Streaking Through Scripture

Ever have that sensation when you are coming home from the grocery store or the library or work or somewhere else familiar and you turn onto your street and suddenly wonder how you got there?

You were driving. You know in the far reaches of your conscious mind that you turned left at the shoe store that was able to progressively dye your satin pumps darker and darker shades of lavender during the “summer of weddings” just after college. And your intact tires testify that you successfully avoided the pothole that weekly creeps further and further into the travel lane from the shoulder in front of the park where your son fell off the climbing wall and knocked out his tooth when he was six. You know you did these things. You must have. You were at the grocery store or library or work just forty minutes ago and now you are driving past Mrs. Murphy’s freshly planted pansies, but you don’t remember a single minute of your drive home. Not this particular trip, anyway; just an amalgam of trips over the past days, weeks, months, years.

It happens with anything familiar – drives, chores, family stories. It also happens sitting in the pew on Sunday mornings.

Let’s look at this past Sunday. Palm Sunday.

  • Everyone is handed a palm frond or cross made from a palm frond (or both) as they enter the sanctuary.
  • The service will start with  a procession up the aisle, usually involving small children flapping large palm branches with no regard to objects or people in their reach while waving at their proud parents or looking down at their feet praying they can sit down soon.
  • This is followed by a reading of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem from one of the gospels.
  • And so on.

You know the routine.

So do I. We worked through this same routine in our own church (sans the small children… they were part of an earlier service). Everything followed in its course:

  • Palm fronds and crosses as we walked in? Check.
  • Procession? Check.
  • Gospel reading of triumphal entry including prayer in Gethsemane, ear being lobbed off, man running naked from Jesus’ accusers? Che…

My husband’s and my heads shot up at the same time. We looked at each other. Had we heard that right? We both began furiously flipping through our bulletins.

post photo

Yup. We’d heard it correctly.

When the heck was the streaker added to this story?! My husband grew up Baptist. I grew up Unitarian and Methodist. We’ve attended Orthodox Presbyterian, Presbyterian Church in America, and Anglican churches faithfully for the 24 years we’ve been married. We’ve spent time in campus ministry. My husband has served as a deacon. We’ve both taught Sunday School. Neither of us recalled this little tidbit. Must be an Episcopal thing, we surmised. It was the only logical explanation. That’s the danger when you do a dramatic reading/ paraphrase of the gospel story. Things get added. Things get weird.

We participated in the rest of the service. Left quietly. Turned and walked slowly down the street towards our car. As soon as we were out of sight of the church, my husband and I exclaimed,

“What was that?”

“You heard it too?”

“What?!”

Then we did what any good 21st century American Christian does when confronted with a theological question: we pulled out our phones, took them out of airplane mode, and googled.

Wanna guess what we found?

They all left him, and fled. A certain young man followed him, having a linen cloth thrown around himself over his naked body. The young men grabbed him, but he left the linen cloth, and fled from them naked. – Mark 14:50-42, WEB

The reading was taken practically verbatim from the Gospel According To Mark!

How have we missed it all these years? You’d think a little tidbit like that would stick with you.

And even more perplexing to me is why Mark thought to include this detail in his gospel. None of the other gospel writers included it. Is it central to the story? Is it a final reminder that Jesus numbered the poor among his followers? Is it to show that Jesus was utterly alone? That even the poorest of the poor abandoned Jesus at his time of trial? That running through the streets naked was preferable to being associated with Jesus?

 

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Creation & Identity

In the first five and a half chapters of the Gospel of Mark, we see a Jesus who is constantly on the move. He is traveling from town to town near the Sea of Galilee teaching, healing, performing exorcisms, attracting followers, and recruiting and training disciples. And it’s not just constant movement, it’s urgent movement from Jesus and those around him. From Mark 1:1 to Mark 6:45 the word “immediately” (WEB is used 21 times! (Anyone else hearing the Hamilton soundtrack in their head? “Non-stop!”) It’s no wonder Jesus sneaks off by himself occasionally (Mark 1:35) or keeps a boat handy so as not to be crushed by the crowds on shore (Mark 3:9; 4:1).

After the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, Jesus “immediately” sends his disciples across the sea in a boat so that they can get some rest while he personally dismisses the crowd of followers then heads up a nearby mountain alone to pray (Mark 6:45). The account continues:

When evening had come, the boat was in the middle of the sea, and he was alone on the land. Seeing them distressed in rowing, for the wind was contrary to them, about the forth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea, and he would have passed by them, but they, when they saw him walking on the sea, supposed it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw him, and were troubled. But he immediately spoke with them, and said to them, “Cheer up! It is I! Don’t be afraid.’ He got into the boat with them; and the wind ceased, and they were very amazed among themselves, and marveled.  Mark 6:47-51

When I was reading this passage recently, three images raced through my mind:

  • Jesus walking through a chaotic sea and declaring, “I am!” (some translations use the literal translation of the phrase ἐγώ εἰμι here, “I am,” while others use “It is I”) causing order to be restored to the sea
  • the voice of God declaring to Moses “I am who I AM!” from the dancing light of the burning bush  (Exodus 3: 14)
  • a watery, tumultuous chaos being breathed into order with a voice (Genesis 1:2-3)

 

In addition to his direct references to the Hebrew Scriptures (“It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of God’s mouth.'” Matthew 4:4 referencing Deuteronomy 8:3 or “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother;’ and, ‘He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him be put to death.'” Mark 7:10 referencing Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:15, Exodus 21:17, and Leviticus 20:9, for example), Jesus is prolific in demonstrative allusions (for example, when Jesus feeds the 5000 in Mark 6, he has the people sit in groups of hundreds and fifties – reminiscent of when Moses organized the leadership structure of Israel by setting capable men as “officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens” in Exodus 18:25; or when Jesus chose twelve disciples in Mark 3:14-19 – twelve tribes of Israel, anyone?).

So, could Jesus be making a physical allusion here to the creation story in Genesis 1? Could he be trying to bring to the minds of his disciples the watery chaos ordered by the breath and words of God? Or the voice calling out of a burning bush “I am”? Or maybe both?

We know that later in Jesus’ story the simple act of breaking bread at the dinner table awakens the recognition of who he truly is when his words and teachings failed to reach the heart of Cleopas and his travelling companion (Luke 24: 13-35), so it is not out of character for Jesus to use such methods.

Jesus often brings the minds of his disciples back to the Hebrew Scriptures by asking them to remember a law or teaching or story. It appears that, sometimes, he shows rather than tells.

 

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Thoughts On Mark 4

On Wednesday evenings, our church sponsors various classes and activities for children, youth, and adults from youth group to yoga to church history. My husband and I are participating in a class covering the Gospel of Mark. One of our priests guides and moderates a discussion as we, as a group, read through Mark and share insights from the reading and respond to each others’ thoughts. The class is different than any other Bible study I have participated in in a few ways: it is more discussion than lecture (our priest is a co-learner), there are no right or wrong answers (the point is to engage the text, not check off boxes), and there is a lot of freedom to explore a thought without committing to it.

This past week, we read through and discussed Mark 4. Per usual, my brain was going a mile a minute as little things popped out at me as we read and others shared their thoughts and insights. I was able to share a broken glimpse at what was going through my mind during that class, but wanted to try and collect them more fully and completely here.

We read the chapter in both the World English Bible (WEB) and English Standard (ESV) versions. When sharing passages for discussion, I will indicate which translation I am referencing.

First, a (very) basic outline to help keep me organized:

  1. What Comes Before, And After – Mark 3 & 5
  2. The Parable
  3. The Parable Explained
  4. The Second Through Fifth Parables

What Comes Before, And After – Mark 3 & 5

A good portion of the book of Mark up until Chapter 4 concerns Jesus’ healing ministry (including exorcisms) and the crowds that followed him from place to place seeking healing. As early as Mark 1:23, Mark tells of a man with an unclean spirit entering the synagogue where Jesus was teaching after beginning to call his disciples and of Jesus successfully commanding the spirit to leave the possessed man. From there through Mark 3 we hear of many other healings and exorcisms: Simon’s feverish mother-in-law (1:30), a leprous man (1:40), a paralytic (2:3-12), and a man with a withered hand (3:1-5). And these are only the healings and exorcisms specifically mentioned. We are told in 1:34, 1:39, and 3:10-11 that, in fact, Jesus healed many people and exorcised many demons/ unclean spirits as he traveled and taught. Then we get to Mark 4, and the focus changes abruptly to Jesus’ teaching… specifically his method of teaching in parables. (More on this in a minute.) Then, just as abruptly as he stopped, Mark returns to relating the stories of Jesus’ healing in Chapter 5 with back-to-back tellings of the exorcism of Legion, the healing of the woman healed of a hemorrhage, and the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.

At the start of Chapter 4 (keeping in mind that chapters weren’t added to the Bible until the 13th century, so I am fudging a bit by including this as part of a “previous chapter” since it does precede the parabolic teachings), we see Jesus enter a boat before he begins to teach. The crowds following him had gotten quite large and often pressed upon him with so many seeking healing that Jesus had requested that his disciples keep a boat handy in case he needed to separate himself from the crowd (3:9). When he was done teaching the crowds, Jesus tells his disciples that they should cross the Sea of Galilee and it is here that a great storm overtakes them. (Again, this story technically takes place in Chapter 4, but these events occur after the teaching of the parables, so I am going to ignore the chapter designation for ease of discussion.) The disciples are afraid they are going to drown and wake up Jesus to ask him, “Teacher, don’t you care that we are dying?” (4:38; WEB) To which would have responded if were Jesus and finally getting some sleep after healing dozens of people, and exorcising dozens of demons, and teaching thousands of people, and being pushed and grabbed by hundreds of strangers, and being berated and questioned by the local religious authorities while in synagogue   and at friends’ houses and while eating, “Obviously! That’s why I was sleeping!” (Can you hear the eye roll that would have accompanied my exhausted, sarcastic answer?) Instead, Jesus answers (after telling the storm to quit it and it obeying), “Why are you so afraid? How is it that you have no faith?” (4:40, WEB) You can feel the weariness and pain in those questions. (And you may even be able to make out the faint traces of an exasperated eye roll.) The boat then reaches the opposite shore and Jesus immediately gets out of the boat and begins healing people again. All of the teachings Mark shares with us in Chapter 4 occur while Jesus is in the boat.

As a photographer, when I am framing a photograph, I carefully choose the frame and matting so as to draw the viewer’s eye to the photograph and to enhance it by clearly distinguishing it from its surroundings. It appears Mark has done this here with his writing. He has set apart Jesus’ parabolic teaching with the frame of healings and the matting of water.  Now let’s try to figure out what Mark thinks is so important.

(An interesting note before we proceed: The Gospel of Mark begins with the baptism of Jesus and ends with Jesus giving his disciples the charge to go out into the world and make more disciples through teaching and baptism. Is Mark’s framing of his gospel and this portion of Jesus’ teaching with water significant? I don’t have an answer to that, but it is an interesting thought to ponder.)

The Parable

If you have any experience in church or Sunday School, you have probably heard this parable of the farmer and the seeds. Jesus tells the story of a farmer who spreads seed on four types of land (by the road, on rocky ground, on thorny ground, and on prepared soil) and experiences four results of his planting (birds eat the seed, the sun scorches the seed, the plants resulting from the seed are choked out, or the seed grows and bears fruit 30, 60, or 100 times that which was planted). He ends his parable with the declaration, “Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.” (4:9, WEB) Given the meaning of the parable (which Jesus explains to his disciples in the following verses and Mark is kind enough to share with us), this is an interesting declaration to make at the end of this particular parable. Traditionally, this phrase calls the listener to pay attention because what the speaker is about to say (or has just said) is important. Given the subject of the parable, Jesus is calling for the attention of those he just described as the “good ground” to pay close attention to his teaching. Interesting that he chose such a clear entreaty after teaching such a veiled lesson via parable.

The Parable Explained

Before relating Jesus’ explanation of the parable, Mark tells us in 4:10, “When he was alone, those who were around him with the twelve asked him about the parables.” In the next verse, Jesus says, “To you is given the mystery of God’s Kingdom, but to those who are outside, all things are done in parables…” (WEB) I was surprised to read this because I was always under the impression from past readings that Jesus explained the parable to his disciples after they were alone and had left the crowds behind. Reading the passage this time, however, that does not appear to be the case. It looks like there were others with Jesus and the twelve disciples (either on the land or in other boats – as verse 36 indicates, which I had also never noted before) and it sounds like it is these people he is addressing with his explanation and not his disciples. Who were these people? Did these people happen to be near Jesus already as he was teaching or are we supposed to be picturing a day-long “retreat” where people came to be healed by Jesus and to hear him teach and during a coffee and hummus break some came closer to him (by land and by sea) to ask him to please explain the parable? If the latter, are those who “have ears to hear” predetermined and given a supernatural means of understanding without explanation? Or is Jesus referring to those who would hear his message then come to him or other teachers of the Word because they do not understand but they want to understand?

Jesus then tells this small group of scholars why he teaches in parables by quoting Isaiah 6:9-10. These verses are a small portion of the command given to the prophet Isaiah when he is called to his prophetic ministry. Isaiah is in the throne room of God. The seraphim are flying in the room while singing praises to God. Isaiah recognizes his uncleanliness and one of the seraphim flies down and purifies Isaiah’s lips with a coal from God’s altar. When God, himself, asks who will go to Israel as his prophet, Isaiah volunteers. God then tells him what to say to His people and the purpose behind his prophetic ministry:

He said, “Go and tell this people,
‘You hear indeed,
but don’t understand.
You see indeed,
but don’t perceive.’
Make the heart of this people fat. 
Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their heart,
and turn again, and be healed.”
-Isaiah 6:9-10 (WEB)

Isaiah then asks God how long he is to preach this message to Israel, and God tells him that he is to preach it until the cities are empty, the land is destroyed, and God has removed His remnant and all that remains is “the holy seed.” When Jesus quotes the story in Mark, he says God’s purpose in his instructions to Isaiah were “lest perhaps they should turn again, and their sins should be forgiven them.” (4:13, WEB) Yikes! Jesus just said that the reason he teaches in parables is the same reason that Isaiah was sent to prophesy to Israel… so the people would be closed off to God’s teaching and unable to be forgiven! There is a difference between a prophet and a teacher. A teacher imparts new information to be learned and understood. A prophet reveals a truth that already exists. It looks like Jesus may be doing two things by choosing to quote Isaiah here: 1) reveal that he is acting as a prophet rather than a teacher when speaking in parables and 2) reminding the people that they are no different than the people in Israel at the time of Isaiah and have replaced worshiping God with worshiping their own desires and making themselves idols in the process. (Idols are created by men and have ears that do not hear and eyes that do not perceive. When God made mankind in His image, he did not make idols, he made living, breathing image-bearers. There is a big difference.) Jesus has been sent as a teacher, but not to everyone. To the disciples (those called and those who seek him out for greater wisdom), Jesus is a teacher. But to the masses, he is a prophet. He is revealing the disciples among the idols.

After sharing this passage from Isaiah, Jesus asks the small group two questions, “Don’t you understand this parable? How will you understand all of the parables?” (4:13, WEB) Jesus then goes on to explain the parable. Jesus’ response seems to support the idea put forth earlier that “whoever has the ears to hear” does not mean that these people have some sort of supernatural understanding of Jesus’ parabolic teaching but rather that they are the ones who recognize that they do not understand and ask for greater wisdom. He does not say, “If you do not understand, that’s too bad. You must not be chosen.” He teaches. He explains. He demonstrates the answer to his own question. How will they understand all of the parables? Through teaching. Those who have the ears to hear are the ones who recognize their lack of understanding and pursue wisdom. God will give wisdom to those who seek it.

The Second Through Fifth Parables

After Jesus explains the parable of the sower to the small group around him, he proceeds to share four more parables. All four seem to be revealing various facets of God’s Kingdom: it is something to be shared, it is something by which men should measure themselves (they will measure themselves against something, regardless), it is self-creating, it may appear insignificant but will grow to be mighty, substantial, and protective.

Mark does not share Jesus’ explanation of these parables, but he does tell us that Jesus does explain them to his disciples. I think it is safe to assume that Mark is not just speaking of the twelve here but is including those few who would come to Jesus to seek greater wisdom as with the first parable.

Closing Thoughts

I started this post pointing out that this passage of parabolic teaching appeared to be purposefully set apart from the rest of the gospel account surrounding it. First of all, it is an island of parabolic teaching in a sea of healings and exorcisms. Secondly, these teachings are further separated from the accounts surrounding it by references to water (just as the entire book of Mark itself is framed by references to the water of baptism). So, why did Mark set this passage apart? What was so important?

Mark was stating, unequivocally, Jesus’ divinity.

Mark does this using a three-fold reveal:

  • Jesus shares a parable and speaks like a prophet and even quotes Isaiah. Maybe Jesus is a prophet? Yes, but there have been other prophets.
  • Jesus explains the parable to a small group of disciples. Maybe Jesus is a teacher? Yes, but there are other teachers. In fact, the twelve he chose he chose for the purpose of preparing them for ministries of teaching and healing. (3:14-15)
  • Jesus stops the storm and calms the sea. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41, WEB) There has only been One known to bring order from chaos and bring order to the waters above and the waters below (Genesis 1:1-10).

When Jesus was going around healing and casting out demons, those he healed and the demons knew who Jesus was, but Jesus commanded them to be silent and not reveal his identity. That would have been akin to explaining parables to those without ears.

In Mark 4, Jesus reveals himself to his disciples slowly. He is living the parable. If any man has ears to hear, let him hear.

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