Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 22, 2012
Commentary on the Texts
There is no Lectionary Commentary for
this reading, but there is available a
Earlier in Mark's narrative Jesus had left Galilee and had come to John for baptism (1:9-11). Now Mark tells us that after John's arrest Jesus returned to Galilee. Mark does not relate at this point the circumstances of John's arrest; he will give us that account later on (6:17-29). John's imprisonment was the result of his rebuke of Herod Antipas for marrying Herodias, his brother's wife. Mark seems to put the blame for John's imprisonment and execution on Herodias more than Herod. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, gives us another version of the imprisonment of John the Baptist:
When we look at Mark's account of John's imprisonment and execution more carefully, however, Herod does not come out quite as clean as what might appear at first. Herod had heard about the things that the disciples of Jesus had been doing and said, "John, whom I beheaded, has been raised" (6:16). When Herod heard about Jesus and his disciples, Mark tells us, "Herod himself had sent men who arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison" (Mark 6:17).
Jesus came to Galilee not because it was a safer place. After all, Herod Antipas ruled Galilee (see Palestine under the Herods). In fact, Luke tells us that some Pharisees warned Jesus at one point to flee Galilee because Herod intended to kill him (13:31). Jesus came to Galilee because it needed to hear the good news of the kingdom of God. "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
There were plenty of reasons why Galilee needed to hear the good news of God. Caesar Augustus was being hailed as the good news for the world because he brought unity and peace to a divided Roman Empire and a warring world. Client nations under Rome were allowed to conduct their national, cultural, and religious life as they pleased as long as their leaders paid taxes to Rome and kept the peace in their territories. Accordingly, the various Herods in Palestine and the leaders of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem had vested interests in cooperating with Roman authorities. But some Jewish hotheads such as the Zealot movement would have none of that. They refused to submit to Rome because for them only God had legitimate claim to their land and nation. They conducted uprisings and guerrilla warfare. Roman authorities carefully monitored Jewish crowds in Palestine lest a movement against Rome get out of hand. The so-called Roman peace in Palestine was an uneasy truce at best.
Mark's statement that Jesus came to Galilee and proclaimed the good news of God must be heard with this background in mind. What kind of good news was it? Was it the good news of peace and unity enforced with military might? Was it the good news of a messianic age that would establish the kingdom of God once and for all and put an end to Roman occupation of Israel's land? And if so, what would happen to earthly powers such as Rome? How would such a message be heard in Galilee? Would this be perceived as an uprising against Rome? In short, what was the nature of this good news that Jesus proclaimed? And what did it mean to believe in the good news?
Many evangelical Christians often understand the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God in terms of individual, private, spiritual experience of salvation that would prepare one for eternal life in heaven. Without minimizing the importance of that, we must equally recognize that what Jesus preached had definite political, social and communal implications. Mark summarizes the message of Jesus in Galilee in four succinct statements in 1:14-15:
The first two statements in this summary, that the time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near, are not exactly an individual matter. They have to do with divine activity in history rather than a private experience of salvation. Not only that, but the very idea of the kingdom of God implies that a community of people is involved. Even the first statement, that the time is fulfilled, means that the past history of Israel prior Jesus is presupposed, even if unfulfilled. Now through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus the final age is being inaugurated. The hopes and expectations of the past will now become a reality. God is going to bring final fulfillment to promises he has made in the past.
In the four centuries prior to Jesus, Jewish theology held that God no longer spoke through prophets and that prophecy had ceased with the last prophet, Malachi. But it also taught that God would again act in the future in the messianic age and that prophecy would resume. When Mark begins his gospel with the person, ministry and preaching of John the Baptist, he is in effect demonstrating that God had broken his silence by speaking through John, "the voice of one crying out in the wilderness" (Mark 1:3). And when Jesus says that the time is fulfilled, he means that the long-awaited messianic age is about to dawn and the kingdom of God to become a reality in the world.
Given the political and economic conditions of Galilee and all of Palestine, one can imagine the incredulity of people toward a person who dared to proclaim that another kingdom besides Rome was about to dawn. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, loyal to Rome, would no doubt keep a wary eye on Jesus, as is evident from Mark's comment that Pharisees and Herodians conspired to destroy Jesus (3:6). Even Herod himself became suspicious of Jesus when he heard about some of his activities, seeing a resemblance between Jesus and John. "John, whom I beheaded," he said, "has been raised" (Mark 6:16).
Although the message of Jesus about the kingdom of God was not intended as a call to overthrow the Romans and the Herodians, people living in the tense atmosphere of first-century Palestine would hear political overtones in the kingdom language of Jesus. In that sense, the message of Jesus did have political implications (see Jesus, Religion, and Politics). For Jesus and for those who took his message seriously, the kingdom of God was an alternate reality. Earthly kings and kingdoms were no longer the ultimate concern. What mattered most was the kingdom of God. Emperors and kings who see themselves as gods do not like to hear such language from prophets. So John the Baptist was beheaded and Jesus was crucified.
Jesus did not call people to take up arms and fight the Romans. His call was infinitely more revolutionary: "repent and believe the good news." This was a call to personal decision and reorientation of one's whole being. It meant a radical change in one's mind and heart. The old ways no longer held sway over one's life. One's world of reality no longer consisted of how to live under this or that political regime, economic conditions, cultural forces, and social expectations. Repentance meant an about-face from the old to the new. The proclamation of the kingdom of God was a good news, a gospel, to be believed, in spite of the fact that the circumstances of life in Galilee remained unchanged. Roman soldiers, Herod Antipas, and an ever-present taxation system were poignant reminders that Jewish people in Palestine lived under the grip of occupation forces. The good news that Jesus proclaimed was that the kingdom of God can become a reality precisely in a world such as this.
The parables of the kingdom of God that Jesus told gave voice to this very notion that the kingdom of God had subversive power.
"With what can we compare the kingdom of God," Jesus asked, "or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade" (Mark 4:30-32).
Jesus began his ministry not only by proclaiming the gospel but also calling disciples to become partners in his work (vv. 16-20). Mark will say much about the disciples whom Jesus called. The present passage is the first of several passages where the reader will encounter the issue of discipleship. Here Mark presents the calling of Peter and his brother Andrew, and the two sons of Zebedee, James and John. Three of these, Peter, James and John, will become the inner circle of disciples around Jesus (Mark 5:37; 9:2). Peter himself will be the leading and most outspoken of the twelve apostles, but nothing like a hero. In fact, Peter's failures appear repeatedly in the gospel, not the least of which is his denial of Jesus in the passion narrative. According to an early church tradition, Mark became a companion of Peter and learned the content of the gospel story from Peter. If so, Mark's gospel is Peter's own testimonial of his own frequent failures during the lifetime of Jesus.
In Mark 2:14 Jesus calls Levi son of Alphaeus. Early church tradition often identifies this Levi, the tax collector, as Matthew, the author of the first gospel. In the list of the twelve apostles in 3:13-19 James the son of Alphaeus appears. Levi and James may have been brothers. In the latter passage Mark tells us that Jesus "appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, and to have authority to cast out demons." The purpose for appointing the twelve was, first, that they may be with him, and second, that he may send them out to preach and to cast out demons. In 6:7-13 Jesus gives instructions to the twelve as he sends them out on their mission two by two.
Mark's presentation of the twelve apostles is not complimentary. They often appear as slow learners, weak in faith, and their hearts are hardened so that they do not readily understand (4:13, 40; 8:17, 21; 9:32). This does not mean that Mark was anti-apostolic. It simply means that Mark saw the apostles and the larger circle of disciples on a journey of faith with Jesus. They did not fully comprehend the person and mission of Jesus or the meaning of discipleship. A fuller understanding will come only after the death and resurrection of Jesus. But in the lifetime of Jesus they often failed. They did not know what to make of a messiah on a cross. Here in the first chapter, however, when Jesus called the four disciples, they quickly left their occupations and followed Jesus. Eventually they will come to a crossroads at Caesarea Philippi (Mark 8:27-35) when the reality of a suffering and dying messiah and its implications for discipleship will hit them in the face.
Mark understands discipleship to Jesus to require the renunciation of everything, including nets, boats, and one's own father (1:18-20). Disciples must even deny their own self or being (8:34). "For what will it profit them," Jesus asks, "to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" (8:36). To the rich man who came asking what he must do to inherit eternal life Jesus told him to keep the commandments. When he replied that he had kept them since his youth, Jesus said, "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me" (10:21). To many this demand of Jesus might seem exceedingly unreasonable. But perhaps Jesus saw clearly that the one commandment that this rich man had not kept was the very first of the Ten Commandments: "I am the Lord your God . . . you shall have no other gods before me" (Exod 20:2). His money had become his god, and how many of us can pass the test that Jesus set up for discipleship?
On the other hand, the disciples' renunciation must not be overstated. For example, Peter still had his house, which now became available to Jesus and his disciples (1:29-31). It may even have been used by Jesus as his base in Capernaum. The boat that Jesus used on numerous occasions (Mark 3:9; 4:1, 36, etc.) may well have belonged to Peter or one of the other disciples.
Hearing the conversation between the rich man and Jesus, Peter boasts, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." But Jesus reminds Peter that no one can outdo the gracious generosity of God. "
Truly I tell you," Jesus says, "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--Ěhouses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions--and in the age to come eternal life" (10:29-30).
What is the hundredfold return? Surely these words are not be taken in a very literal sense. Who would want a hundred mothers?! Or a hundred children?! Jesus no doubt has in mind the security of a community of disciples and their possessions that are made available to those who are deprived. At one point when the biological family of Jesus came looking for him, Jesus asked, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking at the circle of disciples around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:33-35).
In addition to the hundredfold houses, family members, and fields, there is also one last item in the list with a different conjunction than the others--"with persecutions." This is all the more reason for not taking the promise of the hundredfold to mean literal financial prosperity. The disciples were to share in the mission of Jesus, which meant also sharing suffering and the cross.
One way to approach this text for preaching purposes is to focus on the kingdom of God in the preaching of Jesus and its implications for a life of discipleship to Jesus. Many people have the mistaken notion that the kingdom of God is a reference to life in heaven with God after the present life ends at the grave. Perhaps such a misunderstanding has risen from the fact that Matthew uses the term "kingdom of heaven" in place of Mark's "kingdom of God." Matthew has done that not because he understood Jesus' message to be about heaven but because his Jewish sensitivity compelled him to minimize the use of God's name and use "heaven" as a substitute. But neither Matthew, nor Mark, and certainly not Jesus, thought that the kingdom of God was a reference to life in heaven.
The question that needs to be asked is not what the kingdom of God would look like in heaven, but what it would look like on earth. Even though that is very difficult to answer, we must try to understand what Jesus had in mind. Reading between the lines, we note first that it is an all-encompassing reality, a total reorientation of one's world. When the kingdom of God comes and is the most significant reality in one's life, nothing else takes precedence. It defines a person's whole existence. It means that God is all in all.
The social and political implications of such an understanding are immense. One's attitude and relationship to the world, nation, family, possessions and occupation are radically impacted when one's life is opened up to the kingdom of God. One's social world is no longer defined primarily by one's biological family but by a community of people who have been shaped by the narrative of the kingdom of God. One's commitment to the kingdom of God takes precedence over national allegiance.
Now, this balancing act is not as easy as it may seem at first glance. After all, the New Testament urges Christians to honor and pray for the governing authorities (Rom 13:1-7; 1 Tim 2:1-2; 1 Pet 2:13, 17). Jesus himself said, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (Mark 12:17). However, the New Testament also recognizes the idolatrous propensity of emperors and empires to deify themselves and require absolute allegiance from their subjects (Rev 13:1-10). The people of God are called to a life shaped by the kingdom of God and yet lived out within the context of the social and political structures of the world. Jesus resorted neither to accommodation to Roman or Herodian rulers nor outright rebellion against them.
Christians in America are faced with the dilemma of supporting and praying for their governmental leaders' intention of waging war against terrorism and terrorist nations and yet living as disciples of Jesus whose way is that of peace and love. Even though the details are different, this is the same dilemma that many Christians face around the world, whether it be change of political leadership in Kenya, economic crisis in South Korea, or social upheaval in Venezuela. What should the Christian response be to this dilemma?
To equate the American agenda with the kingdom of God is plainly out of the question. America's enemies can never be taken simply to be the enemies of the kingdom of God. The book of Jonah clearly makes that point. Jonah is unhappy because God is being merciful to the Ninevites who were Israel's enemies. But God poignantly asks Jonah, "Should I not be concerned about Nineveh?" (Jonah 4:11). The same temptation to equate a particular political or economic or social agenda in any country with the Kingdom of God is great, but misguided.
The proclamation of the kingdom of God should come as good news to America and the world. As lofty and worthy as the American vision for the world might be, or as lofty as political, economic or social reform might be in any place, there is even a greater vision for the world. It is the gospel, the good news of the kingdom of God. It is good news because it encompasses the whole world. It is not the self-serving agenda of a particular nation, race, or group. It is an all-inclusive invitation. It does not discriminate between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the privileged and the unprivileged. On the contrary, it seeks out the outsider, the alien, the outcast, and it offers them hope and a loving embrace. It reconciles enemies and removes barriers. It breaks down "the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us" (Eph 2:14). Let national leaders do what they deem best for their respective nations. But let the people of God faithfully proclaim the more transcendent message of the kingdom of God.
Heeding the call of the kingdom of God means a life of discipleship to Jesus and reorientation of one's whole being. Social relationships of the past are redefined in terms of the kingdom of God. Even the most basic unit of society, one's own family, takes on a different coloring. James and John leave their father Zebedee in the boat and take off after Jesus. It's not that one must reject these most basic relationships within the nuclear family. It's rather that the kingdom of God may very well cause ruptures in these relationships. "Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name" (Mark 13:12-13). One's true family then is not defined by biological relationships but by relationships within the kingdom of God. As Jesus said, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (Mark 3:35).
In the context of today's culture, this truth needs to be articulated with some caution. Unlike past centuries, family relationships are not what they used to be. Not only the extended family, but even the nuclear family in many cases is losing its cohesiveness. The traditional family unit made up of father, mother, and biological sons and daughters may soon be the exception rather than the rule. This dissolution of the family unit of course has nothing to do with the kingdom of God but is the result of modernist and post-modernist social forces. But then how should a preacher talk about the possibility that in some cases the kingdom of God itself may bring about a shattering of family relationships? An unbelieving husband may divorce a wife because of her faith in Christ. What is the difference between that and the disintegration of a businessman's family because of his excessive absence from home in order to make more money? Surely there is a difference, but that difference must be clearly articulated.
The significant difference between the two situations is obviously the economic factor. In our biblical text, the four disciples left their nets and boats and followed Jesus. The businessman, on the other hand, is much like the rich man who came to Jesus and left without becoming a disciple because of his unwillingness to part with his wealth.
In this capitalistic, entrepreneurial, and consumerist culture, North American Christians must continually raise the troubling question as to how wealthy they can become in a world where hunger, poverty and malnutrition are a way of life (and death) for countless millions. What responsibilities do wealthy Christians have toward impoverished people? Granted, our text does not go so far as to imply that boats and nets must be given up altogether for the sake of the kingdom of God. What it does imply is that these possessions can be sanctified as vehicles of compassion through which Christ accomplishes his redemptive purposes in the lives of others in desperate need.
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