A Journey through Mark – Part III

This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark


No support for Jesus at home

Read Mark 6:1-6a (6b-13)

You will remember that we considered the second part of this section in conjunction with Mark 3:6-19; here, we shall limit our discussion to verses 1-6. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, those who encounter Jesus within the context of his extraordinary ministry are challenged to respond. For some, that challenge becomes an opportunity for faith; for others, it leads to suspicion, opposition and rejection. As we shall see, it is the latter that appears to have the last word, with the opposition to Jesus culminating in his crucifixion. Yet even at this stage, rejection comes from both predictable and unexpected quarters. That Jesus managed to ruffle the feathers of other interpreters of the Jewish faith (e.g. 2:6, 16, 24; esp. 3:1-6) and, of course, the evil spirits (e.g. 1:24; 5:7) was to be expected; but what about the response of his family in 3:21, 31-35, and now the inhabitants of his hometown (cf. 13:12-13)!

Although Mark doesn’t tell us where the incident narrated in 6:1-6 took place, we can assume from 1:9 that it was Nazareth. Once again, Jesus has been invited to preach in the synagogue on the Sabbath (cf. 1:21). Members of the congregation are astounded by his wisdom and, reflecting on his reputation as a healer and worker of miracles, find themselves confronting an identity crisis. How can someone who has grown up in their midst, earning a living as a fellow tradesman, and whose family they know personally, speak and act as he now does? What is more, the designation ‘son of Mary’ (v. 3) may reflect the belief that Jesus was illegitimate because it was highly unusual for an offspring to be identified in relation to the mother rather than the father.

In verse 3, we are told that they ‘took offence’ or ‘stumbled’ at Jesus, but what this means is difficult to assess. Evidently, there is no attempt to deny or undermine his ministry; perhaps, it was more of a personal rejection in the sense that those who had known him before his calling came to fruition at baptism, did not now wish to be associated with his vision and vocation. Jesus’ response (v. 4) gives us a rare insight into his self-understanding: he considers himself to belong to the prophetic tradition of those who seek to mediate God’s presence, to call his people to repentance and to show them how to live faithfully within the covenant of grace. Ironically, there is as much need for miracles of healing amongst those who have rejected him as anywhere (v. 5); but where faith is thwarted, there is little opportunity or permission for Jesus to minister.


The death of John the Baptist

Read Mark 6:14-29

This is one of the few points where Mark’s presentation of Jesus interacts with secular figures and events. Although it was regal aspirations that eventually led to his removal from power, Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, was actually tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from 4 BC to AD 39 (cf. v. 14). A tetrarch was someone who governed a region on behalf of and under the authority of the Roman emperor.

It appears Herod had a healthy respect for John the Baptist (v. 20) even though his potential for causing political unrest meant it was safer for all parties if he was kept under lock and key. The circumstances leading to John’s decapitation seem incredible and probably owe a good deal to the story-teller’s art; further, comparison with what we know of king Herod’s family from the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus raises additional problems. However, there is agreement over John’s imprisonment and he may well have spoken against what, according to Leviticus 18:16 and 20:21, was unlawful; presumably, Herodias’ first husband hadn’t divorced her and the Jewish law made no provision for women to take the initiative (contrary to v. 22, Herodias’ daughter was Salome).

It is interesting to note how even John’s death is subsumed within Mark’s overall presentation of Jesus. Firstly, it is Jesus’ reputation that sets Herod Antipas thinking about the Baptist (v. 14) and, secondly, John’s death (like his ministry) prefigures Jesus’: he too is put to death under the auspices of a political ruler who holds him in considerable respect, regrets his immanent execution, but feels powerless to intervene and stop it.

It is also significant to note what titles and interpretative categories were at the disposal of those trying to make sense of Jesus (vv. 14-16). We mentioned in the previous section how Jesus saw himself within the prophetic tradition (6:4), no small claim given that the age of prophecy was thought to have come to an end with Malachi. The belief that Elijah would return as the harbinger of the messianic age, something that is affirmed to this day in Jewish Passover celebrations, originated in the book of Malachi as well (cf. 4:5-6). Finally, there was much speculation in the first century about life after death, both in the form of bodily resurrection and the immortality of the soul.


Jesus satisfies God’s hungry people

Read Mark 6:30-44

This is the first of two or, possibly, three feeding miracles Mark narrates; later, we shall read of the feeding of the 4000 (8:1-10) and later still of the institution of the Lord’s Supper (14:22-25). It is impossible now to know what happened at that deserted place, although reports of miraculous multiplication of food continue to this day (e.g. the ministry of Father Rich Thomas amongst the ‘dump people’ of Juarez, Mexico, described on the video Viva Cristo Rey).

What is clear, however, is the way in which Mark presents Jesus as the one who mediates God’s compassion and care for his pilgrim people. In this respect, it is more than likely that we are supposed to interpret this happening in the light of the Old Testament figure of Moses, who communicated the divine will through the Law (Exodus 19-20) and provided manna, ‘bread from heaven’, to sustain the Israelites on their journey to the Promised Land (Exodus 16). Here, Jesus offers direction and leadership to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (v. 34; cf. Numbers 27:17; 1 Kings 22:17) by teaching the way of God and providing sustenance for the tired and weary.

Once again, Mark gives us an insight into the motivation for Jesus’ ministry: he was moved with compassion (v. 34). Unfortunately, a number of modern translations render this as ‘pity’ (including, on occasion, the NRSV; see 1:41); the Greek, however, literally ‘to be moved in the bowels’, communicates a much deeper and all-encompassing response. Seemingly, this compassion and the opportunities of faith it generates eluded the disciples. In an altogether responsible manner, they advise Jesus to dismiss the crowd so they can find food and shelter. The irony generated by the contrasting reactions of Jesus and his helpers is profound: instinctively, we identify with the crowd in acknowledging a need for God no shop or inn can satisfy.

Although both bread and fishes are distributed to the hungry, Mark focuses on Jesus’ actions with the bread. This may simply reflect the normal pattern of Jewish blessings over food at mealtime, but the discerning reader will be struck by the similarities between Jesus’ conduct in verse 41 and that at the Lord’s Supper in 14:22: the four-fold action of taking, blessing, breaking and giving, which remains central to eucharistic celebrations. Not surprisingly, many have seen in this feeding miracle a precursor of the Eucharist, underlining how Jesus is able to transform the ordinary and abundantly satisfy the needs of God’s people (cf. vv. 42-43).


Jesus – the new Moses?

Read Mark 6:45-56

Of all Jesus’ miracles, his walking on the water causes us most problems because it not only defies the laws of nature (as best we understand them), but also lacks humanitarian motivation – Jesus hadn’t even intended to come to the help of his struggling disciples (v. 48)! Our difficulties, however, extend beyond this and embrace what the story communicates about Jesus. Two things are worthy of note: firstly, by emphasizing his supernatural abilities for their own sake, the focus shifts from Jesus as the minister of God’s saving presence to Jesus the demi-god who has power to do and act as he wills. This tendency to present him as a sort of ‘divine-man’ reflects the way in which key figures in the Graeco-Roman world were often portrayed (e.g. emperors), and is characteristic of how Jesus and key apostles are presented in the apocryphal gospels. The second area of difficulty revolves around Jesus’ relation to the rest of humanity. In the light of Jesus’ supernatural abilities, some in the early church concluded that Jesus only ‘seemed’ to be human – his humanity constituting no more than an appearance and cloaking his divine being. This interpretation, known as ‘docetism’, was very influential in the early Christian centuries.

How are we to understand Jesus’ walking on the water?  The clue may be found in the previous section relating to the miraculous feeding (6:30-44). We noted there how Jesus is interpreted at the new Moses. But if the giving of the Law and ‘bread from heaven’ represent God’s miraculous provision for his Exodus people, then rescuing them from their Egyptian oppressors through the Red Sea was the foundational miracle God performed on their behalf by Moses (cf. Psalm 78:13-25). It cannot be without significance, therefore, that Mark presents Jesus as, initially, communing with God alone on the mountain (cf. Moses in Exodus 3:1; 19:16-25) and then securing safe passage through the waters for himself and his followers. Thus, the miraculous crossing provides us with another glimpse into Jesus’ identity. Not in the sense of setting Jesus up as ‘a god in human form’, but by locating him firmly within the story of salvation of God’s people that was born out of the faith and obedience of his servant Moses; and now someone greater than Moses is here (cf. John 1:17)!


The heart of God’s law

Read Mark 7:1-23

This long and complex section, relating a debate between Jesus and the Pharisees, contains much insight and challenge. To appreciate the context, we need to know that the Pharisees believed in preserving the Jewish faith through defining the implications of God’s law (i.e. the first five books of the Bible) for every situation in life.  In this way, they would be able to keep themselves separate (that is what the word ‘Pharisee’ means).  These ‘expansions’, referred to here as ‘the tradition of the elders’, were initially transmitted orally and later written down in the Mishnah and other Jewish texts.

The point of disputation initially revolves around purity at mealtimes, with Jesus adopting a more relaxed position to his pharisaic counterparts. Jesus’ concern, however, doesn’t relate to the incident per se, but to what it reveals of their attitude to God’s law in general. He makes his point by focusing on a Jew’s responsibilities towards his or her parents (v. 10; cf. Exodus 20:12), something that would have been acknowledged by all. Apparently, the Pharisees’ obsession with defining the implications of the Torah in all circumstances was in danger of undermining or even replacing the central principles of the faith. For example, by requiring the dedication of money to the Temple (i.e. ‘Corban’), a Jew was thereby prevented (or given an excuse!) from using it for parental care. Jesus’ message is clear: order your life around the foundations of God’s law and not superficial interpretations or embellishments.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Having challenged the tradition of the elders, he calls into question the teaching of the Law itself regarding levitical purity and, in particular, the distinction between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ foods set out in Leviticus 11. In memorable and striking phrases (vv. 17-23), Jesus reminds us that the source of defilement and the reason why we find ourselves cut off from God has little to do with what we eat and other external influences, but has everything to do with how we allow our characters to be formed, together with what we invest our God-given talents and energies in: ‘For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.’


A gospel for all

Read Mark 7:24-30

When discussing the appointment of the Twelve (cf. 3:6-19), we mentioned that Jesus envisaged his vocation to Jews alone. This provides the key for understanding his encounter with a Phoenician women from Syria, a Gentile, who is the heroine of the story. To begin with, this looks like any other gospel healing narrative with someone approaching Jesus for help. But rather than being moved by compassion, Jesus’ response seems out of character, prejudiced and rude – ‘dog’ (v. 27) was an unflattering term regularly used by Jews of Gentiles. It seems that Jesus was unwilling to minister to her daughter’s need because of her nationality.

Although many attempts have been made to lessen the blow of this disturbing incident, there is no convincing way round it; further, it is highly unlikely that it would have been made up and projected back onto Jesus at a later stage – it’s too embarrassing! One thing that can, perhaps, be said in mitigation is that if Jesus believed his healing ministry to be an integral component of his calling Jews back to God, then he may have thought it inappropriate to use it in other circumstances. Be that as it may, when Mark was writing, the faith of Jesus Christ had already established itself among Gentile believers.  And although this tradition paints Jesus in an ambiguous light, it’s presence here confirms that the seeds of a universal gospel were present from the outset. That is to say, in Simeon’s words, Jesus was ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to God’s people Israel’ (Luke 2:32).

Mark’s placement of this tradition is also significant. Sandwiched between Jesus’ miraculous feedings of the Jewish multitudes (6:30-44 & 8:1-10), where all the children of the covenant were satisfied and an abundance of food remained (6:42-43 & 8:8), it is clear that Mark sees this incident as an overflowing of God’s grace beyond the fulfilling of Jesus’ ministry amongst the Jews to embrace all of God’s people. It appears, then, that the Gentile church owes much to this Syrophoenician woman, for the tenacity of her faith raised the horizons of Jesus to the magnitude of his vocation.


Pause for thought

We have covered a great deal of territory in the past group of six readings. One of the striking insights that emerges is the way in which Jesus is presented as one who belongs to the Jewish faith and who is instrumental in bringing God’s promises communicated through that tradition to fulfilment. We are told Jesus thought of himself as a prophet or a human channel for God’s saving will (6:4). And, no doubt, this explains why Mark depicts him as the new Moses, who gives God’s people safe passage through the stormy waters (6:45-52), feeds them with bread from heaven (6:30-44) and renews the gift of God’s law by drawing them back to the heart of the Torah (7:1-23).

Further, when we remember that God blessed Abraham, the archetypal believer, so that through his lineage ‘all the families of the earth’ would also be blessed (cf. Genesis 12:1-3), then the significance of Jesus’ encounter with the Syrophoenician woman becomes clear. For here we have a ‘test case’ of the God of Abraham and Moses reaching out through his anointed servant Jesus to bless those beyond the Jewish nation, but not beyond the grace of God (cf. Act 15:1-21).

But if the Syrophoenician woman’s testimony lifts our horizons to contemplate the universal compass of the gospel, then Jesus’ rejection at the hands of those who grew up with him alerts us to a potential danger (6:1-6a). Namely, that preoccupation with Jesus’ pedigree (i.e. his origins, background, past, etc.) can actually blind us to what God wishes to disclose through him.


This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part IV

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