Failed Discipleship


April 10, 2009 by J. Madson

judas-apostle-eThis post will be much shorter than I hoped but I have to get through Wednesday and Thursday so we can make it to Friday. Well, I can’t do justice to the last supper in a rush and so if these posts don’t match up day for day so be it. I may just run on past Sunday.

They feared the crowds

Two days before the Passover, we encounter this passage in Mark:

“It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people.”” (Mark 14:1-2 NRSV)

This of course prompts the question of why they must seek him in stealth and kill him. Why would there be a riot among the people? A quick summary of the previous days will help explain.

On Sunday Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly “to establish God’s nonviolence against the imperial domination” accompanied with Hosanna’s, cloaks spread on the road, and palm leaves.

On Monday Jesus enters “into the temple to establish God’s justice against high-priestly collaboration.” Jesus cites Jeremiah condemning the rulers for turning the temple into a den of robbers and foretells its destruction. The powers seek stand condemned and seek to kill Jesus the “whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.”

On Tuesday Jesus contends with the Jewish authorities and shows that they are collaborators with Rome, did not recognize John as a prophet, and were greedy and wicked tenants who did not care for the vineyard but sought their own position and power. Again, they desire to kill him but “they were afraid of the crowd,” “they feared the crowd,” and “the large crowd was listening to him with delight.”

In effect, Mark’s text is demonstrating a major distinction between the crowd and the authorities. It is at this point, when they had given up all hope of taking him in public, that they decide to take Jesus by stealth. It is important to note at this point the motivation for their actions. John describes them in this manner:

“If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (John 11:48 NRSV)

They feared that the people would follow Jesus and either the Romans or the crowds would destroy them, that is the authorities. Josephus tells us that John the Baptist was killed for a similar reason. His eloquence was such that the crowds flocked to him and Herod feared that this

“might lead to a form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything they did.” Antiquities 18:116-119

Failed Discipleship

Mark, like he did with the temple incident, frames the story of the woman who blesses and anoints Jesus with Judas’s decision to betray Jesus. This framing works in the opposite manner of the fig tree by contrasting failed discipleship with the woman’s righteous discipleship. Due to time and space constraints I will quote liberally from Crossan and Borges. In particular, I want to focus on their contention that a major theme of the gospel of Mark is that we are all invited to walk on the path with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the resurrection. To a large extent the failure of Judas is the failure of all of us.

“Jesus attempted to prepare them for their individual and communal participation in that death and resurrection… But as we shall see, Peter, James, and John, then the Twelve as a group, and finally Judas all fail tragically and irrevocably (except for Judas) to accept their destiny alongside Jesus. We emphasize and cannot emphasize enough one point about this very, very prominent theme in Mark. His story of failed discipleship is his warning gift to all who ever hear or read his narrative…We know that like those first disciples, we would like to avoid the implications of this journey with Jesus. We would like its Holy Week conclusion to be about the interior rather than the exterior life, about heaven rather than earth, about the future rather than the present, and, above all else, about religion safely and securely quarantined from politics. Confronting violent political power and unjust religious collaboration is dangerous in most times and most places, first century and twenty-first century alike.”

In this regard, Judas is not unique in his failure even if he is in his degree. Mark’s text, likely the oldest and text also used by Matthew and Luke, focuses less on Judas’s motivations and more on his association with the twelve.

“Judas’s identity among the Twelve, not Judas’s motive for betraying Jesus, is Mark’s emphasis. His betrayal is simply the worst example oh how the closest to Jesus failed him dismally in Jerusalem. The traitor has entered into an agreement with those who collaborate with imperial rule. And so Wednesday ends and the plot has been set in motion.”

It is in this context that the unnamed woman’s actions become significant. Unlike the disciples, she believed Christ and his words.

“She alone, of all those who heard Jesus’s three prophecies of his death and ressurection, believed him and drew the obvious conclusion. Since (not if) you are going to die and rise, I must anoint you now beforehand, because I will never have a chance to do it afterward. She is, for Mark, the first believer. She is, for us, the first Christian. And she believed from the word of Jesus before any discovery of an empty tomb.”

It must be re-emphasized at this point the invitation to walk on the path with Christ to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the resurrection. Jesus does not merely substitute himself for us in some atonement scheme or theory but asks us to participate intimately in the atonement or ransom as Mark describes it. Whether the disciples or any of us literally travel such a course is less significant than the invitation to change and participate in this journey. This is Mark’s condemnation of himself and the other disciples; the atonement is not just holy water or a magic balm to ease our guilt but an invitation to participate with Jesus in his work, his vocation, his seeking to establish what he describes as the Kingdom of God.

As I have emphasized before, this failure to participate in atonement and instead see Jesus as only a substitution creates an empty vessel whose purpose seems more in line with a sacrificial animal than an actual individual with a vocation or work to perform. It disconnects Jesus’ life, where we encounter his actual words, deeds, and his vision of God’s kingdom, and instead gives us an icon. The question Mark demands we ask ourselves is whether we will heed the invitation to Jerusalem, to the cross, and to the resurrection or will we be content worshiping an icon and avoiding the implications of this journey?

3 thoughts on “Failed Discipleship

  1. Joseph says:

    Some important thoughts. It will definitely be worthwhile for you to go beyond Sunday. Who knows how accurate our calendars are, and “time is only measured unto man,” so the important thing is the message.

  2. Grégoire says:

    Dear J:

    I read this article several hours ago and I’ve been quietly going over it ever since. You allude to it being filler, or a precursor to something better, and yet it’s one of the best articles I’ve ever read on Christianity.

    …this failure to participate in atonement and instead see Jesus as only a substitution creates an empty vessel…

    You’ve so masterfully bridged the dichotomy between the grace alone interpretation and its faith without works antithesis that I’m sure I’ll be thinking about this for days to come.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what you’re advocating is Christ as noema (to use a term from Heidegger & Husserl). The essence of Christ is something that we approach through a transformative movement of consciousness rather than slogan or empty ritual. There has to be a psychic (or psychodramatic) channel — a ritual or piece of text — to guide us in that direction. Perhaps this could be the real meaning of *faith without works is dead*?

    On the other hand I can also understand and sympathize with the opposing interpretation through your own explanation also.

    Our *selves*, which might only amount to that conflicting intersection between the psychological, economic and material might be seen as no *self* at all. That’s the essence of psychoanalysis (after you peel the onion-skin of your personality away, layer by layer, the analysand eventually realizes there is nothing underneath).

    Given that there is no self, at least from a psychological perspective, a believer might follow Christ simply on his own merits. Not because Christ is inherently transformative, or instructional, but because the Christ character is a transcendent embodiment of our nonexistent selves. Christ as an all encompassing fog of compassion, formless but limitless, like us. By accepting Christ we become one with Christ, and become Christlike. By entering into this form of *grace* we lose ourselves, and find us.

    Foucault’s idea that naught exists but text , the endless shifting interaction of signified and signifier, is usually seen to refute religious (and philosophical) ideas but in this case might be seen as substantiating the message of the grace of Christ, as you’ve pointed out. We become active participants (as opposed to merely spectators) by adopting the label, and the effects flow out therefrom.

  3. Terry Ritenour says:

    The Kingdom has Come.



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