Kingdom and Discipleship (Mark 1-4, 6, 8)
The accounts of John’s preaching and of Jesus’ baptism and temptation say nothing directly about work. Nevertheless, as the narrative gateway to the Gospel, they provide the basic thematic context for all that follows and cannot be bypassed as we move to passages more obviously applicable to our concerns. An interesting point is that Mark’s title (Mark 1:1) describes the book as “the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ.” From a narrative point of view, drawing attention to the beginning is striking, because the Gospel seems to lack an ending. The earliest manuscripts suggest that the Gospel ends suddenly with Mark 16:8, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The text ends so abruptly that scribes added the material now found in Mark 16:9-20, which is composed from passages found elsewhere in the New Testament. But perhaps Mark intended his Gospel to have no ending. It is only “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ,” and we who read it are participants in the continuing Gospel. If this is so, then our lives are a direct continuation of the events in Mark, and we have every reason to expect concrete applications to our work.
We will see in greater detail that Mark always portrays human followers of Jesus as beginners who fall far short of perfection. This is true even of the twelve apostles. Mark, more than any of the other Gospels, presents the apostles as unperceptive, ignorant, and repeatedly failing Jesus. This is highly encouraging, for many Christians who try to follow Christ in their work feel inadequate in doing so. Take heart, Mark exhorts, for in this we are like the apostles themselves!
John the Baptist (Mark 1:2-11) is presented as the messenger of Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. He announces the coming of “the Lord.” Combined with the designation of Jesus as “Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1), this language makes clear to the reader that Mark’s central theme is “the kingdom of God,” even though he waits until Mark 1:15 to use that phrase and to connect it to the gospel (“good news”). “The kingdom of God” is not a geographical concept in Mark. It is the reign of the Lord observed as people and peoples come under God’s rule, through the transforming work of the Spirit. That work is highlighted by Mark’s brief description of the baptism and temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-13), which by its brevity emphasizes the descent of the Spirit onto Jesus and his role in driving him into (and presumably through) the temptation by Satan.
This passage cuts across two opposite, yet popular, conceptions of the kingdom of God. On the one hand is the idea that the kingdom of God does not yet exist, and will not until Christ returns to rule the world in person. Under this view, the workplace, like the rest of the world, is enemy territory. The Christian’s duty is to survive in the enemy territory of this world long enough to evangelize, and profitably enough to meet personal needs and give money to the church. The other is the idea that the kingdom of God is an inner, spiritual domain, having nothing to do with the world around us. Under this view, what the Christian does at work, or anywhere else aside from church and individual prayer time, is no concern of God’s at all.
Against both of these ideas, Mark makes it clear that Jesus’ coming inaugurates the kingdom of God as a present reality on earth. Jesus says plainly, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom is not fulfilled at present, of course. It does not yet govern the earth, and will not do so until Christ returns. But it is here now, and it is real.
Therefore, to submit to the reign of God and to proclaim his kingdom has very real consequences in the world around us. It may well bring us into social disrepute, conflict, and, indeed, suffering. Mark 1:14, like Matthew 4:12, draws attention to John’s imprisonment and links this to the commencement of Jesus’ own proclamation that “the kingdom has come near” (Mark 1:15). The kingdom is thus set over against the powers of the world, and as readers we are forcefully shown that to serve the gospel and to honour God will not necessarily bring success in this life. Yet at the same time, by the Spirit’s power, Christians are called to serve God for the benefit of those around them, as the healings Jesus performs demonstrate (Mark 1:23-34, 40-45).
The radical significance of the Holy Spirit’s coming into the world is made clearer later in the Gospel through the Beelzeboul controversy (Mark 3:20-30). This is a difficult section, and we have to be quite careful in how we deal with it, but it is certainly not unimportant to the theology of the kingdom that undergirds our theology of work. The logic of the passage seems to be that by casting out demons, Jesus is effectively liberating the world from Satan, depicted as a strong man now bound. Like their Lord, Christians are meant to employ the Spirit’s power to transform the world, not to escape the world or to accommodate to it.
J. David Hester, “Dramatic Inconclusion: Irony and the Narrative Rhetoric of the Ending of Mark.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 17 (1995), 61-86.
This section needs to be treated cautiously: while the disciples are paradigms of the Christian life, they also occupy a unique position in the story of salvation. Their summons to a distinctive kind of service, and to the forsaking of their current employment, does not establish a universal pattern for Christian life and vocation. Many, indeed most, of those who follow Jesus do not quit their jobs to do so (see Vocation Overview at www.theologyofwork.org). Nevertheless, the way in which the demands of the kingdom cut across and override the usual principles of society are transferable and enlightening to our work.
The opening clause of Mark 1:16 presents Jesus as itinerant (“as he passed along”), and he calls these fishermen to follow him on the road. This is more than just a challenge to leave behind income and stability or, as we might put it, to get out of our “comfort zone.” Mark’s account of this incident records a detail lacking in the other accounts, namely, that James and John leave their father Zebedee “with the hired men” (Mark 1:20). They themselves were not hired men or day labourers, but rather were a part of what was probably a relatively successful family business. As Suzanne Watts Henderson notes in relation to the response of the disciples, the “piling up of particulars underscores the full weight of the verb [to leave]: not just nets are left behind, but a named father, a boat and indeed an entire enterprise.” For these disciples to follow Jesus, they have to demonstrate a willingness to allow their identity, status, and worth to primarily be determined in relation to him.
Fishing was a major industry in Galilee, with a connected sub-industry of fish salting. At a time of social turbulence in Galilee, these two related industries supported each other and remained steady. The willingness of the disciples to forsake such stability is quite remarkable. Economic stability is no longer their chief purpose for working. Yet even here we must be cautious. Jesus does not reject the earthly vocation of these men but reorients it. Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to be “fishers of people” (Mark 1:17), thereby affirming their former work as an image of the new role to which he is calling them. Although most Christians are not called to leave their jobs and become wandering preachers, we are called to ground our identity in Christ. Whether we leave our jobs or not, a disciple’s identity is no longer “fisherman,” “tax collector,” or anything else except “follower of Jesus.” This challenges us to resist the temptation to make our work the defining element of our sense of who we are.
Suzanne Watts Henderson, Christology and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge University Press, 2006), 63.
Sean Freyne, Jesus: A Jewish Galilean (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 48-53. For the place of fishing in the taxation structures, see Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, A Social-Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 44-45.
This sermon from The High Calling discusses another healing miracle of Jesus in Mark (5:1-20) where Jesus brings healing to both a wayward individual and a fearful crowd. If we consider work as a form of prayer, then how we regard one another in the workplace makes a difference. Business is about relationships; how we manage those relationships can make the difference for our success both as business people and Christians.
The story of Jesus healing the paralytic man raises the question of what the theology of work means for those who do not have the ability to work. The paralytic man, prior to this healing, is incapable of self-supporting work. As such, he is dependent on the grace and compassion of those around him for his daily survival. Jesus is impressed by the faith of the man’s friends. Their faith is active, showing care, compassion, and friendship to someone who was excluded from both the financial and relational rewards of work. In their faith, there is no separation between being and doing.
Jesus sees their effort as an act of collective faith. “When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mark 2:5). Regrettably, the community of faith plays a vanishingly small role in most Christians’ work lives in the modern West. Even if we receive help and encouragement for the workplace from our church, it is almost certain to be individual help and encouragement. In earlier times, most Christians worked alongside the same people they went to church with, so churches could easily apply the Scriptures to the shared occupations of labourers, farmers, and householders. In contrast, Western Christians today seldom work in the same locations as others in the same church. Nonetheless, today's Christians often work in the same types of jobs as others in their faith communities. So there could be an opportunity to share their work challenges and opportunities with other believers in similar occupations. Yet this seldom happens. Unless we find a way for groups of Christian workers to support one another, grow together, and develop some kind of work-related Christian community, we miss out on the communal nature of faith that is so essential in Mark 2:3-12.
In this brief episode, then, we observe three things: (1) work is intended to benefit those who can’t support themselves through work, as well as those who can; (2) faith and work are not separated as being and doing, but are integrated into action empowered by God; and 3) work done in faith cries out for a community of faith to support it.
The calling of Levi is another incident that occurs as Jesus is moving (Mark 2:13-14). The passage stresses the public nature of this summons. Jesus calls Levi while teaching a crowd (Mark 2:14), and Levi is initially seen “sitting at the tax booth.” His employment would make him a figure of contempt for many of his Galilean contemporaries. There is a measure of debate over just how heavily Roman and Herodian taxation was felt in Galilee, but most think that the issue was rather sore. The actual collection of taxes was contracted out to private tax collectors. A tax collector paid the tax for his entire territory upfront, and collected the individual taxes from the populace later. To make this profitable, he had to charge the populace more than the actual tax rate and the tax collector pocketed the mark-up. The Roman authorities thereby delegated the politically sensitive work of tax collection to members of the local community, but it led to a high rate of effective tax, and it opened the doors to all sorts of corruption. It is likely that this was one of the factors contributing to land loss in Galilee, as landowners took loans to pay monetary taxes and then, if their harvests were poor, lost their properties as collateral. The fact that we initially encounter Levi in his tax booth means that he is, in effect, a living symbol of Roman occupation and a reminder of the fact that some Jews were willing collaborators with the Romans. The link made in Mark 2:16 between tax collectors and “sinners” reinforces the negative associations.
Where Luke stresses that Levi leaves everything to answer Jesus’ call (Luke 5:28), Mark simply recounts that Levi follows him. The tax collector then throws a banquet, opening his house to Jesus, his disciples, and a mixed group including other tax collectors and “sinners.” While the image is suggestive of a man seeking to share the gospel with his business colleagues, the reality is probably a little more subtle. Levi’s “community” comprises his colleagues and others who, as “sinners,” are shunned by leading figures in the community. In other words, their work made them part of a sub-community that had high-quality social relationships internally, but low-quality relationships with the communities around them. This is true for many kinds of work today. Our co-workers may be much more open to us than our neighbours are. Being a member of a work community may help us facilitate an encounter with the reality of the gospel for our co-workers. Interestingly, the hospitality of communal eating is a major part of Jesus’ ministry and suggests a concrete way by which such encounters might be hosted. The hospitality of lunch with colleagues, a jog or workout at the gym, or a shared beverage after work can build deeper relationships with our co-workers. These friendships have lasting value themselves, and through them the Holy Spirit may open the door to a kind of friendship evangelism.
This raises a question. If Christians today were to host a meal with colleagues from work, friends from their neighbourhood, and friends from their church, what would they talk about? The Christian faith has much to say about how to be a good worker and how to be a good neighbour. But do Christians know how to speak about them in a common language understandable to their colleagues and neighbours? If the conversation turned to workplace or civic topics such as a job search, customer service, property taxes or zoning, would we be able to speak meaningfully to nonbelievers about how Christian concepts apply to such issues? Do our churches equip us for these conversations? It appears that Levi — or Jesus — was able to speak meaningfully about how Jesus’ message applied to the lives of the people gathered there.
The question of taxation will recur later in the gospel and we defer until then some of our questions about Jesus’ attitude towards it.
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, A Social-Scientific Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 189-190.
The Mishnaic text m. Toharot 7:6 states that if a tax collector enters a house, then it becomes unclean.
In addition to the accounts of the calling of specific disciples, there is also the account of the appointing of the apostles. There is an important point to be noted in Mark 3:13-14, namely, that the Twelve constitute a special group within the broader community of disciples. The uniqueness of their apostolic office is important. They are called to a distinctive form of service, one that may depart significantly from the experience most of us will have. If we are to draw lessons from the experience and roles of the disciples, then it must be through recognition of how their actions and convictions relate to the kingdom, not merely the fact that they left their jobs to follow Jesus.
The qualifications listed for Simon, James, John, and Judas in Mark 3:16-19 are relevant here. Simon’s name is, of course, supplemented with the new name given to him by Jesus, “Peter,” which closely resembles the Greek word for “rock” (petros). One cannot help but wonder if there is both a certain irony and a certain promise in the name. Simon, as fickle and unstable as he will prove to be, is named The Rock, and one day he will live up to that name. Like him, our service to God in our workplaces, just as elsewhere in our lives, will not be a matter of instantaneous perfection, but rather one of failure and growth. This is a helpful thought at times when we feel we have failed and brought the kingdom into disrepute in the process.
Just as Simon is given a new name, so too are the sons of Zebedee, referred to as the “Sons of Thunder” (Mark 3:17). It is a quirky nickname, and seems humorous, but it also quite likely picks up on the character or personality of these two men. It is an interesting point that personality and personality types are not effaced by inclusion in the kingdom. This cuts both ways. On one hand, our personalities continue to be part of our identity in the kingdom, and our embodiment of the kingdom in our place of work continues to be mediated through that personality. The temptation to find our identity in some stereotype, even a Christian one, is challenged by this. Yet, at the same time, our personalities may be marked by elements that themselves ought to be challenged by the gospel. There is a hint of this in the title given to Zebedee’s sons, since it suggests a short temper or a tendency toward conflict and, even though the name is given with fondness, it may not be a nickname to be proud of.
The issue of personality makes a significant contribution to our understanding of applying the Christian faith to our work. Most of us would probably say that our experiences of work, both good and bad, have been greatly affected by the personalities of those around us. Often the very character qualities that make someone an inspiring and energizing colleague can make that person a difficult one. A motivated and excited worker might be easily distracted by new projects, or might be prone to quickly formed (and quickly expressed) opinions. Our own personality plays a huge role too. We may find others easy to work with or difficult, based as much on our personalities as theirs. Likewise, others may find us easy or difficult to work with.
But it is more than a matter of getting along with others easily. Our distinctive personalities shape our abilities to contribute to our organization’s work — and through it to the work of God’s kingdom —for better or worse. Personality gives us both strengths and weaknesses. To a certain degree, following Christ means allowing him to curb the excesses of our personality, as when he rebuked the Sons of Thunder for their misguided ambition to sit at his right and left hands (Mark 10:35-45). At the same time, Christians often err by setting up particular personality traits as a universal model. Some Christian communities have privileged traits such as extraversion, mildness, reticence to use power, or — more darkly — abusiveness, intolerance, and gullibility. Some Christians find that the traits that make them good at their jobs — decisiveness, skepticism about dogma, or ambition, for example — make them feel guilty or marginalized in church. Trying to be something we are not, in the sense of trying to fit a stereotype of what a Christian in the workplace ought to be like, can be highly problematic and can leave others feeling that we are inauthentic. We may be called to imitate Christ (Philippians 2:5) and our leaders (Hebrews 13:7), but this is a matter of emulating virtue, not personality. Jesus, in any case, chose people with a variety of personalities as his friends and workers. Many tools are available to help individuals and organizations make better use of the variety of personality characteristics with respect to decision making, career choice, group performance, conflict resolution, leadership, relationships at work, and other factors.
While on one level this needs to be related to a theology of wealth or property, on another level it needs to be related to the point at which the theologies of church and work meet. It is always tempting, and in fact can seem like an obligation, to maintain a network of Christians within the working environment and to seek to support one another. While laudable, there needs to be a certain reality injected into this. Some of those who present themselves as followers of Jesus may, in fact, have misplaced hearts, and this may affect the opinions they advocate. At such times, our responsibility as Christians is to be prepared to challenge one another in love, to hold one another to account as to whether we are truly operating according to the standards of the kingdom.
Robert. A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas: Word, 1989), 162.
The Gospel of Mark, more than the other Gospels, highlights the ignorance, weakness, and selfishness of the disciples. This comes despite the many good things Mark has to say about them, including their response to Jesus’ initial call (Mark 1:16-20) and to his commissioning of them (Mark 6:7-13).
Certain incidents and narrative devices develop this portrait. One is the repetition of boat scenes (Mark 4:35-41; 6:45-52; 8:14-21), which parallel one another in emphasizing the disciples’ inability to truly comprehend Jesus’ power and authority. The last boat scene is closely followed by the unusual two-stage healing of a blind man (Mark 8:22-26), which may function as a kind of narrative metaphor for the only partial vision of the disciples regarding Jesus. Then follows Peter’s confession of Christ (Mark 8:27-33), with his dramatic moment of insight followed immediately by Satanic blindness on the apostle’s part. The disciples’ limited grasp of Jesus’ identity is matched by their limited grasp of his message. They continue to desire power and status (Mark 9:33-37; 10:13-16; and 10:35-45). Jesus challenges them several times for their failure to recognize that following him requires a fundamental attitude of self-sacrifice. Most obviously, of course, the disciples desert Jesus at the time of his arrest and trial (Mark 14:50-51). The juxtaposition of Peter’s threefold denial (Mark 14:66-72) with the death of Jesus throws the cowardice and courage of the two men, respectively, into sharper relief.
Yet Peter and the others will go on to lead the church effectively. The angel who speaks to the women following the resurrection (Mark 16:6-7) gives them a message to the disciples (and Peter is singled out!), promising a further encounter with the resurrected Jesus. The disciples will be very different following this encounter, a fact that Mark does not explore but that is well developed in Acts, so that the resurrection is the key event in effecting such change.
What relevance does this have to work? Simply and obviously, that as disciples of Jesus with our own work to do, we are imperfect and in process. There will be a good deal that we will be required to repent of, attitudes that will be wrong and will need to change. Significantly, we must recognize that, like the disciples, we may well be wrong in much of what we believe and think, even about gospel matters. On a daily level, then, we must prayerfully reflect on how we are embodying the reign of God and prepared to show repentance over our deficiencies in this regard. We may feel tempted to portray ourselves as righteous, wise, and skilled in our workplaces, as a witness to Jesus’ righteousness, wisdom, and excellence. But it would be a more honest and more powerful witness to portray ourselves as we really are—fallible and somewhat self-centred works-in-process, evidence of Jesus’ mercy more than demonstrators of his character. Our witness is then to invite our co-workers to grow along with us in the ways of God, rather than to become like us. Of course, we need to exercise ourselves rigorously to growth in Christ. God’s mercy is not an excuse to be complacent in our sin.
Suzanne Watts Henderson, Christology and Discipleship in Mark.
Robert. A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26 (Dallas: Word, 1989), 426.