Listening for the Echoes
When I was in seminary, one question on a New Testament final exam read: The Gospel of Mark – Masterpiece or a Mess? Support your argument with examples from the text. I find that one needs to listen for the echoes in the texts, while at the same time not trusting the standard translations, to find the overarching message in each gospel. For starters, we note that in Mark 1:21-28, Jesus leaves the wilderness where he has been for 40 days and nights and enters a synagogue in the town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. He keeps Sabbath and goes to synagogue. That is, he is an observant Jew and follows the rhythm of God in creation.
Mark sometimes uses what some have called a “sandwich” technique: in this case those attending the synagogue on the Sabbath are at first “astounded” at his teaching, and after the silencing and dismissal of the “unclean spirit” we are told they are “amazed” at his teaching. Astonishment is the sandwich. In between is this man, about whom we know nothing, and about whom we never hear again after the unclean spirit is silenced and sent packing. The sandwiching of his story returns us to the astonishment the people experienced when Jesus taught.
It is odd, however, that Mark’s gospel offers little if anything that Jesus is teaching. We only hear about what he does and that he does teach, all of which is astonishing.
A greater sandwich in this tiny little story has to do with “authority,” which is also the concern of Deuteronomy 18:15-20 where the God of the Exodus promises to raise up in future generations prophets to speak on his behalf “like Moses.” At the outset Mark tells us the people recognize that Jesus speaks with “authority,” not like the scribes; at the end they cry, “What is this? A new teaching with authority!” We are tempted to think this suggests that the teaching of the scribes is some how old and without authority.
Do not be fooled. The echoes in the text suggest otherwise. The scribes make scrolls, copies of the authoritative texts. Therefore, they are those in the community most familiar with every jot and tittle of Torah, the writings and the terms of Israel’s covenant relationship with YHWH, the unspoken name of God. Their task is to preserve the sacred texts and prepare the people to recognize, among other things, when one of God’s appointed prophets appears, which is cause for much hope under the present circumstances of occupation and Roman oppression.
The scribes have evidently done their job well! The people have run out to hear John, himself dressed like the early prophet Elijah, and to be baptized by him. Now they recognize that Jesus is another one of those whom the scribes have taught would come and bring new hope to the community. Jesus is not opposing the scribes, rather he is unlike the scribes the way that Martin Luther King Jr is unlike the Declaration of Independence – both Jesus and King are the human embodiment of God’s Word and the Declaration that “all men are created equal”. This is why the people are astonished. Jesus is the Word of God come to life!
What is even more astonishing, however, is the declaration the unclean spirit itself. Some scholars think Mark’s use of Koine Greek is deficient, for the Greek text has the spirit address Jesus as “Jesus Netzer.” This gets translated as “Jesus of Nazereth,” even though “netzer” is not the Greek for Nazareth. The translators assume Mark is sloppy. Yet, back in verse 9 Mark uses Nazareth correctly. The unclean spirit means to say “netzer,” which is Hebrew for sprout or shoot, as in: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” [Isaiah 11:1-2] The unclean spirit is wiser than we at first might think. The spirit hears this echo of Isaiah in the authoritative teaching of Jesus and relates it to the poet’s description of a coming anointed one upon whom God’s spirit rests. This links Jesus’ baptism, at which God’s spirit comes to rest upon him, to Isaiah’s text with just one word: “netzer.” Mark is not sloppy, but very familiar with the texts, perhaps a scribe himself.
Note carefully, in Mark only the unclean spirits and demons know who Jesus is. This one names him, Jesus Netzer and the Holy One of God. Holy One of God is how the texts refer to Elijah’s apprentice, Elisha, another echo. Naming represents power and authority in the Bible. As Bob Dylan sings in one of his Gospel songs, “Man gave names to all the animals, in the beginning, a long time ago.” God “names” creation into existence. You have some degree of power and control over things you can name. Only God’s name, YHWH, is so sacred that it is not spoken.
This unclean spirit speaks with authority just like Jesus. Odd. We often misconstrue “uncleanness” altogether. It has nothing to do with sin, and little to do with illness, mental or otherwise. It has to do with ritual uncleanness, and ritual itself can render one unclean. Richard Swanson in his book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark, observes that “matters that are marked as unclean are in many instances matters that touch on the mysterious.” [Swanson, p 102] Nothing is more mysterious than God and God’s Word. In the synagogue one cannot “touch” the Torah Scroll. One wears gloves, or puts one’s prayer shawl between oneself and the scroll. And one does not read it pointing with one’s finger but with a pointer, because the mysteriousness of the Torah, if touched, makes one unclean. Torah is not sinful, but it is mysterious and powerful!
The man’s unclean spirit is mysterious and powerful, and because it is unclean it can name Jesus while proclaiming the question for us all, “What have you to do with us?” The unclean spirit wants to know “What does all this have to do with you and with me?” That is the question for all of us when it comes to Jesus. Mark has the unclean spirit get the fundamental question of his gospel on the table. Jesus will ask the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” which is Mark’s question for us all. Mark knows what he is doing, and challenges us, the readers, at every turn with echoes from the teaching of the scribes and their texts, so we can answer the unclean spirit’s question, “What does all this have to do with Jesus and with us?”
One last thought. The people cry out, “What is this?” Another echo perhaps? Are we meant to remember that when YHWH provides daily bread the people call it “manna”? Manna, which translates roughly as “what-is-it?” Are the people astonished, as they were in the wilderness for 40 years, that new manna, new daily bread, is being provided? Is Mark suggesting that Jesus is the Bread of Life, the new manna? Is this why he says to us to this day, “This is my body”?
Who is Jesus? What does all this have to do with us? By whose authority? These are Mark’s central concerns. With all these echoes of the ancient texts, Mark urges us to share in the astonishment and mystery and come to know who Jesus is, what Jesus has to do with us, and by whose authority he comes to dwell among us. When reading Mark’s Masterpiece we need to carefully listen for the echoes to find out and be astonished once again ourselves!