Have you noticed the parallels between Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration?

Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t read Mark, take the next hour and read it all in one sitting, just like you’d watch a movie. Finding these parallels and patterns is just part of the fun of a story’s game. And I don’t wanta spoil it for you.

Let’s start with the transfiguration in chapter 9. Jesus goes up on a mountain with some of his disciples and there, his clothing begins to glow. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear! And the disciples, being utterly terrified, ask if they should set up tents, one for each of them. Then a cloud envelops them and we hear God say, “this is my son…”

Sound familiar? Well, that’s almost identical to what we heard in Mark 1. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn open and God says, “You are my son…”

Do you see the others?

In both scenes, there’s a major shift in the heavens. The enveloping cloud in chapter nine and the ripped sky in chapter one.

And then there’s Elijah. He appears at the Transfiguration and yes, also in the Baptism. You might have missed this one! But Mark implicitly describes John as Elijah when he tells us that he wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. If you know the Old Testament, like Mark’s original audience, you’ll know that it’s this same description which leads a king in 2 Kings 1:8 to identify the person so dressed as Elijah.

So in the baptism and transfiguration, we have these three parallels. Elijah, Movement in the Heavens, And the identification of Jesus as God’s Son.

Pretty cool! Right?

Now think of Mark’s description of the crucifixion. Darkness covers the land! And Jesus cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi…” Meaning “My God, my God…” But the bystanders think he’s calling for Elijah. Then Jesus breathes his last and the temple curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom. And the centurion remarks, “truly this man was the Son of God.”

There it is, again! The pattern is in fact repeated three times.

What’s Mark doing?

Well if you think about the whole book of Mark, you’ll remember that stories told in threes happen quite often. There’s Jesus’ three passion predictions, the three times he wakes his sleeping disciples, and the three times Peter denies him.

Three is huge! And not just for Mark. This is, in fact, the way we tell stories. Think of Goldilocks and the three bears (bowls, chairs, beds) or Charles Dickens Christmas Carol (Ghosts of Past, Present, Future). It’s a common literary device.

Three shows completeness. Emphasis. It’s the smallest number that forms a pattern. The first instance is chance. The second a coincidence. But three times reveals a design.

And this is what Mark is doing in these other instances. In telling us three times, he stresses to his listening audience the disciples inability to change. And at the same time, drives home the point to his hearers. Don’t be like them! Don’t miss the point!

Mark is also creating emphasis in the parallels between the baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion but he’s also at the same time doing something more.

This too is common in storytelling: because twice suggests a pattern, we naturally anticipate its continuation at the partial appearance of a third. Which allows the storyteller to hit us with the twist.

Think of the way jokes are told. Three guys walk into a bar. The first guy says something. The second guy says something similar. But the third guy takes it in a whole new direction. But the twist isn’t found only in punchlines. We find it in the third part of three little Pigs and the boy who cried wolf. We even see it in longer films like the Shawshank Redemption. Remember Red’s third parole hearing?

Mark, having built a pattern in the baptism and transfiguration, hits his audience in the crucifixion with a twist. This time, it’s not God’s voice declaring Jesus’ His Son. It’s a person. The first person, in fact, within Mark’s story to express this idea.

Now think of the progression of these three scenes. In the baptism, it’s only Jesus who hears God say “You are my Son.” No one else seems to know what’s going on. But in the second instance, that experience is repeated for others, God telling a few of the disciples “This is my Son.” But in the crucifixion, we find this idea finally taking hold and being repeated by this person. And what’s even more remarkable, he’s not one of the disciples. he’s not even a Jew. he’s a Roman soldier. The enemy! The person, we least suspect. Declaring it, at the point we least suspect it.

See you next time.

To understand Mark you have to open your ears.

Mark has this way of telling stories which appears frequently in his gospel. He begins with one story, then switches to another, before once again returning to finish the first. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s one example:

In chapter 6, Mark recounts how Jesus instructed his disciples and sent them on a mission. He then jumps to an involved and yet seemingly unrelated flashback dealing with Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. Only then does he return to the disciples and their mission.

This basic A-B-A pattern is known as a sandwich. And its essence can be felt in other arrangements; for instance, as we saw last time, in the bookending of Mark 8-10 with the healing of two blind men.

The sandwich is not unique to Mark. It’s a common literary device. And as such its not something Mark derived wholly from chronology. Contrary to what you might think, Mark isn’t simply telling us what happened. He’s chosen to arrange his story this way. The question is why?

Well that has a lot to do with how Mark thought his audience would receive and comprehend his book.

In Mark’s time, a book was considered differently than it is today. If you happen to look at a surviving first-century manuscript you might be surprised to find it devoid of things like chapter numbers, section titles, paragraph indentations, highlighted words. Not even punctuation or spaces between words! Today, such graphic signals are indispensable to written communication. We depend on them to orient ourselves to a books structure and point.

But ancient authors and audiences couldn’t depend on such visual signals. Before printing, the copy of books was limited. Most people simply wouldn’t see the text. Besides literacy itself was a specialized skill; maybe 2 percent of the population could read. The book, consequently, wasn’t regarded as a silent and private flow between writer and reader. Instead it was a script to extend the voice of a speaker. Authors wrote not so much to be read but heard through public reading.

Interestingly enough. Those who could read, always read out loud, even when alone. Silent reading was in fact considered something strange when it first appeared some three hundred years later.

This means that Mark told his story in such a way that a strictly listening audience could hear and comprehend it.

Think about that! You’ve never read or heard Mark and then one Sunday, your pastor opts to read the entire gospel out loud in place of a sermon. That’s a lot of events to unpack in the roughly hour and fifteen minutes it would take. How could Mark’s original audience understand it all? Could you?

Of course you could. You do it all the time. Apart from a picture, listening to Mark isn’t that much different from watching a film. Because of the limitations of our minds, storytellers have always divided longer narratives into a hierarchy of units. In movies, scenes are bundled into sequences and sequences into acts. We call this bracketing or packaging.

In modern books, the division of units is typically found in the look of the page. But in a venue without text, organization is indicated in other ways. A preacher, for instance, might offer the blatant “first point, second point, third point, and in conclusion” in his sermon. While the filmmaker divides his story through subtle repetition and parallels. As in the same crossroads in the opening and closing in the film Cast Away – There’s that Sandwich!

Like a filmmaker, Mark divides and packages his story without using graphic signals on the page. And just as in a film, he does it through in the packaging of repetition. The Sandwich’s A-B-A pattern being the most obvious example.

Ancient authors and audiences were keenly aware of the application and use of parallels for hearing a stories organization. Repetition breaks up a linear progression and creates a beat-counterbeat effect. And the principle was used in varying ways. In Mark, for instance, we find the use of an a-b-c-a-b-c pattern. Mark, for instance, links Jesus’ calming of the storm and the healing of the woman with the issue of blood in just such a pattern. We also find a symmetric a-b-c-b-a pattern, known as a chasm, at work, for instance, in the feedings of the five thousand the feeding of the four.

Knowing all this should make a difference in the way you approach a book like Mark. For starters, you should recognize that the graphic divisions in our Bibles do not indicate Mark’s structure. These divisions are a referencing tool, nothing more! You can actually misread Mark, reading it chapter by chapter. Bracketing Mark’s story in the wrong place or failing to bracket it at all distorts Mark’s meaning. Just as in Algebra, the bracketing of different equations leads to vastly different sums. Or as in Grammar where the presence or absence of a comma changes the way a sentence reads.

We need to constantly hear and consider Mark’s larger picture, even as we hear and consider each individual story. And its to that larger story we shall turn, next time.

See you then.

The location of Jesus’ botched healing in the Gospel of Mark tells us a great deal about its meaning.

There’s this episode in Mark’s gospel which you might find particularly puzzling. Here it is in chapter 8:

And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly.

Ok. Besides the spit and trees, which are odd enough, what’s the deal with this two-part healing? In Mark, Jesus can raise the dead and overpower a legion of demons. But he botches this man’s healing on the first try? What’s the point?

This is a problem in reading Mark’s gospel. Short pithy episodes like this form the bulk of the narrative and can often seem quite random. As if Mark is simply stringing together every amazing Jesus story he knows. Jesus did this and then he did this and then he did this. Our modern bibles actually encourage us to read Mark this way, chapter and verse divisions and section titles break down the text, causing us to to consider these stories in isolation. But these episodes are from random. They’re skillfully arranged.

You’ve heard the mantra in real estate, right? “location, location, location.” Well in interpretation, it’s “context, context context”
The location of Mark’s stories actually tells us a great deal about their meaning.

Look at the episode just before this two-part healing.

In the two previous chapters, Jesus spent a great deal of time privately training his disciples. On their first mission he instructed them to carry no bread. Then he showed them how they could feed 5,000 and yet again 4000 with a few loaves of bread. And now he finds them totally misunderstanding his figurative teaching about the leaven of the Pharisees, wondering if they should have brought bread.

He tears into them. Are you so stupid?

“Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Are you’re hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see and having ears do you not hear?” Do you not yet understand?”

You see that? Jesus has just linked blindness with a lack of understanding. Encountering a blind man in the very next story is not by accident. His blindness illustrates the disciples lack of understanding. And his partial healing their partially opened eyes.

Look at this. The disciples actually get something right in the following episode. Jesus asks them, the one question everyone’s been wondering, “Who do you think I am” “You are the Christ” The King! Peter says.

They see it! But a faulty vision persists.

When Jesus next tells them that He, the Christ, is going to be rejected and killed, Peter rebukes him. That’s not at all what he meant by his answer. The student is now correcting the teacher. We find this sort of blind pride again a chapter later. When Jesus tells the disciples again that he’s going to be killed, they immediately start arguing with one another about which of them is the greatest. And still it persists a chapter after that. This time, to make sure they don’t miss the point, Jesus not only tells them that he’s going to be killed, but mocked, spit upon, and whipped too. To which James and John respond by asking if they can have the seats closest to his throne.
You can just see the dumbstruck expression on Jesus face. “You don’t know what you are asking for,” Jesus says.

Not at all.

They’re stupid. They don’t see. Though they can see that Jesus is the Christ they don’t at all understand what that means. They persist in thinking that being close to Jesus will some how make them great in the eyes of the world.

We find this pattern repeated three times in Mark 8-10. Jesus predicts his death and the disciples express some ironic pride. Which in turn leads Jesus to correct them through a paradoxical teaching. Up is down and down is up. To save your life is to lose and to lose your life is to save it. To to be first, you must be last. And to be first, you must be the slave of all. To be the Christ, the King, Jesus must suffer and die and for them to be his disciples they must live out that same heartbreaking contradiction.

What’s interesting is that its after the third time, Jesus once again encounters a blind man. The only other blind man in Mark’s gospel. And he cries out something akin to Peter’s earlier confession, calling Jesus “Son of David” heir to the royal throne. This blindman gets it. This time, when Jesus heals the man, there’s no spit. Jesus doesn’t even have to touch him to get him to see.

Opening of the blind eyes of these two men act as bookends around the correction of the disciples view of Jesus, his mission and what it means for them and by extension us.

Though the disciples still don’t get it, as we shall see, at least we should.

See you next time.

The odds are you weren’t going to say Mark.

Where should you begin reading the Gospels? The odds are you weren’t going to say the Gospel of Mark. That’s because in comparison to Matthew, Luke and John, Mark has so little to offer. It’s the shortest Gospel by far, only 16 chapters. That, by word count, is about half the size of the other three.

And even the stories Mark tells are nothing special. 90% of them are found in Matthew’s Gospel and 40% are in Luke. So if you read Matthew and Luke you pretty much have Mark

But contrary to what you might think, Mark is actually the best place to begin reading the gospels.

That’s because Mark was most likely the first gospel written. The substantial agreement between Matthew, Mark and Luke, better known as the Synoptic gospels because they can be seen together, indicates that one or more of them copied from one or more of the others. And in almost every instance, Matthew and Luke appear to build on Mark’s foundation.

Mark’s fewer stories, for instance, suggests that Matthew and Luke added to it. Think about it. Which is more likely? That Mark edited out material that he found in Matthew and Luke or that they added material that Mark didn’t include?

The same is true for Mark’s poores writing style and harder sayings. Mark uses colloquialisms, Aramaic terms (the original language of Jesus) and redunuances where Matthew and Luke do not. Mark also records apparent limitations of Jesus’ power and repeatedly emphasizes the stupidity of the disciples. Matthew and Luke, on the other hand, are much more positive when it comes to presenting Jesus and the disciples. Matthew and Luke, once again, appear to build upon Mark by improving and softening their sourge.

All this means, by reading reading Mark first, you’ll not only understand where, how and why Matthew and Luse add their unique spin by deviating from Mark, you won’t find Mark redundant or stale by comparison. By reading Mark first, you’ll encounter this gospel with the freshness and distinctiveness with which it was meant to be read.

See you next time.

Set Apart

October 13, 2015  Leave a comment

Saying yes also means saying no. January 29th, 2012