A Tale of Two Marks
Mark 12: 38-44
November 8, 2009
Robert Allan Hill
Before you work high you build a scaffold to get yourself up there.
Steeple Jacks do not use a scaffold. They use rope and pulleys, and they rightly earn many hundreds of dollars an hour. As one said to me, quoting Scripture, and speaking of the dangers of height, “Jesus said, ‘Lo(w) I am with you”. Meaning, he continued, ‘up high you are on your own’.
Our first and smaller churches, some five of them, hired Steeple Jacks for the minor tiling, shingling, painting and other repairs required of small church steeples on small steeple churches. One was squat enough (the church I mean not the Jack) that he could go up by ladder. Our sixth church (and the seventh, too) was a ‘tall steeple church’ The trustees tried to get by with a Steeple Jack, every time repairs were needed, but most times, no, they needed to spend more. Once a two hundred pound section of copper plate fell off that steeple onto a University neighborhood street. Exposure, liability, act of God, randomness—these words appeared in sermons later that month. No one was hurt. Scaffolding went up the next week, and stayed up for several expensive days.
The interior space of churches also requires endless attention. As with care of the human body after the age of forty, the motto for sanctuary care must be ‘maintenance, maintenance, maintenance’. Interior scaffolding also comes at a price. Sure you prefer to change light bulbs and paint ceilings with a huge step ladder and a fearless Trustee or hired painter. Sure. But the higher the nave, the, well, I refer you to adage above. “Lo I am with you”. Not high.
Even before any paint is spilled, and even before any long lasting bulbs are replaced, there is work, there is cost, there is meaningful preparation.
So it is, as you know, in preaching. The interpreter either swings in the breeze like a Steeple Jack, if the matters of historical interpretation are low fences (Paul’s letters come to mind), or, if the height is greater, scaffolding is needed (the Hebrew Scripture, all the Gospels, and especially the Gospel of John come to mind). What you see when the work is done, is the steeple repaired, the roof replaced, the paint (both coats) applied, the bulbs changed. But before that there has been scaffolding up, so that the work could be done.
2. Markan Scaffolds
We come this morning to the interpretation of a passage from Mark. Mark requires scaffolding. We cannot begin to paint until we have someplace to stand. No light bulbs will be changed until we can reach the fixtures. Help me with the scaffolding this morning.
We know not who wrote Mark, only his name. He wrote for a particular community, whose location and name are also unknown. He even mentions by name members of his church, Alexander and Rufus (15:21). The book is meant to help a community of Christians. It is written to support and encourage people who already have been embraced by faith. While it purports to report on events long ago, in the ministry of Jesus, its main thrust is toward its own hearers and readers forty years later. So it is not an evangelistic tract and it is not a diary and it is emphatically not a history.
You will want to know what we can say, then, about Mark’s community. If the community gave birth to the gospel, and if the community is the primary focus of the gospel, and if the community is the gospel’s intended audience, you would like to know something about them. For one thing, the community is persecuted, or is dreading persecution, or both. Jesus suffered and so do or so will you. This is what Mark says. This gospel prepares its hearers for persecution. For another thing, the church may have been in or around Rome, or more probably somewhere in Syria. It is likely that Mark was written between 69 and 73 ce. For yet another thing, Mark’s fellow congregants, fellow Christians, are Gentiles, in the main, not Jews. He is writing to this largely Gentile group. He writes for them neither a timeless philosophical tract nor an ethereal piece of poetry. His is rather a ‘message on target’. For one final thing, on the academic side, Mark’s composition, editing, comparisons, saying combinations, style and Christology all point to Mark as the earliest gospel (J Marcus).
I have used the word gospel. You have heard the word many times, and know that it means ‘good news’. It is an old term. You could compare it to ‘ghost’. Gospel is to good news and ghost is to spirit, you might say. Yet Mark calls his writing a ‘gospel’. He creates something new. Mark is a writing unlike any other to precede it. It is not popular today any longer, no longer fashionable, to say this. It is however true. Mark is not a history, not a biography, not a novel, not an apocalypse, not an essay, not a treatise, not an epistle. Examples of all these were to hand for him. Mark might have written one of any one of them. He did not. He wrote something else and so in form, in genre, gave us something new. A gospel. His is the first, but not the last.
Mark is not great literature. It is not Plato, not Cicero, not Homer. Nor is the Greek of the gospel a finely tuned instrument. It is harsh, coarse and common. The gospel was formed, formed in the life of a community, as described earlier. Its passages and messages were announced as memories meant to offer hope. Its account of Jesus, in healing and preaching and teaching, all the way to the cross and beyond, is offered to a very human group of humans who are trying to make their way along His way. The Gospel is a record of the preaching of the gospel. To miss this, or to mistake this, is to miss the main point of the Gospel, and of the gospel. It is in preaching that the gospel arrives, enters, feasts, embraces, loves, and leaves. It is in preaching that you hear something that makes life meaningful, makes life loving, makes life real. It is in preaching that the Gospel of Mark came to be, as a community, over time, heard and reheard, remembered and rehearsed the story of Jesus crucified (his past) and risen (his presence). We should not expect narrative linearity, historical accuracy, or re-collective precision here. And in fact, we find none. Let me put it another way around. Most of the NT documents are, in one way or another, attempts to remember, accurately, the nature and meaning of baptism. Well, Mark fits that description. What does it mean, hear and now, to be a Christian?
3. Mini Anti-Fundamentalist Jeremiad
You may preach, you may interpret the Gospel flat, in a synchronic not a diachronic way. You may simply read it, and make comments on it, as you please. In the same way, you may fix a roof by hurling shingles to the heavens, hoping some, with appropriate missile guided nails, will land on the roof. You may paint the walls of your church by opening the can, stirring the pain, and letting fly. It is a primitive procedure, but you are free to use it. You may aim your arm at various fixtures, and pitch light bulbs upward in the hope that some may land in place and, perhaps with a little breeze, turn themselves in. Across the land we have examples of this kind of preaching without scaffolding. I do not recommend it, neither for hearer nor for speaker. You know anyway when somebody doses you with a bucket of paint. You know what it feels like and how to judge it.
So far, there is with a few exceptions, broad consensus on the needed Markan scaffolding, in its general shape, heft and contours. But we have one more tier to place before we have reached our necessary height. Here the height and the weight of the matter make the scaffold lean and swing a little. Just which planks need to go where, here, is uncertain. In our reading and hearing of the Gospel of Mark we need to step carefully here, just at the very top.
4. Last Plank: A Tale of Two Marks
I put it this way. Ours is a tale of two Marks. Is Mark a moderate critic or is Mark a critical moderate? How you answer will both depend on and indicate where you stand on the scaffold. Moderate critic, critical moderate? That is, across the length of his Gospel, is Mark actively criticizing others or is he carefully moderating, coaching if you will, the approach of others? Is the tone of the gospel polemic or irenic?
Mark is clearly an apocalyptic writing, although clarity about this has only fully emerged in the last generation or so. Mark expects the end of all things in his own time, and so the Markan Jesus so instructs his followers. In fact, Mark expects the culmination of all things, soon and very soon. In this regard, and in regard to his understanding of the cross, Mark has some congruence with the letters of Paul. Given this apocalyptic perspective, is Mark a critic or a coach?
The first option, Mark the moderate critic, was most piercingly presented almost forty years ago. First let me give you the outline of the planking in this part of the scaffold, and then let me tell you about the carpenter.
On this view, Mark combats a view of Jesus that will not accept his suffering, his crucifixion. Long after the events of Calvary and Golgotha, spirited and strong people, singing a happy song, have caused the earliest church to forget their baptism, or its meaning. They expect ease, spirit, joy, and, soon, a conquering victory over all that plagues and persecutes them. Mark says no. To say know Mark remembers in delicate detail the story of Jesus’ passion, relying on a source, a document he has inherited. To say know, Mark pointedly shows the ignorance and cowardice of Peter, at Caesarea Philippi and in Jerusalem. To say know, Mark criticizes, diminishes the miracles of Jesus, letting them wind away to nothing as the Gospel progresses. To say know, Mark describes the disciples as diabolical dunces. They didn’t understand it and neither do you, he says. Mark stays within the fold of the inherited story of Jesus, the gospel of teaching and passion, of Galilee and Jerusalem. But he does so as a moderate critic of those who are unrealistic of the suffering that continues, from which the gospel does not deliver, any more than Jesus had been delivered from the cross. Saved, yes, delivered, no. On this view, at the heart of Mark there is a bitter dispute in earliest Christianity about what constitutes discipleship, baptism, and Mark is out to prove his opponents wrong. As with the alternative, there is plenty of evidence to support this sort of scaffold.
I am pleased, and honored, to tell you that the person who most powerfully presented this view is a dear friend of mine. In fact, he was my immediate predecessor in our Rochester church. My eleven years in that pulpit immediately followed his seventeen. He is a Methodist minister who did his doctoral work at Claremont. It has taken some decades for the force and power of his argument to stand up and stand out in comparison to the work of others. Ted Weeden is his name: ‘Jesus serves as a surrogate for Mark, and the disciples serve as surrogates for Mark’s opponents…The disciples are reprobates’. (op cit, 163).
The second option, Mark the critical moderate, has in a way been present for a longer time, and, one could say, is still the more dominant, the majoritarian position. I read through the summer the culminating presentation of this position in a two volume Anchor Bible Commentary. Imagine my surprise, opening the books, to read that the author was (once) on the faculty of Boston University School of Theology. His name is Joel Marcus, now at Duke. On this view, things in Mark’s community are not so much at daggers drawn. There are differences to be sure, but the disagreements are differences among friends. The Markan coaching does not face strong spirit people, committed to an idea of the ‘divine man’. Mark is not so negative about miracles. The disciples are mistaken but not malevolent. The titles for Jesus are not so telling or convincing. The real trouble is not so much in the community itself (perish the thought), but outside, among the potential deceivers of the church. Hence, on this scaffold, Mark has the job of more gently reminding his hearers of the cross, of suffering, of discipline, of the cruciform character of Christianity, as a moderate, a critical moderate, but a moderate more than a critic.
We have a hard time imaging that our faith tradition was born out of serious conflict. It is like family stories. We really don’t like to imagine that our family tree is littered with broken branches, dead limbs, crooked roots, and Dutch elm disease. We like the picture of the Palm Tree, majestic and free. The second option appeals to our sense of pride in our Christian heritage. It is a more pleasing view. But the former, Weeden’s Mark, is over time the stronger scaffold, and what we need from a scaffold is not presentation but reliability, not beauty but strength.
Here is where my feet come down. Marcus appeals to my heart, what I wish were true or truer. But my mind trusts Weeden. Our passage today, Mark 12: 38-44, is a case in point.
5. Today’s Markan Gospel
Our passage today teems with criticism. There is venom here. There is hurt, too. There is an outsider looking in. There is a widow, righteous, but overshadowed. You too were outsiders, the passage recalls. You follow one who sat outside, who had his on the sparrow, who resented the robes, the prayers, the stoles, the seats, the feasts, the forgetful unsympathy which occludes human vision and corrupts human life. Be careful. In God’s time, the first become last. When it comes to giving, the question is not how much but from how much…
“The fact that it follows Jesus’ summons of the disciples, moreover, could hint that the lesson is particularly important for the members of the Markan community. Are there perhaps rich people there as well as poor ones, and are the ostentatiousness of the former and their callousness toward the latter among the spiritual dangers besetting Mark’s church home” (Marcus, II, 861).? For Mark, the disciples are the church, his church. Just how hard on them is he?
Mark: moderate or critic? This passage begins with an attack upon the scribes of old, and so upon the leaders of Mark’s church. This passage concludes with a wry portrait of a poor widow, a picaresque portrait of unjust distance between rich and poor in the Temple, and so in the community of Mark’s church. Today’s passage, concluding the gospel’s narrative before the passion, shows us Mark the critic, Mark the prophet. He might have Jesus add: ‘I saw many in the temple that day….and it seems like I saw some of you there, too.’
Two tones are possible for this sentence: she has given all she has, her whole life. One moderate, a good stewardship lesson. One critical, a call to change. The latter is the truer, the latter is the gospel.
6. Climbing Down: Applying Today’s Gospel
Three suggestions follow, regarding awareness, regarding assessment, and regarding saving change, when it comes to scaffolds, to the frames from which we see and hear, build and repair.
We see what we expect, or want, to see. We hear what we are accustomed to hear. We have our scaffolds.
Are they the right ones?
Granted that the scaffolds on which you stand to build or repair the steeples of your lives are fundamental, necessary, and crucial, are these, yours the right ones for your life today? Are you aware of your presentiments, your prejudices, your perspectives? Are you? Can you give an account, for example, of your religious perspective? We are more regularly challenged to account for our political perspective, conservative or liberal, or our economic perspective, libertarian or egalitarian, or our cultural perspective, bohemian or bourgois. Today the Markan Jesus sits, sits, outside the temple, and turns a moderate or critical eye upon the horizon, upon the whole, upon what purports to represent the good, true, beautiful, and holy. What is your scaffold made of, when you lean toward the realities of dawn and twilight?
Are you aware of the scaffolds you have ascended?
Then let me ask you, since this Sunday, and now we have awareness, to assess your religious scaffolding. Does it hold? Here are a couple of tests, ways to jump a bit up and down on the board, without yet falling. What about death and taxes?
Does your religious scaffold hold, when you are reaching out to fix up the steeple in the hour of death? Last Sunday, Tom Long, our colleague in Atlanta, preached an op-ed sermon about our cultural, spiritual inability gracefully to approach and accept death. He recommends some better scaffolding: ‘show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead, and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people (Gladstone’…People who have learned how to care tenderly for the bodies of the dead are almost surely people who also know how to show mercy to the bodies of the living’. (NYT, 11/1/09)
Does your scaffold hold, when you are facing financial extremity? Has the scaffold the strength to hold you up, while you look out for that next job, while you look down at the prospect of debt, while you look up at your hope for measured frugality, while you look in toward the same potential greed Jesus saw in the temple of old? If the scaffold wobbles here, you have some work to do.
Have you assessed your scaffold?
Then, to conclude, let me ask you something. Is it time to change? Is it time to find a better scaffold, I mean perspective, I mean scaffold, I mean worldview, I mean scaffold, I mean faith? One of our friends sent in this comment on a sermon last month: ‘I'd further suggest it is time to unleash a more aggressive message: that only stupid people think they are so smart that they can figure out everything for themselves and that if they (and everyone else) just maximize their self-interest we will end up with the best of all possible worlds. Rather, really smart people know that they are both limited but responsible and that their best hope is to join in the company of other faithful people in a life of prayer and study and worship to help illumine the path.’
Have you come to a moment of change?
A long time ago, a preacher and Greek scholar summed up his own way of thinking: ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’. Can you hear the trust held, affirmed, offered there? ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’. Can you hear the openness, there, the maturely naïve confidence there, the fresh breeze there? ‘If thine heart be as mine, give me thine hand’. Can you hear the freedom and grace there? It begs to be heard. In its hearing is your health, safety, healing, salvation.