A Subversive Text: The Gospel According to Mark

A sermon preached on the Third Sunday after Epiphany Year B    January 25, 2015

St. Matthias, Victoria BC CANADA

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Why should we bother to read this thing called “The Gospel according to Mark”?

Several points to be made.

  1. Try reading it in one sitting. It’s not all that long. It is a relatively straightforward narrative (at least compared to some books of prophecy, Paul’s letters, or the Book of Revelavtion). But as you read it, perhaps read it aloud, because originally it would have been performed. This is pointed out by Richard Horsley in his book Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).  The Gospel according to Mark shows oral aspects: i) repetition of certain words such as “and” “immediately”; ii) sandwiches of a story inserted into another story; iii) chiastic structures; and iv) quotations from the scriptures that are not quite right;  Typically of oral stories, there is almost no character development. Perhaps we should spend a Sunday just reading it aloud- get the some of the students from the canadian College of Performing Arts to PERFORM it?
  2. It’s anonymous. Nowhere in the text does the author identify themselves, and the person named Mark never shows up. Later tradition ascribed it to a colleague of Paul’s, supposedly at the dictation of Peter. But not actually in the text, and highly unlikely.
  3. It should feel foreign and strange. We’ve domesticated it, and read into it 19 centuries of theology that may not be there. When Mark was written there was no New Testament, no Christian scriptures, and the author did not know he was writing something that would be read for 20 centuries. We read into it theology derived from Paul, the other gospels, Revelation, early Christian theology, Augustine, medieval systematics, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, BCP, modern historico-criticism. Hard to hear it as it is. But it is strange – in another language, talking about a situation in villages in a very minor place long ago. These are not people just like us – they are poor farmers and fishermen, occupied by a foreign power, and beset with rebellions and brutal repression. Control was in hands of puppet kings and Roman governors, as well as collaborators amongst the educated elites – Pharissees, scribes, and the Sanhedrin at the Temple.
  4. It’s missing things we might think it should have. No infancy narrative – no birth in Bethlehem. No story of the resurrection – ends abruptly with the empty tomb, and an angel telling the women who find the tomb empty to go to Galilee where they will find Jesus having gone ahead of them. No beginning or end. Disciples are utter dolts – well, the male ones. No explicit theology explaining the cross, unlike Paul, or even Luke and John. His death is not clearly an expiation or satisfaction.
  5. Forget our understanding of “religion” and “politics”. The term “Judaioi” in Mark is a geographical term, and Jesus and his followers are called “Galileans”. Judaism as we understand it  – focused on the written and oral Torah – did not exist. rather, there were many Judaisms, as Daniel Boyarin would put it: the worship centred on Temple in Jerusalem led by the Sanhedrin, the priestly Saducees, , the apocalyptic Essenes in the desert who rejected the authority of those at the Temple, John the Baptist and his followers, collaborationist Herodians, violent zealots, excluded Samaritans, educated and elitist Pharisees, Jews of the diaspora in Egypt and Mesopotamia and Rome, and more groups that  history has not preserved. Each of these groups might look like they were “religious”, but their religious perspective was every bit political as spiritual. When Jesus opposes the scribes and the Pharisees it is not necessarily about religion and how to live in God’s way. Rather, it is opposition to oppression.
  6. What is the Gospel according to Mark about? Biography? Not really – missing things we might expect. Discipleship? That’s an old favourite, but it doesn’t work well. The disciples are idiots, who misunderstand him, criticise children and others for approaching him, and one betrays him, Peter denies him three times, and the rest abandon him. Only the women stick by him and seem to get him. Perhaps it is a Christology, a gospel about Jesus? But it’s all over the place – a Messiah who abjures power, a Son of Man who is a peasant, a Son of God who never talks about it and tells his disciples to keep it secret, a new Moses or a new Elijah who suffers and dies, and so on. Ever title given him is subverted.So maybe it’s not really about the salvific status of Jesus for us.
  7. It’s really about the kingdom of God – that’s what the parables are about, it’s what Jesus, like John the Baptist, proclaimed, and the healings and exorcisms are sign of its coming. The verse quoted at the beginning of this post are the first words we hear from Jesus, so they are important: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” The Gospel of Mark – this good news – is about the coming kingdom. Only subsequently did it become about Jesus. In Mark everything still points to the kingdom, even though Jesus’ ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection are the means by which it is proclaimed. The kingdom – God’s rule – is coming. As Paul says, “the appointed time has grown short” and “the present form of this world is passing away.” An apocalyptic expectation – The Romans would be judged, the peasants would receive their reward, and God would rule humanity without some elitist intermediaries.

So why bother reading this?

  1. It calls into question our assumptions. We are rich, privileged, autonomous, and really good at justifying the status quo with economics and political science, nationalism and sociology. The prophetic challenge of an oppressed people continues to ring down through the ages.
  2. It’s values have resonated through the centuries: justice, loyalty, non-violent resistance, freedom, healing, challenging evil powers, challenging the oppressors, care for the poor, letting go of inequality and elitism.
  3. It calls for justice in the public sphere: “Justice is what love looks like in public, just as tenderness is what love looks like in private.” – Cornel West
  4. Moves us from concern with certitude to action: We can talk about theology all night, but in the morning we need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and call the powerful to account.

My hope and prayer is that as we work our way through Mark in bits and pieces you hear the whole story, and repent, and turn.

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About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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