Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Palm Sunday Reflection: Jesus' Action in the Temple in Mark

Mark’s portrayal of Jesus and his disciples heading toward Jerusalem is both an important literary device and a theologically rich motif for the plot of the narrative.  But the question we should ask is: Why were Jesus and his disciples headed to Jerusalem?  The answer highlights once again the theme that Jesus and his disciples were working at cross-purposes.

Of course, the exchange between Jesus and the two brothers, James and John, that we saw in Mark 10, may indicate that at least these two disciples believed  Jesus was going to Jerusalem to become the King of Israel, and that they would participate as members of his royal court.  However, it does seem likely that the group that followed Jesus for the most part probably thought they were going to Jerusalem as faithful Jews making their annual pilgrimage to David’s city and to the temple to celebrate the Passover.

But, as Mark tells his version of the story, it seems that as Jerusalem comes closer into view, Jesus does not intend to enter the city as the kind of king the disciples hoped for.  Nor does he come to Jerusalem simply as a Jewish pilgrim; one among many pilgrims making their way to the holy place.

Indeed, as Jesus and his band step closer to Jerusalem, it begins to become clear that he intends to enter Jerusalem as one sent to challenge the authorities for their religious tyranny, their abusive power, and perhaps mostly for their lack of justice toward the poor and marginalized.  In fact, he is so set on taking this action against them that he has accepted that what he will say and do in Jerusalem will lead to his suffering death at their hands.

There is no event more significant in demonstrating Jesus’ intentions than that which takes place in Mark 11, when Jesus arrives at the temple.  Of course, anyone familiar with the biblical story knows full well the importance of the temple for Jewish religious life.  The temple stood as a beacon for faithful Jews of the first century and as a constant reminder of God’s promise and presence with them.

Yet, the temple was also the seat of political power for the Jewish religious leaders.  In being the center of power for the ruling elite of Israel, the temple was a place in which segments of Israel’s population could not enter, and thus, those shutout could not participate in the full religious life of Judaism.  Gentiles, women, the infirmed, and other marginalized peoples were forbidden from full inclusion and participation.

Many modern readers of the story of Jesus’ actions in the temple interpret the meaning behind what he does in the temple and what he says about the temple as merely a spiritual message.  In other words, we like to think that Jesus is confronting the religious establishment on spiritual grounds alone.  Moreover, some understand what Jesus does as a refutation of Judaism.  But both of these interpretations miss the point of Jesus’ action.

While it is true that there is indeed a spiritual thrust to Jesus’ acts against the temple, that thrust coincides with, and perhaps even follows from what Jesus feels about the political and economic abuses that were taking place there.  There was clearly a political and economic structure to the temple that cut out and even abused the poor, while at the same time functioning as a “den of thieves.”  But Jesus will have nothing of it.  He speaks harshly against what is happening in the temple, and he reminds the hearers of the original intent of the temple to be a place of prayer for all peoples of the world.  

Yet, what is particularly interesting about his actions in the temple is the way Mark tells us how these events developed.  Jesus goes into the temple late on one day, looks around, and then leaves until he returns the next day, when he begins to overturn the tables.  Why does Jesus do this, and why is it important for Mark to tell us these details?

The straightforward answer seems to be that Jesus was determined that his actions against the temple be witnessed by a large crowd; larger than the one that may have been there late on the first day.  His actions can thus be defined as symbolic action that was intended not only to challenge the religious-political elite and their abuses, but also to publicly call for an end to the temple practices themselves.  It was an action that called for a halt to what was taking place in the temple, and a negation of the belief that God approved of what was taking place in the temple.

If we interpret Jesus’ actions in the framework of his ideas about the rule of God, then we must see his actions against this center of religious and political power in Judaism as a call for the temple practices to be more inclusive.  Indeed, by quoting from both the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah, Jesus is stating what the temple is suppose to be, an inclusive and welcoming community, as well as condemning what it has become, a place that not only excludes the poor and marginalized, but that also steals from them.

 If segments of the population were being excluded because they were Gentile, female, poor, sick, and ritually unclean, then the temple served not as a place of prayer for all people, but as a place of exclusion, a practice that is clearly at odds with the message of Jesus.

The message of inclusion, which is at the heart of Jesus’ teaching and ministry of justice and liberation, is fundamental to the rule of God.  But inclusion can only happen when the walls that divide humanity are torn down so that all God’s people may enter.

Religious, racial, ethnic, gender, and social and economic barriers are only a few that preclude God’s just rule from becoming a reality.  Jesus condemned the religious leaders for using their religious power to exclude others from community with God.    Modern followers of Jesus should heed Jesus’ words and should work to create more welcoming communities of faith so that all God’s peoples may find a place of prayer.  If we do not, then we are also working at cross-purposes with Jesus.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

“Whoever does the will of God”: Mark’s Understanding of Jesus’ True Family

Compared to Matthew and Luke, Mark has little to say about Jesus’ natural family. Indeed, perhaps one of the most glaring omissions from Mark, or, depending on how you see it, additions by the other two, is any reference to Jesus’ birth or childhood. Mark seems unconcerned about Jesus’ natural family, and instead, defines Jesus family quite differently.
There is one reference to Jesus’ natural family in Mark 3:31-35, which can be viewed as negative remarks against his family. Certainly, one cannot perceive a very positive view from Jesus’ words about his family, but we might take Jesus’ statement as implicating more about who he sees as his true family than about his mother and brothers, although there is definitely criticism of the latter. In other words, while Jesus’ words offer a negative portrayal of his family, Mark uses this as a transition to define the true family of Jesus.

By defining his true family as “whoever does the will of God” Jesus designates his disciples, who he just called in 3:13-19, as those who are a part of the family of God. The Markan audience by this point in the narrative understands that Jesus’ relationship to God is one of son (u(io/j) and father (path/r). By declaring that those who do the will of God are his brothers, sisters, and mother, Jesus implies that those who are faithful to God are part of the family of God. 
It is indeed peculiar that father (path/r) is absent from the list of family members that Jesus gives in 3:35. Might this be a way to imply reference to God as the one who is the father of Jesus? If so, then those who do the will of God find a father in Jesus’ own relationship to God as father. But this relationship is only possible through the relationship that followers have with Jesus as the Son. Thus, the relationship between those who do the will of God with the God who is father of Jesus is a derivative relationship; one which comes through both parties being in relation to Jesus (Cf. Jesus’ statement in 9:37).
Moreover, when we understand this saying within the narrative span of Mark, we understand that “doing the will of God” in Mark may cause one to be rejected by family (6:1-6; 13:12-13), thus producing an absence of familial relationships and community. The God of Jesus who extends relations to those who do the will of God, however, fills this void, by stepping in as the father. Thus Jesus’ saying is not primarily a polemical statement against his own family, but more an extension of who comprises his family.
Of significance at this point are the words of the Markan Jesus, “whoever does the will of God” (3:35). By moving from a reference to those seated around him as the ones who constitute his family, to including “whoever” does the will of God, the Markan Jesus addresses the audience of Mark through the text and includes them in the family of God. This “whoever” reference, while setting limits around those who are in relationship to God, reaches beyond other limits of exclusion and opens the path of relationship to anyone who chooses to do the will of God.
This idea is further expressed in Mark by way of Jesus’ words to the disciples regarding leaving family or being abandoned by family. In 10:28-31, Jesus responds to the concern Peter expresses regarding the disciples having left all to follow him. Jesus’ response, again, deals with the issue of family, as he assures Peter that those who have left family and possessions for his sake and the sake of the gospel will be rewarded for their faithfulness. Again, Jesus extends this to more than the disciples via his use of “no one” (o)udei/j). There is “no one,” then, who leaves all for his sake and the sake of the gospel he preaches who will not receive just reward. 
The giver of this eschatological reward of eternal life is God. That which disciples will receive in this age, “households and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and fields,” suggests a replacement of the natural kinship with a fictive kinship over which God takes the role as father. Again, the absence of father (path/r) in v30, when it is present in v29, intimates to the audience that the God of Jesus stands as the true father of Jesus’ family. 
In 13:9-13, Mark’s audience once again hears Jesus speak of family relations. There is no subject linked to the passive verb translated as “handed over” in v9, and thus Mark may intend a general “they will hand you over.” However, within the context, when brother, father, and children are mentioned as betraying their family members, Mark may be more directly connecting those who will hand over the followers of Jesus with their family members.
The participatory nature of discipleship communicated in Mark is here brought to the fore of the minds of those who would seek to live as Jesus lives, for it implies that their fates are similar. As Jesus will be handed over (9:31; 10:33; and John in 1:14), so also those who identify with him will be handed over. What is tragic is the fact that this handing over will be carried out by the families of those disciples. But Jesus’ words of prophecy do not end in doom, as he also gives hope to those who live faithfully by remaining true to the good news. 
Those who do will be “saved” (swqh/setai), a passive verb indicating God’s actions in saving those who remain faithful. Again, the proximity of Jesus’ words about the natural family of the disciples, to the words of eschatological salvation given by God to those who remain faithful, indicate to the hearers, including the Markan audience, that as the father of Jesus will be faithful to vindicate him, so also the father of the disciples will be faithful to save them.
For Mark, then, blood kinship is replaced by a new family consisting of those who do the will of God, and over which God is paterfamilias.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

“For the Purpose of Being with Him”: The Relationship between Jesus and the Disciples in Mark

In a previous post I wrote about Mark’s presentation of the disciples as portraits of human failure and possibility before God. The disciples, particularly in Mark’s story, do come off as failures, but their failure does not negate their relationship to Jesus. Indeed, a vitally important aspect of understanding discipleship in Mark is to grasp as best as one can this relationship between Jesus and those who follow him in the narrative. While a Christological dimension of discipleship is present in that these followers are called to imitate Jesus, there is also a strong sense in Jesus’ call for them to participate with him in fulfilling God’s call. 
This is evident in a number of references to the disciples being with Jesus. The calling and appointing of the disciples in 3:13-19 is for the purpose of being with Jesus and to be sent out to proclaim the message. The forward position of  i/(na w)=sin met au)tou= (“for the purpose of being with him”) indicates that the primary purpose for the calling and appointing of these disciples is to be in fellowship with Jesus on his mission. 
The proclamation (khru/ssein) to which they are also appointed is derived from Jesus’ proclamation (see 1:38 for Jesus’ understanding his purpose for coming to proclaim), and extends from their having been with him. From this point Jesus is mostly with his disciples, except at times when he withdraws from them for prayer (6:46) or when he sends them out (aposte/llein) on mission (6:7-13).
There is, however, a concentration of references to Jesus being with his disciples or his disciples being with him in chapter 14 (vv. 14, 17, 18, 20, 33). These are a mixture of references to this relationship that highlight Jesus’ intimacy with his co-workers. What may be particularly fascinating is the fact that the references cited above occur in the context of the Passover Meal celebration. 
In this scene there is a paradoxical portrayal of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples. On the one hand, the intimacy of the meal is clear. On the other hand, this intimacy is strained as Jesus predicts that the one “eating with me (met e)mou=; 14:18), the one dipping bread into the bowl “with me” (met e)mou; 14:20) will betray him or hand him over (The same word used by Jesus in his passion/resurrection predictions in Mark.). Yet, this one is not alone in his guilt, as Jesus predicts that the other disciples will desert him in his time of need. 
Even in the Garden, where Jesus takes James, John and Peter with him (met au)tou=; 14:33), the beginning of the split in the relationship is made as the disciples fail to stay awake and pray with Jesus during his greatest time of need for intimacy. The intimacy between Jesus and his disciples, those chosen to be with him, will now be severely challenged, even damaged, by the suffering to come.
What may also be interesting is the fact that the mention of someone being with Jesus does not occur again after the scene in the Garden. Ironically the idea is present in the scene where the servant-girl in 14:67 questions Peter, “You also were with (meta\) Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” Peter emphatically denies this accusation. The intimacy of being a co-worker with Jesus, of sharing in the ministry to which God had called him, and sharing in the Passover Meal, now gives way for the complete desertion of these disciples and their estrangement from Jesus. 
The movement of Peter from court to forecourt now replaces the intimacy of the boat, the road, and particularly the table. Peter’s emphatic denial of ever knowing Jesus reverses his earlier declaration of Jesus as the Messiah and distances him not only from the one he was called to be with, but also from the God of Mark’s narrative. Jesus is left as the sole executor of God’s will.
Despite this failure of those called to be with Jesus, the empty tomb scene serves as the climax of the narrative and the relationship between Jesus and his followers. The women arrive at the tomb to view the corpse of their former teacher, but they are instead met by a young man dressed in a white robe, who proclaims that Jesus has been raised. He orders the women to go and tell his disciples and Peter that Jesus will meet them in Galilee (16:7). 
The divine power to raise Jesus from the dead reflects the divine reversal of the tragedy of not only the death of the Beloved Son, but also the broken relationship between Jesus and those who were called to be with him. The human failure is replaced by divine faithfulness to the Son and those called to be with him, as God’s triumph in raising Jesus to life makes possible the reuniting of Jesus and those called to participate with him. 
Moreover, the ending of the narrative with a promise from the heavenly messenger that Jesus will meet his followers in Galilee leaves the audience with the continued presence of Jesus with the discipleship community. Instead of narrating an ascension story, as Matthew and Luke do, Mark ends with the implication that Jesus is continuing in his ministry on earth with those called to participate with him.
Therefore, Mark’s narrative presentation of discipleship is two-fold. On the one hand, disciples are called to follow Jesus as the one who models doing the will of God. At the same time, however, disciples are called to participate with Jesus in doing God’s will. Mark’s Jesus is the paradigm of true faithfulness before God, and those called to participate with him are called primarily to faithfulness before God. 

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Broken Body of Jesus, Not the Powerful People of God

Here's another excerpt from my book, Reframing a Relevant Faith. You can purchase the book from the publisher at or through Amazon at An e-version is also available at

Perhaps the most prominent metaphor to describe the church comes from the Apostle Paul’s description of the church as the body of Christ, particularly his exegesis of the metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12.  Paul’s selection of this metaphor was not haphazard, for the image is so closely related to the center of Christian faith that the sign and that which it signifies cannot be easily distinguished.  Indeed, the image of the church as the body of Christ signifies that the church is indeed the incarnation of Jesus in the world.  The church is the mouth, the hands, the feet, and the heart of Jesus to a world in need of prophetic voices, serving hands and feet, and hearts of compassion.  Yet, we have forgotten that Jesus’ body was broken for us, and as such, the body of Christ in the world today should also be broken.

Henri Nouwen wrote, "It is often difficult to believe that there is much to think, speak or write about other than brokenness".[1]  Brokenness, like many other terms that fit within its semantic domain, conjures up images of weakness and failure; images that for some reason we have taken to be far from what it means to be followers of Jesus.  Yet, for some odd reason, we are particularly guilty of assuming that all things should work out for us. We pray to avoid struggle and pain, and in some sections of the church, we are told that if we have enough faith we can avoid these things and we can even become rich.

But, as followers of Jesus, why should we assume that our lives should be any less tragic than his own? This is certainly not to say that we should be looking for suffering, as I think some often do. But we must be reminded that Jesus, the one we follow, suffered real evil, real pain, and real death.  His human existence is not a story of victory, but one of brokenness that has meaning for our own humanity. Brokenness means that we become and remain vulnerable in our human existence, both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ.  Despite the false teachings that Christians are blessed, or as we often like to say in an attempt to separate ourselves from others, “we are forgiven”, Christians have no pride of place in God’s creation, and thus, followers of Jesus must embrace brokenness as a faithful way of existing in the world both as individual followers of Jesus and as the collective body of Christ.

While Christianity has traditionally believed in a God who is all powerful, when I reflect on the life of Jesus, I am inclined to believe that the traditional view of God does not seriously consider the vulnerability of human existence as represented in Jesus’ life and tragic death. Moreover, by coupling the belief that God is all-powerful with the idea that we, as opposed to others, are the blessed and chosen people of God, we mock the cross of Jesus.  At no point in his life did Jesus ever suggest that we will be prosperous and secure if we only have faith in God.

Indeed, the church exists in the world as the suffering body of Christ that engages with the pains and struggles of those seeking hope, healing, redemption, and restoration.  Jesus took on human brokenness in order to be intimate with those who struggled and suffered in this life.  He did not separate himself from pain and brokenness, but he embraced it as a way of being intimate with those who suffer.  His compassion was not a feeling of sympathy for the plight of the hurting, while he remained distant from their hurting.  His compassion was the force that led him to be intimately bound to those who hurt. 

If the church is ever to return to Jesus’ vision for his followers, then those who claim to be Christian must choose to take up the cross of Jesus by choosing to be broken.  Being a Christian does not remove our connectedness to the rest of humanity.  Rather following Jesus leads us to be more intimately connected to humanity, especially to humans who are broken.  The body of Christ does not exist separate from the world, but lives in solidarity with the world as the broken body of Christ incarnate and suffering with the rest of humanity.

          Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York, Crossroad, 1992), 73.