“Watch and pray”: Jesus’ call to “revolutionary patience”

In my post last week, we were looking at Boris Gunjević’s interpretation of the Gospel according to St Mark, in his final essay in God in Pain. We saw how St Mark’s purpose in the first half of his gospel was to demonstrate that Jesus was “the apocalyptic Son of God” (rather than just another “apolitical charismatic healer”), so that his readers would not misunderstand his account of Jesus’ suffering and death in the remainder of his book.

Mark was “deconstructing the Messianic scenario by refusing to endorse any version of Jewish Messianism”, says Gunjević. He argues that Mark was doing so against a very specific backdrop: the Jewish rebellion against Rome between AD 66 and 70, and the would-be Messianic figures who arose (and competed for recognition) during that period.

Gunjević describes the three main contenders for the role of Messiah during the revolt:

  • Menahem, leader of the Sicarii, supposed grandson of Judas of Galilee, who captured Jerusalem in AD 66. “Through his remarkable organisational skills … he drew together what is known as the Zealot coalition, … and quickly proclaimed himself ‘king’.” His followers killed the high priest Annas at the start of the uprising, and Menahem ordered the Temple records to be burned – thus releasing the people from the debt-slavery in which the religious establishment had held them.
  • Simon bar Giora, commander of Jerusalem’s defence against the Romans. He became “a renegade, a robber and a despot”, and “captured Idumea and Judea without a fight”. However, he lost control of Jerusalem, leading to an internal struggle between Simon’s supporters and those of the third contender…
  • John of Gischala, who “mustered a considerable band of disgruntled peasants in northern Galilee and formed them into a respectable military unit” before his own entry into Jerusalem.

All these Messianic pretenders were following a script established in the Book of Maccabees:

On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year,the Jewsentered [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. (1 Maccabees 13:51)

Mark, however, shows Jesus following a very different script, in which the Old Testament prophecies are deployed as “a subversive model of resistance to the dominant ideology of nationalistic Messianism”. Specifically, Jesus’ own entry to Jerusalem is modeled not on the triumphalism of Maccabees, but on the prophecy of Zechariah:

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)

Gunjević interprets this as a form of “political street theatre”, in which Jesus:

…ridicules, parodies, trivialises, and takes to the absurd the political symbols of the “earthly kingdom” … In this madcap way, within a “liturgical carnival”, the carpenter from Nazareth is not merely mocking the title of emperor but bringing into question the very notion of Messianism…

Mark’s Jesus “rebuffs any vestige of Messianic identification” in order to “suggest a new notion of Messianism”: one which rejects the religious and political elites and identifies with “the disempowered and the multitude”, who are currently oppressed by a system doomed to destruction – as exemplified by the poor widow donating “all she had” to the Temple. The “Messianic practices” of “hearing and seeing, watching and praying” to which Jesus calls his disciples:

…are an anticipation of that destruction and a model of how to live when the old structures are in ruins and there is nothing new on the horizon.

That last sentence is surely the heart of Gunjević’s argument throughout his contributions to God in Pain. For Gunjević, our present-day situation is also one in which “the old structures are in ruins and there is nothing new on the horizon”, and we’re called to a similar practice of “revolutionary patience”: “hearing and seeing, watching and praying”.

Not that this is a call to passivity and quietism. Gunjević concludes by looking at Jesus’ call in Mark 9:43-50 to “cut off” your hand, foot or eye if it “offend thee”: the hand being the organ of charity, of labour, of care for those around us; the leg and foot being “a metaphor for hope, with which we stride forth into the future”; and the eye being both the means of our first contact with others, and a metaphor for faith. Hence the Messianic lifestyle of “hearing and seeing, watching and praying” is one of active involvement in working with, and caring for, others.

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