Reflection on Mark 1:1-20
Before we get to the text
It’s important for me to remember that the Gospels are stories about Jesus. These stories were written for a particular community at a particular time, to remember and celebrate particular parts of Jesus’ life and mission.
This remembering is important to me, because I still find myself reading (living) with assumptions I picked up as a kid in Sunday school. It’d be interesting to someday reflect on where/how my subconscious assumptions about the Bible (and specifically how it was written) mingle with my other subconscious assumptions about race, class, gender, morality, etc.. Summarized, my old assumption is a belief that God put Mark in a trance and used his body to write a moment by moment account of the life of his only Son, Jesus.
Realizing that that is not the way the Bible was written means remembering that certain elements of the Jesus story are emphasized (perhaps to correct specific behaviors or patterns in the original community audience?) while other elements are left out or assumed.
Ched Meyers writes that the Jesus of Mark’s story seeks to empower and motivate the oppressed people of Judea. To do this Mark shows how Jesus 1) renews and re-appropriates old cultural symbols and stories, 2) encourages people to imagine (while he demonstrates) a fully just and inclusive community of God, and 3) engages in a war of myths.
A few other story-lines Meyers suggests which I like to keep in mind as I read:
- Mark as a narrative re-telling of the book of Daniel. Daniel is quoted or referenced in every chapter of Mark.
- “Apocalyptic dualism” where Jesus’ way and order of being is absolutely opposed to the culturally dominant way and order.
- One of my favorite storylines is how Jesus tries over and over to teach his disciples, and how over and over they miss the lesson.
- Jesus’ service to and embodiment of the socially oppressed and apocalyptically suffering servant. To quote Meyers, “most ideologically important…the suffering of the just is somehow in itself efficacious in bringing down the old order and creating the new.”
- Setting is important, ie: city/wilderness, solitude/crowds, dwelling/traveling
Instead of an account of Jesus’ lineage or history, we are immediately introduced to John the Baptist. The lineage of Jesus that matters for Mark is that Jesus is the social descendant of John the Baptist and his community of followers.
John is one of the most charismatic characters in the bible. The desert wandering, leather clad baptizer is amusing–from afar. But my reflections quickly lead me to realize a different, more challenging, even terrifying person. First lets consider the crowd that gathered around him. The river is about 20 miles from Jerusalem. So the people in these crowds were either desperate for healing and so travelled from the city; were already social outcasts and so gathered at the river’s edge; or they were both of these things and so followed someone who would accept and care for them. It doesn’t seem likely to me that someone living a comfortable life, and certainly not an elite life would travel among these crowds to hear desert man John preach about their need to repent from sin and expect a new social order. Social privilege was at least the same as now in that those who have it don’t want to talk about it, much less acknowledge its sinful structure and origin.
It is among these crowds Jesus chooses to begin his ministry, and God’s voice is heard first. Perhaps Jesus even begins his work here because of these people. I wonder how long was he there among them. Perhaps he spent time listening to the stories of the people there, and to John preach about the coming world as he came to believe that he could realize the beloved community of John’s prophecy. Maybe God’s famous words to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11) are an echo of what Jesus had come to learn from the crowd there on the river bank.
After Jesus hears God’s affirmation, “At once the Spirit drove him out into the desert.” (Mk 1:12) If indeed it was because of or even among John’s desperate and oppressed crowd that Jesus realizes his mission, it makes sense to me that he run into seclusion. He was accepting an apocalyptic mandate to overturn the oppressive social order of his day. He was about to leave behind whatever safety in obscurity he’d known from life up to that point. Temptation from the devil is an apt way to describe what that must have felt like.
Mark shows us that it is again John who pushes Jesus into the mission, for only at John’s arrest, does Jesus emerge to take over the movement, altering John’s phrase to suit, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1:15)
And here Jesus calls his disciples. It’s common to note that the disciples are “ordinary” men, workers, fishers, etc. But Meyers helpfully highlights that neither are they among the poorest people, as they do have property, employment, and family to consider. Throughout the story we are given hints that these attachments and the thought patterns that come with them are common stumbling blocks to the disciples, often blinding them to who Jesus is and to his true mission.
And finally, Meyers suggests we pay attention to many mythic elements throughout these opening verses where John and Jesus are abruptly introduced. We find the divine voice off-stage, the prophetic muse, our leader and protagonist, a challenge, an invasion, the devil, the wilderness…
The mythic set up is important, because Jesus is about to engage directly with demons and clash with the social elites–the opposing myth makers of the time.Tags: Books