Not according to the Gospel of Mark, anyway. Mark’s Jesus isn’t kind or gentle. He’s angry, judgmental and unashamedly partisan. He has nothing but contempt for the rich. He pronounces fiery judgment upon the Romans and the Temple leadership. He despises empire, urban life, economic development, and an economy built on trade. He often displays distrust for foreigners or attempts to incorporate them into his own traditions over and against their own. He grows increasingly cynical with regards to his followers, particularly his disciples, and Mark goes so far as to proclaim the disciples guilty of abandoning Jesus’s ministry before and after his death. He condemns his enemies and his disciples. He dies alone.
In short, he’s not your buddy. And, he wouldn’t like you very much.
If this concept is foreign to you, I offer the following reasons.
- You haven’t read the Gospel of Mark.
- You haven’t read the the Hebrew Bible, or you attempt to explain it away through one of the many interpretive strategies that minimize or distort the text, which were never used by Jesus.
- You’re a Docetist (early heresy – and a very modern one), and you have ripped Jesus out of his historical/political/cultural context thus robbing him of his humanity.
- You effectively believe that there is only one gospel text, not four, and have sought to harmonize the four gospels into one safe, boring story.
- You attend a church in America.
For far too long, Christians have worshiped and attempted to follow a depoliticized, uncontroversial and inhuman version of Jesus created by the powerful to meet the needs of the powerful. Who needs a Jesus that saves you from hunger when our largest health issue is obesity? Who needs a Jesus to save you from political oppression when the Bill of Rights guarantees your freedom? Who needs Jesus to ask the Father to provide for your needs when we live in a modern market economy with strong systems of public and social welfare? I don’t. I need Jesus to make me feel better about myself, provide me with a community when I’m lonely, save me from powers beyond this world that I cannot see or explain, and I need Jesus to give meaning to a life defined by spiritual and social malaise. That’s the Jesus of our Sunday morning pulpits. But, it’s not the Jesus in the Gospel of Mark.
Mark’s Jesus talks politics. He talks economics. He talks about tyranny, religion and the oppressed. He intends to subvert the Roman economy by returning to the economic demands of the Mosaic covenant. He argues publicly with theologians, lawyers and political henchmen. He shames the powerful and wins the support of the peasants. He pronounces the rule of the rulers to be coming to an end through the actions of God and does so from the seat of their authority using their own stories of exodus and freedom. Following him are massive, angry and desperate crowds in a political environment of violent protests and unimaginably brutal Roman military responses. With such a crowd, he enters Jerusalem as king, during a festival that celebrates God’s liberation of the people of Israel over foreign tyrants and engages in prophetic demonstrations at the center of Roman Palestine’s political life – the temple. You don’t do that if you’re nonpolitical. They don’t torture you if you’re nonjudgmental. They don’t crucify you if you’re a safe, wandering teacher who loves everybody. They kill you if you’re a threat. They crucify you to terrorize your supporters. They followed Roman protocol exactly as they had done thousands of times before in Israel.
The Romans’ torture and the crucifixion failed to stop Jesus’s dangerous political and economic message. But fear not, the church stopped it for them long ago. The church made Jesus safe. They made him loving. They made him nonjudgmental. They made his enemies cosmic, not temporal. The church bound up the strong man and plundered his goods. The church, both figuratively and literally, became Roman.
I have argued for years that Jesus was political. I’ve argued that the church has misinterpreted and misrepresented the Gospel of Mark. I think conservatives have ignored Jesus’s humanity by ignoring his politics. I think liberals have ignored his humanity by insisting that he be loving and inclusive of all people. I think liberationists have ignored his humanity by downplaying his actual economic and political agenda in Galilee against centralized authority in Jerusalem and it’s obvious implications. I think I have ignored Jesus’s humanity by insisting that he be understood as fully human – a political human – but have been to afraid from the pulpit or through my biblical interpretation to describe what the political and economic implications of his ministry may be for our world.
I’ve been afraid because my opinions are largely unpopular, and I feared that honestly expressing them as a minister of the church would drive people away. I feared being an unpopular minister. I desperately wanted to be liked. I feared if I wasn’t, the church would be unable to pay its bills, would become unsustainable, and would close. I was afraid that as a minister seeking ordination, that such a record would prevent me from moving forward in the ordination process and jeopardize my career. I had to be safe. I had to protect the church. I had to protect myself. I preached a political Jesus, but never its implications for our politics. I preached a safe, boring Jesus packaged as something radical. I felt like a fraud.
As we begin this year’s lectionary cycle of the Gospel of Mark, I want to hear the message again of the angry, judgmental prophet from Nazareth. I want to hear again the message of the Kingdom of God, of the renewal of Israel, of freedom from oppression and how the disciples missed the point. I’ll be following, but won’t be limited to, the lectionary texts from Mark’s Gospel. I’ll be writing about the intersection of politics and economics in Mark and what it may mean for the rest of us.
Coming up next: Jesus and the Malthusian Economy