Mark 9:2-12:44

The gospel of Mark then relates a story of Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah on a mountain. Those who are familiar with the Bible will recall that Moses and Elijah each appealed to God on a mountain on behalf of the people of ancient Israel. Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. Elijah left Mount Carmel after defeating the priests of Baal. Now Peter, James and John hear a voice from a cloud repeating the words revealed to Jesus at his baptism: "This is my beloved Son; listen to him." As he comes down from the mountain with his disciples, Jesus tells them not to tell anyone what they have heard until after the Son of Man has "risen from the dead."

They seem astounded to hear this (in Mark 9), although Jesus has already told them (in Mark 8) that the Son of Man is to be killed and after three days will rise. They ask about Elijah coming before the day of the Lord, and Jesus explains that Elijah has already come (apparently referring to John the Baptist). Because in the biblical story of Elijah he had been taken up into heaven without dying, the Jews believed that he would return before the day of the Lord's judgment. Therefore, if Elijah had come as John the Baptist that might mean the end was very near.

When they rejoin the other disciples, Jesus finds these disciples have been unable to cure a boy possessed by a spirit. He says, "Everything is possible to one who believes." The boy's father then cries out: "I believe; help my unbelief." And Jesus cures the boy. Once again, Jesus teaches his disciples that the Son of Man must be killed and will rise after three days. This is the third time we have heard this teaching, but the gospel relates that the disciples did not understand and were afraid to ask. Instead, they begin to discuss which of them is the greatest. Jesus tells them, "If anyone wants to be first, he must make himself last of all and servant of all." And he says that whoever receives a child in his name not only receives him but "the One who sent" him.

When his disciples report on a stranger driving out demons in the name of Jesus, they are instructed: "He who is not against us is on our side." Then the gospel of Mark relates several warnings that concern temptation. The language of these teachings is brutal. For example, the gospel reports that Jesus said: "if your eye causes your downfall, tear it out; it is better to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than to keep both eyes and be thrown into hell." If the New Testament is understood as the literal or infallible word of God, what are we to do about such commandments? (Who has not looked at a beautiful woman or handsome man with desire or envy?) This is best read as hyperbole, or exaggeration for emphasis, a rhetorical device that was well-known in the time of Jesus.

This section of the gospel of Mark concludes with a series of dialogues. Jesus is asked if divorce is lawful. He responds to the question with a question: "What did Moses command you?" Those challenging him reply that "Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife by a certificate of dismissal." Jesus answers by asserting that this "was because of your stubbornness." Then he argues from Genesis that marriage is for life. "Therefore what God has joined together, man must not separate." Paul allowed divorce in the church between a Christian and spouse who was not converted, but the gospel of Mark confirms a tradition about the teaching of Jesus that is more strict than the Jewish law or Paul's modification of it.

The disciples question this teaching and also rebuke people bringing children to Jesus to be blessed. This makes Jesus angry. "Let the children come to me," he says, "for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these." And, as if to clarify that enigmatic saying, Jesus continues: "Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it." This seems to mean that having the trust of a child is essential, but the disciples are left to figure out the meaning on their own.

In the next dialogue Jesus responds to a question about eternal life by reciting the commandments of the Jewish law. After the man says he has kept these, Jesus tells him to sell his goods, give his wealth to the poor, and follow him. When the man goes away with a heavy heart, Jesus says to his disciples, "How hard it will be for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God!" When the disciples ask, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus answers, "Everything is possible for God." And when Peter asks about the disciples, Jesus reassures him that all those who give up their families for the sake of the gospel will enjoy a greater family now and eternal life in the age to come.

On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus again tells his disciples that the Son of Man will be killed and will rise from the dead. This seems to prompt two of the disciples, James and John, to ask to sit at his right and left, when he comes to rule in glory. Jesus tells them they do not understand what they are asking and then says to the other disciples, who are angered by this special pleading, that "the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Outside the gates of Jericho, Jesus heals Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, saying: "Your faith has healed you." And Bartimaeus at once begins to follow him toward Jerusalem. Because Bartimaeus is not told to be silent or to stay home, we sense that the time for Jesus to reveal his true identity is near.

As they come to Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem, Jesus sends two disciples to get a colt that, he says, has been prepared for him. Then the disciples spread their cloaks on the colt and walk before and behind it as Jesus rides into Jerusalem. The disciples and others along the road shout: "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David which is coming!" Here, the "Lord" refers to God, not to Jesus; and the kingdom that the people seem to expect involves independence from the rule of the Romans. After looking around the temple, Jesus leads his disciples back to Bethany for the night.

The next day Jesus curses a fig tree for not having fruit, even though it "was not the season for figs," before entering the temple and throwing out the money changers. When, on the following day, the disciples notice that the fig tree has withered, Jesus says, "Have faith in God." He tells the disciples that they will receive whatever they ask for in prayer. But, he says, "If you have a grievance against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you the wrongs you have done." (This statement may be found in the prayer attributed to Jesus, which in the church is known among Protestants as the "Lord's Prayer" and among Roman Catholics as the "Our Father.” Different versions of this prayer are recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.)

We see here another example of one story inserted into another. The story of the fig tree seems to suggest that the cleansing of the temple, which is inserted into the account about the fig tree, is also about faith. The issue is not that the moneychangers are cheating the people by marking up the exchange rate for trading Roman currency for Jewish coins or by selling them animals for sacrifice at unfair prices. Jesus attacks them because the temple is robbing the poor people by promising an answer to prayer for those who purchase sacrificial pigeons. Prayer, Jesus says, will be answered for those with faith who repent of their sins. He is challenging the prosperous Jewish establishment that sells prayer in the temple to the poor.

This story supports the arguments of Paul. Among the Greek-speaking churches, the focus of faith is not the temple in Jerusalem, nor the church associated with it after the crucifixion of Jesus, but the risen Christ. Did Jesus actually enter the temple and throw out the moneychangers? All four gospels in the New Testament record that he did, although the gospel of John places this encounter at the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. Those who read the Bible literally argue that he must have done this twice — once at the beginning and then again at the end of his ministry. But this seems unlikely, as the first three gospels do not even report that Jesus goes to Jerusalem until the end of his ministry and also record that the disciples are surprised when Jesus causes a stir in the temple. Clearly, however, whether the Jesus of history did or did not throw the moneychangers out of the temple, the Jesus of the gospels does.

Not surprisingly, this leads to a debate with leaders of the temple. The gospel of Mark tells us that the chief priests, scribes, and elders ask Jesus: "By what authority are you acting like this?" Jesus replies by asking them whether John's baptism was from God or men. This retort effectively silences them, as they cannot answer either yes or no without stirring up the crowds against them.

In the gospel account, Jesus then tells a parable about a man who planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants. When he sends servants to collect the rent, the tenants refuse and beat them. So, finally the man sends "his beloved son," believing the tenants will respect him. When the tenants kill him instead, they can only expect, Jesus says, that the man will come "and put the tenants to death and give the vineyard to others." In case the Jewish authorities are obtuse, Jesus quotes a passage of scripture for them: "The stone which the builders rejected has become the main cornerstone. This is the Lord's doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes." (Psalm 118:22-23) The author of the gospel of Mark notes the temple authorities "saw that the parable was aimed at them and wanted to arrest him," but because of the crowd they left him alone.

Then some Pharisees and supporters of Herod try to trap him with a question about paying taxes to the Roman emperor. Jesus answers by asking them to show him a coin. "Whose head is this," Jesus says, "and whose inscription?" When they reply, "Caesar's," Jesus says: "Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and God what belongs to God." This is far less clear than Paul's statement about being a good citizen in the Roman Empire, because Jesus does not clarify what belongs to Caesar. Certainly, many of those following him felt that very little if any of the meager income of the poor Jewish people rightfully belonged to the Romans. In 66 A.D., about thirty years after the crucifixion of Jesus, these crowds were to revolt against Roman rule, perhaps with the open support of the church in Jerusalem.

The gospel of Mark then relates that Sadducees, "who maintain that there is no resurrection" (the author explains for his Gentile readers), present Jesus with a problem concerning the obligation under Jewish law of a brother to marry the widow of his deceased brother, if she has not given birth to a child. If one or more brothers marries a widow, they ask, whose wife will she be at the resurrection? Jesus answers by explaining that they do not understand what resurrection means. Men and women who rise from the dead, he teaches, are like angels and thus do not marry.

A scribe asks Jesus, "Which is the first of all the commandments?" Jesus answers by quoting Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18. His answer so impresses the scribe, that the scribe warmly praises him. "You are right in saying that God is one and beside him there is no other. And to love him with all your heart, all your understanding, and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself-that means far more than any whole-offerings and sacrifices."

It is extremely significant that the gospel of Mark includes this statement by a scribe. In this short story Jesus affirms the Jewish law, and a Jewish expert in that law expresses complete agreement with him. Clearly, not all the Jewish leaders opposed Jesus, because at least some Jews agreed with his understanding of the law of Moses. This, of course, was also true for Paul, who told the church in Galatia that the whole law was summed up by the commandment to love our neighbors. (Gal. 5:14) The Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem may have opposed Paul, but we know from his letters that many Greek-speaking Jews in other cities of the Roman Empire agreed with him.

The Jesus of the gospel of Mark does not reject the Jewish law, but interprets it freely as, apparently, other Jews were doing. This Jesus even seems to believe that the Messiah is not the son of David, because he argues that in Psalm 110:1 David refers to the Messiah as Lord. This denial that Jesus is descended from David is inconsistent with the genealogy and birth story in the gospel of Matthew, but perhaps it is included here to emphasize for Gentile readers the freedom of Jesus from the Jewish tradition. Jesus in the gospel of Mark is the Son of God, not the son of David.

Then Jesus condemns the hypocrisy of the scribes. "Those who eat up the property of widows," he says, "while for appearance' sake they say long prayers, will receive a sentence all the more severe." It is not the Jewish law that keeps Jews from the kingdom of God. It is injustice, pride and hypocrisy by those who know the law and, therefore, should know better. To illustrate his point Jesus tells his disciples that a poor widow, who gave all she could to the temple treasury, has given far more than the rich contributors who have given only a small portion of their wealth.  The gospel of Mark teaches that God demands justice of both Jews and Gentiles. © Robert Traer 2016