Jesus begins the Journey

Week of Sunday January 25 - Ephiphany 3
Bible: Mark 1:14-20, Jonah 3:1-5,10

Jonah 3:1-10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2‘Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.’ 3So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, ‘Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!’ 5And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.7Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.’

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen.17And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’18And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.


He is the Son of God, the Beloved. His first act is to announce that the Kingdom of God has come near and to call us to turn around trust this good news, this victory. His next act is to call disciples to follow him. Therefore it is reasonable to think that the Kingdom of God is intimately connected with discipleship. Although the constant misunderstanding of the disciples throughout Mark should warn us off thinking we are the kingdom!

The word kingdom is used some 16 times (in the context of kingdom of heaven) in Mark; some variations of Mark 1:14 have it that "after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom." (NRSV footnote) We could say that the gospel is an extended explanation of what the kingdom is. But merely by translating basileia tou theou as kingdom of God we begin to define it. What did Jesus mean by these words?

The traditional translations of the Greek phrase Basileia tou theou, Kingdom of God, was more appropriate to the age of King James I … than to our own in which inherited monarchies are more symbolic than political. The SV [Scholars Version] panel went in search of a term or phrase that would satisfy three basic requirements: (1) the phrase had to function as both verb and noun, to denote both an activity and a region; (2) the phrase had to specify that God's activity was absolute; there could be no suggestion of democracy or shared governance; (3) the phrase should have feeling tones of the ominous, of ultimate threat, of tyranny -- associations going with the end of the age and last judgment, since it often appears in such contexts. (Faith Futures)

Whatever belief may mean (Mark 1:15) it is more than some static propositional assent, because kingdom of God has overtones of ultimacy and activity. It demands an allegiance, which is reinforced by the word repent.

What does kingdom of God mean for us?

In a democratic world, we do not talk about reigns any more than we talk about kingdoms.

But we do talk a whole lot about "culture"! So I suggest: "The time is fulfilled, and the culture of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." What does it mean to distinguish God's culture from human cultures? What does it mean to be "called out" (Gr: ekklesia, "church") of conventional human culture and to begin to be disciples of the one who brings God's culture near to us? Why is this such good news? Paul Nuechterlein

A culture demands of allegiance. A culture is a matrix of understandings which we use to function in the world. It can become god-like. It enmeshes us. It can determine us. Where we are unconscious of our culture, it does determine us; we think it is real.

To enter into the culture of God is to step out of and to stop following the culture of Australia, or wherever it is we live.

Culture changes us. To enter into a new culture is an act of empathy. It is to understand reality from the perspective of other people. It is to understand in the literal sense: to stand under. Entering a culture means to be changed.

I lived in a Pitjantjatjara community for six years. I remain indelibly a white, anglo, farming-stock Australian, but am also forever changed.

Some folk who came up north to Ernabella seemed more like tourists; they merely passed through. They left as they had come; as whitefellas. But, there is another group of visitors to Ernabella, and other Pitjantjatjara communities, who have never really left. We were converted. Often such folk were are never quite at home "back home," and gravitate back to the 'Lands or to Alice Springs (or are continually thinking or writing about the experience.)

Is Jesus saying, "Don't be a tourist!"?

The first disciples are all fishermen of the lake. The lake was large−  7 miles by twelve−  so fishing was the big local industry.  K C Hanson writes "we must avoid imagining individuals who 'go to work…' "

Fishing was an important part of the Galilean economy in the first century. But it was not the "free enterprise" which modern readers of the New Testament may imagine. Even fishers who may have owned their own boats were part of a state regulated, elite-profiting enterprise, and a complex web of economic relationships. These are symptoms of an "embedded economy." That is to say, economies in the ancient Mediterranean were not independent systems with "free markets," free trade, stock exchanges, monetization, and the like, as one finds in modern capitalist systems. Rather, only political and kinship systems were explicit social domains; economics and religion were conceptualized, controlled, and sustained either by the political hierarchy or kin-groups.

Hanson's article is fascinating for its diagrams of the economic and social structures of Galilee and the Empire. Fishermen were enmeshed in the imperial culture and taxation system.

… fishermen received capitalization along with fishing rights, and were therefore indebted to local brokers responsible for the harbors and for fishing leases. The location of Levi's toll office in Capernaum—an important fishing locale—probably identifies him as just such a contractor of royal fishing rights…

The obvious implication here is that these first disciples are called out of a system or culture. As such they are no longer "at home." How much are we at home, and how much are we a bit of a misfit? I think we are called to be a misfit. If we simply fit in, we have not "believed," but have been a religious tourist.

Hanson contrasts the economic structure of the empire with ours:

…economies in the ancient Mediterranean were not independent systems with "free markets," free trade, stock exchanges, monetization, and the like, as one finds in modern capitalist systems.

But we "individuals who go to work" are equally enmeshed. Ironically, the language he uses to "attempt to provide a window on part of the political-economic and domestic-economic context for the Jesus tradition," is the very language we use to describe our own systems. We too are enmeshed, just as much fisher folk as James and John. If we do not learn this, our culture will enmesh and determine us. It will be our God. But like the fishermen, we are called out of this enmeshment.

We are to be fishers of people. We are to learn the new culture− apprentice ourselves to the new master− and as we become more adept in the new culture, we are to introduce others. We are to learn the language of a new way of being, and make it enough our own that we can tell a story of real good news to others. This is what repentance means, a changing of direction. And we are to believe; that is, trust the new master over the voice of our old culture.

However…

I may have been given a great and terrible and sorrowful gift when I left the ministry. I did not ask for this gift; it came upon me like a palsy. I shook and trembled. The sight of the Church blurred and the words of church people turned to babel. The gift – or it might be a curse – is of new eyes and new ears. I see Christianity with the eyes of the outsider, and I hear our words with the ears of the stranger.

I speak of this gift or curse without pride, since I don’t want the damn thing. I was content in my dogmatic slumbers. I was happy when the words of the Church made sense to me and I saw my life and purpose safely nestled behind her walls… I have wandered in and out of churches, hoping to connect to something I once had but now can barely remember. I am like a man who returns home after a journey to the far country and finds that he doesn’t recognize his mother and father. The conversations around the dinner table with his siblings sound oddly familiar but make no sense to him… I’m finding that almost nothing of the traditional languages of faith communities matters to me now. Gordon Atkinson

and this…

Sandor Goodhart, Sacrificing Commentary proposes that perhaps the most insidious form of idolatry for a Jew is to turn their own law against idolatry into an idol -- thus, to fall into the "idolatry of anti-idolatry." And he interprets the story of Jonah as revealing precisely this form of idolatry. Jonah, in resisting his call and then begrudging the results, has made an idol out of the law of anti-idolatry by presuming that he himself knows how it should be applied. The Ninevites, in Jonah's eyes, are idolaters and thus undeserving of God's grace. This story parabolically indicates that God may have different ideas. In fact, the Ninevites repent of their idolatry; Jonah never does. Jonah never recognizes his idolatry as such. The idolatry of anti-idolatry is the hardest one to recognize. It's as difficult as recognizing that Satan does cast out Satan -- that is to say, that, when human beings think they are casting out someone satanic, they are themselves performing the satanic act par excellence. (The Girardian Lectionary)

Jonah was so "at home" in his culture that he could not see beyond it. To "repent and believe" is not to become at home in the kingdom. If we become at home then we risk falling into "dogmatic slumbers" of a "life and purpose safely nestled behind … walls" that exclude and even damn others.

A key feature of Gordon's writing over the years is that, in fact, he was never dogmatically asleep. He was never quite "at home." The cost of this faithfulness is that we can wake up one day and find "the words of church people turned to babel." It's because the kingdom is only at hand. It is now but not yet. The culture is only ever being discovered. The language is never quite our own.

After almost six years at Ernabella I could sit in a community meeting and have no understanding of what was happening! Even if I could translate the words, I did not understand what was being said. I seemed mostly to have learned only that I did not know or understand this different world. And one day, as I was trying to express something in Pitjantjatjara, one of my friends growled in exasperation, "For goodness sake, speak English!"

But even 30 years later, I can't. I still use Pitjantjatjara expressions, verbal and non-verbal. And I don't speak church; like Gordon, I translate. Many of "the conversations around the dinner table… make no sense."

My always tentative solution is to stay constantly repentant. Kingdom is a verb to which I submit, an ever changing call to conversion, a constant learning of a new language of trust, a stumbling into a new 'language and doing' in a new place. Then, sometimes, of words of the church resonate with a clarity which silences all babel.  For a moment there is a resting place. But it is not home. The journey begins again. Kingdom, repentance, and belief, are all journey.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

More on Mark 1:14-20
Mark 1:14-20 - Grief and Gospel: The Call
Mark 1:14-20 - The Ticky Tacky Problem
Mark 1:14-20 - Act now!
Mark 1:16-20 - Call and Commitment

Niall Reid 20-01-2015
Thanks Andrew, your comments on the lectionary passages have been really helpful for me as I minister in Bali and this week Kingdom/culture really resonated in this context

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