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A Hermeneutic of Wisdom in Mark

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A few years ago I taught some of the Gospel of Mark at CCBCY. During that time I made a series called Mondays with Mark. I only got about halfway through Mark’s Gospel, but nevertheless, I want to revive one of those again and look at it in a different way. In J. de Waal Dryden’s new book, A Hermeneutic of Wisdom, he believes that the Bible is a wisdom text meant to transform its readers into people who love God and neighbor. One of the ways it does this is by portraying the characters in its narratives within a certain fashion that you feel for them. You put yourself in their place and ask why they do what they do. 

Fear and Faith

Mark pits faith and fear against each other. The ideal, of course, is faith. But all too many of the characters show fear. Herod fears John (6:19-20), yet in the end Herod cares more about what his own cabinet members (and his step-daughter) think about him rather than sparing John’s life (6:26). The chief priests and scribes fear Jesus (11:18), because the people are amazed at him. They also fear the people (11:32; 12:12)! The women at the end of the book that they will see Jesus just as he had told them, but they fled the scene “afraid” (16:8). 

Mark is trying to project a world of virtue to his readers. We need to think in larger terms than simply which actions are right or wrong. There is a scale, and some actions are wrong to do at certain times, and correct at others. Or they are correct to do, but wrong if done with incorrect motivations. 

Other Passages on Fear: 4.16-17; 6.50; 7.28; 9.32; 10.32; 14.51-52, 66-72
Other Passages on Faith: 4.20; 6.54-55; 14.3, 8, 62; 15.43
Mark 4.35-5.43 is one section where this theme holds an emphasis in each pericope.

The arrival of Jesus has changed history. God has torn open the world (1:10); the kingdom has arrived. Having taught on the kingdom of God through parables, Mark shows Jesus performing His kingdom authority over the created realm: nature, demons, sickness, and death.

4:35-41; Jesus Calms a Storm

Jesus tells the disciples they will cross ‘over’ (not ‘under’) to the other side. Yet even after seeing his miracles (Mark 1) and hearing his kingdom parables, when a great windstorm arises the disciples become fearful. Under pressure, they grow afraid. Are they similar to the persecuted soil of Mark 4.16-17? 

In the OT the sea often symbolized the continued threat from the forces of nature against God. The sea pushes against the boundaries God has set for it [Jb. 38.8-11; Jer. 5.22 (Jesus will reference Jer. 5.21 in Mark 8.17-18)]. Here, Jesus does what only God in the OT did: command authority over the water, over nature itself! 

Yet after doing this, Jesus asks them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” He asks this because the disciples “were filled with great fear” and asked each other, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey Him?” In the immediate context, Jesus is the one who has power over nature. But we will see Mark go on to answer this question throughout the rest of His gospel.

Dryden notes that “their response to Jesus’ calming of the storm… hardly sounds like a reverent expression” (135, n.9). They don’t breathe a sigh of relief; they are terrified! The reader is meant to see themselves in the disciples, yet the disciples often respond to Jesus as if they were blind. Richard Hays says, “God has reversed the positions of insiders and outsiders” (89). Dryden notes, “Mark’s Gospel pits to incommensurable systems of value against each other. One is defined by allegiance to Jesus and the apocalyptic reign of God he is inaugurating. The other is defined by ambition for self-aggrandizement and self-sufficiency” (157). 

We see throughout Mark that the disciples are no better off than the Pharisees and religious leaders. The Pharisees are legalistic and think that they’re good works gain God’s approval and so no repentance is needed on their part. The disciples argue over which of them is the greatest and over which ones will be sitting at the right and left hands of Jesus. Both groups have hard hearts (3:5; 8:17; 10:5). 

A  5:21-24; Jesus Meets Jairus

Dryden suggests that the first question a reader should ask when they meet a new character is: “Do we trust them, or are we suspicious of them?” (132). Unlike the other synagogue rulers, Jairus isn’t coming to trick or test Jesus. His daughter is sick, and he shows his faith by bowing and implored Jesus to heal his daughter. Because Jesus “went with him,” we can also go with them (5:24). 

B  5:25-34; Jesus Heals a Woman

On the way Jesus is surrounded by rush hour traffic. There was one woman in a hopeless situation. Verses 25-26 tell us she had a discharge (probably menstrual, leaving her ritually unclean [Lev. 15.19-30] for 12 years) which was so bad that not only did she spend all of the money she had, she not only grew no better, but she became worse. Not to mention the emotional and mental damage of not having little contact with people for 12 years.

Though this is conjecture, being ritually unclean meant she couldn’t go to the temple, and if anyone else would touch her they too would be ritually unclean. It was against the Torah to have sex with one’s wife during her menstrual cycle, so if she was married (or still married), what was it like for her and her husband to live together when she had this condition? Mark doesn’t go into the details, but the isolation from much of society would be extremely taxing. 

The crowds are densely packed around Jesus, yet He asks, “Who touched my garments?” The disciples themselves are so dense they don’t see the significance of his  question. They ask, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?'” as if Jesus is out of His mind. Dryden points out that Jesus “doesn’t do anonymous healings” (134). He’s not going to let her go home healed without growing her faith too. 

Looking around, the woman falls before Jesus in fear and trembling. She tells Him the whole truth, and so does He. Does fear and trembling here mean “reverence and awe”? I don’t think so. She is afraid that Jesus will point her out as being ritually unclean, risking the ritual cleanness of the crowd around her and of Jesus himself. She believes “she is unworthy of Jesus’ attention” (135), yet Jesus’ question “is an invitation” to her (134). After 12 years of feeling worthless, she expects Jesus to humiliate her. 

Here’s what he does instead:

  • He calls her “Daughter.’” Because of her faith, this woman who was unclean for 12 years is now in the family of God. She is a sister to Jesus [Mark 3.34-35].
  • He commends her faith, “Your faith has made you well”
  • He tells her to “go in peace”; a peace that is divine, she is a daughter of God
  • “Be healed of your disease”;  he gives both her and the crowd the assurance that her healing has taken place, and it is permanent.

Jesus shows his authority over the illness that has come from Adam’s sin. This unnamed woman had the faith that Jesus could heal her, but not that he was good. He showed her that he was a good and gracious healer. 

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” 

A’  5:35-43; Jesus Heals a Daughter

While Jesus was still speaking to the woman, a man from Jairus’ house runs up to the synagogue leader and tells him now to trouble the Teacher any further for his daughter is dead. Unlike the unnamed woman, Jairus believes Jesus is good and that he can and is willing to heal. But what will he do upon hearing that his daughter is dead? Will he go back on his faith now that tribulation has come (4:17)? Jesus overheard what the man said to Jairus and instead tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.”

The mourners in the house mock Jesus. What is Jairus to think now? But Jesus speaks to the little girl, and she wakes up from death. He charges them not to tell anyone about this, but this lamp cannot be hidden under a basket for much longer (4.21-22). 

Dryden says, “Mustard seed faith can move mountains, and Jesus celebrates it. At the same time, it needs to grow” (138). Faith in the Gospels is always going somewhere, “either growing or putrefying” (138). Our faith does not have to be perfect to be accepted. Jesus will stretch and grow us. But neither should we become complacent, thinking that at least our faith at one point is enough. Jairus had to have faith during the entire journey, from his first request through hearing that his daughter had died and then up to hearing the mourners mock Jesus. Yet, in the end, he received his daughter back from the dead. 

Jesus has shown His authority over the elements of creation: nature, demons, illness, and death. Even in the most impossible of situations, whether it be a flooded boat, a strong man who can’t be bound (Mk 3.27), an illness that can’t be healed, or death itself, the King has all authority and all must obey. And those who have the choice to follow or fall away, He encourages them to have faith. In the most difficult of trials, have faith because Jesus is the King of kings.

The Bible is a book of wisdom where God aims to transform the lives of its readers and mold them to look like Christ as they follow in his footsteps and trust in him. 

Come back Monday for my review of Dryden’s book!

A Hermeneutic of wisdom Dryden

Buy it on Amazon!

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