A Provocation: Third Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 6 (11): June 13, 2021: Mark 4:26-34

26And he was saying:
	Thus is the dominion of God:
		Suppose a person should dump seed on the ground, 
			27and then sleep and get up, 
				night after night
				day after day. 
		The seed sprouts and grows, 
	                who knows how? 
		28The soil produces automatically, 
			first the shoot, 
			then the stalk, 
			then full grain in the head. 
		29But when the grain is ripe, 
		BANG he sends the sickle, 
			because the harvest is standing ready.
30And he was saying:
	How shall we compare the dominion of God, 
	or in what parable shall we put it?  
		31It is as a seed of mustard, which, 
			whenever it is sown upon the soil, 
		is smaller than all the seeds sown on earth, 
		32and whenever it is sown, 
		it goes up and becomes bigger than all shrubs, 
			and makes great branches, 
			so that under its shade 
                                the birds of heaven can make nests.
33And in many parables of this sort he was speaking to them the word, 
	just as they were able to hear.
34Apart from parables he said nothing to them, 
but alone with his own disciples he explained everything.

A Question or Two:

  • Why mustard?
  • Why parables?
  • Why did he have to explain them if he told them “just as they were able to hear?”

Some Longer Reflections:

Mustard is not the smallest seed in the world. That doesn’t really matter. Jesus is not making a point about botany.

What does matter is that mustard was, for Jews in the 1st century, a weed. Ancient Jews used mustard in their cooking, but observant Jews did not plant it in their fields. Mustard is aggressive and invasive. Ask any farmer: it is impossible to have “just a little” mustard in your field.

It was this trait that made it not just a weed, but a religious weed. Observant Jews in any century do Torah so that their lives point to a God who is stable and orderly, a God who loves Creation and who saves people from the chaos that could kill them. That is the point of the highly-patterned lives that faithful Jews live. You observe Sabbath so that exhausted people can see evidence that God knows we need rest if we are to recover. You keep kosher not because God hates pork chops, but in order to learn self-control. Mustard breaks all boundaries, destroys orderliness, and weakens the witness of the community to God’s love. That’s why Jews in the 1st century did not plant it.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.”

That’s what parables do: they seem so simple at the outset, and then they cause problems that simply don’t let you go.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.” It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it.

“The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard.” It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness.

The question with a parable is not “What does this mean?,” but “What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

These days, this parable makes me think of conversations about incremental and revolutionary change. There are many such conversations going on. Everyone in every conversation appears to agree that change is essential. It is long past time to take seriously the continuing effects of our imposition of race-based slavery. We are long overdue in our recognizing that many of the people who have given us life, many people among our close friends and family, have had to hide deep truths about their identity, their gender, their way of living and loving in the world. There are more conversations of this sort. You know them because you are in them.

In those conversations are people whom I deeply respect who point out that incremental change is the favorite tool of the forces that hope to prevent all change. They quote, quite properly, Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail. People who are comfortable always urge moderation. As Dr. King rightly said:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.

In those conversations that are other people, people who I also deeply respect, who note that some of the necessary changes will pull communities apart.

It is easy to dismiss their concerns, as long as you think of them only in the abstract. From sufficient moral distance, it is clear that institutional self-preservation is a particularly distasteful form of cowardice. If you stand far enough away from real people in actual communities, it is easy to see that this is true. But people in actual communities live with the basic truths of life together: we need each other and we are stuck with each other. Members of rural congregations are tied together by bonds of family and history, and those bonds are often cemented by the fact that there are few, if any, other communities to join, should their congregation be torn apart.

The parable makes it clear: those who urge moderation are correct; the dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard: it may bring hope, but it surely brings chaos.

This parable is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If they succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of their own stability.

And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 13 (18): August 1, 2021: John 6:24-35

24When therefore the crowd saw:
     Jesus is not here;
          neither are his disciples;
they embarked into the little boats. 
They came into Capernaum,
seeking Jesus.
     25They found him
          across the sea;
     they said to him:
          when have you come here?
     26He answered to them,
     Jesus did;
     he said:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               You seek me, 
                    not because you see signs,
                    but because you ate of the breads 
                         and were stuffed.
                    not to earn the food that is destroyed,
                         but the food that remains into aeonic life,
                              the food that the son of adam to you will give.
                                   For this the father stamps with approval.
                                   This Elohim stamps with approval.
     28They said, therefore,
     to him:
          What ought we do,
               in order that we do the works of Elohim?
     29He answered,
     Jesus did;
     he said to them:
          This is the work of Elohim:
               In order that you are faithful toward the one whom that one sent.
     30They therefore said to him:
          What therefore are you doing, 
               in the way of a sign,
          in order that we see and be faithful toward you?
          What are you working?
               31Our fathers,
                    the manna they ate in the wordless wilderness,
                    exactly as it had stood written:
                         Bread out of the sky he gave to them to eat.
     32He said therefore to them,
     Jesus did:
          Amen amen I am talking to you:
               Not Moses has given to you the bread out of the sky,
               But my father gives to you the bread out of the sky,
                    the true bread. 
                         33For the bread of Elohim is the one that comes down out of the sky 
                              and gives life to the beautiful world.  
     34They said therefore to him:
               always give to us this bread.
     35He said to them
     Jesus did:
          I AM
          the bread of life.
               The one coming to me will certainly not be hungry;
               the one being faithful toward me will not be thirsty in any way.  

A Question or Two:

  • If Jesus is going to insist that the people who have followed him throughout this chapter are not seeking him because they saw signs but because they saw food, why does the storyteller inform us in the previous scene in chapter 6 that the people did indeed see signs. They involved food, but they saw them as signs.
  • Was Jesus not listening to the storyteller?

Some Longer Reflections:

Every pastor I know is weary: it is Year B, it is the middle of the summer, and we are sliding into yet another month-and-a-half of Bread of Life texts.

  1. Barley bread.
  2. Bread of life.
  3. Bread from the sky.
  4. Bread of life from the sky, like manna.
  5. Living bread that we gnaw on.
  6. More gnawing on bread from the sky.

It’s enough to put you on a theological paleo diet.

Many of the pastors I know best are living in Ephesians in order to think about almost anything other than bread. This reminds me (and dates me) of the Monty Python sketch from the 70s, only with bread, not spam. https://youtu.be/_bW4vEo1F4E

So, what can you make out of all this bread?

Here is a try: Why all this talk about living bread from the sky? The Jewish people in the wilderness were also fed on quails. Why not have Jesus identify himself as the Quail of Life, the living quail that comes from the sky?

That, of course, would be a little silly, but not a lot sillier than Jesus as bread. What is it about bread?

Bread is an agricultural product, and as such emerges as a regular food when people are getting their main food from planting grain and not from hunting and gathering. There is, of late, a kind of anthropological nostalgia for the period of human history before agriculture. Some people think of it as a golden age of peace and harmony.


But the development of agriculture also provides a more stable source of food, and thus allows settled communities. That suggests that the Bread of Life carries a different metaphorical message than would the Quail of Life. Quails you might find, or might not. Bread is more reliable. For all the very real risks of farming, it is more trustworthy than hunting for food.

So maybe one way to look at all this burgeoning bread is to read it as a source of life that can be trusted. “I am the living bread,” says Jesus. “You can trust that you will not be hungry, and never be thirsty.”

And if the beginning of his sentence is a sneaky reference to God’s self-identification to Moses (“I am that I am”), then I should translate it as “I AM the living bread….” If this is a reference to the Divine Name, then (reading with the rabbis), this is a reference to the Mercy Attribute of God. In this case, Jesus’ words come into English as “I AM, the God Whose Name is Mercy, is the living bread, you can trust God’s durable Mercy like you can trust the grain crop and the bread that comes from it. Mercy will certainly keep you alive.”

I kind of like that reading.

A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 12 (17): July 25, 2021: John 6:1-21

1After these things he went away,
Jesus did,
     across the sea:
          the Galilean,
          the Tiberian.
2There followed him
a great crowd:
     they kept seeing the signs 
          that he did on those who were weak.
3He came up into the mountain,
Jesus did; 
there he was sitting with his disciples.
4It was so close,
the Passover was,
     the festival of the Judeans.
     5He looked intently therefore,
     Jesus did;
     he saw:
          A great crowd comes to him.
     He says to Philip:
          How will we buy breads in order that these should eat?
     6This thing he kept saying in order to test him,
          for he himself knew what he was about to do.
     7He answered to him,
     Philip did:
          Breads costing eight months wages would not be enough for them
               in order that each should receive a little something.
     8He says to him,
     one of his disciples does
          (it was Andrew,
               the brother of Simon Peter),
     he says:
          9There is a boy here who has five barley breads 
          and two fish, 	
               but these are what into so many?
     10He said,
     Jesus did:
          Make the people to sit.
               (There was much grass in the place.)
          They sat, therefore,
               the males in number were about five thousand.
     11He received therefore the breads,
     Jesus did.
     He gave thanks.
     He distributed to those reclining at table,
          likewise also from the fish,
               as they were wanting.
     12When they were full,
     he says to his disciples:
          Gather the leftover fragments
               in order that nothing be destroyed.
     13They gathered, therefore;
     they filled twelve baskets of fragments out of the five barley breads 		
          that were leftover for the ones that had eaten.  
     14The people, therefore,
     saw what he did as a sign.
     They kept saying:
          This is truly the prophet who is coming into the beautiful world.
     15Jesus, therefore,
          They were about to come and seize him 
               in order that they should make a king.
     He left the region again into the mountain,
          himself alone.
     16When evening came
     they went down,
          his disciples did,
     on the sea.
     17They embarked into a boat; 
     they came across the sea into Capernaum.
     Darkness had already come.
          He had not yet come to them,
          Jesus hadn’t.
     18The sea,
          when a great whirlwind blew,
     the sea was awakened.
     19They had come rowing about five stadia, 
          or six.
     They saw Jesus,
     walking around on the sea.
          He was coming close to the boat.
          They were afraid.
     20He says to them:
          I AM.
          Stop being afraid.
     21They were wanting, therefore,
     to receive him into the boat.
          Right away it happened:
               the boat upon the land into which they were going.

(Translation is from my book, Provoking the Gospel of John: A Storyteller's Commentary; The Pilgrim Press, 2010)

A Question or Two:

  • Why is this version of the feeding of the crowd so similar, and so different, from the versions in Matthew, Mark, and Luke?
  • Why is the grass important?

Some Longer Reflections:

First off, the grass.

I don’t know.

But storytellers do not have words to waste. They don’t even waste syllables. So I should at least guess.

I was reading this scene the other day with a group of highly skilled pastors. They also wondered about the grass. It is an odd little note. One wondered where you would find grass around the Sea of Galilee. I didn’t know. I have never been there. She had. She noted that rock and gravel and sand were easy to find, but grass? No so much. “It’s like a desert,” she said.

I remembered the comment Tacitus puts in the mouth of a Caledonian chieftain: “…they make a desert and they call it peace.” (Agricola 30.4). This is a direct and pointed criticism of Rome’s impact on the world. I remembered further having read that Rome had deforested large areas of Judea in order to build the siege engines they used in crushing the First Jewish Revolt. They made a desert.

And so I wonder if the comment about plenty of grass might be a side jab at Roman destruction. “There used to be plenty of grass here,” the storyteller reminds the audience, taking a well-calculated shot at Rome. Does such a shot fit into this story? The storyteller has already (in a note not found in the Synoptics gospels) that it is close to Passover time. Passover is a time to claim freedom while remembering oppression. Passover is the perfect time to take a shot at Rome.

So maybe that is it. Or maybe not. But it’s a guess.

Every pastor I know has been groaning about the long stretch of “bread” scenes coming in the next six weeks. I get it. “No one lives by bread alone,” said someone. Not even preachers. So here is a little bit about the bread in this scene that might provoke new thought. The bread is barley bread. Not wheat. The bread is coarse. It is poor folks’ food. Everyone in any imaginable ancient audience would have noticed this. This crowd that keeps on following, and keeps on “seeing the signs that he did on those who were weak,” is a crowd of people who are themselves “weak.” This last word is generally translated as “sick,” and being sick is a common way to be weak. Ask anyone who has had a major medical adventure. Even with good insurance, this can be financially devastating. You know the role that medical catastrophes play in bankruptcies in the US. The storyteller’s choice of the the word ἀσθενούντων (“weak”) opens the door to more than people with diseases. There are lots of ways to be made weak. The people in the crowd that keeps on following him knows this. And they see his action on their behalf as a sign.

Remember this for the next few weeks.

A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: July 22, 2018: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56


Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

30 And the apostles gathered to Jesus

and reported to him all the things that they did

and the things that they taught.  

31 And he says to them:

You yourselves come alone into a wilderness place and rest a little,

for those coming and those going were many

and they did not even have time to eat.  

32 And they went away in the boat into a wilderness place


33 Many saw them going off

and knew them

and they ran together by foot from all the cities there.

They came there ahead of them.  

34 After he got out,

he saw a great crowd.

He was moved for them:

they were as sheep that did not have a shepherd.

He began to teach them many things.  

54 As they were getting out of the boat,

BANG they recognized him.

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A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 11 (16): July 18, 2021: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

30And the apostles gathered to Jesus 
     and reported to him all the things that they did 
     and the things that they taught.  
31And he says to them: 
     You yourselves come alone into a wilderness place and rest a little, 
          for those coming and those going were many 
          and they did not even have time to eat.  
     32And they went away in the boat into a wilderness place 
     33Many saw them going off 
     and knew them 
     and they ran together by foot from all the cities there. 
          They came there ahead of them.  
     34After he got out, 
          he saw a great crowd.
          He was moved for them: 
               they were as sheep that did not have a shepherd.
          He began to teach them many things.  
35It was already mostly evening 
his disciples 
     after coming to him 
were saying: 
     It is a wilderness, 
          this place, 
     and it is already mostly evening. 
     36Release them 
          so that they go in to the circling fields and villages 
          and buy for themselves something 
               and eat. 
37But he answers,
he said to them: 
     Give to them, 
     something to eat.  
They say to him: 
     Should we go and buy eight months wages worth of bread 
     and will we then give to them to eat?  
38He says to them: 
     How many loaves do you have?  
     Go see.  
And when they knew they say: 
     and two fish.  
39And he commanded to them to sit down, 
     all of them, 
     banquet by banquet, 
     upon the green grass.  
40They sat down, 
     row by row, 
          in hundreds and fifties.
41He took the five loaves and the two fish; 
he looked into the heaven; 
he blessed and broke the loaves.
He kept giving to his disciples 
in order that they should set it before them 
and the two fish he divided to all.  
42They all ate and were stuffed.
43They picked up fragments 
     twelve baskets full, 
          also from the fish.  
               44Those who ate the bread were five thousand males.  
     he forced his disciples to get into the boat 
     and to go ahead into the region by Bethsaida, 
          until he releases the crowd.  
          46After he ordered them off,
          he went into the mountain to pray.  
47When it was evening,
     the boat was in the middle of the sea, 
     he was alone on the land, 
     48he saw them tortured in their rowing.
     The wind was against them.
     About the fourth watch of the night 
     he comes toward them,
          walking upon the sea.
          He wanted to go past them.  
     49But when they saw him 
          upon the sea 
               they thought that he was a ghost.
               They screamed.  
               50For they all saw him 
               and were thrown into chaos.  
     BANG he spoke with them 
     and says to them: 
          Be brave.
          I AM. 
          Stop being afraid.  
     51He got into the boat, 
          got in with them. 
     The wind stopped
          and they were ecstasied beyond all measure  
               52for they did not understand about the loaves. 
                    Their hearts were calloused. 
53After they crossed upon the land 
they came into Gennesaret and dropped anchor.
     54As they were getting out of the boat, 
     BANG they recognized him. 
     55The whole of that region ran around 
          and began to carry 
               upon pallets 
          those who were in a bad way.
     They carried them around wherever they heard that he was.  
     56Wherever he went into a village, 
     or into a city, 
     or into a field, 
          in the fields they placed the weak.
     They kept calling him 
     so that they touch even the fringe of his garment.
          As many as touched it were rescued.

A Question or Two:

  • The storyteller informs us that Jesus saw the people as “sheep that did not have a shepherd.” What did he see that led him to that conclusion? Could it have been the fact that the crowd ran, all on their own, all the way around the lake to meet him on the other side? Could it be that the crowd seems to see Jesus as messiah, and (to Jesus’ mind) that alone is evidence that they are vulnerable, at risk, and too eager to leap to world-changing conclusions?
  • The storyteller tells us that Jesus, in response, “taught them many things.” Why not tell us what those things were? What is your hypothesis about the content of that teaching?

Some Longer Reflections:

The lectionary decided to omit 20 verses. Such choices have to be made, but it is worth noticing what was chosen to be omitted: Jesus feeds 5000 people who ran around the lake to be with him, and then Jesus walks out to join his disciples in the boat where they were “tortured in their rowing.” In the text as cut, Jesus goes from teaching to healing, and both activities are motivated by a crowd that runs to him.

We are told that they run to him because they know him, or because they recognize him. Which means they have been informed about him, somehow, by someone. The storyteller has also told us about this. At the end of the story, after Jesus is dead and after all his male followers have abandoned him, the storyteller opens our eyes to see how very many women are still following Jesus. The storyteller informs us that, though we somehow missed them, they have always been there, following from the very beginning all the way to the very end. And, we are told, as they followed Jesus, they “deaconed” for him. Deacons were people whose mission it was to connect need with resource. How did people know whom to run to? Not because Jesus looked just like his messiah mug shot in the Post Office. They knew because the women told them. They pointed out which one was the messiah, and told the crowd what they might hope for.

That means that at the heart of the messianic movement devoted to turning the world right-side-up is a key collaboration: the women (whom we miss, consistently) collaborate with Jesus, and the result is that Jesus is acclaimed as messiah. The result is that Jesus carries out the tasks that make him the messiah.

This last bit wants further reflection. Interpreters have, for a long time, noticed that Mark’s story of the messiah is decisively shaped by 2nd Isaiah’s songs, especially those about the Servant of God who suffers. This recognition is significant. The shape of the gospel is formed by the shape of Jewish hope at the time of the return from Exile. The storyteller knows the old songs of hope, and uses them to link the career of Jesus (who was murdered by Rome) to the moment of return from the Exile (a disaster inflicted on the Jewish people by Babylon). This creative link remakes the present moment (after Rome crushed the First Jewish Revolt and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple), reshaping it into a moment when hope is re-born.

Such re-shaping, such re-imagining is crucial to theology. It is why what Lutherans call the “theology of the cross” is central to my own theological work. A theology of the cross “calls a thing what it is.” This is crucial. This theological beginning point insists on seeing crucifixion for what it is: catastrophic torture, a dead end. A theology of the cross cannot leap over the murder of the messiah to get to a cheerier message, cannot treat it as a simple transitional stage on the way to glory. As I said, a theology of the cross calls a thing what it actually is: the lynching of the messiah crushes hope.

And the resurrection is the deep, world-altering miracle that creates hope as something altogether unlike mere optimism. Hope only becomes hope when it has stared into the eyes of impossibility.

Which brings us back to the tasks that made Jesus the messiah. Mark’s storyteller presents the doing of those tasks as the result of the women, who are as invisible as God in Mark’s story, collaborating with the messiah who will be murdered and raised. I have thought about this narrative structure for a long time. Mark’s story is tightly told, with no wasted movements. That inclines me to expect that the work of the women can only be understood if it is read in line with the basic narrative structure of the story as a whole. That is to say: the collaborative creation of the career of Jesus as the career of the messiah is the through-line that makes Mark more than just a random collection of “stuff Jesus did.”

The women, through their collaboration, make Jesus into the messiah who will be crucified and then raised. They do this by seeing the actual needs of actual people, and calling them what they are: obstacles that make it impossible to hope for the world to be turned right-side-up. And that means that the women in Mark’s story emerge (upon reflection, once their work is revealed) as the people who know the songs of 2nd Isaiah better than anyone else. They see the crippled people who will not be able to walk back to the Land of Promise. They notice the people who cannot see, who therefore could not follow the road home safely. They are pointedly aware of the people who cannot hear the song of freedom that Isaiah sang, and who therefore cannot join in singing that song. The women in Mark see all this, and they call it what it is: an obstacle that makes optimism irrelevant. And they connect need with resource, they bring people to the Jesus so he can do for them what a messiah must do. As a result, the women make it possible for hope to be born in the story.

At this point, you can take any sermonic turn you choose. But notice that we are, now as always, surrounded by necessities that are also impossibilities. You have to call things what they actually are. The problems we must solve if “Black Lives Matter” is to be more than a necessary slogan are stunningly complex and perhaps beyond our ability to solve. The legacy of abuse in the Indian Boarding School system (not just in Canada, to be painfully obvious) has left marks on people and families that we can scarcely assess, let alone heal. The knots that transgender people have to untie just to live make the legendary Gordian Knot look like two half-hitches.

No matter what sermonic turn you take, this set of scenes requires that we remember that if the problems we face were NOT impossible and necessary (at the same time) we would not need to tell stories about messiah at all.

What gives me hope is the work of the women in these scenes. They identify impossible problems that must be solved and thus become accomplices of the messiah.

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10 (15): July 11, 2021: Mark 6:14-29

14And Herod the king heard,
     for his name was becoming visible,
     he was saying:
          "John the Baptizer has been raised out of death
               and on account of this the deeds of power are being worked in him. " 
     15But others were saying:
          "Elijah it is."  
     Others were saying:
          "A prophet!
               Like, one of the prophets!"  
     16But after Herod heard, he was saying:
          "The one whom I beheaded,
               (John, wasn’t it?),
          that one has been raised."  
          17For the same Herod sent
          and arrested John
          and imprisoned him in a guardhouse
               on account of Herodias the wife of Phillip,
                    his brother,
               because he married her.  
               18For John kept saying to Herod:
                    "It is not allowed for you to have the wife of your brother. " 
               19But Herodias had it in for him
               and wanted to kill him,
                    and she was not able.  
                    20For Herod feared John
                    because he knew him to be a righteous and holy man.
                         He protected him;
                         he listened to him many times;
                              he was very much at a loss.  
                                   He did listen to him gladly.  
               21An opportune day came when Herod
                    for his birthday
               made a feast for his courtiers
                    and the commanders of the cohorts
                    and the leading citizens of Galilee.  
               22His daughter came in,
                    (the daughter of Herodias)
               she danced and it was pleasing
                    to Herod
                    and to the dinner guests.
               The king said to the little girl:
                    "Ask me whatever you wish and I will give it to you."
               23He swore to her:
                    "Whatever you ask me I will give to you,
                         up to half of my dominion."  
               24She went out;
               she said to her mother:
                    "What shall I ask?"  
               She said:
                    "The head of John the Baptizer."  
               25After she went in
                    BANG with haste
               to the king
               she asked,
               she says to him:
                    "I want…,
                         at once…,
                    I want you to give to me…,
                         upon a plate…,
                    the head of John the Baptizer."
               26The king became very sad
                    on account of the oaths and the dinner guests
                    he did not want to put her off.
               27BANG the king sent a guard
               he commanded him to bring the head to him.  
                    After he went out he beheaded him in the guardhouse
                    28and brought the head his upon a plate
                         and gave it to the little girl
                              and the little girl gave it to her mother.  
               29And after his disciples heard,
               they came and picked up his corpse
               and placed it in a grave.

(This translation is from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary. The Pilgrim Press, 2005)

A Question or Two:

  • If you had to diagram the ethical dimensions of this scene, how would you do it?

A Few Longer Reflections:

Be careful with this scene.

It is clear that the storyteller sees Herodias as the instigator of the murder of John. It is clear that the storyteller sees the little girl as being very like her mother in that she extends the instructions given her.

But it is not clear that the storyteller intends to let Herod off the hook. The storyteller, like the ancient rabbis, knows what Herod was like. They all knew the depth of his corruption, his depravity. The ancient rabbis refused to consider Herod to be Jewish (though his family had claimed that heritage for a few generations). The storyteller, in my estimation, would have agreed. This is to be remembered.

A too-quick reading of the scene makes John the victim (no problem there, I think) and Herodias (and her mini-me daughter) the villain. That is easy enough. But some interpreters put Herod in the middle, between the victim and the perpetrator; some even make him a victim almost equal to John.

You can see how these interpreters get that. The storyteller informs us that Herod knew John was a righteous and holy man. The storyteller makes sure we know that Herod protected John. And the storyteller paints a picture of Herod listening gladly to John. A too-simplistic reading of these narrative bits sets you up to see the women as the real villains in the piece. This is a typical interpretive move. And it is dangerous. Women become the real villains because they are first set up as mothers and as nurturers, so when they act out violence or even when they carry out any action that is not stereotypically tender, the audience is immediately furious.

I imagine that the storyteller sees the corruption of the women in Herod’s family to evidence of how desperately rotten all Herodians were. “If the women are this bad, just imagine the men!”

This is a cheap narrative strategy, and it has consequences: after such a story is told, women have an even smaller place to stand, even fewer choices that they are allowed to make. This cheap strategy draws its energy from the notion that women exist to nurture. When the storyteller has them do something other than nurture, it plays as an offense against nature. Women become the most evil villains of all.

This is also a dangerous narrative strategy. Out of this kind of storytelling comes the trope of the perfidious woman. As the “joke” goes, “Women! Can’t live with them. Can’t shoot them.” Ish.

We need to go carefully here.

There seems to be a progression in the ways we tell stories about people who have been converted into cardboard cut-outs, symbols. Women (in this case) are presented as acceptable when they support the status of the patriarchs. When they do not, they are inscrutable, impossible to read or predict, treacherous and therefore always dangerous. When the audience is fed up with this narrative strategy, women are converted into a different kind of cardboard cut-out, a symbol of another sort. They become magic figures, strong beyond belief, virtuous in their power, and magical in their ability to craft a plot transformation. This may be better than the trope of perfidious women, but not by much. Magical women don’t have to obey the laws of physics; they simply have to enter the story and magically make everything better. But they don’t have real human qualities. They are merely magical.

(And this kind of presentation is not limited to women only. Do a little searching on what Spike Lee calls the “Magical Negro.” It appears that we create this kind of character to deal with people that we don’t know what to do with.)

The next step in the progression is for these cardboard cut-outs to become capable of being either heroes or villains. This step is difficult to read. Women have already been heroes, and they have been villains. The difference is that, in this step, they are human heroes, and human villains. They are limited beings with no access to magic, and their heroism or villainy are the result of choices, not magic. They are not good or evil in pure form. They make choices and they make mistakes, and they have good reasons for making both.

If I am right in my reading of Mark’s story, the story only works because of the agency of women whose work is only revealed to the audience at the end of the story. Throughout the story the audience sees the usual parade of males (including the messiah) who seem to be driving the story. At the end, after Jesus is dead, the storyteller springs a surprise: none of this happened apart from the “deaconing” of women who followed Jesus from the beginning to the end, from Galilee to the tomb near Jerusalem. They connected need with resource, and thus gave the messiah something to do in his project of turning the world right-side-up.

The women in the scene at hand stand in stark contrast to these invisible women. Where the invisible deacons bring people to life, the Herodian women create only death. While the invisible women are always there (though, somehow, we manage never to see them). At the end we discover that they (perhaps even more than the messiah) are the fabric of the story. the Herodian women, by contrast, are sharply visible. They rip a hole in the story in order to break in and do their damage.

The question is: are these two kinds of women merely magical? This is not a simple question to answer. Stories like the gospel of Mark are full of “magic.” Any story committed to turning the world right-side-up could hardly be otherwise. And the Herodian women certainly seem supernaturally evil: even a little girl is capable of improvising new perversities. And the deacons are magical if only by virtue of their invisibility. The first major play I wrote, Eyes to See, played with this magical aspect. Every scene was surrounded by a crowd of masked women, visible to the audience, but invisible to every one on stage. Masked, they brought people to Jesus to be healed. When they removed their masks, their sudden visibility shook the stage. So, it is perhaps even natural to read the women (both good and evil) as magical, merely magical.

But in a sense, everyone onstage is magical. Actors are not merely people; they portray people, and by doing this they create connections with quirks and qualities inside each member of the audience. This complicates our analysis. Is Mark’s storyteller creating women who are merely magical, or are the characters in Mark’s story embodying qualities that people in the audience will recognize in themselves?

I am not sure that this question has a final answer. In any case, I do not know the answer to the question.

What I do know is this: any attempt to interpret this scene that does not consider the dangers of the “merely magical” runs the risk of undercutting every woman in the audience. It also runs the risk of confirming the fears of every insecure man in the audience.

It is time for us to be done with such things.

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 9 (14): July 4, 2021: Mark 6:1-13

1And he left that place. 
He comes into his hometown.
     His disciples follow him. 
2When it was Sabbath, 
he began to teach in the synagogue.
     Many who heard him were driven crazy.
     They said: 
          Where did this guy get this? 
          What is this wisdom that is given to him
               so that even such deeds of power are done at his hand?
                    3Isn't this the builder, 
                         the son of Mary 
                         and brother of James 
                         and Justus 
                         and Judah 
                         and Simon?
                    Aren't his sisters here before us?  
                         And they were scandalized by him. 
     4And Jesus kept saying to them:
          Never is a prophet without honor 
               (except, of course, in his hometown, 
               and among his own kin, 
               and in this own house. ) 
     5And he was not able there to do anything powerful, 
          except a few sick people 
          upon whom he laid his hands and healed them.  
               6And he was amazed because of their unfaithfulness. 
And he was going around the villages in a circle, teaching. 
     7He calls the twelve. 
     He began to send them two by two. 
          He was giving to them authority over unclean spirits  
          8and he instructed them 
               that they take nothing into the road except one staff, 
                    no bread, 
                    no pouch, 
                    no money in their belts,
          9but to put on sandals, 
          and not put on two tunics.  
     10And he was saying to them: 
          Wherever you go into a house, 
               remain there until you go out from there.  
          11and whatever place does not receive you 
          and doesn't listen to you, 
               as you go out from there 
               shake off the dust clinging to your feet 
                    to serve as a witness to them.  
     12When they went out they proclaimed 
          that people should repent 
     13and they were casting out many demons, 
     and they were anointing with oil many who were sick 
     and they were healing them.  

(This translation comes from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary, The Pilgrim Press, 2005.)

A Question or Two:

  • Why would anyone NOT welcome the people Jesus sent out to heal and exorcise?
  • Are you sure?

Some Longer Reflections:

The people in Jesus’ hometown call him a builder.

He calls himself a prophet.

The storyteller calls him Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ (Jesus, messiah, son of God).

How do these identifications fit together?

Customary interpretation sometimes reads the locals as being wrong because they underestimate Jesus. “They think he is only a carpenter, but we know he is Messiah,” and so on.

I find such interpretation offensive. One of my grandfathers was a carpenter; the other was a farmer. My father was an Ag teacher. Before I became a pastor and a teacher, I was a butcher. Anyone who describes a person as “only a carpenter” has never worked with a real carpenter. Same goes for farmers and teachers and butchers. Our life together depends on the trades that people devote their lives to learning.

A real carpenter does complex trigonometry in her head, and then fits it into an existing structure that has only a dim memory of being level, square, and plumb. A real farmer can tell you how the current lack of rainfall will affect every acre she farms, and what that means for yield potential and financial outcome. A real teacher could tell you (but won’t) about the struggles that each student brings to class and how that affects the ways she will shape her lesson plans and adapt them. She can also tell what she will try when that doesn’t work. And a real butcher can tell you if the meat on the cutting block was from a stress-killed heifer (or steer: we know the difference), and what that will do to the flavor and tenderness of the meat. Some of this we can tell with our eyes shut (from smell and touch), some only from the color of the meat.

Jesus, the tradesman, calls himself a prophet. This makes for an interesting contrast with Amos, the prophet, who calls himself a tradesman. I’m not sure what to make of this, but you can be sure that the storyteller is aware of the contrast. Amos, like Jesus, did his work in the north of the land of promise. Both practice a trade, and both act as prophets. Apparently learning a trade does not preclude acting as a prophet. In Amos’s case, it seems even to strengthen his work as a prophet. Tradespeople have a direct practical nature, in my experience, and that might have helped Amos connect with his audience. He was no dreamy child-of-privilege, he was a vinedresser like his father before him. He knew what pruning and producing had to do with each other, and he had no sentimentality for the branches he chose to lop off. Read Amos again. I think he sounds like a man who knows his way around a lopping shears.

My grandfather could use a hammer or saw with either hand, and you could tell that by looking at him. His left hand was fully as active as his right. His hands were rough and calloused, but when he picked up a chisel, it looked like a native part of his body. He worked delicately and forcefully at the same time, responding to what the wood would let him and his tools do. “It’s a poor carpenter that blames his tools,” he used to say. He knew that the success of his work lay in his hands and what they knew how to do. And he knew, at the same time, that his skill and his well-maintained tools could only do what the wood would allow.

Jesus calls himself a prophet, but I see him with calloused, precise hands holding tools that you could tell he knew how to use. His neighbors are, it seems, both impressed and scandalized by his words and by the “deeds of power done at his hand.” (Again with the hands!). I suppose some of that could be because, if he is a prophet, he is going to wander off, and they would lose a good builder. If you find a good carpenter (or farmer, or teacher, or butcher) you want to hang on to them.

But I suppose that it could also be because carpentry is trustworthy and solid, while wisdom and prophecy can drift into dangerous (or useless) territory. Religion gets out of hand too easily, and maybe the people in town knew that. When I told a good friend (who was pre-med) that I was going to seminary, he told me that was a shameful waste of a good brain. I still appreciate his assessment of the quality of my brain, but after all these years I see what he was talking about. Religion can make people awfully full of themselves (or full of SOMETHING anyhow), and it can lead people to drift off into the spiritual stratosphere where what they do makes little difference. Maybe that is also part of the reaction of the people in Jesus’s hometown. “We know his family: mother, brothers, sisters, solid people all of them. I hope this promising guy doesn’t turn into a religious nut that we have to apologize for.”

I mean, you can generally tell a good carpenter or butcher just by looking at them. How do you recognize a good prophet? I can hear the people worrying about this. You can always use another person who knows her trade, but just how many prophets do you really need, after all? Not many. And even the ones that might be good mostly seem to cause trouble, because, again, religion can really make people full of themselves, sure that the world needs to hear their latest “word from the Almighty” (and the “Almighty” might, or might not, be God).

I have been listening in on conversations amongst people, some of whom imagine themselves to be prophets.  Prophets don’t play well together.  Even when I agree with what they are pointing out, I find myself wishing that they thought of themselves as carpenters or butchers.  I find myself waiting (impatiently) for a hint of common sense.  Not a big prophetic trait, I am starting to think. Maybe the people in Jesus’s hometown were waiting for the same thing. The longer I explore Mark’s story, the more I am convinced that you can’t make sense of this story of messiah unless you take seriously the people around Jesus. When the people in the boat (also tradespeople) say, “Don’t you care that we are dying?” we shouldn’t scoff at their concern. When the Syro-Phoenician mother tells Jesus he should think again about his decision not to help her daughter, we should agree with her. And when the people who watched Jesus grow up express a preference for him as a tradesman, we maybe ought to sit a while and appreciate what they are saying.

Mark’s story raises questions about what it means to tell a story about messiah. A messiah turns the world right-side-up. That is necessary. And disruptive. And life-giving. And dangerous. And, it appears, a messiah has to be questioned, interrogated, challenged, and even corrected by ordinary people with ordinary objections. I’m not sure we like our messiah stories this way. We want certainty, confidence. We want the messiah to be unequivocally on our side, and we want to be right. If messiah fixes the world by instituting justice, and if messiah is on our side, and if messiah is simply and easily right, then everything is easy. The world may be a bit unsettled in the process of being turned right-side-up, but we can handle a little unsettling. In the end, we will turn out to have been right all along, and we will be even more comfortable in the messianic age than we were in this one.

Mark’s storyteller does not allow us this privilege. If even messiah needs to be unsettled, if even messiah needs to be corrected, if even messiah is sometimes too full of himself, then all bets are off. We cannot predict (comfortably) how things will change. And if this story of messiah is told with so many halts and course corrections, we cannot even expect a stable end-state. We can only sign on to follow the wandering course of making things less awful, less unjust, less unbalanced. But even at the end of the course, things will still be upside down.

That may be the most unsettling matter of all. We all seem to gravitate toward apocalyptic texts that imply a perfectly stable end-state in which everything is easily perfect. I am starting to think that Mark’s story of messiah is told so as to wean us from that too-easy imagining.

But that will have unsettling consequences for the ways we learn to speak about justice. It will mess with the ways we look at politics and political parties and movements. It will trip us up every time we applaud or chastise the Church for the latest evidence that we have moved both forward and backward at the same time. And it will complicate how we speak and listen in the presence of “prophets.”

I am starting to think that Mark’s storyteller is convinced that we need both prophets and tradespeople, both uncompromising critics and carpenters who make their living by compromising between trigonometry and reality. All of life can be analyzed with mathematical precision, but it takes a real tradesperson to make the new door fit into the old wall. And maybe, most of all, Mark’s storyteller is convinced that, no matter what it means to be messiah, that long-and-impatiently-awaited corrector of all things will need to be both prophet and tradesperson, both idealistic and directly practical.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 8 (13): June 27, 2021: Mark 5:21-43

21When Jesus departed in the boat back to the other shore, 
     there came a huge crowd, 
          it came together upon him.
          He was by the sea.  
     22There came a person, 
          one of the leaders of the synagogue, 
               (by name: Jairus).  
     When he saw Jesus, 
     he fell at his feet;
          23he begs him desperately,
          he says: 
               My daughter is at the point of death.
                    Come and lay your hands upon her
                         that she be rescued and live.  
     24Jesus went with him.  
     A crowd followed him, 
          a crowd so large that it crushed him.
               25A woman came, 
                    a woman twelve years in a river of blood, 
                         26twelve years having suffered many things 
                         under many healers, 
                    a woman who had exhausted all her property, 
                    all her substance, 
                    after twelve years she had improved not at all, 
                         in fact, her condition had grown worse.  
                    A woman came into the area, 
                         27came because she had heard about Jesus.  
                    This woman came into the crowd behind Jesus 
                    and touched his cloak.  
                         28She was saying: 
                              even if I only touch the hem of his garment, 
                                   I will be rescued.  
                    29BANG the spring of her blood was dried up
                    and she knew in her body 
                         that she was healed from her scourge.  
                    30BANG Jesus knew in himself 
                         that power had gone out from him.  
                    Turning and turning, around in the crowd, 
                    he  kept saying: 
                         Who touched my clothing?
                    31His disciples were saying to him: 
                         You can see the crowd crushing you 
                         and you say: 
                              Who touched me?  
                    32He kept looking around 
                         to find the woman who had done this.  
               33The woman, 
                    afraid and trembling, 
               knew what had happened to her.  
               The woman came and fell down before him.
                    She told him the whole truth.  
                    34He said to her: 
                         Daughter, your faithfulness has rescued you.
                         Depart in peace 
                              and be healed from your scourge.  
          35While he was still speaking 
          they came to him from the leader of the synagogue,
               they said: 
                    Your daughter has died, 
                         why bother the teacher any longer?  
               36Jesus overheard what they were saying.  
               He says to the leader of the synagogue: 
                    Do not fear, only be faithful.  
               37He would not allow anyone to be with him, 
                    no one except Peter, James, and John 
                         (the brother of James).  
               38They come into the house of the leader of the synagogue.
                    He sees an uproar: 
                         everywhere wild wailing, 
                         everywhere shrieking, 
                         everywhere howling.  
                    39He goes in and says to them: 
                         Why are you wailing?  
                         Why the uproar?  
                              The child has not died, 
                                   she’s only asleep.  
                    40They laughed at him bitterly.  
                    He throws everyone out.
                    He takes the father of the child, 
                         the father and the mother, 
                              and those with him.
                    He goes into where the child was.  
                    41He grasps the hand of the child.  
                    He says to her: 
                         Talitha cum 
                              (translated: Little girl, I say to you, get up). 
                         42BANG the little girl rose and walked around 
                              (she was, after all, twelve years old). 
                          BANG: ecstasy beyond ecstasy.  
                    43He strictly ordered them 
                         that no one should ever find out what had happened.  
                    He told them to give her something to eat.

(This translation comes from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller's Commentary. The Pilgrim Press, 2005.)

A Question or Two:

  • How had the woman heard about Jesus?
  • Why did she touch him from behind?

Some Longer Reflections:

Because we are used to hearing Jesus stories, it does not surprise us that the woman knew that Jesus could help her. That’s just how such stories work: somebody needs help; they see Jesus; they know he can help; he does; end of story.

Working with actors has taught me never to trust such automatic interpretation.

If you tell an actor that the woman had heard about Jesus, they will start spinning a backstory that will allow them to understand, physically, just how they heard, and what it did to them when they heard. Nothing comes from nothing. Everything carries with it the imprint of the moment that set it in motion.

There are two ways to approach this.

First, we can start with the moment of contact. She touches Jesus from behind. Notice that the storyteller does not have her touch the “hem of his garment.” That little note gives body to her understanding that ANY touch, however slight, would suffice. But she does come from behind, and she does touch his cloak. She did not grab his arm. She did not give him a shove. She mixed in with the crushing crowd and she touched so lightly as to touch only his cloak.

Why might she touch him so anonymously?

  • It is possible that she could see that he was a man on a mission and she had no need to slow him down. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, as he noticed her touch and wasted time dithering in the crowd, looking for her. But maybe that is what she intended, and then Jesus broke her intention.
  • It is possible that she and Jesus belong to a society in which women and men do not regularly touch each other. In several kinds of orthodox communities, there are men who recoil sharply at the touch of a woman. We know far too little of the ways Jews lived in the community in which this scene takes place to rule this possibility in or out. But if that if what we are looking at, then her need to touch the Messiah had to be balanced with his need not to be touched by a woman. So she touched him from behind, in a crushing crowd, lightly, and expected that he might not notice. No such luck.
  • There is another possibility. The storyteller mentions that the woman was bleeding. Any kind of bleeding would create a problem that she would need to solve, but there are indications in the scene that this was menstrual bleeding. The woman in the scene understood that she needed to touch the Messiah in order to be healed, but she might well have had no need to discuss the matter with him, or with anyone. Her menstruation was none of his business, so she touched him, lightly, from behind, in the crowd. This is a bit of a surprise, in fact. As Paula Fredriksen notes (in Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), matters of “cleanness” were not handled by some sort of “purity police.” People managed themselves. Men who had ejaculated, women who were menstruating, people who had touched a dead body: all of them regulated themselves. And still the woman entered the crowd. The crushing crowd. Jesus was not the only person she touched.

But Jesus was the only one who noticed. The storyteller tells us that he “knew in himself that power had gone out of him.” This is often read as if Jesus had some sort of a Divine Power-o-Meter on his wristwatch that alerted him to the power drain. Interpreters generally suppose that the power drain was the result of the healing.

Maybe it was.

But the term used in Greek is δύναμιν, and this word means power, or potency. Which raises an issue. There are ancient Jewish texts that reveal that some segments of society (generally the baritones, who really worry about such things) believed that a woman who was menstruating could turn milk sour at a distance of several feet. And if such a woman touched a man, he would become impotent. He would feel the potency drain out of him.

The silliness of such misogyny is part of what the storyteller plays with. All of a sudden, Jesus starts turning and turning around in the crowd, looking for the woman who had touched him. (The storyteller uses a feminine participle, so we are intended to know that it was indeed a touch from a woman, not just a random person needing to be healed.). The storyteller shows a Messiah who is nervous about being impotent.

And now the thing she chose to avoid is now forced upon her. In front of the entire crowd (many of them men, who are also suddenly nervous), she has to talk about her bleeding. Thanks, Jesus. He tells her she is faithful. Not a surprise. He tells her she is healed from her “scourge,” using a term that misogyny has sometimes forced on women who are simply menstruating.

There is another way to explore this moment of surprising touching.

The storyteller informs us that the woman had heard about Jesus. We can begin our analysis with asking how she heard, and from whom.

In this task, the storyteller has actually given us a great deal of help, though interpreters do not generally notice it.

At the end of the story Jesus is dead on the cross and all of his male disciples have run away in terror. At that point we discover women, a great many of them. They are standing there, watching. We are told that they have ALWAYS been there, from the very beginning of the story, and that they followed him in Galilee and all the way up into Jerusalem, deaconing to him. The word is διηκόνουν, and it is usually translated as “serving.” But, as Elizabeth Moltmann-Wendel has pointed out, this word is better translated to refer to the work of a diakonos, the person who served in Christian communities to connect need with resource. The first time we hear this word in Mark’s story with a human subject, it is Peter’s mother-in-law. After having been raised from her sickbed, she also deacons to Jesus. The next thing that happens in the story is that people arrive at the house with all their sick, many of whom Jesus heals. How did they know to show up? Peter’s mother-in-law did her work as a deacon, going house to house telling people with a need about the resource that the Messiah could provide.

So how did the menstruating woman hear about Jesus? That large crowd of women was always around Jesus, always connecting need with resource. And though her bleeding was none of Jesus’ darn business, the women in this crowd of deacons understood exactly what she was up against. “Just touch him from behind,” they told her. “He doesn’t even have to know.”

And so she did.

At the end of Mark’s story, the storyteller informs us that Jesus was always surrounded by a crowd of women who facilitated his work as Messiah. Somehow we missed them.

Makes you wonder what else we are missing.