Reading for the Effect

When we interpret a passage in one of the gospels, one of our primary goals is to understand the text. But what does “understanding” mean here? I don’t think it should mean distilling down the “essence” or “theology” of the text, so that we no longer need to consult the book itself. Neither should we confuse “understanding” with being able to sum up what Matthew or Mark or Luke said in a pithy restatement. Whatever else it means, understanding should involve coming to grips with what the evangelist was trying to accomplish when he wrote the passage. Perhaps Mark, for example, sat in the courtyard or peristyle of a house belonging to one of the few more wealthy members of his church, perched in the shade of the pillared walkway by a small open air garden. As his pen scratched over the costly papyrus, what did Mark hope to achieve? I doubt he merely wanted his readers (or hearers) to parrot his words. To be sure, he did want to shape their ideas about Jesus. That must have been, though, part of a larger goal. He wanted to change his audience. As they listened to his words read aloud in the community’s meeting, he wanted them to be affected in some way by what they heard. He did not want his audience to “understand” his ideas in the abstract, at arms length. He wanted them to “stand under” his words and let their lives be re-shaped under their influence.

To understand a passage in Mark’s Gospel, then, we need to ask “How is Mark trying to effect his audience?” We may or may not be sympathetic to the change Mark wanted to produce in them, based on our own commitments and beliefs. There may also be other dimensions of the text that interest us. If we want to claim an understanding of what Mark wrote, though, we have to take seriously that it was produced with an intended function. As an act of communication, Mark’s text is an instrument fashioned for a purpose. If I come across a hammer, I might decide it has beautiful lines and hang it on my wall. If I want to claim that I understand this object, though, I will also have to recognize that it was made to pound nails. A gospel text isn’t crassly utilitarian. There is a sense, though, in which every act of speaking (or writing) is a tool designed to do something to the people who hear it. So whatever else we do with a gospel passage, our interpretation should begin by asking about the effect it was meant to produce in its first readers and hearers.

Two-Level Reading

Now, when we approach a passage in the gospels we usually need to distinguish two levels in the story. There are actually two acts of communication going on, two levels at which someone is trying to provoke change in a particular audience. The first level takes place within the story itself. Here we see Jesus encounter poor Galileans and wealthy members of the high-priestly families, Pharisees and scribes, people desperate for healing and people seized by unclean spirits. In each episode we find Jesus working to bring about transformation. In fact, his whole mission in Mark is a mission of transformation, inaugurating God’s reign in the world and beginning the restoration of the cosmos. That restoration is glimpsed in the small personal changes that Jesus triggers wherever he goes.

The second level of transformation takes place when Mark reads his story to his audience in Rome. Here we are no longer thinking of Jesus as the “speaker” trying to provoke change. It is Mark himself who is using the stories of Jesus to change his listeners seated around the room. Likewise, the audience at this second level is no longer a crowd of Galileans or Judeans in the late 20s of the first century. Instead it is the small clusters of Roman believers who gather on the first day of the week in 69 CE.

To begin with, in this chapter, we will focus on the first level of transformation, the change that Jesus wants to bring about within each episode in the audience before him.

Preliminary Study

One mistake we often make when we try to understand a biblical passage is trying to draw conclusions too quickly. When we interpret a particular episode we need to spend time first just observing the text, paying close attention to all of its details and facets, like a biologist watching a wolf or a painter looking at a wooded slope. For those of us who know these stories, we need to try to forget what we expect to find and approach the text with fresh eyes. Like the botanist, we need to come with the expectation that there is always something in the object of our study that we have not noticed before. Like the painter, we need to practice the discipline of forgetting, forgetting what we expect to see so that the strange uniquenesses of the landscape out there can push itself into our awareness in fresh ways.

The first step is to (1) draw an initial sketch of the audience as they stand before the episode begins. In some cases the author or speaker will tell us about the audience within the passage itself. This portrait of the audience will be fleshed out, though, with our broad historical knowledge of what life was like in the first-century Mediterranean world. If we know more precisely where and when that audience was living, we can draw on the more specific history of that ancient community. Our tendency will often be to skimp on this step, but all of our interpretation later on depends on our doing this well. The more detail we can reconstruct about that audience, the more vivid and significant will be our conclusions at the end of the process. In particular, it is crucial that we think about the members of the audience as whole people. We need to think about

  1. their thoughts;
  2. their habits and actions; and
  3. their emotions and attitudes.

These three spheres of life are, of course, closely intertwined. This is all the more reason, though, to think about each sphere as we begin to sketch out the initial state of the audience.

The next step is to (2) look closely at what the speaker says or does. It is helpful at this stage to jot down a brief summary of the contents of the passage. Look for key words or motifs (themes, ideas) that seem to be repeated in the passage. These will help us to recognize what aspects of the passage are the central focus, and what aspects are less significant for the author’s purposes. Look, too, at the beginning and end of the passage and ask what is emphasized there. These are key positions in the episode and the author will often use them to signal his main focus. If Jesus speaks in the passage, look also at the beginning and ending of his speech. These points in his speech will often contain a short, pithy, pronouncement of some kind that is the focus of the story. In that case, the pronouncement is likely the whole reason for telling the story. There are many other features of the text to which we can pay attention, too. The goal here is simply to make as many observations as possible about the words the evangelist has written.

Step three is to (3) think about the context of the passage. First we can ask about the narrative context of the episode, its setting within the world portrayed by the Gospel narrative. What time of day is it? What time of year? Does the author tell us? Is there something significant or symbolic about that time? If so, that may help us to recognize the general issues the author wants the story to address. Geography is also important at times. Where does the episode take place? What do you know about that region? Does it carry any significance in relation to the events of the Old Testament or later Jewish history? Who lives there? Another kind of context for us to think about is the literary context of the episode within Mark’s Gospel. As the evangelist shaped Peter’s memories into its three geographic stages, where did he decide to place the episode? Mark shaped each of these sections to emphasize certain themes, to unfold certain dimensions of Jesus’ mission. So we should look for ways in which the episode reflects those themes and highlights those aspects of the Messiah’s work. I have discussed elsewhere how much Mark relies at times on symbolic allusions to the Old Testament, so we also need to ask whether the episode offers any such references back to Israel’s scriptures. This kind of relationship is often called “intertextuality” by scholars, since it concerns the relationship between (inter) two texts. So we need to be thinking about the intertextual context of the episode. And, of course, cultural and historical context will be important. We need to be aware of the differences between our own culture and the culture Jesus shares with his audience in the story.

Fourth, we (4) ask what desirable effects Jesus wants his words or actions to have on his audience within the narrative. Keeping in mind our initial sketch of that audience, we begin looking over all of our observations about the passage’s contents (stage 2) and contexts (stage 3). We ask “How would that audience likely respond to this?” What ideas does Jesus present? How would this affect the thinking of the audience? Would the ideas be familiar and reassuring or radically new and unsettling? What does Jesus do, and what response would his actions provoke? What responses do we see dramatized in the story itself? What words or images or symbols seem to be central, and how would his audience respond to those images? Don’t ignore any small details that you noticed, but pay special attention to the statements or actions or ideas that the evangelist makes the focus in his telling of the episode–the ones which come at the beginning or ending, that are repeated, that fall in line with the emphases in the surrounding episodes, etc. The goal here is not to reconstruct the events of Jesus’ life without Mark’s help. The goal here is to describe Jesus’ act of communication in the story as Mark tells it.

Again, the temptation will be to focus only on how Jesus’ words and actions will change the thoughts of the audience. If the disciples see Jesus command the wind and waves to be still, they will begin to understand that he somehow acts with the authority of God himself. That is certainly significant. But it is not all that is going on in that encounter. Mark is actually much more explicit about how the disciples feel. He tells us that they were “afraid.” This is not just an indirect way of emphasizing their changing thoughts about Jesus’ identity. This fear is also a significant change in itself. One can, in the biblical tradition, have all the right ideas, all the right theology, and yet miss the faithful response for which God is looking. It is also crucial that one foster the right emotional response to the God Israel is coming to know, and that response is often called “the fear of the LORD.” As we realize the significance with which emotions are often invested we will pay more attention to the way the Jesus’ audience would likely feel, faced with the events within Mark’s narrative. Likewise, we need to remember to ask how the audience’s actions would likely be changed by this episode. Will their new ways of thinking and feeling prompt a re-evaluation of their habits and commitments? If so, what would their new way of living look like? Is there a specific action that Jesus’ audience performs within the narrative itself in response to their encounter with this Son of God?

There are, of course, many ways in which Jesus’ audience in an episode might be changed by their encounter. Mark himself sometimes shows us a divided crowd. Some are amazed by his authority. Others are offended by his blasphemous presumption. Still others are just left scratching their heads. At this stage of gathering observations, we should note as many possible reactions as we can. At the same time, though, we should also reflect on which of these possible reactions Jesus seems to provoke deliberately, and which would be accidental or even represent the audience’s rejection of Jesus. How do we decide which responses he wants to provoke? One way is to look back at our observations about the text in the previous step. What themes, ideas, and events seemed to be the focus of the passage? The effect that Jesus wants to produce in his audience would be one provoked by these central features of the episode, not by small details or minor asides. That is not to say, though, that Jesus will necessarily come out and state explicitly what he wants to accomplish in his hearers. He was, after all, a master of parables, of acts or words that were at first only confusing, but that challenged his audience at their core as they wrestled with their implications.

Forming an Interpretation

Once we have moved through these three stages of observation, making notes for ourselves as we go, we are ready to draw them together into a focused interpretation. In the observation stage, we wanted to notice as much as possible. We were not concerned at that stage with whether all of our observations were related. Now we begin pruning away our observations to focus on one central line of transformation which Jesus (as depicted by Mark) wants to have on his audience.

(1) The starting state of the primary audience

We begin by identifying the primary audience which Jesus is aiming to transform in the episode. In some passages there is only one audience–the disciples, or the crowd, or the Pharisees–so this is easy to pick out. In other cases, though, Jesus’ words or actions are observed by several distinct groups at the same time. He may be addressing a mixed crowd consisting of ordinary Galilean villagers, along with a distinct segment of Pharisees and scribes. It may well be that these two groups will react quite differently to his teaching. In this case, we may want to ask for whose ears Jesus’ message seems to be geared. Does he sound like he is trying to appeal to the educated Pharisees? Or does it seem like he is aiming his presentation more at the ordinary folk from farms and fishing towns? Likewise, Jesus will sometimes teach his disciples together with a larger crowd of more distant followers. Here again, we will want to ask whether he seems primarily interested in calling the newcomers to a new way of life or in deepening his disciples’ understanding and commitment. We need to remember here that the primary audience in an episode is not always the audience that is most active or vocal. When he debates with the chief priests in the temple courts, we might initially assume that the primary audience Jesus has in mind is that elite circle of Jerusalemites. On second glance, though, we might realize that Jesus’ antagonistic response to their interrogation is hardly meant to win them over. He is no longer trying to have a positive effect on them. Instead, it seems more like Jesus is arguing with one eye on the crowds of ordinary Jews that watch the contest. His part in the verbal duel is really meant to demonstrate something to those crowds or disciples at the edge of the scene.

Once we identify Jesus’ primary audience, we need to highlight a few key features of their “starting state” at the beginning of the episode. Once again, we must keep in mind each dimension of the audience as whole people. Before this encounter with Jesus, how do the audience members usually think? What is their outlook on life? What ideas do they rely on in living life and making decisions? How do they usually act? What kind of habits would they have? What would their work be like and how would they relate to one another? How do they usually feel? What are their hopes and fears? What do they resent, and what biases do they hold?

The point at this stage, though, is not to give an exhaustive account of that audience. Rather, we need already to be thinking about the kind of change Jesus seems intent on bringing about. If we are going to understand their reaction to his words and deed, what do we need to know about them? What key aspects of their thoughts, acts, and emotions does someone reading our interpretation need to understand if they are going to grasp how Jesus hoped to affect them in this episode?

(2) The strategies Jesus uses to provoke change in his hearers

Next, our interpretation should point out the key things that Jesus did or said and how those words or actions were geared strategically to provoke transformation in his primary audience. It is also at this stage that we may point out aspects of the context in which Jesus is addressing them. For one’s decision about how to speak or act is often shaped by one’s awareness of that location in space, time, and the flow of events. Once again, we will have made many more observations about Jesus’ actions in the passage than are really relevant for our interpretation. So our goal should be to highlight the key features of the passage and its context that Jesus has used to bring about the specific change he is aiming for in that primary audience.

(3) The new state Jesus wants to bring about in that audience

Finally, our interpretation should summarize the “new state” which Jesus hopes that change will produce in the audience. How will their thoughts, actions, and emotions be different at the end of the episode than they were at the beginning? This is not to say that Jesus is always successful, or that the members of his primary audience are all equally responsive. Often Mark tells us that some go away grumbling, while others are left with the wide-eyed question: “Who is this man?” What we want to know, though, is how the members of that audience will be changed if they do respond well to Jesus’ strategies.

There is more to the interpretive task than just uncovering this transformation of the characters within Mark’s story. For any Gospel narrative, though, this analysis will be the foundation and starting point of everything that follows.

Jesus’ Audience in Galilee: The Story of Sarah

In much of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus addresses himself to ordinary Galilean Jews. When we try to imagine what life was like for those people, what was going on behind their dark weathered faces, it is helpful to imagine an individual member of that crowd. Let us call her Sarah. The name was so common among first-century Jews that we can assume there would have been at least one Sarah in any crowd Jesus met. This is where interpretation meets historical fiction. Yet it is not merely a subjective or whimsical exercise. Rather we do precisely what historians always do – we look at the evidence that has survived and piece together a picture of the kind of life people must have lived in order to leave behind. There is imagination involved, to be sure, but it is an informed imagination. We do not fill Sarah’s life with experiences or characteristics that would make her stand out from her peers. Instead we write her biography as if she were a thoroughly ordinary woman of her time and place. This is not to say she was bland or uninteresting. She was simply a woman of her day, shaped as most were by her conditions. By thinking about the life of a typical individual, though, we are prompted to ask questions that might not come to mind when we think of “history” in the abstract. The grand sweep of wars, the rise and fall of rulers, these things only scratch the surface of what went on in the minds of Jesus’ audience. Even when we picture “the crowds” in general they all too easily dissolve into a faceless mass with neither past nor future. Yet Mark, like Peter before him, knew intimately what the lives of those people would have been like, and he relies on that tacit knowledge about these anonymous crowds. If, on the other hand, we try to imagine a typical Galilean Jew we naturally begin to ask a whole set of questions that help us to fill in the gaps. What did Sarah hope for? What did she fear? What did she eat? What work did she do? As we fill in these blanks, as our imaginary member of the audience takes shape in our mind’s eye, we begin to think in new ways about how Jesus’ words would have struck his hearers.

So let us imagine together this woman named Sarah. She comes from a small Jewish village, not far from Nazareth. These villages were perched atop the line of steep hills that formed a massive wall between the Sea of Galilee and the lowlands of the Mediterranean coast. She and her husband work a farm, really just a few small fields on the edge of the village. They keep a goat for milk and a few chickens for their eggs. They work their tiny plot well, and this high little plateau is blessed with more rain than some. But the soil is thin and it is usually all they can do to bring in enough Barley and Wheat to feed themselves. If they are lucky, at harvest time, a little is left over to pile on a cart and take by donkey down the long, winding road to the city of Sepphoris spread out in the lowlands below. She is only 23, but she is no pale and fainting maid. Her arms and back are sinewy and strong from a life of lifting jars of water or wine, kneading the bread for her family to eat every day, and then going out to the field to help her husband break up the dry earth with their little hand plough. There is little time for rest, and as she helps her husband sow each new crop the images rise up in her mind of her aunt who starved to death when the crops failed just a few years before.

As if mere survival were not enough of a struggle for Sarah and her husband, they also have to cope with the intrusions and demands of a constantly shifting world. Her village, like most in Galilee, is an isolated place. It is cut off by the hill’s steep slopes both from the lowlands and from the next high plateau to the north. Even so, her parents have told her with bitter resentment about the day a Roman cohort appeared across the fields. They trampled half of the precious barley crop underfoot and then demanded bread, grain, oil, and wine to feed themselves. When the village priest objected that his people would starve, the leader of the cohort stabbed him through the stomach. She has not seen Roman soldiers in the village during her lifetime, but the Roman taxes are a constant weight on her mind. Each harvest is sure to bring the local tax-farmer, smug in his soft clothes, with some hired muscle at his back. When he finally leaves, their precious harvest has been depleted to the point that little will be left to sell. She worries each day about the loan her husband had to take from the manager of the large landowner’s farm to the East. She knows the families who used to own the little parcels of that land, who had scraped their living their for generations. Now they lived as mere tenant farmers, working the same small fields, but now giving a share of their harvest to the landowner as well as to the Romans. Some had been forced to abandon their farms altogether. She avoids the blank, hopeless eyes of those men who shuffled into the village square each morning, hoping someone will give them work for the day and enough bread to fill their children’s stomachs. Sarah worries constantly that one bad season will mean that they default on their own loan, that they too will be pushed further down that slope toward destitution.

Still, Sarah and her husband were fiercely loyal to God. Not to Zeus or Ba’al or any of the Roman or Syrian gods – they were just empty names given to lumps of wood and stone – but to YHWH, the one God who made heaven and earth. When she rose before dawn each morning she would stand beside her husband and pray the Shema’: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD your God, the LORD is one . . .” Then they would remind God of his promises to their people and call on him to give them rain for a good harvest. They would ask him to somehow break the stranglehold of their debt. They would ask him to keep them both from any sickness or injury that would leave them without the strength to work, without any option but begging at the village gate. Sarah knew that most of her life was beyond her control. She met each miscarried child, each blighted crop, with the bitter resignation of a woman whose lot has never been her own to choose. She also knows, though, that all things are in God’s hands. He is the One who can (and will) bring life again to her village – not this meagre existence, but a rich and satisfying life where each family would have its own vine to produce wine, its own fig tree for the luxury of its sweet fruit, and would live free from the shadow of debt and starvation and Roman swords.

So, despite their grinding poverty, Sarah and her husband are careful always to keep Torah. Though it makes a further dent in their stores of grain, they always set aside a tenth for the temple in Jerusalem. They try, as often as possible, to wash their hands before they eat and to wash their bodies after they make love. They want God to see that they are always ready to meet him if he finally steps in to set them free. The village men even spent their afternoons the previous fall, in the brief respite between harvest and planting, hacking out a large pool (or miq’veh) from the bedrock of the hill. It has shallow steps so that even the grandparents can ease in and immerse their bodies whenever God’s law requires it. Like her mother, Sarah refuses to use the cheap clay pots to store their wine and oil. It would be too easy for her to touch the clay while she is ritually impure – during her period or after a neighbour’s funeral – and have all the liquid inside ruined for human use. Instead, she spends much of the money they get at market in Sepphoris to buy a few stone jars that will insulate wine and olive oil from the family’s regular impurities. Though this is hard, at times, Sarah does not feel any of it as a burden. It is, in her mind, simply how Israelites live. It is the same life her family has lived in these hills for generations, even as armies came and went through the valleys below. And God has not just laid burdens on her Jewish shoulders. There are also many gifts that Torah brings to Sarah and her family. Each Sabbath they are forced to stay in from the fields, leave the kitchen silent, and enjoy a sweet rest that they could hardly have justified if God had not commanded it. In those moments Sarah sits in the shade and smiles as she watches her boy Sha’ul chase crickets. She thinks back to the passage from the prophets that her husband had read aloud not long ago in the synagogue meeting, how God will strap on his armour and emerge from his tent in the sky to fight for her people’s freedom. Her eyes move from her son to her husband, to the exhausted shadows that darken his eyes, and she whispers the words of David’s psalm: “How long, O LORD?”

Then Sarah began to hear whispers about this man Joshua – he usually went by the shortened form Jesus – who was causing a stir near Capernaum, down on the lake. One of her neighbours, Judith, had come home from her sister’s in Bethsaida with her crippled hands suddenly straight, the pain gone. Judith said that this Jesus had done it. What is more, she said that the man claimed God’s kingdom was about to arrive. He was calling for followers to join him. He must be raising an army! Could this really be Israel’s promised king? Sarah felt a long suppressed hope and longing well up inside her as she and her husband set off on foot to find this Jesus, with Sha’ul riding the borrowed donkey. There was work to be done in the fields, but whenever she began to worry about that harvest she thought of Judith’s straightened fingers and her eyes shone a little brighter with hope.

Although, in one sense, Sarah is a fiction, we also know that many women like her did meet Jesus in Galilee. Some, with their husbands, even left their farms and fishing nets and workshops to follow him south. It was to these ordinary Jews that Jesus announced God’s imminent conquest, the dawning of their new exodus. In this sense, it was Sarah into whose eyes Jesus looked when he said “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near!”

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