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  • Michael Minch

Jesus challenges the disciples and Mark’s readers:  “Who do you say that I am?” (29).  This question is the fulcrum upon which the gospel narrative balances.  And the answer we give is the character of Christianity in the world.  Do we know who we are following, and what is he about?  Is giving the right words in answer to this question enough?


This is a kind of “second prologue,” like the first, it begins “on the way.”  In 1.2 it was the “way through the wilderness.”  Now, it is the way “to Jerusalem.”  The second half of the Gospel abandons the narrative sites of sea, boat, and wilderness.  The journey across waters now becomes a journey from the margins of Palestine to its center.  Beginning on the extreme north of Mark’s world (near present-day Lebanon), Jesus will slowly wind his way down through Galilee, then into Judea, and Jerusalem.  Mark is now going to rebuild the plot tension in preparation for the showdown in Jerusalem.  All of this is part of an ongoing struggle over Jesus’ identity and what that means for us.


Jesus Heals the Blind (not simply, “the blind man”) 8.22-26


Jesus uses Isaiah for this motif, e.g., Isa. 29.18; 35.5; 43.8.  Bethsaida was not actually a “village” (kome), but rather, a Hellenistic city (polis).  Perhaps Mark calls it a village as a kind of refusal to recognize its Hellenistic identity, but this small matter is not clear (and passed over by most commentators).  The thing that makes this healing stand out from the earlier healing of the deaf-mute in 7.37, is that it is something like a two-step process.  After Jesus’ first application of spit the man reports an odd thing:  seeing people, but they are so out of focus that they look like “walking trees”!  That’s an odd description, but it makes clear that the full healing of this man awaits.  


The most important thing about this healing is that it is meant to be seen in light of the spiritual blindness of the disciples that has just been mentioned.  The reader is invited to see the blind man as a metaphor for the blind disciples.  The story is a literary sub-plot that mirrors the developments of the major plot: the story intimates that the disciples too, will have a “second touch,” but only after they have struggled with an incomplete and blurred vision of Jesus.  Peter will make a true but uncomprehending confession in the next section:  “You are the Christ.”  We will see that the disciples will not understand the meaning of that confession (Camery-Hoggatt, 220). Understanding will happen later.  Morna Hooker calls this an “acted parable of the miracle of faith” (198).  The miracle visually demonstrates the spiritual malady of the disciples, and their understanding of who Jesus is also occurs in two stages.  That is, they now see in part, but they will see more fully.  Painter suggests that this story is a parable of hope about the disciples—now they see in part, but in time, they will come to see more clearly. 

The placement of this healing story by Mark is not random, but artful.


Credo at Caesarea-Philippi, Peter’s Confession, 8.27-33


Here, Jesus again turns and interrogates his disciples, a Markian device, as in the boat scene

we’ve just left.  Though not cited directly, the “Who am I?” is an allusion to the important dialogue between the founding prophet Moses and Yahweh at the burning bush (Ex. 3).  Afterall, Jesus is now ready to begin the long march to Jerusalem to confront the powers, as Moses was summoned to Egypt to confront the powers and liberate the people from Pharaoh.  Jesus, is, of course, on his own expedition of liberation.  “Who am I?” marks the very heart of Markian discourse-as-challenge.  The disciples’ response here is almost exactly parallel to Mark’s editorial report back in 6.14f.  


Peter’s answer to this question is momentous.  It introduces into the story for the first time the politically loaded term, “Messiah” (Christos).  Jesus is not only a prophet and rabbi, he is also a royal, therefore, political figure who will restore certain kinds of political fortunes for Israel.  The revolution, Peter is saying, is at hand.  With his confession, Mark’s story takes a radical turn.  The question of Jesus’ identity has been asked repeatedly in the narrative, from 1.22 on, and Mark has martialed a number of stories to confirm that opening salvo: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ… (1.1).  Mark has been showing us who Jesus is, but also showing us that Jesus’ identity is repeatedly lost on the other characters in the story.  The narrative strategy, of course, is this: as the characters stumble along, the readers/hearers can grasp the superior, and truthful view, informed by dimensions of the narrative the characters cannot hear.  It is not insignificant that the Centurion’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God will come at the foot of the cross (Camery-Hoggatt, 223-25).  


It's not enough to know that Jesus is the Christ/anointed of God.  It is necessary to know what it means, including, intrinsically, what it means for oneself and for the world.   


A part of understanding this crucial scene is being aware of its important setting.  Caesarea Philippi was a major Hellenistic city built by Herod Philip in honor of Augustus.  It had been called Paneas in honor of the god Pan, and there had been a shrine for Pan there.  But now there was a shrine for the emperor cult.  In addition, it had also been a site where the god Baal had been worshipped.  Jesus then reveals something critically important about himself in this city dedicated to false gods.  We see something of great importance about the divine Jesus in this location of so much false divinity.  And to extend the paradox, the divine Jesus will insist on using the title Son of Man.  The People’s Man.  The Human Being.  The exhortation by Jesus for the disciples not to tell anyone he is the Messiah implies that he accepted the title but did not want it published about, lest doing so would lead to premature and gross misunderstanding.  A title without a context for its understanding can be worthless, damaging, and even, dangerous.  Jesus has only begun to provide the context for this title.  


The Passion Prediction, 8.31-38


At 8.31 Mark introduces a sub-theme which is perhaps on barely a sub-theme:  What will happen to Jesus will happen to his followers as well.  Leadership is servanthood.   Defeat is victory.  Death is the path to life.  Cf. Matthew 20.20-28.  If the mother of James and John has gotten her request, her sons would have been nailed to a cross on either side of Jesus.  In 8.31-33 Jesus announces for the first time that he will go to Jerusalem and die (an announcement Peter misunderstood).  Jesus will make three explicit announcements of this kind.  (Why?  One reason: ancient readers did not read silently to themselves, but only out loud, this was a device to emphasize.  Hebrew does the same thing.)


Mark’s Gospel was written for a church under persecution.  Families were divided.  Jews and Gentiles were divided.  The church was carrying out its moral, spiritual, and political mission in sharp contrast and some hostility, to the empire.  If Jesus was Lord, Caesar was not.  “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is the Christ” are the church’s earliest political, as well as theological, claims.

So Jesus’ hard, challenging words are not merely a warning or intimation to Mark’s church, but an interpretation of what was happening. 


9.1  “Truly (amen), some of you here now will not experience death before you see the kingdom of God coming into power and glory.”  


Power is related to suffering servanthood, being a community of love, truth, grace, and healing.  Paul referred to this as living as Christ lived, as he provided a “model” for us, “emptying” (kenosis) himself, in Phil. 2. 1-11.  Throughout Mark, Jesus has discouraged proclamation about himself and his works, he has propagated what theologians call a “messianic secret”—not allowing himself to be proclaimed as Messiah until the term and concept could be redefined—it has to be linked to suffering and crucifixion, to being the Crucified.  This idea of a suffering Messiah was radically new.


Discussion


Although we are not called to invite suffering into our lives in a certain and important sense, as so doing would be a form of Gnosticism and Pelagianism (explain), and therefore a pathology and heresy-- in another way, living a life as a disciple of Jesus Christ does invite suffering… .  Barth said, “One cannot try to be a martyr, one can only be ready to be a martyr” (CD, III/4:79).


But what of those who suffer?  Do we fail to respond with love, compassion, peace, and justice?  Do we bless it?  We can be all too uncareful in our talk of suffering (one of the insights of feminist/womanist and liberation theologies).  Yet we are called to pick up our own crosses, which means nothing other than the expected result of clashing with the powers that run one’s society.  


Can we rich citizens of US empire and the colonial legacy, white supremacy, patriarchalism, and theological triumphalism we’ve inherited really understand this pericope, this call to discipleship, the Gospel itself?  How much we need the leadership of the Liberation theologians and communities!


Jesus asks his disciples what increasingly becomes the central question of his Gospel, the question of who he is.  This remains and always has been the central question.  CS Lewis boiled it down to this.  Jesus was a Liar, a Lunatic, or the Lord.  How do our lives answer this question?


Thanks for reading,

Michael








           


  


 


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  • Writer's pictureMichael Minch

Updated: Feb 25

Good News from Mark


This week we discussed the first half of chapter eight (8.1-21) which tells of the feeding of the four thousand  and Jesus’ engagement with Pharisees sent from Jerusalem to report on him and his movement. 


1-10:  Feeding of the Four Thousand


This story is closely connected, of course, with the feeding of the five thousand in 6.32-44.  Some scholars have thought they are two narratives about the same event.  But that view is in the minority.  Mark’s story of the second feeding references the first.  There are differences that matter.  The first feeding was “for” the Jews and Jesus presents himself as the new Moses.  There, Jesus announces a blessing upon the food, in good Jewish fashion.  In the first feeding, twelve baskets are left over (12 tribes of Israel) and five loaves (5 books of the Torah).  And the baskets themselves, in the first feeding, are of a type associated with the Jews.  The second feeding was “for” the Gentiles.  This much is clear from the locations of the events, the first in Jewish Galilee, the second in Gentile Decapolis.  Here, Jesus thanks God for the food, in good Gentile fashion.  Seven loaves are left over (God gives Noah 7 laws).  Here, the term for “baskets” is generic, different that that used in the first story.  


Close verbal parallels with Mark’s story of the Lord’s Supper suggest that both stories are to be understood in connection with the Communion Table / Eucharist—implicitly, that the “loaf” (artos) that is broken for the multitudes is Jesus himself (cf. John’s Jesus:  “I am the bread of life” and you must “eat of me”… ).  Verse 8.4 “where we can we find enough bread for these people in this desolate place?” seems to indicate disciples with shallow faith, even a kind of pig-headedness, perhaps.  They should have known from the first feeding that Jesus could take care of this…. The implicit but powerfully important question here is, Is there enough of that artos to feed the Gentiles too?   


11-13:  The Pharisees Seek a Sign


This exchange is tragic and there may be some comedy here too.  In response to the Pharisees (v. 10), Jesus asks, “Why does this generation ask for a sign?”  Jesus could be thinking:  “I will not perform miracles in order to show my identity,” or “I have given them plenty of signs already.  I am not going to jump through their hoops, act on their demand, like a puppet on their strings.”  He might have thought “The sign from heaven you seek is right here talking with you.”  The sense in which “no sign will be given” or “believe me, you will not see one” (v. 12) is that they are spiritually and morally blind to the sign(s) that has (have) already been given.  Jesus, who has performed miracles, is the sign they keep missing.  V. 12 holds the sensibility of a curse:  “if x, then y”: if you refuse to see who I am and what I’m doing, then you will remain in the dark, in the captivity, in the emptiness of life disconnected from the transcendent, from God.  It appears that Jesus reacts quite emotionally and strongly to the lack of faith of those around him, whether they be adversaries, crowds, disciples, friends, or family.  The demand for a sign is, a confrontation, a disagreement, a refusal to see what Jesus expects people to see.  It is a refusal of Jesus himself.  Jesus is the Bread that sustains us.  He is enough for all of us.  John’s Gospel is explicit:  Jesus is “the Bread of Life” and if we “eat of him” we will live forever (6.51).  The Pharisees have come from Jerusalem to “test” Jesus, to confront him, not to have an honest inquiry or discovery, nor conversation.  They came bent on unbelief, or having their already-held beliefs, unchanged.  But it seems that this hardness of heart was not unique to the Pharisaic elite.  It is important to note here that the fact that Jesus continually tells the crowds not to tell others about his miracles indicates that Jesus is not interested in people recognizing his power and divinity merely for egoistic or triumphal reasons.   That would make Jesus petty and narcissistic.  But Jesus is not only grieved, but also angry, when the healing and liberating power of his ministry is denied to some because it is denied by others.  He is, after all, inaugurating God’s reign and all the radical goodness of a new community and a new politics.  It is understandable, to say the least, that he would be emotional when his mission is not grasped, even more, when it is rejected out-of-hand.     


14-21:  The Leaven of the Pharisees


Leaven, to begin, is a metaphor for or synonym for corruption (cf. I Cor. 5.6-8, Gal. 5.9).  In Matthew, it is equated with false teaching.  In Luke, it is equated with hypocrisy.  In Mark, it is equated with obtuseness.  


This story continues the larger complex of stories that deal with the symbolic significance of the term artos (bread).  Throughout this section, Mark has intertwined four themes.  First, he develops the theme of the gospel to the Gentiles by drawing careful distinctions between the

Terms for baskets used in the two feeding stories, and by tracing Jesus’ deliberate movement out of Galilee and into Gentile territory, first to Tyre and Sidon (7.24-30), then by roundabout route to the Decapolis (7.31).  Insofar as the theme of Jesus’ movement including the Gentiles is here, note his words in 6.4:  “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.”


A second theme is intertwined with the first— the question of Jesus’ identity.  This question is first posed in the synagogue at Nazareth (6.2f) but posed again (.14-16) related to the death of John the Baptist (.17-29).  Speculations about Jesus as John the Baptist raised from the dead (.14), or Elijah (.15a), or another of the prophets (.15b)—will be repeated at the end of this section (8.27-30).  The Pharisees demand a “sign from heaven” not knowing the irony of their demand—an admission that they do not recognize the “sign” who stands before them.  (See above).  


The third theme is the series of coded allusions to the Last Supper.   


The fourth theme is that to all of this, the disciples are quite blind.  Like the Pharisees, the disciples in one way or another expressed the worry and incomprehension: “we have no bread”(e.g., 7.18f, 8.4).


These are four complex and intertwined themes.  The readers and listeners of Mark’s Gospel are meant to see what the Jewish leaders and the disciples do not see.  The narrative is written to put the audience of the Gospel in the know.  Mark invites his readers into the narrative, where they can, in effect, answer the questions and set the doubt, disbelief, and obtuseness straight.  But for Mark’s audience to fit into this narrative schematic and make this contribution, so to speak, they must share Mark’s point of view.   


That one loaf of bread in the boat?  The one the disciples think is not enough?  That’s Jesus, and he is more than enough.  But no one sees it (except, hopefully, Mark’s audience).  The “leaven” Jesus has warned them against is, whatever else it might be, the blindness shared by so many.  The disciples’ lack of understanding in v. 15 sets up Jesus’ response in vv. 17-19: “What are you talking about having no bread?!  Do you still not understand… ?”  This is, it turns out, an extension of Jesus’ refusal to provide a sign for the Pharisees.  Jesus uses Isaiah 6.9: “Don’t you yet understand?  “Do you have your heart hardened?  Having eyes, don’t you see?  Having ears, don’t you hear?”   


It’s not mere misunderstanding, lack of cognitive power.  Jesus adds, “are you so hard-hearted”? (.17).  Oftentimes in life, our inability to understand and our will to not understand are connected.  Sometimes we choose ignorance, our will, our desire is not really given over to moral understanding, because we suspect, predict, and fear the consequence of true understanding—if we understand deeply, something, perhaps much, will be asked of us, called for, demanded.  So, to avoid the demands of morality (and often, theology and spirituality) we make sure we do not understand.  Upton Sinclair observed specifically that it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his wealth depends on his not understanding it.  Relatedly, Aristotle discussed the vice of akrasia—weakness of the will. 


This phenomenon has been seen, historically, as a key ingredient of the reactionary and authoritarian-embracing politics characteristic of the right.  Although, of course, as human beings, we are all prone to this form of sin.  Our moral wills are often weak in conjunction with a weakness of curiosity and intellectual verve and veracity.  The New Testament’s call for us to live with and in “the mind of Christ” is intrinsically connected with the call to live with a new heart.  We are invited to “eat,” “consume,” “partake” of Jesus our artos, the very Bread of Life.  


Thanks for reading,

Michael


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  • Writer's pictureMichael Minch

In the proceeding passage (Mark 7.1-23) Jesus “declared all foods clean” (7.19).  In these two stories he declares all persons clean.  The stories advance Jesus’ repudiation of traditional codes and their taboos and advance the building of an inclusive community of faith.


The first story (7.24-30) is set in Tyre, a large Phoenician port city of Syria.  The focus of the story is not simply on the healing, but on the Gentile question:  Does God’s care and healing mission extend to all people?  Everyone?  In a world of tribal, nationalistic, culture-bound gods, this is a crucial, even an arresting and radical question.  Jesus’ rebuff of this woman seems to make use of an aphorism.  Inside of Judaism, Gentiles were labeled “dogs.”  Dogs were not cute, they were not pets, they were not domesticated, they were not fed.  They were dismissed, disgusting scavengers.  This is obviously a racist insult, a slur.  The point in this passage is clear: “Jews first.”  Historically, God’s incursion into human history did work through the Jews first.  Cf. Paul’s explication of this in Romans.  


This is one of the “hard sayings” of Jesus.  So sharp and troublesome that is nearly impossible to imagine a largely Gentile church wound invent it.  A question is obvious:  Was Jesus engaged in racism and bigotry in his use of this insult, or does he use it for ironic purposes?  Scholars are divided on this question.  The majority, it seems (and most are Christians, after all) seem to think that given all of Jesus’ sayings and all of his ministry, and his inclusion of Gentiles in God’s care and work and community—make the idea of a racist, bigoted Jesus completely incongruous with everything we know about him on the whole.  Many scholars think this is an example of “peirastic irony” (from peiradzein—“to put to the test”).  Along these lines, since Jesus is here demonstrating his commitment to Gentiles, Mark would have left out this insult altogether if he thought the irony would have been missed.  A second reason to see this as an ironical statement meant to provoke a reaction is the wit evident in the construction of the episode itself.  In this exchange, the woman gets the better of Jesus.  So, did Jesus fall into this short end of the dialogue because he’s stupid or morally obtuse or spiritually stunted?  Or did Jesus set it up this way?  One view is that Jesus “was caught with his compassion down” (Sharon Ringe, “A Gentile Woman’s Story,” in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, Letty Russell, ed. (1984), 69.  The other view, is that Jesus set it up, he knew what he was doing.       


In this story Jesus is crossing a variety of boundaries—geographical, ethnic, gender, theological, and cultural.  This is the only passage I Mark where the healed person is definitely a Gentile (pagan).  Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite, which seems to be a focus on her religious affiliation (Mt. 15.21-28).  Mark’s emphasis seems to be that she is not a Jew and is someone situated on the western edge of the Roman empire.  This woman addresses Jesus as “Lord”—

the first and only person to address Jesus with this word.    


This unit (7.31-37) is the last of a sequence of miracle stories concerned with the question of Jesus’ identity.  It leads up to the christological affirmation of Peter in 8.29.  The man has a speech impediment, he’s not entirely mute (mogilalon, .32).   In order to get to this location—“the region of the Decapolis”—Jesus took a very indirect route (.31)!  Jesus returns to his home province by such an extensive detour that the only objective can be deeper penetration into Gentile territory.  “Jews first”—but not at the expense or negligence of the Gentiles.    


Spit was thought in both the Jewish and Greco-Roman world to have healing properties.  And when Jesus applies saliva to the tongue and puts his fingers in the ears of this man, he may have been acting like a physician utilizing the technique of healing that was common at the time among the “lower classes.”  He sighs or groans (the Greek can mean either) as he “looks up to heaven” and proclaims, “Be opened!” and this can be a signification of anguish or concentration or passion of a positive kind—or some mix of all these emotions.  We see here a Jesus who is deeply, totally engaged in the act of healing.    


After the healing the narrator employs an adverb of a superlative degree, “He has done all things well… .”  The word, hyperperissos, means “beyond all measure” or “superabundantly.”  This is the Gentile response to Jesus’ work: “they were astounded beyond measure” (.37).  His healing work among the Gentiles is a reminder and extension of the work of Elijah and Elisha who extended the benefits of salvation, liberation, of God’s healing love— to outsiders.


Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.       

(Isaiah 35.5-6)  


The clean/unclean theme begun earlier, is continued in this passage.  It is hard to overstate how important this conception and question is.  Think of connotations (worthy/unworthy, set apart/not set apart, ordained/subordinate, etc.) very much at work in Israel, Gaza and West Bank, in the US, and elsewhere at this very moment.  


Mark wants to insist on two things:  Jesus does not want to be known in respect to his true identity until and unless it is clear that suffering rather than sheer power lies at the core of that identity.  Yet, Jesus’ charismatic accomplishments are so great that they cannot be hidden.  There is an inevitable tension between these.  Mark is not unaware of the tension, rather he lays it out and thinks that there is something valuable in it (rather than trying to hide or resolve it).  This tension is good spirituality as well.  As we think of the “clean”/”unclean” distinction—in all its connotations—and all the ways it lies hidden (when not explicit) in our narratives, identities, politics, and religions—let us keep the value of the tension found in Jesus close to our hearts.  How can I be a vessel of God’s accomplishments?  For what am I willing to suffer?

These questions are not unrelated.


Thanks for reading,

Michael    

  


   


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