Monthly Archives: February 2014

Mark’s Gospel chapters 7 and 8

Ever since someone divided our New Testament documents into chapters and verses (13th and 15th centuries) we have been tempted to read them in bite sized chunks. The habit is encouraged for most of us who generally hear a short passage read aloud every Sunday in church. So we take a verse out of its context or we take a whole story out of the framework created by the author. But none of the Gospel writers simply strung his stories together in random fashion. They wanted us to see a pattern, like beads on a necklace: each bead enhanced by its neighbour and the whole necklace shining beautifully as one.

So let’s consider chapters 7 & 8 of Mark’s Gospel. Following the helpful headings provided by the editors of the New Revised Standard Version: in chapter 7 we have:

  • The tradition of the elders;
  • the Syrophoenician woman’s faith;
  • Jesus cures a deaf man.

Chapter 8 follows on with:

  • Feeding the four thousand;
  • the demand for a sign;
  • Jesus cures a blind man at Bethsaida;
  • Peter’s declaration about Jesus;
  • Jesus foretells his death and resurrection. 

Why did Mark string these particular beads together in this order? I suggest they are all about people who didn’t get it, where ‘it’ is the teaching of Jesus about the secret of the true self: the good news about who we truly are.

So the sequence starts with the Pharisees for whom tradition and ritual purity were important. Then Jesus meets a non-Jew (a woman too!) who isn’t as blind as the Pharisees. Next we have someone who cannot hear and therefore cannot speak properly. Chapter 8 begins with the feeding of four thousand people but it is followed by a demand for a sign from those Pharisees who simply cannot see what has just happened. But the blind man at Bethsaida has his eyes opened (after a false start in which he sees only partially). Peter, in the final part of this sequence, has his eyes partially opened but then he too gets it wrong and is rebuked. Jesus explains, then, how Peter has got it wrong. The editors of the New Revised Standard Version include chapter 9 verse 1 in this sequence (suggesting that the original division between chapters 8 & 9 is unhelpful) so that it ends with the verse: “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.”

So, is this a sequence about some purely historical events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth? I suggest that is the least helpful way of reading it; indeed such a reading actually obscures the meaning. So then, ignoring questions like, ‘Did these events actually happen?’ the question arises, who is it that didn’t get it, and what was it that they didn’t get?

It was (is) not only those first disciples who didn’t fully understand the message of Jesus; nor did they know what to think about Jesus himself as a person (see chapter 8 verses 32/32 for Peter’s confusion). It was (is) the same with the emerging community of followers who became known as Christians. Like Peter who thought he knew what his expected Messiah should be like and how he should behave; like that blind man who thought he could see trees walking; like that gentile, Syrophoenician woman who knew nothing of the niceties of Jewish theological thought; like the deaf man who couldn’t hear what Jesus was saying; like those Pharisees who wanted proof after the feeding of the four thousand; none of them really ‘got it’ and therefore could not see that “the kingdom of God has come with power”.

This blog is called The Now New Testament because it tries to relate to these ancient documents as if they contain partially hidden truth which sometimes we ‘get’ and sometimes we don’t get and because the only time we can get it is Now, provided always that we are willing to lose (let go of ) lots of our suppositions and preconceived ideas about what it is that we should get. “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake….will save it.”

Tradition, tradition

Libby Purves, writing in yesterday’s Times (of London), says “Leaders, being human, like to bolster their authority. Many religions feel a need to differentiate themselves by imposing detailed rules of life.”  She concludes, “Religions, too, should ask, how much is non-negotiable? What truly relates to the vital spiritual core and how much is barnacled cultural accretion, outdated and unnecessary to the essential flame you tend?”

The Pharisees who confront Jesus in Chapter 7 of Mark’s Gospel, verses 1 – 13, are adamant that his disciples are breaking the rules about ritual cleansing. Mark gives us a series of arguments against unnecessary religious, ritualistic rules. The style here suggests more the conflict of the earliest Christian communities in Israel with their Jewish neighbours, rather than actual arguments between Jesus himself and the Pharisees. However, Mark rounds this passage off in verse 14 with words that do have the authentic ring of Jesus.

“….Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”

What defiles? See verses 21 and 22. It’s ‘evil intentions’ that defile us: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.”

What is it that is defiled? “A person”, says verse 23. Skip for a moment to chapter 8 verse 36: (and I prefer the New English Bible translation here) “What does a person gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his true self?”

Advertisers like to entice us with the promise of things we can paste on, put on, or take in which, they claim, will enhance our true selves. They are the modern, secular equivalent of those Pharisees who thought that ritual purity was a necessary part of the way to a true self. Chapters 7 and 8 of Mark’s Gospel are full of people who didn’t get it – the secret of the true self I mean. I’ll be trying to decipher what Mark is pointing to in the  next post on this blog.