The gospels have a way of getting under your skin, and reading Mark has evoked personal reflections from all the Gospel Renegades. From time to time we find ourselves surveying Mark’s effect on our inner landscape and trying to understand why reading him can get so … obsessive.
W. ROBERT CONNOR 12/4/12
I had no internet access and no NT with me this past weekend as we explored the Appalachian Trail and soaked in the mineral hot springs. So instead of reading, I found myself thinking about one issue in our exchanges — “for Jews or Gentiles?” At first, I was just fussy: the terms of analysis seemed too gross to me, since (I suppose) there were many different varieties of Jews, then as now, and certainly many varieties of Gentiles, a huge range of possible audiences.
But behind that grumpiness was another question: So what? Why should I care what the audience was back then? Scholars have to care about that and so I suppose I should too, but I‘m no scholar on this stuff. I just want to read the damn Greek and figure out what it means. And I am very selfish and impatient. I want to figure out what, if anything, it means to me. I could see how Mark might be meaningful if I were infected by a malignant literalism drawn from the OT, as so many fundamentalist Protestants are, looking back to the Jewish law for justification for hating homosexuals or suppressing women or whatever, and found Jesus rejecting the Law. Mark might, then, be a useful weapon against the fundamentalists, but approached in this way it doesn’t speak to me with any great personal power (so far).
So I tried to look at another possibility via a thought experiment: Suppose I were one of the “Gentiles” and got hold of this gospel. Would it mean anything to me? The only Gentiles of that time whom I know personally are Greeks trained in Socratic dialectic, one way or another — Stoics or Academics or Peripatetics or Epicureans or my favorites, the Cynics. What would one of them say on reading this text?
“Cut to the chase,” I bet. Go for the Great Simplification. That’s where the meat is, not in a bunch of quasi-miracles or arguments about authority among the Jews. I can hear their reaction to “Love your neighbor as yourself” — “So what else is new? Any of our philosophers, any skeptical secular rationalist, can derive the Golden Rule in no time from readily agreed upon premises. It’s obvious once you think about it. You don’t need a burning bush or a Son of God to reveal that!” So my thought experiment ended with my Greeks bored by the text and making for the nearest tavern, no doubt for a glass of warm red wine.
But, of course, the Golden Rule is not what the Torah said, or what Jesus says in Mark 12:28. Those texts say we should love our neighbors as ourselves, sure, but also that we should love God. My Greeks came roaring back, convinced that this Jesus was a madman. A god can demand reverence, respect, fear, burnt offerings, sacrifices human or otherwise, hymns of praise and thanksgiving, dances and choral odes, observance of ridiculous tabus, and all manner of ego flattery, but never to be loved. You can’t order someone to love you. (Zeus’s demand at the beginning of Aeschylus’ Prometheus is a mark of his tyrannical insanity).
And anyway, how could one possibly love God? The only love I understand (very imperfectly) is an ongoing relationship with other fallible creatures, in need of forgiveness and help, just as I am — though hopefully not as deeply imperfect. I sort of understand that kind of love, but loving a god? You’ve got to be kidding. How could one possibly have that sort of relationship with an omnipotent, omniscient divinity? I don’t see that Mark helps us with that question.
1 John 4:19 might help: “We love him because he first loved us.” Thinking about that up there in the mountains was shattering. I thought, Suppose you stopped beating up on yourself for that aboriginal, congenital weakness of will? Suppose somehow such weakness were no longer the issue, but like a snake in springtime I could shed my old skin and slither off in an unexpected direction? Suppose I stopped asking myself why I’m such a lousy person, and started asking what if this idea of love were true, and I need to find better ways to accept love and become a better lover myself?
We all agree that loving God (or a god) is in principle a hard emotion to feel. Bob articulates this beautifully. But it’s exactly the gulf that Jesus is traditionally seen to bridge. Loving God is a whole lot more feasible if God becomes flesh to share first-hand in what it is to be human & then, out of love for you, lets himself get tortured & crucified for your sake. For a God like that, it’d take a cold heart not to feel something like love in return.
But why do we need a God to love in the first place? A while back, Bill wrote “Loving your neighbor takes care of the God thing.” Well, no it doesn’t, because neighbors can’t do what we need God to do — namely, grant us eternal life! I don’t want a God to tell me how to feel or behave. I want a God because I want to believe that death is not the end.
Boiling the gospel down to “love your neighbor” leads too easily, even inevitably, to the notion that Christianity is not a matter of believing anything — certainly not anything that the rest of the world finds unbelievable — but rather of being morally superior. Christians fall into a trap when they allow atheists of the Hitchens/Dawkins type to shift the debate onto this moral ground — “Does Christianity make people more virtuous?” Of course it doesn’t. For every saintly Christian they can trot out a saintly non-, and for every bloodthirsty atheist they can trot out a bloodthirsty Christian. A pointless parlor game.
Christianity is not about how to become virtuous. It says we’re all sinners & always will be. Christianity is about eternal life — transcending death through the remission of sins. Whatever moral maxim the Law can be reduced to, the Law is not the story. The story is the Passion & Resurrection. To reduce Jesus’ mission to “love your neighbor” is to render that story a disposable add-on. That suits a lot of us fine today — after all, it’s incredible! But any religion worth preserving should be hard to believe. There are various ways of sugaring the pill by interpreting the story as symbolic or metaphorical, but excising its message of eternal life is the deal-breaker.
Paul got that message: “if there be no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen again. And if Christ be not risen again, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain” etc etc. In other words, if there’s no eternal life, there’s no point in being a Christian. When he (or JC) says things like loving your neighbor is the whole of the Law, he means the Judaic Law — in other words, even non-Jews can aspire to comply — not that it’s the whole of Christian faith.
None of this is clear in Mark yet, but even if he turns out to miss what Bob calls the “afterlife stuff” entirely, it won’t bother me too much. Maybe his perspective is narrow for the reasons Bob suggests. In any case, it may have taken more than one gospel to come to grips with the significance of such a mind-boggling mission.
In Mark 4 a series of parables on the kingdom of God, beginning with the sower of seeds. J starts off by providing a hermeneutic paradigm for what seems a puzzling mode of speech. There are hidden meanings in parables, the inner circle is told, but they work pretty much allegorically one-for-one. The seed is the logos (content still unspecified) and the various types of ground are different types of people. Straightforward enough, maybe even simple-minded, though apparently some listeners just don’t get it. But there’s a little twist at the end of Jesus’ exegesis. Those who do get it grow and flourish, becoming seed producers themselves, by big multiples.
Then Jesus juxtaposes to this parable another — lights under bushel baskets, anyone? No thanks, I put mine on my lampstand. Of course. So what is the one-to-one exegesis here? And what, if anything, does this parable have to do with the one that precedes it? The two are marked as a unit, by the repeated echo of Isaiah in 4:12 and 4:23 (those who have ears to hear, let them hear). Are we to think now about all those logoi just harvested? Should we put them in bushel baskets and keep them safe for ourselves? Or are they like a lamp that you hold high to maximize the light? If I had ears to hear I’d figure this out.
And I have another puzzlement: what does all this agricultural and farmhouse stuff have to do with the announced theme — the kingdom of God? It’s not like any kingdom I know. Kings don’t go out and sow grain and then harvest it. They send their tax collectors in to haul off some of that grain and they live in luxurious palaces and fight wars and store up chemical weapons to use on their citizens. What kind of kingdom would it be where the king went out and sowed logoi?
Speaking in parables … I love Jesus’ eye-rolling exasperation at how obtuse the disciples are: “If you can’t understand this parable, how are you going to understand any of them?!” (4:13) A real-life personality comes through at moments like this, crustily impatient with the dimwitted bunch of fishermen & toll-takers he’s saddled himself with.
In 4 we also get our first hard look at Jesus’ good cop/bad cop routine. J the good cop says things like love your neighbor. The bad cop says he speaks in parables to prevent “outsiders” (ἐκείνοις τοῖς ἔξω 4:11) from understanding him, so as “to make sure they’re not converted (ἐπιστρέψωσιν — set straight?) or forgiven (ἀφεθῇ αὐτοῖς — released from sin?). (4:12 quoting Isaiah).
In the same vein the bad cop says that “those who have” will be given even more while, from those who have not, “even what they have will be taken away.” (4:24) Sounds like Republican economic policy! His Kingdom of God can seem a pitiless place.
I begin to see how Calvin came to his double predestination doctrine. In the Kingdom, the damned are damned and the saved are saved, it was all decided at the beginning of time, the seeds have fallen where they’ve fallen, and we don’t want to give the damned a chance to mess with the plan by enlightening them. So we speak in riddles, and keep the answers to ourselves. (Assuming the damned are as dim as the disciples when it comes to parable-speak!)
J’s bad-cop routine — cut off your right hand etc — gets quietly ignored nowadays in the effort to present him as a lovable sage, but we’ll be seeing a lot more of it before we’re done.
“The seed is the logos (content still unspecified)” — yes, Bob, why hasn’t Mark yet told us anything substantial about what J’s logos is, or what the Kingdom of God means? Is he assuming a readership that already knows? That’s the simplest explanation. If it’s for narrative “suspense,” I think it only succeeds in being off–putting — to outsiders! Which perhaps is the point.
WILLIAM BERG 12/8/12
Yes, what a bad cop he is here, Rick, rather cruel in fact to “his” people! How does he know no one in the crowd “outside” got the “point”? I admit those parables sent me out to the lobby for popcorn; they seem even less subtle than the puzzles you give the kids in the back seat to keep them quiet. Let’s get on with the movie, Mark. A reminder that, if our director really is the guy that Paul once dumped in exasperation, he’s certainly not the sharpest knife in the drawer. On the other hand, these parables may be an indication that Mark is really trying to reproduce exactly what he thinks he understood from what he actually heard, first or at least second hand. To his mind, it makes sense that the parables contain arcane mysteries.
By ἐπιστρέφω, Isaiah 6:10 probably means literally “make an about-face” ( normally means “turn back,” “turn around,” “return”).
On the “content” of the logos: the term may not have been as mysterious to Mark’s hearers as it is to us. Logos, for the diaspora Jew, would have been the familiar rendering of memra, the efficacious “word” of God from the OT. Jesus’ Jewish contemporary Philo feels perfectly free to combine the Heraclitean logos with the OT logos to produce something amazingly similar to John’s λόγος ἐν ἀρχῇ. (Jewish Encyclopedia, s.v. Philo Judaeus, “The Logos”.)
So, for the moment, I’m content to interpret logos simply as “God’s message,” or even “the point,” without any particular reference to content. I’m especially interested in Philo’s comparison of the logos to “higher spiritual food.” Mark (at least) is full of food imagery, isn’t he? First thing Jesus does when you let him in (Revelation 3:20) is recline with you for a meal. First thing Jesus tells Jairus and his wife to do for their resurrected daughter is to give her something to eat (Mark 5:43). Sowing food crops, eat, eat, eat at this house or that, last supper, dine with you in heaven, what you eat can’t hurt because it exits harmlessly into the sewer (Mark 7:18-20), it’s what comes out of your mouth that hurts, etc. etc. Can’t help thinking of Gandhi’s observation that if God ever appears to man it will be in the form of food.
Rick, it crosses my mind that I may have given offense with my remarks on leaving concepts of God out of the picture when practicing brotherly love. If so, please forgive my ineptitude; I realize how vulnerable we all feel when it comes to our deepest convictions. I just happen to be in the midst of translating Revelation, so am constantly reminded these days of how appalled I’ve always been, ever since my Catholic boyhood, by Christian notions of heavenly “bliss”. As for eternal life, I’d still say “None for me, thanks!” even if it was offered gratis. Not saying I don’t wish you all the luck in finding it for yourself, but I prefer to have a life that’s definite rather than infinite, a life with a beginning, middle, and end.
Accepting non-immortality brings me great joy, eliminates a major source of anxiety, and frees me up to do what I can to make this life more palatable (or endurable, as the case may be) for me and everyone else, and that’s a tangible contribution IMHO, one with dignity and significance. I seem to discover, at least in the bulk of the NT, encouragement toward this outlook, this “faith.” For me, it seems precisely to match the sole focus of the Sermon on the Mount that culminates in Leviticus 19:18 being declared “the whole law and the prophets.” The message (logos) in that Sermon is powerful enough to let me overlook the interpretations (as promulgated especially in the ratiocinations of Paul) that cast Jesus’ death/resurrection in the mold of a traditional Bronze Age-style human sacrifice or seasonal divine sparagmos, where worshipers dismember & devour the god. Just a long-held conviction, doesn’t mean I’m right, I know, open to correction …
Bill, no offense taken whatever. I don’t know what my “deepest convictions” are, but as for eternal life I’m a mere want-to-believer (with the proviso that I think all believers — secular moralists included! — are really want-to-believers at heart). I’m just trying to feel my way toward what justification, if any, the NT provides for believing what we eternal-lifers want to.
One thing, though. Whatever “eternal” means here, it has nothing to do with time. So eternal life is not “endless” life (that would indeed be tedious) because “end” is a temporal concept.
I respect the belief in life’s finitude. I think it’s brave. But it assumes a life with the satisfying beginning/middle/end structure that Bill invokes, allowing for suffering & tough times but with “joy” as the keynote. What about the children blown to bits in Syria by Assad? No middle or end there. What about those whose end is ghastly suffering from, say, cancer, before the middle has had a fair chance to find joy? To me, the need for belief in eternal life is not purely self–centered but also grounded in the moral imperative that these things must somehow be made right. An overwhelming amount of human life & death doesn’t make (moral) sense unless there’s an eternal “big picture” where all the pain and wasted promise are redeemed. I think of this as a rationalist position. Reason demands that life make sense, and it doesn’t if it merely comes to an end. But then, of course, why should life conform to Reason?
Interesting that you both invest Mark’s food motif with great significance and yet Bill, at least, balks at the notion of a Christian sparagmos — dining par excellence! If the food motif carries weight in the gospel, that’s because it culminates in the Eucharist meal. As parish priest George Herbert put it, “Love said taste my meat, So I did sit and eat.” We can water this ritual down as metaphorical all we want, but it’s still a sparagmos in spirit. I see nothing wrong with its roots in the most primitive religious rites. In fact, I think that’s a strength.
We can go vegan & abstain from the meat — but, Bill, we can’t just run out for popcorn every time the bad cop comes on screen! He’s scary, all right, but we’ve got to face him. “God is Love” is only half the logos. God, if he exists, is also terrifying. (Witness Syria, cancer, etc., not to mention vast expanses of the OT.) That’s the half of the logos that the bad cop embodies. And whether we take the Terrifying Thing to be God or just the way the world is, I see no escape from it within the bounds of finite life.
Rest assured, Rick, it wasn’t fear that sent me to the lobby. It was popcorn, and the feeling that the movie was getting a bit tedious!
Thanks for your generous response to my crude comments on eternal life. You’re right, “joy” isn’t a word I should have used. After all, I recognize that all forms of human happiness are short-lived, and that happiness itself is at its fullest just a by-product of struggle in a battle context. As F. Scott Fitzgerald said shortly before his death, “Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat … The redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” So when anyone talks to me of “eternal happiness,” I check to make sure I’ve still got my wallet!
And yes, I wholeheartedly agree that the Eucharist is the culmination of the food motif in the gospels. I’m sure we’ll all have a lot to say about that when we come to it.
Just teasing, Bill — I know you’re fearless!
Follow up on “what kind of kingship”: If this parable is not about the ups and downs of missionary activity but about politics, what are the political implications, then and now? “Then” is easy: the kingdom Jesus envisions contrasts with the kingdom that controlled this area at the time, the Herodian dynasty, with its collusion between Temple bureaucracy and Roman domination. When we read “temple” we should think “those who go along with the Romans. When we pray “thy kingdom come,” it implies that the present kingdom does not have God’s sanction. Subversive!
But it may also cut against the whole kingship ideology of the OT – the king as effective slaughterer, land grabber. Any alternative to that model might ultimately subvert the “chosen people” justification. Mark sees the political implications, I think. Is his interest at this point whether Jesus is a subversive or a genuine holy man?
The political implications for “now” seem harder. Little in the NT envisions an alternative to monarchy. Not surprisingly the NT has been used to prop up monarchical regimes — “one king in heaven, me on earth.” Is there a democratic basileia?
I’m still playing with the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906) like a kid with a new toy. Consider their article on Jesus of Nazareth, subhead “Kingdom of God”. It seems to support your suggestion, Bob, that the parable of the sower in Mark is about politics. I’ve been trying hard to see “the political implications” of 4:3-32, but can’t seem to get past the impression that the implications here are entirely spiritual (though we may see political ones elsewhere in the gospels). Can you help me see more clearly?
Why do I think the parable of the sower might be political? I don’t have a lot to go on, except J’s explication to the disciples beginning in 3:11 — they get the real story, the μυστήριον of the kingdom of god. Outsiders have only the unexplicated parable. They might infer it’s about preaching, missionary activity etc. Insiders, however, now know it’s about the kingdom. In other words, it’s a hot potato, because the current “king”, Herod, is quite unlike the model of kingship in the parable. Maybe all earthly politicians are! If the implication of Jesus’ teaching was, or could be taken to be, a critique of kingship as practiced in Judaea, it is potentially explosive. Keep that quiet for now.
Jesus seems to have been perceived politically by the Romans if the INRI inscription on the cross is for real — a triumphalist joke about the would-be rebel king. The insiders must have blabbed, which may be the retroactive point of all that “don’t tell anyone” stuff. Still, I have a hard time seeing the sower parable as political. No way to run a country, as Bob himself points out. But you could take the parable to be simply about who gets into the Kingdom of God & why not everyone does, rather than about how the Kingdom is ruled once you’re harvested.
Is the (spiritual) kingdom “ruled” at all? Does it need to be? If this is a parable about setting up an earthly kingdom, doesn’t J resemble those Islamic theocrats more than we’d like him to?