A World of Terror Needs the Original Ending of Mark’s Gospel

Have you ever noticed that your Bibles have a note in them that tells you that the Gospel of Mark originally ended after verse 8 in chapter 16, even though it continues on for a few paragraphs?

Among people who read and study the Bible, the original ending of Mark’s Gospel is famous for it’s unusual and unsatisfying nature. There are no appearances of the resurrected Jesus. There are no moments of rejoicing. There is no reconciliation between Jesus and the disciples. There is no conclusion to the heartbreaking relationship of betrayal between Jesus and Peter.

There is only fear. Only confusion. And only vague instructions.

Why are there extra verses in our Bibles after the original ending? Somewhere along the way, a reader of Mark’s Gospel decided to try and give Mark an ending that wrapped the book up like a nicely decorated present with a bow on top. Mark’s Gospel got an upgrade and from then on it looked much more like the other three Gospels. The longer ending gives it a much happier, confident, and triumphant conclusion. The disciples finally understand and are given detailed instructions for the future.

What if Mark ended his Gospel the way he did on purpose? What if faith, the active attempt to follow Jesus in our world, often looks more like the ending of Mark’s Gospel than the ending of the other three Gospels?

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and elsewhere, have once again left the world reeling with fear and confusion. As a Christian, I find myself with the same emotions. We often assume, or are told, that being a Christian means we should always have a feeling of confidence, an unending supply of easy answers, and an obvious plan for the future.
But I have none of that. All I have are a few basic instructions that dangle in front of me like a compass meant to guide one through a fog:
Love (even your enemies).
Support the suffering.

I’m actually thankful for Mark’s short and confusing ending. The life of a Christian is not always similar to the disciples at the end of Matthew or Luke – with an easy faith, with clear proofs in front of them, with the future mapped out. Instead, life sometimes surrounds us with fear and confusion and we barely know the next step to take.

A world reeling from the recent terror attacks needs the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.

A church reeling from the recent terror attacks needs to know that it is okay to be afraid and confused. But – we have an option. An invitation.

Go following the living Christ. Take the next step. Sometimes, we only know the first step to take. Take it. Trust that the living Christ will meet you there and take you forward. Trust that despite the horrendous evil and suffering in the world and in our own lives – Jesus is alive, on the move, and continuing to bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 19 & Rich Christians: Possible or Impossible?

Few stories fascinate me as much as the tale of the Rich Young Man (Matthew 19:16-30).

A summary: Jesus encounters an extremely wealthy man who, by all means, is also a very moral man. However, the man realizes that he is still on the outside of the Kingdom and is not experiencing eternal life. Jesus’ solution is a command –  sell all that he has and give it to the poor. In this way, Jesus implies, he will reach a moral standard consistent with entering into the Kingdom and experiencing eternal life. Indeed, this was the path already followed by his closest disciples (Mt. 19:27). The man walks away sad and unable to obey. Jesus, never one to pass up a teachable moment, tells the disciples that it is “difficult” for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. The then defines “difficult” as “impossible”: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

The primary reason this is such a fascinating passage to me is because… I’m rich. And I live and worship in a wealthy (both relatively and globally) city. And yet there doesn’t seem to be an anxiety over our growing bank accounts, even with the extremely disparaging warnings about wealth like this one from Jesus. I constantly wonder, have we really felt the weight of Jesus’ words?

It is impossible for a rich person to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.

The passage also fascinates me from a hermeneutical angle – I love analyzing the interpretive practices of various groups. I know first-hand why this statement from Jesus doesn’t scare the hell out of those who are well-off. It’s because two verses later Jesus says, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Like a boy pursuing a girl playing hard-to-get, rich Christians are quick to go, “So, you’re saying there IS a chance.” And this statement from Jesus allows us to effectively forget his previously scary words. The moral import of his warning is drowned out by the credit-card shaped angel on our shoulder saying, “See, it’s possible! Don’t worry so much!”

Unfortunately, I’ve come to believe that this as an incorrect reading of the passage. The question needs to be asked: what exactly is Jesus referencing when he speaks of human impossibilities that are possible for God? Is it the possibility that a rich person will enter into the Kingdom or is it the possibility that a person will give up their riches in order to enter the Kingdom? This is a subtle yet incredibly significant interpretive decision. You see, Jesus never changes his command to the young ruler. The hope that Jesus holds out is not that the man might enter the Kingdom despite his disobedience. It is the hope that the man, through a powerful work of God, might come to a place where he fully loves God and others by giving away his possessions.

Stanley Hauerwas nails it, as usual: “Our temptation is to think that Jesus’ reply is intended to “let us off the hook.” Being rich is a problem, we may think, but God will take care of us, the rich, the only way God can. Yet such a response fails to let the full weight of Jesus’ observation about wealth have the effect that it should. We cannot serve God and mammon (Mt. 6:24). Jesus’ reply challenges not only our wealth, but our very conception of salvation. To be saved, to be made a member of the church through baptism, means that our lives are no longer our own. We are made vulnerable to one another in a manner such that what is ours can no longer be free of the claims of others. As hard as it may be to believe, Jesus makes clear that salvation entails our being made vulnerable through the loss of our possessions.” [1]

Or as Frederick Dale Bruner says: “What Jesus does not mean by “this is impossible for human beings” is the interpretation that says ‘If you will just be born again and experience miraculous conversion, you can then continue seeking money, honor, and success, for conversion does not replace all these earthly goods; it actually assist their acquisition.’ . . . . What Jesus does mean by this verse is that God can work the miracle of putting God instead of gain on the throne of the human heart (cf. Ps 119:36). No human power can displace the desire for “more” as the reigning human drive. Only God’s power can. Unless this miracle of dethronement-enthronement occurs again and again, there is no hope of salvation. That is the sober meaning of verse 26.” [2]

How Then Shall We, The Wealthy, Live?

I’ve already acknowledged that I am a relatively wealthy person (and not currently selling all of my possessions on eBay). So, I pass no judgement on those who like me follow Jesus and have wealth. However, I do believe two things:
– First, Jesus’s command to the rich young ruler is not a universal command. He doesn’t command all to give up everything, even as he clearly commands a radical commitment to the poor and oppressed from His people.
– Second, I don’t know the cut-off point! I have no clue “how rich” you can be and still enter into the Kingdom. So I can’t say “you have too much” (and neither should you).

What I do know, and would expect of those who follow Christ, is that we should be a people with bank accounts and storage closets that communicate a sacrificial love for God and others, instead of for ourselves and our stuff. I also expect this to be a gradual, consistent, and clear progression in our lives.

How do I respond to Jesus’ statements about money in this story?
First, with some anxiety. Second, with effort and intentionality, hoping that this year my habits of spending and accumulating will reflect Kingdom values more than it did last year.


[1] Hauerwas, Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible),174-175.
[2] Bruner, Matthew, 308.

Were the Early Christians Communists?

Were the early Christians, living with everything in common (Acts 2:42-47), proto-Marxists?

Amos Yong says no:

“Don’t confuse this early Jewish-Christian way of life with some sort of socialism or communism. Karl Marx’s critiques were directed at the industrialism he saw in mid-nineteenth-century England, when workers were forced to sell their labor at the market rate (which was then insufficient to supply their daily needs) and then not allowed to keep their profits (which were pocketed by the capitalist merchants). Marx’s solution was to distribute both private property and the ownership of productive capital to the proletariat (workers) so that they could gain from the profits of their labor.

What happened among the three thousand converts on the Day of Pentecost was not an early expression of Marx’s manifesto. For one thing, the sharing of these early followers of Jesus as the Messiah was motivated by a repentant heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit, not by the socialist rule of law. For this reason, the selling of personal possessions was a voluntary practice rather than an institutionalized rejection of private property. Further, such sale and distribution of proceeds did not seem to have occurred systematically; instead, this unfolded over time, according to the needs of the community. What Luke describes here is not some early from of communism but is exemplary of the community of the Holy Spirit.”

– Amos Yong, Who is the Holy Spirit? A Walk With the Apostles, 30-31.

5 Tests: Is Your Church Christian or American?

The line between patriotism and nationalism is a thin one. So is the line between worship and idolatry. This Sunday, at churches both in my city and across my nation, both of these lines will be crossed. I’m a proud American (really, I am!) . . . . but I have an extreme allergy to the nationalistic strain of idolatry that runs rampant throughout churches in America. So I’ve developed a short and simple diagnostic test for you to use in order to determine whether your church is primarily Christian or American:

Simply answer these 5 questions:

#1: Does your church celebrate Pentecost Sunday as enthusiastically as it celebrates Independence Day?

I’m fine with churches honoring Independence Day (although maybe they shouldn’t), but not if it is consistent with a larger pattern of ignoring the church calendar (Lent, Advent, etc) and holidays (Pentecost Sunday, etc) while prioritizing a national calendar and holidays. This liturgical rhythm speaks much louder than words when it comes to determining where a church’s true loyalties lie.

#2: The Language Test: Does your church make more references to Jesus than to the USA?

Just count. Consider substituting “Jesus” with “Holy Spirit” for an advanced test (unless you go to a Pentecostal church).

#3: The Time Test: Does your church’s service spend more time (total) singing & talking about Jesus or about the USA? 

It’s not a good sign if there are two patriotic songs and two worship songs in the service. Or if the sermon is 20 minutes of homiletical attention given to the USA and 5 minutes of Jesus tacked on at the end. The time during a service which is focused on the Triune God should far outweigh the time spent focused on a nation. Again, this speaks so much louder than words.

#4: Does your church honor martyrs & missionaries as much as fallen and active soldiers?

Once again, I have no problem honoring fallen & active soldiers. I’m grateful for their service and sacrifice. But if your allegiance to the historical, global Christian community comes before that of your national commitment, it is not too much to expect a regular honoring of martyrs and missionaries. Take an unofficial “atmosphere measurement” when soldiers are honored: is there more clapping/emotion/support than when missionaries are commissioned or martyrs are remembered? Which mission makes our hearts swell more: national military activity or the global work of God?

#5: Who is the community implicit in the “we” and “our” language of your church leaders?

When your pastor talks about “our problems” or “our values” – is the “our” understood as the United States of America or the Christian community? Are they problems of American legislation or the holiness of the Church? Are they the values inherent to the American Dream or the sacrificial way of Jesus? This subtle analysis of language often reveals where our true commitments reside.

Do you agree with these tests?
Would your church pass them?
Anything else you might add to the diagnostic check-list?

2013.01.16 American Patriot's Gospel #3 (30%)

A Surprising Result: The Freedom Not To Believe

I have the immense pleasure each year of teaching the four Gospels to 14 & 15 year olds at a fairly large Christian high school. Almost all of these students have grown up in the evangelical Bible Belt and many have been immersed in a “Christian” culture through private schooling and church involvement. However, each year I find my work most identifiable with the work of an evangelist or a missionary.

I say this because for the vast majority of my students, my class is the first time they will hear of the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the dead, and the Trinity. My students are generally only familiar with a watered-down flavor of the faith which hardily continues on in our increasingly Post-Christendom society like algae on the bottom of a fish tank. This Christianity majors on justification by grace through faith – saying the sinner’s prayer, receiving eternal assurance of salvation, and being shamed into not having sex, using drugs, or saying bad words (as an aside, they continue to regularly do all three of these things, despite the pleas of their parents and youth pastors).

As a Christian teacher, my goal is clear, public, and unmitigated: for my students to know and follow Christ. However, there are many different reactions to my teaching, some of them unexpected and disappointing. One of those reactions: unbelief. Some students come to a point where they agree with me that much of what is around them is not biblical or Christlike. Unfortunately, for some students this discovery is not accompanied by a desire to follow the Jesus revealed in the Gospels and the demands laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. (Fortunately, this has been a very rare occurrence over my four years of teaching). This creates in me a true spiritual and moral dilemma: do I keep the status-quo and maintain the commitment of “nominal Christians” or continue to proclaim the truth even if some of those previously identified as “believers” now choose to not believe.

I was reminded of this dilemma while reading Yoder’s recently released Theology of MissionIn a passage defending group conversions in communitarian cultures, he states:

“Based on anecdotes from anthropologically conscious missionaries, once a group started hearing more about Jesus – his promises and his demands, including the moral content of discipleship – the divisions in the community that were not previously there would come to the surface. They were not there before because the Jesus message was not there to provoke them. Some individuals, sometimes many, broke out of the tribal group in order to fall back into the old life, into unbelief and nonconformity to the new norms. The freedom not to believe had become real, in fact, more real than before, because before there were no other options than the traditional tribal one. The initial group decision opened the door to Christian belief. Before that decision, unbelief had been a prison; afterwards it was an option. It was the novelty of the gospel that created the freedom not to believe.”

The observations Yoder notes of certain missionary contexts reminds me of my teaching context. When a foreign group/family/community converts to Christianity, it is not unusual for individuals to begin rejecting Christ as they learn more about him. In a different but similar way, my students come to me (mass) baptized into a nominal Christianity. The introduction of the “Jesus message” – including the moral content of discipleship – now “provokes” the students, until now only exposed to a shallow Christianity, in a new way. Their a priori commitment to Christ leads to a crisis when the previously cheap Christ is challenged and exposed by the Living Christ – leading some to no longer believe. A wise man once said that the truth would set you free – and it seems that this form of unbelief is the result of a new freedom made available by the truth.

I fear my dilemma is ultimately one of truth and commitment vs. numbers and assurance. But as I read (and teach) the Gospels, it doesn’t appear that Jesus is after large numbers or is afraid of people turning their back on him when confronted with the truth. Indeed, in a haunting passage at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus predicts a time in which he will turn away from those who thought they were on his team but were not truly committed. I’ve humbly come to believe that it is better to face that crisis now, with time to think and reflect, than when one is on their knees in front Jesus himself.

What do you think?
Does this resonate with the experience of other Bible teachers?
Does the Gospel necessarily open a door for unbelief to “Nominal” Christians?