Although John himself lives an austere life removed from the ordinary pursuits of people, he does not ask his inquirers to dissociate themselves from their own lives or occupations. Rather, he challenges them to continue where they are, but to carry out their daily responsibilities with concern for others, with honesty and integrity. The expectation that filled the people was eschatological; they were looking for the Christ, the ‘anointed one’. John was not this one. His baptism with water was a ritual of repentance and cleansing; Christ’s baptism of the Spirit will purge and transform, and his coming will be a time of judgment, when the wicked will be separated like chaff from the wheat and will be thrown into the fire. John’s ministry calls for the change of heart required of those who would be saved from this distress.
That God keeps faith is also the message of St Paul to the community of Philippi – the one who began this good work in you, will see that it is finished, or brought to completion, before the Day of Christ Jesus. In Paul, we also see the strong sense of ‘End Time’ hope that dominated early Christian theology. Paul is writing in a deeply personal manner, clearly knowing and loving this community. If you were a pastor away from your community, what type of letter would you write to them? Paul writes with joy and thanksgiving, readily expressing his feelings of wanting to be with the community and shares with them his prayer. It is a letter of great encouragement. The readings proclaim that God is coming to us. If we make preparations in our busy lives so that there is some room amidst the pre-Christmas shopping, the holiday plans, the office parties, we will know a God who is with us. God comes to those who want and wait, which is why it is the poor and the ‘little ones’ who first hear the news.
While the basic message is one of comfort and reassurance, the second part of the gospel adopts a more admonitory tone. Believers must be like people expecting visitors but unsure as to when exactly they will arrive. The time of waiting requires attentiveness and a sharp spiritual sense. Anything that dulls the spirit (debauchery and drunkenness) or causes it to be distracted (absorption in the cares of life) must be avoided. Advent is a time for examination in such areas. It is also a time for exploring our deepest longings and desires and allowing them to surface. They can ride up, so to speak, on the rich Scripture texts that the Church puts before us at this time. God’s only wish in our regard is to communicate to us the life and love for which we long. Each Advent should expand both our longing and our capacity to receive the gift of God.
The kingship of Jesus is the subject of Pilate’s interrogation. ‘King of the Jews’ was a messianic title of the descendant of David who would inaugurate the reign of God. The Jewish leaders considered Jesus’ messianic claim blasphemous. The title made political claims that challenged the absolute authority of Roman control. From the perspective of the Roman occupiers, such revolutionary contentions were dangerous. Jesus is asked: ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answers: ‘Yes and No!’ His kingdom is not of this world. It does not belong to it. However, it is in the world. Both the Jewish leaders and the Roman officials had reason to be concerned about Jesus’ claims. Though not of this world, his kingdom would indeed challenge both religious messianic expectations and the political powers of this world.
The whole of chapter 13 in the Gospel of Mark is devoted to a discourse about the future. In the section preceding this week’s passage, Jesus has foretold the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. He has also predicted war on a massive scale and the persecution of his followers. Now, in this passage, Jesus predicts the return of the Son of Man and the fulfilment of the kingdom of God. Why does the gospel include such an extended description of the collapse of the world as it was? Because that’s exactly what was going on around the community of this gospel writer! This gospel is understood to have been written somewhere in the period 70-75 CE. In the year 70 CE the city of Jerusalem was besieged by Roman troops who stormed the city and destroyed it. As a sign of complete disdain for the people of Jerusalem and a mark of overwhelming victory, the Romans burnt and completely destroyed the Temple in the heart of Jerusalem. For the entire Jewish community, this was absolute devastation. The destruction of the Temple surely marked the coming of the end times – the day of judgment and completion of this world. The community gathered around this gospel writer were no less affected. In the midst of this despair and fear, the followers of Jesus are challenged to remember the teachings of the one they follow. This passage is written for them as an encouragement to not give up in the face of what appears to be overwhelming odds. It is a call to hope.
In the gospel, Jesus condemns ostentation. Some men wore religious robes in public, hoping that people would consider them prayerful. Others sought the most important seats in the synagogue or at banquets. Still others made sure that their temple offerings were acknowledged. In contrast to this, Jesus pointed out the offering of a poor widow. She offered the smallest coins in circulation at that time, but she gave out of the generosity of her heart. Jesus spoke of the source of the offering. The wealthy donated from their surplus, what they did not need. The woman gave what she herself needed. Her total giving implied absolute trust in God. The passage that opened with a condemnation of the false piety of the unscrupulous, closes with praise of the genuine piety of the simple.
By the time of Jesus, 613 commandments had grown up surrounding the official biblical law. While all were considered delivered by God to Moses, some were more important than others. The scribe should have understood this. Jesus does not single out any particular law, but endorses the summons that constitutes the Shema, the most significant prayer of the Israelite religion (cf, Deut 6:5). Jesus was asked to identify one commandment, and he offers two. The second is a citation from the Book of Leviticus (19:18). By bringing these admonitions together as he does, Jesus shows that, though not identical, they are interrelated. No one dared challenge Jesus again. What else was there to ask? What other answer could be given?
The account of the healing of a blind man is also a call narrative, for the man interprets Jesus’ words in this way. When he hears that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by him, he identifies Jesus as a descendant of David and the long-awaited one who would fulfil religious and political expectations. When Jesus called for him, he threw his cloak aside, leaving behind the alms he had already collected as well as his life of begging. The man who was blind had eyes of faith and he acted on this faith, publicly proclaiming it. As a consequence of his profession, Jesus tells him that it is this faith that gave him his sight. In his eagerness to respond to Jesus’ call, he had already left everything. Having been cured, he now follows Jesus.
The gospel is filled with misunderstandings, paradoxes and reversals. James and John seek places of prominence in Jesus’ kingdom and Jesus informs them that real prominence is found in service, not in wielding authority over others. The willingness of the sons of Zebedee to accept the cup that Jesus will eventually drink and to be baptised in his baptism is another example of their misunderstanding. They could hardly have imagined the implications of their words. Jesus never denies that he would be prominent in the reign of God. However, whenever he discussed either the reign itself or the role that he will play in it, he always indicated that it was God’s reign and that he had been appointed by God to do God’s work.
The initial exchange between Jesus and the rich man raises the question: Can one gain eternal life, or is it a gift from God? This is an honest and upright man, one who has been observant from his youth, but who realises that there is still something missing in his life. Even the righteous find it difficult to respond to the radical demands of discipleship. Nowhere does Jesus say that wealth is bad. In fact, riches were considered an indication of divine favour and a reward for piety. Jesus is claiming that they can be a diversion from the real goal of life, a hindrance to entrance into the reign of God. Jesus admits that this is a hard saying.