One of the actions Jesus carries out in the Gospel of Mark soon after announcing that the kingdom of God is near is the calling of his disciples. While Jesus was certainly calling individuals to follow him, he was always calling them into the community of Jesus in which they were to find a new way of existing in the world that demonstrates the ethics of God’s rule. Indeed, the followers of Jesus formed somewhat of a political community who viewed their ethics in opposition to that which was present in the Roman Empire.
In forming an alternative political community that acted, in its own way, subversively to Rome, the early Christian community offered a radical way of living that was counter to what Rome stood for. In light of Jesus’ teachings, and his death on a Roman cross, this way of living became the norm for the community.
There are some significant practices modeled or stated by Jesus that clarify this radical way of living. These very much apply to today’s followers of Jesus as they are emblematic of what it means to be a disciple.
First, Jesus called followers to service, not political domination. Jesus is the paradigm of service as he claims to give his life for others (Mark 10:32-45), and he called his followers to be a community in which imperial ideas of authority were cast out and replaced by a new ethic of service.
The political symbol of Roman power and domination, the cross, became for the followers of Jesus the symbol of service in the community, and the pattern of lordship practices found outside the community were to be replaced by the service demonstrated by the Son of Man.
Second, Jesus called for inclusive welcoming, not exclusion based on status, as the norm of living in community. The discussion of who was the greatest among the twelve in Mark 9:30-41 prompts Jesus to take unto himself a child and declare that faithfulness to Jesus is found in the actions of welcoming a child. While we can take the child to mean literally a child, we may also view Jesus as using the child to represent those seen as weak or of lowly status.
Roman society was built on a distinct class structure. This system helped to maintain the practice of patronage, through which clients were held down. Moreover, this class structure prevented social mobility, which meant that the classes maintained a degree of pedigree and segregation, preventing social interaction between the classes.
Jesus rebuffs this exclusion by declaring that the weakest of a society must be welcomed into the community. The practice of such inclusion may have been shocking to new members, who may very well have struggled with letting go of their status over another within the Jesus movement. Yet, the norm of the community was one of inclusion that was not based on status.
This is illustrated in the life of Jesus himself as he welcomes the marginalized and as he institutes the community meal. In eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus was affirming that the banquet of God’s kingdom was open to all to come and partake. All would find equality and acceptance in the rule of God.
Third, Jesus taught his followers that the power of goodness, not oppressive power, is the norm for making and keeping peace. Peace and non-violence are the heart of Jesus’ message and life, and he calls his followers to “be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)”. Jesus’ idea of peace is realized through the power of goodness; not through violence, as the infamous Pax Romana dictated.
Fourth, Jesus commanded the sharing of possessions in community, not self-indulgence and prosperity, as the economic norms of the community. Jesus’ encounter with the rich man who seeks eternal life in Mark 10:17-22 serves as instruction on the use and possession of worldly goods in the community. The man desires eternal life, and, upon hearing Jesus list the commandments, which he claims he has observed, the man assumes that all is well. Yet Jesus calls him to a more radical decision to sell his many possessions and give the money to the poor.
The story does not reveal how this man gained his wealth. We do not even know he is wealthy until he walks away (Mark 10:22). Perhaps this man has gained his possessions through some form of oppression of others. More certainly he may have neglected caring for others by hoarding his wealth, much like we can assume about the rich fool in the parable Jesus tells in Luke 12:13-21. Both will not relinquish their control over their abundance so that they might share with those who do not have.
Jesus called his followers to relinquish control over their wealth and give it to the community to be used to care for those in need. Joining the Jesus movement demanded a renunciation of one’s wealth as a tool of power and position and called for Jesus’ followers to sell “their possessions and goods” and to give “to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:45).
It is clear that Jesus set forth and modeled a radical way of living that is contrary to what has been and still is often the dominant world view. In doing so, Jesus’ teachings are not so much focused on the personal salvation and spirituality of a person, but on a radical way of living in community with others that challenges the norms of our society.