Monday, June 4, 2012

This is the fifteenth installment, comprising Act 3. Scene 1, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the fourteenth  installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.

This is my division of the Gospel:

Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

Scene 1:

7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, "Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them." 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them. (NRSV)
The beginning of Act 3 sees the next stage in the development of Jesus’ ministry by the establishment, in a nascent sense, of the Church. In Act 1, Jesus called disciples to follow him; in Act 2, he appoints twelve of his disciples as apostles; in Act 3, Jesus assigns a share of his ministry to his apostles. No longer will they simply be hearers, or students, but they will participate in the tasks of the teacher, the Messiah. Are they ready for the tasks? There is nothing, frankly, which has indicated their great learning, knowledge or power; beyond being there, what are their accomplishments? This might be part of Mark’s point: following Jesus faithfully, even if fitfully at times, without complete understanding, creates a disciple ready for his ministry.

Mark notes only one precise task for the Apostles initially, unlike Matthew and Luke, and that is the “authority over the unclean spirits” (6:7). The primary enemy of Jesus, as we saw in Act 1, Scene 2, is not human but demonic, the forces of evil. Jesus’ task is to conquer sin and evil and he passes on this job as the order of first importance to his Apostles. In order to accomplish this task, they are sent out  “two by two” without any but the basic material necessities, a staff, sandals and one tunic; there will be no provisions such as money or food (6:7-8). It seems clear that the reason for such directions is to increase their reliance – trust or faith - on God and neighbor, and it is a dual reliance. Often the need of the apostles to rely on the kindness of strangers, even if of the same tribe(s), is overlooked.

Their task is to combat the forces of evil, but combined with this task Mark tells us is the proclamation with which Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom of God at the beginning of the Gospel. We are told that they were to proclaim “that all should repent” (6:12). The twin tasks of the Messiah, then, have been shared with his disciples. Embedded in the call, though, is the cost of rejection. The apostles themselves might be rejected, but this is ephemeral: the sending of the apostles indicates that those who do not repent upon hearing the message of repentance bear a burden: “If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (6:11). The shaking of the dust indicates both that the message has been preached and that it has been rejected by those who heard it. The response has not been one of faith.

As with Jesus, though, the apostles have been active in sharing the message of repentance. Mark adds this interesting note at the end of the scene: “they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them” (6:13). Mark has introduced tasks bit by bit as he unfurls the sending out of the apostles: they are to combat evil; they are to preach repentance; and then at the end, we find that they did cast out demons, but as with Jesus, they also cured many who were sick. They are partners in the ministry.

The scene ends here, in a sense, for as we move on through this Act, I will argue that the whole of Act 3 is intricately interwoven as one extended Scene, in which it is difficult to pull out any one thread, or move the camera without missing a part of the action. The whole of this Act functions as a lengthy A-B-A narrative sandwich, or better yet, a number of nesting A-B-A sandwiches in which each Scene explains the previous Scene and the one still to come. In addition, many themes which have been hinted at in the first two Acts will come to, if not resolution, greater clarity in this Act 3. Jesus' mission, and that of the Church, will come into greater focus, but that will not necessarily please everyone, or make much sense, even to his disciples.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens