The Sunday gospel lectionary for the Third Sunday before Advent at the end of this Year B is Mark 1.14-20, the beginning of Jesus’ active ministry in Galilee following his baptism in the Jordan and testing in the wilderness.
I have to say I have found what the lectionary does with the opening chapter of Mark’s gospel is a bit odd, and would love to hear an explanation from anyone who understands it! (John 1–2 gets pretty messed around as well…)
|2 Before Lent
|Sunday before Lent
So we have already covered both preceding and following verses in various ways, mostly near the beginning of this lectionary year, and we finally come to patch in the last few verses that we have not previously looked at.
As we have previously seen in Mark, his accounts are often compressed, but also include some tantalising and unnecessary eye-witness details, and we will find the same here. This passage serves in all sorts of ways as an introduction to the ministry of Jesus in the northern region in and around Galilee, the first half of the gospel up to chapter 8, and which is in itself in two halves—in Galilee itself up to the central section of teaching in chapter 4, and then expanding more widely in chapters 5 to 8. Once we reach the northernmost point with the confession of Peter in Caesarea Philippi, then Mark has Jesus setting off on the long journey southward to his only recorded visit to Jerusalem. This is, of course, a narrative artifice; as an observant Jew, Jesus will have visited the city several times a year for the pilgrim festivals—as indeed the Fourth Gospel has him do.
Functioning as an introduction, this passage introduces a number of key ideas about Jesus, his ministry, and his movement, none of which are explained, but which are expanded as the gospel progresses. So we find ourselves in the odd situation here of reading the introduction after we have read most of the rest of the book. Things which, for the first-time reader, might be puzzling and brief, are now for us summaries of what we have read already.
The Fourth Gospel depicts continuity between the ministry of Jesus and John the Baptist, with their disciples both baptising at the same time in John 3.22–24, and Matthew uses the same language for the message of John and Jesus. But Mark suggests some discontinuity; breaking with his ‘and…and’ style of the previous verses, he uses the adversative de, ‘but’ or ‘now’. John’s ministry has been in the south, and out in the wilderness, so that people who wanted to see and hear him needed to make a special journey. By contrast, the ministry of Jesus here is in the north, and rather than waiting for the people to come to him, Jesus goes to the people, ministering in the more densely populated area by the lake.
The summary reference to John being ‘handed over’ (paradidomi) understood to mean ‘arrested’ is, for a first time reader, simply puzzling; Mark is either assuming that his readers know the story already, or that they will be patient enough to wait for his explanation in chapter 6. Yet what has happened to John is what Jesus will both predict and experience for himself.
‘Preaching’ or proclamation (kerusso) so characteristic of Jesus’ ministry in this first half of the gospel, and also becomes the task of the disciples (Mark 6.12). We have only a hint here of the content of Jesus’ preaching, and we have to wait until chapter 4 until we learn any more detail—but we immediately learn the most important things. First, Jesus is preaching ‘the gospel of God’; it is the ‘good news’ that Mark introduced his writing with in Mark 1.1, and here is the only time in the gospels it is describe as the ‘gospel of God’ (though Paul uses this phrase several times, for example in Rom 1.1, 15, 16, 1 Thessalonians 2.2). (It is sufficiently odd that many of the Western manuscripts correct this to ‘the gospel of the kingdom of God’, but ‘gospel of God’ should be preferred as the lectio difficilior, the harder reading.) Jesus is, following his experience in the desert, completely aligned with the purposes of God—and aligned with the prophetic tradition which proclaimed the coming of God to his people to rescue them and bring them home (Is 40.9, 52.7, 61.1 LXX).
The language of ‘time’ is kairos meaning ‘season’ or ‘opportunity’ or ‘moment’, rather than chronos referring to a date in the calendar; in modern Greek the term can mean ‘weather’, so that this is the ‘season’ of the kingdom of God! The long-expected moment has come, and God is present with his people. Although there has been a long and convoluted debate about this in the scholarship, there is little doubt that the perfect tense of ‘coming near’ suggests that the promised reign of God is now here, and close at hand—close enough to reach out and touch for those who would respond to this moment. (Note for comparison the same perfect tense in Mark 14.42; ‘my betrayer is at hand. And immediately Judas was there…’) Jesus suggests that it has come in nothing other than his own teaching, action and presence—he carries with him this electrifying promise that God has come to rescue his people.
The language of ‘kingdom’ that we are used to can feel rather static; the sense of much more of God’s dynamic, reigning presence amongst his people. Though Paul does not use the language of the kingdom much, it is central to the teaching of Jesus in each of the synoptic gospels. He gives no definition, nor explanation as such, but his use of the term is very flexible.
- It is a dynamic thing, ‘near’ or ‘at hand’ (Mk 1:15 and parallels that is the hope of kings and prophets of old (Mt 13.16f/Lk 10.23f).
- It is a place to be entered, sometimes with difficulty, or be in, both now (Mk 10.23-5 and parallels, Mt 21.31, Mt 11.11/Lk 7.28) and in the future (Mk 9.47/Mt 18.9, Mk 14.25 and parallels, Mt 8.11/Lk 13.28-9).
- It is a possession to receive, that belongs to certain people, that is to be sought after (Mk 10.14-15 and parallels, Mt 5.3/Lk 6.20, Mt 6.33/Lk 12.31, Mk 13.44-46).
- It is present, hidden, and grows in secret, and is future and comes in power (Mk 4.31 and parallels, Mt 13.33/Lk 13.21, Mk 9.1 and parallels, Lk 11.2/Mt 6.10).
All of these ideas are present in Mark and sayings that Matthew and Luke share outside Mark (‘Q’); they go back to the oldest and most reliable gospel traditions.
Although it is only mentioned in summary, the connection between Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom and the call to respond in ‘repentance’ is key. It echoes the preaching of John the Baptist, and is a point of continuity with it. The two terms are also explicitly linked in the mission of the Twelve in Mark 6.12. And where Mark assumes it explicitly (‘I have come not to call the righteous, but to call sinners…’ Mark 2.17) the other Synoptics make it explicit (‘…to repentance’ Luke 5.32). Some have suggested that the present tense of the verb metanoieo suggests a continual openness to ‘change our minds’, which reflects the etymology of the term. But in fact it is used interchangeably with the less common term epistrepho which in the Greek Old Testament (the Septuagint, LXX) translates the Hebrew term shuv, literally a turning to face the opposite direction. It is used both of the (re)turning of his people to the land, and their turning from their sin to live in holiness before him.
The arrival of the promised kingdom demands a two-fold response: the turning from what has gone before; and the grasping of this moment of promise with the hands of faith. God, in Jesus, is declaring the end of the people’s spiritual exile as they turn back to him and respond to his presence in the person of Jesus.
The location of Jesus’ early ministry is significant in a number of ways. Although he is soon known as ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ (Mark 1.24), he has left that small, backwater hill town to settle in a busy fishing port on an important trade route. In this, is he being strategic in his approach to mission just as Paul is in Acts in visiting major population centres? If so, then it is qualified; he is never once recorded as visiting the two major urban centres of Sepphoris or Tiberias. Both of these were significantly shaped by Greco-Roman culture (as you can still see today from their ruins); it appears as though Jesus is staying with the more Jewish, though Greek-speaking, areas. (Note that Simon and Andrew are Greek names, in contrast to James and John; and John 1.44 tells us that these first two originally came from Bethsaida, across the Jordan in the territory of Philip, rather than Herod Antipas. All this makes it quite likely that Jesus spoke and taught in Greek at least on occasion.) The shape of Mark’s narrative confirms what is made explicit in the narrative of John 4.22, ‘Salvation is from the Jews’, and in the theology of Paul, ‘to the Jew first—but then also for Gentiles’ (Rom 1.16).
The body of water here is really a lake, rather than a sea, and it is correctly described by both Luke and Josephus. But Mark, along with Matthew and the Fourth Gospel, call it thalassa, reflecting the terminology of the OT (LXX). This will be particularly significant when Jesus walks on the water (Mark 6.49), since it is only God who treads the paths of the sea.
It seems slightly odd that both Matthew and Mark note the detail that Simon and Andrew were throwing a casting-net (amphiblestron) into the sea ‘for they were fishermen’; is there some significance to the specific action? Apparently so, and the relation between their fishing for fishing and the call to fish for men has both theological and personal significance. In a fascinating reflection derived from Peter Leithart, Chad Bird notes the symbolic significance of fish in relation to God’s call on Israel and the nations:
Throughout the Old Testament, fish, great sea creatures, the sea and raging rivers were all emblematic of the Gentile world. For instance, deliverance from “the waters” is deliverance from “foreigners” (Ps. 144:7). The thundering of the Gentiles is like the thundering and roaring of the seas (Isa. 17:12). Gentile kingdoms and their rulers were likened to great oceanic creatures like legendary Rahab (Dan. 7; Isa. 51:9). Even in the New Testament, John echoes this imagery when he says “the waters” are “the peoples and multitudes and nations and languages” (Rev. 17:15).
He goes on to see the symbolic significance of fishing as further hints towards the ultimate reach of Jesus’ good news about the kingdom:
When Jesus called his disciples, his choice of several fishermen—and the context in which they were called—was not by chance. They let down their nets into the deep and caught so many fish that their nets were breaking. Jesus told them not to fear. From now on they would be “catching men” (Luke 5:11). In Matthew, Jesus calls them “fishers of men” (4:19). These new 12 patriarchs, the apostles, would not be conquering Gentile nations with the sword as did Israelite tribes of old, but would be fishing for Gentiles in the “seas” of the nations, using the net of the Gospel (cf. Matt. 28:18-20).
But this transformative call would change the individuals involved as much as it would change the vocation of Israel. Mike Higton of Durham University wrote a short theology of higher education a few years ago in a Grove Ethics booklet (and later a longer book I think). He draws a parallel between the process of education and the call the first disciples experienced as they went about their business as fishermen on Lake Galilee:
Jesus sees what these two men currently are, and calls them to a transformation—to a strange fulfilment of what they are. They are fishermen (halieis), but he calls them to becomefishermen (halieis anthropon: fishers of people, ‘fishers of men’ in an older translations). Simon and Andrew respond by leaving what they are, and beginning their journey towards this mysterious fulfilment—towards what they will be. They become, in that moment, disciples. They become learners. This is already clearly not about their desire to accumulatesome extra information, or gain some skills. It is about a deep re-making of what they are—a process that will engage with the selves they are now, and which will lead towards the transfiguration of those selves. They are captivated by the possibility of transformation. (p 4)
(It is a curiosity that the Greek term for ‘fisherman’, halieis, appears to be related to the term for ‘salt’, halas, much in the same way that experienced fishermen used to be called ‘old salts’. It makes the idea of disciples being ‘salty’ very appropriate.)
The second call account, of James (Jacob) and John (Joannes/Yohanan), is closely parallel with that of Simon and Andrew: Jesus sees them as they go about their business; he calls them to follow him; and they leave everything to go with him. But we also see the addition of unnecessary detail. They are with their father (by whose name they are known); they are mending diktua, a more general term for nets, possibly drift nets let down from a boat overnight; and the family business is significant enough for them not only to own boats but to employ ‘hired men’. Like Simon and Andrew, James and John are not slaves, nor day labourers, nor tenant farmers, but the moderately prosperous involved in their own family business. Jesus didn’t just come to call the economically poor; he came to call the ordinary of every kind as they engaged in their day-to-day business.
Although it is unlikely that this was the first encounter between Jesus and those he called, both Mark and Matthew emphasise the immediacy and urgency of their response, something also echoed in the longer account in Luke 5. In Jewish etiquette, a disciple was expected to literally walk behind the rabbi, and Jesus’ call to them—more a demand than an invitation—is literally to ‘come behind me’. Yet Jesus is very far from a conventional rabbi, not least in choosing his disciples rather than letting them choose him, something that ends up being of key theological significance (John 15.16). His summons is more like that of a prophet than a rabbi (compare the call of Elijah on Elisha in 1 Kings 19.19–21).
And it is striking that, in Mark and Matthew, contrasting both the Fourth Gospel and Luke, the disciples continue to be associated closely with Jesus throughout his ministry. What France comments about Matthew is also true of Mark:
From this point on we shall not read stories about Jesus alone, but stories about Jesus and his disciples. Wherever he goes, they will go; their presence with Jesus, even if not explicitly mentioned, is assumed. While the Twelve will not be formally listed until Matthew 10.1–4, the stories from here on will assume a wider group of disciples than just these first four. They will be the primary audience for his teaching (Matt 5.1–2) and witnesses of his works of power, but they are also called to be his active helpers in he task of ‘fishing for people’… Until [Matt 26.56], Matthew’s story is not only that of the Messiah, but also of the messianic community which is being formed around him. (R T France, Matthew NICNT p 145).
But this community, and the preaching of this gospel, has small beginnings.
The kingdom of God comes not with fanfare but through the gradual gathering of a group of socially insignificant people in an unnoticed corner of provincial Galilee. The parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4.30–32) will merely put into words what has been happening in practice from the first days of Jesus’ ministry—the launching of a movement of ultimately huge dimensions which yet in its beginnings is so unimpressive as to be barely noticeable on the world stage (France, Mark NIGTC, p 94).