This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
Read Mark 9:30-32
These verses contain the second of three predictions relating to Jesus’ fate (cf. 8:31; 10:32-34). The structure of each is similar, with Jesus referring to himself as the Son of Man and describing how he is to be handed over to face suffering and death before rising again on the third day. Characteristically, each one results in misunderstanding or incomprehension on the part of the disciples.
It seems unlikely that Jesus could foresee his fate in such detail, not least because the certainty of resurrection reflected in these verses is at variance with the anguish he suffered in Gethsemane and on the cross (all this becomes rather hollow if Jesus knew all along what the outcome was going to be!). The present form of these predictions, therefore, reflects the benefit of hindsight at the disposal of Mark or one of his predecessors. This is not to say, however, that Jesus had no inkling of what was in store; on the contrary, with the outworking of his ministry, together with the ground-swell of opposition this generated, came a growing conviction that it would end in confrontation and death in one form or another (cf. the fate of John the Baptist). Further, Jesus may have hoped that God would vindicate him in some way if he remained faithful to the end (cf. 13:13; 15:34-36).
The designation ‘Son of Man’ remains a puzzle. Mark records Jesus using it in relation to his present ministry (2:10, 28), his forthcoming sufferings (8:31; 9:31; 10:33, 45) and his future vindication (8:38; 13:26; 14:62). And whilst it is questionable whether Jesus identified himself with the figure in the third of these categories, the first two clearly relate to him. But why does he use this enigmatic phrase? With respect to his ministry and sufferings, it may simply be a self-effacing way of referring to himself (cf. how we sometimes use ‘one’ instead of ‘I’) or, again, a form of self-designation in which Jesus sees himself as an example of humanity as a whole (cf. Psalm 8:4) – what he does, all are invited to do, and his fate is one that awaits others.
The sayings about the coming of the Son of Man in the future, however, do refer to a particular figure and clearly resonate with expectations current in the first century. The most fruitful source for both title and expectation is Daniel’s vision in which one bearing the title ‘Son of Man’ appears from heaven and is instrumental in the fulfilment of God’s saving purposes (Daniel 7:13). This vision and hope is developed further in the First Book of Enoch, where the Son of Man is equated with God’s Messiah, although it remains unclear whether the relevant chapters (‘the Similitudes’) pre-date Jesus and were known to him. But if they weren’t, he may well have been familiar with this ‘end-time’ or apocalyptic way of thinking in which God would intervene dramatically to bring the present corrupt order to a cataclysmic end, resulting in the vindication of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked (cf. Mark 13).
Ambassadors of Christ
Read Mark 9:33-41
This rather disparate collection of traditions opens with another example of the disciples’ inability to grasp the import of Jesus’ words. Building on what he shared with them previously in 8:31-9:1, Jesus reiterates the conviction that his way and, by implication, the way of discipleship is the way of the cross. And yet we still find the disciples arguing over who is the greatest or most important of their number. We encounter a similar debate in the next chapter with James and John trying to secure positions of authority in Jesus’ kingdom (10:35-45). And yet as incorrect and inappropriate an outlook as this is, it confirms they too believed something important was soon to take place, although, as we shall see, their hopes revolved around Jesus overthrowing the Romans and re-establishing the kingdom of Israel.
Jesus responds to their desire for aggrandisement by calling them to follow his example (v. 35; cf 10:43-45) and to reflect on the disposition of a child (vv. 36-37). Children are a teaching aid once more in 10:13-16, but in the present context it is unclear how they support Jesus’ call for humility. Certainly, children were expected to be obedient and subservient to their seniors in Jesus’ day, but verse 37 seems to be making an altogether different point (also v. 41). Either Jesus likens his followers to ‘child-like ones’ (cf 10.15) who minister in humility or he encourages them to care for the weakest and most vulnerable members of society, namely, the young. Both alternatives are informed by the Jewish protocol of representation in which a man is present in the one authorised to stand in for him (i.e. his representative; e.g. child, envoy, messenger; cf. 12:1-12). Significantly, the verse closes with another insight into Jesus’ self-understanding, namely, the conviction that he is God’s ambassador.
News that there were itinerant exorcists using Jesus’ name is perhaps not as surprising as we might first think (vv. 38-40). A similar practice is reflected in Acts 19:13-17 and, possibly, Acts 8:9-24, where Simon Magnus is keen to tap into the miraculous power of Jesus’ name. Further, we know that Jesus’ followers believed themselves to have been commissioned by their master to participate in this aspect of his ministry and to continue it after his death (3:15; 6:7-13; 16:17). What is more striking is Jesus’ response (vv. 39-40) in that he shuns the party-minded, myopic perspective of his disciple John and places these practices within the broader perspective of the kingdom.
The perils of insipid discipleship
Read Mark 9:42-49
If the previous section concluded on a conciliatory note towards those outside Jesus’ immediate group of disciples, the present collection of sayings presents uncompromising guidance for those counted amongst his followers. These verses present us with considerable textual difficulties and it is unclear at a number of points what constituted Mark’s original text. This explains why verses 44 and 46 are missing from the NRSV, but included in the margin.
The unifying theme of the four sayings in verses 42-48 is guarding against whatever may cause disciples, or those influenced by them, to stumble on the journey of faith. In fact, the word translated here as ‘to stumble’ or ‘stumbling block’ became a technical term in Christian circles for apostasy or falling away. Verse 42 warns of the consequences of leading others astray, although the identity of ‘these little ones who believe in me’ remains unclear; the link with children in verses 36-37 is possible (as in Matthew 18:4-6), but a more general description of those young in the faith is more likely.
Whilst not wishing to diminish the force of the three sayings advocating mutilation of the body so that the life of the person can be saved, this is surely a case of Jesus using language hyperbolically. There is some evidence that the removal of a hand, foot or eye was practised as a form of punishment befitting the crime (cf. Deuteronomy 25:11-12; Exodus 21:24), but this remains conjecture. Jesus’ point is surely that disciples must strive wholeheartedly to remain faithful to the Gospel entrusted to them, for their actions have far-reaching consequences. However, we should note these verses do not imply that entry into God’s kingdom is a reward, but only that life with God can be lost if disciples allow themselves to be distracted from following Jesus. The word translated ‘hell’ literally means ‘Gehenna’, a valley near Jerusalem which prior to the reforms of king Josiah was the site of child sacrifice to the god Moloch (2 Kings 23:10). In Jesus’ time, it was the city’s rubbish dump and, given its foulness of smell and inextinguishable flames, it provided a graphic symbol of what awaited the wicked and unfaithful. Although it is the flames that are unquenchable, not the punishment!
Salt as a source of taste and an agent of preservation, purification and destruction provides the background for verses 49-50. The sense seems to be that disciples will be refined, as by fire (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15), but with the hope that the salt of the Gospel will purify, preserve and bring flavour to the life of faith.
The sanctity of marriage
Read Mark 10:1-12
In certain respects, the Pharisees’ question to Jesus concerning divorce seems strange, for we know that the Jewish Law permitted the husband, but not his wife, this prerogative (cf. Deuteronomy 24:1-4). However, there was considerable debate in Jesus’ time about what constituted grounds for divorce, whether it should be restricted to adultery or whether the husband should have greater freedom. Perhaps, then, this is the context for the current tradition.
Jesus’ position is uncompromising and after asking the Pharisees what Moses had to say on the subject, explains that the provision allowing husbands to issue a bill of divorce was a concession for human obduracy and does not reflect God’s will. In verses 6 to 9, he presents the scriptural basis for this contention (cf. Genesis 1:27; 2:24) and confirms that divorce is contrary to natural order and spiritual truth. Sexual union and the giving and being taken in marriage creates a bond that is God-given and should never be compromised. The NRSV’s gender-inclusiveness may have shrouded Jesus’ meaning in verse 9, where the word translated ‘no one’ literally means ‘man’ (singular) and refers to the husband. The sense being that husbands are enjoined not to take advantage of Moses’ concession permitting them to divorce, but to honour the integrity and inviolability of the marital bond.
Human nature being what it is, there is good reason to think that the issue of whether divorce was permissible for followers of Jesus continued to be debated when Mark and the other evangelists were writing. This helps to explain the private instruction which the disciples receive afterwards (vv. 10-12; cf. 4:10; 9:28), where the implications of Jesus’ teaching for husbands and wives, should they contemplate divorce, is clarified: both parties commit adultery against their ‘former’ spouse if they re-marry. Given the Jewish Law did not permit wives to initiate divorce proceedings, this provision reflects the situation of the recipients of Mark’s Gospel, who were under Roman jurisdiction. Further, it seems likely that when Jesus permits divorce in the case of unchastity (Matthew 19:9), the views of the Matthean community are being projected back onto Jesus to give them status and authority.
Finally, it is worth noting that Jesus’ uncompromising attitude towards marriage can be interpreted as an attempt to protect the position of women. For where husbands are free to issue bills of divorce at whim, their wives have no security and little sense of personal worth.
Keys of the kingdom
Read Mark 10:13-31
The traditions about Jesus blessing the children (vv. 13-16) and encountering the wealthy man (vv. 17-31) are linked by a common concern with securing salvation. In characteristic fashion, the disciples are out of tune with Jesus and try to keep the children from him. It remains unclear why they were brought to Jesus in the first place and why his followers wished to keep them at a distance. Perhaps they were in need of healing (cf. 6:53-56). We are told that Jesus laid hands up them and blessed them. This incident was used from early times to support infant baptism with ‘do not stop them’ (v. 14) becoming a baptismal formula (cf. Acts 8:36). But Jesus goes further and confirms the status of children by claiming that, of all people, it is they who model the right attitude towards God. We cannot be sure which child-like qualities he had in mind, but trust, imagination, enthusiasm and fascination are likely candidates.
We can identify at least three components in the next section which may originally have been independent of one another and brought together for thematic reasons at a later stage: the story of the rich man (vv. 17-22); Jesus’ teaching about wealth (vv. 23-27); and his reassurance of the disciples (vv. 28-31). There is much in these verses worthy of note. Firstly, it is interesting how Jesus reacts to being called ‘good’; clearly, he believes that God alone merits this appellation and, whilst knowing himself to be called and commissioned by God, does not wish to be equated with him. Secondly, it is clear that observing laws, even the Ten Commandments (vv. 19-20; cf. Exodus 20:12-16), can leave one outside the kingdom unless matched by a willingness to abandon worldly securities and follow Jesus in a life of costly service. This insight would be particularly difficult for Jews who are encouraged in their Scriptures to see wealth as a blessing from God (cf. Deuteronomy 28:1-14).
Thirdly, the saying about how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God (v. 25) is clearly an exaggeration to make a point – and probably a humorous one at that! The issue is that salvation (v.26), eternal life (vv. 17, 30) and the kingdom (vv. 23, 25), which presumably refer to the same reality, are gifts from God (v. 27) that cannot be earned, but only accepted and then responded to in a similarly gracious and God-inspired manner. And, finally, in a way that is entirely consistent with his ministry elsewhere, Jesus encourages his disciples to see this life and, in particular, the relationships they enjoy as the first fruits of the harvest that will come to fruition in the fullness of God’s time and purposes (vv. 28-30; cf. Romans 8:22-25; 2 Corinthians 1:22).
The way of the servant
Read Mark 10:35-45
The request of James and John to be given positions of power alongside Jesus gives us a good clue to the kind of kingdom that his followers were hoping he would inaugurate (vv. 35-37). Clearly, it was one with socio-political implications, entailing the overthrow of the Roman authorities and the re-establishing of God’s anointed one or Messiah as king and religious leader (cf. 11:1-11). This expectation has its roots in king David and in the belief that God would raise up from his stock another great leader who would bring deliverance and prosperity to his people (cf. 2 Samuel 7:8-16). Further, we know from the first century work, the Psalms of Solomon, chapters 17-18, that this hope was strong in Jesus’ time – ‘See, Lord, and raise up for them their king, the son of David, to rule over your servant Israel in the time known to you, O God’ (v. 21). Hence, the sons of Zebedee’s desire to be in positions of power and authority in the Messiah’s newly formed government.
Jesus responds by refocusing their attention on the way of the cross and challenging them to share this with him. The metaphors of drinking from the cup of fate (Psalm 75:8; Jeremiah 49:12; Ezekiel 23:31-33) and of being baptized or overwhelmed by circumstances outside of one’s control (Isaiah 21:4; 43:2) are drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures and Jesus’ meaning is clear: suffering and death await him and those who intend to share his faith and vocation. Interestingly, Jesus does not rule out future vindication by God (v. 40) and the reference here to his death as a ‘baptism’ (v. 38: cf. Luke 12:50) may have forged the link with Christian initiation (cf. Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12)
Mark 10:45 is perhaps the most written about verse of the whole Gospel. Jesus reinforces his conviction that only a life of service is a true measure of greatness (vv. 41-44) by offering the Son of Man (surely, an indirect reference to himself) as a paradigm. Evidently, the notion of the Son of Man serving rather than being served was thought paradoxical, informed by the elevated portrayal of this figure in Daniel and the Similitudes of Enoch (see notes on 9:30-32). Further, given that Jesus serves in God’s name, his ministry discloses a serving God who ministers to his people’s needs. Finally, verse 45b may well put us in touch with Jesus’ understanding of his death: firstly, it would be the ultimate expression of his service (and, therefore, greatness); and, secondly, in some unexplained and perhaps inexplicable way, it would prove to be of saving benefit to others. Jesus not only foresees his ministry ending in death, but also appears to associate himself with the suffering servant figure of Isaiah 40-55 and the righteous martyrs of the faith found in 4 Maccabees 17 – a life offered or sacrificed for the sake of others (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3).
Pause for thought
We have reached another crisis point in our understanding of Jesus and the journey of discipleship. There can now be little doubt what following a vocation and ministering the gospel of God will mean for Jesus. In fact, the honesty with which he speaks of his immanent suffering and death is extraordinary. It betrays a level of awareness, a depth of self-knowledge and a capacity for faith that is as attractive as it is uncomfortable. For, if we’re honest, few of us have the courage to live with the inevitability of death, even fewer of us to court it prematurely through taking unnecessary risks, and fewer still to believe that death can be redemptive (cf. 10:45).
Jesus’ repeated reference to his death (e.g. 8:31; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), then, is remarkable and exposes the superficiality of our own faith as we confront matters of ultimate significance. Even the prospect of resurrection is a poor remedy when sacrificing the life we know for the possibility of one that may be no more than an edifice of hope. And yet it is precisely when Jesus is at his most human that his greatness is most transparent. Paradoxically, his vulnerability discloses a quality of being that transcends anything we have experienced and draws us into the mystery of a life formed by God.
Further, in the presence of such a life, we find ourselves embracing the dilemma of James and John (10:35-40) – for we too want a ‘designer Messiah’ who conforms to our expectations and will require of us only what we wish to give. Christology and discipleship are, indeed, intimately linked; and if Jesus is prepared to taste the cup of suffering and be overwhelmed by the baptism of death then so must we. But although Jesus has bared his soul and exposed our self-seeking motivations, still we must follow. Here, trust leads us forward and takes us beyond our understanding and desire for self-preservation. For we have entrusted too much of ourselves to Jesus to desert him now.
This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part VI