ESTABLISHMENT OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD AS SUBVERSION OF DEHUMANIZING RELIGION: A Reading of Jesus’ Act in the Jerusalem Temple in Mark 11.15-18

The perceived importance of the story of Jesus’ act in the temple is evident as it appears in all the four Gospels (Mt. 21.12-17; Mk. 11.15-18; Lk. 19.45-48; Jn. 2.13-22). Markan version is the longest among the four. Only Mark makes clear that God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for “all the nations” (Mk. 11.17). The episode in Mark 11.15-18 is generally called “Jesus cleansing the temple”.[1] However, this description of Jesus’ act in the temple is too weak an appraisal. Jesus’ act is symbolic of a more serious pronouncement. Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ action in the temple reinforces the purpose of the larger narrative that the time of fulfillment has come and God’s kingdom has dawned. The final public act of Jesus in the temple forms the climax of the conflict between Jesus, messenger of the kingdom of God, and the guardians of the Jewish temple-related religion.

Jesus is critical of the dominant system that has deviously deprived certain groups of people of human dignity and value. There is large-scale dehumanization of a massive group of individuals. They are cast out to live lives of unworthiness. Jesus’ ministry of word and deed should be understood in this context. Jesus is not a reformer of Jewish temple-related religion. He did not spend his precious lifetime to indulge in sanitization of an established religion that proposes and practices discrimination. His refusal to accept the dehumanizing treatment integral to the dominant system or social order proves his dissociation from the dehumanizing system.

I. Jesus’ Act in the Temple

After entering Jerusalem, Jesus proceeds to the temple (Mk. 11.11). The critical nature of his visit is clarified by the events of the following day (Mk. 11.12-14). The fig tree episode throws light on Jesus’ act in the temple.

The fig tree event sandwiches Jesus’ temple act. This event interprets Jesus’ action in the temple. However, there are hardly any references to the temple described metaphorically as a tree, leave alone fig tree. If the fig tree in Mk 11.12-14 is used symbolically for the temple in Mk 11.15-17, the most likely metaphorical use would be as a reference to the Jerusalem temple-related religion not belonging to ho kairos.      

On the following morning on his way to the temple along with his disciples, Jesus sees “a fig tree in leaf”. He approaches it in order to pluck its fruit and satisfy his hunger. But he finds no figs. The writer points out that it is not ho kairos, which is translated as “the season”. If this is the intended meaning of the writer of Mark’s gospel, then Jesus’ expectation of fruit at this period is unreasonable. Moreover, Jesus cursing it for not producing fruit out of season is outrageous. The other important thing is, Jesus, who lived in Palestine all his life, must have been aware of the fact that it is not the season for the fig tree to produce fruit. Considering these things, one needs to know the writer’s intended meaning of ho kairos.  

Mark uses ho kairos in 1.15, 11.13 and 13.33 (and tō kairō in 10.30 and 12.2). In 1.15 and 13.33 ho kairos refers to the eschatological age. This implies that ho kairos in Mark 11.13 also refers to the eschatological age. Therefore, the cursing of the fig tree demonstrates that the leafy fig tree symbolizing the temple cult does not belong to the eschatological age. Mark vividly portrays the conflict between the eschatological kingdom power active in and through Jesus, and the guardians of the temple-related religion that sustained a kingdom of enslavement. God’s liberative power active in and through Jesus has removed the veils placed by the dominant religion to block or blur human vision of God. So what people have been seeing is a distorted image of God. On the basis of this distorted image of God the guardians of the dominant religion have perpetuated their power through exploitation and marginalization of people.

The temple-related religion gives an illusion that it has “fruits”, whereas in reality it is barren. Here “fruits” refer to “serving the needs of people”. The guardians of the temple-related religion, by promoting this delusion, have benefited not only through the business that is taking place at the temple, but also in maintaining their power and authority on people. Jesus is exposing this delusion through the acted parable of the “cursing” of the fig tree and by bringing to a halt the business associated to the temple cult. The purchase of sacrificial animals and change of currency are necessary for the operation of the temple cult. The tables of the money-changers are needed for buying and selling of the sacrificial animals at the site and to exchange Roman coinage with its idolatrous images and inscriptions into an acceptable coinage, probably Tyrian coinage, which would be used for buying sacrificial animals and paying temple tax.[2] Jesus has chased away the buyers and sellers of the sacrificial animals and birds needed for sacrifice, and overturned the tables of the money changers. Jesus overturning the tables of merchants is often understood as Jesus’ desire to rid the temple of dishonest merchants, who are involved in unfair business practices. But the Gospel says nothing about this. Jesus’ radical action is directed at the abolition of the temple cult. As Herman Waetjen says, “This is not an act of reformation intended to eliminate business activities from the observance of the cult or to separate trade and commerce from the worship of God. Jesus is not “cleansing the temple”.”[3] Jesus is rejecting the temple cult: “He would not allow anyone to carry a vessel through the temple” (Mk. 11.16). He is, in effect, stopping the operation required for the functioning of the sacrificial system.

The immediate context of Jesus’ temple act, and the wider context of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God and his conflict with the guardians of the temple-related religion give an eschatological framework. Jesus’ radical act signifies that the temple cult does not belong to the eschatological age. His condemnation on the temple cult is based on the scriptures: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mk. 11.17). This quote is taken from Isaiah 56 and Jeremiah 7. Isa. 56 envisions a time of full inclusion of the excluded groups of people, and so an inclusive community. Eunuchs and Gentiles, who were excluded from “the assembly of the Lord”, are welcomed (cf. Deut. 23.1-4). God’s house shall be a house of prayer for all the nations. Only Mark has included that God’s house shall be called a house of prayer for “all the nations” (Mk. 11.17). Further, Isa. 56.11 complains about the greed of the leaders of Israel: “The dogs have a mighty appetite; they never have enough. The shepherds also have no understanding; they have all turned to their own way, to their own gain, one and all.” The term “gain” clearly implies that their profit has been unjustly and violently acquired. This is one point of contact with Jeremiah 7. Although “den of robbers” in Mk. 11.17 seems to suggest that the problem is dishonesty of the merchants, the citation from Jeremiah 7 refers to sins including stealing, murder, committing adultery and swearing falsely. These sins refer to the sin of acquisitive desire or greed. The people of Judah were involved in acting unjustly with one another, oppressing the alien, the orphan and the widow (Jer. 7.5-6). It is such behavior that made the temple “a den of robbers”.[4] Jeremiah goes on to say that the people “then come and stand before me (God) in this house, which is called by my name, and say “we are safe” – only to go on doing all these abominations” (Jer. 7. 9-10). The prophet declares God’s judgment on “this house, which is called by my name.” Jeremiah cites the destruction of the Shiloh temple as precedence for the destruction of the Jerusalem temple.

Therefore, Jesus’ temple act signifies his condemnation on the temple cult (cf. Mk. 15.1-2). At Jesus’ trial one of the charges brought against him is that he has said that he would destroy the temple (Mk. 14.58). The same charge is repeated by the mockers when Jesus is crucified (Mk. 15.29-30). However, the destruction of the Jerusalem temple that Jesus pronounced is not through violent means.[5] This is found in Jesus’ answer to Peter’s astonishment at the sight of withered fig tree: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you” (Mk. 11.22-23). The destruction of the temple-related religion happens through the presence of the community of faith. 

By repudiating the temple cult, Jesus is rejecting in its entirety the religion represented by the Jerusalem temple. The rejection of the temple cult implies rejection of the oppressive, exploitative, dehumanizing and tyrannical system which it sustained, to the advantage of the ruling elite. This rejection of the temple-related religion has serious consequences on the power and authority of the temple aristocracy, especially the chief priests, the elders and the scribes, who are the custodians of the temple cult and representatives of the Sanhedrin. For them, temple-related religion has been a self-serving system. That is why they question the “authority” of Jesus for his temple act.   

II. Conflict between Jesus and the Guardians of the Temple-Related Religion

What we find in the Jerusalem temple is the climactic intensification of a conflict begun in the earlier chapters of Mark’s Gospel between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders on perceived Jesus’ violation of the Torah. As Thomas Kazen says:

The two concepts of temple and Torah are interrelated. Although the Torah functioned without the temple after 70 CE, the two presuppose each other during the period of the Second Temple…The temple service was an important part of the Torah, and much of the Torah, especially purity rites, were geared towards the temple, although not exclusively. If Jesus was involved in quarrels concerning the temple system or temple service, it is likely that he was involved in some disagreements about the Torah as well.[6]

Conflict between Jesus and the guardians of the temple-related religion occurs in the context of God’s action in and through Jesus Christ in the lives of people, the dawning of the kingdom of God. The context and content of Jesus’ words and deeds is the kingdom of God. Jesus’ teaching and deeds signify the dawning of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom activity of Jesus is developed in the earlier chapters of Mark’s Gospel through his preaching, teaching, exorcism and healing. Exorcisms and healings are signs of God’s reign in and through Jesus Christ. Mark 1-10 stress powerful words and deeds of Jesus Christ among Jews and Gentiles. These chapters also highlight opposition from demonic and human powers to God’s action through Jesus’ ministry of word and deed. The conflict between Jesus and Satan is portrayed by the temptation narrative (Mk. 1.12-13). Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark does not give details of Satan’s temptation. This conflict is followed by Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God (Mk. 1.14-15). In the conflict stories in Mark 2.1-3.6 the controversy between Jesus, and the scribes, the Pharisees and the Herodians occurs in the context of God’s kingdom power active in and through Jesus Christ in the lives of people (cf. Mk. 14.62).[7] Both exorcisms and healings are the product of God’s power active in Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ ministry of exorcism expresses his conflict with spiritual powers that are resident in human beings to destroy them. The person possessed by the “Legion” is portrayed as violent (Mk. 5.1-3). However, his violence is demonic, as he is helpless and completely under the influence of an unclean spirit. Mark finds violence to be appropriate for characterizing evil spirits. The demonic violence is uncontrollable and no one is stronger to bind this violence (Mk. 5.4 cf. 3.27). It is destructive as publicly exhibited by the drowning of the herd of swine (Mk. 5.13). The power of Jesus is contrasted with that of the demonic. Jesus’ power is not an uncontrollable violence used for destruction. It is transformative as epitomized by the change effected in the possessed person: “Then people came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion” (Mk. 5.15). Jesus’ power perceived as a greater power is not violent in its expression. People are liberated and empowered, not enslaved and destroyed. For people this is “a new teaching with authority”, not as that of the scribes (Mk. 1.22,27).

The dawning of the kingdom of God through the ministry of Jesus is characterized by service and inclusion. Jesus used his kingdom power and authority to serve the weak, vulnerable and marginalized. His message of the kingdom of God proclaimed through words and deeds signifies service and inclusion. In Mark Jesus is described as touching the hand of people in the context of healing: a leper (1.41), Peter’s mother-in-law (1.31), the dead Jairus’ daughter (5.41), a deaf man (7.33), the blind man (8.23), and the dumb and deaf boy (9.27). There are also several instances of people touching Jesus: the woman with hemorrhage (5.27-28) and the crowd seeking healing (3.10, 6.56). Among these healings by touch, several concern people who are generally considered unclean. Defilement constructs a barrier between the unclean person and the rest of the community. The transmission of defilement from the unclean person keeps him/her away from the community. The bone of contention between Jesus and the Jewish religious authorities is the unregulated contact with the unclean. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that Jesus’ deliberate gesture of touch and contact with the impure is part of his ministry of inclusion and service.

Lepers are included in Jesus’ healing work and fellowship (Mk. 1.1.40-45, 14.3). Jesus heals a leper whose disease has made him marginalized and ostracized (1/40-45). Leper typifies an untouchable. He is treated as the worst form of impurity bearer. This is evident from the fact that leprosy is treated as death in the impurity system (cf. Num. 12.12).[8] Leper is to dwell outside the camp (Lev. 13.46). Exclusion of lepers in the Second Temple period is confirmed by the Qumran literature and Josephus (4QMMT B 64-72; Josephus Ant. 3.264; Ag. Ap. 1.281). The exclusion of leper is aimed at preventing the spread of impurity. Isolation of lepers is a general practice in Palestine during the first century CE. The predicament of those labeled as “unclean” under the temple-related religion is pretty stark. Leper, along with his physical suffering, is loaded with psychological suffering through social alienation. Religion labeled him/her an outcast. It did not do anything to this person to alleviate his/her suffering. The temple-related religion has made no provision for the healing of leprosy, but only for the return to cultic purity when the disease had been healed (Lev. 13-14). This purification can only be declared by a priest and is dependent on making an appropriate sacrifice. The priest is not involved in the healing of leper, but only in diagnosis before and after healing and performance of rituals as part of purification procedure of the healed person in order to allow him/her into the community.

The conventional view is expressed by the leper’s acknowledgment that he is unclean (Mk. 1.40). Jesus did not follow the existing religious tradition is evident when he went outside the exclusive community, where “unclean” or social outcast lived, and touched the leper (Mk. 1.41). He has used his kingdom power and authority to alleviate the pain and suffering of people. Jesus healing the leper is the first of several instances where Jesus violates the Jewish ritual boundaries. He refuses to recognize such boundaries that excluded certain groups of people. Gospel traditions do not give any hints about Jesus going through purification rituals after having come in contact with the impure. This shows Jesus’ rejection of the dominant cultural system. The behavior of Jesus would have been objectionable to the general public, and particularly to the guardians of the dehumanizing religion.

Jesus’ ministry of the kingdom of God characterized by service and inclusion is further evidenced by the stories of the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter. The story of the bleeding woman is intercalated into the story of healing Jairus’ daughter, so that the two stories become mutually illuminating. Both stories contain similar themes, motifs and terms, such as “death” in different forms (social and physical), “twelve years” and “daughter”.[9] The common motif is faith (Mk. 5.28, 34, 22-23, 36). The purpose of sandwiching of these stories is “to establish a sense of time lapse.”[10]

A woman with flow of blood touches Jesus. Unnatural flow of blood from a woman results in impurity. Her situation is parallel to that of a leper (cf. Lev. 13-14; 15). Leviticus 15.19 declares that anyone who touches a woman with a flow of blood from her body becomes impure (cf. Lev. 15.25-27). Therefore, impurity is “a bodily state and a contact-contagion.”[11] The legislation in Lev. 15 about discharges contains no hints about expulsion of the discharger. It only discusses about contamination. This suggests that the dischargers lived within the community, unlike lepers. However, Numbers 5.2-3 instructs: “Command the Israelites to put out of the camp everyone who is leprous, or has a discharge, and everyone who is unclean through contact with a corpse; you shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp; they must not defile their camp, where I dwell among them.” Kazen comments:

What can be said with some certainty is that, in addition to the main legal tradition concerning discharges (Lev 15), there are clear traces of a stricter tradition within the Torah itself (Num 5). Such a practice of exclusion could be older than that of Lev 15, as attested by texts from neighbouring cultures.[12]

According to Josephus people with discharges were banished from the city by Moses (Ant. 3.261 cf. J.W. 5.227). Both lepers and dischargers were expelled from the city. This account of Josephus is in accord with that of Numbers 5.

Although “the exact mechanism of contamination in Mk 5.25-34 remain somewhat uncertain,” it is likely that dischargers are considered to transmit impurity by touch in the first century Palestine.[13] This is supported by the behavior of the woman approaching Jesus. She wanted to be hidden from public view. Her behavior indicates that her disease is associated with ritual uncleanness. Her sickness contributed to her social alienation. Jesus by calling her forward to the public attention has praised her faith. His statement in Mk. 5.34 is “Daughter, your faith has saved you.” Her healing is not just of the disease, but is a comprehensive one. Her faith on the kingdom power that is operative in and through Jesus Christ has not only cured her of her disease, but also saved (sesōken) her from the dominant system that not only is indifferent to her suffering but has also added more pain by labeling her “unclean” (Mk. 5.28-30). Jesus has rejected the dehumanizing dominant system. He promoted a system of loving one’s neighbor expressed in service and inclusion. Commenting on Jesus addressing the woman “Daughter” Wendy Cotter says:

The choice of ‘Daughter’ is a very sensitive one. Given the intimate nature of the woman’s ailment, it allows a tenderness of address and at the same time maintains the most non-erotic, protective character for Jesus’ relationship to her.[14]        

Jesus’ rejection of the dominant system is further confirmed by his touch of the body of a dead girl, the daughter of Jairus (Mk. 5.41). The Greek verb egairō in Mk. 5.41 refers to life after death (cf. Mk. 16.6). Jesus’ indifference to the existing laws of impurity is reinforced by Jesus entering the very place, where the dead body laid, and touching it in order to give life (Mk. 5.40). Again Jesus is demolishing the boundaries (because touch of a dead body makes one impure) created by the temple-related religion. The law regarding corpse-impurity is found in Numbers (5.1-4, 19.11-22, 31.19-24). A person acquires impurity by not only touching a corpse, but also being present within the same enclosure where the dead body is kept (Num. 19.14-15). Failure to purify from this impurity results in expulsion from the community (Num. 19.13,20).

Also in the story of Gerasene demoniac (Mk. 5.1-20) Jesus enters a Gentile territory, an unclean place for Jews. The man with unclean spirit lived in a cemetery, another unclean place for the Jews. By entering an unclean place consciously Jesus shows his disregard to some of the existing cultural values. What is threatening about Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders (and the Gentiles of Gerasenes) is that he does not leave the world as it is. He transgresses the existing boundaries, thus disturbing the existing social order. This causes social instability. 

Therefore, miracles in Mark demonstrate Jesus’ compassion and kingdom power in the service of the needy. They not only show Jesus’ divine power, but also illustrate the character of his power, the way he uses it in the service of others.[15] The intense kindness, sensitivity and unfailing benevolence of Jesus aligns him with common people, particularly the marginalized groups, and contrasts him with the powerful religious and political leaders who never showed any interest in the welfare of these groups, except lording over them.

Jesus’ ministry does not confine to Jewish dominated areas. His ministry of exorcism, healing and teaching includes the Gentiles. That means, his ministry of the kingdom of God is an inclusive ministry, not an excluding one. Jesus associates with tax-collectors and sinners and eats with them (Mk. 2.14-17). He exorcises a person in the Gentile territory (Mk. 5.1-20) and heals the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk. 7.26), thus demonstrating that God’s kingdom power has no boundaries.

The inclusive ministry of Jesus is also confirmed by Mark 7.1-23. This passage deals with purity and defilement, particularly with regards to foods. Mark 7.1-23 is placed between the story of feeding five thousand, with its many Israel motifs and images, and the story of feeding four thousand, with its Gentile allusions.[16] The two feeding stories which bracket the discussion on purity in Mk. 7.1-23 address the core issue of Jew-Gentile relation. The issue that Jesus addresses in Mk. 7.1-23 is expected to be the issue of transmission of impurity. Purity with respect to foods is part of a larger tradition regarding maintenance of holiness, understood as separation from certain groups of people and things that defile (cf. Lev. 20.24-26). The laws of purity are central to Jewish identity (Lev. 11.1-23; Deut. 14.3-21). Even though it is difficult to “determine exactly to what extent purity regulations were developed and to what degree they were kept among the populace at large, there is enough evidence of the importance of purity to most or all of the religious groups in first-century Palestine.”[17] In Mk. 7.14-23 Jesus is radically altering the Jewish understanding of what defiles. He declares all foods clean (Mk. 7.19) and what goes inside does not make a person impure, but what comes out from inside does. Jesus specifies some of the evil things that come from within that defile a person: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride and folly (Mk. 7.21-22). The thing underlying this list of defiling traits is acquisitive desire or greed. Remember that the acquisitive desire or greed perpetuated by the temple-related religion made the temple “a den of robbers”.

Interwoven with the stories of healing, exorcism, and association with sinners and tax-collectors are the stories of Jesus’ conflict with leaders of Jewish religion. The conflict is over Jesus offering forgiveness and violating Jewish customs such as Sabbath (Mk. 2.1-3.6). Jesus’ subversive activity is expressed by his healing on the Sabbath of a demoniac, Simon’s mother-in-law and a man having withered hand, and his support to the disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath. The normal principle of the Sabbath observance is to avoid doing on that day what is not absolutely necessary to life. If there is a genuine danger to life, one may attend to the problem on the Sabbath:

If a man has a pain in his throat they may drop medicine into his mouth on the Sabbath, since there is doubt whether life is in danger, and whenever there is doubt whether life is in danger this overrides the Sabbath” (Mishnah, Yoma 8.6).

The sickness of the person in Mk. 3.1-6 is not life-threatening. Jesus, by healing this man on the Sabbath, has deliberately rejected the dominant system and thus, become a threat to the system maintained by the religious leaders. The deliberate act of healing on the Sabbath is to teach that the customs are meant to serve or enhance life: “The Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2.27). The Pharisees, who are concerned more about compliance to the rituals than human life, are silent when Jesus asked them: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3.4). The advocates of barriers neither offer help nor allow it.[18] Cures give way to debates and conspiracies to eliminate Jesus.

Jesus’ activity of subversion of the system that constructed barriers in society and cared much about customs than life, has resulted in direct confrontation with the guardians of the dominant system. The narrative in Mk. 3.1-6 gives an impression of increasing hostility. The religious leaders are no longer discussing among themselves or accusing Jesus for objectionable behavior (cf. Mk. 2.6, 16, 24). They have joined hands with Herodians, the political group, to plot “to destroy him” (Mk. 3.6). After the temple act and teaching, the chief priests and scribes have sought to kill him (Mk. 11.18). The same leaders that questioned Jesus about his authority after his temple act (chief priests, scribes and elders), would seek to condemn Jesus to death (Mk. 14.53-55). They are the ones Jesus referred to in his passion prediction (Mk. 8.31). This opposition from human powers to Jesus’ ministry of the kingdom of God, which ultimately led to his death, happens to anyone who follows Jesus as a disciple proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God. The teacher’s life manifests a pattern for the disciples.[19] Suffering or death for its own sake is not advocated in Mark. Rather service and inclusive ministry might result in suffering, or even death, at the hands of the powerful in the society. However, Jesus did not respond to violence with violence. He refused to adopt the methods of his opponents, but continued to subvert the dominant system by breaking barriers and caring for life.

The incompatibility of Jesus’ ministry of the kingdom of God and the Jewish temple-related religion is expressed by the metaphors of bridegroom and the new cloth/new wineskins (Mk. 2.19-22).[20] These metaphors are at the chiastic center of the five conflict stories (Mk. 2.1-3.6). The imagery of wedding party in Mk. 2.19-20 has eschatological overtones. Jesus’ use of this imagery informs that his presence points to the dawning of the eschatological age. The analogies of not sewing “a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak” and not pouring “new wine into old wineskins” imply a radical discontinuity between the new and the old (Mk. 2.21-22). Because they are incompatible. When the structure of the unit consisting of the stories of Jesus’ controversy with the religious leaders is taken into consideration, the teaching of Jesus about the dawning of the eschatological age and the radical discontinuity between the new and the old is in central place. Jesus’ controversy with the guardians of the religion is on forgiveness, eating with sinners and tax-collectors, fasting and the Sabbath observance. These are related to the existing dominant system of life. Jesus’ indifference to the dominant way of life resulted in criticism of the religious leaders against him. However, Jesus seems to be explaining the reason for his unusual behavior through the analogies of wedding party and pouring new wine into new wineskins. Jesus’ words and deeds represent the dawning of the eschatological kingdom of God that promotes human dignity and value, and inclusivism, which is diametrically opposed to the dominant system that practices and promotes dehumanization of certain groups of people and exclusionism. Jesus exposes the delusion of the Jewish temple-related religion that not only enslaved human beings to customs, but also veiled the true and loving universal God, who cares for all. The religious leaders made God to serve their selfishness, greed and power. God is used to exclude and marginalize certain groups of people. This religion serves the greed of the powerful and not the needs of the poor, weak and vulnerable. This is well expressed by Jesus’ criticism of scribes: “The scribes…like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market places, and to have best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets” (Mk. 12.38-39). This extravagant lifestyle of the religious leaders comes at the expense of poor and helpless people like the widow, who in the gift of two small coins gave “her whole life” to the temple treasury (Mk. 12.41-44). Addison Wright says:

(We must) see Jesus’ attitude to the widow’s gift as a downright disapproval and not as an approbation. The story does not provide a pious contrast to the conduct of the scribes in the preceding section (as is the customary view); rather it provides a further illustration of the ills of official devotion. Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament, ‘Amen, I tell you, she gave more than all the others’…She had been taught and encouraged by religious leaders to donate as she does, and Jesus condemns the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it.[21]

Therefore, the eschatological kingdom of God dawned through the ministry of Jesus Christ is not only incompatible to, but also subversive of the dehumanizing religion promoted by the Jerusalem temple cult.

III. The Subversive Community of Faith and Forgiveness, and Service

Faith and Forgiveness

The subversive nature of the community of the kingdom of God is evident in Jesus’ answer to Peter (Mk. 11.22-24). To Peter’s exclamation: “Rabbi, look! The fig tree that you cursed has withered,” Jesus answered: “Have faith in God. Truly I tell you, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea’ and if you do not doubt in your heart, but believe that what you say will come to pass, it will be done for you.” (Mk. 11.21-23). The witnessing of the withered fig tree immediately follows Jesus’ temple act. “Mountain” in Jesus’ answer refers to the Mt. Zion on which the temple stands. The faith community effects the demise of the self-serving and self-promoting temple cult, because it exposes the duplicity of the Jewish temple-related religion.

The motif of “faith” is emphasized in Mark. The role of faith in healing is repeatedly mentioned (Mk. 2.5, 5.34, 36, 6.6, 10.52). Although the object of faith is not specified in these passages, presumably Mark is referring to God’s kingdom power that is active in and through Jesus Christ. The relation of faith to the dawning of the kingdom of God is evident in Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of God (Mk. 1.14-15).

The faith community is also a forgiving community. Forgiveness removes the barriers among people, which in turn engenders an inclusive community: “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11.25). The means of divine forgiveness is not temple and its sacrificial system, but offering forgiveness. Notice that forgiveness is not dependent on Jesus’ death (cf. Mk. 2.5, 10).

Since faith in God’s kingdom is possible to anyone in any place, and the disciples’ forgiveness of anything they have against anyone generates an inclusive community open to reconciliation and peaceful relations with all other people, the kingdom community of faith and forgiveness becomes God’s house of prayer “for all the nations” (cf. Mk. 11.17). The inadequacy of the temple cult to promote God’s will is expressed by the scribe’s confession that the two-fold commandment of love (loving God and loving one’s neighbor) is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk. 12.32-33). Only in Mark does the scribe declare that the commandment of love for God and neighbor “is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (cf. Mt. 22.34-40; Lk. 10.25-28). By subverting the temple’s entire sacrificial worship, designated by a generalizing reference to “all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices”, through the two-fold commandment of love, the scribe has in effect called into question the worth and adequacy of the temple cult. His implicit denigration of the temple cult is more pointed because he was listening to Jesus’ teaching in the temple itself (Mk. 11.27). It also coincides with and develops Jesus’ earlier disruption of the sacrificial system in the temple (Mk. 11.15-16) and his condemnation of the temple cult (Mk. 11.17). The nonacquisitive love for God and one’s neighbor surpasses the acquisitive love or greed perpetuated by the temple-related religion. Seeing that the scribe responded “with understanding”, Jesus confirms the surpassing value of love for God and one’s neighbor by pronouncing that he is “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk. 12.34).

Greatness as Service

The community of the kingdom of God is characterized by not only faith and forgiveness, but also service. The primacy of service is emphasized in Mk. 9.33-37 and 10.42-45. The disciples’ discussion on greatness provides an occasion for Jesus to teach about true greatness in terms of service: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk. 9.35). Such service should be rendered to those marginalized in the society such as children (Mk. 9.36-37) and “little ones” (Mk. 9.42). The contrast between setting mind on “divine things” and on “human things” can be seen between Jesus’ understanding of greatness and that of his disciples (cf. Mk. 8.33). The disciples’ understanding of greatness represents that of the society. In response to the request of James and John for places of honor in the kingdom of God, Jesus instructs:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers, lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many (Mk. 10.42-45).

The disciples know how rulers use their power and authority to dominate and make people serve their greed. Their knowledge of the way power and authority operate in society is used by Jesus to teach them the alternate way that power and authority should be used by the community of the kingdom of God. He clearly stresses that the behavior of rulers is the model that should be avoided by his disciples.[22] The way the rulers rule and the great men exercise their authority and power is unacceptable in the community of the kingdom of God. Self-seeking, self-promotion, and abuse of power and authority for self-interests are improper in the community of the kingdom of God. “Greatness” and “being first” involve inversion of familiar models.

In contrast to the familiar models of greatness in the society, Jesus becomes the model of greatness to his disciples. Greatness is redefined in the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches greatness as service. The word “great” in Mk. 10.43 echoes the word “great ones” in Mk. 10.42 and the word “slave” in Mk. 10.44 the word katakurieuousin in Mk. 10.42. The intention of this is to emphasize the contrast between the way power and authority are understood in the community of the kingdom of God and in the society. Mk. 10.43-44 reinforces the idea of service presented in Mk. 9.35. Jesus commands those who want to be great among his disciples to be servants and those who want to become first to be slaves of all. His teaching on service grows out of the commandment to love one’s neighbor.

The image of slavery was used by Stoics to people enslaved to their passions. Seneca wrote: “Show me a man who is not (a slave); one is slave to lust, another to greed, another to ambition, and all to fear.”[23] For Stoics the metaphor of slavery almost always denotes a “negative sense of humiliating submission.”[24] Ironically, it is the rulers who are in slavery in the sense of the Stoics’ understanding. This is evident in the expression “those whom they recognize as their rulers” (Mk. 10.42). Hoi dokountes archeiv tōn ethnōn katakurieuousin autōn may be translated as “those who appear to be rulers”. Ironically, although they appear to be rulers, they are, in fact, enslaved to power and authority. This is evident among both religious and political leaders (eg. Pharisees, scribes, chief priests, elders and Herod).

But the disciples of Jesus are freed from the enslavement to the dominant system. “Ransom” effects liberation or deliverance from enslavement to the dominant system: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mk. 10.45).  The term “ransom” (lutron) refers to slave market, where a slave is redeemed or liberated from slavery by paying a ransom price. In Mk. 10.45 “ransom” does not refer to Jesus’ death ransoming many from their sins.[25] Here “ransom” is presented as a parallel to “came not to be served but to serve”, and in contrast to “tyranny” and “lording over”. The ransoming for “the many” is from the system or social order of “tyranny” and “lording over” into a system of service. Jesus gave his life as a “ransom” to liberate “the many” from the system of enslavement to power and authority (“tyranny” and “lording over”) into the system of serving others, especially the marginalized. Freedom from the system of enslavement to power and authority is expressed by being a “servant” or “slave”.

Service to others, particularly the marginalized, is central to the ministry of Jesus Christ and so to his disciples, even if such service attracts opposition from “tyrants” and “lords”. The service of Jesus expressed in terms of “giving his life a ransom” is the cause for the service of disciples (notice kai gar at the beginning of 10.45). Those who are redeemed from the system of “tyranny” and “lording over” others into the system of service are called to follow Jesus in serving others, especially the marginalized. Such service to the powerless and marginalized challenges the powerful. Because the “top-down” service model subverts the “bottom-up” service model of the world. The disciples of Jesus engage in subversive practice of power in contrast to “lords” and “tyrants” who are enslaved to power and authority. With their freedom from the system of enslavement to power and authority, they become willing servants or slaves of others. Thus, the community of the kingdom of God is a subversive community to the structures of power and authority of this world.

 


[1] For survey of literature, read N.T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996); Craig Evans, “Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?” in CBQ 51 (1989), pp. 237-270.

 

[2] D.A. Hare, Mark (Louiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), p. 142.

[3] Herman C. Waetjen, A Sociological Reading of Mark’s Gospel: A Reordering of Power (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1989), p. 182.

[4] The irony is that the “robbers” (the guardians of the Jewish temple-related religion) arrested (“seized”) Jesus as if he were a robber. This irony is also evident when Jesus was crucified between two robbers. Thus, the ones who sustained a system of exploitation, oppression and tyranny accused the one, who opposed the system, as a “robber” and killed him.

 

[5] It is Jesus’ opponents who have used violent means to silence his voice.

[6] Thomas Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah: Was Jesus Indifferent to Impurity? (Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 2002), p. 49.

[7] Marcus J. Borg, Jesus A New Vision: Spirit, Culture, and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1987), p. 67.

[8] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 1-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1991), p. 819.

[9] Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, p. 130.  

[10] Wendy Cotter, “Mark’s Hero of the Twelfth-Year Miracles: The Healing of the Woman with the Hemorrhage and the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5.21-43),” in A Feminist Companion to Mark, ed. by Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff (Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 2001), p. 56.

[11] Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, p. 25.

[12] Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, p. 150.

[13] Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, p. 164.

[14] Cotter, “Mark’s Hero of the Twelfth-Year Miracles,” p. 59.

[15] Cotter, “Mark’s Hero of the Twelfth-Year Miracles,” p. 77.

[16] Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, p. 61.

[17] Kazen, Jesus and Purity Halakhah, p. 7.

[18] Robert R. Beck, Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), p. 73.

[19] Sharyn Dowd and Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark: Narrative Context and Authorial Audience,” in JBL 125/2 (2006), p. 278.

[20] Dowd and Malbon, “The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark,” p. 275.

[21] Addison G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mites: Praise or Lament? – A Matter of Context,” in CBQ 44 (1982), p. 262.

[22] Alberto de Mingo Kaminouchi, ‘But It Is Not So among You’: Echoes of Power in Mark 10.32-45 (London/New York: T&T Clark International, 2003), p. 127.

[23] Seneca, Moral Epistles 47.7.

[24] Kaminouchi, ‘But It Is Not So among You’, p. 138.

[25] Dowd and Malbon, “The Significance of Jesus’ Death in Mark,” p. 280.

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: