Teaching the Kingdom

A Perspective on the Gospel According to Mark

The gospels are too rich and full to be understood completely from only one perspective. This outline views the Gospel According to Mark as a record of Jesus' teaching about God's governance of the world. In Mark we can see how Jesus can be a model for all teachers. Of course, there is the special circumstance that Jesus is also a major part of the subject matter.

In this view, the gospel is presented in two parts. The first is the Course of Instruction, during which teaching predominates. This might be called the "classroom" phase. Following this, Jesus brings his disciples along as he engages in a Course of Action.

The Course of Instruction [1-10]

The instructor's credentials [1:1-13]

Mark begins by establishing Jesus' right to teach, following the conventional format. First, we see that the existing faculty, in the person of John, has certified Jesus' competence. Second, we are assured that Jesus has gone through the prescribed course in the sense of baptism and temptation.

A great teacher does not need to submit to the normal requirements of degrees and credits in order to be a great teacher. Nevertheless we would be unlikely to accept an person's claim to be a teacher if that person was unwilling to go through the process and so prove basic competence. Even a great teacher is expected to demonstrate this minimal competence before we are willing to grant a hearing to any higher claim.

It is in this spirit that Jesus submits to John's baptism and undertakes the preparation in the wilderness before beginning to teach.

Introduction to the course

First in Capernaum [1:14-34]

Jesus begins by announcing the course and registering his students. In modern schools these are primarily administrative tasks, sometimes completely out of the hands of the teacher. Properly, however, setting the curriculum and interesting people to become students are the first steps in teaching. Jesus begins the process here, although he does not complete the roster until chapter 3.

Jesus' teaching rings with authority. His speaking alone impressed people, while an actual demonstration of his authority astonished them.

This teaching is a true introduction to the course, not merely an exercise in marketing. Jesus begins in the synagogue and he begins with a message of health. Even restricting the impure spirits from speaking is a part of Jesus' introduction, since that limits his association with misguided expectations about the messiah.

The people of Capernaum respond to this introduction, but by bringing only the physically ill (and by waiting until the Sabbath ended) they show that they need to pay attention in class.

Beyond Capernaum [1:35-45]

After making his pitch in Capernaum, Jesus brings the same message to other settlements in the area. The response is similar throughout the region. People seek Jesus out, and it is time to begin the lessons.

Signs of the new order

The first lessons deal with the proper ordering of life. Mark divides these into two parts, which we may describe as focusing on the religious and the social order.

Religious order [2]

It is only natural that the religious order should be first in Jesus' teaching. The first lesson attempt to turn attention from the merely physical healing to include spiritual concerns as well. The appearence of the paralytic was not a planned lesson, but an opportunity which a skilled teacher was able to seize. Jesus used this opening to tie his lesson to earlier points about his authority and about healing. (In Mark's narrative it also foreshadows the next section on faith.) [2:1-12]

The second lesson makes a point about sinners and the artificial hierarchy of "good" and "bad" people. Rather than just lecture on the topic, Jesus invites others to raise the issues. Then he makes his point when they are receptive and attentive. [2:13-17]

In the third and fourth lessons, Jesus again takes opportunities (which he has probably invited) to present his points. In these lessons Jesus emphasizes the newness of the new order and the limited value to be given to traditional religious observances. So far Jesus has not specified what should be given a higher value but he does imply his right to do so. [2:18-28]

The social order [3]

Jesus' lessons now turn to relations among people. This is no accident, but the logical continuation of the previous lesson. If traditional religion is not adequate to the new order, what has a higher worth? The answer is given in Jesus' dramatic helping. The answer was already given in Jesus' earlier lessons; it is the question which he clarifies now. Most answers are easy to find when the question is properly posed. The teacher's primary job is to help students to ask well. [3:1-12]

Jesus then chooses the twelve. The full significnce of being assigned to the "honors section" is only made clear later, but for now it is clear that the twelve are to be Jesus' teaching assistants. There is also an implicit message; first, in that Jesus even set apart some students as his own companions he tells us that there will be structure in his view of how things will be, but, second, by his choice he says again that the order is changing. (Mark makes little of this lesson, but it has significance from the point of view of how Jesus taught.) [3:13-19]

Finally, Jesus presents a complex lesson about the family of God, a lesson which apparently extended over several days. Jesus seems to have made his points since he inspired such strong personal attacks on his competence. In any case, he first argues that a family divided is no family. Although this is first stated in terms of the demons, as a direct response to his critics, it is immediately restated to apply to the family of God. The second part of the lesson is presented when Jesus' mother and brothers arrive. It is the obverse of the previous: Any people who are united in doing God's will are family. [3:20-35]

With this lesson, Jesus concludes the first section of the course. The series of lessons has covered a range of topics – sin, fasting, family ties – but they are tied together by the theme of the new order.

Stories of faith [4-6]

The second unit addresses the nature and role of faith for those who wish to be part of God's family. This unit is more intellectual and less immediately practical than the preceding one. Jesus is exploring his topic at a deeper level. Nevertheless, Jesus continues to relate his teaching to the personal experience of his students.

The growth of faith [4]

Jesus uses three stories about seeds to explain how God's power, or "kingdom", comes through faith. These stories emphasize the hidden and mysterious growth of the kingdom. This is important as a way of distinguishing Jesus' teaching from militaristic expectations. The use of story is particularly appropriate for this lesson because its imagery helps the students to accept and feel right about this understanding of power. Mark's detailed account of the disciples' confusion about the story of the sower illustrates the limitations of this style of teaching and Mark also tells us that Jesus did, in fact, supplement his stories with other lessons. [4:1-34]

These three stories of growing seeds are effective in helping students to accept a kingdom grounded on faith. On the other hand, they are open to the opposite error, thinking that the kingdom of God is purely internal and hidden. To counter this, Jesus inserts a contrasting message using a contrasting form. Three proverbs, about the lamp, giving, and getting back, lay the ground for the theme of service and focusing on others. In this, Jesus is foreshadowing later units and weaving the various sections of the course together. [4:21-25]

After completing this, Jesus gives his students a test. It is not a test that most teachers would give (it is not even clear whether the test was planned in advance) but the danger of death is the natural test for a unit on faith. The disciples fail; Jesus will have to continue his emphasis on this theme. [4:35-41]

Faith and wholeness [5-6]

The next lesson integrates elements of the preceding unit with the current emphasis on faith. Jesus begins with a demonstration of God's power which is also an acted-out parable of salvation. When Jesus calls the impure spirits out of the human, the man is saved from violence and isolation and is restored to sanity and community. (It is an interesting sidelight that Jesus requests this man to publicize the event, especially in view of Mark's emphasis on keeping publicity down in the Jewish areas. Perhaps Jesus is laying the ground for the the "next semester" when foreign students will be welcomed.) [5:1-20]

The lesson continues with events back on the Jewish side of the lake. Jesus sets off on what appears to be just another healing. Along the way a woman touches his cloak and is healed. Jesus chooses to raise her as an example to the students. In so doing, he is able to point out the relation between faith and health. Then he asks the same faith of Jairus. Mark tells us that news of the girl's death arrived while Jesus was still speaking to the woman. One wonders if Jesus timed this example deliberately. After all, even less gifted teachers are able to find or incite teaching opportunities when they are needed. [5:21-43]

There follows a negative lesson, a failed object lesson whose failure is as enlightening as the previous successes. In his home town, Jesus is able to bring little healing because the people have no faith. That is, he shows that healing comes from faith. Previously, Jesus has stated that it was faith which brought healing; now he demonstates that faith is a prerequisite. [6:1-6]

Jesus assigns some "homework" to his better students (except that this work is to be done away from home). He assigns them to work in pairs for mutual support and sends them out to teach to others the lessons which he has been teaching them. The goal would not be merely to spread the word, although using students as teaching assistants does increase the instructor's reach, but also to solidify the student's grasp of the material. Every teacher knows that you learn more by teaching, and that you teach more by turning your students into teachers. [6:7-32]

When the students return, Jesus apparently intends to hold a quiet session to discuss their experiences. This plan is disupted by the appearence of several thousand people who are expecting a public lecture, which Jesus agrees to provide. He then provides an extra lesson on faith and helping others. (Up to this point, the lessons on faith centered on the health of the believer, how one's faith can can bring health to onself or one's family.) [6:33-44]

Jesus is still concerned for his students, and insists that they go off alone, apart from the crowds. This time time he stays to make sure that the crowds go home. But there is also another purpose to this separation, which becomes another test of the students' progress. When Jesus comes to them, they think it is a ghost and they are afraid. Mark tells us explicitly that they failed this exam because they did not learn the lesson of the loaves. [6:45-52]

The honors section is not alone in missing the lesson. The rest of the people continue to give Jesus their attention only for the physical healings which he brings. [6:53-56]

True loyalty [7-8]

Jesus has now completed units describing the new order and on faith. The next unit returns to the themes of the new order in a much more pointed way. At the same time, Jesus speaks more directly to his own place in this new order.

Against conventional religion [7]

Jesus opens the unit with three brief lessons against traditional presumptions. First he answers a criticism about proper washing by attacking the entire structure of rabbinical legalism, saying that the rules which were presented as protecting and interpreting God's law were actually usurping the law. [7:1-13]

Jesus then returns to the original issue of cleanness. He ridicules the idea that dietary laws have anything to do with spiritual purity. Food, he says, is simply biology. Jesus makes this a memorable lesson through a simple turn of phrase which sets religious logic on its head – without which the whole lesson might have been forgotten. [7:14-23]

In the third lesson, Jesus chips away at the prejudice against pagan foreigners (and women). In what I take to be a gentle exchange of common proverbs, Jesus and the foreign woman make the point that any special status which God may have given to the Jews does not exclude anyone else. The use of proverbs, those truisms that everyone knows, serves to emphasize the obviousness of the point. The healing, on the other hand, is no part of the lesson and occurs totally "off stage". [7:24-30]

Jesus then heals a deaf man. Previously, Jesus healed illness, paralysis, and possession. It would be correct to view this as a progression adding dramatic tension to the course. Opening the ears of the deaf man is the symbolic conclusion to Jesus' lessons about conventional religion. [7:31-37]

Signs [8]

Jesus repeats, with slight variations, a lesson that was poorly learned during the previous unit. Immediately after, the Pharisees demand a sign. (Either they were absent or they were talking when they should have been paying attention.) Jesus refuses. There have been signs, and there will be more, but none are making an impression with this group. It is as though Jesus is warning these students, "You are going to fail this course." [8:1-13]

Jesus tries to start a discussion of these events with his honors section, but they completely misunderstand his opening comment. Therefore Jesus reviews with them the relevant lessons. At this point, even Jesus is becoming frustrated with his students' lack of progress. It is an occupational hazard. [8:14-21]

Next Jesus heals a blind man. Opening the eyes of the blind symbolically ends Jesus' lessons about signs. In addition, this foreshadows the elevation of the course content in the next unit. [8:22:26]

Jesus ends this unit with an oral examination and a follow-up discussion. The test itself goes fairly well; the students have the right answers. That they don't understand the significance of the answers is shown in the discussion – especially the importance of serving. Based on this, Jesus calls all the students together and tells them that they must not look only for the own gain. He will return to this in the next unit. [8:27-38]

Coming with power [9-10]

Jesus has come to the last unit in the Course of Instruction. In this unit, he will bring together the themes from the previous units and add new material about himself and about serving. At the end of this unit, Jesus' students are to be ready to accompany him in the Course of Action which follows. It is because of this that Jesus gives special attention to those students who will have special roles in that action.

Multimedia [9:1-29]

Jesus begins with an astounding audiovisual presentation. He announced that some would see the kingdom come with power, then the next week brought three students up the mountain. The production not only demonstated God's power but it also began to define Jesus' own role more explicitly. After the show, the students naturally have questions and Jesus uses the time while they are travelling back to discuss the experience with them. [9:1-13]

When they rejoined the others Jesus and his students are looking ahead to the end of the course and to what comes after. They are immediately confronted with the limited accomplishments of the course so far. Jesus responds with the frustration of the teacher who knows that he can't extend the term – and that even if he could it wouldn't be enough. Jesus resolves the immediate crisis and takes the opportunity to reiterate his message about the power of faith. [9:14-29]

General review [9:30-50]

Jesus takes his better students away from the public lectures for a thorough review. He begins by repeating the information about the next course which he first gave at the end of the previous unit. The students were not ready to ask questions, a sign that they needed further preparation. [9:30-32]

Jesus knows (from the previous examination) that the centrality of service has not been fully understood. The self-laudatory arguments of his students provide an opening for Jesus to speak on the need to be servants. The mild embarassment of being caught at such a frivolous discussion is a mnemonic tool since we know that we tend to remember better those lessons learned in uncomfortable situations. [9:33-37]

Finally, Jesus return to the issue of loyalty or, we might say, purity in judgement. Jesus tells his students that anything or anyone who advances life (or the kingdom, which are synonymous here) is good, while anything or anyone who becomes an obstacle should be discarded. Eyes, feet, salt: all are good but none have ultimate value. All are good only as they serve their purpose. [9:38-50]

What power is like [10]

After completing the review session with the honors section, Jesus delivers another public lecture. His theme is power and the need to yield up personal power in favor of the power of the kingdom. Jesus doesn't address his theme directly, but uses there distinct incidents which occur during his teaching to raise the issue indirectly. Jesus makes clear that he opposes men putting away their wives, adults pushing aside children, and rich people clinging to their wealth. [10:1-31]

On the road following the public lecture, Jesus' student are conscious of the impending end of the course. Jesus tries to explain what will come afterward, but they are too keyed up to grasp it. It is only when James and John ask for special consideration that there is an opening which Jesus can exploit. The other students are indignant – possibly because they remember Jesus' words on service, or else out of jealous concern for their own places – and from this Jesus is able to create one of his most memorable teachings about power in ths kingdom of God. [10:32-45]

To end this Course of Instruction, Jesus heals a blind man from Jericho. This man calls Jesus to himself and is called by Jesus. His blindness is cured by faith, without a cumbersome ritual of healing. The cure occurs when Jesus is already on the road out of Jericho and the cured man follows along on the way to Jerusalem. Thus, this otherwise unknown disciple symbolizes all those students who have passed the Course of Instruction. [10:46-46]

The Course of Action [11-16]

The Course of Instruction is over and now the students accompany the master as Jesus engages in a Course of Action to bring in the kingdom about which he has been teaching. Instruction does not end, but whereas teaching had the primary place in the previous course it now is secondary to action. Students have left the classroom phase to enter on-the-job training.

Self-proclamation [11-12]

The first step Jesus takes is to announce, in words and actions, who he is. He begins with the dramatic and follows that with words which are hardly less dramatic for those who can understand. The difference in tone between this course and the previous one is striking; in the earlier lessons Jesus was authoritative but now he is positively aggressive. [11:1-12]

Inaugurating the kingdom [11]

The first action is to claim the messiahship. Jesus does this without any words, by arriving at Jerusalem in the role described by Zechariah and by accepting the acclamation of the people. [11:12-26]

The next action is to remove impurity from the holy precincts. This is mainly a symbolic act (there being no hint that the money changers stayed away) but as a teaching tool it succeeds in pointing out the failings entrenched even in such a revered institution as the temple. The cleansing of the temple is framed by the curious act of cursing the fig tree. This act has more immediate effect and Jesus uses it to speak to the power of the kingdom. [11:12-26]

Finally, Jesus asserts his authority against the religious establishment. When the leaders challenge his authority, Jesus refuses to respond. (This refusal is in itself an assertion of his independent status.) Instead, Jesus challenges the leaders' competence to judge religious authority. As soon as the leaders allow Jesus to dictate the conditions of the contest, Jesus has won. [11:27-33]

Laying out the new order [12]

Jesus returns to instructional mode in order to clarify his claims. He begins with a story about some truly obnoxious renters. Of course, the story is really about the religious establishment and about Jesus' independent and superior authority. Mark makes clear that this assertion was fully understood. The use of story here forces his listeners to make his point in their own minds. This forces everyone to be first his ally in making his claim before they can become his enemies by rejecting it. [12:1-12]

Jesus accepts a few questions from his listeners. The first two are intended as trick questions. Jesus allows his questioners to define their point of view and then responds to the erroneous presumptions (rather than answering the questions as posed). In this way, Jesus maintains control of the lesson even in the face of adverse interrogation. [12:13-34]

The answers Jesus gives imply that tax policies and social practices have distinctly secondary importance. This provokes the third question, which is an honest request for clarification on what Jesus believes does have primary importance. Jesus accepts the question in the same spirit and gives a straightforward answer. This results in a positive response from the student.

Jesus has asserted his claim to be the messiah and to have authority superior to the established leaders. Now he disposes of the presumption that the messiah must follow in the pattern of King David. Jesus teaches instead that the messiah is David's lord. This teaching gives Jesus freedom from all prior authority and precedent. [12:35-37]

What will Jesus do with such freedom? The question is not asked, but Jesus leaves his students with two concrete example which address that issue. Those scholars of scripture who are seeking adulation rather than truth exemplify the wrong path. A poor and powerless woman who imprudently gives over her entire livelihood becomes the exemplar of the right path. Each example is instructive by itself. The interplay of the two examples adds to the understanding which they convey. It is clear, in retrospect, that Jesus was claiming the choice made by the poor widow as the choice he made for himself as the messiah. [12:38-44]

End things [13-14]

The course of action is now drawing to a close. Jesus is done with public lectures (limiting his teaching to his own students) and is turning his attention toward the last things. This section is antisymetric with the preceding one, beginning with the instructional part then then going on to action.

The instruction portion is a curious discourse spoken privately, on the Mount of Olives but looking at the Temple. The content consists of a series of warnings about the future which become progressively more obscure and difficult. The general theme, which is supported both by the warning tone and by the uncertainty, is "Beware! Stay alert!" [13:1-37]

With the warning given, Jesus turns again to action. The events of the Passion are not random or merely opportunistic but a complex interaction of plans and counterplans. Mark provides us with a taste of this plotting by the chief priests, Judas, and Jesus. In the incident at Simon's house, Jesus shows how well aware he is of what is going on. It is possible that Jesus' words were calcuated to provoke Judas to the "very necessary sin" which will move the action forward. In any case, Judas' alliance with the priests follows immediately in the narrative. Jesus' own planning for the Passover celebration is revealed next. [14:1-16]

Jesus acts to change the memorial of God's actions in the past into a memorial of God's action in Jesus himself. The Passover supper is already a moving religious occasion. The drama is heightened in this case by the warnings, the plottings, and the confrontation of the recent days. For the students, this is the climax of the Course of Action for (as Jesus knows) they are not able to complete the action with him. [14:38-44]

After supper, Jesus tells them that they will drop out. They do not want to believe him, but not only can't they stay alert, they can't even stay awake while Jesus prays. Learning the lessons intellectually is not the same as being able to apply them in life. Jesus has foreseen this and is ready to bring the action to a close without further assistance. Indeed, before the arrest even takes place, Jesus tells his students that the program is over. The arrest does occur, and all the students leave. [14:27-52]

Direct action is now in the hands of the priests. Jesus appears willing to stand by passively. When they are not able to invent a case, however, the High Priest asks Jesus directly whether he is the messiah. Jesus answers this directly. This last act allows the process to continue. In his answer, Jesus chooses to include allusions to two messianic scriptures. There may have been an instructional purpose in this, or it may have served as a rhetorical device to emphasize that his answer was made in full awareness of the significance of the question. In any case, both Psalm 110 and Daniel's dream (Daniel 7) are statements of messianic triumph. [14:53-65]

Of all Jesus' students, only Peter made a noticable attempt to be with him. Peter was present at the High Priest's palace. Even Peter, however, could not keep his mind clear. [14:66-72]

Completion [15]

Jesus has made his choice, taken action, followed through. The religious leaders have resolved to turn him over to secular authority. Events will unfold, provided only that Jesus does not stop them. Jesus essentially takes no further action; Mark narrates for us the events as Jesus is condemned, mocked, and crucified, dies, and is buried. [15:1-47]

This is not to say, of course, that nothing of importance is occurring. Mark's concise and symbol-filled narrative tells of the completion of the act of salvation, telling us that when Jesus breathed his last the veil which separated God's people from the holy of holies was torn in two.

Beginning [16]

The Course of Instruction and the Course of Action are both completed. Christ is not vanquished, as it had seemed, but he is removed from the story which Mark has been telling. There is yet another course beginning; the angel reminds the women of Jesus' promise that there would be another course and advises advises them to gather the students so that it can begin. (A brief summary of the new beginning has been appended to the gospel account.)

June 1992
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Pivot Rock Ensign