Mark 8:1-10: Please see comments on Mark 6:30-44. The themes in this story are similar to the feeding of the 5,000. However, it is interesting to note that Mark seems to locate this feeding miracle in a Gentile region. Matthew, who also tells this story does not locate it in the same way. Mark may be using this story, along with the previous stories about the Syrophoenecian woman and the man who was deaf and mute to indicate that Jesus mission was expanding to incorporate the Gentiles.
Mark 8:11-13: Given all that has happened, the Pharisees request for a sign seems absurd. Perhaps we need to recall that in first century Palestine, there were other miracle workers than Jesus. No sign would be given – except that there had been signs all over the place. Sometimes we see what our hearts are open to seeing, and little more.
Mark 8:14-21: This is a hilarious story. Jesus, having had a confrontation with the Pharisees, seeks to teach his disciples using an image. But they take the image literally. Jesus provides the bread of life. The Pharisees and Herod starve people either through the arbitrary exercise of power and cooperation with imperial authorities (Herod) or through a misapplication of faith principles which leaves people feeling only burdened toward God. The disciples are worried only about bread. On the one hand, you could understand. Jesus keeps asking them how much bread they have. On the other hand, Jesus has not let anyone go hungry, so to worry about bread seems a bit absurd. This is a funny story – but with a serious point. Jesus asks them if they simply can’t see, if their hearts are hardened. “Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?” Some commentators portray Jesus as being angry. I hear a deeply caring person striving to help people dig more deeply into their lives and their faith. I hear sadness, not anger. How about you? Jesus final question is straightforward, “Do you not yet understand?” From Mark’s perspective, at this point, they don’t. The journey of faith is a journey – for us all.
Mark 8:22-26: In a remarkable contrast to the disciples misunderstanding, here we have a story about the healing of a blind man. Only Mark reports this story. A blind man from Bethdsaida is brought to Jesus and is healed, but in two stages. The story is a powerful parable of the journey of faith as Mark seems to see it. It reflects the disciples own journey: sometimes blind, sometimes getting it a little (seeing trees) and sometimes comprehending almost completely. The next story shows Peter getting it.
Mark 8:27-30: You wonder why Jesus would ask his disciples anything, but he does. He wonders who people think he is. He wonders who they think he is. Peter gets it right. “You are the Messiah.” This is the first time in Mark’s gospel where a human being understands who Jesus is. He tells them to keep this to themselves, maybe in part because while they can say the words, in Mark’s gospel they have not yet grasped all that this will mean. As noted before, Caesarea Philippi contained a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the city was associated with displays of imperial power, e.g. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. It is here that Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, confesses that Jesus is the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one”). But there are ways in which Jesus does not fulfill some messianic expectations. He is not organizing to overthrow Rome militarily. He is not as strict in his interpretation of the Law as some would like. In fact, his destiny will be quite startling as the next verses will indicate.
Mark 8:31-38: One way Jesus may frustrate messianic expectations is that he will die at the hands of others. Of course, this passage is written significantly after the fact so these “predictions” come true. As mentioned before, it is not unrealistic that Jesus would have considered that his teaching and preaching and healing would attract a crowd and that such a crowd would be worrisome to Roman authorities. Nor is it unrealistic for him to have considered that the very nature of his teaching, which had elements opposed to both the religious and political authorities, would have caused a confrontation with these authorities. Peter, who was so “brilliant” moments ago, misses the point in this story. At best, he has only partially seen. Jesus then calls the disciples and a crowd together to teach. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” When we cling to a form of life that is not truly life-giving, we miss out on life. Give it up. The New Interpreters Study Bible has a special note about these verses that is worth quoting at length. By taking this requirement of suffering for Jesus’ followers out of the context of Mark’s gospel message as a whole, some Christians have supposed that it is God’s will for them to suffer and that, consequently, they should not work against their oppression or that of others. This interpretation has been especially damaging to women and third world populations colonized by Western Christians. For Mark, the suffering experienced by Jesus’ followers has a cause and a limit. The cause is the evil leaders, religious and political, who oppress those seeking truth, and the limit is the imminent return of the Son of Man at the end of the world. Read within its own understanding of the story of Jesus, Mark’s emphasis on suffering does not provide a basis for Christian masochism but instead a hope for future liberation. It is also helpful to remember that for Mark’s Jesus community, death for one’s faith was something they had seen and heard about. To follow Jesus may not mean physical suffering for most of us, but it can mean dying to certain parts of our lives, parts that are not life-giving.
Mark 9:1: This is a continuation of the previous teaching of Jesus. Here Jesus seems to teach an imminent coming of the kingdom of God with power. Just what that may mean is subject to interpretation. Jesus may have expected a complete renewal of the world in the near future. If so, that did not happen. Jesus may have expected something less, but still a coming of the kingdom with power in some different way. For Mark, the gospel writer could have been expecting a complete renewal of the world or again, something smaller. The resurrection itself is a “coming of the kingdom with power.” The primary message here is one of hope.
Mark 9:2-8: Speaking of a coming with power, the next story we have is the story of the transfiguration. This time Mark actually has a time frame in his story – six days later. The story of the Transfiguration, ending with another “prediction” of Jesus’ suffering replays the same themes as the confession and “prediction” of suffering in the previous chapter. This story evokes other themes as well (the mountain, Moses and Elijah all have significance). Perhaps there is also a commentary here about deeply moving spiritual experiences. James, John and Peter are caught up in a wonderful moment. They see clearly. They “hear” the voice of God. They would like to prolong this spiritual high. But they have to go back down the mountain into the beautiful and hurting world. It is a world where great good can happen, but also where many who try and do good are made to suffer. They must go into the world to continue the work of the kingdom, healing, hope, good news. Jack Kornfield’s words are wise ones. “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance. In the spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry…. The true task of the spiritual life is not found in faraway places or unusual states of consciousness; it is here in the present. It asks of us a welcoming spirit to greet all that life presents to us with a wise, respectful, and kindly heart.” (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry). Our churches should be places where we help people experience God more deeply, and places where we send ourselves back into the world to do God’s work. If this sounds familiar, it is also what I wrote about Matthew 17.
Mark 9:14-29: This is the last exorcism story and the next to last healing story in Mark’s gospel. While there are parallels in Matthew and Luke, Mark tells the story in a unique way, in a way that emphasizes some themes important to him. Jesus, Peter, James and John return to the group of disciples. They are surrounded by a crowd, which includes some scribes, and there is a dispute. A man has brought his troubled son to be healed. Mark portrays the son’s condition vividly. The disciples have been unable to help. Jesus seems exasperated, but we are not sure just who the “faithless generation” is. Anyway, the man brings his son to Jesus and tells Jesus he knows that he will do what he can if he is able. Jesus turns the dialogue around – “if you are able.” “All things can be done for the one who believes.” The father replies with famous words (found only in Mark), “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” Jesus remark that this demon would only come out with prayer is cryptic. We are often this strange and wonderful mixture of faith and unbelief – and our lack of faith, understood as trust, gets in the way of our being the force for good and healing in the world we would like to be. The man’s cry could legitimately be our own. “God, I have faith, help me where I lack it.”
Mark 9:30-32: A second complete prediction of Jesus suffering and death, and it ends with the disciples remaining confused. They were a mixture of belief and unbelief.
Mark 9:33-37: That the disciples really don’t get it is evident by this next scene. Jesus has just said he is going to suffer and die, and the disciples are worried about who will be the greatest. Greatness is service, Jesus tells them. It is welcoming children. “In the first-century Mediterranean world, the characteristic feature of children was not thought to be their innocence but their lack of status and legal rights” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). Openness to the least and the left out is what is considered great. Again, I hear echoes of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct.”
Mark 9:38-41: These verses continue the discussion in verses 33-37. John is worried about competition, another exorcist working in Jesus name, but who is not a part of their “community.” They have tried to stop him, but Jesus tells them not to. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Just to confuse things, other gospels have a statement that reads, “whoever is not with us is against us” (Matthew 12:30 and Luke 11:23). Luke’s gospel has both sayings! Mark is demonstrating a very generous spirit here, a spirit more churches in our day and time should model. Giving a cup of water to someone because of Christ is held up as a powerful act. Greatness indeed!
Mark 9:42-49: The remainder of this chapter is a series of sayings of Jesus which may originally have been separate sayings, but which Mark brings together – moving from the theme of caring for little ones. Disciples, followers of Jesus will be great in service. They will give a cup of water. They will be concerned for the least, the little ones, the weak. The language changes, then, to a stark exhortation to get rid of those things in one’s life which are a hindrance. This is metaphorical language, though a bit frightening. “Hell” translates the Greek word “Gehenna.” Gehenna refers to the Valley of Hinonom. “This valley south of Jerusalem, once the site of pagan sacrifices, was later made the city garbage dump, where stench, maggots, and fire were always present” (The People’s New Testament Commentary). If we don’t care, if our lives are not about service and love and helping the little ones, not only are they not great, they are like garbage. It is as if a dichotomy is being proposed – greatness or garbage. The reality is that our lives are often a combination of both, and we help ourselves by “throwing away” that which gets in the way of true greatness. The sayings about salt don’t seem to fit very naturally, except that they are linked by the use of the image of fire. Salt had two basic functions – adding flavor and as a preservative. Both associations provided rich metaphoric material. “Everyone will be salted with fire.” This seems to imply that followers of Jesus will be tested in one way or another. It may also imply that we may, in fact, need to throw the garbage of our lives away to be the kind of salt we want to be. The second salt saying is the same one found in Matthew – an encouragement to “stay salty.” Finally, the last saying is unique to Mark. “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace.” These are encouraging words for the Jesus community for whom Mark is writing and for us today.
Mark 10:1-12: The scene shifts now. Jesus, whose ministry has been centered in Galilee, is now in Judea. Jesus is moving toward Jerusalem and the dramatic conclusion of Mark’s gospel. Here, too, crowds gather “and, as was his custom, he again taught them.” But not all come to be taught. Some Pharisees come to test Jesus, asking him a question about divorce. Remember that the Pharisees are already identified as among those conspiring to destroy Jesus (3:6). Jesus responds in a very interesting way, telling the Pharisees that Moses wrote a commandment about divorce (Deuteronomy 24:1-4) “because of your hardness of heart.” Jesus challenges the very words of their common Scripture, and he puts different texts up against each other, arguing that one is more central to God’s purposes (Genesis 2:24). This method of using Scripture seems different from those who would read the Scriptures in a literlistic, infallibilistic sense. As followers of Jesus, we should take our cue from him and read our Scriptures seriously, faithfully and creatively. We should read them along with consulting Christian tradition, our own reason and our own experience (the Methodist/Wesleyan quadrilateral of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience). All that being said, this text is less about Jesus teaching about marriage and divorce, than about Jesus asserting his own teaching authority in the midst of a controversy. Yet it speaks of the seriousness with which Jesus and the early Christian community treated marriage. We should take marriage no less seriously. At the same time, where these verses have been used to “punish” those who have been divorced, turning them into second-class Christians, we should speak boldly in saying that such a reading is not in keeping with the broad themes of Jesus teaching about love and compassion. As I wrote previously, in most cases there is an element of tragedy in any divorce, and Jesus’ teaching acknowledges this. His other teachings about compassion lead me to believe that he would not have used his strong feelings about marriage and divorce to beat up on those who had been divorced. The church has not always done the best job of showing compassion to those divorced and that is inconsistent with the overall teaching of Jesus and the Christian faith.
Mark 10:13-16: Just a few verses ago we hear Jesus talking about welcoming children. Here people bring children to Jesus and the disciples try and get in their way! Not only should children be welcomed, there is something about them that speaks strongly about the kingdom of God. Jesus says, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Listen to these words from Krista Tippett, from her book Speaking of Faith. And as I watched my children move through the world, I began to imagine what Jesus meant by humility. The humility of a child, moving through the world discovering everything new, is closely linked with delight. This original spiritual humility is not about debasing oneself; it is about approaching everything new and other with a sense of curiosity and wonder. It has a quality of fearlessness, too (237).
Mark 10:17-31: If children are open to wonder, receptive to grace, often with few resources of their own – this next story is about a man who had it all (many possessions). The question about “eternal life” is another way of asking how he could participate in God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. There is irony in the story. Jesus tells the man that no one is good but God, yet the man maintains his own spiritual self-sufficiency. I don’t think the point is to put forward some sort of doctrine of the universal depravity of human beings, rather to acknowledge that there is grace in our lives, that a part of who we are is a gift. Failure to acknowledge that leads to spiritual trouble. Jesus, out of love for the man, sees that his problem is just that, a sense of spiritual self-sufficiency, a sense that he needs to earn his way into God’s kingdom. His possessions are the most tangible representation of that, so Jesus tells him to get rid of them and follow. The man leaves – shocked and grieving. This is not a broadside against material possessions, but in our day and age we need to be asking questions about the spiritual effects of a world where desiring more and more, and working harder and harder for that seems endemic to our culture and society. What might this be doing to us inside? How might this be blinding us to the plight of the least well-off in our world? How might it be preventing us from seeing so much of the beauty in the world that cannot be bought or earned? The sayings that follow the departure of the rich man lead me to just these questions. And sometimes we get so caught up in earning and spending that we find it difficult to extricate ourselves spiritually. It may seem impossible, like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle (by the way, the story about a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye” is a medieval legend – some of you may have heard this story). Jesus uses a stark image here, but he also assures us that with God, nothing is impossible. Furthermore, he offers a wonderful assurance to the disciples (and to disciples through the centuries) that they will be blessed on the way of faith. Verse 31 about the first being last and the last being first is a proverb that appears in a variety of contexts in the gospels (e.g. similar words in Mark 9:35). The journey of faith is not always easy. It can entail persecutions. It can mean leaving behind old securities. But it is the way of life.
Mark 10:32-34: The journey toward Jerusalem continues. Mark’s language here is fascinating. Jesus is walking on ahead and those who follow are amazed and afraid. Sounds like a word about Mark’s own community – following Jesus, amazed and afraid. Again comes the word about what this trip to Jerusalem will mean.
Mark 10:35-45: And important disciples just don’t get it at all. James and John ask to sit on Jesus’ right and left “in glory.” What glory? The only people who will be on Jesus right and left in the end will be two bandits also being crucified (Mark 15:27). Are they really able to give themselves as Jesus does? Mark has Jesus’ words point to a time when they will be able. Jesus then emphasizes again that greatness is service (How many times does he have to say it? Probably as often as we need to hear it) – this in sharp contrast to the imperial way of life, of lording things over others. Verse 45 summarizes an important point for Mark. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” “Son of Man” is a term Mark often uses as a term of self-reference for Jesus. The term “ransom” is important to understand. To many Christians, the word “ransom” sounds like sacrificial language, for we sometimes speak of Jesus as the ransom for our sins. But it almost certainly does not have this meaning in Mark…. The Greek word translated as “ransom”… is used in the Bible not in the context of payment for sin, but to refer to payment made to liberate captives… or slaves. [It] is a means of liberation from bondage. Thus to say that Jesus gave “his life a ransom for many” means he gave his life as a means of liberation from bondage (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 154). Some may wonder about my continually introducing alternative ways of understanding Jesus’ death, other than as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, required by God for forgiveness. I am not trying to evade my own need for grace nor my own shortcomings. I am painfully aware of places in my life where I do and say things that are not loving and compassionate. I continue to work on these areas of my life. I trust in God’s grace for forgiveness and, at my best, have a deep sense of gratitude for life itself as a gift of God’s grace. Admittedly, I struggle with the notion that God could not forgive without requiring some kind of blood sacrifice. Such an understanding of God leaves me cold, but I know that is not the case for others. Jesus life and death, by revealing to me the depth and meaning of God’s love and the possibilities for new life free me from false understandings of myself. They free me from the unhealthy cycle of sin – guilt – self-loathing – self-justification to a place where I can receive grace and work to be a better person, cooperating with the grace and Spirit of God at work in me. For those who find the idea of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice needed for forgiveness, a sacrifice God provides from God’s own being, helpful, I have no desire to take that away. It is one understanding of Jesus’ death within the Christian faith tradition. My only goal is to offer other faithful understandings of Jesus’ death that are also found in the tradition and which may speak to others more powerfully.
Mark 10:46-52: The journey continues as Jesus and the disciples pass through Jericho. A man named Bartimaeus is on the side of the road, and when he hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth passing by he calls out to him. The “son of David” language makes a claim about Jesus, that he is true king of God’s kingdom, and it gives an additional reason for going to Jerusalem. Jesus asks the disciples to call the man to Jesus – something Jesus still asks of disciples. “Take heart” – not a bad message for the church to share today. Bartimaeus asks to see again. Jesus responds, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way. The first Christians often thought of themselves as people of “the way.” This story, which has parallels in Matthew and Luke, is told in a unique manner by Mark. The person is named. The call of Jesus comes to each of us by name. The person becomes a model of discipleship – blindness is healed because one responds to Jesus with faith, with trust, and in faith/trust one follows Jesus on the way – even thought the way may be difficult at times.