Good News from Mark
In last week’s blog essay we learned that Jesus called his followers thieves (of a certain kind). This week we read Jesus compare his disciples to a noxious and dangerous plant. What’s going on? Our latest discussion of Mark’s Gospel focused on 4.1-34. Here Mark tells us about Jesus’ teaching through parables, in what amounts to Jesus’ first sermon in this Gospel. There is a long history of yanking the teaching of Jesus (and much of the Bible altogether) out of its immediate socio-political, economic, cultural, and religious context, and “spiritualizing” it into pleasantries for dominant peoples. Of course, this is not true, biblical, Christian spirituality, but a way of making white, male, conventional, conservative, privileged, and powerful people comfortable (by “conservative” I only mean the standard thing as presented by conservatives themselves: someone who prefers the status quo, who wants to conserve what we have more than change it). We have been considering the texts as they may have been heard by those who first heard them. Accordingly, consider the parables of the sower and of the mustard seed.
The ancient Palestinian farmer of Jesus’ day could expect a good harvest to give a 1:7 yield. A tenfold harvest was a bumper crop. Since Jesus says that even though the sower’s effusive throwing of seed allows much of it to be “wasted” and that it will not grow to harvest, nonetheless, the seed that falls on fertile—receptive—soil will grow up to a hundredfold! The parable is meant not only to evoke the question, “What kind of soil am I?” But it tells us about the work of God and the promise and power of God’s kingdom. The parable’s harvest represents a dramatic shattering of the conventional relationship between the peasant and the landlord. After all, after such a harvest, a farmer could not only pay rent, tithes, and debts, but even purchase his own land and end his servitude. “The kingdom is like this,” Jesus says: it envisions the abolition of the oppressive relationships of production that determined the horizons of the Palestinian farmer’s social world. Such images strongly suggest that Mark is articulating an ideology and theology of the land, and the revolutionary hopes of those who work it.
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus gives us some elaboration, after the exhortation, “Pay attention to what you hear!” So, let’s pay attention. Verses 24 and 25 are a summary of a standard economic viewpoint and practice, accepted by many (most in our society). It is what economists call “the determinism of the marketplace.” The only way to survive in the system is to play the game by its (neoliberal, capitalist) rules. This is followed by a common claim that the system is never changing: the “haves” will get richer and the “have-nots” will get poorer. Jesus is warning against the view that such socio-economic stratification and injustice is acceptable and moral, let alone, divinely sanctioned.
Against the cynicism of the economic determination of the system, Jesus pits the revolutionary patience and hope of the kingdom/reign of God (4.26). The parable tells us that God’s judgment upon the powers and their system will come, and so give the lie to the counter-assertion of the “realists” that nothing will never change. In this sermon, Jesus has for the first time, articulated the least/greatest paradox that will emerge in his teaching again.
As noted above, the mustard seed was a noxious and dangerous plant. It threatened to take over wherever its seed was planted (like a Palestinian kudzu). It was described as having a “pungent taste and fiery effect.” The point was that the mustard plant was not generally
desirable. The plant, i.e.: the kingdom/reign/rule/dominion/order that Jesus was bringing was a threat to the existing garden or field of early Judaism and the Roman empire. If it was to take root, it would subvert, pollute, even overtake, existing gardens and fields—the visions, programs, conventions, and structures of Israel, Rome, and others as well— including our own.
This essay was assisted by Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus; Herman C. Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel; Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Because I mentioned neoliberalism: Quinn Slobodian, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism; Pierre Dardot and Christian Laval, Never-Ending Nightmare: The Neoliberal Assault on Democracy; Wendy Brown: In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West; and theologically: Rodney Clapp, Naming Neoliberalism: Exposing the Spirit of Our Age; and Adam Kotsko, Neoliberalism’s Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital.
In this modern age of entertainment, television series have become more than just a source of entertainment; they have the power to touch our hearts, challenge our perspectives, and inspire us to reflect on our own lives. One such series that has captured the attention of many is "The Bear." While seemingly an ordinary show, it holds deep spiritual lessons that can resonate with our faith and journey with God. In this blog post, we will explore the profound themes of trauma, mental health, forgiveness, grief, calling/vocation, and redemption found within "The Bear" and draw insights from scripture that reinforce these important life lessons.
Lessons on Trauma: "The Bear" masterfully portrays the impact of trauma on individuals and communities. Just as the characters in the show experience pain and struggle, so do we in our own lives. However, we find hope in the words of Psalm 34:18: "The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit." This verse reminds us that God is present with us in our most difficult moments, offering comfort, healing, and restoration.
Insights on Mental Health: Mental health is a prevalent topic in today's society, and "The Bear" addresses it with sensitivity. The show prompts us to confront the stigma surrounding mental health and encourages us to extend compassion to those who are struggling. As we engage in this conversation, we are reminded of the importance of Philippians 4:6-7: "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
The Power of Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a central theme in "The Bear," highlighting its transformative power. Through the characters' journeys, we witness the freedom that comes from releasing resentment and embracing forgiveness. Jesus teaches us about the significance of forgiveness in Matthew 6:14-15: "For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."
Embracing Grief: Grief is a universal experience, and "The Bear" invites us to navigate its complexities. The show encourages us to embrace our grief and find solace in God's presence. In times of sorrow, we can find comfort in the words of Psalm 30:5: "For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning."
Discovering Calling/Vocation: "The Bear" reminds us of the importance of discovering our calling or vocation. Each character in the series embarks on a personal journey to find their purpose. As followers of Christ, we are reminded in Romans 12:6-8 that we all have unique gifts and callings: "Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them."
Hope and Redemption: Redemption is a powerful force in "The Bear." The characters experience transformation and restoration, reminding us of God's redemptive work in our lives. Ephesians 1:7 assures us of this truth: "In him, we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace."
"The Bear" offers us spiritual lessons that mirror our own journeys of faith. Through the exploration of trauma, mental health, forgiveness, grief, calling/vocation, and redemption, we are reminded of God's unwavering presence, His desire for our healing, and the transformative power of His love. May we embrace these lessons, allowing them to guide us as we navigate our own paths of faith, always seeking to grow closer to God and embody His grace in the world.
The most recent passage our study group has discussed is found in Mark 3. For the purposes of this essay, I want to focus on Jesus’ use of a “parable,” i.e., a metaphor, and the response to Jesus by his family and by the religious authorities. In his explanation of his mission, Jesus says that “no one can break into a strong man’s house and make off with his goods unless he has first tied up the strong man” and only then “can he ransack the house” (Mark 3.27). Jesus is at this point elaborating on his response to the scribes or “doctors of the law” who have accused him of “driving out devils by (the power of) the prince of devils” (2.22). Jesus’ reply is that Satan has no interest in defeating Satan, but that only a force utterly different than Satan (“the Accuser”) would do this. Jesus identifies himself—and his followers— as the power (“regime”) bent on defeating Satan.
This is a wild way to identify people like you and me: thieves! Jesus calls us to join him in the ministry of theft and destruction. What should we steal? What should we destroy? I am thinking of institutions, traditions, and practices built on, promoting, and producing: alienation, greed, inequality, injustice, violence, and more. Our political system, our economic system, and in many ways, our religious systems need to be stolen away, “ransacked,” defeated.
As Jesus confronts and challenges the religious authorities and the settled and sacred institutions of his day, both the religious authorities and his own family worry about what he is doing (and how it will affect them). His family says Jesus is “out of his mind” (2.21) and the authorities say that he is “possessed by Beelzebul” (2.22). To his family he is demented and to the scribes he is demonic. (“Beelzebul,” by the way, was an obscure name probably derived from a Hebrew idiom meaning “Lord of the dwelling” (or “house”) with reference either to the air, or to the possessed, in whom he, the demonic, dwells.). The religious authorities accuse Jesus of being driven by the Accuser. But Jesus turns the tables on them. It is they who are aligned against God’s purposes. They are captive to the way things are. They resist criticism and change. They brutally suppress efforts at humanization. Jesus tells them he will bind the homeowner and release the captives. His is a rescue mission.
For their part, his family tries to “seize” Jesus. This is a kind of family intervention. He was courting danger and disaster, and they must have wanted to protect him, and themselves, at least their reputations. Jesus has scandalized them. Kinship was the axis of the social world in antiquity. Mark’s Jesus attacks this institution too. Notice that Mark does not offer genealogies as do Matthew and Luke. He is not interested in Jesus’ family line or ancestory.com. In Jesus’ culture and society, one’s identity was all about family connections and to be severed from family was social suicide. Jesus’ challenge to the traditional family and the “family values” of his time is revolutionary and shocking. It should motivate us to ask what about our family traditions and values might incur the same judgment.
Jesus’ challenge to the traditional authority structures, the religious, social, and political orders of the day has by Mark 4, cut quite deeply. He has repudiated the “old fabric” and the “old wine” to make way for a new regime, a new reign, a new order. The fundamental unit of resocialization into the new society, new politics, new order, will be the new family, the community of disciples and discipleship.
Thanks for reading,