Proper 3B

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Psalm 62:5-12
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20

First Reading: Jonah

The story of Jonah is most remembered these days as a fantastic tale whose historicity is defended by Fundamentalists and whose spiritual value is often seen in terms of its message as a pamphlet protesting the supposed exclusivism of the post-exilic Temple establishment in Yehud (Judah) during the Persian period. However, this ancient tale has exercised a profound influence on the cultural history of the societies in which it has been read; particularly the Christian tradition.

In A Biblical Text and its Afterlives: The Survival of Jonah in Western Culture (Cambridge: 2000, pages 11-48), Yvonne Sherwood (Senior Lecturer in Old Testament/Tanakh and Judaism at the University of Glasgow) identifies "four main clusters, meta-stories, or heaps" into which mainstream Christian and scholarly readings of Jonah can be organised:

  • Jonah and the Fathers - Jonah and Jesus as typological twins (a study of the early Christian analogy between the exit from the fish and the resurrection ...);
  • Jonah the Jew - the evolution of a biblical character (tracing a Jonah stereotype from Augustine and Luther through to the Enlightenment);
  • Divine disciplinary devices - or the book of Jonah as a tractate on producing docile disciple-bodies (Sherwood studies the dire red-letter warnings of the book of Jonah, as expounded in the sonorous, Reformation sermons of John Calvin and John Hooper);
  • Cataloguing the monstrous - Jonah and the cani cacharis (an investigation of what happens when the book of Jonah begins to sense the Origin of Species creeping up behind it and threatening its credibility

For a discussion of the history of the "sign of Jonah" in early Christian literature, see Gregory C. Jenks, “The Sign of the Prophet Jonah: Tracing the Tradition History of a Biblical Character in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity.” In How Jonah is Interpreted in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Essays on the authenticity and influence of the biblical prophet, edited by M. M. Caspi and J. T. Greene. North Richland Hills, TX: Bibal, 2011.

Second Reading: Time is short, the Lord is coming

I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. (1Corinthians 7:29–31 NRSV)

Paul's famous injunction against marriage -- and even against sexual relations within marriage -- on account of the imminence of the judgment day, links with the prophetic call to repentance (change/reversal) seen in the other readings this week.

Gospel: Jesus comes into the Galilee

This week's Gospel draws on the opening scenes of Mark's account of Jesus, beginning with his proclamation of the reign of God in Galilee and the call of the first disciples.

Proclaiming the reign of God (Mark 1:14-15)

This passage resumes the series of readings from Mark that we will follow until Lent. As an Epiphany reading it invites us to reflect on Jesus as the one whose call upon our lives is a moment of insight and revelation.

Mark begins with Jesus returning from his time of testing in the wilderness and immediately setting about his core mission: to proclaim the arrival of God's imperial rule and to call upon people to turn about (repent) and embrace the reign of God.

The exact meaning of the phrase "kingdom of God" (Gk: basileia tou theou) has been debated, as well as the sense in which Jesus understood the reign of God: as something that had already arrived with him, a reality which was (and always had been) true of every human being, a future period of messianic blessings (possibly ushered in by apocalyptic woes).

The Greek term (basileia) was the everyday word used for the Roman Empire. The Jesus Seminar typically translates basileia tou theou with some variant of the phrase "God's imperial rule." In the introduction to The Complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller explains this choice of idiom:

The traditional translations of the Greek phrase Basileia tou theou, Kingdom of God, was more more appropriate to the age of King James I (1603-25; King James translation: 1611) than to our own own in which inherited monarchies are more symbolic than political. The SV [Scholars Version] panel went in search of a term or phrase that would satisfy three basic requirements: (1) the phrase had to function as both verb and noun, to denote both an activity and a region; (2) the phrase had to specify that God's activity was absolute; there could be no suggestion of democracy or shared governance; (3) the phrase should have feeling tones of the ominous, of ultimate threat, of tyranny -- associations going with the end of the age and last judgment, since it often appears in such contexts.

Some panel members proposed empire as an appropriate ancient and modern counterpart, since it called to mind both the Roman Empire and the evil empires of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But empire could not serve as a verb; for this purpose something like rule or reign was required. And Jesus' own use of the phrase, particularly in connection with his parables, called for a phrase that was perhaps less ominous, yet no less absolute. The happy solution the panel reached was to combine "imperial" with "rule" to gain the nuances of both terms.

When a spatial term is required by the context, it was decided to utilize domain because of its proximity to dominion: in his domain God's dominion is supreme.

This distinctive idiom of Jesus may have roots in both sacred tradition and political realities.

While the Hebrew Scriptures often speak of God as a king, the exact phrase "kingdom of God" does not occur in the Jewish Bible. On the other hand, people were very conscious of whose "domain" they lived within. In the time of Jesus the basileia created by Herod under Rome's supreme basileia had been divided into smaller domains, with each successor seeking to exercise basileia as well wanting to retain and expand the domain over which they ruled. People living along the western side of the Sea of Galilee knew this dynamic all too well since they paid the required tolls as they moved between the domains of Herod's sons, Antipas and Phillip.

While Jesus most likely spoke Aramaic as his principal language, it is possible that he intentionally used the Greek term basileia rather than the Aramaic malkut. Due to the pervasive influence of Greek since at least the fourth century BCE, both the Aramaic vernacular and the more formal Hebrew had adopted many Greek loanwords of which Sanhedrin and synagogue are perhaps the two best known. Using basileia would have neatly captured the political dimensions of Jesus' message about the arrival of God's direct rule in the experience of his listeners. This dimension to the phrase reminds us not to spiritualize the idea, or to treat it as a purely individual reality.

Gerd Lüdemann [Jesus, 10] describes Mark 1:14-15 as "a summary didactic depiction of Jesus' preaching of repentance under the influence of Christian missionary terminology." Mark is portraying Jesus as the model Christian missionary: aware that the time is fulfilled, motivated by the imminence of the eschatological events, calling for repentance, and offering a gospel to be received with faith.

John P. Meier [Marginal Jew II,430-34] looks at this item in some detail. Since it is clear that vs 14 comes from Mark, the question then becomes whether vs 15 is a summary of Jesus' preaching (created by Mark) rather than a memory of an actual saying of Jesus. While Meier is inclined to accept that the core saying "the kingdom of God has drawn near" may be authentic (since it seems to have independent attestation in Q (Luke 10:9 || Matt 10:7-8), he notes that it remains unclear whether it refers to a future eschatological event or to a present reality. Meier notes that Mark 1:15 and Luke 10:9 par use the perfect tense (eggiken), and that technically the expression can mean either "has drawn very near" or simply "is here." As Meier himself notes, this is all very well but rather besides the point, since Jesus most likely said the original form of this statement in Aramaic and we cannot know what precise expression he used. He concludes:

... I think it is unwise to use Mark 1:15 parr. as one of the key texts to document either the future or the realized dimension of Jesus' proclamation of the kingdom. This is not to say that the kingdom-proclamation in Mark 1:15 parr. has no bearing on the quest for the historical Jesus or the eschatology he proclaimed. The saying certainly has a claim to authenticity on the grounds of both characteristic vocabulary and multiple attestation. At the very least it does show that Jesus spoke about the kingdom of God drawing near, whether he thought that it had already arrived by the time he was speaking or whether he thought that it would soon do so. (p. 434)

The Jesus Seminar voted all three versions of this saying Black. While the Fellows of the Jesus Seminar consider that the idea of God's imperial rule ("the kingdom of God") was central to Jesus' message and mission, they voted this passage Black since it seems to be the creation of Mark or his community. In this judgment the Seminar was very close to view of John P. Meier.

Disciples find Jesus (Mark 1:16-20)

Before commencing his outline of a typical day in Jesus' program (vss. 21-39), Mark presents two examples of disciples being called to follow Jesus. The stories involve two pairs of disciples, rather like last week's version from John 1. They seem to be exemplars of what Mark hopes his readers will do, since (apart from Peter) the fishermen called to follow Jesus hardly play a significant role in Mark's subsequent narrative.

  • Jesus First Day - this summary of how each NT Gospel handled Jesus' "first day on the job" provides some interesting insights into how they understood Jesus.

The Jesus Seminar commented on this Markan story as follows:

The metaphor of fishing for people may go back to Jesus. The saying in its present form, however, is not the sort of aphorism to have been repeated during the oral period. "Become my followers and I'll have you fishing for people" is suitable only for the story in which it is now embedded, since only a few of his followers were originally fishermen. Further, as scholars have long noted, the story of the call of the first disciples is expressed in vocabulary typical of Mark, which suggests that Mark created both the story and the saying. (Five Gospels, p. 41)

One imagines that the story of how these people became followers of Jesus was rather more complex than Mark's account would suggest. John Dominic Crossan has suggested that Mark's account is a much reduced echo of an Easter appearance story in which Jesus encounters the disciples by the sea after Easter (cf. John 21:1-8 and Luke 5:4-11):

Recalling the chronological sequence of the Gospels from Mark to Luke to John, one might easily judge that 190 Fishing for Humans [2/3] developed from a non-miraculous saying of Jesus in Mark, to a miraculous symbolization in Luke, to be finally displaced into a more climactic post-resurrectional setting in John. All the internal evidence, however, points in exactly the opposite direction. The unit's trajectory is from John to Luke to Mark, and the miracle, far from a later insertion, is a later deletion. Notice, for example, that Peter's confession of his sinfulness in Luke 5:8 makes far less sense there than in a postresurrectional situation after he had denied Jesus during his trial. ... The complex 190 Fishing for Humans is therefore a companion piece to 128 Walking on Water [1/2] and carries exactly the same meaning and message. To row all night without Jesus is to get nowhere; to fish all night without Jesus is to catch nothing. But, of course, it is the leadership group of the disciples who are both rowing and fishing, and it is to them that Jesus' resurrectional assistance is forthcoming. (Historical Jesus, p. 410)

Mark is often critical of the "big name" disciples/apostles in his Gospel. They consistently seem unable to understand Jesus and they eventually desert him in his time of need. In contrast, it is the blind man (10:52), the nameless woman who anoints him for burial (14:3-9), and the anonymous Roman soldier at the foot of the cross (15:39) who appreciate the significance of Jesus. Perhaps that is why Mark takes a story about the special status of the apostles as witnesses of the resurrection and cuts it back to form an archetypal story of Jesus calling everyday people to come and follow him?

John P. Meier has an extended discussion of the disciples in the third volume of A Marginal Jew [III,19-285]. One of the elements of discipleship that he considers is the initiative taken by Jesus in calling certain persons to be his followers:

One striking trait, found in a number of different Gospel sources, is that Jesus seizes the initiative in calling people to follow him. Three clear examples are given in the Marcan tradition: the call of the first four disciples (Peter, Andrew, James, and John) in Mark 1:16-20; the call of Levi the toll collector in 2:14; and the (unsuccessful) call of the rich man in Mark 10:17-22. in each case, Jesus issues a peremptory call to follow him, a call addressed to people who have not taken the initiative of asking to follow him. (p. 50)

Meier also notes that the promise to become fishers of humans is only made to Andrew and Peter; and is not extended to James and John.

When he does turn to the question of historicity, Meier asserts that the term "to fish humans" [halieis anthropon] is sufficiently distinctive to be identified as a phrase deriving from Jesus:

The exact phrase never occurs in the OT, and the metaphor of fishing for human beings (or using a hook to catch them) is relatively rare. When it occurs, it always has a hostile sense of capturing or killing human beings [n. 122 refers to Jer 16:16; Ezek 29:4-5; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14-17]. The metaphor occurs at times in the Qumran literature, likewise in a negative context of destruction or judgment [n. 123 refers to 1QH 3:26; 5:7-8]. The metaphor of "catching men" is also found with a negative sense in later rabbinic literature. Thus, there is no real parallel to Jesus' positive, salvific use of the metaphor in the Jewish tradition before or after him. (p. 160)

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