Practically speaking

The gospel reading for the First Sunday in Lent, from Mark 1, recounts the familiar scene of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River. We tend to focus on the dramatic parts of that story: The cleaving of the heavens, the booming voice announcing the Beloved, the Spirit descending like a dove. But right at the end of the scene, there’s a twist: “The Spirit drove him out into the wilderness.” This is worth a closer look. 

The word we traditionally translate “Spirit” is the Greek word πνεῦμα, which literally means wind or breath, including breath of life. And wilderness is a convenient translation for a more complex idea, referring to a place that’s been abandoned, a desolate place. And even the phrase drove him out conceals something interesting: ἐκβάλλω means “to throw out,” as in, throw someone or something out of a place. The image is pretty powerful: The wind (of the Spirit?) threw him out into an abandoned, desolate place.

But what fascinates me, given my current investigation of the Kingdom parables, is that Jesus returns from this abandoned place to announce a teaching mission: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) This announcement, a sort of “syllabus” for his teaching career, is packed with challenges. At the risk of boring you, I’d like to share a few more words with you.

Let’s start with come near: In Greek, the expression originates in an adverb meaning “nearby,” as in “right next to you.” And now we have repent, or μετανοέω, a very famous term in the Christian faith. People within that tradition tend to read this translation, repent, as something like remorse or feeling bad that you’ve done something wrong, but this word might surprise you. Its literal meaning is “to perceive afterwards,” like when you’re late getting a joke. It suggests a “Now I see!” moment, when you change your mind about something. As in, you saw things one way, but later, you see the same thing in a different light. And that brings us to believe, which is a respectable translation of πιστεύω — another word holding surprises. It can mean “believe,” but it also means to rely on or even be confident in something. So, let’s put this all together:

The time has come! The Kingdom of God is within your reach. Change your minds and count on this good news.

No, you aren’t likely to hear this translated that way, but when you do, something interesting might click. For me, the click involved two realizations.

First, Mark’s “good news” might not be the same as Jesus’ “good news.” This may sound crazy, but think about it: The aim of the gospel of Mark is to tell the story of Jesus; Jesus’ aim is to tell the story of the Kingdom of the Heavens. Within the Christian tradition, it seems that people tend to interpret Jesus’ announcement in Mark’s way, but there are alternative ways of seeing the announcement, informed by the Kingdom parables. A striking example: the good news. Mark’s good news is Jesus; Jesus’ good news is the Kingdom teaching. As a philosopher, I find this perspective compelling.

You might be thinking, Right, but why import the interpretive framework of the Kingdom teaching into this scene about Jesus’ baptism? Of all the images one might choose, the editor of Mark includes a reference to the Kingdom in Jesus’ announcement of his career. I assume this is because the Kingdom teaching was so characteristic of Jesus’ thought and teaching that it would have been immediately recognizable. So, even when the aim of the gospel account heads off in another direction, Jesus’ worldview seems to shine through. And so the second thing that strikes me is how focused Jesus is, from the beginning of his teaching career, on the Kingdom. In fact, the “syllabus” captures the salient features of the Kingdom parables: the hidden and unexpected presence of the Kingdom, right next to us, within reach, here and now — and the theme of what is needed for the Kingdom to be realized, namely, a willingness to open ourselves to it and become agents of that unexpected Kingdom, in each present moment.

Think for a moment about Jesus’ announcement, his course syllabus, as it were:

  • The Kingdom of God is within your reach. Jesus’ challenge is obvious: How much are you reaching for the Kingdom, day in and day out?
  • Change your minds. What needs to change in your mindset to open you to the impractical possibilities of the Kingdom?
  • Count on this good news. What sort of confidence do you need to be an agent of the Kingdom?

Jesus’ goal wasn’t to get people to adopt an abstract worldview, but to act on a worldview. Built into the Kingdom parables is the observation that it’s easy to find reasons not to see the Kingdom, and not to become its agents when we do. It’s impractical, isn’t it? We have to prioritize. And you know, we can’t trust people with unrestrained generosity — they might abuse it. Don’t we have to look after ourselves? People have to fend for themselves, etc.

And when these reasons are confronted by the question of who is served by decisions and actions, people seem to retreat to “checkbox religion”: I serve God, I worship, I give money to the church, I pray for the right things. But we can’t let any of that interfere with being practical, can we?

This “practicality” would have been familiar to Jesus’ followers, because — if we take the synoptic gospels’ accounts at face value — that’s what they saw in religious leaders of their day. Think for instance, of the way in which these writers portray the Pharisees, the religious leaders that Jesus’ movement reacted against. From the perspective of the Kingdom teaching, such religious people were quite practical about their religion, checking all the boxes but leaving the poor, the suffering, the broken, the despised — leaving them all to fend for themselves.

What does “practical” mean in the imagery of the Kingdom? Isn’t it more about getting ahead in the kingdom of the earth than about being an agent of the Kingdom of the Heavens?

The Kingdom of God is within your reach. Change your minds and count on this good news.

Which might be another way of telling us to live our virtue.

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