Jesus On A Vision Quest

temptationBy Ched Myers, First Sunday in Lent (Mark 1:9-15)

Note: This is an ongoing occasional series of Ched’s brief comments on the Markan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year B.
In Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, the narrative is suddenly invaded by dramatic imagery. Jesus rises from Jordan’s waters to a vision of the “heavens rent asunder” (1:10). This is an allusion to Isaiah 64:1f:

Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make known your name to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence, working unexpected miracles!

Does Jesus’ identification as “beloved Son” by the mysterious voice from heaven designate him as the messianic ruler of Psalm 2:7? Or does the descent of the dove point us rather to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: “I will put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is 42:1)?

devilThis heavenly intervention is the first of many instances in which Mark draws upon the symbolism of apocalyptic literature. In Mark’s time apocalyptic was the popular language of political dissent. It envisioned the “end of the world” – that is, the world ruled by the Powers. Following his baptism, Jesus is driven by the Spirit further out into the wilderness, where he engages in a struggle with the “ruler of this world” (1:12f). It is the first of many Markan allusions to the book of Daniel, a Jewish apocalyptic tract that exhorted resistance to Hellenistic imperialism two centuries before Mark. Daniel portrays oppressive rulers as “beasts” and speaks of angels contending with the “princes of kingdoms” (see Dan 7:1-7; 10; 12:1).

But is there yet more to this strange temptation episode, which the church traditionally uses to inaugurate the season of Lent? Is it possible to interpret Jesus’ sojourn deep into the wilderness as a kind of “vision quest”? Among native peoples still today the vision quest is at once an outward adventure beyond the margins of society; an inward passage of purification and self-encounter; and a journey “in the spirit” to discover the identity and destiny of one’s people. Might Jesus be somehow interiorizing and reliving the experience of Israel?

“For forty days” (1:13) is clearly meant to invoke Israel’s 40 years of “testing” in the wilderness. Israel’s identity commenced when she escaped from Pharaoh: “I will bring My people out of Egypt” (Ex 3:10). Similarly, Jesus’ identity has just been confirmed at baptism: “You are My son, the Beloved” (Mk 1:11). Now he, like his ancestors, must struggle in the wilderness to discover what this vocation means.

Jesus re-traces the footsteps of his people to their “place of origins,” the Exodus wilderness, in the hope of discovering where they went wrong. He faces again the forces that lured his people into idolatry and injustice, because to forge a different future he must confront the past. Jesus undertakes a radical quest to uncover the root-causes of his people’s problems. [Note: To explore this approach further, see my longer reflections here (article) and here (webinar).]

Jesus commences his ministry “after John was arrested” (1:14), a tale of political intrigue that Mark will return to later in the story (6:14-30). Jesus takes up John’s challenge to “turn around and believe the good news,” but adds something startling. He claims that the “Kingdom of God” has arrived. Much has been made of this phrase by theologians over the centuries, but few have acknowledged its most obvious background: the anti-kingship traditions of the early Israel.

The Sinai covenant envisioned a decentralized style of self-governance: because YHWH was king over Israel, royalist politics were precluded. For example, after the kings of Canaanite city-states are vanquished (see Joshua 12), the victorious military leader Gideon rejects attempts to make him king: “I will not rule over you… YHWH will rule over you” (Jud 8:22f). Instead, “judges” administer the tribal confederacy.

I Samuel 8 narrates the decline of this system because of internal corruption and external military threats. Disillusioned with their experiment in self-determination, the people go to the great judge Samuel to demand that he “appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations” (I Sam 8:5). “They have not rejected you,” says God to Samuel, “they have rejected me from being king over them” (8:7). God then instructs Samuel to warn the people about “the ways of the king,” which include: forced conscription, militarism, State expropriation of labor and resources, an economy geared to the elite, and taxation (8:11-17). The grim litany concludes: “And you will be his slaves.” The moral of this story: In choosing a centralized monarchy the people freed from slavery recreates Pharaoh’s society of domination.

In reasserting the exclusive sovereignty of God, then, Jesus is taking sides in the debate within the biblical tradition between those who saw the monarchy as blessed by God and those who saw it as a step backward. He seeks a renewal of the “confederate” roots of free Israel. But Jesus is not proposing a utopian dream that can only be realized in another place (heaven) and/or time (the afterlife). The gospel leaves no room for otherworldly religion: “The time is now; the sovereignty of God is here” (Mk 1:15).

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