The liberal Christian outlook is directed to a Power that is living, that is active in love seeking concrete manifestation, and that finds decisive response in the living posture and gesture of Jesus of Nazareth.” — James Luther Adams
I have asked myself, what do I make of the story of Jesus? What does it mean, and what does he mean to me? Seeking answers, not only about Jesus but about myself, I set out several years ago to write a personal commentary on the Gospel of Mark.
Why Mark? The book comes second among the four Gospels in the New Testament, but as scholars agree, it was the first written. The others Gospels depend on it in both form and substance. I call Mark “the seminal Gospel” because not only the other canonical Gospels but also all traditions about Jesus of Nazareth—in all centuries since—are seeded by this work. His Gospel founds the gospel tradition.
The Christmas season has rendered the Nativity stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke utterly familiar. But Mark? Either they were unknown to him or, if known, thought thought to be legendary and unreliable. Mark tells no story of Jesus’ birth. In his Gospel, I came to see, the Nativity is always now.
Mark’s Gospel begins with the sudden, unexplained appearance of Jesus in Galilee, where he is baptized by John in the River Jordan. Did it remind Mark of the Israelites’ crossing of the Jordan, into the “promised land,” their novus ordo seclorum? For Mark, it seems, this sufficed to explain the origins of Jesus: he was borne by the advent of a “new order of the ages.” The import of this event is felt in two verses that tell what followed immediately after his baptism and his “temptation” (his testing) in “the wilderness” (the desert).
“Now after that John was put in prison. Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, ye, and believe the gospel.” (Mark 1: 14-15, King James Version)
Commentators have said that Jesus’ first words as reported by Mark encapsulate his entire message and ministry. The Greek word here translated “time” is kairos, meaning the propitious time, as distinct from chronos, clock time. His message, then, is timely, in the sense that a harvest is timely, for it is a time of ripeness and fulfillment. Or indeed, a time of Nativity.
But this kairos, this fullness of time, was born of crisis and danger. Mark notes that Jesus’ ministry began directly “after John was arrested.” The event was notorious enough for Mark to assume that his readers know John the Baptist’s fate: murdered by Herod the Great. John had publicly rebuked him. Called “great” because he was a builder on a grandiose scale, Herod had murdered his own son. Caesar Augustus knew Herod the Great, and once quipped, “Better Herod’s pig than his son.” Cynicism runs deep among those who seek and often gain the world’s adulation in every age.
Jesus’ call to “repentance” echoes John’s dire warnings, except in this respect: Rather than turning from sins so that they may be remitted, Jesus calls for a turning toward the kingdom of God. I remember as a youngster on the playground that when one kid would challenge another, the tough come-back was, “Is that a threat or a promise?” Here as elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus’ message is remembered not as threatening but as promising. Still, the contrast between John’s and Jesus’ messages can be polemically over-drawn; a promise and a threat are two sides of one coin. Possibly, John’s imprisonment moved Jesus, his disciple, to a more radical vision: now are all things made new.
The kingdom of God that Jesus announces is “near”—somewhere between “not yet” and “already upon you.” In a word, it’s urgent! Apparently John’s arrest was a catalytic event that propelled Jesus and his followers to set out on their own. Apparently, also, Mark and his circle wanted to show that Jesus superseded John the Baptist, whose following competed with Jesus’. John, they said, was Elijah, precursor to their Messiah!
These contested ideas remind us that an ordinary, un-miraculous history underlies the Gospel accounts. They remain inherently speculative and debatable, but in the last analysis not entirely to the point. We are not so much engaged in a “quest for the historical Jesus” as in a religious quest—for clarity about the Jesus to whom Mark bears witness. The Christmas song asks the religious question: “Do you see what I see?”
Clear-sightedness is more than an intellectual virtue. It is a spiritual necessity in a wild and woodsy world where religious nuts abound. Leaden-eyed commentators call Jesus’ prediction of the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God a “mistake.” Nothing happened, they say. But if Jesus’ whole ministry was predicated on a mistake, we might better drop the inquiry right here. A failed prediction on such a grand scale suggests a delusional predictor.
But the real mistake is to assume that we know exactly what we are looking for in advance of the quest. Nowhere does Jesus describe “the kingdom of God.” He only “speaks in parables,” words that conceal as much as they reveal about “the mystery of the kingdom.” As Martin Buber taught, spiritual realities are not found in the realm of I-it relations, but of I-thou relations: not external, objective relations, but internal, inter-subjective relations. Not in the realm of the letter but of the Spirit.
When, where, and what is this kingdom of God? It is “near,” as Richmond Lattimore’s translation has it, or “at hand,” as the King James Version has it. Therefore it is “available,” in the translation of Joel Henry Cadbury, lifted up by one of his students, Jim Adams. Can we say always near, at hand, available? Yes, if we are bold.
New language helps us see familiar phrases with fresh understanding. Richard R. Niebuhr suggested translating “kingdom of God” with a dynamic, if awkward term, “God-ruling.” Again, the word “available” suggests “within your grasp—if you reach out to grasp it.” If so, being in existential relationship to this realm of God-ruling is intrinsic to its visibility, even to its reality. Objective facts are observable and definable, hence external to us. But existential realities are internal; we live within them and can only see them in relation to ourselves. Objectively observed, they disappear!
We begin to see, then, that the kingdom of God is not only neither a worldly nor an otherworldly place. It is also neither wholly present nor utterly future. It is paradoxically both. Perhaps it is a way of living in the present, toward the future. Perhaps all powerful and creative movements are so—with electric effect on those who throw themselves into the cause. Of course, this is a story not about a spiritual realm set apart from the historical realm. It is a story about the workings of the creative spirit in human experience. This sense of living in the present toward the future, this eschatological awareness, arises in every land and age.
Interpreters frequently conflate “eschatology” and “apocalypse,” but this is a mistake. Apocalypse is popularly understood as a cataclysmic end to “the world as we know it.” Eschatology concerns thought on “last things”—the ends toward which things are tending and the way this changes our perception of present things. This is why Jesus comes saying “repent”: re-think and re-decide the directive of your life—in the light of possibilities you’ve never imagined. For God-ruling is at hand, now as always for those eyes to see and ears to hear. You can reach it and grasp it. It is available. You can get there from here.
W. H. Auden, named by Jim Adams a “poet-theologian,” said this in an essay on “The Frivolous and the Earnest,” from his collection, The Dyer’s Hand:
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s. Christianity draws a distinction between what is frivolous and what is serious, but allows the former its place. What it condemns is not frivolity by idolatry, that is to say, taking the frivolous seriously.”
Jesus’ words cited by Auden are a parable about proximate and ultimate allegiances: Pay your taxes, but know to whom you owe final loyalty. The image of Caesar on a Roman coin became an idol when the emperor Augustus declared himself a god and demanded worship from this subjects. This is a dimension of Jesus’ words that we might miss if we did not hear in them the deep aversion to idolatry in Judaism. We might ask: Is a little idol worship all that bad? We all do it!
Auden continues, citing other parabolic words of Jesus along the way:
“The past is not to be taken seriously (Let the dead bury their own dead) nor the future (Take no thought for the morrow) but only the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional content but for it historic decisiveness (Now is the appointed time.)”
Words to shake us from our lethargy, from our self-pity, from our sentimentality. And from anyone’s leaden-eyed vision. For Jesus’ first word, that the kingdom of God is at hand, was no blunder but the expression of a life in which he was indelibly immersed.
The title of Auden’s book, The Dyer’s Hand—a dyer of cloth?—puzzled me until I found its source. Where else but in Shakespeare? See Sonnet 111:
“And almost thence my nature is subdu’d / To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.”
Some poets are theologians, and some theologians, poets. Certainly Jesus (who worked in parables) was both, as attested by Mark’s Gospel. Mark says of him (4:34) “But without a parable spake he not unto them. . . .”
Note: The Seminal Gospel: Forty Days with Mark (Xlibris, 2013), by George Kimmich Beach, is available from the author, Xlibris Press, or book-selling services.