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Jesus’ radical inversion of community values in Mark 9

The Sunday gospel lectionary reading for Trinity 16 in Year B is Mark 9.30–37. In our reading of Mark, we have leap-frogged from the confession at Ceasarea Philippi, over the Transfiguration (which is considered at other times in the lectionary) and the following deliverance episode, to a short cluster of sayings, though stopping short of ‘who is not against us is for us’.

Overall, this section in Mark feels rather uneven, without narrative flow, and the other synoptics tend to tidy the material up. But Mary Ann Beavis points out (Paideia, p 143) that this section, from Mark 9.30 to 10.52, is the third of four significant blocks of teaching material (Mark 4.1–34, 7.1–23 and 13.1–37) inserted between the other predominantly narrative sections of the gospel. The box is quite well defined; the items within it are in a bit of a jumble. 

Themes are repeated and revisited. No doubt Mark might have felt that some of these were of particular interest to his readers. But we cannot be confident that there was such a things as a ‘Markan community’,  since the evidence is that all the gospels were widely circulated across the Christian communities in the Empire. And, even if they are teachings of particular interest, that need not suggest either that they do not go back to Jesus, or that they are not also of interest to us.

Many commentators also note that this section appears to function like a kind of ‘community rule’ for the early followers of Jesus, addressing some key issues around power, ordering (or not) of the community, wealth and property, marriage and divorce, family, and communal boundaries. There is an interesting parallel from Qumran, to which we will return. Most of this teaching is given to the disciples in private, in contrast to the Markan crowds, but it now made known to the whole reading community. 

We cannot be sure where is the ‘there’ from which they ‘go on’ (ESV, or the ‘place’ which they ‘leave’, TNIV). If the transfiguration took place at Tabor, in southern Galilee, then they are heading east towards the Jordan, which would be the common way to head south (Mark 10.1). If at Mt Hermon, in the far north (which is less likely) the language of ‘passing by’ (translated mostly as ‘passing through’) Galilee makes more sense. Either way, it is striking within Mark’s narrative that in this region, and in his ‘home town’ of Capernaum, where he is well known, Jesus avoids the crowds and teaches the disciples in secret. 

Note once more that Mark and his readers would not have been working with the ‘up = north’ and ‘down = south’ paradigm that we have developed with our use of maps. Mark’s topography is described from eye level. 

The tension between the declaration that Jesus is ‘the Christ’ and yet ‘the Son of Man must suffer’ that we noted last week continues into this passage, with the second of the three Passion predictions in the second half of this gospel (the third coming at the end of this teaching section in Mark 10.32–34). Although the private teaching has been seen as part of a ‘Messianic secret’ theme which offers a post-hoc rationalisation for the failure of the majority to recognise who Jesus was, it is better interpreted as reflecting Jesus’ concern not to be misunderstood as a political leader. The theme of Jesus’ teaching, and the disciples incomprehension, is set out sharply here and through the second half of Mark. 


How can we read and interpret Scripture well?

I write a quarterly column for Preach magazine, in which I explore a significant word or phrase in the Bible and the ideas that it expresses. I have written for them on:

the phrase ‘Word of God’
the theme of ‘Mission’
the meaning of ‘Apocalypse‘
the ministry of ‘Healing’,
the question of ‘Welcome’,
the biblical understanding of ‘Justice’,
what the Bible means by the term ‘church’
what the Bible says about grief and grieving.
Louisa Lockwood, who is editor the magazine, invited me for a conversation about the column I write, and what I think is important in relation to our reading of the Bible. The video is only 13 minutes long, linked below, and these are the key things that we cover.

0.40 Introduction: the name of my blog, and how it relates to the idea that Christian faith does all add up and make sense

3.31 Why I find writing the Word of God column interesting. Scripture is a bit like the mathematical figure of a fractal, in which the whole picture can be found in each detail.

4.35 Part of our problem is that we find it very difficult to slow down and read carefully. We live in a world saturated with words, so we are focussed on skimming and reading quickly. The ancient world was very different, and much more used to reading slowly and carefully.

5. 27 This is a good reason to learn biblical languages (Hebrew and Greek) or simply to read the Bible in another language that you know.

6.00 We have lost confidence that words actually mean things, rather than being vehicles for us as readers to impose our own meaning on them. This is critical to our belief that God can actually speak to us.

7.08 Another danger is to detach words from their wider context—we need to read the wider narrative and see how particular details, parts and ideas fit with a wider picture.

8.06 Theological interpretation of scripture is what is needed—look at what Scripture actually says, but then understanding God’s theological intention to form his people so they can faithfully worship him and live out his life in the world by the power of the Spirit.

9.44 The Spirit continues to speak to us—but this meaning is tethered to the words of Scripture. Reading the Bible is like going on a cross-cultural journey to hear what God said to his people in the past and through that to hear what God is saying to us today.

10.40 Scripture is not merely an object to be dissected, but is an act of communication to heard and understood. We therefore need the same kind of personal skills and empathy to read Scripture as we need to understand another person.