Monday, July 08, 2019

Mark 2: 13 -17


and he went forth again by the sea side 
and all the multitude resorted unto him
and he taught them


and as he passed by he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus
sitting at the receipt of custom
and he said unto him
"Follow me"

and he arose and followed him

and it came to pass,
as Jesus sat at meat in his house,
many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples
for there were many
and they followed him


when the Scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners,
they said unto his disciples,
"how is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?"

when Jesus heard it, he saith unto them,
"They that are whole have no need of the physician
but they that are sick:
I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance."


Jesus goes and preaches on the beach again. Nothing special happens; nothing comes of it. 

Jesus passes a taxman's (1) office; he calls him; and he follows him. No conclusion is drawn. Nothing further comes of it. The tax collector is never mentioned again. 

Jesus eats a meal: the Scribes (again) and the Pharisees (for the first time) want to know why he is hanging out with bad people. Jesus replies with a statement of proverbial common sense. You don't go to the doctor when you are well. 

Three scenes; three vignettes; three moments in time. Jesus preaches; Jesus converts a bad guy; some religious guys ask Jesus a question. 

The first chapter of Mark's Gospel had a fairly definite narrative arc. Chapters two and three have no narrative continuity at all. Clearly, Levi had not set his tax booth up on the beach, near the fisherman and the lobster pots and the candyfloss vendor. "He walked by the sea" and "He passed Levi the tax collector" are two different events. Maybe the different events all happened on one day and in that order. It's possible. Jesus healed the handicapped man and then Jesus preached on the beach and then Jesus met Levi and then Jesus had dinner with some bad guys. But why that day in particular, rather than hundreds of others? And what difference would it make if those events had taken place in a quite different order or on different days?

The king died and then the queen died is a story: the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. Mark chapters 2 and 3 have no plot. 

At least two of Mark's original readers were unhappy with this fragmentary approach. They rewrote Mark's book; revised it and retold it. They stuck very closely to his sequence of events; they followed his text almost word for word. But they both, in quite different ways, tried to bring in a plot. Their names were Matthew and Luke.

I was about to type "I am afraid this next bit is very boring." But I only ever say that about things I find intensely interesting. What I really mean is "I've been thinking about this all week, and I am still not sure if I have explained it quite right. You may need to read it twice."

Here is Matthew, rewriting Mark. He has rehearsed the story of the cripple on the roof but skipped the bit about Jesus preaching on the beach: 

“And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” 


Matthew has turned "Levi son of Alphaeus" into "a man named Matthew". This is a big improvement, because an otherwise wholly obscure man named Matthew appears on the role-call of the twelve apostles. The story of the calling of Levi made Matthew think of the story of the calling of Simon and Andrew and James and John a few pages earlier. So Matthew has given the story of Levi a point. It isn't a random example of how Jesus called some fellow named Levi: it's about the conversion of one of the big Twelve. And it establishes that one of the hated tax collectors was a member of Jesus's inner circle. 

If you have spent a lot of time listening to Christian preachers then you probably just took it for granted that the apostle Matthew sometimes went by the name of Levi. Franco Zefferilli made a nice little scene out of it in the Jesus of Nazareth film. The tax collector introduces himself as "Matthew or Levi — I am known by both names" and Peter snarls "Yes, and others..." But Matthew-also-known-as-Levi is a continuity hack to smooth over the fact that Matthew changed Mark's text. 

Here, on the other hand, is Luke. He also skips the "Jesus went to the beach" part, but he leaves Levi's name unchanged:  

"And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them." 

Luke has found a different way of folding the story of Levi into the story arc. He draws a narrative connection between the calling of Levi and Jesus's argument with the Pharisees. Jesus, he says, is eating with the publicans and sinners because Levi invited him to dinner at his place. That is what has made the Scribes so cross. 

Mark wrote "while he was sitting at dinner at his house" ("reclining of him at the house of him"). If we treat Mark's vignette as a stand alone fragment we would probably assume that "his house" meant Jesus's house, and translate the passage along the lines of "There was this one time when he was having dinner at his house.." Once the story is placed alongside the calling of Levi, it is very tempting to take it to mean "while he, Jesus, was having dinner at his, Levi's, house" or, for that matter "while he, Levi, was having dinner at his, Jesus's house." English translators tend to redact Mark to make him more consistent with Luke (and therefore less consistent with Matthew). "While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house" says the New International Version. "Later on, Jesus was having a meal in Levi's house" say the Good News Bible.  

There is nothing wrong or heretical about the invention of Levi-surnamed-Matthew. There is nothing wrong or heretical about the idea of Jesus reclining at the house of Levi. Wikipedia tells me that there is at least one famous painting of Jesus-at-the-house-of-Levi. Many a good sermon has been preached about how Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator, and Simon the Zealot, a revolutionary, were both among Jesus twelve. But you could draw a good homily out of the disconnected Levi verse, as well. . 

"Jesus is preaching to huge crowds: but we don't know their names or what happened to them. But the Bible records the salvation of this one particular sinner by name. This shows that God cares about every one of us, individually. It reminds us that there is more rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents than over ninety righteous people. There were thousands of stories in the city of Capernaum: this was just one of them." 

We are inclined to resist the idea of Jesus's house because we have the image of Jesus as a wandering hobo with nowhere to lay his head fixed firmly in our minds. I think that "his house" means "the house where he was staying"—- which is to say Simon's house. I am attracted to the comic potential of the idea. Simon must have already been pretty cross with Jesus for healing his mother-in-law; then the house is besieged by sick folk; then Jesus runs away in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Jesus hasn't been back for five minutes before some stranger starts knocking holes in the roof; and then all the local ne're-do-wells come and gate crash dinner (leaving Simon to foot the bill). But of course, I am reading all that into the text. Mark is ambiguous: that is a fact about Mark's Gospel. Matthew and Luke are less ambiguous: that is a fact about Matthew and Luke.   

If you read the Waste Land and find it baffling then it is a pretty good working assumption that T.S Eliot wanted you to be baffled by it. The clever-clogs who comes along and explains that it's all about the death of Buddy Holly is treating it as a cross-word clue, not a poem. Clever critics can come up with clever theories about who Godot (2) was or why Hamlet (3) didn't stab the King right away; but when you are actually in the theater the only helpful answer is "nobody knows".  That has to be our starting point for talking about either Hamlet or Godot. The one fact we can all agree on is "They are plays which contain a question which has no answer." 

So. Try to accept the text of Mark for what it is. Three incidents. A walk on a beach; the calling of a publican; a religious argument over dinner. We are quite free to connect the dots if we want to. Very probably that is what Mark wanted us to do. The Church Fathers sanctified Matthew and Luke's adaptations. But we should pay much more attention to the dots which Mark actually drew and less to the lines which we have sketched in ourselves.

See also: "fan fiction". 

and he went forth again 
by the sea side
and all the multitude resorted unto him 
and he taught them" 

It's probably an accident of the King James Translators and our historical relationship to them; but I find that rather beautiful. Rather poetic. A kind of holy haiku. Don't you?


Next: Wine


(1) A publican was a civil servant; a civilian who was paid to do work for the Roman republic. But while our English versions says that Jesus was eating with publicans, Mark quite specifically says that Jesus was eating with telonai, tax collectors. When he called Levi, he was sitting at the telonion, the tax office. The telonai were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans — a distinctly shady business. All tax collectors were publicans, but not all publicans were tax collectors. In my Highly Inaccurate Paraphrase, "tax collectors" will be rendered as "racketeers."

(2) Death. Everything is filling time until he arrives. 

(3) Hamlet, Hamlet, acting barmy;
Hamlet, Hamlet, loves his mummy;
Hamlet, Hamlet, hesitating;
wonders if the ghost's a cheat and that is why he's waiting.

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