Mark’s Key Verse

I was still in seminary when I last tackled the key to understanding Mark’s gospel.  According to the Rev. Dr. John Yieh, Mark’s gospel message can be summed up in one verse, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve” (Mark 10:45).  This passage has found new meaning for me thanks to Facebook and my seminary classmate, the Rev. Allen Pruitt who shared this gem of a meme.

There is so much to love about this picture

The interested part of that verse from Mark’s Gospel is actually the double conjunction that the NRSV misses in its translation.  In Greek, the sentence begins with a “kai” which means “and” and a “gar” which means “for.”  Each of my go-to translations in BibleWorks keys in on this two-word phrase, except for the NRSV.

  • For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (NRSV)

  • For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. (KJV)

  • For even I, the Son of Man, came here not to be served but to serve others, and to give my life as a ransom for many. (NLT)

In the NRSV, this sentence seems like a non sequitur from Jesus’ teaching on the pattern for service that should define his disciples, but in reality, Jesus is using himself as the example of faithful leadership.  Note also that Jesus declares himself the Son of Man.  For a Gospel obsessed with keeping Jesus’ messianic secret, this verse really does unlock everything we need to know.

Jesus is the Son of Man, the anointed one for whom the world had been waiting.  He came to earth not as a god who is to be worshipped and adored, but he deigned to be like us and to show us how to live lives of humble service.  Finally, as the Son of Man, his life’s end (no pun intended) would be to die that we might have life abundant.  To paraphrase Thomas Cranmer, Mark 10:45 contains all things necessary for salvation, which makes it vitally important for the preacher to study it carefully and to take the time look beyond the Biblical text that comes printed on the lectionary insert from Morehouse.

propitiation, reconciliation, expiation, atonement

In the grand scheme of things, it is probably without too much hyperbole to say that theology would be just as well off as an academic discipline if nothing had ever been written after Paul mailed his Letter to the Hebrews.  It is his magnum opus, the best work of one of the brightest minds and profoundest practitioners of the life of faith in the first generation after Jesus.  Just reading the five verses from chapter two appointed for The Feast of the Presentation would be enough to keep a seminary class embroiled in debate for half a semester.  Heck, you could spend weeks dealing with one word:

atonementWhich is defined by Barclay-Newman as a verb meaning “to bring about forgiveness for, take away, deal mercifully with; pass. be merciful, have mercy” and translated variously as:

  • Propitiation (Young’s Literal Translation) – to make (someone) pleased or less angry by giving or saying something desired
  • Reconciliation (King James Version) – the act of causing two people or groups to become friendly again after an argument or disagreement
  • Expiation (Revised Standard Version) – to do something as a way to show that you are sorry about doing something bad
  • Atonement (New Revised Standard Version & New International Version) -1. obsolete :  reconciliation, 2. the reconciliation of God and humankind through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, 3. reparation for an offense or injury (all four definitions are thanks to http://www.m-w.com)

There is perhaps no other topic in the history of theology about which more ink and blood have been spilled than the questions surrounding how it is that Jesus Christ reconciles us to God.  There is a time and a place for deep conversation on the salvific work of Christ, but it isn’t this blog and it certainly isn’t the pulpit on Sunday morning.  What I will say, however, is that this passage from Hebrews invites us to think about how the language we use effects our theological understandings.  Nobody uses the words “propitiation” or “expiation” any more, but they shape the current conversation and we should know them.  Atonement, when read in the NIV probably carries a slightly different meaning than when read in the NRSV because Evangelicals tend to use the NIV and focus on Anselm’s theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement while [former] Mainliners using the NRSV are more likely to be looking for new metaphors for God’s saving work (for more on this topic, see Tony Jones’ mini-e-book A Better Atonement).

The wise preacher who chooses to preach from Hebrews will think carefully about how her words impact the hearer and the baggage associated with the various theories of atonement, reconciliation, expiation, and propitiation.  For the record, I’m all for the obsolete understanding of Atonement, which is to say, I’m big on God’s reconciling work through Christ over and above Jesus’ death appeasing a wrathful God.

A Different Theology of the Cross

As I read through the lesson from Galatians for Sunday, all sorts of things jumped out at me.  I love Paul’s understanding of forgiveness and restoration in the community of faith, “… if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness.”  I always get a laugh when Kindergarten Paul shows up in Galatians 6 (tip of the hat to my DMin colleague Stuart for that name), “See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!”  But what really caught my eye this morning was Paul’s interesting use of the cross.

“May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”

It seems to me this is a very different theology of the cross than we are used to seeing.  This isn’t Anselm’s Substitutionary Atonement.  It isn’t Christus Victor.  In fact, it seems to have nothing to do with the salvific work of God for the individual human at all.  What does it mean that the world has been crucified to us and us to the world?

Tom Wright, in his Paul for Everyone offers a helpful explanation, “Paul opens up, here in the last segment of the letter, a god’s-eye view of reality which lifts our minds and hearts out beyond Galatia, out beyond the sordid details of campaigns and pots in the primitive church, and out into the rich and wide-ranging purposes of the God of love for the whole cosmos.  Not only has the messiah been crucified.  Not only have Christians been crucified with him (2.19-20; 5.24).  The world itself has been crucified.  Calvary was the turning-point of history.  The cosmos has had sentence of death passed on it – so that God’s new world, God’s new creation, can be born out of the old.  This new creation began with Jesus himself at his resurrection, continues with the Spirit-given new life which wells up in all those who belong to the Messiah, and will go on until, as Paul says in Romans 8, the whole creation will be set free from its own slavery and will share the freedom of the glory of God’s children.” (p. 82)

The work of Christ wasn’t just for me.  It wasn’t just for you.  The salvation of Jesus isn’t between “me and my God,” but rather is the restoration of all of creation, from the single celled organism to the top of the food chain.  We have been set free to join together to bring about the Kingdom of God.  That’s a very different theology of the cross than we’re used to hearing, but dang if it isn’t a really good one.

Mark’s Central Understanding

Whenever Mark 10:35-45 comes up in the Lectionary, I feel compelled to pull out my old notes from Dr. Yieh’s New Testament 1 course.  Engrained in my brain is the notion that Mark 10:45 is key to understanding Mark’s main theme.

“For the Son of Man (also) came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Most of the commentaries I’ve read this week are focused on the ransom bit.  It seems that as Evangelical Christianity has grown to define the cultural norm of American Christianity, the notion of Christ’s substitutionary atonement has also gained steam. Folks much smarter than me have dealt with this topic, and for a primer, I recommend Tony Jones’ A Better Atonementbut for now, suffice it to say, there are other, even better, ways of understanding how Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection restored humanity’s relationship with God.

I’d prefer not to spend time on atonement theory, and instead to look at the first half of 10:45, “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve…” for I am convinced that this is Mark’s Central Understanding of who Jesus is.  Sure, Mark is big on the Messianic Secret, but that secret only makes sense if Jesus is the servant of all.

The model of the Son of Man, as one who came not to be served but to serve, is also Mark’s Central Understanding of discipleship.  Throughout the past few weeks, as Jesus has three times predicted his arrest, death, and resurrection, the disciples haven’t been able to hear a word he’s said.  Peter rebuked him.  The 12 argued over who was the greatest.  James and John ask for the best seats at the banquet.  Jesus teaches suffering service, and the disciples are looking for power and honor.

How often we miss the central understanding of discipleship.  How often we seek the ticket to heaven.  How often we prefer to write a simple check rather than get our hands dirty in the messiness of life.  How often we go after positions of honor rather than meeting people in the midst of their suffering.  How often we seek to be served, rather than to serve.

For the past 13 days, since his Feast Day, I’ve been stuck on the Prayer Attributed to Saint Francis.  In light of this Sunday’s Gospel lesson, I’m left wondering how often I seek my own desires over and above those of God and of others.  When it comes right down to it, the Son of Man is my model exemplar, and his way is “not to be served, but to serve.”

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.  Amen.