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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Introduction to the Kingdom of God: Mark 1-3:19

Some preliminaries about the text. Given that Mark's gospel is the shortest and packs a number of different themes about the kingdom into a very short space in the beginning chapters, I figured a sequential study of this section would make a worthwhile introduction to the kingdom of God. To my mind the kingdom of God is the best summary idea for understanding what one is getting into when he/she responds to the call to follow Jesus.

The ministry of John the Baptist. Mark starts the story of the good news with John's ministry. The combined quotation of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 and the quotation of John's words in v. 7 highlight an interpretation of John's ministry as an intentional preparation for the coming of Jesus, the Son of God. When John baptized people in the Jordan River, he was getting them ready for the appearance of the mightier one, who would follow up that baptism with the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of how closely this approximates the intentions of the historical John the Baptist, it clearly links John's ministry with the coming ministry of Jesus: John prepares, Jesus fulfills. This is important because it encourages one to understand John's message and actions in light of Jesus's ministry, and not so much the other way around. The historical John has often been understood to be an eschatological prophet, perhaps gathering the people by baptism in preparation for a mighty act of God in judgment upon his enemies. Interpreting Jesus's ministry in light of John would then make Jesus the agent of that eschatological judgment and would suggest that we should place the prophecy of Mark 13 centrally in the story. The destruction of the temple and attendant disasters is key to Jesus's whole ministry. If we allow the influence to bleed the other way, however, John's message of impending eschatological judgment gets transformed. The judgment no longer falls immediately, visibly, or directly from heaven. In fact, John's message of eschatological judgment is muted in Mark's gospel. The focus instead is on his preparation of the people by baptizing the repentant. He readies the people to accept the preaching of the kingdom of God.

The story of Jesus's baptism not only links John and Jesus, it also links Jesus with the people of Israel. He is baptized with the other penitents, he receives the baptism of the Holy Spirit John promised the coming one would perform on the penitents, God calls him "my beloved son," a recollection of the sonship of Israel (Hosea 11:1), and then Jesus is driven into the desert to be tested by the devil for 40 days. This connects him to the wilderness wanderings of Israel by the timespan, the theme of testing, and the presence of wild beasts and ministering angels. The identification of Jesus with the people of Israel suggests that Jesus's own ministry not only effects the establishment of the kingdom of God, but that it is also a model for the continuing ministry of his followers to advance and maintain that kingdom.

Mark then skips ahead to the arrest of John and the subsequent beginning of Jesus's ministry. This further ties the two together. When John's public work is brought to a halt, Jesus begins his. Mark immediately introduces us to the main message: "The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news."

It is extremely important to notice that Jesus begins his work by preaching a message. This is a significant departure from the surface language of Malachi 3 and 4. Where is the judgment? Where is the burning fire? Where is the consumption of the enemies? Not here. Instead, he calls the hearers to repent and believe the good news that the kingdom of God is near.

This is underscored by the story of the calling of the first disciples. He summons 4 fishermen to follow him with the announcement, "I will make you fishers of men." Now, we have no way of knowing if this is genuinely historical, nor do we have a lot of context. Did Jesus challenge all the fishermen he encountered along the shore, and we are only hearing about some who responded positively? Or, did he single out only these men? We don't know, but what we do know is that Mark is portraying Jesus as a fisher of men who catches 4 and tells them he intends to make them do the same. In short, Mark is portraying Jesus as the initiator of a recruitment movement for the kingdom of God.

The next story introduces us to the new power brought into the lives of the people by Jesus's public ministry. First, Jesus is able to teach in a synagogue. This fits in with what we just pointed out above. Jesus teaches because it is by this means that the kingdom of God is drawing near. Mark emphasizes that Jesus's teaching is marked by "authority" lacking in the teaching of the Jewish scribes. Then we have the encounter with the demon-possessed man, in which the demon recognizes and submits to Jesus's authority. So, we see that the kingdom of God drawing near includes the entrance of a superior spiritual power recognized by both the human and unseen worlds. And this is power is for the good: it impresses the people the people hearing it while sitting around the word of God, and it drives out the demons.

Next, we see another sign of the power of the kingdom for the good. After Peter's mother-in-law is healed, the people of Capernaum swamp Peter's house and keep Jesus busy healing the sick and casting out demons into the night. (Mark's mention of "after sundown" is significant, I'm sure, but the implication/allusion escapes me.) That Jesus remains with the people healing them indicates a significant goal of the kingdom: elimination of the evils afflicting the people. So it is not just a matter of the people getting ready for the kingdom by repenting, it is also a matter of God taking away the evils that plague the people.

Jesus rises early the next morning to pray in a deserted place. On the one hand, this is an indication already in the story that he needs to get away from the crowds to have time alone. Peter and some others find him anyway after a search and announce, "Everyone is looking for you." This is another significant mark of the coming of the kingdom, and of Jesus's role in it. The kingdom is attractive. This fits with the vision of the prophets which pictures the future as a time when the peoples would stream to Jerusalem. Mark may be including this story to indicate that the time of "streaming" in has begun with Jesus's appearing. This also distinguishes Jesus as the bringer of the kingdom. I firmly believe that Mark's portrayal of Jesus has two sides: Jesus is the unique Son of God/Jesus is the first among many. Here, we have an emphasis on the former, but with implications for the latter as well.

He responds to Peter with another key characteristic of the kingdom: "Let us go also to the surrounding villages so I can preach there; for I came for this reason." This is the reverse of the prophetic picture of the peoples "streaming" in. Now, the kingdom goes out to the peoples by means of a preacher. And so he went to the towns of Galilee preaching in the synagogues and casting out demons.

According to Mark sometime during this initial preaching tour Jesus encounters a leper. The exact terms of this encounter are somewhat in doubt due to some key textual variants. Specifically, did the leper kneel (v. 40) and did Jesus react to the leper's appeal with compassion or anger (v. 41)? The latter variant is more interesting because the "angry" reading appears to create difficulties. Why would Jesus be angry with the leper for requesting a healing and what does it say about his character? Some believe that the "angry" reading is an attempt to reconcile v. 41 with the strong rebuke Jesus issues to the leper in vv. 43-44. And there is some logic to this viewpoint. The language in vv. 43-44 is pretty strong and most translations tone it down. According to the "compassionate" reading Jesus felt compassion for the man when he healed him but then "speaking harshly to him immediately he cast him out." It is not immediately obvious why Jesus would have such a sudden change of attitude. The poor attestation for the "angry" reading suggests that it is a secondary attempt to make Jesus consistent. It could very well be that some scribe in the western tradition tried to smooth the tension between compassionate healing and violent expulsion. On the other hand, assuming Mark's text is the basis for Matthew and Luke's versions of the story, it is noteworthy that neither of them give any indication of Jesus's feelings during the healing. You could argue that this would make more sense if their Markan original had the "angry" reading, since neither of them would likely want to promote the idea that Jesus got angry with the people he was about to heal. In both versions, the harsh post-healing treatment disappears as well. Unless one wants to argue that neither Matthew nor Luke were interested in communicating Jesus's inner attitude in this text, their behavior would suggest that they found the "angry" reading in their sources. But, in fact, there are other cases in which Matthew and Luke's versions of stories shared in common with Mark lack reports of Jesus's emotions where Mark includes them, and some of these cases include descriptions of Jesus's compassion or love for someone. Conclusion? I reach the very tentative conclusion that the "compassionate" reading is original. I have no definite opinion about the "kneeling" variant.

So, the leper believes Jesus can heal him but appears to challenge or doubt Jesus's willingness to do so. The leper is not alone in this doubt. It was a commonplace of Jewish thinking at this time that sickness was a just punishment for sin. Consider the disciples' question to Jesus about the blind man in John 9: "Who sinned, this man or his parents?" It doesn't take much imagination to appreciate the social consequences of having a debilitating disease in a small village community with this kind of outlook on life. The OT regulations (Lev. 13:45-46) about how a person with a skin disease was supposed to act until healed would only make things worse. It is quite reasonable to suppose that some of the lament psalms, eg. Psalm 38, were composed based on this type of experience. The afflicted person of faith would be asserting his faith in God's goodness towards him in the teeth of almost universal condemnation. In fact, this combination of theological assumptions, ritual regulations, and personal reactions would suggest that sufferers would in many cases be more or less permanently alienated from their communities. Even after healing and restoration to their communities, they would possibly remain "marked" and retain suspicions of or resentments against their neighbors. If I am right about this, then Jesus's response to the leper is HUGE.

First, he touches the leper. The touching would appear to make Jesus "unclean, " if Lev. 15:7 should be applied to this case. The resulting "uncleanness" could be remedied relatively easily -- washing clothes and body -- and quickly -- till evening. The story passes over this issue in silence. I think this is a pregnant silence. Everybody knew that the OT regulations were designed to ensure that nobody touched the leper. Jesus ignores the regulations to help the man.

Second, he heals the leper. By characterizing the healing as cleansing, the story reverses the dynamic behind the OT purity regulations. Here, clean gets transferred. This event explodes the entire OT conception of clean/unclean. The holiness of God is no longer circumscribed within carefully defined limits and the people left standing outside, surrounded by a world of pollutants from which they must protect themselves in order for God to tolerate their presence. Nope, with the kingdom the holiness of God comes bounding out of the sanctuary and puts pollution to rout.

Third, he makes it very clear that he wants the leper clean. This affirmation resolves the leper's doubts and testifies to his acceptance with God. Now you can find plenty of commentary on the OT purity regulations that will explain how they taught the Jews about the holiness of God, his majestic offense at human sin, the consequences of original sin, the depths of human depravity, etc, etc, etc, ad nauseum. The fact of the matter is that all these purity regulations regarding "leprosy" were put in place because the ignorant legislators realized that the skin diseases were contagious but didn't have a clue what to do about it, except to keep the sick away. And what better way to do that than to put the entire condition in the category of an offense against God? The sufferings added by the purity regulations were the fault of the sick person anyway.

This brief exchange reveals the silliness of all these excuses. Jesus heals the leper, and kicks the whole clean/unclean configuration into the garbage. Don't even get me started on this. Too many people's lives were completely thrown away because so many IDIOTS CLUNG TO STUPID THEOLOGY WHEN THEY COULD HAVE MAYBE TRIED FINDING OUT HOW TO GET SICK PEOPLE WELL, HUH? Mind you, I'm quite aware that this story doesn't proclaim the germ theory of disease. But the point still stands: Stop trying to come up with reasons why God wants people sick. Get them well.

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