Reading Mark’s Story of Jesus (On Reading, Rapture & Relentlessness…)

We started our Seeds Footscray Bible Study series on Go Engage: Jesus’ Direct Action Campaign in Mark 1-4 last week by reading the gospel in its entirety at one sitting.

I suggested we start this way because I have convictions about the value of narrative approaches to reading scripture.

Some of these stem from my post-modern sensibilities which are in part a reaction against modern ways of approaching texts, life and truth in general, often by seeking to dissect things into small pieces.  This was my experience of bible reading earlier in my life and I have found the narrative approach liberating and refreshing as an alternative. (An aversion to dissecting frogs and the smell of formaldehyde in science class may have contributed to my hermeneutic more than I know!)

Any approach or re-action has its limitations.  Whilst I believe narrative approaches to scripture help us recover lost perspectives and reveal new ways of considering scripture I do not do it simply because it is a contemporary fad but because I believe it helps us consider and be more attuned to the ‘traditional,’  ‘oral’ culture out of which these texts emerged.  The original hearers (probably weren’t ‘readers’) would not have had chapter and verse and would have most likely heard the story at one sitting.  Nevertheless they had a ‘literacy’ about the ‘whole’ story that is difficult or lost to us in our modern culture.

I like narrative because I have convictions that we are created in the image of God and believe that as such we are, in the words of Michael Frost,  ‘hard wired for story’.  I believe this God was incarnated in a human story.  That the ‘Word’ became flesh and dwelt among us.  And so what we read is not simply ancient literature, or text on paper, but a Living Story which has real spiritual power and presence, by virtue of the Holy Spirit to cut through and show us the truth about the personal and social stories that make up our present reality.  As William Stringfellow says

“By virtue of the incarnation…We are, each one of us, parables”

The power of Mark’s story in its whole was very striking for us.  Some said it challenged the ‘watered down,’ ‘synthesis’ of Gospel stories that we often carry as the “The Jesus Story” we think we know (full of often subconscious assumptions)!  In comparison with this ‘synthesis’, or even with the other gospels, Mark’s story is pacy, conflict ridden, relentless and demanding.  As hearers of the story, some of us had a real identification of the problem of the disciples to understand Jesus’ message. It’s as if the text and its relentless rhythm forces this kind of dissonance in the hearer as a function of the author.

Personally, I was challenged by the story of the Rich Man, coming in Chapter 10 towards the end of the teaching about death and suffering, at which Jesus presents a demanding choice to a man he is described at loving, who then goes away “shocked and grieving” (NRSV).  I must admit feeling a little grief and shock also and I was reminded of the emphasis of Ched Myers that this story, more than any others, is THE discipleship story for “First World” Christian’s to contend with.   After all the previous drama and teaching I resonated strongly with the disciples in the text, who in response almost despairingly cry out,

“Then who can be saved?”  

As if to say “Jesus… let up a bit! Give us a break!”

The words of Jesus were both reassuring, sobering and ‘real’ for me.  Hearing it at the end of 10 demanding chapters it ‘ministered’ to me powerfully in a way I had never experienced reading it by itself.

Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.’

 Peter began to say to him, ‘Look, we have left everything and followed you.’ 

Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.’ 

The other ‘issue’ that emerged was the imagery and power of  Chapter 13 located at the end of the ministry ‘action’ but before the passion narrative. How do we deal with such imagery?

In his recent book “Come Out My People:  God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond”  Wes Howard Brook cites scholarship that suggests Mark is written around the time of the Roman-Jewish War of 66-70CE.

“The central question facing the original audience was: What should we do when the Romans reach Jerusalem?  Jesus answer is shockingly specific….flee to the mountains!” (Mark 13:14)

Of course we are not reading the text in an anicent war zone of competing loyalties.  The context we were most concious of in our reading was the the Rapture prediction on May 21 by Family Radio Evangelist Harold Camping from the USA.  The imagery of Mark 13 is often used, confusingly by various pro and anti ‘end times’ predictors.  Like the disciples in Mark we can easily be confused.

In light of this I found the perspective and discussion at Pangea Blog about why “No one knows the day or the hour is a WEAK argument against rapture predictors.” (Reflections upon Mark 13) a helpful window into some of the complexities we were trying to deal with.

Looking forward to the adventure ‘On the Way…’

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