According to Mark?

Sermon at St James, Colwall, Trinity 6, 2015

Amos 7.7-15; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

There’s a tradition that Mark’s gospel was written for Christian people in Rome, and might even include personal recollections of the apostle Peter. It’s very likely that it was written around the time of Nero’s persecution of Christians, and of the Jewish Wars against Rome (AD 66-70) that led to the parading of the sacred candlesticks of the ruined Temple through the streets of Rome. You may wonder if any of this matters. Well, I think it might help us understand why Mark’s gospel is so different to the others and why it counts as Christian good news.

If you sit down to read the gospels, you may notice that John’s gospel quotes Mark’s, but doesn’t bother to mention either King Herod’s respect for John the Baptist, or that man’s murder. You might wonder why Luke’s gospel talks about Herod’s respect for the Baptist, but just mentions his murder in a couple of sentences. You might wonder too why Matthew’s gospel copies about 2/3 of what you just heard in Mark, most of it word for word.

Mark’s gospel is different to the others fundamentally because of its intended audience. At its heart is a secret, the so-called Messianic secret. Now, you and I are not surprised to learn at the end that Jesus is the Son of God. But who says Jesus is the Son of God? Not Jesus, according to Mark. And if someone (say, someone healed by Jesus) says “you are amazing. You must be the son of God,” what does Jesus say? “Tell no-one: do not let on.” And if the crowds who follow Jesus get a bit too excited and start that “son of God” stuff, what does Jesus do? He takes off; he goes into the wilderness, or he jumps into a boat and pushes off across Lake Galilee.

Of course you and I know where this story is going. It is an action story. It has minimal dialogue but lots of eloquent deeds (just contrast it with, say, Matthew chapters 5 and 6, the Sermon on the Mount; or those long talks in John’s gospel). Mark focuses on deeds, starting with Jesus’ sudden eruption onto the stage of world history and his baptism, using dramatic, even violent vocabulary: few words, no titles. We read of someone extraordinary, someone we know will turn out to be the son of God, though referring to himself only as the son of man, that is, a human. Since a memorable book in 1908, dozens more books have been written about why Jesus was so strict about his secret identity.

To understand this, you have to know that, when this gospel was written, “son of god” was an imperial title. The emperor Octavian, later called Augustus (remember his name in Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth?) lived from 63 BC to AD 14. His great uncle Julius Caesar named Octavian/Augustus as his heir and as emperor of what had been a republic. In Augustus’ long life, he did a great deal to stabilise the new empire. One way to do that was to allow his spin doctors to set up a cult where he was honoured as divus (divine). King Herod the Great, never slow to curry imperial favour, built temples to Augustus, including one in Samaria and another on Mount Hermon. There were inscriptions to this “divine” being, including of course on the coinage. As the cult grew, the ambiguous title Divus (divine) was replaced with a less ambiguous one. Octavian’s official title became Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus – The august son of the divine, emperor of the Caesar family. Now you have to remember also that most of the Empire round the Mediterranean actually spoke Greek rather than Latin. Greek speakers translated this Latin title literally: the August Son of God, Emperor.

You can imagine what that did to Jewish religious sensibility. It was no good Roman citizens saying, look it’s just a civic thing, you don’t have actually to worship. But it was one of Herod’s successors who put those divine claims on a plaque in the Jerusalem Temple and who pushed the emperor cult in Samaria so hard that he sparked those disastrous Jewish Wars. So you can see that, when the emperor is routinely referred to as “son of god,” Christians or potential Christians in, say, Rome might simply freak out if they heard of Jesus claiming to be Son of God. You see why the author of Mark’s gospel shows Jesus being extremely canny about people calling him Son of God. He’d be under arrest sooner than you could say Hail, Caesar.

Mark didn’t want to antagonise good Roman citizens who would sympathise with the authorities cracking down on seditious people, people who worship a different “Son of God.” Christians were persecuted because they were seen as political subversives. Nor does our gospel writer want to antagonise good Jews for whom the title Son of God would be puzzling or even blasphemous, and he does not want to sound like an extremist setting up a religious state.

For Jews, titles like Son of Man or even Messiah would be something you could discuss, though Jews did believe that the Messiah would be an earthly king. And what about gentiles or non-Jews in, say, Rome? Messiah? What’s a messiah? Well, that can be explained and taught. But, if you want to stay in dialogue with Jews or gentiles in a Roman city and not frighten them silly, you’d have to take discussions about Messiah, let alone Son of God, very slowly. You’d have to let those ideas leak out a bit at a time, let them come to their own conclusions. That’s why the first outright proclamation of Jesus as Son of God comes near the end. As Jesus dies, a Roman centurion says “truly this was the Son of God” or was it “the son of a god”? – but it’s a Roman who says it.

Well, that was then and we are now. I did suggest that, in all this stuff about Mark, there is good news for now. One clue lies in our first reading from the prophet Amos about the downfall of his nation: “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste.” Prophecies such as his are not foreseeing the future, so much as reading the present from God’s point of view. He looked at the then-current political, economic and social life of Israel. Amos saw that it was going to crash, and history proved him right. Today’s gospel reading reminds us of what happens when a prophet upsets the status quo. And Jesus must have taken in the implications for himself of his cousin’s murder.

Prophets today are often reluctant to speak, but feel compelled to cry out warnings when they see what is wrong in our world. They see injustice, inequality, oppression, hatred, violence, degradation of the environment – many are things that Amos saw – and they have to speak. Like Amos, they are usually disregarded. If they dare to mention God’s judgement in these matters, they are told that religion should not be about politics. Or, as Jed Bush said of Pope Francis’ encyclical “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”

For Mark and his gospel, for us and our political, economic and social lives, the challenge is the same. If we really do believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then we’d better pay close attention to what God is prompting us to do, to be, to say, to buy, to sell, to support, to confront and so on. People may well think we should leave politics to politicians, that we are rocking the boat. Well, so be it. In the end, our allegiance has to be to whomever really is Son of God. We cannot allow any person, institution, party or corporation to supplant the rule of God in our personal and corporate lives.