Last revised: February 18, 2021
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3RD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR B
RCL: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
RoCa: Jonah 3:1-5, 10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
With this summary verse from Mark about Jesus’ message — “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” — I want to suggest an overarching theme in the lessons having to do with culture. Obviously, there are other important themes to touch on — primarily, repentance, or changing one’s mind — but I want to embrace this all under the theme of culture, specifically, God’s culture vs. human culture.
I’ve shared in the past, with regard to the NT nomenclature of the “kingdom of God,” that we feel compelled these days to somehow adjust that label to something else. And it’s not just a matter of being politically correct due to male-oriented language such as “kingdom.” Some of the alternatives for “kingdom of God” are chosen with gender concerns in mind, and so we come up with something like the “reign of God.” But I don’t think that that’s adequate, either, as a translation into modern ways of speaking. In a democratic world, we do not talk about reigns any more than we talk about kingdoms.
But we do talk a whole lot about “culture”! So I suggest: “The time is fulfilled, and the culture of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” What does it mean to distinguish God’s culture from human cultures? What does it mean to be “called out” (Gr: ekklesia, “church”) of conventional human culture and to begin to be disciples of the one who brings God’s culture near to us? Why is this such good news?
Before commenting on each of the lessons in turn, I would like to offer some sources and reflections on this overarching theme of God’s culture vs. human cultures.
1. I’d like to begin with an absolutely delightful illustration shared at the weekly text study I attend. It comes from a non-Girardian source and highlights the theme of repentance. I’ll simply share the whole thing with you and give my reflections on it below. It comes from Homiletics, by Leonard I. Sweet, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan-March ’97), p. 19:
In the third and fourth centuries, especially in Germanic areas, it became customary for men to disarm themselves before entering into the sanctuary for worship. The bulk of these weapons were simple wooden clubs — not elegant, but effective as protection against highway bandits and wild animals. Thus, it became common for the back of the church to fill up with a pile of the wooden clubs during services. Gradually, congregants developed a kind of game associated with this practice of leaving these signs of animosity and violence behind them. After services the men would collect all these clubs, pile them together and compete among each other to see who could knock down the most clubs as possible by rolling stones at them. The more clubs knocked over, the more sins the individual was believed to have left behind.
Eventually this contest became more intentional and more organized, ultimately developing into “nine pins” — a bowling game. Knocking down sins turned into a much anticipated pastime on Sunday afternoons. By the time of the Reformation, bowling nine-pins had grown well beyond the church’s “parking lot” to become a hugely popular betting game at taverns and inns. It was Martin Luther’s favorite sport, and he is often credited with being the one to standardize the game of bowling with “nine pins.” Luther loved the symbolism of Christians as “holy bowlers,” enthusiastically bowling over all the sins that kept them from seeking God’s fullness and fulfillment.
When bowling made its way to the United States, it quickly lost all of its religious pedigree and became an exercise in gambling. Local and state legislatures took exception to this activity and passed all sort of laws outlawing the nine-pin bowling sport. But some bright bowler got the idea of replacing the rectangle of nine-pin bowling with the triangle of ten-pin bowling. Hence our modern bowling was born.
What holy bowling do you need to do to keep your life from being grounded? What wrong actions and attitudes need to be removed that are keeping you from going where God is calling you to go? Release the chocks and blocks of your life. Repent and believe.
2. On being called out of culture, I recommend Gil Bailie on Abraham and Sarah, tape 1 of his lecture series “At Cross Purposes.” As descendants of Abraham and Sarah our heritage is to be called out of our culture. We then begin to be called out of Nietzsche’s mythological “eternal return” into what we properly call history, no longer a circular affair but a more linear journey with a goal. Only biblical people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, truly live in history, a mark of God’s culture. Circular time, the mythological eternal return, is a mark of human culture.
3. Also in the tape series “At Cross Purposes,” tape 6, Gil Bailie mentions a story about a lecture experience in which he was making the point we’re trying to make here: that all of human culture descends in some way from the scapegoat mechanism, which has been at work in actual founding murders and the ensuing sacrificial apparatus “since the foundation of the world.” The usual response is incredulity. At one particular lecture in the San Francisco Bay area a person in the audience began to challenge the idea and wanted an example of how such a claim could be made. It just so happened that Gil could refer him to a display currently at Stanford of how soccer is descended from an Aztec game of kicking around the heads of human sacrificial victims. Compare this, as I will below, to the story about the roots of bowling.
4. My favorite piece on how all of human culture descends from the sacrificial / mythological structures is the lead piece in the inaugural issue of the Girardian journal Contagion (Spring, 1994). Michel Serres offered an essay called “One God or a Trinity?” that, although prose, is thick with allusion and reads like a T.S. Eliot poem. He is able to make use of such compact imagery to give a startling picture of how all of human culture derives from the scapegoating mechanism. He shows how even modern economies and sciences remain sacrificial, even though they leave behind the older religions that practiced ritual sacrifice. We may have left behind those religions but we still inhabit those universes. Here’s the final two sections of this brilliant essay:
FROM ONE UNIVERSE TO ANOTHER
Comparing the two comparative histories of religion leads to reducing the three functions to one, or the three gods to the single god, and to showing the universality of sacrifice and of the economy.
Abominable and present, this universe constantly requires the death of men in great numbers, in combat, in knowledge, in the production and circulation of commodities.
We have not yet left the archaic ages, blind as we are to these holocausts, in spite of the Enlightenment of our knowledge.
However, we changed religions one day, leaving sacrifices behind.
We must, from today, change universes.
People would love for the scientists to be the first to decide on the new route.
They would invent!
THE CORRESPONDING POSITIVE WORD
By similar parables, Saint Luke and Saint Matthew express the principle of the non-sacrificial economy, the economy that refuses even the smallest expense, one percent, which is no other than the scapegoat itself: if one of you has one hundred sheep and loses one, would he not leave the other ninety nine in the desert and go searching for the one that was lost until he finds it? (Matt. 18:12; Luke 15:6).
The one who brings back the lost animal turns the entire economic logic upside down in a symmetrical manner, because the other ninety nine were left in the desert, the place, normally, of the expelled scapegoat, which now constitutes an inclusion. Thus the reversal of the logic of exclusion. And as friends celebrate the return of the stray one, sacrifice is transformed into a positive feast: we will all rejoice together, without execution or expulsion, that the victim has returned to the fold.
Not only does this gesture refuse all economy founded on the calculation, even though minimum, of the one percent loss. It demonstrates positively that what has to be done is precisely to save that which by custom and reason we allow to be lost.
Lost soul, lost woman . . . do we realize that this word “loss” has both a moral and an economic meaning?
This lost man, who wanted to lose him?
Economist, turn your science upside down in order to go searching purposefully for the miserable, the sacrificed. Scientist, change your logic to save the victims of progress.
No! Not progress at any cost! Give back in full the price offered up in sacrifice for progress.
***** End of excerpt from Michel Serres *****
1. Soccer comes from kicking around the heads of human sacrificial victims; bowling from putting away the clubs of violence in order to enter upon the Christian transformation of sacrificial rite to self-sacrificial sacrament. Quite a different genesis! Generations later these two games aren’t significantly different when it comes to violence vs. nonviolence; I wouldn’t have a strong preference one way or another as to which my children play. Both games have grown up in the climate we now live in: one in which the Generative Mimetic Scapegoating Mechanism (the “GMSM,” to borrow Robert Hamerton-Kelly’s phrase) still has much influence but also one in which the Paraclete — the Holy Spirit, the Defender of the Accused — has had its influence since the Cross and Resurrection of Christ. Each game, at this point — precisely because we have been inattentive to the differences of generation — bears some mark of both kinds of culture, that which descends from the GMSM and that which comes from the Paraclete.
The point is that I think we need to become more attentive. More importantly, the work of Girard gives us the means to become more attentive again. It’s evangelical, cross-centered anthropology gives us new ears to hear and new eyes to see.
With new ears and eyes we can learn to recognize the two different engines for generating culture. Actually, to be more precise: Since the Cross is also an event of the GMSM, one which God’s forgiveness has amazingly begun to transform into something else, there is a sense in which culture has only one source of generation. It’s the same event; the difference lies in whether culture generates from the perspective of the victim or of the victimizers. Therein lies the difference between God’s culture and human culture. And the former has been gradually deconstructing the latter for almost two thousand years now. As St. Paul says, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” This is the Good News for which our lessons would have us gain those new eyes and ears.
2. Talking about games and culture might be timely at this time of the year when everyone’s focus is turning to the Super Bowl.
1. Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary; ch. 5 is devoted to a reading of the Book of Jonah. Goodhart suggests two major streams of interpretation of Jonah: (1) an older “historical” approach that focuses on the first part of the story; and (2) a “parabolic” approach that focuses on the final episode as a parable about the mystery of God’s compassion. The former option for reading identifies Jonah’s call to prophesy to Nineveh with Israel’s relations to such neighbors, and compares Jonah to other great figures who sacrificed their personal needs for the sake of the community. Neither of these two readings makes very much out of the action at the center of the story: the fact that Nineveh does repent and turn to God. And the latter would seem to be the reason that the book of Jonah is read on the highest of Jewish holy days, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement or repentance. Our lection is that passage at the middle in which both Nineveh and God repent.
Here is a Jewish story in which it is not the Jews who repent and turn to God. It is this issue of repentance on which Goodhart focuses his interpretation. The greatest sin for Jews is that of idolatry; and Goodhart proposes that perhaps the most insidious form of idolatry for a Jew is to turn their own law against idolatry into an idol — thus, to fall into the “idolatry of anti-idolatry.” And he interprets the story of Jonah as revealing precisely this form of idolatry. Jonah, in resisting his call and then begrudging the results, has made an idol out of the law of anti-idolatry by presuming that he himself knows how it should be applied. The Ninevites, in Jonah’s eyes, are idolaters and thus undeserving of God’s grace. This story parabolically indicates that God may have different ideas. In fact, the Ninevites repent of their idolatry; Jonah never does. Jonah never recognizes his idolatry as such. The idolatry of anti-idolatry is the hardest one to recognize. It’s as difficult as recognizing that Satan does cast out Satan (Mark 3:23) — that is to say, that, when human beings think they are casting out someone satanic, they are themselves performing the satanic act par excellence.
For more on Goodhart’s treatment of Jonah in Sacrificing Commentary, see Proper 13A and Proper 20A.
2. James Alison, Faith Beyond Resentment, chap. 4, “Spluttering up the Beach to Nineveh . . . .”
3. Sermons/blogs from a Girardian perspective by members and friends of Theology & Peace: Tom Truby, a sermon in 2012, titled “Jonah’s Disappointment.”
Reflections and Questions
1. From Goodhart’s reading of this story, I would summarize the book of Jonah as being about God’s attempt to bring about a repentance that never comes. Jonah suffers from self-righteousness and God seems to be seeking Jonah’s repentance from this malady. I would suggest at least four attempts on God’s part. The first and most basic one is the call to Jonah to bring a message of repentance to those he looks down on from his pinnacle of self-righteousness. At first, Jonah won’t even comply; it takes the dramatic second chance as God rescues him from the belly of the fish. But even new life will not bring repentance, as Jonah carries out his mission only with great reluctance. We might identify God’s repentance against doing evil to Nineveh (3:10) as a third try: God even goes so far as to model repentance for Jonah, and Jonah still won’t follow suit. The final try is with the parabolic action of the bush. At story’s end, Jonah still has not repented.
This reading differs to some extent from those that emphasize this as a parable about God’s grace. But I don’t think the latter is the main point of the story. Jonah himself assumes God’s grace and mercy: “That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2b NRSV) The story’s plot revolves not around God’s grace but around Jonah’s non-acceptance of that grace. Jonah suffers from a self-righteousness from which he will not repent.
2. One footnote to this reading: what do we make of Jonah’s pious psalm in 2:2-9? Is it truly pious, or a mockery because of the self-righteousness of the one who offered it? I think that Jonah shows his true colors near the end: “Those who worship vain idols forsake their true loyalty.” (Jonah 2:8 NRSV) As Goodhart points out, Jonah cannot see that he worships the idol of the law against idolatry. His self-righteousness blinds him to his own sin. So is this prayer akin to the one offered by the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and Publican (Luke 18:11-12)? Is his blindness akin to those who judge the man born blind (John 9)? James Alison‘s article on the man born blind (Contagion, Spring 1997, pp. 26-46) put forward a Christian ethics that is tough on moralism; perhaps the story of Jonah is another means to develop it — which Alison did do with an essay on Jonah. Both of these essays are now published as chapters in Faith Beyond Resentment.
3. We’ve said that the story itself focuses on the sought-for repentance of Jonah — something that never comes about by story’s end. But this might not mean failure for the story’s aim or purpose. The latter might be a sought-after repentance on the part of the story’s listener / reader. In this respect, the unrepentant behavior of Jonah might be a strategy of the story to help bring about its aim. We might compare it to Mark’s gospel which focuses a great deal on the seeming failure of the disciples and has an inconclusive ending regarding the fate of the disciples in the story (a theme which Hamerton-Kelly takes seriously in his book on Mark). But most commentators these days see that as a strategy of Mark’s to encourage a decision for discipleship on the part of the reader. The Book of Jonah would seem to be working a similar strategy in telling the story of Jonah’s failures, that the reader might succeed where he fails in repenting of self-righteous attitudes and behaviors.
4. In the context of God’s culture vs. human culture, we need to see the role of self-righteousness. It is the justification for our becoming victimizers and is always at the heart of generating human culture. If Jonah could have let himself experience Nineveh’s repentance from the perspective of the victim, he might have come to his own repentance.
1 Corinthians 7:29-31
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, Sacred Violence, p. 84. Hamerton-Kelly cites the paradoxical pairings of this passage within an interesting discussion of the irony of the cross. The cross is ironic since it works through its apparent opposite. But Hamerton-Kelly draws a distinction between the violent nature behind most uses of irony and the gracious nature of the cross’ irony, since it basically signifies freedom from the order of sacred violence:
In literary terms the divine power of the Cross would be called ironic; it works through its apparent opposite; life appears as death, light as darkness, strength as weakness, and something as nothing (1 Cor 1:26-31). Christians intend the world ironically, possessing it “as if they did not” (1 Cor 3:21; cf. 1 Cor 7:29-31). But irony is a violent genre expressing the clash of the violence that constructs the idols with the violence that destroys them, while the view from the Cross interdicts the idols, leaving them in place while deconstructing their power. This irony is, therefore, to be qualified as a gracious rather than a violent irony, and it can be seen only by those who are already in principle and by faith free from the domination of sacred violence. This irony describes the point of view of those who, freed from the principalities, continue to live within their realm. Knowing the truth through the Cross, that the “emperor has no clothes on,” they withhold cooperation from the superstition and self-deception of the Sacred. Since sacred power depends on the conspiracy of all to maintain it, those who withhold consent from the conspiracy are dangerous and their gracious irony threatens the foundations. They are the “nothings” that God uses to bring the “somethings” to nothing (1 Cor 1:28).For this reason the apostle comes before them as a “nothing” in “fear and trembling” to bring the message of the Cross (1 Cor 2:1-16). The true wisdom of the gospel is the divine purpose, firm since before the creation, contained in a mystery, and revealed to those who understand the word of the Cross. This present world of the Sacred is passing away, and its rulers have simply hastened that passing by their crucifixion of Christ. Had they understood the divine purpose they would never have cooperated with it in the crucifixion. That murder of God’s son sealed their doom because it revealed with vivid clarity the origin of this world in sacred violence. On the Cross these stupid powers displayed for all to see the one secret that they had to keep if they were to retain their power, the secret of founding violence. This knowledge is the saving wisdom given by the Spirit, in the form of an understanding of the foolishness of the preaching of the Cross (1 Cor 1:18). To know the wisdom of this foolishness is to have “the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), and that is to see the violent world from the point of view of the new possibility of nonviolence.
2. James Alison, Raising Abel, p. 121. In ch. 6, “The Apocalyptic Imagination and the Delayed Parousia,” Alison maps out the transformation from “apocalyptic imagination” to “eschatological imagination.” His thesis is:
It seems to me that what we have with Jesus is precisely and deliberately the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. What I have called the eschatological imagination is nothing other than the subversion from within of the apocalyptic imagination. That is, Jesus used the language and the imagery which he found around him to say something rather different. (p. 125)
In tracing this transformation, Alison finds a gradual transition in the writings of the NT. He suggests that we can see it over time even within the writings of St. Paul. He notes that the Thessalonian letters are the earliest and bear the closest resemblance to the apocalyptic ideas of a day of rapture. He then moves to the Corinthians correspondences, citing today’s passage as an example of the development. Here is that paragraph in its entirety:
In the same letter to the Corinthians we also read that:
the time is growing short [sunestalmenos esti] (1 Cor. 7:29)
but now, rather than this being a threat concerning the proximity of the end, the concept of ‘time’ is suffering a change, for, as a result of the time which is growing short, Paul recommends to his audience a special behavior, enjoying as if they did not enjoy, possessing as if they did not possess, and so on
because the form of this world is passing away…(1 Cor. 7:31)
That is to say, the quality of the time begins to be linked with a certain way of behaving in the ‘here and now.’ In the same letter Paul shows that he has had more time to think about the relationship between this world and the one to come, and he gives a somewhat different vision from what he had given in his Thessalonian correspondence. There is no longer that element of ‘rapture’ (being seized away, like the celestial rape which Zeus is said to have practiced on Ganymede. . .), but in its place, transformation in an instant. Now Paul is able to explain the different forms of bodiliness which correspond to each world: the mortal and corruptible form, and that which is incorruptible and deathless. (p. 121)
(Note: there are more extensive comments on this chapter of Alison’s book in the Proper 27A notes last November.)
Reflections and Questions
1. Is Paul struggling in this passage with how the structures of human culture are passing away as they are being deconstructed and transformed by the coming near of God’s culture?
2. A key to its interpretation would be the meaning of cosmos, or “world.” One commentator, for example, seems to interpret it as more commonly referring to the created universe. So he raises a rather typical caution about Paul’s ethics: “He sought to create a new social order within the Christian community without changing the world around him — for the world was passing away. We, by contrast, . . . hope the world will not pass away but will be transformed.” With “world” referring to the created universe, this commentator sees Paul as too decidedly moving toward an other-worldliness. But does this interpretation fit with Paul’s conceptions at the end of this letter (ch. 15), where he conceives of the body not as simply passing away but as being transformed?
3. Another way to interpret Gr: cosmos, then, is as Walter Wink does with the Gospel of John. In Engaging the Powers, he spends an entire chapter showing how it makes sense to most often read John’s use of “world” as referring to the structures of the human social order. This provides a contrast to the divine social order, the “Kingdom of God.” If Paul is using cosmos in a similar way, then he is talking about the human social order as passing away, not the entire substance of creation. Does this jive with our distinction here between God’s culture and human culture?
4. What Paul might be talking about, then, is similar to what Girardians are trying to say with the work of the Paraclete in history, which makes it increasingly less possible for the human institutions to effectively be founded on the fate of the victim. The institutions of the human social order are breaking down slowly under the pressure of the Gospel, as it reveals the innocence of the victims on which our social order is based.
5. What Paul still may have misperceived was (1) how long a process the passing away of the world might be, and (2) how tightly bound up our lives are with that social order. Paul himself had the experience of being freed from the social Pharisaic social order that had controlled his life; he also was celibate. But there is much more to the human social order than that. How does one pull back completely without being a hermit? I think that the anthropological insight of Girard’s work is a great help in beginning to untangle my life from the human social order.
6. Hamerton-Kelly‘s insight is crucial, i.e., that the Cross works its deconstruction nonviolently: “the view from the Cross interdicts the idols, leaving them in place while deconstructing their power.” The power of the Cross, especially now with the help of a cross-centered anthropology (itself a work of the Cross and the Paraclete), is to see that the “emperor has no clothes on.”
1. Because Mark’s Gospel is so condensed in its narrative, the first fifteen verses overlap into lections on four different Sundays in Year B: Advent 2B – Mark 1:1-8; Epiphany 1B (Baptism of the Lord) – Mark 1:4-11; Epiphany 3B – Mark 1:14-20; Lent 1B – Mark 1:9-15. So verses 14-15 of this lection overlap with Lent 1B (see this page for additional insights).
2. V. 14, “Now after John was arrested”; the word for “arrest” is paradidōmi, which more literally means “hand over,” and is often translated as “betray.” “Hand over” is a key term used regarding Jesus’ Passion in the New Testament, because it can also have the sense of gifting. Jesus hands himself over in freedom, even as his betrayers think themselves forcibly handing him over. This is especially telling when Jesus twice uses it of himself the ‘the Son of Man will be handed over’ in Mark 9:31 and 10:33.
1. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred, pp. 73-74. In a brief section entitled “The Kingdom as the Community of Repentance,” Hamerton-Kelly makes a number of insightful comments relating to leaving behind the normal order of things, based on the realm of sacred violence, to be part of God’s new order, the realm of divine nonviolence. This order will be characterized by discipleship, i.e., imitation of the master, but Mark’s ending (16:7-8) also leaves discipleship somewhat up in the air. Hence, the importance of repentance and belief.
We have spoken here in terms of “culture.” Hamerton-Kelly’s terms of “order” and “realm” are also helpful. Here is his brief section on this passage:
Baptism is the rite of entry into the Christian community. The possibility of such a community, based on repentance, arises from the inbreaking of the kingdom of God and the revelation of the GMSM as the foundation of the present order. This is what the programmatic introduction in 1:14-15 proclaims, and what the paradigmatic account of entering into discipleship means (1:16-20). Jesus announces that the kingdom is at hand and calls for repentance and belief in the gospel. Simon and Andrew, James and John, respond to the call and leave the structures of this world. The advent of Jesus makes possible the transfer from one world to another, symbolized by the first disciples’ leaving their normal lives to follow him, because it is the moment of the eschatological inbreaking of the divine (“The time — kairos — is fulfilled,” 1:15). The presence of Jesus and his revelatory activity is the presence of the kingdom of God. In this phrase, “kingdom” means power; Jesus is the inbreaking of the power of God to reveal, to heal, and to save. He reveals the GMSM and makes it possible to repent, that is, to leave the realm of sacred violence and pass over to the realm of the divine nonviolence.
The drama of what follows is structured as the contrast and conflict between two ways of being, symbolized by the contrast between the city and the wilderness, and between the wandering life of Jesus and the settled life of a Galilean fisherman and boat owner. In order to follow Jesus into the kingdom of God, one must, like Simon and Andrew, and the sons of Zebedee, detach oneself from the order of things as usual (cf. 10:28-31).
The relationship to authority in the new order takes the form of discipleship. The disciple lives with the master and learns by imitating him. There is no official hierarchy in the band of disciples, which explains why James and John could ask for the favored places in the kingdom. The master, to be sure, is set apart in a place of authority but it is an informal authority, and any hierarchy in the group seems to be informal, too.
The new realm, however, as we have seen (16:7-8), exists only in prospect; the gospel is not self-evident but has to be believed. This prevents the band of disciples from becoming just another sect of sacred violence within the old order of the sacrificial signifiers. In the meantime, we can repent, that is, detach ourselves inwardly from the present order of violence. Repentance and belief are closely linked. Faith is to leave the crowd and to follow Jesus. This can be done now while the old order still exists.
2. With the help of Robert Beck‘s Nonviolent Story, we can see where this passage fits into the wider scheme of Mark’s Gospel. He uses common outlines to map out one of his own (drawing together the plot he lays out in chapter 3 and the table on p. 154:
|1:1-13||Title and Prologue (the Baptist)|
|I. Through Galilee||1:14 – 3:6||The First Week|
|3:7 – 6:6||The New Family|
|6:7 – 8:30||Loaves and Other Stories|
|II. To Jerusalem||8:31 – 10:52||Road to Jerusalem|
|11:1 – 13:37||Confrontation in the Temple|
|14:1 – 16:8||Within the Times of Anointing|
He goes on to show that each of the three sections “Through Gaililee” have a similar structure. They each: begin with a summary, followed by an interlude with disciples, and a main body of stories each bracketed by two stories with a different commonality — in the synagogue, of the family, and a question about identity, respectively. The following figure (from p. 155) outlines this structure:
Our passage comprises the summary and interlude with disciples that begins the first section, on the first week of Jesus’ ministry, from sabbath to sabbath. What is especially striking about this beginning is that the opening verses of the next major section, “To Jerusalem,” would seem to be a re-negotiation of the original call of the disciples, one that Peter wants no part of:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mk 8:31-35)
Becks sums this up in the following paragraphs and figure:
One of the first things Jesus does after his baptism is to call others (1:16-20). Part of his own mandate is to mandate others, and teaching others becomes a prominent part of his activity. Given the original mandate of Jesus and the partial understanding of the disciples, it is no surprise that the movement toward Jerusalem begins with a renegotiation of the disciples’ lakeside call (8:34-35). If Jesus is to pass along the full mandate, it must include the servant’s role. The theme of servant discipleship is explicit in two passages. At Mk 9:35, Jesus answers the disciples’ concern about their relative importance and pecking order by saying the first shall be last and servant of all. In 10:43-44, he counters the ambitions of James and John by repeating the lesson about last and first and connecting it to the passage from Second Isaiah.
The pattern of teaching in the narrative suggests the relationship depicted in figure 16. What we see is that the titles Messiah and servant not only shape the teaching of Jesus but also shape the contours of Mark’s account. Since the baptism of Jesus is his commissioning mandate, we can say that the two themes of his baptism, Messiah and servant, are directed to the narrative that unfolds the mandate. (pp. 95-96)
3. Ched Myers, with Marie Dennis, Joseph Nangle, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, and Stuart Taylor, “Say to This Mountain”: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, Ch. 1, “The First Call to Discipleship.” A key to understanding Mark involves the symbolism of place:
Mark 1:3 now cites Isaiah 40:3, which announces a messenger in the wilderness — exactly where John the Baptist shows up (1:4). Through this deft editorial combination of Malachi and Isaiah, Mark has introduced a major theme of his gospel. It is the tension between two archetypically opposite symbolic spaces: Temple and wilderness — center and margins.
On the call to “discipleship adventure,” Myers and his team write,
In the prologue, events unfold in a rapid sequence of prediction and fulfillment. “Isaiah” announces John, who announces the “stronger one,” who announces the sovereignty of God. We expect something momentous to happen — yet in Mark’s next scene Jesus is shown merely talking to some common laborers (1:16ff)! In Mark’s narrative strategy, anti-climax functions to subvert our expectations, in order to open us to new possibilities. In the call of the fishermen, the sovereignty of God is realized — because Mark identifies it with the discipleship adventure. (p. 9)
4. James Alison, a video homily for Epiphany 3B (Ordinary Time 3); in 2020 Alison began a new website during the pandemic, “Praying Eucharistically,” which included weekly homilies. In this portion of Mark 1, we’ve jumped over the temptation-in-the-wilderness scene, which is presumably Jesus’ time of working through all the patterns of human desire to receive his vision for mission. (Brief comments on John “arrested”; see exegetical notes above.) Jesus’s ministry begins on the periphery in Galilee, not the Jewish center of Jerusalem. In Mark’s Gospel, there is a continual return to Galilee, even after the Resurrection. You always go back to the unimportant place to start.
Jesus proclaims the Good News that is God. That God is Good News is what disciples spend their lives unpacking. The Jonah passage of the day provides a good example of how not to proceed. Jonah resists going on a mission to Nineveh because he doesn’t like them and suspects God likes them enough to offer repentance. Penitence is ‘having your heart stretched open so that you can become more than you are.’ When you like someone, you want penitence for them. Jonah would rather see the Ninevites remain stuck in their hard-heartedness and thus continue on their path of self-destruction. The best thing you can wish for your enemies is for them to remain impenitent. Jesus is coming with the message that, ‘God likes you and wants to make your penitence possible.’ And the “kingdom of God” means our repentance moves us into being able to cooperate and live together in peace. The becoming more than who we are as individuals involves becoming more together.
So the togetherness element requires followers, fellow travelers, disciples. The first two are Simon and Andrew (Greek names). The next two are Jacob (James) and John (Hebrew names). “Fish for people”? The Hebrew word for this is like “bring up,” the verb used for God bringing the people up out of Egypt. Jesus’ mission looks like bringing people up out of Egypt.
5. Robert Hamerton-Kelly, sermon from January 22, 2006, and sermon from January 25, 2009 (Society of St. John at St. Mark’s Chapel, Palo Alto).
Reflections and Questions
1. One good sermon theme (1997, “Fans of the Kingdom” and 2000, “Proclaiming the Culture of God,” sermons) I’ve used with this passage involves the importance of being called; it gives us the personal identity we sorely need. It satisfies the need to be needed.
2. But does emphasizing our need to needed take the spotlight off what we are called to: the Culture of God? Should the emphasis be on being called to God’s mission and agenda rather than to some lesser one of our choosing?
3. We started out talking about games like bowling and soccer. We’re now at the height of the NFL season, with championships and the Super Bowl around the corner. Which do we get more excited about in our culture, such games or participating in the coming of God’s culture into this culture. If we sadly answer “our games,” I think we also need to bear much of the responsibility for our lacking presentation of this Good News. Can people today still get that excited about being part of the coming of the Culture of God? Or have we too highly personalized the experience of faith, making it a personal decision of belief rather than participation in an event? With the Girardian notion of the Paraclete/Gospel working in history, I feel like I can get excited again about participating in an event. My sense of call has significantly heightened and intensified since encountering his work — in large part due to being able to see his work as another stage of that exciting event of God’s culture coming into this world and transforming it.
4. In 2015 I featured a video clip from Nadia Bolz Weber on Good News, combined with the children’s sermon on the Jonah story, to fashion a sermon “The Worst Good News You’ve Ever Heard.” [PowerPoint converted to pdf]
5. My sermon in 2003, “The Main Event,” combined a number of these themes in reflecting on how Christians might perceive the cross and resurrection of Christ as the main event in history. These days the main event is personalized into what happens to each of us when we die. Or the Left Behind series of books popularizes the Rapture as a second (superceding?) main event — except that even the Rapture ends up taking the back seat in these books to the time of tribulation that supposedly will follow the Rapture, a time of tribulation that will end in God’s victory. And the heroes in these books, who were left behind and only came late to believing in Jesus, might as well be the story of any of us disciples since he left us behind in the Ascension. The cross and resurrection leave behind a time of tribulation that calls for us late-believing disciples to struggle in our witness to God’s power of life, which is a way of unconditional love and forgiveness, a way which cannot force itself on us simply because it is Love. So, while I mourn the terrible war and bloodshed of last century, I also celebrate the lives of saints like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who took Christ’s way of peace, the main event, as far into the public arena as it has ever gone.
6. The back-cover notes on the 2003 Augsburg Fortress bulletin raise the question about whether fishing for people really would make any sense to professional fisherman:
Surely people were not to be manipulated and trapped, as were the fish. Nor would nets be suitable tools for bringing in people. Indeed, there would seem to be little in the fishermen’s training or lives thus far that would qualify them to attract or collect people. And once people were gathered, what then? Fish were caught to be sold, to be consumed. For what purpose did this man want to bring in people?
Yet follow Jesus is what these fishermen immediately did. How do we respond to Jesus’ call? Do we rationalize, do we think up excuses, do we point to someone “better qualified”? Or, welcoming the call to a new life, do we follow and learn from the master how to fish for people?