The name of the sermon series we begin today, and which will carry us through the rest of the season of Lent, is “Mark’s Jesus.” Mark apostrophe-s Jesus. Now this isn’t the type of apostrophe-s that denotes ownership, like Virginia’s car or Steve’s house or Mellie’s backpack. Mark doesn’t’ own Jesus. Neither is it the type of apostrophe-s that implies creation, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or Monet’s Water Lilies. Mark didn’t create Jesus. It’s not even the apostrophe-s that indicates a family relationship, like Jeff’s wife or Vicky’s daughters. Instead, this is an apostrophe-s that signifies a particular telling or version: this is Mark’s version of Jesus’ life, Mark’s biography of Jesus.
Most of us have at least some experience with biographies, the story of real people’s lives. The TV show “Biography,” I heard, was for years the most popular program on its cable network, telling the story of a different person’s life every weeknight. People who become suddenly famous get featured in rush-to-market paperback biographies—we’ll probably see in stores soon the life stories of Olympians Chloe Kim or Mikaela Shiffrin. And we all, I’ll bet, some time in our school careers, had to do a book report on a biography: what did we learn about the life of Abraham Lincoln, or Thomas Edison, or Harriet Tubman.
Well the Gospels in our Bible are biographies. The books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each tell us about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. And as with other different biographies of the same person, these four gospels are not identical. They all cover most of the important events of Jesus’ life, but each has, to one degree or another, its own point of view, or emphasis. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much point in having all four in our Bible, would there?
Matthew, for example, seems especially interested in Jesus as a rabbi, in Jesus’ ideas and teachings. Luke, who tradition says was a physician, is the one who seems most interested in the details of Jesus’ healings, in how they were done. John is the mystic, the one most interested in how Jesus is God and how we can understand God through him. Each gospel, while not differing drastically from the others, has its own emphasis.
During the next six Sundays, the period of Lent and Holy Week, we are going to look at Mark’s version, and to concentrate specifically on the roles of Jesus presented by Mark.
Who is Jesus, in this gospel? What does he do? What does he consider most important? And which activities of Jesus does Mark consider the most noteworthy? Next week, for example, we’ll look at Jesus the Healer: there are many healings in the Gospel of Mark; what does he wish us to learn from them? Why does he present them? Later on we’ll look at Jesus the Includer, who paid attention to rich and poor, Jew and Gentile, religious experts and novices; and at Jesus the Reformer, who had some new ideas about religion to get across, especially to the religious establishment. During Holy Week we’ll look at Jesus the Savior, and his work on our behalf; and at Jesus the Victor, he who triumphed over death.
And today, we consider Jesus the Teacher. Mark often presents Jesus as a teacher in his version; why does he consider that so important? What parts of the teaching are most important? How did Jesus teach in Mark, and to whom?
Part I, then, of “Mark’s Jesus”: Jesus the Teacher:
One of the first things we notice about Jesus and teaching in Mark is that Mark considers it to be very important. In fact, throughout the early chapters of the gospel, Mark presents Jesus as first and foremost a teacher; he believes that to be Jesus’ first priority. After Jesus’ baptism and temptation, for example, as we heard today, the first thing Jesus does is to begin teaching: he was baptized, he was tempted, he came back, and he began to teach. A little later in the chapter, he goes to Capernaum, and first thing, he goes to the synagogue and begins to teach. The story turns into a healing story; Jesus ends up driving a demon out of a man. But only because the man had interrupted Jesus’ initial project, his teaching. Other healings follow the same pattern: Jesus goes some place to teach. It is only after he is distracted from that activity by the other needs of the people that he begins healing. His intention, his first priority in the first chapters of Mark, is to teach.
What does he teach. Mark provides a very succinct summary for us, in two sentences in chapter 1, verse 15: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.” The three parts to Jesus’ basic message are: the time of waiting for the Messiah and the kingdom of God is over; turn away from your wrongdoing; believe the good news that the Messiah has come to bring you close to God. All the instruction, all the stories, all the debate with the religious officials, everything which is to follow which Jesus is going to say, is part of those basic messages, Mark implies: the time of waiting is over; turn away from wrongdoing; believe the good news – that the Messiah has come, to bring you close to God. Chapter 1, verse 15.
Where does he teach. The locations become significant largely because of the contrast they provide with what had been done to that point, and what would be expected. Teaching was normally done in the synagogue. A rabbi would come there and read the Torah, what we call the “Old Testament,” and teach from it, to those who were attending the synagogue, to the membership, the ones who had brought themselves inside to hear. Oh, there might be some theological discussion and debate elsewhere—in the Temple, on the street—but generally the time and place for teaching was in the synagogue to those Jews who attended the synagogue.
Jesus, however, does not teach only synagogue-attenders. Think of where we see Jesus teaching in Mark: in houses, on hillsides, from a boat, in the country. Jesus does teach in synagogues—he preaches where and when he’s expected to, to people with some religious knowledge already. But he also goes outside the synagogues, to the non-believers, the unconverted, the uninitiated, the so-called “common people,” the sinners. “Why would you waste your time on them?” he would be asked. “Why would you work with lost causes—peasants and prostitutes and tax-collectors—instead of coming in here to preach to us good holy churchgoers?”
“Because it’s not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick,” Jesus would respond. “I came to call not the upright, but sinners.” Where Jesus preached was outside the usual circles, to those who didn’t yet know the Word of God.
And most remarkably, Jesus even preached outside Jewish circles. Mark makes a point of telling us each time Jesus steps outside Jewish territory into Gentile territory. “They reached the territory of the Gerasenes on the other side of the lake,” one passage begins, giving us the setting. “He left that place and set out for the territory of Tyre,” another one starts. These are Gentile places! This is unheard of! Talking about God to Gentiles? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What on earth was he doing? Where Jesus taught even included Gentile territory; he taught outside the usual circles.
If where he taught was unorthodox, so was how. For one thing, he taught, according to Mark, “with authority.” This authority, apparently, was something new; we’re told that his teaching made a great impression on the people because it was different from that of other teachers—instead, it was with authority. What “authority” means, we’ve come to learn, is that he taught from inside himself. He didn’t just read the Scripture and then sit down. He didn’t just quote a famous familiar rabbi, repeating a point that had been heard many times before. What “authority” means is his own authority—he added his own interpretation. He said what he thought the verses meant or implied. When we look at “Jesus the Reformer” in a couple weeks, we’ll see that his interpretations were sometimes quite bold—in fact, just the opposite of what people expected. At times he is even accused of blasphemy for what he says. His teaching was new; it was startling. He taught with “authority.”
And he taught in parables, as we heard in our second Scripture lesson. Not always—there is some instruction through direct speech, through command, through conversation and debate with scribes and Pharisees. But the teaching that was unique, that characterizes and sets Jesus apart, is the parables, the stories from everyday life, featuring images from farming or fishing or family life.
He told them stories to illustrate a point—a point which, unfortunately, was sometimes lost to parts of his audience. “What did that one mean”? his disciples would ask him later. “What were you trying to tell us there?” Their incomprehension is frequent enough that the question arises, “Why did he speak in parables, then, if the people couldn’t understand them? Why not just directly announce abstract truths and general principles, instead of couching them in illustrations which won’t be understood?”
A commentator named Barclay explains the reasons:
- First, people listen to stories. They can’t be taught if they’re not interested. Stories arouse people’s interest; they keep them listening.
- Second, parables were full of familiar terms. Remember, Jesus was preaching to everyone, not just educated rabbis. Illustrations from farming and shepherding and housecleaning were comprehensible to an audience of farmers and shepherds and homemakers.
- Third, parables made abstract ideas concrete. Instead of talking about “faith” in general, as an abstract principle, Jesus would tell a story of a faithful person, one whom could be visualized and related to , one who was performing faithful actions which the listeners could duplicate.
- And fourth, parables make people think for themselves. We remember things better when we work them out ourselves. Parables make people think. So Jesus taught in parables.
And lastly, Jesus taught—sometimes—by his actions. We turn to Paul when we want an explanation of Jesus’ death and what it accomplished, when we want to know how it worked for us and why. But it was Jesus’ act of going to the cross that showed so eloquently God’s love, that taught more than all the epistles in the world could, how far God would go for us. We look to Paul again for information on how the resurrection works and what we might anticipate in our future, regarding an afterlife. But it was Jesus’ actual rising on Easter morning that taught us of his power over death, and showed us that there can be a future for us after death. Jesus taught us, Mark shows us, in his actions as well as words.
So teaching was important to Marks’ Jesus—one of his first priorities. And he taught everywhere, outside the usual circles as well as in. And he taught with authority, with parables, and with actions as well as words. And he taught about a Messiah who had arrived, who asked people to turn away from their sins, and who was going to bring them close to God.
There were other teachers around in Jesus’ time. A movie in the late 1970’s called “The Life of Brian” may have depicted them the most memorably. Set in Jesus’ time, it showed preachers literally on every street corner trying to attract people to their corner rather than others. “Come over here, and listen to me. Maybe I’m the Messiah. No, not over there; this corner. Main and Court, not Main and Wood.” A few people found the movie sacrilegious, largely because, I believe, they must have misunderstood parts of it. Mostly it was just silly, being a Monty Python effort. But even in this silly, allegedly-sacrilegious movie, only one teacher had hundreds of people around him; the rest were pretty much alone. And that part of the silly movie rings true, for that one teacher was Jesus. Out of all the preachers on all the street corners, one captured the crowds with his message and his presentation of it; and he continues to attract them thousands of years later, even in cultures far different from his own.
There is something in the message and method of the teacher Jesus which continues to appeal to millions of people—and, I hope, to you. Mark was one of the millions, which was why he so strongly featured “Jesus the Teacher.” As we continue our series on Jesus’ roles in future weeks, we will find, as Mark did, that The Teacher is wrapped up in them all.
Let us pray:
God we thank you for the teachings of Jesus, and especially for the new truths and new ways of preaching them he brought, that we might come to know you better. Motivate us to continually want to become more familiar with these teachings, to read and hear and meditate upon them over and over again. And help us to put them into practice in our lives, that we might be worthy of the name “disciple.” Amen.