Mark 1-8 — Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.

–Mark 1:45 (ESV)

The word “crowd” appears 32 times in the English Standard Version of Mark.  Compare that to the 34 times the word appears in the significantly longer gospel of Luke.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is just constantly mobbed by people.  From the first chapter, it says that “his fame spread everywhere throughout all the region of Galilee” (1:28).  Commentators have often noted how secretive Jesus seems in Mark, constantly asking those who have experienced His miracles to keep quiet about it.  Reading this book again, it’s clear that this is primarily self-preservation.  Jesus acts like a magnet, attracting the sick, the hungry, the oppressed, the curious, the skeptical, and even a few faithful into His orbit.

I have always been puzzled by the calling of the first disciples (1:16-20).  Jesus simply says “follow me”, and they just get up and leave their families and their livelihood to behind to follow a homeless, itinerant preacher.  But seeing the reaction of the crowds leads me to the conclusion that Jesus must have been completely compelling, in all senses of the word.  If He says follow, you followed.  If He spits on your eyes, you don’t question it (8:23).  The power of the Holy Spirit must have been almost physically dripping off of Him.  The miracles alone must have been reason enough to follow.  Jesus was a tornado in human form.  Or maybe more accurately the eye at the center of a hurricane of human amazement.

When composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and librettist Tim Rice wanted to explore the nature of modern celebrity, they looked back at the original superstar (this was only a couple of years removed from John Lennon igniting a firestorm of controversy by saying that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”).  Thus was born the 1970 rock opera entitled, appropriately, Jesus Christ Superstar.  In this musical, Jesus is swept along by forces he cannot control, filling him with angst and doubt, and causing his one level-headed disciple (Judas) to turn on him.  The crowd at first adores him, but it just as quickly turns on him, tearing down the idol that they constructed.  It is, indeed, the story of many rock stars and Hollywood celebrities who burned bright for a time until fads, fashions, and the crowds left them behind.  In short, to Webber and Rice, Jesus was the first rock star, a charismatic celebrity who showed up at the right time and whose light was (like Hendrix or Joplin) snuffed out far too soon.  It is a tragedy and a cautionary tale.

Jesus in Mark is a very different person than his Broadway avatar.  He clearly orchestrates events, going as far as to predict His own death and resurrection (8:31).  He is not filled with doubt and fear, but rather “taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22).  He is exasperated by the crowds, for sure, but he also treats them with compassion, miraculously feeding them not once, but twice (6:40, 8:1).  Jesus’ fame is not based, as so much of modern celebrity is, on personal magnetism and self-promotion.  Rather it is the power of God’s word and works that moved the people and made the disciples drop their nets and follow.  Dismissing Jesus as a “right place, right time” celebrity teacher cannot account for two millenia of changed lives and a world utterly transformed in His wake.

If anything Jesus did not look for popularity, but challenged His followers in ways that seemed destined to alienate (“if anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” [8:34]).  He, like many celebrities, scandalized his family and hometown, who thought he’d gotten too big for his britches (6:3), and the ruling authorities, who don’t like anyone rocking the boat.  But, again, what people found when they met Jesus was not empty charisma, but instead the charism of the Holy Spirit.  People crave authenticity and they found it in Jesus, who taught with authority, healed their diseases, fed their hunger (physical and spiritual), and called them to a more faithful life.  If we wish to attract the same kind of crowds to our churches, perhaps we ought to be doing likewise.  People don’t want a sound-and-light show, they want an authentic experience of the living God.  They want the Word preached with authority and integrity, they want to be fed by the Sacraments, and they want to see the Spirit’s power at work.  In short, they want to encounter Jesus.  Let’s do what we can to arrange that meeting.

The Book of Matthew — Jesus the Revolutionary

“Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Matthew 24:2b (ESV)

In my last post about the “Jewish-ness” of Jesus, I neglected to mention one character who had something to say about the topic.  John the Baptist, the last great Old Testament prophet, has this to say about people who rested on their religious laurels: “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (3:9).  He goes on to say that the ax is ready to cut down any tree that doesn’t bear fruit.  Thus begins the gospel according to St. Matthew.  And then we come to the end of the gospel and the verse above which kicks off two chapters (approximately 7% of the book) about the end of the world.  In between, Jesus detonates His contemporaries understanding of the Law, the sabbath, the messiah, lepers, children, wealth, politics, and much else besides.  He offers very little sugar with all this medicine.  On the contrary, Jesus seems to go out of His way to step on the toes of anyone who might think themselves religious (then and now).  Matthew’s Jesus is a radical, a revolutionary coming after anyone who might feel comfortable and safe:

“I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (10:32). “So the last will be first, and the first last” (20:16). “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (19:24).  “It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than with two eyes be thrown into the hell of fire” (18:9).  “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (10:21-22). “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake” (24:9)

I grew up Episcopalian.  The Episcopalian Jesus is nice — meek, mild, middle-class.  Primarily, he wants people to be nice to each other.  He wouldn’t disturb brunch, although he might make a few tut-tutting remarks about the church’s failure to adequately support the liberal social causes of the day.  My priest father, to his credit, was atypical in his insistence on living the words of the gospel, but he was in the minority.  There is a reason I am no longer Episcopalian.  Don’t get me wrong, there are many strong, wonderful Christians in the Episcopal Church, but they are fighting against the tide.  In any case, I bring this up not to bash a part of the Church, but to let you know how deeply uncomfortable all those preceding quotes make me.  Jesus sounds a lot more like a terrorist than like a guy you’d elect an elder in your church.  I don’t think that even the most fire-breathing Baptist or holy roller Pentecostal would be comfortable if Jesus showed up in their church.  For starters, He’d probably tell the pastor to sell his $1000 suit and $500 wristwatch and give the money to the first homeless person they met.  I don’t think any of us in the prosperous West really are ready to take Jesus with absolute seriousness.  We are ready for the Jesus who hugs little children; we aren’t ready for the Jesus who says that we ought to be drowned in the ocean because of the children we have led astray (18:6).

As I am writing this, I’m preparing to go home for the day to my comfortable house, to have a nice meal with my family, to visit my daughter’s preschool, to (eventually) wrap myself in comfortable blankets on a cozy bed and fall into peaceful slumber.  I am not going to sell all I have and give it to the poor; I am not going to start a revolution against the corrupt structures of capitalism and democracy; I am not doing anything that would make those in power even raise an eyebrow.  Does that make me a bad Christian?  I don’t think so.  Jesus expects us to be shrewd, not reckless (see the parable of the talents [25:14-30]), to love our enemies (5:43-48), and to practice our spirituality in private (chapter 6).  Many a revolutionary wants to burn it all down as an abdication of responsibility.  I don’t have to render unto Caesar (22:21) if Caesar doesn’t exist.  I have a wife and children that depend upon me and being faithful in my quotidian life as a librarian can do much to advance the kingdom.  But such responsibilities can lead to a sort of complacency or at least a slothful routine.  One can begin to expect that you are right with God just so long as you don’t screw up too badly.  Think of the rich young ruler (19:16-22) who really was trying to follow God, but was only willing to go so far.  Jesus, it seems to me, always calls us to push the edges of our comfort zones, to do more than we think we are capable of.  The radical Jesus of Matthew’s gospel seems to say, “no matter how much you’ve given up, how far you’ve gone for me, there will always be more”.  Don’t get comfortable.  The world is dying because the church is comfortable.

This is the great paradox of Matthew’s gospel: he spends so much time emphasizing Jesus as continuing the Jewish tradition because Jesus so thoroughly overturned that tradition.  We must keep the same tension in our lives.  We must remain in faith and communion with the Church, honoring and revering her traditions, while also pushing ever forward, never becoming entombed in dead rituals and customs.  Jesus calls us to a holy discontent with our world and, indeed, our faith.  Perhaps that’s why he calls us not to be good, but perfect (5:48).  We far too easily accommodate ourselves to worldly thinking and practice, believing that our traditions (be they Catholic or Episcopalian or Baptist or…) will save us.  Only Jesus can save us.  And only the Holy Spirit can lead us to Him.  No wonder Jesus had such harsh words about blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (12:31)!  Without God alive in us through the Holy Spirit, we cannot be forgiven and we cannot be saved.  We must invite this revolutionary presence into our lives and let Him do what He will.  It will not be comfortable and it will not be safe.  But remember how this gospel ends.  I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus final words in Matthew are: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (28:20).  Jesus call us to a revolutionary life, but He will be there the whole time to lead and to guide.  So here I will end, as a good Episcopalian must, with words of comfort.  Viva la revolucion!



Matthew 1-9: Jesus the Jew

Note:  From now through September 30th, I will be reading the entire New Testament (30 days, minus Sundays).  I will not be writing every day necessarily, but I will jot down some thoughts as they come to me.  Look forward to a new post each day in October!

Matthew really wants you to know that Jesus was the fulfillment of the Jewish hope.  He begins the book with a genealogy, linking Jesus to the Davidic line all the way back to Abraham.  These early chapters are peppered with quotes from the Hebrew bible that foretell what Jesus did.  He could hardly walk outside without fulfilling some promise of Scripture.  Even Herod unwittingly fulfilled the Scripture in trying to kill the newborn Lord.  And the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus reasserting the primacy of the Law and Prophets (5:17-20), and then reinterpreting and re-contextualizing the Law under His rule.  Matthew wants us to truly understand that Jesus was not something radically new, but the culmination of the entire story of God’s people from Abraham on down.

But it’s not just dead letters that proclaim Jesus as Messiah.  So many dreams!  Joseph has a dream telling him to stick with Mary (and naming Jesus to boot); the wise men are warned in a dream not to return to Herod; Joseph has another dream telling him to flee with his family to Egypt; Joseph has still another dream telling him that Herod is dead and it’s safe to come home.  Then, of course, there are stars in the sky and doves and healing miracles and all the rest.  No Old Testament dispensationalism here.  Matthew wants us to know that God the Father was active and pulling the strings to accomplish His purposes through His Son.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really understood before that Jesus literally re-enacted, in His person, the great story of the Israelites: the journey from bondage in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.  In chapter 2 verse 15, Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1: “out of Egypt I called my son”.  In the context of Hosea, God is referring to the people of Israel as His son, but Matthew shows how Jesus took on that identity Himself.  Jesus is so identified with the Jews that He literally went into exile in Egypt and returned to the Promised Land to fulfill the Law and save His people.  What a beautiful little detail!

Also, if you can read the Beatitudes (chapters 5-7) and not be completely convicted, you’re not paying attention.  It’s a message as radical, as challenging, as life-changing now as it was 2000 years ago.  There is no ethic in world religion or philosophy like it.  If the Church lived by these verses for one day, imagine how the world would change.  I mean, He’s making the law even harsher than it was (chapter 5), but He’s also simplifying it by clearing away all the Pharisaical garbage (chapters 6 & 7) and telling us, in essence, “chill out and just do it.  Just pray, fast, and give.  There’s no formula.  Just follow me.”  It’s a narrow gate, but going through it is simple (if not easy) and it leads to eternal life.

Despite the narrowness of the gate, Jesus spends the next two chapters (8 & 9) broadening the definition of who can be included in the kingdom.  First it is the Centurion, and then it is “tax collectors and sinners”.  Jesus is a Jew, but a very different kind of Jew from the Pharisees.  He opens the kingdom to all, and reverses the curse of Adam with miraculous healing, even from death.  The book starts with a very Old Testament-y genealogy, and it leads to this: “never was anything like this seen in Israel” (9:33).  Jesus is the Jewish messiah, but a very different messiah than anyone was anticipating.  The expected messiah became the unexpected savior.