MATTHEW 28 closes the Gospel the way it began, with evidence and assertions of Jesus’ kingly identity. The Son of David, so proven by the opening genealogy, now sends his messengers and warriors forth with the Great Commission of verses 18-20. Unlike the other Gospels, Matthew does not recount any of the appearances of the risen Jesus to his disciples while in Jerusalem, but focuses on the post-resurrection ministry of Jesus in Galilee, where the disciples are commissioned.
MARK 1-8: Mark’s Gospel is one of the sources for Luke and Matthew. Tradition and internal evidence may relate this Gospel to Peter, through John Mark, his scribe (again, according to church tradition), whose house was a key center of Christian ministry and prayer in Jerusalem (Act 12) and who accompanied Saul and Barnabas on some of their missionary journeys (Acts 15).
Mark’s Gospel actually begins with John the Baptist and the preaching of God’s imminent kingdom, which Jesus takes up upon John’s arrest. Quickly we see Jesus establishing his authority over evil, suffering, death and injustice. In many of his healings and conflicts with other religious leaders and authorities, purity and uncleanness are at stake, such as the healing of the man with a withered hand, the paralytic on the mat, and the healing of lepers. Jesus also combats regulations and interpretations of food and sabbath laws that are both so strict as to be unduly burdensome, but which also miss the deeper meanings of sabbath, rest and renewal. The conflict even extends to his own family (ch. 3). All the while Jesus is teaching his disciples, who are struggling to understand him.
Watch for the famous “Markan sandwiches” in these chapters, that is, stories surrounded by parts of another story, that cause us to reflect on the similarities and differences between the two stories. Such is the controversy over Satan, or Beelzebub (Aramaic for “Lord of the Flies”), sandwiched by the panic of his family, or the healing of the woman with a hemorrhage and the resurrection of the young girl (ch. 5). Another favorite device of Mark is to interject the exact Aramaic words of Jesus into the Greek text (Mk. 5:41 and 7:34, among others), as a red flag to make us stop and reflect. For these are words that all of Jesus’ disciples have heard, must hear and will hear and experience as his disciples (“Arise!” “Be opened!”).
Discipleship, evangelism and mission are closely tied together, as we see in the first cross-cultural missionary voyage across the Sea of Galilee to Gentile territory (chs. 4-5). Previous to this, all of the disciples’ missionary training had been among fellow Jews. From the storm on the sea, and from the demonic reception on the other side, we see evidence of Satanic resistance through nature, people and society. The demons’ name, “Legion” gives us a glimpse of the interplay between the infernal, political and military realms, for Roman “Legions” are what are oppressing Israel politically and economically. The response of the people, who prefer their pigs to their restored brother, shows how we so easily collaborate in our own and each others’ oppression.
From this journey on, the line between ministry to Jew and Gentile will be increasingly blurred. The two multiplications of bread and fish show this; the first is in Jewish territory, the second in Gentile territory. From then on, there will be “one loaf” (Mk. 8:14) for all people, Jew and Gentile. This is another reason why opposition against Jesus will stiffen.
PSALM 83 is an imprecatory psalm against the allied and plotting enemies mentioned in verses 6-8. The inclusion of Assyria (but not Babylonia) in that list gives us a clue to the time of its composition: just a few centuries after the conquest of Canaan. While the modern reader may be disturbed over the kinds of punishments prayed for, this Psalm does reinforce the original intent of the Exodus, that God would fight for his people, they would only have to show up, stand up and “see the salvation of God.”
PSALM 84 is a lament of longing for God, the deepest of our longings. Internal evidence (vv. 5-7) links it to pilgrimage, likely the autumn festival in Zion around Rosh Hashana and the New Year (“autumn rains” in v. 6). Clear imagery abounds: the birds that can nest near God, where none but the high priest can approach (v. 3), springs and pools from autumn rains (v. 6), among others. Johannes Brahms set this psalm to beautiful music as part of his German Requiem. You can hear it on Youtube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqpEYsOZymQ
In the period after my grandmother, Helena Homich Swora, died, I found much comfort in this Psalm, and in Brahms’ setting of it, as an expression of her longing to rest after the end of her arduous life journey (war, hunger, refugee camps, widowhood and immigration), and of the universal longing to be with God, and with all whom He holds in the embrace of his everlasting arms.
At the beginning of my sabbatical journeys, in 2004, through Africa especially, a Trappist monk at New Melleray, Iowa, recommended verse 7 to me, “They go from strength to strength, until each appears before God in Zion.” Some may translate the words as “stronghold” or hilltop, but the idea of each experience and challenge strengthening us for the next experience and challenge in our journey toward God was and is of great help to me as I face challenges and changes.
PSALM 85 is a Lament of longing for the restoration of God’s glory upon his people and the land, in effect, the restoration of the people. It is hard to localize in any time of Israel or Judah’s history. The prayer for peace and restoration is met with a condition for such, in verse 8, “But let them not return to their folly.”
The elements and conditions of restoration and peace are named in verse 9, four matching, contrasting and interdependent virtues: love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace, the very things that we, in our polarized politics and theologies, tend to isolate from each and pit against each other. Thus we get a complete picture of Shalom, the peace of God, in answer to our prayers and longings.
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