[Read about Fr. Ben's Lenten Bible Study]
Last Week's Questions
I did receive one two-part question concerning last week. The first part is concerned with textual footnotes within verses that indicate that “other sources omit …” or “other sources add ...”. What are the other sources? Is “Son of God” authentic in Mark 1:1?
We have to remember that nowhere is there a manuscript of this gospel that was written in Mark’s handwriting. There are only fragments of ancient manuscripts, none of them complete. Biblical scholars over the centuries have collected, dated (through use of writing material and writing style), studied them, and pieced them together.
Basically, there are three fairly complete Bibles: Codex Vaticanus (4thcentury), Codex Sinaiticus (4th century), and Codex Alexandrinus (5thcentury). Each does have a complete New Testament and these are considered authoritative texts. However they are clearly not copies of each other, because there are some textual variances.
To remain as true to the ancient manuscripts as possible, variations are pointed out in better biblical translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
The second part of the question asked was, did Mark consider Jesus the Son of God or simply the Messiah?
We must not look to one single verse to decide what Mark might be thinking based on an acceptable textual variance. Remember, my mantra is context, context, context. In fact, Mark uses the phrase “Son of God” and “Son of the most high God” two other times in his account and there is no textual variation in these instances.
More importantly, the emphasis Mark places on Jesus as Messiah is that Jesus is redefining the term from a human messiah (e.g. King David, Judas Maccabeus, et. al.) to a term that will now include divinity.
In the first session under Agenda? I commented that the Messianic Secret was a tactic used by Mark. Since the “secret” is so important to this Gospel account, I want to elaborate a tad more. Some biblical scholars do not believe that it is an invention of Mark, rather that it was actually employed by Jesus.
It is difficult to know where the “secret” originated. It is hard to find any reference in any of the other gospel accounts, although it could simply be that they saw it in Jesus but they didn’t believe they needed to emphasize it for their readers.
Luke, writing primarily for Gentile converts, could have cared less. It wouldn’t have necessarily been something John would have wanted to emphasize because he was writing to an established Christian community who he didn’t want to revert to Judaism. Matthew, writing specifically to Jews displaced by the Jewish revolt and the subsequent destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, is a little harder to explain why he doesn’t emphasize it.
Someone once said that the lack of evidence doesn’t mean that it didn’t actually happen.
For Mark, the Messianic Secret is essential to bringing the ministry and mission of Jesus to his readers.
Okay. Do you have your Bible at hand, a beverage by your side? Take a deep breath, because here we go.
The Rev. Benjamin Lee Lentz
As we start our journey with Jesus through Mark’s eyes, we might begin with a small geography lesson so as to keep all of his journeys in perspective. Since the current borders of Israel are greater than the region Jesus would have called Palestine, I’m including a map of his known territory. This map is not specific to Jesus’ travels in Mark but references places in the 1stcentury AD, sometimes more pertinent to other events in the Christian Scriptures.
Jesus’ territory was approximately the size of the State of New Jersey, and roughly the same shape—longer than wide. It was approximately 180 miles from Tyre (not shown on the map, it is the Syro-Phoenicia territory) to Beersheba; approximately 100 miles from Capernaum to Jerusalem; approximately 60 miles from the Mediterranean Sea to the River Jordan.
If Nazareth is Jesus’ hometown, as Mark seems to indicate since he doesn’t mention Bethlehem or Egypt, Jesus probably never strayed more than 80 miles from home.
At least, this clearly is the case of his travels during his approximately three years of ministry.
Although this doesn’t seem very far, we have to remember that Jesus travelled by means of—what my father called—the ever-trusty “Shanks’ Mare” or the “horse with ten toes”.
Since this week we are covering six chapters of Mark’s Gospel account, your questions are more than ever necessary. If you read a passage that I’ve glossed over, but it intrigues you, please be sure to mention it and I’ll address it next session.
Read Mark 1:14-7:23
Mark’s synoptic friends have Jesus travel much more widely, but Mark’s intention is for his readers to come to understand a new meaning of Messiah. Jesus’ ministry as recorded by Mark begins in the Region of Galilee and ultimately ends in Jerusalem.
What we are looking at this week includes Jesus' visits to Capernaum, country of the Gerasenes (or Gadarenes or Gergesenes—manuscripts have different renditions of the name, probably misunderstood by early scholars, such as Origen), Nazareth, Bethsaida and Genneseret. Most of these towns are on or near the Sea of Galilee.
In this recording of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, Mark basically relates stories in four groups: healings, authority in matters of the Law, parables, and authority over nature. He also throws in some information concerning who the Apostles are as well as a slight detour concerning John, the Baptizer and his execution.
Allow me to deal briefly with the two anomalies of my four group organization: the naming of the 12 Apostles (3:13-19) and their mission (6:7-13), and then the bit about John, the Baptizer (6:14-29).
Because the crowds following Jesus grew so rapidly (the people came from all over the map, quite literally), as well as their fervor which started to break the Messianic Secret, Jesus felt a need to withdraw somewhat. His mission and ministry was essential to the development of the term, Messiah, so he chooses twelve disciples to become Apostles (teachers and healers).
The names of the Twelve vary from Gospel to Gospel account. Although many biblical scholars try to reconcile the names, always trying to justify only twelve, I personally do not think this sort of minutiae advances the actual good news the Gospel authors were transmitting.
The mission of the Twelve is more important because it is to aid Jesus in his ministry of proclaiming the good news of God, healing, and calling for repentance. Like Jesus, they have authority in what Mark considers the battle of good over evil: issues of the End Times.
Fun Fact: In Mark’s Gospel account, Jesus refers to the Apostles
more frequently as “the Twelve” (9 times) than “apostles” (once).
The verses about John, the Baptizer are related by Mark to once again shore up the fact that John was the expected fore-runner of the Messiah and ought not to be confused with the Messiah. The act authorized by Herod (not Herod, the Great but rather one of his sons) demonstrates that those holding temporal authority (Roman Empire and Jewish hierarchy) will ultimately reject the Messiah.
Unclean Spirit @ Capernaum (1:23-27), Simon’s Mother-in-Law @ Capernaum (1:29-31), non-specific cures (1:32-29), Leper (1:40-45), Paralytic (2:1-12), Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20), Woman with Hemorrhage & Daughter of Jarius (5:21-43).
The gnawing question of why does God allow evil and disease to exist is nothing new. Throughout the Bible disease is seen as a symptom of sin and that God uses it as punishment. However, in an eschatological sense, evil is simply a fact of life, and God is merely biding his time until he abolishes evil and those who choose evil, for ever.
For Mark, Jesus is the Messiah who is already beginning the battle against evil. (Recall last week when the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness). The healing of those with unclean spirits (demonic possession, to use ancient terms for what we might call psychological issues) demonstrates Jesus’ Messianic authority over evil (With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him. 1:27b) and even the demons recognize him as such
It is interesting to note that whenever a demon is cast out or someone is healed of a disease, Jesus prevents it (the demon) or them (the healed) from proclaiming Jesus as Messiah because Jesus has not yet clearly redefined the term.
It is also interesting to note that Jesus uses various methods of healing: either by spoken word (Unclean Spirit @ Capernaum, Paralytic, Gerasene Demoniac) or by contact (Simon’s Mother-in-Law @ Capernaum, Leper, Woman with Hemorrhage & Daughter of Jarius). With either method Jesus exhibits his authority, both in a declaration of forgiveness as well as his not being effected by a disease which would make anyone else ritualistically impure.
The Pharisees would have gone apoplectic when Jesus touched either the leper or Jarius’ dead daughter, and perhaps even-more-so, when the Woman with the Hemorrhage touched him.
Call of Levi (2:13-14), Eating with Sinners (2:15-17), Picking of Corn on the Sabbath (2:23-28), Healing of a Man with a Withered Hand on the Sabbath (3:1-6).
When we get into the relationship of Jesus to the Law of Moses, discussions get a tad tricky.
It isn’t that Jesus is against the Law, but rather it is the issue of when compassion becomes collateral damage in strict obedience to the Law. God’s intention for the Law must always be considered. In Matthew’s Gospel account, Jesus clearly states his relationship to the Law: “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matthew 5:17)
St Paul in his theological treatise, the Letter to the Romans, also deals with the issue of sin and its relationship to the Law of Moses: “What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!” (Romans 7:7ff).
For Mark, however, it’s all about Jesus’ authority as the Messiah.
Back in the story concerning the Paralytic (2:1-12), you may recall that Mark introduces full force the Pharisaic party; lets call them the opposition party, or the establishment. It also seems that when dealing with the opposition, Jesus doesn’t worry about the Messianic Secret.
Indeed in that story, Jesus refers to himself as the bar nasha, the Aramaic term for “The Man” which translated into “Son of Man” in Greek. This is clearly a reference to the Messiah of the End Times.
When dealing with the opposition, Jesus wants to be unmistakably clear that they know with whom they are dealing.
The Law of Moses and traditional pharisaic interpretations of the law stated that anyone associating with sinners where ritualistically impure and could not participate in normal society until purified.
Levi clearly falls into that category of sinner as a tax collector. He would have been seen as a collaborator with Rome and possibly as a traitor to Judaism. Still, the Messiah calls him to follow, and he does. He even opens his house to Jesus for dinner—an example of mid-eastern hospitality.
The Pharisees speak to Jesus’ disciples, questioning Jesus’ ethics, or at least the wisdom of his conduct. But it is Jesus who responds, and in so many words, that in the eschatological battle, the “good and faithful” will eventually show their true colors.
This leads to a discussion on pharisaic fasting rituals and concludes with a very Messianic admonition in the Picking of Corn on the Sabbath (2:23-28) story: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man (bar nasha) is master even of the Sabbath.” (2:27-28)
Then, as if to punctuate Jesus’ self-revelation to the Pharisees, Mark relates the story of the Healing of a Man with a Withered Hand on the Sabbath (3:1-6). The story illustrates Jesus’ frustration with the opposition party and their failure to understand that this is all part of the eschatological battle of good and evil. It also introduces the doubling-down against him.
In order to understand just how much the Pharisees were against Jesus, we need to know that the Herodians were despised by the Pharisees as well as by most of Judaism. The Herodians were sycophants of Herod, who the Pharisees saw as a pretender to the throne. Herod, the Great and subsequently his descendants (including this Herod), were placed into power as puppet rulers by Rome.
Mark quickly brings together those against the Messiah: the establishment (Pharisees) and the tangential Roman collaborators (Herodians). So, the plot thickens, as it were.
Sower (4:1-9), Lamp (4:21-23), Measure (4:24-25), *Seed Growing (4:26-29), Mustard Seed (4:30-32).
Let’s turn our attention to the third group: the Parables. A parablesimply a short story (sometimes no more than a single verse or two) that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson.
We must not confuse parables with allegory. Allegory is a story that can reveal a hidden meaning, usually of moral importance but usually involves direct correlation to specific characters and situation in real life.
Sometime, however, allegorical traits do appear in Jesus’ parables, although not in any of those listed here. A parable is sort of a broad brush stroke to storytelling.
Jesus explains why he uses parable (4:10-12) and refers to God commanding the prophet Isaiah: “Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” [Isaiah 6:9-10ff]
This does not mean that the obstinacy of the people, either in Isaiah’s time or here, is willed by God, but that God has foreseen it and incorporated it into his plan.
Actually, despite Jesus’ explanation, if one reads the parables carefully, understanding 1st century Palestinian imagery, his stories aren’t really all that difficult to understand.
Although I could probably turn any one of these parables into a sermon, I will constrain myself and just try to mention the simple moral lessons of each.
The parable of the Sower is clearly a prelude to Jesus’ admonition that there will be people that will hear, some will not take it to heart, and others will reject it. I usually see this as an encouragement to the Twelve that they shouldn’t lose heart when everyone doesn’t become believers. Some will hear and understand, some will not, but don’t let that stop you from telling the story of my ministry.
The Lamp is further encouragement to the Twelve that it is imperative for them to share the message of Jesus’ Messiahship.
The Measure appears to be speaking about faith, and in reference to Mark’s theme of an eschatological battle, faith is an all or nothing issue.
Interestingly enough, Mark is the only author that includes the parable of the Growing Seed. It is almost reminiscent of or a corollary to the Sower and the Lamp, as an encouragement to sow the message because you never know who is really listening. The illusion to the sickle and the harvest is clearly eschatological terminology, and Mark isn’t going to let his readers miss that.
The parable of the Mustard Seed creates many problems for preachers, especially when they get too detailed. The mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds and the shrubbery produced is not the biggest of all bushes, even in Palestine. The point simply is that the Twelve must not look to their actions for immediate success. Although success may come quickly, sometimes they will not see their work come to fruition.
These parable are not just for the Twelve. They are for all of his disciples, even us.
(Authority Concerning Nature)
Calming of the Storm (4:35-41), Miracle of the Loaves (6:30-44), Walking on Water (6:45-52).
Now we come to what can frequently be seen as the most intimidating and controversial issue of the Christian Scriptures: miracles.
To some, miracles are the religious test of a person’s genuine Christian commitment. They believe that if you don’t believe that the laws of nature were set aside by Jesus (or God) as revealed in the Gospels, then you aren’t really a Christian. Then there are those who believe that if we dig deep enough, we can find a scientific explanation or proof, that it could have happened (Jesus could read the weather better than any weather-person; Jesus had a secret store of bread and fish under his cloak, no one else knew about; Jesus knew where the rocks were.)
I know I may be getting a little preachy on this issue, but I’m always concerned when one person judges another person’s faith on the criteria that you must believe as they do. I imagine that people can be faithful regardless of whether they believe that the miracle happened as recorded, or if they believe is has an underlying physical explanation, or if they simply read these events as they read the parables.
Having said that, what is the bear minimum in these events? For Mark it is simply the fact these stories emphasize Jesus’ Messiahship and that he has authority over nature. There are also ancillary issues pertaining to the eschatological event: fear vs. faith, how God provides, and courage in the face of danger.
In the story of the Calming of the Storm, Mark has the Twelve ask the most important question: “Who can this be?” [4:41]. Mark is encouraging his readers to see who Jesus really is: the Messiah of the End Times. In so many words I think it also addresses another issue: in the eschatological battle, there is no reason to have fear if you have faith.
In this story of the Loaves, the simple message is that God provides. People may be administrators of God’s blessings in real time, but ultimately it is God who is the source. That can apply to one’s faith as well, especially in eschatological terms.
The Walking on Water story is meant to be seen in conjunction with the Loaves. This is evidenced by the fact that Jesus raises the issue of the Loaves as well as the fact that Mark points out that this happened directly or immediately after the Loaves.
It can almost be seen as a summary of the Calming of the Storm story, as well. The Twelve are afraid and Jesus calms their fear as well as the rough seas. It also reaffirms the Loaves story and that with God, all things are possible, especially in the End Times.
Traditions of the Pharisees (7:1-23)
We’ve rounded the turn in Jesus’ Galilean ministry and are coming into the home stretch.
In these 23 verses of the 7th chapter, Jesus takes on the opposition party once again. He basically is chastising them for their interpretation of the Law and their raising up of their interpretation to the status of the Law. This is known as the traditions of the elders.
In a sense, the Law of Moses didn’t keep up with the times., especially as new situations arose. As the need for interpreters or, if you will, translators of the Law because new situations arose, the Law became more cumbersome and sometimes even disputed.
Different rabbinic schools developed, each trying to explain the Law. In time, these interpretations became as hard and fast as the Law itself. As bar nasha, the Son of Man, Jesus says that the intention of God’s laws is more important than the traditions of Judaism.
In verse 7, Jesus impugns the authority of the Pharisees by equating them with the hypocritical worshippers of Isaiah’s age. The passage from Isaiah (Is. 29:13-14) that he quotes is a portion of an oracle issued by God. It was seen as reason for the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians.
Mark is ready for Jesus to travel outside Galilee into gentile and Samaritan territories.
Whew! End Week II
Please send your questions to Fr. Ben at email@example.com
Back to Session I
Trinity Episcopal Church
703 South Main Street Athens Pennsylvania 18810 - Office at 701
Copyright © 2023 Trinity Episcopal Church - All Rights Reserved.