This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the lectionary Gospel reading, Mark 9.38-50, and also looks briefly at Numbers 11.4-6,10-16,24-29.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe
It is an interesting challenge, which those of you who regularly have to preach must also have in a slightly different form, to reflect each week taking one’s starting point from the lectionary readings, however perplexing or difficult they may be. It has actually been quite a good discipline for me over the past year or so fairly regularly to engage with difficult texts (especially some in the latter part of Matthew’s Gospel) that normally I would try and steer well clear of. All the same I somewhat heaved a sigh when, last Advent, the Sunday lectionary shifted from a focus on the Gospel of Matthew to one on the Gospel of Mark. Any of my friends who know anything about my theological passions know a) Clare cherishes especially the Gospel of Mark b) if Clare can get a reference to the biblical motif of transfiguration in anything she writes – she will do so.
So it was a bit of a shock to me to feel initially so daunted by this week’s lectionary Gospel Mark 9.38-50, that my initial reaction was to make use on this occasion of my theological ‘Get out of jail free card’. I am referring to the fact that I think it is legitimate to focus in this blog once in September or October on themes of harvest and creation and use the ‘harvest’ readings instead of the ‘X Sunday after Trinity’ set. Indeed I do enjoy reflecting on creation themes, and consider them vitally important in and for our world today. I am very grateful to the Gibraltar Archdeaconry Synod who, by inviting me in January 2020 to lead their Bible studies on the theme of creation, ‘forced’ me to do some serious biblical reflection in this area, which in fact I have drawn on from time to time in the blog, exploring also the wonderful image in Peter Baelz’s hymn ‘Source and fount of all creation’ which speaks of Christ as ‘nature’s poet, nature’s priest’. You can find the hymn here Source and Fount of All Creation | St. James Music Press (sjmp.com) (if you don’t know the hymn, it is itself a glorious and beautiful theological treasury to quarry into).
As a result until last Saturday evening a focus on ‘creation’ was the plan for this week. But on Saturday I went to the Swiss Archdeaconry Synod in Berne, and a conversation afterwards with the husband of one of the Anglican chaplains in Switzerland enabled me to ‘see’ things in the verses from Mark’s Gospel that I had never quite spotted before. (A ‘thread’ running through this blog seems to be the benefit of going to Archdeaconry Synods!). So with thanks to that person – though still feeling a bit daunted – here goes.
I think that the reason that I found the reading so difficult is that, certainly at first sight, it does not feel quite like a part of Mark’s Gospel. And I think my perception is correct. It doesn’t feel like much else in the Gospel. I see Mark as presenting us with the life and ministry of Jesus as a journey in which, certainly from chapter 8 onwards, he seems to be striding intentionally and single-mindedly towards his suffering and death in Jerusalem. On this journey he is ‘followed’ – at least until the Garden of Gethsemane – by a small group of close disciples, who are being taught by him the many dimensions of ‘following’. ‘Follow’ is a key word for the Gospel of Mark: it both has a literal meaning, speaking of the disciples walking behind Jesus in the roads and paths of New Testament Palestine, but also clearly is intended to mark out those who were considered (or considered themselves) the inner circle of Jesus’ companions. The Gospel of Mark is aware of – and plays on the interaction between – both senses. One of my ‘favourite’ passages in the Gospel of Mark comes in the next chapter, chapter 10, where there is that powerfully numinous short comment, ‘They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.’ (Mark 10.32) I find it quite strange that this particular verse does not seem to appear anywhere in the Revised Common Lectionary/Common Worship Sunday lectionary.
Yet here in Mark 9.38 we read of Jesus apparently commending someone who ‘does not follow us’. The original words of course are in the mouth of John (presumably the son of Zebedee) rather than Jesus himself. It is of course made even more strange, at least in our ‘modern’ eyes because it is linked to the practice of casting out demons, which is not part of the regular thought-world or religious practice of most ‘modern’ western Christians. Jesus’ commendation of this ‘non-follower’ is perhaps even more striking when we remember that in the next chapter, though Jesus ‘loves’ the rich young man, the man’s unwillingness to give up his riches and ‘follow’ Jesus seems to be understood as a defining mark of failure (Mark 10.17-22).
One of the recent themes in academic exploration of the context, life and ministry of Jesus has been to look at Jesus’ links to the ‘wisdom tradition’ in the Old Testament and in Judaism of the New Testament period. There is an excellent article on this in the latest issue of Transforming Ministry (the journal that used to be called The Reader).
‘Recent scholarship has identified Jesus as an itinerant wisdom teacher as distinct from a rabbi or priest. Though this archetype has a long history, Jesus does not entirely fit the designation. As healer, exorcist and miracle worker, he had strong affinities too with the figure of the magician, as enemies often pointed out. Whether highbrow Magi from the Eastern Courts or crafty street tricksters, magicians had their own kind of wisdom. Its ambivalent face accompanied Jesus everywhere.’ (Diana Basham, ‘The Wisdom Tradition in the teaching of Jesus’, Transforming Ministry, Autumn 2021, Vol 121.3)
As Basham suggests the presentation of Jesus as a ‘wisdom teacher’ is more obvious in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke than it is in Mark. But these verses in Mark’s Gospel are indeed one of the comparatively few occasions in Mark when Jesus speaks in the idioms used by such teachers: sharp sayings, contrasts, common sense. So my perception that this passage does not feel very ‘Marcan’ is I think fair. But it is here in this Gospel, and so what in this context does it have to say to us?
Back to those words, ‘does not follow us’ in the mouth of John. It is telling that it is ‘us’ rather than ‘you’. John was nominating himself as Jesus’ ‘minder’ and ‘heavy’. To speak about ‘following us’ is claiming the right to be making the decisions about who was ‘in’ and who was ‘out’. To be able to exercise that judgement was clearly a form of power. It is probably no accident that in the next chapter of Mark’s Gospel it is John, along with his brother James, who seeks to claim the best seats in heaven, described in such terms as indicate that he was also wanting to share in Jesus’ ministry of final judgement (Mark 10.35-40) The lectionary compilers did a good job when they linked this week’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, with the story in Numbers 11, about Joshua, who seems to have appointed himself as Moses ‘heavy’ wanting to stop two men, Eldad and Medad, who were prophesying ‘in the camp’ rather than where they were apparently supposed to be. In turn Joshua is implicitly rebuked by Moses with the memorable phrase, ‘Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets?’ (Numbers 11.26-30).
The key insight that I take away from the Gospel is the comment by Jesus quoted in verse 40 as part of his response to John. ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’. It is a vital touchstone for the church to bear in mind in several areas of its life. Should the followers of Jesus, ‘the Church’, seek sharply to separate itself from ‘the world’, or those of other faiths or religious traditions who do not consider themselves ‘members’ of the Church? Or should it seek to build bridges with such people for ‘the common good’ of wider society? In Christian history the answer has veered between the response of those such as the Catharists (who tried to keep themselves ‘pure’) to some modern expressions of what we might call ‘religionless Christianity’ (though this term which comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is sometimes misused or misunderstood). But I certainly believe that our task as Christians is not to self-appoint ourselves as Jesus’ ‘heavies’.
For one of the charisms of the Anglican tradition to which I belong is its willingness to work with others – in government, in secular society, people of other faiths – who might not be fully paid up members of the Christian community for the greater good of our wider world. It is of course also one of the assumptions of those like myself, who are committed to working in the area of interreligious dialogue. We make our stand on the basis, ‘Whoever is not against us is for us’, rather than has sometimes felt like the case, ‘Whoever is not for us is against us’.
I am interested that this slightly strange collection of sayings of Jesus ends with a salty comment about salt, ‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another’ (Mark 9.50). Inevitably it reminded me of Jesus’ remark in Matthew’s Gospel ‘You are the salt of the earth (Matthew 5.13)’. I have many friends among Middle Eastern Christians, and I know a considerable number of them wrestle with the question of what is the role of Christians in Middle Eastern countries and societies where their minority status makes them quite vulnerable. I respect the answer that some of them give – to see their role as ‘salt’ in their societies, seeking to ‘flavour’ communal life with some of the values with which the Christian tradition, at its best, has over the centuries, almost imperceptibly inculcated in processes and institutions. Not for most of them, ‘He who is not for us is against us’, but rather how can we work for the good of those who are not fully ‘part’ of us, to enable them, like us, to become also people of salt, more fully human, more truly what God would have us be?.