My catechism doesn’t say it, but being a Christian means that the powers of the world will see you as a threat and maybe kill you. This is the message of a series of lessons on the rules Jesus makes for his disciples. It was not strange religious beliefs that prompted Christians to be persecuted, but their revolutionary way of acting.
Sixteenth in a series on “The Worldly Spirituality of the Gospel of Mark” with the help of Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Jesus Story. The introduction and a table of contents are HERE.
A catechism for the Kingdom of God
Jesus and the disciples are “on the way,” Mark’s metaphor for the Christian life. They go from Galilee, where the whole mission of Jesus began, to Jerusalem, where the cross is located, which awaits Jesus and all Christians.
Along the way, Jesus teaches. Myers calls it a three lesson catechism. The first lesson (see this article) was about the Cross, the danger that Christians face from outside. You might call it the foreign policy, or foreign relations, of the new Kingdom of God.
Lessons two and three (Mark 9: 30-10: 45), the subject of this article, will be on domestic politics. How does the catechism tell about the Kingdom inside? It is a way of life that poses an existential threat to the powers that be. The Powers cannot accept it and will use all means to eliminate it. To live this life is to live in the shadow of the cross.
I will watch, as always in this series, the gospel of Mark with the help of Myers, but also a little alone. I will stand where Mark does not go — the original Mark, I mean, without the conclusions added later after chapter 16, verse 8. I will be with the apostles confused, scared and remorseful after the death of Jesus. I will consider, as they must have done, things for which they should be sorry.
Radical conversion is what the disciples need.
Typically, we see cowardice as the main vice of disciples. They all run away at the end; at least in the gospel of Mark, all do. They will regret it later. But I think their guilt includes much more active sins. There are sins of strength as well as of weakness.
Disciples need a conversion experience, and it’s not just about becoming more courageous. It’s the kind of thing where everything changes, like what Jesus calls it when he says, “Repent and believe the gospel. This repentance, this metanoia, is much more than the pain of sin. It is a change of perspective, of vision of the world, a new vision. The disciples need to see that their old worldview was involved in what put Jesus to death.
The old way of thinking
An old, ordinary, and everywhere assumed worldview worked among the disciples. It shows in their sins of action, word and thought. Jesus exposes them throughout these lessons of the Catechism.
- Acts: They are trying to stop someone from casting out demons “because they don’t follow us”. (9:38). They tried to keep the children away from Jesus. (10:13)
- Words and thoughts: They argue over which of them was the tallest. (9:34) Some contend for positions of power during the reign of Jesus; others are indignant at those who have done so. (10: 3741)
- Thoughts: They question the radical teaching of Jesus on marriage. (10:10) and are amazed at Jesus’ teaching on wealth. (10:26)
Note that some of these sins are against outsiders (the exorcist) and initiates (children). It makes no difference to Jesus. Here are some thoughts on some of the “sins”.
Acts of discrimination against children
I used to think that the episode with the children coming to Jesus showed the disciples’ concern for Jesus, misplaced but sincere. Jesus must have been tired and barely ready for a crowd of rowdy children. The disciples just wanted to let Jesus rest. But the text says nothing of the sort.
More likely, the disciples thought of children like everyone else in the first century Mediterranean world. Children were the lowest in the chain of being. In the minds of the apostles, children were unworthy of being associated with the great teacher. But Jesus is on the side of the children just as he was with the tax collectors and the “sinners” and all the rest of the marginalized in first century Palestine.
Let the children come to me; do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to them. (Mark 10:14)
Words and thoughts on climbing the ladder of ambition
Two disciples, James and John, seek the best positions in the coming reign of Jesus.
Grant that in your glory we may sit one on your right and the other on your left. (Mark 10:37)
But every disciple is guilty of desiring it. They all argued over which one is bigger. And the reaction to James and John is telling.
When the ten heard this, they were indignant with James and John. (Mark 10:41)
Not just disapprove. There seems to be a hint of anger as James and John are trying to outshine them. I also imagine a sense of relief that only James and John get the band-aid they all deserve.
Traditional thought on marriage and money
The disciples ‘reactions to Jesus’ teachings on marriage and wealth flow from a sinful way of thinking. Their ideas about marriage follow traditions that are patriarchal and humiliating towards women. Their ideas about wealth are part of the symbol system that supports the status quo and keeps the poor in poverty.
Wedding. Jesus’ teaching on marriage is more radical than simply “What God has united no human being must separate.” (Mark 10: 9) This is not just a condemnation of the divorce, which had been authorized by the Mosaic law. Jesus condemns the fact that men can divorce (quite easily it seems) but women cannot. Jesus condemns the tradition that the sin of adultery with a married woman is a sin against the woman’s husband but the same does not apply backwards against a man’s wife.
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. “(Mark 10:11 emphasis added)
Jesus accepts the common fact of divorce (although he disapproves of it) and then adds the possibility of a woman like the one who divorces:
… And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:12).
Jesus also condemns the adultery of a man and a woman.
Richness. Like the disciples, we are unbelieving Jesus’ teaching on wealth:
“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark10: 25)
As a high school student in the 1960s, I learned to interpret this parable quite conveniently. The eye of the needle becomes a door to the city of Jerusalem that a camel could only pass through by crawling on its knees. And that’s how hard it is for us rich people to go to heaven. In other words, we can do it if we just get on our knees.
Someone in the Middle Ages thought so, and since then he has been comforting the rich. This couldn’t be what Jesus meant to the rich man who asked him how he could inherit eternal life. If that’s what Jesus meant, the man wouldn’t have left with his face fallen. (Mark10: 22)
What Jesus asks of the rich is to give his goods to the poor. If that statement needs to be interpreted for today, it looks like this: Correct the economic conditions that cause some people to be extraordinarily rich and others mired in poverty from which they cannot escape. First century Christian communities actually tried to do this.
A dangerous catechism
The house rules that Jesus established for the Kingdom of God deviate from virtually everything contemporary society considers right, good, and necessary. Imagine how it would be in the corridors of power:
Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wants to be the first among you will be everyone’s slave. (Mark 10: 43-44)
Communities like Mark’s are an embarrassment and a threat. It is easy to understand why Mark puts this catechism “on the way” to Jerusalem and to the cross.
Image credit: Catholic World Art