the Gospel of Mark.
The opening verse provides the title: “The Good News,” and for Mark, Jesus is himself the Good News that God has sent his Son to rescue humanity by serving and sacrificing his life. There is no infancy narrative. Mark has no interest in what happened before the Baptism of Jesus. For Matthew and Luke, the identity of Jesus is the point of their Nativity stories. They want to introduce Jesus through a location, his family, and the witnesses (Shepherds in Luke, Magi in Matthew). Mark accomplishes that with John the Baptist.
This story of Jesus begins in the wilderness of Judea. We have no idea where that is on the map, but the location has profound theological significance. The Baptist appears like Elijah to prepare the way. At the ninth verse, Jesus is introduced, to be baptized, and to be tempted. This is Mark’s way of establishing the identity and the authority of Jesus with a hint about what is to come as Jesus moves into Galilee.
The ministry in Galilee is dominated by one question: “Who is this?”. A series of remarkable events and words of Jesus raise the question. Jesus never declares his identity. Demons know, but they are silenced by Jesus who simply offers himself and his teaching for individual decisions and commitment. “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
The ministry in Galilee has three parts, and the transition from one part to the next is marked by a response to Jesus. The first part concludes at chapter 3 verse 6: “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” The second part concludes at chapter 6 verse 3: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us? And they took offense at him.” Again, he moves on after recognizing their rejection. Part three concludes the Ministry in Galilee and leads up to the climactic moment when Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah. With that, everything changes, the pace picks up, and Jesus heads toward Jerusalem. That’s the end of the ministry in Galilee.
With that outline understood, it only takes Mark 9 verses to establish the identity of Jesus. It happens at the Baptism which, in Mark, is not a public affair. The whole event is simple and direct, it is the Epiphany moment in this Gospel establishing the identity and authority of Jesus of Nazareth. It occurs by a vision and a voice. A verb in the passive voice is used by Mark here: “The heavens were torn open.” It is the same verb used when the Temple Veil is “torn” from top to bottom. In both cases, what has been closed is now open. The mention of the Spirit descending suggests that Jesus is greater than John, and that Jesus will Baptize with the Spirit. Both the vision and the voice are intended for Jesus alone. There is no mention that anyone else was present or heard the voice. This is a secret epiphany. Jesus knows who he is by means of an experience that is not available to the public. They must discover his identity by listening to what Jesus says and by watching what he does. The centurion who watches Jesus die will confess publicly what is here revealed privately: Jesus is the Son of God. The entire story that follows is the story of Jesus and of what God did through him. We ought to think about this in terms of our own Baptism. It establishes our identity.
That Spirit descending upon him immediately drives him out into the wilderness. Mark says nothing about fasting, and there are no details about temptations. There is nothing said about the outcome of the struggle either. What matters here is the number 40 as a reminder of Israel’s forty days in the wilderness and the forty days Moses spent on Sinai. The wilderness is a place where the forces hostile to God are found. Yet, God is present there too. The Greek word translated as “tempt” can also mean “test”. It is not likely that Mark would suggest that Jesus was “tempted” to sin. On the contrary, since conflict is so much a part of Mark’s Gospel, it would be much clearer to say that Jesus was “put to the test” which is a very different experience.
Then, almost as though Jesus waits for the Baptist to finish his work, Mark simply says that Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. For Mark, it’s all about proclaiming which includes preaching and teaching. In the first verse of Chapter One, it is the “good news of Jesus Christ.” Now in verse 14 it is the “good news of God”. Mark tells us about Jesus. Jesus tells us about God.
Announcing that “the time is fulfilled” has several dimensions of meaning. At that time and in that place, God stepped into human history in a decisive way. The time is fulfilled. Ours is an invaded planet. Mark links the time of John’s arrest with the time when Jesus starts preaching the gospel. The time of the prophet is over. Now it’s the time of Jesus. Finally, when the good news of God is preached, it is decision time: The time is fulfilled. The other Gospels have Jesus speak of a Kingdom that is present, already here. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel speaks of a Kingdom that is about to appear. So, it’s decision time, repent and believe. “Time is up!”
It is hard not to answer a ringing phone, and that is a good way to enter into this first incident in the public ministry of Jesus. He calls. The memory of this among the earliest Christians was a treasure. This story must have been used in the earliest preaching of the Church. With it, the second major concern of this Gospel after Jesus himself is introduced: this group of fishermen. It is told with sharp details making it easy to visualize. It’s all vivid and fresh: five personal names, the Sea of Galilee, the nets, the boats, hired servants, casting, and mending. This is their first encounter with Jesus making their quick response so remarkable. The only words are from Jesus. He calls. They follow. We don’t know anything about them, about their work or how they got along. Mark is interested in only one thing: the authority of Jesus and the response of disciples. In other words: What does Jesus say, and how will they respond.
It can be said that one purpose of Mark’s Gospel is to allow us to participate with the first disciples of Jesus in the gradual and growing recognition of who he is until we reach the conclusion to which the demoniac points in the first of the conflicts. It happens in a synagogue. Jesus first confronts and defeats the power of evil in the place of worship of the people of God. The scribes belong there. The unclean spirit does not. The presence of Jesus is a confrontation with both the Scribes, who have no authority compared to Jesus, and the unclean spirit. What is affirmed here is the amazing authority of Jesus which shows itself in teaching and a special kind of healing that shows itself as power over forces hostile to God.
There is a lot going on in Capernaum. First an exorcism in the synagogue, and then later that day at the home of Simon and Andrew there is a healing in Peter’s home. One involves a man and the other involves a woman. Then there are more healings in the evening that leads to the closing sentence: “He would not permit the demons to speak because they knew him. This is the first report of what is often called: “The Messianic secret.” With that day at an end, Jesus goes off to pray. The disciples track him down and want him to return to the crowds for more healing. Jesus insists that the goal of his ministry in Galilee is to preach. “That is why I came” he says.
Having established why he came and confirming his authority, a preaching tour begins, and with the first healing on this tour, the roll of faith is introduced. Mark gives us a glimpse into the motivation of Jesus who was “moved with pity” at the sight of a leper. However, more is being revealed in this episode. The words of Jesus, “I will” affirm that God wills healing, and that Jesus comes as the great physician. Then comes the stern command not to tell anyone because he wants to be known as more than a miracle worker. The crowds gathering are a hindrance to his mission.
With the first event in Chapter Two, the term, “Son of Man” is introduced, a connection between sickness and sin is raised, and the first rumblings of a conflict are heard as the scribes appear. The setting is important. Mark tells us that Jesus is “at home.” Something different from other healing stories happens here. There is no touching and no request as a paralytic is lowered through the roof. Jesus recognizes faith and says, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” With that the authority of Jesus is revealed and the fuse of controversy is lit. As proof Jesus then says, “Take up your mat and walk.” What we have here is a revelation of God’s forgiveness and the authority of Jesus. There is no evidence that the man had faith, but it is clear that the friends did. Their faith plays an important role.
As this first part of the Gospel continues, Levi is called, and Mark tells of growing controversy over eating with sinners and fasting. We know nothing about Levi, and he is never listed among the apostles. All we know is that Jesus calls him even though he is an outcast and therefore a sinner. Jesus eats with him. The episode provides us with a pronouncement: “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” A controversy over fasting follows and provides another pronouncement: “Fresh skins for new wine.” We can only imagine how encouraging these pronouncements were to the early Church in its struggle between Gentile converts and faithful Hebrew converts hanging on to their old ways. It suggests something we know to be true but may need a reminder: Relationships are healed when people eat together. Then comes a sabbath healing of a man with a withered hand adding to the controversy. Growing opposition from religious leaders leads Jesus and his disciples to withdraw from danger. The crowd follows and Mark gives us a sense of that crowd by listing the places from which they come. It becomes a sort of “State of the Ministry” report, but the crowds have no idea who Jesus is. The unclean spirits do.
After removing Jesus from the crowd, Mark uses a verb that is translated in various ways: made, ordained, appointed, named, or chosen. The object of this verb is simply “twelve.” This is a tricky spot in the Gospel because the persons named are both disciples and apostles, “the twelve” in Mark means something more than “the disciples” but something less than the “apostles.” Mark gives their names, but three of them get surnames. They become an inner circle among the twelve. With that, this section ends as Mark writes: “Then Jesus went home.”
In Chapter Three, the Kingship of Jesus becomes the focus. What we see is that Jesus leaves his identity up to the crowds, the religious leaders, the disciples, and his own family. So, it begins in a “home.” The religious leaders accuse him of working with Satan. His family accuse him of being out of his mind. Two important pronouncements emerge from this episode: one comes from the family confrontation when Jesus says: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” The second pronouncement concerns the “unpardonable sin.” That sin is to recognize a supernatural power at work in Jesus and yet to call that power unclean or evil. It is unforgiveable because it rejects the very agent of God’s healing and forgiveness. Mark uses the imperfect tense of the verb here, and that is significant, “Because they were saying he has an unclean spirit” suggests that this is a habitual action, a fixed attitude, a firm decision not just skepticism. It is deliberate, and that’s what is so sinful. It is the obstinate rejection of God’s Holy Spirit alone that is unforgiveable. Only those who set themselves against forgiveness are excluded from it.
Now he moves to the lake where he begins to teach in parables. There are three of these: two about seeds and one about light. Mark wants us to understand that there is a large crowd, and Jesus is presented as a “Teacher.” This is the first and longest of the teaching moments, and the location suggests that Jesus is “fishing” throwing his net broadly.
The word parable in Greek is used more broadly than in English. We make a difference between “parable,” “allegory,” and “saying.” In the New Testament,” parable” refers to all sorts of comparisons, proverbs and riddles. After the first parable about seeds being thrown all around, there is an explanation. It is not likely that this is really Jesus explaining the parable. More likely, it is Mark interpreting the parable for the church. For insiders, parables serve as revelation. As he, probably Mark, interprets the parable, the purpose is exhortation – getting the listener to ask: “What kind of soil am I?” Consistently throughout this section there is expressed the need to “hear.” “Listening” is what Jesus teaches. Parables reveal the Kingdom of God, but reveal it as a mystery. They do this by drawing attention to the mystery and miracle in everyday activities and events like sowing seeds. It is an invitation to see and to hear God in daily life and in familiar texts like this one, to sit still and contemplate quietly until the commonplace wakes our minds and hearts to wonder.
Now remember where Jesus has been for this time of teaching: “The Lake.” As evening comes, a weary Jesus takes to a boat to escape the crowd, and a storm comes. Jesus is sleeping. Disciples are fearful. There is a pattern to the miracle stories in Mark’s Gospel: 1) a problem, 2) a solution, 3) evidence that a miracle has occurred, 4) a response of wonder. This calming of the storm fits that pattern. The command of Jesus is very strong. Many translations in English do not carry that sense. “Quiet Down!” or “Stop It!” would be closer to Mark’s Greek, and then he raises a question that is important at this point, the question of Faith.
Having crossed to the other side where the longest and most detailed exorcisms take place, the demon addresses Jesus as the “Son of God” giving us the main point of this event, that Jesus can heal because he is the Son of God. By his authority he sends the demons back to their place, the depths. This is Gentile territory, and we should not miss the message of the location. In this alien place, the authority and power of Jesus is just as great as in a synagogue and even more amazing. We might also notice that no one asks Jesus to do anything here. He operates on his own authority, and he will confront evil or sickness wherever and whenever he can. The people who witness this are afraid. Who wouldn’t be? The man who had been wild and confused now sits calmly and serene in the presence of Jesus. In the midst of a disorderly violent world, Jesus brings order and peace.
So, we’ve seen so far that Jesus can handle storms in nature and demons. Now we shall see that he can also care about more human woes. Mark employs a technique that creates suspense for us. Now back across the lake, he is headed to the home of a Synagogue leader named, “Jairus” whose daughter is dying. The trip is interrupted by an unclean woman who is bleeding. Suspense! Will he get to the home of Jairus in time? As we find out, he does not. She dies. But that is no problem for Jesus. Now he confronts death itself. What he says about her sleeping should not be understood to suggest that she only appears to be dead. The text affirms that in the presence of Jesus, death itself, real death, is but a sleep. With his command that they give her something to eat, a warm and human Jesus is affirmed. As often happens, the episode concludes with a warning to tell no one.
Jesus then goes home. Remember that his family have already tried to stop him, so what happens at home should come as no surprise. He goes to the synagogue and takes his turn at teaching, and it does not go over well, providing us with one more of his pronouncements: “No prophet is acceptable in his village.” Overfamiliarity is a hindrance to healing, so he can do very little there and leaves. It is not that Jesus cannot heal when there is no faith, but it has a restrictive, dampening effect on his work. Mark tells us that he left to continue teaching. This is his work and ministry: teaching. There is a message here buried in the details that God does not always chose to work with the exotic or “professional” but sometimes in those we know very well, our neighbors.
Mark now shifts to the apostles. It began with just four, then he named some of them disciples. Now, he sends the Twelve to extend the work of Jesus. These followers do not understand him. They do not share his way of obedience to the will of God. They are always, up to the end, never fully understanding. They vow to follow him, but they fail, and their failures are greater than their successes. Yet, Jesus does not wait. Flawed as they are, he sends them out, and we can hardly miss Mark’s message to a flawed and often failing church. This is the first and only time the word “apostle” (one sent) is used. Notice that it is a communal mission. They go two by two, not one by one.
Before they come back, there is an interruption. Suspense again? John the Baptist is killed, and Mark uses this to foreshadow what will happen to Jesus as well as those who assume his mission. When the Twelve return, Jesus takes them off to a deserted place, but the crowd chases after them setting the scene for the “Feeding” miracle, which is the only miracle of Jesus that is reported in all four Gospels. Mark has two feeding miracles. It all happens with five loaves of bread and two fish. Mark gives us a shepherd’s image as Jesus has the people to sit down on green grass telling the disciples that they should give the people something to eat. We ought not to miss how Mark widens the ministry of Jesus beyond healing miracles. Jesus is attentive to every human need. He feeds people. When it comes to the Church and its members doing what Jesus did, there is a message here. Even though Mark uses eucharistic language having Jesus look up to heaven, bless, break and give, this ought not be spiritualized. He is feeding hungry people.
Typical of Mark’s gospel so often reflecting a rush, he says that “Immediately” Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and head to the other side while he dismissed the crowd before going up on the mountain to pray. The pattern of rushing and then praying is already clear in this Gospel. Then comes a storm, and it’s almost hard to tell what frightens the disciples more, the storm or the “ghost” they see.
This is a classic Epiphany moment, a manifestation of Divine presence. The words: “It is I” confirm this, and the verb, “pass by” is another biblical way of describing a divine, saving presence. Not calmed by these words, Jesus gets in the boat with them. While the wind and sea are calmed, there is no hint that the fears of the disciples were calmed, and Mark makes it clear that they do not understand anything. In contrast to them, the people on the shore where they land recognized him immediately.
Into that scene comes Pharisees and some Scribes. Mark says that they come from Jerusalem, and that detail is like a storm cloud on the horizon beginning the final conflict with adversaries in Galilee. The controversy is over what is clean and what is unclean and the interpretation of the law governing this. The disciples had not washed their hands, but the question is really about lifestyle, and the formal rigid lifestyle proposed by the Pharisees allows the neglect of parents, and Jesus exposes this hypocrisy. Suddenly, a Greek woman, a Gentile is on the scene, and the question about clean and unclean moves from things to people. Even though Jesus refuses her at first, her attitude and faith open the mission to the Gentiles. This is followed by the curing of a deaf-mute, and it is the last of a string of miracle stories concerned with the question of Jesus’ identity. It concludes with another order not to tell anyone, but the crowd says: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.”
With that, chapter eight begins in this way: “In those days when there again was a great crowd without anything to eat.” The dialogue between Jesus and the disciples reveals their lack of understanding. How in the world could they ask the same question: “Where can anyone get enough bread to satisfy this crowd?” How dull are they? Did they learn nothing from the previous feeding story? Another feeding story is told. There might be two reasons. The first would be for the sake of emphasis lest we think that Jesus is just teaching and talking all the time. The second reason is that it introduces an interesting noticeable diminishing of power as the eighth chapter unfolds. Here he feeds fewer people with greater resources, and there is less left over. Do not miss the subtle image connection here between Jesus and Moses as people in the desert are adequately fed. We see him avoiding a verbal challenge from his rivals, the Pharisees. The crowd is still not comprehending no matter what he does. It takes two attempts to heal a blind man, and there is an inadequate confession from a follower. We begin to see some vulnerability as he faces his upcoming death. Then it’s back to the boat. The destination is unclear. Mark says Dalmanutha. There is no such place identified in history. Now we are in Gentile territory affirming the mission to the Gentiles.
Moving on, the Pharisees show up and totally exasperate Jesus with a request for a sign. Back to the boat, and in that boat, Jesus teaches them about the sign of the feeding and the bread, and Mark records their lack of understanding in the words of Jesus: “Do you still not understand?” I suspect that the rest of the trip was made in silence. With verse 27 of chapter 8, the Disciples and Jesus set out for the villages of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way he asks the big question: “Who do people say that I am?” After their report, the really big question is asked: “Who do you say that I am?” Drum rolls, trumpet blasts, and flashing lights should sound at this point in Mark’s Gospel. It is the turning point as Peter says: “You are the Messiah.” Now mind you, this comes from someone who does not understand. He has no idea what the Messiah must really be like and what the Messiah must do. The next part of Mark’s Gospel will begin to explore that with the first prediction of the Passion followed by the Transfiguration. We will take up the second part of this Gospel when we return to Ordinary Time. With this much, you should be ready to listen to the beginning of Mark’s Gospel during this season.
November 5, 2023 St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, FL
Of all the texts in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter 23, verses 1 to 12 (That is this one.) is the most difficult and challenging text for me to preach. Every three years when the Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time rolls around, I think about getting a sore throat or a fever and staying home. For years, this has been the case. Then suddenly, back at the end of September, I started to think about a sudden short vacation in early November. Maybe my family would like to see me? But, here I am face to face again with Matthew 23, forced to dig deeper into this text and stop doing what we all do way too often: think, I hope they are listening to this. For you, “they” may well be priests. For priests it’s usually Bishops we hope are listening to this. We all like to blame someone which is usually a way to deflect attention away from our own faults. Calling someone else a hypocrite because they don’t do what they say is way of keeping someone from noticing that we are not so consistent either. What I have come recognize with these verses is that this is about me not someone else.
The simplest way of hearing or reading these verses is to see them raising the question of Authority. These scribes and Pharisees Jesus attacks here are the “authorities.” When something or someone is “authentic”, it means being connected to the author of things. When you see the words Author and Authority together, you suddenly get it. The issue with the scribes and Pharisees is that the connection was broken between them and the author of things. That’s why Jesus Christ was so authentic, and why the people kept saying that he speaks with authority. The people heard God speaking through him. He was the real thing.
Herein lies the challenge to us. We have to be real. We have to be honest; first of all, with ourselves, and then with others. That is humility. The simple basic truth about who we are and what we are. We are not phony or fake, just real and true.
All of us seeking to better live the virtue of Humility will only arrive there when we know who we are and stop pretending, wishing, or faking it. It’s about honesty. Part of that means being open to feedback or criticism no matter who says it whether we like it. If someone says something that hurts, before getting in a snit, the humble will set aside the offence and think if there is any truth in what they have said no matter how they said it.
In the Gospel scheme of things, the greatest leaders and teachers are those who share their vision of faith not in words alone but by the power and authority of their example, in the honest integrity of their lives, in their commitment of service toward and respect for those in their charge. There is real joy to be found in an authentic life that is honest, true and humble. For these people of faith, it is the service, the act of doing good that brings that joy, not in some recognition, applause, or award. The real award simply comes from bringing the love of God into the lives of others.
November 1, 2023 at Saint Peter the Apostle Parish in Naples, Florida
The Gospels have beatitudes scattered all through the life of Jesus. Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Blessed is she who believed that the promises of God would be fulfilled. Blessed is the breast who nursed you, and all through the Old Testament there are many more. What Matthew has done is collect some of these proclamations and woven them into the first of several talks or discourses Jesus gives in Matthew’s Gospel. If the teaching of Jesus were condensed into a dozen verses we would have it all, everything he taught and lived.
The trouble with these verses is that they have become so familiar that we hardly give them any more deep and serious reflection. Perhaps a new version might give us more comfort and reassurance, because that is what they are intended to do in Matthew’s Gospel. These are not goals to be achieved, but words spoken to reassure and comfort those to whom they addressed. Maybe this would work for today:
You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God.
You are blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
You are blessed when you are content with just who you are – no more, no less. That is the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that cannot be bought.
You are blessed when you have worked up a good appetite for God. He is good and drink in the best meal you have ever had.
Blessed are you when you care. At the moment of being care-full, you find yourselves cared for.
You are blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You are blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That is when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
You are blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s Kingdom.
Not only that: count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens: give a cheer, even, for though they don’t like it, I do. And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten in this kind of trouble.
October 29, 2023 at Saint William Parish in Naples, Florida
There is a great temptation we all face to separate love of God from love of people. We may well go out of this church today and demonstrate how we have separated the two by the way we get out of the parking lot. Those opponents of Jesus will not let up. Last week it was all about coins and Caesar this week is about law not surprisingly raised by what Matthew calls, “a student of the law.” It’s one of those be careful what you ask for moments. He asks for one law and gets two. In sitting with this text, we should take note that when Jesus says the second is like the first, the word like not mean imply they are separate. It means they are the same. They are equal in importance and inseparable. A door hangs on two hinges. If one is out of alignment it will not swing properly or open easily. If love of God and love of neighbor are out of balance, our lives will be badly aligned.
In spite of what Jesus says, love of God and love of another human person are tough to imagine. I find a command to love God a little puzzling. First of all, if love is spontaneous and free, how can it be commanded? God, being God after all does not need our love, nor is God changed by our love as a neighbor, a spouse, or a child is changed by love.
We know what love of neighbor looks like. All you have to do is watch people married for fifty or sixty years who are content to sit quietly in each other’s presence. It’s also an act of gratitude for years of simply staying together sharing sorrows and joys.
In this commandment a serious challenge that pushes our limits. There is a teaching here that without love for an “other”, especially a stranger and even our enemy, we become caught in a one-dimensional kind of self-love. That’s wrong! Without contact with people whose experience, culture or faith tradition stretches us, we live trapped in a self-affirming hall of mirrors. The God who is bigger than we can ever imagine commands us to love an “other” lest we fall into narcissistic idolatry. Loving someone like us is no big deal. It does not even require a commandment. It’s really kind of self-love that might not be very healthy in the long run.
Saint Ignatius left behind a kind of “how to” list at the end of his Spiritual Exercises called: “Contemplation to Attain the love of God.” He didn’t mean how to attain God’s love for us because that’s a given. He did mean our love of God which always needs coaching. First on the list is the simple reality that love consists more of deeds than words, that lovers give what they have to each other. Then he says that we have to place ourselves in the presence of the Lord asking the Lord to wake us up to the gifts we have received and to stir up our gratitude. After that he offers four concrete ways of getting in touch with those gifts of God.
Review your life story, calling to mind my own creation, redemption, and other personal gifts.
Consider how much we ought to offer God. Ignatius does that through his famous prayer: “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and all my will – all that I have and possess. You, Lord have given all that to me. I now give it back to you.”
Consider how God is present in all creatures giving them existence; giving life to plants, animals, giving humans emotions and intelligence, and finally how he dwells in me making me his temple, since I am created as a likeness and image of the divine Majesty.
Finally, there is a focus on how God works for me, cares and provides, protects and comforts and how all good things around me are just a partial reflection of their source.
As Matthew says at the end of this episode, “That’s all there is.” Without love, there is nothing, nothing at all, and without love we are nothing.