Commentary: Mk 1:9-15
The Setting in Mark
The lectionary lesson for the beginning of Lent is taken from Mark 1: 1- l 5, the prologue to the gospel.
The section can be structured into four parts:
A prophetic word (1:1-3)
B appearance of John (l:4-8)
B appearance of Jesus (1:9-13)
A prophetic word (1:14-15).
Both central characters are introduced in parallel fashion, although the RSV translation obscures this fact. John appeared (egeneto 1:4), and Jesus appeared (egeneto 1:9). John appears in the wilderness (1:4), and Jesus is driven into the wilderness (1:12). But the two figures are separated at 1:14, "now after John was arrested." The distinction between them, of course, has been implicit throughout the section. John is clear about his relationship to Jesus, and so is Mark. Mark describes John in a manner reminiscent of Elijah (1:6)1 and associates John with the prophetic words of the compound quotation (from Is 40:3; Mal 3:1; Ex 23:2), while Jesus is associated with the proclamation of the coming reign of God (1:15) Yet both figures are circumscribed by the two references to gospel (1:1; 1:15).
The Structure of the Text
The lectionary text can be structured by its geographical references: Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee (1:9) to the Jordan (1:9) where he is baptized and confirmed. Then Jesus is driven into the wilderness (1:12) where he is tested before returning to Galilee (1:14). The narrative forms a repetitive pattern: Journey (1:9) event (1:10-11): journey (1:12) event (1:13): journey (1: 14) event (1:15).
Jesus initiates the first and third journeys (1:9,14), but the Spirit initiates the middle sojourn (1:12). The first and third events close with summarizing declarations (1:1, 15), while the middle event is narrated.
Interpreting the Text
The baptism of Jesus has caused numerous problems for commentators. Why did Jesus submit to baptism? The problem was already a bone of contention in Matthew's community as his interpretation of the baptism makes clear (see 3:13-17). Waetjen has proposed a most interesting interpretation.2 The baptism, he argues, was Jesus' way of separating himself from his society and its prescriptions for redemption. he became "unobliged" to Torah as interpreted by the oral Torah so that he could declare a "new way" of redemption. This Jesus did by entering fully into the opportunity provided by John's baptism. Jesus alone was baptized "into" (eis) the Jordan; all others were baptized in (en) the Jordan. Jesus alone was driven into (eis) the wilderness.
In the context of Mark, the meaning of the baptism is interpreted by the event that follows (1: 10-11). The imagery is apocalyptic: The heavens open, the divine voice speaks, the Spirit descends. The compound quotation is taken from Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Psalm 2 is a royal enthronement Psalm, contrasting the rulers of the earth with the Lord's anointed. Isaiah 42:1 begins one of the "servant songs" of Deutero-Isaiah. Taken together, they interpret the baptism as a messianic anointing, a political event that declares the beginning of another reign. In this context, the original meaning of "gospel" as political proclamation or propaganda can be appreciated.3
The scene is not without irony. Jesus' background is given, "from Nazareth of Galilee." But Nazareth was an insignificant town, and Galilee a suspect region. Moreover, anointing was supposed to occur in Jerusalem, yet this one takes place "in the wilderness by the Jordan," far from the centers of power. The irony deepens.
Instead of issuing in a triumphal procession and coronation, the anointing leads further into the wilderness. In unexpected fulfillment of the servant song in Isaiah, "I will put my spirit upon him," the Spirit "throws Jesus out into the wilderness."
The entire scene echoes the history Israel. As Israel was in the wilderness forty years, so Jesus sojourns there forty days; as Israel was tested in the wilderness, so Jesus was tempted by Satan; as Israel entered into the promised land, so Jesus came into Galilee. Other allusions as well may be present in this episode. Taking a cue from Mark's opening allusion to Genesis, the beginning (arche) of the gospel (l:l), some find in Jesus a new Adam living with the wild beasts (Gen 2:19), although in a garden turned wilderness. The new creation begins, not in a garden but in a desert, just as the first creation begins with formless chaos. Still others have discerned an allusion to Daniel in the lions' den or a reference to the angels who sustained Elijah in his wilderness journey (1 Kg19:4-8).4
Mark telescopes events and combines allusions in elusive ways. His technique draws his readers into the unfolding mystery of the "way" his gospel is constructing. The coming of the reign of God is redolent of other moments of salvation history, so it is only fitting that the narration of this beginning reflects these roots.
Mark 1:14a introduces a discordant note, after John was arrested. Behind these hopeful beginnings lurk powerful enemies, as yet unnamed, who will oppose the work of the coming reign of God. John's arrest and imprisonment suddenly introduce these powers. The note recasts Jesus' return to Galilee. lt is not a triumphant announcement but a prophetic word filled with danger. One "gospel" confronts another.
Thomas Merton has argued that the events of salvation history provide a prototype for the journey of the soul.5 In similar fashion, the beginnings of Jesus' ministry may provide a way of viewing the journey through Lent. If we are willing to immerse ourselves in the repentance called for by John and enter "into" the depths of the Jordan, we, too, may be granted a vision of grace as we emerge from the watery chaos. Such a vision will confirm our identity as God's own dear children and drive us to rigorous preparation for our vocational calling. Such a journey will necessarily take us into the wilderness to contend with earthly powers and receive unexpected ministrations. The outcome of such a journey will be the ability to speak an authentic "word" of hope and liberation to our troubled world.
1. Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 65-66. Waetjen notes that John is also described in terms that do not apply to Elijah so that he both is and is not Elijah. 2. Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark's Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), pp. 67-74. 3. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988). Meyers argues this very point, pp. 121-130. 4. Waetjen, op. cit., pp. 74-77; and E. Schweizer, The Good News According to Mark (Atlanta: John Knox, 1970), p. 42f, survey some of the more prominent options. 5. Thomas Merton, Bread in the Wilderness (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1971), pp. 75-82.