Marklarkey: or, What’s So Funny About the Second Gospel?

Posted: August 24, 2012 in General

“Humor from the pulpit is a delicate thing”.

I had the privilege of studying two courses (i.e., “The Gospel according to Mark” and “Prayer in the New Testament”) under Prof. Clifton Black. I learned several exegetical lessons and hermeneutical principles from this great biblical scholar. His attention on the rhetorical disciplines deserves special mention. Read one of his reflections below. Re-posted from here.

[Clifton Black is the Otto A. Piper Professor of Biblical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. An ordained elder of The United Methodist Church, he is coeditor of The New Testament Library (Westmister John Knox Press) and an associate editor of The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. His most recent books are The Eighth Day of Creation: An Anthology of Christian Scripture (Eerdmans, 2008), Anatomy of the New Testament: A Guide to Its Structure and Meaning (with Robert Spivey and Moody Smith; 6th ed. Fortress, 2010), and Mark (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, 2011). His latest book is set to come out next month and is entitled Mark, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011).]

Read below…

[Some deem it impertinent: preaching the gospel is serious business. Nevertheless, it is the preacher’s job to hold listeners’ attention for longer than fifteen seconds in a culture whose sound-bites are the most we have been conditioned to consume. Theologically regarded, a gospel eviscerated of mirth is no gospel at all—a harangue at worst; at best a dull drone. Properly injected, laughter unites preacher and congregation with a joyful God. But is there anything funny in scripture?

I come bearing witness that Mark’s Gospel is a hilarious book. Yes, Mark: that somber story of the Suffering Messiah. But Mark’s is a wry, understated humor whose recovery relies partly on the same discipline of patient, careful reading that is sine qua non for good exegesis.

Let’s consider only one among many examples: Mark 11:1-11, the classic Palm Sunday lection. What some preachers may not appreciate, and no parishioner could be expected to know, is that underlying this text is a type-scene common in antiquity: “Hail the conquering hero.” First Maccabees 5:45-54 recounts such a story with a straight face: the return of Judas Maccabeus to Israel following a triumphant massacre. In ancient Jewish literature the details vary, but the format is predictable. Amid cheering throngs a military victor enters a city and offers thanksgiving at a religious shrine. This kind of tale was as familiar to Mark’s audience as our sagas of the two–fisted marshal who canters into Tombstone, outdraws Bad Brad on Main Street, and strides into the saloon for a shot of rotgut.

Mark 11:1-11 twists the Maccabeus story into a pretzel. There’s no blood on Jesus’ sword. (He doesn’t carry a sword.) Jesus rides in, not on Champion the Wonder Horse, but on somebody’s ass. The crowds do not hail him as “the Son of David” (Matthew), “the King who comes in the Lord’s name” (Luke), “even the King of Israel” (John). Mark plays his trump card at the story’s end, when we expect Our Hero to do something dramatic. It’s time for the general to head for the shrine and offer sacrificial thanks to God for having slaughtered hundreds. Not in Mark 11:11: “Then he entered Jerusalem”—that’s right—”and went into the temple”—here it comes—”and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” What?

Get the picture? We expect Jesus to march into the House of the Lord and do the religious thing. What we get is Jesus the tourist, looking the place over. Well, it’s late. Let’s pack it in, fellows. What would the Twelve make of that? How about the exuberant multitudes? Do they pick up their garments and leafy branches with a shrug? “I guess the party’s over.”

The entertainment, such as it is, is postponed until tomorrow (Mark 11:12). Even then, however, people won’t get what they anticipate (verses 13-19). Jesus curses a fruitless fig tree out of season—in itself pretty zany—then returns to the temple, where he does something other than we expect of General Pious. Mark, I am sure, knows exactly what he’s doing. He leads readers through all the clichés up to the Great Climax, before pulling the rug out from under us.

As we pick ourselves up, wondering where the denouement went, Mark flips the story again with Jesus the Mad Horticulturalist. And while we’re trying to figure that out, there’s the final fillip: Jesus not only turns the tables on legitimate moneychangers and religious vendors but also “would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple” (verse 16). Commander Jesus is not there to offer any sacrifice. Moreover, he won’t allow anyone else to do so. The fig tree isn’t feeling well, either (verse 20).

Were this story less familiar, we might suppose we had wandered into Monty Python. If you know what the Evangelist is lampooning—even if you don’t, but are willing to read it with a sense of humor—Mark 11:1-11 frolics in one non sequitur after another. The comedy is there, not for its own sake, but to lower our defenses long enough for the truth to get through: This Jesus, whom we think we know, is not your everyday liberator. He doesn’t act the way he’s supposed to. Judge him by ordinary conventions of what God’s anointed should be and do, and you will get him wrong every time. The joke is on us.

For this we may thank God: If ever we managed to pen Christ in, there would be no gospel, only the stale clichés with which we keep trying to build a sermon or a life. Mark’s genius lies in conveying good news in a way that doesn’t merely say that. We experience it—laughing all the way into God’s upending grace. Does this teach us anything about the craft of preaching?]

  1. Thanks for sharing this piece from Clifton. Having been in the academic world primarily for the last 100 years (!) and now in retirement and a part time pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Mystic, CT, I am aware of the issues Clifton speaks about. I also like his sense of the Markan text.

    We do need in new ways to become aware of the humor, as well as comic dimensions, in ancient texts. This is true whether it be Mark or Job. However, I wonder if those of us teaching in theological education or in undergraduate education are adequately enough educating our students to become aware of the need to give a close reading of a text.. Look at the background required to give Black’s reading of the text. I am sure some/many/most (?) faculty try to help students learn what needs detection in ancient texts from very different cultural, religious, and political contexts.

    I really wonder if attention “spams” (yes, I meant the play) are that much different today.

  2. I appreciate your comment, Rick. Yes, nowadays, interpreters drift their attention away from the text and the requirement of close reading. Dr. Clifton Black and similar-minded people are exception for this. I love your comment “We do need in new ways to become aware of the humor, as well as comic dimensions, in ancient texts”. Of course, when we read ancient texts, we need to be aware of ancient rhetorics. I am looking forward to learn more about you, the 100 years experienced academitian. Privileged to have your comment.

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