You Are Called! I Am Called! We Are Called! What Now?
The Gospel of Mark is regarded by all serious scholars as the oldest of the four Gospels. That is important because when we deal with ancient texts we have learned that the oldest is virtually always the most accurate. Those that come afterwards have usually been redacted by authors with a specific agenda. We also know that Matthew and Luke had obviously used Mark as a common source. So, Mark is probably the closest we will come to the original texts.
Which makes it quite interesting to see that Mark has no birth-narrative. Mark begins with Jesus being “ordained” and authorized to be who he was called to be.
What do we mean by “calling”?
Calling is interpreted in many different ways in faith circles. The one I find most helpful is to see one’s “calling” as that which we embrace as our life’s work. I do not believe there is a difference between the calling of the prophets of old and the circumstances that lead someone to believe that they can be can find fulfillment in their mission to become a teacher or a doctor or a farmer.
Everyone is engaged in their own calling. That which you do is your calling. In Jesus case it was to become who he became.
John the Baptist, someone who claimed his calling to be God’s speaker-of-truth, or what we can also call, prophet, had embraced his calling to be that of “announcer of God’s new era”.
As a loud and controversial speaker he spared no one when he denounced the corruption of God’s intentions for God’s people. He called out everyone from Herod Antipas, the puppet-king Rome had forced up the people, or the simplest peasant who had come to listen. His message was simple—
Crossan and Borg, two respected scholars, point out that “repent” later gained a Christian meaning of showing contrition for one’s sins, but that the Hebrew understanding of this word means, “to return to”. The point being that John’s work was to announce to the people that they needed to return to God and God’s way—God’s path.
So, here we have this prophet, John the Baptist, preparing the way for someone he describes as follows; “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” (1:7)
The Gospel of Mark just tells us that John baptized Jesus while some of the other Gospels say John first refused to baptize Jesus on the grounds that he was not worthy of baptizing Jesus, but we find none of that in Mark.
What we do hear in Mark, though, is that as John is Baptizing Jesus a voice announces;
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
So, Jesus knew he was called to this life as a prophet. His Baptism become his symbolic ordination; his official authorization by God to begin his ministry.
What lay at the heart of that ministry?
At the heart of the ministry of all the prophets of the Bible, lay the call to do justice. With justice the prophets meant building a healthy society where everyone participates fairly. Where there is enough of a sense of decency to motivate the powerful to apply such power to the advantage of the whole community.
In Jesus’ time 90% of the population were rural subsistent farmers or peasants while 10% of the population lived in Jerusalem, controlling the entire system of wealth and power.
Jesus had a problem with Jerusalem and its inhabitants. His contempt for the Temple officials and their practices set him on a collision course from the beginning of his ministry. They who were charged with maintaining God’s sense of justice had become participants in the extortion of the poor. The wealth of Jerusalem came from the heavy taxes imposed upon the rural population. The Temple officials did not hesitate to break the Biblical laws that prohibited them from owning land as they, too, grabbed the land of the subsistent farmers who could not satisfy their debts.
All taxes gathered flowed through the Temple from which a percentage went to Rome. The have’s found in the Temple practices the theological legitimization for their crimes against the ordinary people.
This immense imbalance between the powerful few, in Jerusalem, and the suffering majority, became the backdrop against which we must see the life and times of Jesus. His demise was based upon the fact that he made it his calling to attack this system.
Thishe fearsome enmity between Jesus and the Jerusalem elite lies at the heart of the ministry of Jesus. As the Mark Gospel progresses, we see an immediate clash. John and Jesus are offering people the Good News of forgiveness and hope. The Temple authorities demand that they stop and desist for he was now taking on the role that the Temple crowd claimed as their domain and only their domain.
According to them they were the only mediators between the people and God and John and Jesus were thus practicing blasphemy. If people could by-pass the prescribed Temple practice of offering sacrifices on behalf of the ordinary people, the whole business model could collapse.
In short, the calling of Jesus was that he was ordained and authorized to call everyone, the rich and the poor, to “return” (repent) to God’s way.
That was His calling. What is yours? What is mine? And, what are we going to do about it?
Does this message have any relevance to the world we live in? Are there small centers of power and wealth that control the mechanics of our systems to benefit themselves at the cost of the majority and the vulnerable? What about exploitation? What would Jesus have to say if he were to comment on the systems at work in our society.
Where does the church stand in all of this? Does it offer a clear voice of conscience or has it been coopted to legitimize the present systems we have? In South Africa the church rationalized Apartheid by giving this evil ideology a theological authorization.
When God is seen as mostly a supernatural insurance policy against something awful happening to me and nothing more—we miss the entire point.
God is about love. Love for you and me. There is an unbreakable bond that holds us in that relationship. But when we see God just as some instrument to be used to our advantage, we create a god that is nothing more than a talisman.
To return to God (repent) is to give up our obsessions of personal good fortune and to redirect our focus on the well-being of the entire society. society. Some groups of Christians focus virtually entirely on the afterlife but neglect this life which we have been called to live as best we can.
The afterlife is a mystery. What we have is this life. The message of the prophets is clear. It began with the earliest records of God’s walk with the people through the history of the prophets and it became the calling of one we claim as our Christ. The message, in the prophet Micah’s words, “is to practice justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
This, I believe, is our calling as individuals and as a church. Where we have strayed from God’s way, these are the times to return to God’s ways.
In Jesus’ words:
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”