Deuteronomy 18:15-22, Mark 1:21-28
How many names do we have for our God? Yahweh is one of the many names the Hebrews used for God and that same God in the book of Exodus referred to itself as “The I AM”. Jesus is what we call Yahweh’s son, but we also call him savior and redeemer among other things. What did Jesus’ apostles call him? There is the wonderful moment when Peter recognizes who Jesus is and refers to him as the Christ, but what do we see in our scripture today?
In the book of Mark, more than any other gospel, Jesus is referred to as “Teacher”. This may initially seem unimportant or beside the point of the gospel story, but Mark feels Jesus’ identity as Teacher is absolutely crucial to how the apostles and we understand him and his mission.
And this distinction as teacher becomes even more interesting as you read the Gospel of Mark because in it you don’t see much of what we might think of as teaching being retold by Mark. In Matthew and Luke there are large sections detailing the many sayings and teachings of Jesus, but Mark does not. The only passages that could be classified as teaching would be the parables and his rebuttals to the Pharisees. So is Mark hiding or obscuring Jesus’ teaching from us? Or is he trying to point towards a deeper understanding of what Jesus’ identity as teacher means?
When we jump back to Mark what do we see? Astonishment and amazement from the Pharisees and others present at Jesus because this new Rabbi is not only teaching but as Mark puts it “Teaching with authority!”
What does this mean? When I hear authority I think of somebody who is in charge. A leader. Somebody who can make things happen and while this is certainly true of Jesus, there is something deeper at play. To teach with authority meant that Jesus was standing on his own. Unlike the scribes and other Rabbi’s he did not rely on the prophets and the Torah for all his authority. Of course Jesus does believe in its authority as he says he has come to fulfill the law, not abolish it, but what is different about Jesus is that he is saying that the Prophets talk about him and the Law is being fulfilled in him.
The Pharisees are taken aback by his bold preaching and perhaps they even thought of the scripture from Deuteronomy we read earlier where God tells the Jews that they will be able to tell the frauds and the messiah apart because the words and deeds of the Messiah would come true, and here was Jesus performing miracles and proclaiming the kingdom of God.
There had been “messiahs” and miracle workers before who proclaimed to be of God, but the Pharisees reaction to Jesus is very telling. His authority is threatening to them.
If you continue reading the book of Mark, Jesus’ ministry draws crowds, surprises his disciples and repeatedly angers the Pharisees. Jesus casts out demons into pigs, heals an unclean woman, brings someone’s daughter back to life and many other miracles. And throughout all of this people refer to him as teacher. Even in passages where it would seem odd to call him by that title, such as when Jesus brings Jairus’ daughter back to life.
People from town come to tell Jairus that his daughter has passed away saying, “Your daughter is dead, why trouble the teacher any further?” But Jesus overheard them and told them “Do not fear, only believe.”
Jesus brings Jairus’ daughter back to life but what does this have to do with Jesus’ identity as a teacher? Why do they call him by that name? Why not healer? I believe this title is used because Mark’s understanding of the task and authority of a teacher is much different than we might have today.
Our society nowadays often equates teaching and learning with simply the distribution and acquisition of knowledge. Not necessarily holistic learning or the formation of morals or ethics to employ knowledge, but simply the knowledge itself. We have become a society where the teacher’s authority has been questioned and in many cases has been eliminated. Teachers must fulfill the curriculum of the school or the requirements of the state, and in many cases this undercuts the authority they hoped to have as a teacher and thus they become not much more than distributors of predetermined information.
This has gotten even more pronounced in the age of smart phones and instant Google searches where information is at the tips of our fingers, but how we process and employ this information is scattered and disorganized. Authority has been smashed in the name of freedom of information. And while there have certainly been some benefits to this, these restrictions and opposition to authority have come at a cost.
Jesus has no such restrictions to fit into or follow except that of his Father, so if we come to Jesus looking simply for knowledge to absorb without understanding the authority and purpose from which his teaching comes, then we miss everything.
So how does this story connect to us? How does Jesus’ identity as teacher and his unique authority affect how we understand him, and how we are to live because of that understanding? For this I think we need to look at how the apostles understood and misunderstood Jesus’ authority. And also how Jesus through his teaching, death and resurrection empowered them and us.
The disciples were just like us. Regular people fascinated with Jesus who wanted to follow him wherever he went and do what he commanded. But we also know from scripture that the disciples were perpetually confused by Jesus. Constantly misunderstanding his teaching and making incorrect assumptions about his mission, and at their worst they even denied knowing him.
I’m sure each of us can recollect many instances where despite our best intentions we have fallen short of what God had commanded of us, but despite all of our shortcomings, how can we faithfully learn from the Teacher like the disciples did?
Most importantly, we must understand and believe in the authority of Jesus. God is in control, Jesus has come to us in the flesh to remind us of this and explicitly show us how the authority of God works in the world among the powers that be.
Looking back at the scripture we can get a sense of how the kingdom of God starts to break in and reckon with the world. The situation is pretty bleak as the world is under the dominion of sin and Jesus tells us that the religious leaders have, “abandoned the commandment of God and held to human tradition.”
Thus, not only has the Roman Empire violently occupied the land of the Jews and oppressed them, but their own religious leaders have strayed from what God intended for their flourishing.
So, Jesus’ authority automatically puts him at odds with both the state that oppresses the people and the religious leaders who have enriched and fattened themselves up at the expense of the people. His way and teaching is a compelling alternative to both the way of the state and the religious establishment.
Normally critics like Jesus wouldn’t bother the Pharisees too much, but Jesus is not your average Rabbi. He not only quotes the prophets, but he testifies that the prophets are talking about him and buttresses this claim with his many healings and miracles.
Jesus also is well versed in the Jewish understanding of a Messiah and through his teaching he tries to get the disciples to understand that he is the one who is bringing God’s kingdom about. But despite Jesus’ explanation and effort, the disciples remain perplexed. Like the Pharisees and many others, they continue to think that the messiah will rise up violently to overthrow the yoke of the Romans and restore the place of the Jews.
And they are almost right. Jesus has come to disarm the powers of the state and restore the Jews, but not in the way that they expect. His mission is much bigger and his style is more creative than they could ever have imagined. But nobody knows this, so when they see Jesus teaching with such authority, they are confused because although he teaches with authority he acts so mysteriously and does not act in a way they expect a messiah to act. Quite simply, they are not sure what to make of him.
For someone who claims to be ushering in the kingdom of God, his methods do seem a bit unorthodox, but Christ reminds us that what we think we know about God is not always correct or the full story. The parables remind us of the strangeness of the kingdom.
Especially the parable of the mustard seed, which is one of the few parable offerings in the Book of Mark and perhaps one of the most familiar parables to us. Despite its familiarity, it contains many important truths that can often be missed. What at first seems like a simple parable about the power of faith no matter how small is also a parable of the strange power behind Christ’s teaching and how God redeems the world in an unusual way.
Writer Shane Claiborne delves deeper into the cultural understanding of the parable of the mustard seed in his book “The Irresistible Revolution”. He tells us:
“I once heard a farmer say a mustard shrub is like kudzu a wild vine that vigorously takes over an area. Rather unassumingly, it can blanket entire mountainsides, smother trees, and crack cement buildings…The mustard seed’s growth would have been familiar to first-century Jews and its symbolic meaning unmistakably clear. Jews valued order and had very strict rules about how to keep a tidy garden and one of the secrets was to keep out mustard. It was notorious for invading the well-trimmed veggies and other plants and for quickly taking over the entire garden. Jewish law even forbade planting mustard in the garden. Here in the parable he is using this infamous plant to describe God’s kingdom subtly taking over the world.”
This kind of understanding of the mustard plant brings a whole new depth of meaning to the parable and also brings us to a larger understanding of why Jesus did the things he did. The Kingdom has come, but in an unassuming and sneaky way. He teaches with authority and heals the people but he is not here for a violent confrontation. He proclaims that the kingdom of God is near, but he proclaims it to the poor, the outcast and those without power. He calls out the Pharisees for the hypocrisy but he does not overwhelm them with his power. Instead he chooses a different path, the will of his Father. Claiborne continues saying:
“So there goes Jesus turning power on its head. His power was not in crushing but in being crushed, triumphing over the empire’s sword with his cross. Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken in order for its power to be released. This is the crazy mystery that we celebrate, a Christ whose body is torn apart and whose blood is spilled like the grains and grapes of Communion that give us life.”
This message is what the teacher has been trying to get us to learn all along. There is no glory in crushing, oppressing, or dominating anything. This only leads to sin and destruction. Jesus came to teach us a new way that while unusual, is the only kind of path that leads to life.
We see in other Gospels more examples. In John 13 we see him taking the disciples through the Last Supper. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem and set in motion the Passion narrative that will fulfill the will of his Father and expose the sin of the world. But he is still teaching up until the very end.
After gathering together, Christ got up from the table and began washing the disciples’ feet and when he came to Peter, Peter was confused as to why Jesus, his teacher and master would ever wash his feet. But Jesus tells Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” The narrative continues after Jesus finishes washing all of their feet with Jesus saying,
“Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them…I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.” (John 13: 12-20, 34)
Thus Jesus once and for all lays it out there for the disciples and for us. The kingdom of God is about love for God and love for neighbor. His is a servant kingdom where the glory comes from loving your brother and sister. Christ came with authority to teach us anew what God has been calling us to all along.
However, Christ’s anguish in Gethsemane and his horrible death on the cross remind us that this teaching is not without consequences or troubles. Remember, the mustard seed has to be crushed in order to release its power. So yes it is true that through his death and resurrection, Christ swallowed up death, as Isaiah 25 puts it, but the world is still the world. As Romans 6 reminds us, Christ has broken the dominion of sin over the world, but the choice is still there for us to make.
Because Christ came to us we have a teacher who has authority over the world. We saw it in his casting out of demons and we saw it in its fullness with his resurrection from the dead. But have we learned well enough from the teacher to make the right choice?
In my own life I have gone through phases where the words of Jesus were not something I could swallow. I was like a student in class who thought he was too smart to pay attention or believe the words coming out of the teacher’s mouth. I was like Peter, perplexed why God would want to stoop down to wash my feet. Even more baffled as to why Jesus would willingly offer himself as a sacrifice. But I wasn’t getting the bigger picture. I had all of the information and none of the context. I didn’t get the bigger story of what God was doing in the world.
That was until I started reading authors like theologian Walter Brueggeman. Brueggeman showed me how important it is to recognize and understand the alternative nature of Christ’s teaching. In the Church of the Brethren, we often speak of “Another Way of Living, and Brueggeman is getting at the same thing.
He talks about scripts and counterscripts and how the way of living that Jesus gives us is a counterscript to what we are given by society. Brueggeman believes that all of us have a script, whether we explicitly acknowledge it or not and the task of the church is to acknowledge that the script society has offered us has failed and in response the church must actively work to detach ourselves from that script, and subscribe ourselves to the counter script that God offers us.
And what is part of this counter script of God? Exactly what we’ve been talking about here today. Believing that God has authority over the world and that Jesus came to show us what God wants of us. Believing that Christ’s teaching can transform the world, no matter how strange his ways may seem. And believing that through Christ we have been set free from sin and are free to become disciples who choose to serve the world and love one another.
And when we buy into God’s script through baptism, we jump into a world that is beautiful and strange. And yet we can take heart because Christ is with us in our new script. Brueggeman continues by saying,
“The work is the slow, steady work of ministry so that we, personally and communally, are able to renounce old scripts of death and enter new scripts of life. The hallmark of the church is not certainty~ it is openness to the Spirit… Moving beyond ourselves is made possible only by the Spirit. We do not go beyond ourselves when we adhere to the dominant script.”
So I want to challenge us today to think about what kind of script we are adhering to. The script Jesus taught and showed us? Or society’s? Do we recognize Christ’s authority both over our lives and the world? Have we learned from him? Have we followed him, or do we feel threatened by him?
Do we believe that the kingdom of heaven really is like a mustard seed? Small, unassuming, and yet powerful in an unexpected way? Are we willing to join in this mustard seed revolution to serve others and God so that bit by bit the world can be transformed?
I pray that we are up to the task and I pray that we are open to the possibility of new life. Because when we choose the alternative script and choose to learn from the teacher, we will not go astray, but rather God will be with us as we help usher in his Kingdom.