Posted by: mattcolvin | May 10, 2007

Messiahship and Leaven in Mark 8


Some thoughts on Mark 8.

It strikes me anew just how concerned Jesus is that his disciples should understand, first, his identity as the Messiah; second, his job description, i.e. what being the Messiah involves; and third, how His vocation is to be theirs as well.

First, in 8:15, Jesus tells his disciples to “watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They are clueless, thinking that it was because they did not have bread. His answer is sometimes mistranslated:

Τί διαλογίζεσθε ὅτι ἄρτους οὐκ ἔχετε;

Quite literally:
“Why are you reasoning that you do not have bread?”

This is as much as to say: “You are wrong to think that you don’t have bread. You do have bread.” He then calls to mind the two miraculous feedings of thousands of people, and the disciples’ gathering of leftovers. In both cases, he pointedly reminds them that they ended up with far more bread than they started with.

Now, my question is this: what does this have to do with the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod?

I suggest that the answer is this: both the Pharisees and Herod have a mistaken understanding of the kingdom of God. The Pharisees think that the kingdom of God, i.e. YHWH’s once again becoming king in Israel, is something that will be brought about by their ostentatious keeping of heightened holiness requirements, and their compelling others to do the same. Herod, on the other hand, has no particular need to bring in the kingdom of God at all: the only kingdom he sees a need for is his own, held up by the prop of Rome.

But Jesus has in mind a different idea of the kingdom of God, an idea that centers around his vocation as the Messiah, and his understanding of what Messiahship entails. Recall that he had told his disciples, “You give them something to eat!” This meant they had to give up their own lunch in order to feed the crowd; from this, they received back basketfulls of bread. Jesus is trying to teach them that true bread is doing the will of His Father in heaven, and finishing His work. This is a matter of whole-life orientation to the will of the Father, and as such, the Hebrew term for it is halakhah, “teaching”, derived from halakh, “to walk”. But the Greek for halakhah is διδαχή — and Matthew’s account of this same story concludes with the disciples’ realization that Jesus was not talking about the leaven of bread, but about the διδαχὴ τῶν Φαρισαίων καὶ Σαδδουκαίων, “the practical ethical teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Never does διδαχὴ mean “doctrine” in the sense of theology proper. It is always practical and ethical: how do you live out one’s relationship with God? How do you walk out your calling to be Christ for the world?

(An aside: Mark has “the Pharisees and Herod”. Matthew has “Pharisees and Sadducees.” I suspect we may equate “Sadducees” and “Herodians.” The Sadducees were in the positions of political and priestly power under the Herodian regime; they therefore may be fairly called Herodians themselves, since the maintenance of that corrupt accomodation was in their interest.)

But back to messiahship. To see whether His disciples have got the point yet, Jesus asked them who they say He is in 8:27, and receives from Peter the correct answer: “You are the Messiah.” Straightaway, he “began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and rise after three days. And he was speaking the word with frankness [παρρησίᾳ].” (8:31-32) This last note is in direct contrast to 8:30, in which Jesus warned them not to tell anyone about Him: now that He is alone with His disciples, He is explaining what real Messiahship is about. But Peter does not get it: “He took Him aside and began to rebuke Him.” (8:32) Elsewhere, Peter’s reply is “This shall never happen to you, Lord!”

We know what comes next: Jesus rebukes Peter for misunderstanding what Messiahship is about, and explains that whoever loses His life for His sake and the gospel will save it — a principle that runs directly counter to the Pharisees and Herod. But before that, I noticed for the first time the real significance of a few pregnant words:

“But He, turning around and seeing His disciples [ἐπιστραφεὶς καὶ ἰδὼν τοὺς μαθητὰς], rebuked Peter, and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan…”

The underlined phrase makes clear that the rebuke Jesus gives Peter is motivated, not by any personal grievance, but by a zeal for the disciples’ correct understanding of Messiahship.

The general preoccupation of Mark 8 with the disciples understanding and misunderstanding of Jesus’ Messiahship makes me wonder if we might not be able to connect more closely two statements about Peter: In Jesus’ rebuke, He charges Peter that οὐ φρονεῖς τὰ τοῦ θεοῦ ἀλλὰ τὰ τῶν ἀνθρώπων – “You are not thinking about the things of God, but the things of men.” (8:33) Later, on the mount of transfiguration, Peter opens his mouth to make his suggestion about tents, and Mark notes that ο᾿γὰρ ἤδει τί ἀποκριθῇ – “For he did not know what to answer”. Luke, describing the same moment, says that Peter spoke μὴ εἰδὼς ὃ λέγει – “not knowing what he was saying.” Is it possible that both these notices of Peter’s ignorance are actually pointing to a continuing misunderstanding of Messiahship?

Some further considerations in support of this idea: Luke tells us that the topic of Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah during the transfiguration was τὴν ἔξοδον αὐτοῦ – “His exodus”, sc. his death. If Jesus has been discussing “His exodus” with Moses, then Peter’s suggestion of tents takes on a new meaning: it is a suggestion borne of the spirit of Sukkoth, the joyful festival during which every Jew relived the experience of travels after the Exodus by erecting and dwelling in booths or tents, as the λάος of God made its way to Canaan to take possession of it. The Sukkoth resonance is reinforced by the voice of God coming from a cloud, such as accompanied Israel in her wanderings. Peter clearly thinks that the time has come, and the kingdom is already inaugurated. (Klaas Schilder says, in Christ in His Suffering that the transfiguration is a parenthesis, a proleptic glimpse of glory out of sequence.) Peter wants to have Sukkoth without Passover. He has not learned yet that Messiahship involves death.

Jesus tells him again in Mark 9:30-32 that the Son of Man will be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill him. We are explicitly told οἱ δὲ ἠγνόουν τὸ ῥῆμα — “they did not understand His message.”

As I have noted before, all this is closely connected with the Last Supper and the command to Peter to “feed my sheep.” He will get it at last. James and John, too, will drink from the cup that Jesus drinks. The Book of Acts will show us a group of disciples grasping with both hands the fiery task of giving the bread of life to the world. “Who follows in their train?”


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