Binding the Strong Man (Part Three): Samplings from Mark’s Gospel
Sunday, May 6, 2018 – The 6th Sunday of Easter
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
Our reading today ends with Jesus speaking to the scribes of the Pharisees who question him because he is sitting down for supper, in the house of his newest disciple, a tax-collector named Levi(also known as Matthew), and he is eating with a group of tax-collectors and what the text names “sinners” (a loaded word if ever there was one within religious traditions —and unpacking this term and the way it has been so cruelly weaponized by churches is worth a reflection of its own).
I’d like to explore this morning how this scene of a table surrounded by this specific gang of characters would paint a particularly vivid picture within the social and economic context of those who first heard or read this text about how remarkable a thing is happening in Jesus’ movement, within the Gospel of Mark.
This is the 3rd part of a series of reflections on the Gospel of Mark which congregations like this one which follow the Revised Common Lectionary read from throughout this year in the life of the church—you can find parts 1&2 on our website which offer some introductory material that may be of interest.
I think this morning’s sections from the text offer a particular glimpse at how the authors or more likely composers of this text are engaging in a sophisticated bit of plotting. By plotting I don’t mean scheming (although I would argue as have many others, that this text is subversive and in it’s context incendiary), but I mean here that the episodes shared and the order in which they are shared are intentional.
We can sometimes view these texts, being almost 2000 years as unsophisticated and therefore believe that these narratives of the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth are simply chronological run-downs of things his followers remember him doing and saying. We assume this sometimes because we may believe that those who would have written them lack the literary sophistication to weave a plot, and I think we also sometimes fall into that assumption because of our belief that these are strictly religious texts, and so couldn’t have involved something as human as literary techniques or authors who craft a narrative to a particular end. There are many corners of the Christian Tradition want these texts to offer a historically exact outline of Jesus’ story—a practice which becomes particularly inconvenient when we find that 4 Gospels place the same or similar events in different orders or place a miracle or teaching in a different town.
It is always worth reminding ourselves how much of a cross-cultural task we are engaged with in reading Scripture, the United Church Song of Faith suggests this:
Scripture is our song for the journey, the living word
passed on from generation to generation
to guide and inspire,
that we might wrestle a holy revelation for our time and place
from the human experiences
and cultural assumptions of another era.
With that in mind, let’s see how we got to this table!
We begin at the Sea of Galilee, a large fresh water lake, 7 miles wide, 13 miles long, it’s shore dotted by villages that are connected to the fishing industry, which is the most prosperous segment of the ancient Galilean economy.
Now to be clear, the fishing industry is prosperous, but the communities around the lake are decidely not.
Jesus hails from Nazareth, a hillside community miles west of the Sea of Galilee, almost 1/2 way across towards the Mediterranean, so it’s worth pondering what has brought him here to this region that will become the centre of his ministry.
Herod Antipas, is the Israelite ruler of Galilee, appointed by the Roman to govern the North. He is known in other historical sources, for his enthusiastic embrace of Roman style governance, and in 19 CE he moves his administrative capital to the newly built city he has called Tiberius on the shore of the Sea of Galilee—the city shares the name of the Roman Emperor reigning at this very moment.
Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan describes this—Romanization has just hit lower Galilee full forced and it’s focused on the Sea of Galilee.
So it’s quite likely that Jesus, who has trained as a carpenter, has come to the area first to be involved in the building of Tiberius, then staying because there is now a great deal of work mending the wooden boats that dot the sea and the new infrastructure that an increasingly systematized fishing system requires. Rome is known throughout the ancient world for it’s superior transportation technology, roads, bridges, and particularly significant here, harbours!
For as long as people lived around the shore of Galilee, this body of water, sometimes called the lake, sometimes a sea has been fished, and the management of this, as of the communities itself has been kinship driven. Extended family networks work together ensuring that they and their communities have enough to eat. Boats and nets are passed down from generation to generation, and issues with the fish supply would be discussed within the town councils (the Greek word for which is synagogue—a word which won’t mean religious gathering place for another century or two).
But things change in 19 CE, because the subsistence focused fishing practices are absorbed into an industry for export. Suddenly licenses are imposed, more technological methods enforced, and the fish supply is now overseen by the government in Tiberius, rather than by each community.
To be rewarded a license, which incidentally means, to be allowed to pay the extremely high fee to purchase one of the limited number of licenses, one had comply to fulfill quotas of fish delivered for processing. Up to 1/2 of the catch will be delivered to one of 16 harbours that archeologists have dated to this time period where they will either be dried or turned into fish oil for export, most likely to feed Roman troops on campaign.
Mary Magdalene, a well known character whose story is much debated and often unfairly maligned (a discussion for another day), comes from this area. Magdalene means comes from Magdala which means “tower” for the structure at the centre of the city, which prior to the construction of that landmark was called Tarichaeae, which means “processed fish- village.”
Roman Imperialism, administered by the Israelite elite, has in a few short years, transformed a way of life that has existed as long as anyone can remember and utterly devastated the community, bonds of kinship no longer form its base—practices of sustainability and stewardship of the lake no longer connect village to village through their shared reliance on the long-term health of the eco-system and fish population. And the practices of sharing, of meeting your own needs, as well as the needs of the vulnerable, the widow, the orphan, the visitor are undermined by the need to make quotas for export.
Jesus’ story begins less than a decade into this cataclysmic shift—and he begins by visiting a class of people who hold a once noble task of feeding their community, who now serve the economic needs of the elite and whose hard labour is sent far away literally into the belly of beast that is the Roman military machine.
Biblical scholar Ched Myers describes it like this: Jesus’ encounter with fishermen at their work represents a scenario that is usually romanticized or trivialized in our churches—oh how quaint, fishermen!!! But when re-contextualized in the real world of 1st century Roman Palestine, this little vignette gives us a glimpse into the hard world of peasant fishermen, the equivalent of a modern sweat shop or diamond mine or coca plantation. It is into this world that Jesus, himself a marginalized worker, steps to begin his movement.
They left their nets and followed him.
The word “leave” incidentally, aphiemi, is the Greek word which later in Mark’s Gospel will be used to describe the forgiving of debts and the unbinding of one literally wrapped up in chains, suggesting that these fishers are not abandoning a no longer promising career path, but finding release from an exploitative system which has reduced their ancestral practice to simply a cog in a machine.
Now when Jesus calls them to follow, he says ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’
An interesting choice of phrase.
Often the religious or theological meaning given to this, is that they will now seek to collect followers of Jesus, but if we, like Mark’s audience, were steeped in the tradition of hearing the Israelite prophets (whose words make up much of what we call the Old Testament) we might hear echoes of three moments.
The prophet Jeremiah who confronts the nation in a moment in its history where it has abandoned it’s call to covenant community, in his promise that Israel will be restored says “I am now sending for many fishermen, says God, and they shall catch them”
From the prophet Amos, famously quoted by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in his image of justice rolling like a river –
you who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
The time is surely coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
even the last of you with fish-hooks.
And finally, the prophet Ezekiel refers back in the people’s history to Egypt and Pharaoh, the ancient symbol of oppression and power:
I am against you,
Pharaoh king of Egypt,
the great dragon sprawling
in the midst of its channels,
saying, ‘My Nile is my own;
I made it for myself.’
I will put hooks in your jaws,
I will draw you up from your channels,
with all the fish
sticking to your scales.
I will fling you into the wilderness,
Now to close, we must return to the table that I mentioned at the beginning, for after calling the fishermen, Jesus comes back to the lake and walks up to the table of Levi the tax-collector.
What sort of taxes is Levi collecting down by the shore, by the harbour? Fish.
He is the guy who is in charge of ensuring that Simon and Andrew, James and John and their fathers, exhausted after a long night of fishing, hand in 1/2 of their catch to be processed.
This is the maniacal brilliance of Roman colonialism, and so many modern systems of exploitation even today, turning the people against one another, for rather than sending learned people from Rome to manage this, they enlist locals, perhaps learned, some perhaps looking to get ahead, some likely who would rather be fishing with their families who did not get chosen to receive a license and now have no other choice to manage their exploitative system.
Jesus gathers the broken parts of a once cohesive community, and gently draws them back together, and I would suggest that it is this more than anything else that alarms the scribes, it is not simply why do you eat with these sorts, but why do you bring these parts of society that we have pulled apart, together at one table?
How have you created restoration where we have sown discord?
Jesus has called fishers out of a system that exploits their labour and life, dehumanizing them, no longer creative ones bearing God’s image, but simply producers of product. And he has called tax-collectors themselves dehumanized by their administration of this system. Rivals, no longer able to come together as human to human, but whose relationships were simply transactional, and he has brought them back around a table.
It is worth noting that at the centre of our space still stands a table, perhaps a reminder of this aspect of Jesus’ ministry, both then, and now, to call us forth from relationships, with self, with others, with the earth, that do not bring flourishing, and into simply table fellowship, where regardless of the patterns we have fallen into, the divine in me can see the divine in you, and the divine in you, can see the divine in me.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone.
Thanks be to God.