Monday, May 18, 2020

Mark 10 13-45

and they brought young children to him
that he should touch them
and his disciples rebuked those that brought them
but when Jesus saw it,
he was much displeased,
and said unto them,
“suffer the little children to come unto me,
and forbid them not:
for of such is the kingdom of God.
verily I say unto you
whosoever shall not receiv
e the kingdom of God as a little child
he shall not enter therein"
and he took them up in his arms,
put his hands upon them,
and blessed them

Most of us first got to know the Bible by hearing it read out loud in church. I have probably heard this story more often than any other. It forms part of the baptism service in the Methodist prayer book — and very probably the Anglican one as well. The only passages that got read out more often were the various Christmas stories and Paul’s account of the Last Supper.

If we are looking for Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild, this is where we can find him. I remember Mrs Huber telling the story in Sunday School. The Mummies and Daddies have bring their children to Jesus. The disciples send them away. Jesus has been preaching all day. He’s hot and tired and needs a rest. Come back tomorrow, can’t you? But this makes Jesus angry. Of course I have time to talk to the children, he says. So it’s a message to famous and important people: don’t be one of those spoiled celebrities who hides away from his fans. Be like Jesus who could always make time to sign one more autograph. Or else it’s a message to us kids. Don’t think God doesn’t care about you just because you’re little. Don’t think God doesn’t hear your prayers. Jesus always has time to bless little children. First let me hear how the children stood round his knee and I shall fancy his blessing resting on me…

Am I the only one who spent decades not having the faintest idea what the word “bless” means? God was clearly a person whose main occupation was blessing people, but who had to be reminded to do it on frequent occasions, but exactly what this “blessing” activity involved, I was never quite sure.

Back in Galilee sick people mobbed Jesus wherever he went. They thought that if they even touched his clothes they would be cured. But these aren't sick kids. It has got to the point where even the healthy want Jesus to touch them. You can’t blame the disciples for wanting to get rid of them.

But Jesus is quite happy to see the children. They aren’t “just kids”: they are very important people; especially important people. The kind of people who will own the Kingdom of God. People who don’t receive the Kingdom in the same way as “those of this sort” won’t even be allowed in. 

He puts it that way round: not “people who are like children will be allowed into heaven” but “people who are not like children won’t be.” 

"Receiving" means something like “welcoming” — showing hospitality. If someone didn’t recieve the disciples during their missionary journey they were told to just turn their backs and walk away. Just before leaving Galilee the disciples were told that receiving a child was the same as receiving Jesus — and that welcoming Jesus was the same as welcoming God.

The word "suffer" in this context means "permit" and has nothing to do with cruelty or the Moors Murders. See also "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"

and when he was gone forth into the way
there came one running,
and kneeled to him,
and asked him,
“good master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?”
and Jesus said unto him,
“why callest thou me good?
there is none good but one,
that is, God.
thou knowest the commandments,
do not commit adultery,
do not kill,
do not steal,
do not bear false witness,
defraud not,
honour thy father and mother”

and he answered and said unto him,
“master, all these have I observed from my youth.”
then Jesus beholding him loved him,
and said unto him,
“one thing thou lackest
go thy way,
sell whatsoever thou hast,
and give to the poor,
and thou shalt have treasure in heaven
and come,
take up the cross,
and follow me”

and he was sad at that saying,
and went away grieved:
for he had great possessions.
and Jesus looked round about,
and saith unto his disciples,
“how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!”
and the disciples were astonished at his words.
but Jesus answereth again,
and saith unto them,
“children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!
it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,
than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”

Point 1: The guy who runs after Jesus is definitely rich; but there is no reason to think that he is either young or a ruler. He claims to have led a moral life since he was a young man: if anything that suggests that he is getting on a bit. Maybe that is why he is starting to think about mortality.

Point 2: There is absolutely no reason to think that The Needle’s Eye was a gate in Jerusalem. It’s a nice bit of homiletics, but it isn’t what the passage says. Jesus is talking about the possible and the impossible. It is really, really hard for camels to squeeze through narrow gates. It is physically impossible for them to squeeze through needle's eyes.

Point 3: The Greek word for rope is kamelos.

There are lots of clever ways of misreading this passage.

You could point out that the man claims to have kept the Ten Commandments, plus that extra one about defrauding that came in from somewhere — but doesn't mention the other six hundred provisions of the Jewish law. He may be righteous, but he isn’t religious.

Or you could say sticking to the rules by itself isn’t; what matters; what matters is wanting to stick to them; following them on the inside. There’s not much good saying “I have never cheated on my wife” if you are adding “more’s the pity” under your breath.

Or you could say that the problem is self-righteousness. It’s better to be bad and know that you are bad than to be good and tell people you are good. You’ve stuck to the whole of the law for your whole life? That’s wonderful. And how’s the humility coming along?

But those kinds of reading go against the plain meaning of the words. A few years ago, John the Baptist stood somewhere near here and told people that they needed to turn their lives around and clean themselves up so the Lord’s road would be ready for him when he arrived. Well here is a man whose life is just about as turned around as anyone’s could be; and the Lord is literally walking down the road. The Pharisees once asked why Jesus spent so much time with bad people; and Jesus said for the same reason that a doctor spends so much time with sick people. Here is a man who quite definitely doesn’t need a physician. If this guy can’t get into the kingdom of heaven, no-one can.

And that’s the moral of the story, apparently. No-one can.

If you really want to live forever, says Jesus, give away your money. All of it. Moral behaviour is neither here nor there. If you’re rich, you can’t come in.

The man goes away. The disciples look at Jesus, waiting for the spiritual explanation. They are expecting him to say that when he said possessions he didn’t really mean possessions, any more than when he talked about bread he really meant bread. 

But there is no trick or parable or double meaning. When Jesus said that it’s very hard for rich people to get into heaven, that’s what he meant. And by “hard”, he doesn’t mean big-guy-going-through-a-small-doorway hard. He means elephant-going-through-a-keyhole hard

and they were astonished out of measure, 
saying among themselves,
“who then can be saved?"
and Jesus looking upon them saith, 

"with men it is impossible, 

but not with God: 

for with God all things are possible”
then Peter began to say unto him, 
“lo, we have left all, 
and have followed thee”
and Jesus answered and said,
“verily I say unto you, 
there is no man that hath left 
house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, 
for my sake, and the gospel's,
but he shall receive an hundredfold
now in this time
houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; 
and in the world to come eternal life.
but many that are first shall be last
and the last first”

It is impossible for rich people to go to heaven. So if they can’t, who can? Again, the disciples are probably expecting Jesus to say “poor people, obviously”. But Jesus says “No-one. It is impossible.” So there is no hope: apart from one thing. God is quite capable of doing the impossible. He can thread camels through needle’s eyes if he so chooses.

We all know about the nasty “prosperity” theologians who say that believing in God will make you rich. And we all like to throw the story of the rich man in their faces. Jesus was either a communist or an ascetic, or both. Either he wanted the rich man to sell all his possessions because the poor needed them more than he did; or else he thought that possessions were bad for the soul.

But then Jesus goes and talks to the disciples. And what he tells them seems to be very much on the prosperity theologians side. If you give your stuff away, you’ll get even more stuff back. Like Job. Bad things may happen if you follow Jesus — people may hate you. But good things will happen as well.

C.S. Lewis thought this was an example of Jesus cracking a joke — using humour to make a serious point. “Come and follow me and you can have it all: happy families, fast cars, hot showers, steak on the barbecue, persecution….”

“But Andrew…Jesus was talking in a spiritual sense. He meant that the spiritual rewards of following him in abject poverty will make you much happier than the big house and the big car could possibly have done.”

If that is what he meant, then he expressed it in a very odd way. Why talk about “houses, land and family” if what you mean is “spiritual happiness”? And if we are entitled to say that he meant houses, lands and family only in a spiritual sense; why are we not permitted to say that he told the rich man to sell his possessions only in a spiritual sense?

This is not the first time that Jesus has given two apparently contradictory teachings in consecutive sentences. In my kingdom, everyone will be poor. In my kingdom, everyone will be rich. These two things are the same.

and they were in the way going up to Jerusalem;
and Jesus went before them:
and they were amazed;
and as they followed,
they were afraid
and he took again the twelve,
and began to tell them what things should happen unto him,

“behold, we go up to Jerusalem;

and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests,

and unto the scribes; 
and they shall condemn him to death
and shall deliver him to the Gentiles:
and they shall mock him
and shall scourge him
and shall spit upon him, 
and shall kill him: 
and the third day he shall rise again”
and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, 
come unto him, saying,
“master, we would that thou shouldest do for us 
whatsoever we shall desire”
and he said unto them 
“what would ye that I should do for you?”
they said unto him, 
“grant unto us that we may sit, 
one on thy right hand, 
and the other on thy left hand, 
in thy glory”
but Jesus said unto them, 
“ye know not what ye ask: 
can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? 
and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?"
and they said unto him
“we can” 
and Jesus said unto them, 
“ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; 
and with the baptism that I am baptized withal 
shall ye be baptized:
but to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; 
but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared.”
and when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John.
but Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, 
“ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles 
exercise lordship over them; 
and their great ones exercise authority upon them.
but so shall it not be among you:
but whosoever will be great among you, 
shall be your minister:
and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, 
shall be servant of all.
for even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, 
but to minister, 
and to give his life a ransom for many”

The York Mystery Play was a great pageant, depicting the history of the world from creation to apocalypse in a single day. The final play, staged at great expense by the Merchants Guild, depicted the Last Judgement: actors representing angels and demons welcome the saved into heaven and the damned into hell. Jesus is enthroned in glory at the centre of the stage; to his right sits Mary, newly crowned Queen of Heaven; on his left sits Peter, holder of the keys of heaven and the power of binding and loosing.

Jesus says that James and John are not going to have the best seats in heaven: the medieval playwright decided that they would go to his chief disciple and his mother. If he had thought to invite the apostle to the Gentiles they could have formed a folk band. 

But the York Merchants' play misses the point on a cosmic scale. 

When Jesus chose the Twelve disciples, he singled out James and John and nicknamed them the Thunder-Brothers. Along with Peter, they form an inner circle within the Twelve. The Three went up the mountain to see the metamorphosis of Jesus; they witnessed the resurrection of Jairus’s daughter. But this is the only time they get a scene to themselves.

There has clearly been some jockeying for position going on. Before they left Galilee there was an argument about who the most important disciple was. Now James and John are lobbying for the top jobs. Maybe there is already a faction who think Peter should be boss and a faction who think the brothers should be boss? 

Jesus has left Perea and started to walk towards Jerusalem. The mood in the band is one of amazement and terror. Jesus is walking into his enemies’ centre of power. I think it is probably over-subtle to say that the ones in the front were surprised and the ones at the back were scared. Everyone was probably feeling mixed emotions. You join the army knowing that sooner or later you are going to see front line combat; but that doesn’t mean that being told that you are going over the top first thing tomorrow doesn’t concentrate your mind.

Jesus doesn’t do much to steady their nerves. He has now foreseen his death three times. Each time he is more specific about it. In Galilee he said that the Son of Man was going to be handed over; now he says that he is going to be handed over to the Jewish leaders; and that they in turn are going to hand him over to the Romans; and its them who are going to beat him up and spit at him and kill him.

So how can James and John still be thinking in terms of glory? Perhaps they still don’t understand that Jesus is talking about himself. “Yes, very distressing for this Son of Man chap. But on a completely different matter, when you are king, we would like to volunteer to be your second and third in command?” Or have they understood him a bit to easily? “So there is nothing to worry about. You are going to die and rise from the dead. When that happens can we have the best seats?”

Jesus says (surprisingly) that he can’t promise this because it isn’t his decision. And the he starts talking about the whole idea of greatness. If you want to be big, you need to be a servant. If you want to be the most important of all, you need to become everyone’s slave. (He makes that distinction: between diakanos, a servant, and doulas, a slave.)

He has said almost these exact same words before. When they were all arguing about greatness back in Galilee. If you want to be the first, you will have to be the last, he said. And he illustrated the point by picking up a child.

A lot of sentimental rubbish has been talked about the story of Jesus blessing the children. We are told that children own the kingdom of heaven because they are innocent or spontaneous or trusting. There was supposedly an order of monks who made playing tag and hide and seek part of their spiritual practice in order to be more child-like. But what Jesus must really be talking about is status. Children are important because they are unimportant. Rich, holy people wont even get through the door. The most impressive seats in the kingdom will go to the ones who wait at table and sweep up after the party.

And that is the final piece of the puzzle. What everything has been building up to. Kids are the real grown-ups. The poor are the real rich. The slaves are at the top of the pecking order. The last are literally first and the first are literally last. 

Jesus doesn’t exclude himself from this. If anything, he's mostly talking about himself. He is going to be beaten up and spat on and tortured. Status doesn't get any lower than that. James and John don’t yet understand what Jesus takes “glory” to mean.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Read my arts/virus diary.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, May 15, 2020

Mark 10 1-12

and he arose from thence
and cometh into the coasts of Judaea
by the farther side of Jordan
and the people resort unto him again
and, as he was wont
he taught them again

Curtain rises. Part two. 

The scene has shifted to a new location, but everything continues as it did before the intermission. People are still coming to Jesus and he is still teaching them. 

The first half of the story took place in and around Capernaum. The second half will take place in Jerusalem. But this short section is set in an in-between place: South of Galilee, east of the Jordan near the Judean frontier. Mark says that they are beyond — peran — the Jordan. There was a geographical area known as Perea, the Beyond Country. Some people go so far as to speak of a Perean ministry. The location is important. Herod, king of Galilee, who beheaded John the Baptist, is also King of Perea. 

and the Pharisees came to him,
and asked him,
“Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife?”
tempting him.
and he answered and said unto them,
“what did Moses command you?”
and they said,
“Moses suffered to write a bill of divorcement
and to put her away.”
and Jesus answered and said unto them,
“for the hardness of your heart he wrote you this precept.
but from the beginning of the creation
God made them male and female
for this cause shall a man leave his father and mother
and cleave to his wife;
and they twain shall be one flesh:
so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
what therefore God hath joined together
let not man put asunder"

and in the house his disciples asked him again of the same matter
and he saith unto them,
“whosoever shall put away his wife
and marry another,
committeth adultery against her.
and if a woman shall put away her husband
and be married to another, 
she committeth adultery”

Herod (not to be confused with Herod) had been married to a foreign princess called Phasaelis. His brother Herod (not to be confused with Herod or Herod) had been married to Herodias, the granddaughter of Herod. Herod and Herodias, in order to complicate their family tree even further, divorced their respective partners and married each other. John the Baptist told them that their new marriage was not lawful: so they had John the Baptist’s head chopped off. 

Jesus was himself baptised by John; and Perea on the far side of the Jordan is John’s old stamping ground. Doubtless some of the people who have come out to hear Jesus speak also came out to listen to John. They may even have heard the rumour that John survived his execution and has resumed his ministry under a new name.

And so along come the Pharisees with a trick question. 

“We were just wondering for no particular reason what you think about divorce? Suppose in some purely hypothetical case a man were to dismiss his wife and marry someone else; and supposing that someone else had a living spouse. What would you say about that?”

It’s a perfect trap. Either Jesus criticises the King, or he criticises John. If he says that divorce is never lawful, than he is in very grave danger of being the after dinner entertainment at Herod’s next birthday party. But if he says that divorce is sometimes lawful, then he is telling an audience of ex-John-ites that the Baptist died for nothing.

As so often, Jesus turns the question back on his interlocutor. Why are you asking me about what is and is not permissible? Isn't the Torah clear?

And like any good lawyer, he wouldn’t be asking the question if he didn’t already know the answer. Jesus thinks that the Pharisees sometimes use their own, oral teaching to wriggle out of the harder commandments of Moses’ law. But in this particular case everyone is on the same page. Deuteronomy chapter twenty four verses one to four, to be precise. Divorce is not absolutely prohibited provided you fill out the correct paperwork.

Moses’ stipulation about writing out a formal declaration of divorce is clearly for the benefit of the women who are being abandoned rather than the men who are doing the abandoning. Being able to produce a piece of paper saying that your husband sent you away is a lot better than being thought of as a woman who has walked out on her husband. The consequences of adultery were quite serious.

The Pharisees must have thought that Jesus had evaded their trap. He has forced them to give a straightforward answer to their own trick question. On the strictly legal point; John went too far. Herod’s marriage to Herodias was legal provided both of then had served divorce papers on their previous partners. 

But then Jesus drops a bombshell. He says something far more shocking than either of the things which the Pharisees were trying to trick him into saying. Yes, according to the law of Moses, Herod was entitled to dismiss his first wife. Which goes to show that the law of Moses isn’t the last word on these kinds of questions. 

Moses gave the instruction about marriage certificates as a concession. “Because your hearts were hard.” We are familiar with “sclerosis” being used as a medical term to mean the hardening of veins or liver; we are familiar with “cardiac” to refer to the heart. Jesus says that the pharisees are suffering from sklerokardia. Hard-heartedness implies a lack of empathy, and also a lack of understanding. Pharisees have previously been said to be hard-hearted when they tried to stop Jesus healing a man’s hand on the sabbath. The disciples were said to be too hard-hearted to understand the deeper significance of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. Is Jesus saying “Moses allowed divorce because men lack the empathy to be faithful to one woman?” Or is he saying “Moses allowed divorce because people have too little insight to understand that God really prefers monogamy”?

Look at how he phrases the question. What did Moses command you? It is because your hearts were so hard that Moses wrote you this law. I don’t think Jesus can mean that the divorce concession was put in specially for the benefit of Pharisees. “You” must mean the people to whom the Law was given: the human race in general; the Jewish people in particular. And Jesus is standing outside that relationship. He does not consider himself to be one of those to whom Moses gave the law.

Jesus claims that there is an older law against which Moses’ law can be judged. More basic than the six hundred laws the Jews have to obey. More basic than the Ten Commandments which apply to everyone. Older even than the seven commandments which God gave Noah. So fundamental it hardly counts as a law or a precept at all. It is just a description of the way things are.

“From the first creation God made them male and female; and because of this a man leaves his father and mother and sticks to his wife; and they shall be — the two — for one flesh; so that they are no more two, but one flesh.” 

Translations which say “they will be like a single person” or even “they will form a new family” are trying to soften the force of the original. A man adheres to his wife. They are glued together and become a single being. It isn’t that you shouldn’t split them up: it’s that you can’t. 

The second creation story in the book of Genesis says that Eve was originally a part of Adam: that God made the first woman out of the first man's rib. The first story, more mysteriously, says

"God created Adam in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." 

Does this mean that Adam -- mankind -- was in the arch-creation a hermaphrodite; or that they were a composite being; or merely that they were spiritually masculine and feminine? Either way, there has been some kind of separation, pulling the two genders apart, and that separation is mended by marriage.

We can read this in two ways. We could take it very stringently. Last week Jesus scrubbed out some passages from Moses' law, with the result that his disciples could live freer than the Pharisees. All food is now kosher. Eat what you like. Today he repeals another section of the law; with the result that his followers are more restricted in how they can live. Moses said that marriages was a legal contract that the law could dissolve: Jesus says that marriage is part of the natural order of things and can never be dissolved under any circumstances. Absolute heterosexual monogamy or absolute life-long abstinence. Take your pick. I never said it was going to be easy.

But I think we could also read it more pragmatically. Elsewhere, Jesus has treated Moses’ law and God’s law as being interchangeable; so it is hard to suppose that he is saying “In this instance, Moses was in error: ignore him on this one.” So can’t we say that Jesus is allowing that there has to be a degree of realism — of concession to fallen human nature — in any interpretation of morality. In the arch-creation there was a man and a woman and they bonded for life; but God’s instructions for living in the world as it now is recognises that life is more complicated than that?

Mark seems to acknowledge that Jesus' words are cryptic and obscure. He says that the disciples asked him to clarify what he said when they were alone with him, and that he gave them a very plain answer. If a man sends his wife away and marries someone else, he is cheating on her, papers or no papers. And it goes for the woman as well: she’s committing adultery even if she can produce a certificate to say she’s not. So John was right: it wasn’t lawful for Herod and Herodias to be together.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

Read my arts/virus diary.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, May 11, 2020

Mark 9: 33 - 50

A long time ago -- Christian tradition says about three years -- Jesus met Peter and James and John and most importantly Andrew by the beach; and Peter took them home to visit his sick mother-in-law. It looks as though Jesus never left. Peter's house just becomes "the house"; the place where Jesus lives when he's not on "the boat". Peter's boat, very likely. After their long walk -- maybe a twelve days round trip -- to the north, they come back. For the very last time. It would probably be fanciful to call this a farewell discourse, the last seminar Jesus gives in Galilee. But Mark is definitely a Gospel of two halves -- the Capernaum section and the Jerusalem section. And this is where the first half finishes.

and he came to Capernaum:
and being in the house he asked them,
"what was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?"
but they held their peace:
for by the way they had disputed among themselves,
who should be the greatest.
and he sat down,
and called the twelve,
and saith unto them,
"if any man desire to be first,
the same shall be last of all,
and servant of all."

The disciples are having an argument about "who should be the greatest". The fact that they are embarrassed makes it clear that they were talking about which was the greatest of them -- who was the best disciple. Perhaps Peter's announcement that Jesus is going to be King has set them thinking about who is going to have the top job in the new administration.

Jesus's response is that people who want to be big will end up small; people who want to be in charge will go right to the bottom of the heap. He doesn't extend the metaphor, and say "and therefore, the person who wants to be a servant will end up in charge." That's certainly the inference we are supposed to draw, but he doesn't it draw it for us at this point. 

and he took a child,
and set him in the midst of them:
and when he had taken him in his arms,
he said unto them,
"whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name,
receiveth me:
and whosoever shall receive me,
receiveth not me,
but him that sent me."

I don't know about you, but I remembered this passage incorrectly. I thought that Jesus was contrasting the humility of the child with the arrogance of the disciples. The disciples were bickering about who was the greatest, and Jesus pointed to a child and said -- he's the greatest, because he's little and insignificant. But in fact, Jesus uses the child to make an unrelated point. If you want to be kind to Jesus, be kind to little kids; and if you are kind to Jesus; you are also being kind to God.

and John answered him, saying,
"master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name,
and he followeth not us:
and we forbad him,
because he followeth not us."
but Jesus said,
"forbid him not:
for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name,
that can lightly speak evil of me
for he that is not against us is on our part."

It isn't clear how John's question about sectarianism is a response to Jesus' statement about welcoming children. Possibly we could infer that John is saying "Does that mean that we have to accept absolutely everybody?" The Greek doesn't seem to require us to say that John answered Jesus. "John said" or "John declared" would work just as well. If Jesus has been preaching for as much as three years, it is not all that surprising that there are people who regard themselves as his followers who are not part of the main body of disciples. And Jesus is fine with this. The miracles -- the works of power -- are the test. If the other guy is really able to call demons to heel, then there isn't likely to be anything seriously wrong with his teaching.

I suspect most of us would take the opposite view. If we heard that someone was running a faith-healing mission, we'd want to know what their theology was before we talked about the validity or otherwise of their miraculous cures.

"for whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name,
because ye belong to Christ,
verily I say unto you,
he shall not lose his reward."

This seems to go back to the verse about welcoming little children. People who welcome kids "in Jesus' name" also welcome Jesus; people who give the disciples something to drink "because they are of Christ" will get rewarded by God. 

These verses are all about inclusiveness. If you want to invite Jesus into your house, invite some kids in. If someone you don't know is performing works of power, good for him. If someone gives you a glass of water, then they'll get rewarded. 

But it isn't universal, unconditional inclusiveness. You have to invite the children in Jesus name. You have to be doing the miracles in the name of Jesus. The glass of water only earns browny points if its been given to you because you are followers of the Messiah.

But then Jesus flips it round. The converse is true as well.

and whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me,
it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck,
and he were cast into the sea.

and if thy hand offend thee,
cut it off:
it is better for thee to enter into life maimed,
than having two hands to go into hell,
into the fire that never shall be quenched:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

and if thy foot offend thee,
cut it off:
it is better for thee to enter halt into life,
than having two feet to be cast into hell,
into the fire that never shall be quenched:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

and if thine eye offend thee,
pluck it out:
it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye,
than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire:
where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

Some years ago, when the Web was still called Usenet, I suggested that using the expression "Old Testament" pejoratively was deeply anti-Semitic.

You know the kind of thing. "I heard a vicar talking about how God is worried about sexual immorality and will punish bad people -- he's a bit Old Testament, isn't he!" "People in the middle ages used to hunt and kill witches: that was because they were following the Old Testament and didn't understand there'd been a new edition."

At the time, I was pretty much laughed out of court; calm down, Andrew everyone said, you can't go around casually accusing people of anti-Semitism. (This was before Jeremy Corbyn.) 

I think that today just about everyone would agree that the idea that the Old Testament God is a God of wrath and punishment and the New Testament God is a God of love and mercy really is an anti-Semitic trope. The more strongly you believe that Christianity superseded Judaism, the harder it is to draw that kind of a wedge between "Old" and "New" Testaments. The supposedly vicious Old Testament God is Jesus' dad.

And here is Jesus talking about hell. And not a metaphorical hell either; not the absence of the presence of God or living a miserable, pointless life on earth. No, he appears to be talking about a nasty, painful hell, where you are roasted and eaten alive. There is nothing like this in the Old Testament. Jewish people rarely preach about this fiery hell of eternal torture. If you really wanted to draw the distinction, you would have to contrast the long-suffering, tolerant Old Testament God with the angry, fiery New Testament one. 

Our folklore and our hymns are inclined to paint a picture of a sweet, spiritual Jesus, in contrast to the supposedly monstrous Jewish God. "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild," wrote Charles Wesley. "Loving Jesus, gentle lamb...thou art pitiful and kind." "Jesus thou art all compassion. Pure, unbounded love thou art." This is so obviously not a description of the rather mysterious and terrifying figure in Mark's Gospel that many of us have been tempted to flip to the other extreme -- to counter Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild with Harsh Jesus, Overbearing and Severe.

What we have here is unquestionably a rant: and yet it comes in the context of a discourse which began with Jesus taking a child in his arms and saying "be as kind to this child as you would be to me."

The first transition is very clear. If you are kind to children -- or to weak people, or to anyone who needs it -- then good things will happen to you. Conversely, if you are cruel to children and weak people, bad things will happen to you. We don't have to say that the punishment will literally be more unpleasant than drowning. But we do have to say "You will have no chance at will definitely, definitely, definitely come to a bad end."

The word Mark uses for "offended" is skandalizó. It means "cause to stumble" or "put a stumbling block in the way of" or simply "trip up." In the parable, some of the seeds were "tripped up" by the thorns they were planted near; the people of Nazareth were "tripped up" by Jesus's teaching. So it means, if anything: don't put obstacles in the way of children. Don't set traps for them. Making young people stumble is the worst thing you can do.

Everyone is probably on board with that. But Jesus suddenly extends the message. Don't trip children up. And if anything trips you up: get rid of it. Whether it is your hand, your foot or your eye...

It really isn't helpful to try and apply this literally, although plenty of people have. (You can take "if thy hand offend you" as a dire warning about masturbation; but which dire sin might you commit with your feet?) Clearly, we are in the realms of poetic hyperbole. Jesus is not saying "some of you are literally going to have to chop off your own hands." He is saying "being tripped up is the worst thing that can happen -- do literally anything to avoid it."

The Himon is a valley near Jerusalem where (we are told) they used to burn the refuse. So what Jesus repeats three times is:

"It is better to enter into life maimed, or crippled, or blind than to be thrown into the valley of Himon where the inextinguishable fire is never extinguished and the everlasting worms last forever."

The part about fire and worms comes from Isaiah, referring to the destruction of the bodies of God's enemies:

“And they will go out and look on the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; the worms that eat them will not die, the fire that burns them will not be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind."

"Hell" is an interpretative gloss by the translators of the King James version. If Jesus had been saying that the souls of the people who had been scandalized by his teaching would burn forever in the afterlife, he would have been introducing a new and novel doctrine. No-one reacts as if this is what he is doing. So we should read the passage on its own terms. And on its own terms it is still pretty strident. 

"If you cause a child to stumble, you have no hope at all. And if anything is causing you yourself to stumble, get rid of it. Think of the worst thing you can imagine. Think of what happens to God's enemies. Falling away from me is worse than that."

for every one shall be salted with fire,
and every sacrifice shall be salted with salt.
salt is good:
but if the salt have lost his saltness,
wherewith will ye season it?
have salt in yourselves,
and have peace one with another.

And finally, three more astonishingly obscure sayings. 

Salt is being thought of here as a disinfectant, not as a preservative or a seasoning. In the Torah, sacrificial animals have to be sprinkled with salt to make them acceptable to God. So the sense seems to be "Everyone is going to go through the fire; every sacrifice has to be purified; but there is no way of purifying a purifying agent. So you need to be pure yourselves; and you'll do that by living peacefully together."

It's a funny conclusion. It's like we've started from some general points; built up to a huge, thunderous climax about and fallen away to a general teaching. Don't try to be great; that will make you insignificant. Welcome small, unimportant people, that's the best way of welcoming me. Don't be exclusive; if someone says they are my follower, they probably are. If someone is kind to you they count as my followers too. But making someone else stumble is certain doom! And the worse thing you can do to yourself is let yourself stumble!! That's even worse than maiming yourself!!! People who stumble will be piled up and burned in the valley of Himon!!!! Everyone is going to be burned; so purify yourself first. And the way you do that is by living in harmony."

and he arose from thence, 
and cometh into the coasts of Judaea 
by the farther side of Jordan:

For three years, Jesus has been staying with Peter and preaching in Capernaum, and the villages around Capernaum. But now he gets up, and starts on the long walk back to the Jordan, where he was baptised; and to Judaea, where his enemies live.

"And he got up, and went to the borders of Judaea."

End of part one. Intermission.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Friday, May 08, 2020

Mark 9 11-33

and they asked him, saying,
"why say the scribes that Elias must first come?"
and he answered and told them,
"Elias verily cometh first,
and restoreth all things
and how it is written of the Son of man,
that he must suffer many things,
and be set at nought
but I say unto you
that Elias is indeed come
and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed
as it is written of him"

Elijah. We just can't get away from him.

Peter and James and John are coming down the mountain. They have just seen Elijah himself, come down to earth, talking to Jesus on equal terms. And then it occurs to one of them. Hang on. "I thought Elijah was meant to come first, and the Messiah afterwards. How can you be the Messiah if Elijah hasn't come yet?"

If Mark's Gospel was written to counter the prevailing notion that Jesus was Elijah the disciples might be expressing an objection that Mark himself was very familiar with. How can Jesus be the Messiah? What happened to the forerunner?

Jesus answer is, once again, rather cryptic. He seems to say three things: that Elijah will come and set everything straight; that the Son of Man is going to be rejected and hurt; and that Elijah has come already and been treated badly.

The most sense I can make of this is to say that Jesus responds to the disciples' question with a question of his own.

"Why do the Scribes say that it is necessary for Elijah to come?"

"Well, why do the Scriptures say that the Son of Man has to suffer?"

He then answers his own question, kind of:

"On the other hand, Elijah has come and suffered already."

But he prefaces his answer with a statement, almost an aside.

"Yes, Elijah does come..."

So it comes out a bit like this:

"Why do the experts say that it is necessary for Elijah to come first?"

"(Hmm...Elijah comes and puts everything back together!) Why do the scriptures say that the Son of Man will come and suffer in the future? Elijah, on the other hand, has come and suffered already!"

I think that some of the painfully free modern translations come near to the sense of the passage: the Message translation says "Elijah does come first and get everything ready for the coming of the Son of Man. They treated this Elijah like dirt, much like they will treat the Son of Man, who will, according to Scripture, suffer terribly and be kicked around contemptibly."

But again, let's admit that this is an obscure saying, and try to hang on to the general theme. There are two figures: Elijah and the Son of Man. They are both due to come any time now, or else they both are already here. They are both going to be treated badly. Move on.

and when he came to his disciples,
he saw a great multitude about them,
and the scribes questioning with them.
and straight way all the people,
when they beheld him
were greatly amazed,
and running to him saluted him.
and he asked the scribes,
"What question ye with them?"
and one of the multitude answered and said,
"Master, I have brought unto thee my son,
which hath a dumb spirit;
and wheresoever he taketh him,
he teareth him: and he foameth,
and gnasheth with his teeth,
and pineth away:
and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out;
and they could not."
he answereth him, and saith,
"O faithless generation,
how long shall I be with you?
how long shall I suffer you?
bring him unto me."
and they brought him unto him:
and when he saw him
straight way the spirit tare him;
and he fell on the ground,
and wallowed foaming.
and he asked his father,
"how long is it ago since this came unto him?"
and he said,
"of a child.
and ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire,
and into the waters
to destroy him:
but if thou canst do any thing,
have compassion on us,
and help us."
Jesus said unto him,
"If thou canst believe,
all things are possible to him that believeth."
and straight way the father of the child cried out,
and said with tears,
"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."
when Jesus saw that the people came running together,
he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him,
"thou dumb and deaf spirit,
I charge thee, come out of him,
and enter no more into him."
and the spirit cried,
and rent him sore,
and came out of him:
and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said,
" he is dead."
but Jesus took him by the hand,
and lifted him up;
and he arose.
and when he was come into the house,
his disciples asked him privately,
"why could not we cast him out?"
and he said unto them,
"this kind can come forth by nothing,
but by prayer and fasting."

Mark sure does like his exorcism stories. This one has a vividness and drama which is absent from some of the healings. It is full of detail and confusion. The demon-possessed boy foams and gnashes and shrivels. He wallows in front of Jesus. If there is any passage which you could believe goes back to an eye-witness, it is this one.

Although Jesus is far from home, in the time he has been up the mountain, word has evidently got round. So as usual, there is a mob; there are canon lawyers; and there is someone wanting healing. The disciples and the lawyers are having an argument: we never quite find out about what. When Jesus asks the lawyers what the trouble is, a man from the crowd calls out "Why can't your disciples heal my son?" For some reason, this makes Jesus very angry.

When Jesus comes down the mountain, the people are awestruck, even though he hasn't said or done anything yet. I wonder if he has literally been metamorphosed? I wonder if some actual change has come over him, which the people can perceive? Perhaps he is still wearing those super-white clothes?

Before setting out to Ceaserea Phillipi, Jesus healed a blind man. Up on the mountain, God told the disciples to hear Jesus. So: what is wrong with the man-in-the-crowds son? What does he need healing from? Of course, he is deaf and mute.

Jesus says that the present generation is apistos; without faith. He tells the man that his son can be healed if he is able to be pisteuonti; one who believes. The man famously replies "pisteuo, I believe"; but adds "help me with my apistos" my without-faith-ness. When translators attempt to provide a gloss they tend to lose the force of the text. "I do have faith, but not enough, help me to have more" turns a clear, pithy, poetic phrase into a forgettable mouthful. I believe: help my unbelief.

This brings us to one of those textual cruces we enjoy so much.

What Mark literally writes is that the man said something like:

"If anything you are able, help us, having compassion"

To which Jesus replies:

"If you are able all things are able to the believing one"

"You are able" is dyne, which is the same word as dunamis which as we keep seeing means "power". So the father of the demoniac really needs to say something like "if you have the power" and Jesus needs to reply "the believing one has the power to do anything". This is one of those times when I am rather pleased with what the Good News Bible does:

"Help us if you possibly can"

"If I possibly can? All things are possible for the person who has faith.'"

Jesus's response, "if you are able..." is a fragment of a sentence. The majority of translators think that Jesus is echoing the father's words back at him, repeating the question rhetorically.

"If you have power, help me!"

"If I have the power!"

Several translations supply additional words to make it clear that this is what Jesus meant. The Contemporary English Bible has "Why do you say 'if you can?'" and the Living Bible has "What do you mean 'if I can?'"

A few translators think that Jesus is turning the question round so it applies not to him, but to the father.

"If you have the power, help me"

"If YOU have the power."

King James pretty much stands by himself in filling in the ellipsis for Jesus. 

"If you have the power, help me!"

"If you have the have faith you have the power to do anything."

The first option makes the most sense. Jesus says that he can heal the child because he has faith in God: the man blurts out "I have faith too".

So: the exorcism happens; the boy is healed; secrecy is sworn. Jesus and the disciples go back into the house and the disciples ask the obvious question. Why couldn't we do that?

And Jesus says "Nothing except prayer has the power to drive this kind out". It's that word, dynas, again. You can only do that kind of mighty work through prayer.

Our translation says that the disciples "could not" heal the boy. It would be more accurate to say that they "did not have the strength -- the ischuo -- to do so." To which one is tempted to say: of course they jolly well didn't. Did they really think that they were going to defeat Satan using their strength? Haven't they been listening? Who is deaf, them or the demon-possessed boy?

That's why Jesus is cross. He's only been up the mountain for a few minutes, and when he gets back, nine of the disciples are trying to go up against Satan all by themselves.

Using your own strength rather than God's power could almost be seen as a form of idolatry. And of course, there is another story about a man who came down from a mountain, still glowing from an encounter with God, only to find a crowd trying to set up an idol....

and they departed thence,
and passed through Galilee;
and he would not that any man should know it
for he taught his disciples, and said unto them,
"the Son of man is delivered into the hands of men,
and they shall kill him;
and after that he is killed,
he shall rise the third day"
but they understood not that saying,
and were afraid to ask him.

Mark is still linking the stories together in a very clear narrative sequence: Jesus and the disciples set out to Mount Harmon, passing through Ceasarea Phillipi and having a crucial conversation on the way. Jesus takes the Big Three up the mountain; while the other nine try and fail to heal a deaf mute demon possessed epileptic. Then they come back to Galilee and Jesus continues briefing the disciples in private. Some commentators want the Transfiguration to have happened in Galilee; but "they left that place and went through Galilee" makes little sense if Galilee is where they already were .

What is the subject of this private tutorial? And why do the disciples find it so difficult to understand?

On two previous occasions, Jesus has said that he is going to be rejected, treated appallingly, and killed. This is not a secret teaching. He told it to the multitude, and Mark specifically says that he spoke it openly -- plainly and publicly. It wasn't couched in one of those parables that the disciples always miss the point of. But this time, when Jesus is talking very plainly indeed the disciples can't understand him.

In Ceasarea Phillipi, Jesus said "It is necessary that the Man should suffer..." 

Coming down the mountain, he said "It is written that the Man should suffer." 

But now, back in Galilee for the last time, he says "The Man is being handed over to men, and killed."

Jesus has told them before that he has to die. He has told them that he has to die because the scriptures say so. But this is the first time he has said that he will die as a result of being handed over.

The word Mark uses is paradid√≥mi (beside-give) which could be translated as "delivered" or "handed over" or even "surrendered". But Mark has already used the word, very ominously, back in Capernaum, when Jesus first chose the Twelve. Peter and Andrew and James and John and Levi the Son of Alphaeus....and Judas Iscariot "hos kai paredoken auton". 

This is what the disciples can't understand. Jesus is going to be killed as a result of someone delivering him up. Handing him over. Surrendering him. Turning him in.

Jesus public ministry in Galilee is over. He is having a private talk with the disciples that he doesn't want anyone else to hear.

"The Man is betrayed into the hand of men" he says.

The disciples don't know what he means by betrayed. And they are scared to find out.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

If you are enjoying my essays, please consider supporting me on Patreon (by pledging $1 for each essay)

Monday, May 04, 2020

Mark 8:34-38, 9 1-10

and when he had called the people unto him
with his disciples also
he said unto them,
"whosoever will come after me,
let him deny himself,
and take up his cross
and follow me
for whosoever will save his life shall lose it;
but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's,
the same shall save it.
for what shall it profit a man,
if he shall gain the whole world,
and lose his own soul?
or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words
in this adulterous and sinful generation
of him also shall the Son of Man be ashamed,
when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

We have just heard Jesus speaking to the disciples, and then to Peter alone. But Jesus is now speaking to the multitude -- the crowd. Everyone hears this bit.

The conversation with the disciples about Jesus' identity happened on the road. So isn't it likely that the crowd has also joined them on the road; that Jesus is continuing to walk and talk? In which case, Jesus has turned a concrete situation into a spiritual metaphor. "You are following me down the road. But let me tell you what it would be like to really go down the road I am on...."

First, anyone who wants to walk behind Jesus would have to disown or denounce himself. Expressions like "take up the cross" and "we all have our cross to bear" have worked their way into our language and lost their force. But for Jesus and Mark, stauron only means a grotesque and disgusting implement of torture. "If you want to walk down the road that I am walking down you are going to have to waterboard yourself" might do the trick. This is an entirely new strand of teaching, not obviously following on from anything Jesus has been saying about wheat and farmers. 

The second thing Jesus says seems to contradict the first. He says, "Completely give yourself up. Pretend you don't exist. Be prepared to be killed in the nastiest way possible." But then he says "Hang on to your psyche, your spirit, your essence, who you are. Nothing is more valuable than that. Your person-hood is more valuable than the entire universe."

He then throws in a perplexing "therefore". You need to completely give up on Self; and you need to hang onto Self above all things: it follows from that that you if you are ashamed of Jesus in the here and now, he will be ashamed of you when he comes back "in the glory of his father".

The crowd didn't hear the previous conversation. They don't know that Jesus has accepted the title of King. Talk of him shining with God's glory and being accompanied by God's angels must have taken them aback, slightly.

It is certainly an obscure saying. But we can see a sort of a thread. Completely disown yourself. Hold onto yourself at all costs. These two things are kind of the same. The Son of Man is going to be rejected and killed. The Son of Man is going to be lent the glory of God and command God's armies. These two things are also kind of the same.

and he said unto them,
"verily I say unto you,
that there be some of them that stand here, 
which shall not taste of death, 
till they have seen the kingdom of God come with power." 

Jesus has been preaching about the Kingdom of God from the beginning. It's like the man who threw seeds outside his house, and was surprised when flowers suddenly sprung up. It's like a tiny seed which grows into a huge tree. Peter has called Jesus King: and now King Jesus says to the wider crowd that the Kingdom of God is going to arrive really, really soon. Not today, not tomorrow, but within decades. And when it comes, it is going to come with power. That word again: dunamis. It's going to come with mighty works. With miracles. With an abundance of miracle-juice.

This is probably the hardest saying in the whole canon. Some of the people who heard Jesus speak at Caesarea Philippi that day, sometime around the thirtieth year of the common era, will still be alive when the kingdom of God arrived. Some of those exact people must still have been alive when Mark's book came out. Some of them may even have even read it.

The standard Biblical lifetime of a human being is said to be three score years and ten; so if "some standing here" includes children, the Kingdom is allowed to be delayed for another sixty years -- say until 110 CE. But if Jesus is only talking to the adults in the room, the Kingdom has got to come by CE 70 or 80. If we take the kingdom referred to here to be the same event referred to in the last verse -- the time when the Son of Man will appear in the glory of his father with holy Angels in attendance -- we would have to say that this prophecy was never fulfilled. Jesus never came back. And that, theologically speaking, is a bit awkward.

Logically, there are five options available to us.

1: Jesus was wrong.

2: Jesus never said it. Mark remembered it wrong.

3: Jesus didn't mean that the Kingdom would come very soon. He meant that some of those listening to him preach would live forever.

4: Jesus was using "taste of death" in some esoteric sense -- of course everyone listening would eventually die, but in some deeper sense some of them would not "taste" death.

5: Jesus was using the word "kingdom", not to refer to something which people would still be waiting for two thousand years later, but something which did indeed happen in the lifetime of his audience:. The Resurrection; Pentecost and the destruction of the Temple are three popular candidates.

But let's not get too hung up on this verse. Let's look at the whole chapter. Jesus has accepted the title of King. He has openly referred to God as his Father. He has said that he is going to die, and then "stand up" -- whatever that means. He is going to appear with God's glory and with the angels -- whatever that means. This is going to happen real soon. This is the same Jesus who has, up to now, been trying to keep his miracles secret and ordering demons to keep quiet about him. Something is about to change.

and after six days Jesus taketh with him Peter, and James, and John 
and leadeth them up into an high mountain apart by themselves 
and he was transfigured before them.
and his raiment became shining
exceeding white as snow
so as no fuller on earth can white them.
and there appeared unto them Elias with Moses: 
and they were talking with Jesus.
and Peter answered and said to Jesus, 
"master, it is good for us to be here: 
and let us make three tabernacles; 
one for thee, 
and one for Moses, 
and one for Elias."
for he wist not what to say
for they were sore afraid.
and there was a cloud that overshadowed them: 
and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, 
"this is my beloved Son: hear him."
and suddenly, 
when they had looked round about, 
they saw no man any more, 
save Jesus only with themselves.
and as they came down from the mountain, he charged them 
that they should tell no man what things they had seen, 
till the Son of Man were risen from the dead.
and they kept that saying with themselves, 
questioning one with another what the rising from the dead should mean

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time.

Pretend, perhaps, that you have grown up in Galilee. All the old people claim to have known someone who knew Jesus, in the way that every old Scouser knows someone who was at school with Paul McCartney. Some of them refer to him as the Prophet Jesus. Some think he was the prophesied forerunner and that the Messiah himself will be along any day now.

And then this book comes out. The memoirs of Peter, some people say.

Peter has just said, for the first time "You are the King". Jesus has just said "Some of you lot standing here will live to see God's Miracle Kingdom". Okay, you think. So that is Mark's unique selling point. That is what his mysterious God-spell thing is all about. Jesus wasn't just a prophet who came down from heaven in a fiery chariot. He was the Messiah all the time.

But that's not the big secret. That's only the first part of the secret. Now read on.

There is a mountain about sixty miles north of Capernaum. It is notable today for being Israel's only ski resort. It's the highest mountain in the area: you can see the whole country from the top. You'd have to pass through Caesarea Philippi to get there. A very high mountain is a very good place to go if you are planning to have a special meeting with God. Sinai would be better but Sinai is three hundred miles away. This was the whole purpose of the trip. They passed through Ceasarea and had a very important conversation on the way, but Mount Harmon was always where they were headed.

Jesus takes the Big Three up the hill. (I suppose he left Andrew in charge down below.) And....voom. Divine fanfare. Special effects sequence. Everything you think you know is wrong.

Jesus changes. "Transfigured" is a religious word. We pretty much only use it when talking about this story. Mark's actual Greek word is one that we use in modern English. He says that Jesus metemorpothe: he metamorphosed. Like a very hungry caterpillar turning into a beautiful butterfly.

Jesus's clothes change. Mark's language is disconcertingly concrete. He literally says that Jesus's clothes became whiter than any known washing powder could wash them. ("Such as a launderer on the earth is not able thus to whiten").

Two force-ghosts join him: not just any two but the two founders of Judaism. Moses, the friend of God who wrote down the Torah, and Elijah, the most famous of all the Prophets. The one who went to heaven without dying first. They are talking with Jesus.

Mark doesn't tell us what they talked about, and I think that is dramatically right. This is grown-up talk: Jesus talking to two titans on equal terms. Why would Peter and James and John be privy to it? Peter is terrified, and offers to put up some tents, as you would. Possibly in order to calm him down, everyone is enveloped in a cloud. Some commentators tell us that "over-shadowed" means "enveloped in brightness" but I can't see anything in the text which requires that reading. Jesus is super-bright; suddenly everything goes dark, so only those people on the mountain hear the next bit. The actual voice of God, actually God, actually says actual words: "This is the son of me, the beloved, listen you to him."

And then everything is back to normal. No prophets, no cloud, and I suppose Jesus's normal clothes, dusty from a six day slog from Capernaum to Ceasarea.

I don't think that the divine voice has gone to all this trouble so it can say to the chief disciples "This is my son, so you should have a good listen to what he has to say: it's really worth hearing." They are all doing that already.

Jesus keeps concluding his teaching sessions by says "If you have ears, you can hear" and the disciples keep entirely failing to hear. God has taken them up the mountain to cure them of their deafness. He is giving them the capacity to understand what Jesus is saying. "Hear him!" means "I give you the power to hear him!" I am taking away the impediment; I am making it possible for you to understand; I am letting you in on the big secret. It makes us think of what Jesus said to the deaf man. "Be opened".

We are pretending that we are reading this story for the first time. But those of us who have read it before may have scratched our heads when we came to Mark's account of Peter's confession. Hasn't Mark left a bit out? Or put another way: haven't Matthew and Luke -- the other Gospel writers, probably more familiar to us than Mark -- put an extra bit in?

Here is Mark, again:

And He was questioning them, “But whom do you pronounce me to be?” 
Peter answering, says to him, 
“You are the Christ.”. 
And he warned them that they should tell no one concerning him. 

But here is Matthew, telling the same story

He says to them, “But whom do you pronounce Me to be?” 
And Simon Peter answering said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 
And Jesus answering, said to him, 
“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona! 
For flesh and blood did not reveal it to you, 
but My Father in the heavens. 
And I also say to you that you are Peter, 
and on this rock I will build My church, 
and the gates of Hades not will prevail against it. 
I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of the heavens, 
and whatever you might bind on the earth shall have been bound in the heavens, 
and whatever you might loose on the earth shall have been loosed in the heavens.” 
Then He instructed the disciples that they should tell no one that He is the Christ.

I'm not for the moment interested in why Matthew adds a hundred words about what a great guy Peter is before we get to the bit where Jesus denounces him as Satan. (Perhaps Peter was too shy to report that bit to Mark? Or perhaps Matthew felt obliged to add a few word bigging up the head of the Church in Rome?) But I am very interested in Peter's declaration about Jesus. 

Mark says Peter makes one claim: "You're the Messiah". 

But Matthew says he makes two. "You're the Messiah; you're the Son of God."

Matthew's Jesus is quite sure that Peter didn't work that out for himself: God told him. This makes the story of transfiguration rather redundant. Jesus takes Peter all the way up the mountain so that God can tell him what he already knew on the ground. Peter announces that Jesus is the Son of God. And then Peter goes up the mountain, and God tells him that Jesus is the Son of God.

Matthew's Gospel is an expanded retelling of Mark, almost definitely. In general, Matthew adds words and lines and verses to what Mark says. But in a very small number of cases, Matthew leaves stuff out. The story of the two-stage healing of the blind man is one such case. Mattew deleted it. It only appears in Mark.

I think that Matthew understood Mark's story about the blind man very well. I think he recognized that the blind man represented the disciples. I think he saw that the disciples, like the blind man, only gradually had their eyes opened. They partly understood Jesus at first, they understood him more fully later on. At first, the blind man can see nothing. Then he can see vague shapes that could be people but could be trees. Then he can see perfectly. At first, the disciples have no idea who Jesus is. Then Peter reveals that he is the Messiah. Then God reveals that he is the Son of God. 

And Matthew doesn't like that. He thinks Peter's eyes were opened all in one go. So the story of the blind man has to end up on the cutting room floor. 

Perhaps Mark is particularly addressing those people who still think Jesus is the prophet Elijah. That's okay, he is saying. You are part of the way there. You don't necessarily see the whole thing at once. 

Perhaps there is a divergence of theological opinion. Perhaps Mark thinks that the Messiah-ship of Jesus is something that human beings can work out for themselves; but that his divine Son-ship is something which requires a supernatural revelation. Matthew doesn't think you can know any of it unless God tells you. And he thinks that Peter -- more than James and John and even Andrew -- is Top Apostle because he was the one God decided to tell.

I prefer Mark's version. Looking at Jesus and trying to tease out what these cryptic and self-contradictory puzzles mean will take you a long way. They will take you to the point where you can see that Jesus is God's special King. But that won't help you to grasp the idea that God's special King is going to be an apparent failure. 

Like the disciples on the boat, you are probably looking and looking but not seeing. Like Peter, you're probably still saying "oh, no, no, no, God, you've got that bit wrong." You can only see the whole picture when God decides you can.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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