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Mark’s Nativity Story: Now is the appointed time

December 23, 2011


I have asked myself, what do I make of the story of Jesus?  What does it mean, and what does it mean to me?

To answer this question I set out, some months ago, to write a personal commentary on the Gospel of Mark.  Why Mark?  Although his work comes second among the four Gospels in the New Testament, it is agreed by most scholars to be the first-written among them.  I call it “the seminal Gospel” because not only the other Gospels but also all traditions about Jesus of Nazareth are seeded by this work.

Mark’s Gospel is the shortest of the four.  It has no nativity story like Luke’ s and Matthew’s tales, so familiar at this Christmas season.  In Mark the nativity is always now.  My commentary will explain what I mean.  Mark’s Gospel begins with the sudden appearance of Jesus in Galilee, where he is baptized by John the Baptizer in the river Jordan.  What follows comments on two verses from the first chapter of Mark, telling what followed immediately after Jesus’ baptism and temptation (that is, testing) in the wilderness.

Mark 1: 14-15  (King James Version)  Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. 

Commentators have said that Jesus’ first words reported by Mark, “The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is near; repent and believe in the gospel,” encapsulate his entire message.  The Greek word translated here as “time” is kairos, meaning   propitious time, as distinct from chronos, meaning chronological time.  His message, then, is timely in the same sense that a harvest is timely; it is a time of ripeness and fulfillment.  Mark supplies the historical context of Jesus’ message: “after John was betrayed.”  

The event was notorious enough for Mark to assume that his readers know John’s fate: he was murdered by king Herod the Great.  “Great” signifies builder on a vast scale, but, for one capable of murdering a son, as well as a revered prophet like John, he was not “great” on any moral scale. Caesar Augustus quipped, “Better to be Herod’s pig than his son.” 

Jesus’ call to repentance echoes John’s call, except in this respect: Rather than turning from sins so that they may be remitted, Jesus calls for a turning toward the Kingdom of God.  I remember, as a youngster on the playground, that when one kid would challenge another, the tough way to respond was, “Is that a threat or a promise?”  Here as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus’ message is remembered not as threatening but as promising.  Still, a promise and a threat are two sides of one coin, so the contrast between John’s and Jesus’ messages is easily over-drawn; in fact, Jesus may have begun as a disciple of John, who already had a significant following.  

The kingdom of God that Jesus announces is “near”—somewhere between “not yet” and “already upon you,” or in a word, “urgent!”  We can speculate that Jesus had been among the many followers of John the Baptist, and that John’s arrest was a catalytic event that propelled Jesus and those who followed him to set out on their own. We can also speculate that Mark and his circle wanted to show that Jesus superseded John: John was the Elijah to their Messiah!   These contested ideas lend the sense that an ordinary, un-miraculous history underlies the Gospel accounts.  But they are inherently speculative and therefore the stuff of scholarly interpretation and debate.  We note them along the way, but in the end this not a quest for the historical Jesus but a quest for a clear-sighted reading of Mark’s text. 

Clear-sightedness is more than an intellectual virtue.  It is a spiritual necessity in a wild and woodsy world where religious nuts abound.  Some leaden-eyed commentators  call Jesus’ prediction of the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of God a “mistake.”  Nothing happened, they say.  If Jesus’ whole ministry was predicated on a mistake, we might better drop the inquiry right here.  A failed prediction on such a grand scale suggests a delusional predictor.  But the real mistake, in realms of religious understanding, is to assume that we know exactly what we are looking for in advance of the quest.  Nowhere does Jesus describe the “kingdom of God,” but only speaks in “parables,” words that conceal as much as they reveal, about this mystery.   As Martin Buber taught, spiritual realities are not found in the realm of I-it  relations, but of I-thou relations; that is, not external, or objective relations, rather than  internal or “intersubjective” relations.  Not the realm of the letter but of the spirit.      

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           When, When, where, and what is this kingdom of God?  It is always “near,” as Richmond Lattimore’s translation has it, or “at hand,” as the King James Version has it.  Therefore it is always “available,” as the Quaker New Testament scholar, Joel Henry Cadbury, has it.  New language helps us see familiar phrases with fresh understanding: “available” suggests “within your grasp.”  Then, being in existential relationship to this kingdom is intrinsic to its visibility, even to its reality.  Objective facts are external to us; hence, they are observable and definable.  But existential realities are internal; we live within them and therefore cannot observe them objectively. 

We begin to see, then, that “the kingdomof God” is not only not an otherworldly place.  It is also neither wholly present nor utterly future, but paradoxically both.  Perhaps it is a way of living in the present, turned toward the future.  Perhaps all powerful and creative movements are like that—having an electric effect upon those who throw themselves into them.  Of course, this is a story not about some spiritual realm set apart from all ordinary, historical realms of life.  It is a story about the workings of the creative spirit in human experience.  This sense of “living in the present toward the future, also known as eschatology, suffuses everything. 

Interpreters frequently conflate “eschatology” and “apocalypse,” but this is a mistake.  Apocalypse concerns the idea of a cataclysmic end of “the world as we know it.” Eschatology concerns thought on “last things”—the ends to which things are tending and the way this changes our perception of present things.  This is why Jesus comes saying “repent,” that is, re-think and re-decide the directive of your life, in the light of possibilities you have not heretofore even imagined!  For God-ruling is truly at hand, and  you can reach out and grasp it!  It is available.  You can get there from here!

In an essay on “The Frivolous and The Earnest”—from his collection called The Dyer’s Hand—W. H. Auden said:  “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.  Christianity draws a distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious, but allows the former its place.”

Jesus’ words cited by Auden are a parable about proximate and ultimate allegiances: pay your taxes, but know to whom you owe your true loyalty.  The image of Caesar on the Roman coin became an idol when the emperor Augustus declared himself a god and demanded worship from his subjects.  This is a dimension of Jesus’ words that we might miss if we did not hear in them the deep aversion to idolatry in Judaism.  We might ask: Is a little idol worship all that bad?  Auden continues, citing parabolic words of Jesus along the way:  

“What it [Christianity] condemns is not frivolity but idolatry, that is to say, taking the frivolous seriously.  The past is not to be taken seriously (Let the dead bury their own dead) nor the future (Take no thought for the morrow), only the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional content but for its historic decisiveness (Now is the appointed time).”

These words shake us out of our lethargy, our self-pity, our sentimentality, our leaden-eyed vision. 

Auden’s title, “The Dyer’s Hand”–a dyer of cloth?–always puzzled me until I found what it referred to.  Once again, Shakespeare!  “My nature is subdued / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”  (Sonnett 111)  Some poets are theologians and some theologians, poets.  Certainly Jesus was both, for as Mark says of  him, a little further on, “He did not speak to them without a parable.”   –G K B

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 24, 2011 1:00 am

    When I has in Divinity School. we made up a song that began …


    Or as M.L. King, Jr. put it with his life,
    “Don’t just believe in the future.
    Believe the future in.”

  2. December 24, 2011 7:31 pm

    You and the late great Father Mathew the Poor (one of my favorite spiritual fathers, of the Monastery of ST. Macarius in Wadi El Natroun, Egypt) may have some overlapping contemplative areas concerning the Kingdom. here’s what he says:
    “The Kingdom of God, after all that has been said in the Gospel and all explanations, remains ever new and awaiting fulfillment. When all our words and all their meanings come to an end, the fact of the Kingdom remains unchanged. It is a life that cannot be described but needs to be lived. This is why, however much we talk about the Kingdom, we find that words fail, and the Kingdom remains something needed by the soul much more than it is needed by the mind or the imagination.

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