Two people can read the same biblical text and walk away with diametrically opposed messages. Like all good literature, Scripture offers different levels of interpretation. But before we get involved with those different levels, modern Scripture scholars try to surface the meaning the sacred author originally wanted us to take from his or her writing. That’s why, looking at today’s Philippians and Marcan passages through the eyes of Paul and Mark, we might discover a message we’d never anticipated nor heard before.
A few years ago when people were interviewed after seeing Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, they almost all made the same comment. “Until I saw this movie, I never realized how much Jesus suffered for me and my sins. Thank you, thank you, Jesus for doing that.”
Gratitude is an appropriate attitude to have when it comes to Jesus’ passion and death, but it’s not what Mark wants us to take from his narrative. Instead of thanking Jesus for suffering and dying for us, Mark wants his readers to thank Jesus for showing us how to suffer and die for others.
I always remind my Scripture students of the well-known Latin saying: “Quidquid recipitur, ad modum recipientis recipitum est.” If your Latin is a little rusty, “Whatever is received is received only in as far as the person receiving is capable of receiving it.” Applying this saying to a specific text is the first step in all biblical exegesis. The author’s audience determines what and how the author writes. It’s the reason, for instance, that Jesus speaks Greek, and not his native Aramaic, in the four gospels. Because the gospel readers speak Greek, the gospel Jesus speaks Greek.
More specifically today, because the gospel readers suffer more psychological than physical pain in imitating Jesus, so the gospel Jesus suffers more psychological than physical pain in Mark’s Passion Narrative.
Never forget the great Ed Hays quote: “The original followers of Jesus imitated him long before they worshipped him.” No one denies Jesus suffered terrific physical pain during his passion and death, but he never demanded his followers inflict any pain on themselves that wasn’t part of their everyday giving of themselves to one another. That’s why one doesn’t have to look far to surface the pain of desertion, betrayal, misunderstanding, and humiliation with which Mark’s two chapters overflow.
No wonder Paul, when zeroing in on the frame of mind Christians should have toward others, reminds his Philippian community of a popular hymn praising Jesus emptying himself for others. Only after ( and during) such humiliation did God “exalt him and bestow on him the name (Yahweh) which is above every name.”
No wonder also that today’s Deutero-Isaiah provides us with the Bible’s best definition of a disciple of God. “Morning after morning,” the prophet confides in us, “Yahweh opens my ear that I may hear.” Every morning God’s true followers hit the ground listening, using the ears Yahweh has drilled out to hear and learn how to respond to the weary.
No matter how often we’ve heard these readings in the past, listen to them today as their original listeners heard them.
Gibson, responding to accusations of anti-Semitism arising from his film’s treatment of Jews, always pointed out that the hand in the crucifixion scene which pounded the nails in Jesus’ hands was actually his own hand. Had he read the Passion Narratives correctly, his hand would have been the hand receiving the nail.