Thursday, December 16, 2021

God according to Mark

Mark's paper character, Jesus, has very little to say about the nature of God. He does, however, have a great deal to say about God's reign,1 not all of it consistent or clear. In the early first century in the lifetime of Jesus, God's reign is imminent (1:14). When it emerges, it will come with power (9:1). God's reign is a mystery, a secret, which Jesus claims has been given to his disciples (4:11), but is accessible to all others only in his oblique or obscure stories (παραβολē, 4:11, 26, 30), which he tells to keep people from understanding the mystery of God's reign (4:12). God's reign can be entered into only by deliberate and aggressive action (9:47), but the wealthy will find it difficult to enter (10:23-25). God's reign is characterized by children and all who want to enter, must accept it like a child (10:14-15). Three things will bring one close to God's reign (12:34): accepting that God is one, loving God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor like you love yourself (12:28-33). Near the end of his life, Jesus swears off wine till he can drink it anew within God's reign (14:25). Hence God's reign had not been realized at the end of the gospel narrative.

            Jesus mentions a few attributes of God. God has power and hence can do all things (12:24; 10:27). Although God is the creator of all (13:19; 10:6-8), yet God has a house (2:26), an odd contrast in perspective. According to Jesus, in two strange sayings God numbers the patriarchs of the Israelite people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, among his devotees (12:26). In the second odd saying Jesus claims that the living rather than the dead are the devotees of God (12:27). I think of these as "accidental" qualities, rather than "inherent" qualities. They do not describe the nature of God.

            There are certain things in life that fall specifically under God's purview (12:17), although they are unnamed in the saying. At a minimum, God expects that his commandments will be obeyed (7:8-9, 13; 3:35; 10:9). God expects faith (11:22) and loyalty (8:33).

            There are only two Jesus sayings in Mark that describe God's inherent nature. Jesus, quoting the Hebrew Bible in the words of the Shema (Deut 6:4) says: "The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (12:30). Jesus does not clarify the statement further. The second saying describing God's nature is "God alone is Good" (10:18). This inherent quality of God is mentioned several times in Hebrew Bible (Pss 25:8, 100:5, 135:3, 136:1, Nah 1:7; Jer 33:11).

            These scattered observations about God by Mark's paper character, Jesus, are neither comprehensive nor philosophically cogent. There are other comments about God in Mark, expressed by demons (1:24), unclean spirits (3:11), a demonized man (5:7), the scribes (2:7), the Pharisees (12:14), a Roman centurion (15:39), Joseph of Arimathea (15:43), and by the author of the gospel (1:14; 2:12), who momentarily lays aside the author's cloak of invisibility to comment in his own voice, but these statements do not help clarify God's character further.

            To sum up: Mark doesn't clarify God's inherent nature to any great extent for his readers. One might also say the same is true for the Bible as a whole. For example, in Hebrew Bible God is described as both Righteous (Neh 9:8; Pss 7:9, 11:7, 116:5, 119:137, 129:4) and Good (for the passages see above). These two words are not necessarily compatible with one another, however, as Romans 5:7 makes clear:

Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die. (RSV)

Paul's statement clearly favors the inherent qualities of the good man, although one might even make a case that for all the attributions of righteousness and goodness ascribed to him, God nevertheless has a mean streak.2 From my perspective, however, God could do with a little less Righteousness and more Goodness.

To judge from the history of religions, apparently the inherent nature of God is like beauty; it lies in the mind of the beholder and it is something we are taught rather than experience. In short, people invent the character of their Gods. If that be so, why shouldn't I think that God should be characterized more by Goodness than Righteousness?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The word translated as "reign" (baseila) does not describe a political space or a geographical region; it describes an area of influence in human life.

2Hedrick, "A Conundrum: Two Incompatible Propositions." Wry Thoughts about Religion, Monday, April 27, 2021:


Elizabeth said...

Thank you Charlie. Myself, I've always been indoctrinated with the righteousness of God- and made aware that it takes precedence over his "goodness." Righteousness outweighs goodness- yes, that's definitely been hammered into me since I was a youth. I have no explanation for it, truly I don't.

Thank you for being the first to bring clarity to those two concepts. I lack the analytical expertise to articulate the theological difference succinctly- but I do know what you are getting at. The two words are NOT compatible- thank you for pointing that out!!

Do you have any practical examples to further clarify the chasm that exits between those two concepts?? As you stated, it lies in the mind of the beholder. For the purposes of this current discussion, some real life examples would be most helpful and illustrative. So many people want to believe in a wise and loving God- real life just doesn't contribute to that narrative when we see the raw and ragged suffering that indiscriminately targets ourselves and our loved ones out of the blue, without warning. .. no matter how closely we follow God's so called commandments. Death and illness and mental challenges plague even those most "righteous" of us believers. Doesn't matter how much you go to church or give to the poor or serve the masses.

Any thoughts? Elizabeth

Anonymous said...

They seem to be synonyms in general usage. I tend to see “righteousness” as indicating religious ( because I have usually heard it in that context and it is related in this way to the verb “justify”). “Goodness” is a quality that doesn’t (to me) necessarily specify something religious. I know many who “do good” and aren’t associated with religions. It seems to me that God’s character traits would, as you noted, depend on the character traits of the theist.

An observation: Mark rarely uses “righteous...” 2.17 – I came not to call the righteous (which is similar to the imagery I have read in Stoic/Cynic literature) and 6.20, describing John the Immerser.

A bit of trivia, from my present day translating: Josephus speaks of John the Immerser connecting virtue (ἀρετὴν) to righteousness toward one another and reverence toward God, if I am reading it correctly. (καὶ τὰ πρὸς ἀλλήλους δικαιοσύνῃ καὶ πρὸς τὸν θεὸν εὐσεβείᾳ.) That seems to be a different view of “righteousness” than found in Romans 3 – 5.

Romans 5.7 is interesting... Chapter 2.6-16 spends time extolling those who “do good,” which in the chapter sets up a disjuncture between good and evil, then hearers & doers. Romans 3 makes the (strained) effort to prove that no one is “righteous.” Chapter 5 begins with the claim that all are justified (made right, righteous) by trust. So, I reckon one can’t be “righteous” without trust, in that extremely artificial world dependent upon fable.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Dennis,
You are likely correct that Good and Righteous/Just are generally heard as synonyms today and that was likely true for Plato as well. But it appears that the concepts resonated differently for Paul:
Righteous/Just: straight-laced, conforming to a certain standard of correctness, equitable, fair.
Good: of a favorable character or tendency, genial, benevolent.
A righteous/Just person would hew to the line in judgments and dispense "justice." A good person would cross the line out of kindness.

Charles Hedrick said...

Good Morning Elizabeth,
At the moment I have no practical examples to clarify these two concepts--other than what I wrote to Dennis just below. And I am not sure that a "chasm" separates them. I do think that a Good person would follow the rules and would tend to err on the side of kindness, whereas a Just person would tend always to follow the rules out of fairness. I have known both types through my life.

Elizabeth said...

That's a good distinction- righteousness as taught by Paul emphasizes justice while goodness seems to emphasize kindness.

The Christian church leans more on Paul's writings than the Jesus stories when it comes to sin and righteousness.

Church teachings also drive home the notion that righteousness means there has to be zero "sin." If you sin only once- you cannot be righteous. Another point I heard over and over again was: "You can't become righteous on your own no matter how GOOD you are." Just being "good" wasn't enough to make you a righteous person. I heard these sermons countless times.

One little slip-up, no matter how big or small, and you can never be righteous- ever. You commit one sin and that's it. No righteousness for you. Judaism teaches that anyone can be righteous if they confess their sins, repent and receive God's forgiveness.... Also, a righteous man can NEVER take the punishment/penalty for an unrighteous man's sin. Ezekiel 18:18-23. Elizabeth