Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Mark's Gospel and a Call to War

I have been re-reading Mark's Gospel against the backdrop of Jewish expectations of the Messiah. There was at the time a range of expectations. Some did not have a theology of a Messiah (e.g. Sadducees). Some believed in two Messiahs (Essenes: priestly, royal). The dominant view was of a Messianic deliverer, a descendent of David, spiritually powerful, born in Bethlehem, who would lead the overthrow of the Gentiles (Rome!), would establish God's reign on a renewed or new earth centred on Jerusalem, Zion, temple and law. All would submit to the Torah, and tribute would flow to Jerusalem. The Messiah then would be a military man, a spiritually empowered David like figure.

So when you think of this, the whole of Mark comes to light in fresh ways. When Jesus calls out 'the kingdom of God is near' many perceived that the physical overthrow of Rome was coming. When he began to gather disciples, did miracles, fed the crowds, etc., he was doing the stuff of a prophet, but one who could be Messiah.

The disciples finally get it in Mark 8, a Caesarea Philippi (which is ironical, Ceasar!). Once they acknowledge him, Jesus quickly recasts what the Messiah is. He tells them that the Son of Man (linking Messiah with Daniel's figure in Dan 7:12-13). He tells them that he must suffer and die. Peter can't handle this. Messiah's don't suffer and die (although in Jubilees the Messiah dies after 400 years). They lead an army to inflict suffering and subdue the enemies of God, killing those who reject his rule. Jesus in turn rebukes Satan, because Peter had become the Devil's spokesman (remembering that Jesus had already defeated him and rejected his plan of world domination through evil means).

So then Jesus tells them to take up their crosses and follow him. I have always puzzled what this would have meant to the disciples before the crucifixion. I now believe that they would heave heard it as a call to war. They were to go and fight the Romans, and some would be crucified in the conflict. Remember that crucifixion was highly favoured among the Romans as a means of humiliating their opposition. They were called not to save their own lives, but to give them up for the cause of the gospel. I am sure that they were excited to fight with Jesus and bring God's reign.

From there Jesus does it all wrong. He twice more repeats that he will suffer and die. He inverts the world's view of power through status, force and wealth saying that greatness is being a child, welcoming a child, giving it all away, serving others as the path to greatness. There are crazy moments when James and John want to be nos 1, and he rejects their claim calling them to serve and give their lives.

Then he enters Jerusalem. He fulfills Zech 9:9. Yet he comes on a donkey, not a warhorse. When he gets there he does not go to the Fortress Antonia to smite the Romans. He instead clears the temple of money changers who were doing a good job on behalf of the sacrifice system. He antagonises his own people! The chosen people! He goes into continuous debate with the Jewish leaders. What?! He should be calling them to his side for the war on Rome. He then gets arrested and gives no response of defense. He should have attacked Pilate, killed him and his soldiers, and then armed with their weapons, began the cleansing of Israel. He should have gathered an army and then moved north to Rome to overthrow Caesar.

When he was beaten by the soldiers, he did not retaliate, despite their mockery of his kingship. On the cross, when they taunted him 'if you are the king of the Jews come down' i.e. come and lead us as a real Messiah should and would. Rather, he allowed the Romans to kill him, proving conclusively that he was not Messiah. He was killed in the most humiliating way, on a cross, for 'cursed is anyone who is hung on a tree.' He then died. Pathetic loser!

So the people went away certain he was not Messiah. Another sad prophet killed. The disciples went away desolate and despairing. They still did not get it. Even after he rose and his tomb was empty, the Emmaus Rd disciples spoke of him as a prophet, not as the King he really is.

Then he rose from the dead and appeared numerous times. He had overcome death! What did he do? Shouldn't he have taken up a sword and called the disciples to arms. Shouldn't he, the transcendent unkillable Son of God, indestructable, immortal, imperishable, omnipotent ruler of the world gone and confronted Caesar and all other rulers. Shouldn't he have taken them on! They would have stood no chance. Every knee would have been forced to bow, every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the father. It could have been over in a few years, the world subdued under the glorious lordship of this Jesus, the resurrected and glorified Son of God.

No! Rather, he gathered his disciples. He promised them the Spirit, the very power that had empowered his ministry of love, mercy, compassion and grace. He gave them the commission to go and preach this gospel, to make disciples of all nations, to be his witnessess, in the power of the Spirit. He left. 40 days later, true to his word, the Spirit came. His disciples searched his word, prayed and finally clicked.

The world was not to be won through military force and coercion. Such ways are evil, of Satan. The world is to be won through service and witness. The pattern laid down by Jesus was the way. It would be a long and slow mission. Many will fall on the way as the empire strikes back. Every human was to be invited to recognise that Jesus is Messiah, Son of God, Lord; to renounce the ways of the world, and to follow him. Every person was to turn from the patterns of a world of power, wealth, lust and greed; for the pattern of sacrifice. The cross was not a symbol of war, but of service, suffering and death. It is a war, but one not won through the sword or nuclear holocaust, but through the greatest power of all, love ('for the greatest of these is love').

Now the people of God would not be subdued through force and bring tribute to Jerusalem. No. The Kingdom would be cosmic, in the human heart, and in God's people fused together in the Spirit. They would gather, worship, love each other, and witness. They would remember Jesus with bread and wine. This meal would remind them of how to live, to take up their crosses. They would be empowered to work for the restoration of all the world. No, the temple would be the people, and from them, love would flow.

So Mark's Gospel is utterly ironical. It is written from Rome to Romans who are caught up in the great Empire based on all that stands in opposition to God and his ways. Jews got it wrong, expected a Jewish mighty warrior like the Judges of old, David etc. Rather, they got a servant king who would win the world through love. Mark's Gospel is cool. I love it. Thanks Jesus. No longer do I have to try and win the world through force and power. I have to love. Problem is Jesus, I need to learn how to love. Set me free from the ego, the false motives, the desire to have a name, to make a splash, to be significant, to get my way... fill me with the breath of God that will consume all of that skubalon, and set me free to be what I was created to be; to walk in the pattern of Messiah. Amen.


bruce hamill said...

Thanks Mark this wets my appetite for your book. You might be interested in the Herbert McCabe quote I just put on my blog

ps was that you commenting on Jesus and me breaking up?

Jonathan said...

Mark- thanks for this fantastic work you are, I miss you guys!!! I am loving work here though- helping set up paid Scripture teachers in NSW Public schools; helping churches work together... ironic and profound after my background!!! I would love to hear more on this Gospel and possibly in light of NT Wright's perspective - good summary at this blog (Scot McKnight):
Thanks for your friendship and inspiration... Jono H