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Lent 2, Cycle B

This text is a story about the covenant between the Lord God and Abram and his descendants. The story provides an etiology of the origin of the custom of the circumcision of all Israelite males as a sign of this covenant. The story also describes the name changes from Abram to Abraham and from Sarai to Sarah as commanded by the Lord. Since the Lord is proclaimed in this text as God Almighty, Abraham and his descendants are commanded to walk (live) under constant scrutiny of the Lord God and be blameless. The childless marriage of Abraham and Sarah will be blessed by God by the birth of a son, Isaac, even though Abraham, who is one hundred years old and Sarah ninety, laughs (verse 17) at the possibility of a child for himself and for Sarah. As an important factor in the Christian story of salvation (Heilsgeschichte), this account is appropriate for use in Christian worship services during the Lenten season.

Psalm 22:23-31

After crying out to God in despair while suffering from a life-threatening illness and describing his physical distress, the psalmist promises to offer a heartfelt testimony of gratitude to God in the presence of other Israelites. The psalmist proclaims that in the future all people in every nation will bow down in humble adoration of the Lord God, who has total power and authority over them.

Romans 4:13-25

The Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 text chosen for this day puts no emphasis on the faith of Abraham. In fact, it states that when Abraham heard the Lord say that Sarah and he would be blessed with a son in their advanced age, Abraham laughed in disbelief. Instead of this text, the Apostle Paul used Genesis 15:6, in which it is written that Abraham believed the Lord, to support Paul’s argument in Romans 4:13-25 that the promise to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants had been established by their faith and that the Lord would keep the promise the Lord made.

Alert members of our worshiping Christian congregations will wonder why those who compiled our lectionary did not use Genesis 15:1-6 rather than Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 in conjunction with this text in Romans 4:13-25. Paul here in Romans 4:18 argued that Abraham believed with a hope that went far beyond all reason to hope and did not weaken in his faith even when he considered his own body and the prolonged infertility of Abraham and Sarah. This is in sharp contrast to the Genesis 17:17 note that Abraham laughed at the idea that God would bless Sarah and Abraham with a son when they were so old.

Mark 8:31-38

Mark 8:31 includes the first of three predictions by Jesus (to be followed in Mark 9:30-32 and 10:33-34) of his rejection, of his being seized in the Garden of Gethsemane, being crucified by the Romans, and after three days being raised to life by God. As used here on the Second Sunday in Lent, it serves as a projection toward Good Friday and Easter in our Church Year calendar. It also raises questions among thoughtful people today how Peter and the other disciples of Jesus could have responded so vehemently in protest to Jesus’ prediction of his death and ignored completely Jesus’ prediction of his resurrection that will occur three days after his death.

This account in Mark 8:31-38 provides for us much evidence of the inspired creativity of the Markan writer and of the earlier tradition. It is a particularly fascinating text to study, because three life situation levels can be discerned within the history of the tradition of this text up to the level of the Markan account.

The first life situation level is the level of the activities of the Jesus of history with some of his closest followers. We can see two rather loosely connected sayings of Jesus (Mark 8:36-37 and 8:38) at this Jesus of history level, as well as a hint in 8:31 that the Jesus of history had talked with his followers about the likelihood that he would be killed by the Roman occupation authorities as a Jewish messianic figure. There is further evidence in 8:32-33 that, when the Jesus of history talked about the likelihood that he would be killed by the Roman authorities as a Jewish messianic figure, Peter (and perhaps others among Jesus’ followers who were present) objected strenuously to his talk about an imminent violent death. In spite of this, Jesus had refused to be deterred. He had resolutely continued his bold and courageous advocacy of the cause of God even when he was confronted by the fears of his disciples and their understandable attempts to dissuade him. During this first life situation, there would have been no prediction of and no expectation of the resurrection of Jesus three days after his death.

Behind this Mark 8:31-38 text, therefore, there may have been at least three separate situations within the activities of the Jesus of history. Let us try to reconstruct them as well as we can.

On one or more occasions, the Jesus of history probably said something about the likelihood that he would be killed by the Romans. As a highly intelligent and perceptive human being, he would have foreseen the likelihood that the military and political leader of the Roman occupation troops would order his arrest and crucifixion because Jesus was a Jewish messianic figure, passionately concerned about his fellow oppressed Jews and not afraid of the Roman authorities. Because he was helping his fellow oppressed Jews actively and openly, and because significant numbers of men and women from among his own people were often gathered around him, Jesus was perceived correctly by the Roman authorities to be a Jewish messianic figure and, therefore, a potential threat to the security of the Roman forces.

Although it is not likely that the Jesus of history ever encouraged his followers to use military actions and resistance against the Roman occupation authorities, the Romans could not be sure about that. Even though he himself would not encourage military resistance, which was not his purpose and which would have been foolhardy even if it had been, some of his excitable young followers might have attempted such action. Both the Roman occupation forces and the “Herodians” (Jewish religious and political leaders who cooperated fully with the Romans and opposed any attempts by Jewish Zealot types to foment a revolt or revolution that would almost certainly be crushed by the Romans with heavy loss of Jewish life, property, and position) were nervous, therefore, about the Jesus of history and about the excitable young men who were often gathered around him.

Eventually, of course, the Roman occupation leader, Pontius Pilate, did order the arrest, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. Pilate correctly considered Jesus to be a Jewish messianic figure, one among many others at that time. We note the inscription on the cross, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” This inscription would demonstrate plainly and publicly to the Jewish populace what the Roman occupation authorities did to Jewish messianic figures. The “King of the Jews” inscription had probably been used many times (whenever the Romans crucified a Jewish leader of prominence) both before and after it was used as a designation of the reason that the Romans were crucifying Jesus. This was done by the Romans in order to keep the Jewish population subdued and to keep the number of Roman troops needed to control the Jewish population as small as possible.

On many occasions the Jesus of history probably talked about integrity and courage (and demonstrated great integrity and courage) in a way that was remembered, repeated, and recorded in the words of Mark 8:36-37, “What gain will there be for a person — even if the person should gain control of the whole world — if the integrity of that person is lost? For what could a person possibly give in exchange for that person’s integrity?”

Also, it is likely that the Jesus of history talked about the Son of man and about other terms and ideas commonly spoken about within Jewish apocalyptic circles at that time. The words of Mark 8:38, “Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words within this adulterous and sinful generation — the Son of man will be ashamed of that person when the Son of man comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels,” probably are a reflection (with some additional development) over what the Jesus of history had said about these things. The Son of man is spoken about in the third person grammatically here, and “in the glory of his Father” may also be a part of this additional development of the text.

The second life situation level is the level of the reminiscences of followers of Jesus after he had been crucified. The words of 8:34b, “If anyone wishes to follow after me, let that person deny that person’s self and let that person take up that person’s own cross and follow me,” were probably developed during this period of reminiscence when the cross symbol was becoming meaningful to followers of Jesus. At this level the words of the Jesus of history about this adulterous and sinful generation” would be changing from internal criticism of Jews by a Jew (the Jesus of history) to external criticism of Jews by those who were not Jews (the Christ of faith and the early Christians). At this level of reminiscences of followers of Jesus after he had been crucified, the predictions of the Jesus of history that he would probably be killed by the Roman military forces would often be recalled — privately but not publicly and not in written form.

During this level of reminiscences, followers of Jesus would gradually have added details to the passion predictions ex eventu as they came to believe that Jesus was now raised from the dead and with God. Here (or at the Markan level) the important step of adding the resurrection prediction was probably taken in what was to become Mark 8:31. This step was taken because it was thought that Jesus as God’s Son must have known that God would raise him from the dead, since along with his divine power he would also have omniscience. During this period of time the statement in Mark 8:36 that whoever loses life or integrity for Jesus’ sake would have been developed as incentive and motivation for followers of Jesus. Also at this level (and at the Markan level during the Jewish revolt of 66-72 C.E.) followers of Jesus who were transmitting the tradition would have been careful not to say anything publicly or in written form about the Romans as those who would kill Jesus, so that their own lives would not be further endangered. Jewish authorities could be blamed, since they did not have political and military power over followers of Jesus, especially after 67 C.E.

After Pilate had been discredited and removed from his office by the Romans, it became safe for followers of Jesus to speak publicly and to write about Pilate’s involvement on the crucifixion of Jesus. If Pilate had been retained in office and advanced in position by the Romans, it is probable that followers of Jesus would not have been able to speak publicly or to write about Pilate’s involvement in condemning Jesus to death. As it was, followers of Jesus were careful to present Pilate and the Romans only as rather passive participants rather than as the active agents that they were in ordering the arrest of Jesus, torturing him during the night, and crucifying him the next morning. It was perfectly safe, however, to blame the Jews by making them the active, aggressive instigators of the death sentence of Jesus. A few Jews, of course, the Herodians, may have been willing participants, but not the overwhelming majority of the Jews. We must be aware of this as Christian leaders today, and we must share our awareness of this with the people in our congregations.

The third life situation level, the level of the Markan composition of the document “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” that became canonical, brought together by the use of redactional connectors a variety of oral and written traditions into what we now have as Mark 8:31-38. At this level, additional detail was added, especially elements such as the words “and for the sake of the gospel” in 8:35.

Beyond this third level the Matthean redactors added details such as “to go away to Jerusalem” in Matthew 16:21 (Mark 8:31) and “May God mercifully spare you this! This must never happen to you!” in Matthew 16:22 (Mark 8:32). The Lukan writer-redactor went a different way by eliminating the rebuke by Peter (Luke 9:21-22).

There is an active debate currently about whether our proclamation should be limited to the canonical level of the tradition or whether we should sometimes base our proclamation or use in our proclamation other levels that are now accessible to us through use of exegetical methodologies. Personally, I think that we should be able to use all levels in our proclamation. Actually, whenever we place our emphasis on a particular portion of a text, we are choosing a particular level in the development of a text. If we use both Matthew and Mark, or Luke and Mark, or Deuteronomy and Exodus, or 1-2 Chronicles and 1-2 Kings, etc., we are actually using materials from more than one level of development of the traditions within the biblical account. Was not the tradition inspired at every level of its development? Particularly, I suggest that we should use the earliest discernible level of the development of texts from the Four Gospels. To limit our use to the canonical level would be reductionistic and would separate us unnecessarily from the Jesus of history. Of course, canon criticism and the canonical level are vitally important. So is text criticism that reveals changes in the text after the canon was established.

Mark 9:2-9

This Transfiguration story, along with its parallels in Matthew and in Luke, is considered by the great majority of Christians to be a record of an event that occurred just as it is recorded here. It is likely, however, that much more is involved in these texts than simply a record of an event. If these are simply records of an important, spectacular event that occurred during the public ministry of Jesus, we may wonder why there is no mention of such an astonishing occurrence within the Fourth Gospel. According to popular understanding, the Fourth Gospel was written by John, and John is said to have been present with Jesus on the mountain at the time of this event. How could the writer of the Fourth Gospel have forgotten this profound experience of seeing and hearing men who had lived and died hundreds of years earlier and who remained prominent in Jewish thought?

Although the Fourth Gospel has no mention of this event, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, who are nowhere said to have been present on the mountain, all include this story.

With our understanding of biblical symbolism, we can see that in these Synoptic Gospel Transfiguration stories Moses and Elijah function as symbols for the Torah and for the Prophetic Traditions respectively. The Torah and the Prophets together constituted the sacred Scriptures for most Jews and for the earliest Christians during the time in which the Synoptic Gospels were written. Symbolically, these Transfiguration stories may have been intended to proclaim that Jesus is in the “same league” with Moses and Elijah. By means of these stories Jesus and the words of Jesus are validated as on the same level of authority as the sacred Scriptures as the Scriptures were known at that time. (The so-called Writings had not yet been canonized.) From the standpoint of those who first heard or read the Transfiguration account in Mark, Jesus’ words and Jesus as a person were validated within these accounts by God God’s self by means of the very impressive voice from the cloud saying, “This is my Beloved Son! Listen to him!” In the story after the cloud moved away, the three awe-stricken disciples are said to have seen no one there except Jesus. Moses and Elijah were gone.

Symbolically, therefore, both the Torah and the Prophetic traditions were also no longer to be seen nor heard. At this point the message intended almost certainly was to indicate vividly that Jesus and the words of Jesus have replaced the Torah and the Prophets as sacred authorities for followers of Jesus. The Transfiguration account in Mark 9:2-9, therefore, served to validate the entire “Gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark) much as the “Burning Bush” account in Exodus served as a validation of the entire book of Exodus or even of the entire Torah. When the Matthean and Lukan redactors included the Markan Transfiguration account in their expanded Gospels, the Transfiguration accounts served the same purpose in those documents as validation stories for those documents.

The writers of the Fourth Gospel chose to validate their account also, but not by using the Markan Transfiguration account. Instead, they validated the Fourth Gospel by their use of the great “I Am” statements that they have the Johannine Jesus express in key places in their document.

Thus we have the Four Gospels validated as “words of Jesus” and actually as “Word of God” that God God’s self directly and indirectly is said to have commanded us to hear as we transition from the Epiphany season to Ash Wednesday and to the Lenten season.

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen