Sez Who?

In Mark 9:33-37, Jesus asks his disciples what they were talking about on the road. What they should have been talking about was what he was talking about with them: his impending betrayal, death, and resurrection, the Most Important Events in the History of the World. But instead they were talking about…

…who was top dog. Who was the Best Disciple. Who was greatest.

Jesus, seeing a teaching moment (with doubtless an eye-roll to heaven), gathers them and teaches them. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

I like the addition of “of all” to both those latter phrases. Just to make sure they don’t draw the circle of service too tightly—”Well, sure, I’m happy to serve all of the elite! I’m happy to serve the most powerful, glamorous, talented, and accomplished people! I’m not too proud to take a serving place among the very best,” etc.—he takes a child, “a little child,” and puts him or her front and centre.

This one, absolutely lowest on the social hierarchy, is the one you must not just tolerate, or even serve, but welcome. For “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

And the dark implication is clear: Reject this little one, and you reject Jesus, and the Father. And if you do that (Mark records Jesus saying just a few verses later), you’d be better off drowning in the depths of the sea (v 42).

Jesus establishes the widest possible range of service. No one is beyond his gaze, no one beyond his help. He practices what he preaches, serving lepers, foreigners, the ritually unclean, the demon-possessed—even little kids.

What Mark also shows us, however, is that Jesus really is The Greatest. He will as readily stoop to serve a beggar as he will rise to rebuke a storm or raise the dead. It’s all in a day’s work, all his Father’s business.

And Mark shows us, furthermore, that Jesus serves everyone, but belongs only to his Father. He at once manages to demonstrate paradigm-shattering humility and breathtaking dignity. Lots of people want to tell him what to do, but he listens hard to only One Voice.

This is how we avoid merely kowtowing as we serve. This is how we avoid surrendering to others’ agenda. We humbly recognize need before us—nothing should be too small or too lowly for our compassionate attention—but we then immediately check in with our Master amid whatever cries for help we hear—without or within. “What do you want done here, Lord? I’ll do anything you say—and nothing you won’t.”

That is how to be great in the Kingdom of Heaven: obey the King. Jesus did. And he was, indeed, The Greatest.

Parables & Propositions

Scholars of religion well into middle age, as I am, remember the excitement of the so-called narrative school of theology breaking over the landscape a few decades ago. Yale historian Hans Frei wrote about The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative as a bad thing, his colleague the patristics scholar George Lindbeck published The Nature of Doctrine to describe theology as a set of norms expressed in cultural stories, and Duke’s Stanley Hauerwas was perhaps the best known of the new group emphasizing narrative theology.

Meanwhile, homiletics professors, such as Emory’s Fred Craddock, were telling their elite preaching students to tell stories, not teach doctrine. Elsewhere, pundits such as Len Sweet promoted semiotics—the study of the interpretation of symbols, whose most famous proponent was the Italian scholar and novelist Umberto Eco—and storytelling as far superior in communicative power to mere propositions. Seminars popped up to warn young pastors that their charges were now under the baleful influence of postmodernism and would no longer abide doctrinal discourses, but wanted stories instead.

In Biblical studies, parables had long since been rescued from those who would flatten them out in prosaic interpretation. “We murder to dissect” could have been the watch-cry of those who wanted stories to simply be told, not explained. Like jokes, narratives had their own life-force that would quickly ebb when subjected to analysis. Jesus’ example of story-telling was championed as life-givingly alternative to the dessicating ways of the systematic theologians.

And then one reads again Mark 4:1-20, in which Jesus tells his first parable, according to GMark. It is the well-known, and relatively extended, story of the sower, the seed, and the four differently receptive soils. Let’s note just two things relevant to all this excitement, now simply accepted wisdom, about tale-telling as superior to proposition-pushing.

First, Jesus’ followers crowd around him afterward and ask for an explanation. And what Jesus doesn’t say is, “No, you’re failing to feel the impact of the story as story. Just let it work on you!” He doesn’t say, “You’re trying to reduce the hermeneutical polyvalences of narrative to the dull, straight lines of interpretation.” He doesn’t say, “A story doesn’t mean. It just tells.” And so on.

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