Proper 24, Year B
October 18, 2009
I’ve been enjoying the embarrassment of riches the lectionary has given us these last few weeks. As I’ve said before, we are in the heart of those chapters of Mark in which Mark places Jesus’ teachings on discipleship in conjunction with his predictions concerning the fate awaiting him when he and his disciples finally arrive in Jerusalem. Today we have come to the end of our brief excursion into the Book of Job, and we finally hear God’s response to Job’s criticisms, questions, and demands. And the letter to the Hebrews, which I’ve not preached about, continues to expound its author’s understanding of the meaning of Jesus Christ. Wonderful texts, all, profound themes and questions.
As I’ve been reminding you these past few weeks, this section of Mark is tightly and very carefully constructed, around three episodes where Jesus predicts his suffering and death, followed by the disciples’ misunderstanding, and concluding with Jesus giving them instructions on how to be his disciples. Today’s Gospel comes immediately after the third prediction. Given that it is the third time through, the repetitive nature of the whole sequence becomes more clear, and the absolute idiocy or incomprehension of the disciples stands in ever-sharper relief.
In fact, on careful reflection, this sequence of events, with the disciples continually misunderstanding Jesus seems somewhat artificial. After all, who could be that dumb? As teachers, as parents, as bosses, if we’ve said something three times, we expect it to be learned. So if they still don’t get it, we suspect it’s not a matter of incomprehension, rather it is willful ignorance. This construction puts the disciples in such bad light, that when Matthew goes to rework this section of Mark, he rewrites it so as to soften the negative depiction of the disciples.
The first time it was Peter, the second time it was “the disciples,” this time it is James and John, the Sons of Zebedee, who put their feet in their mouths. In Matthew’s version, however, it is not them, but their mother who asks this question of Jesus.
After Jesus predicts once again, for the third time, that he is going up to Jerusalem, where he will be arrested, tortured, and executed, two members of his inner circle come to him with a special request. When he comes into his glory, they want to be at his side, they want to be closest to him. Jesus has been teaching his disciples about a Messiah who will suffer and die, and the disciples are still thinking of a Messiah who will deliver the Jewish community from its Roman occupiers. They think that they are on their way to Jerusalem to challenge the Roman legions militarily.
Jesus’ response is full of symbolism: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” When they say they are ready, Jesus predicts that they will share the cup and the baptism that Jesus will undergo.
The disciples were unwilling or unable to imagine the future that Jesus predicted. They were so bound by their values and world view that they couldn’t conceive of what Jesus was talking about when he talked about discipleship, suffering and death.
I always take comfort in the way Mark depicts the disciples, even though many Christians are scandalized by his portrayal. The disciples misunderstand Jesus at every step of the way. They are unable to do the kinds of things Jesus does, heal people or cast out demons for example. And in the end, when Jesus makes his final journey from the Upper Room to the cross, the disciples leave him utterly alone, abandoned by his closest friends. Many Christians find the brief synopsis I’ve given you of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark offensive. They can’t believe it’s true, because Peter, James and John, and all the rest—except Judas of course, became the pillars of the church, they are saints, they spread the word throughout the world.
I take comfort in this depiction because Mark depicts a group of men in some respects very much like ourselves. Why were they drawn to Jesus? Why did they obey him when he said, “Come, follow me”? And Jesus’ teachings were so astounding, so out of this world, that they had no way of understanding him, most of the time. Jesus didn’t choose them because of their brilliance, their talents, skills, whatever. He didn’t read their resumes he didn’t carefully assess how they would work together, he simply called them, and they followed.
But we are like them in many ways. We, like they, are so bound by our lives, values, and assumptions, that we can’t hear what Jesus is saying to us. We hear the words “cup” and “baptism” and we immediately think of the sacraments—Eucharist and Baptism. Who knows what James and John thought Jesus was talking about? But Mark knew—the cup and the baptism, were what awaited Jesus in Jerusalem, his arrest, torture, and execution.
For us cup and baptism have almost become what scholars of symbol call dead symbols, so often used that they have lost their meaning for us. Part of the reason for that transformation over the centuries is precisely because of another image used in Mark’s gospel, and then greatly expanded upon in the letter to Hebrews. At the end of today’s gospel, there’s a word that has taken on enormous significance in Christian theology—ransom, and in the letter to the Hebrews we have heard repeatedly of sacrifice.
These words, this doctrine, have so shaped our experience, our theologies, and our world views, that is hard to hear what Jesus said in the Gospel of Mark with open ears. For Mark, this word ransom, and indeed Jesus’ death on the cross was not about sacrificial atonement, it was not about Jesus dying for our sins. It was about something different, and perhaps even more radical. Throughout these chapters we have been hearing Jesus teachings about discipleship. Take up my cross and follow me, you will drink the cup that I drink, and be baptized with my baptism. For Mark, discipleship was all about sharing in Jesus’ death, about walking with him to Calvary. Disciples were to expect the same fate that awaited Jesus in Jerusalem.
The disciples recoiled from Jesus’ words, because his suffering and death were inconceivable to them. We drink the cup, and are baptized with water, never thinking of Jesus’ words here. That we might share his fate, suffer and die as he did is inconceivable to us. But of course, it is not just our own death that is inconceivable to us. We should not be able to make sense of Jesus Christ’s death either. The doctrine of atonement, that Jesus died for us, for our sins, should not make sense. The problem is, the notion is so familiar to us, that we can no longer see the horror of it, the evil of it.
Could God, did God, require Jesus die so that we might be saved? What does that say about God? Oh, I’m not talking about God’s love, but rather of everything else, the mercilessness, the lack of compassion, the sheer necessity. What does the doctrine of atonement say about our notion of God?
Let’s leave that question for a moment and move back to the book of Job. After all, in a sense, that’s Job’s very question. The understanding of God operative in the day of the book of Job had God rewarding the righteous and punishing the evil. Job suffered, therefore, he must have sinned. But Job refused to accept the equation of sin equals suffering, so he challenged God. And after lengthy speeches, finally, at last God speaks, out of a whirlwind, and says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”
This speech of God to Job is powerful, haunting, but in the end it is unsatisfying. For God does not explain Godself to Job. God simply tells Job that he cannot understand God, because God is so far beyond Job, beyond comprehension. God’s response to Job is meant to put Job in his place. It is meant to end the conversation, to shut Job up. And it does all of that, but in those questions are a reminder to us about the nature of God, and about our nature. True, God is ultimately beyond our comprehension, but this scene between God and Job reminds us not only of that, but also that too often we try to understand God by forcing God into categories of our making. We limit God by placing boundaries around God.
Job did it; James and John did it as well. When we define God in our terms, we limit the ways in which God might come to us; we close ourselves to the possibility of transformative experience. Occasionally, God comes to us in a whirlwind, sometimes God is present in bread and wine, sometimes God speaks in a still, small voice. Listen!