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In each of the synoptic gospels we read,
“He replied, ‘Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Move from here to there,” and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.’” (Matthew 17:20)
“He replied, ‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you.’” (Luke 17:6)
“Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them.” (Mark 11:23)
The Mountain and the Establishment
We have a lot to unpack in these passages. Let’s begin by talking about the mountain or mulberry tree. In the book Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, Ched Myers writes about Mark’s use of this saying under the heading “Faith as Political Imagination.” William Telford also saw an economic and political backdrop on which to understand these words:
“In Jewish circles, the correlative mountain and tree uprooting images [were] found in legal, legendary, thaumaturgic and eschatological contexts and employed in connection with the Rabbi, the king, the hero, the thaumaturge or the Messianic follower. In a legal context, the term ‘uprooter of mountains’ was found to have a technical meaning. Applied to the king (and to Herod in particular), it could be employed as a double entendre, bolstering a legal argument for the exceptional nature of Herod’s pulling down of the Temple . . . The function of [Mark’s] redaction is therefore to announce, we believe, that the ‘moving of mountains’ expected in the last days was now taking place. Indeed, about to be removed was the mountain par excellence, the Temple Mount. The Temple, known to the Jewish people as the ‘mountain of the house’ or ‘this mountain’ was not to be elevated, as expected, but cast down!” (William Telford, The Barren Temple and the Withered Tree, p. 118)
Jesus’ narrative contrasts with the narrative of the elites of his day and of future Zealots in the Jewish-Roman war, which would take place three decades later. Both of these groups saw the Temple State as enduring. The elites believed that as long as the Empire remained strong and the Temple aristocracy (or establishment) cooperated with Rome’s demands, the Temple State centered in Jerusalem could endure. The Zealots, on the other hand, sought to reform the Temple State. They, along with the Jewish poor, revolted against economic exploitation and wrested control of the Temple State from the aristocrats. They then launched a three-and-a-half-year war to liberate Jerusalem from Roman occupation and the poor from the exploitation of the controlling Jewish families of their time.
But both of these narratives involved a Temple State enduring in some form, and Jesus taught that the Temple State could be overturned. I cannot state this strongly enough: Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian. He did not envision a Christian religion replacing Judaism; rather he envisioned a Jewish society without a Temple State. Why? Because in his day the Temple State was at the heart of the exploitation of the poor he had dedicated his life to working in solidarity with. The Jesus of the gospels envisioned a world where the presence of YHWH could be expressed through a community of resource-sharing and redistribution as opposed to a Temple at the heart of the systemic exploitation of the poor.
Consider the following passages:
“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13)
“But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents. (Mark 12:42, cf. Luke 21:2)
“Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.’” (Mark 12:43-44)
Then immediately following this account of the economic abuse of this poor woman, we read:
“As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!’ ‘Do you see all these great buildings?’ replied Jesus. ‘Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’ (Mark 13:1-2)
It was a vision of a different world.
The exploiting Temple State is the mountain the Jesus envisions being cast in the sea in the Synoptics.
Thrown into the Sea
In Mark’s gospel, we first encounter the imagery of being thrown into the sea in the story of the exorcism at Gerasenes. Here the demoniac is a symbol of the Jewish people being occupied by the Roman Empire—the demons’ name is “Legion,” like the unit of Roman soldiers. When the demons plead not to be driven out of the land, Jesus permits them to inhabit a nearby herd of pigs who hurl themselves (and the empire they symbolize) into the sea.
“A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, ‘Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.’ He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, hurled themselves down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.” (Mark 5:11-13)
Now Jesus is using this same image for his listeners, calling them to imagine a world where the exploitative Temple State (Mark and Matthew’s Mountain and Luke’s Mulberry Tree), too, could be thrown into the sea.
The message was that the world can be remade, without exploitation.
This is the part of the message that received the greatest pushback. It threatened not only the aristocratic Temple establishment who finally had Jesus executed but also those who saw the Temple as the manifestation of YHWH’s presence among them as a chosen people. Throughout history, religious worship of a God has often been tied to the oppression of vulnerable people, and the liberation of the oppressed has often involved throwing out God too. It’s no wonder. It makes perfect sense.
Jesus was calling the people to imagine that a different way of picturing God, too, was possible: they could imagine a world without a Temple without having to embrace a world without their God. God’s presence, instead of in an apartment in the Temple, would show up in the midst of their community, a community that Jesus called “the kingdom.” That terminology is problematic for those of us who live in republics today but simply it meant a community that endeavored to practice God’s vision for human society according to Jesus. This was a world rooted in distributive justice where no one had too much while others didn’t have enough. This was a community where we took responsibility for taking care of one another. Our interconnectedness was understood, embraced, and experienced. We have been robbed of so much in our capitalist society today by individualism and competition. Jesus taught that a very different world was possible.
Faith Traditions That Oppress
Today in the U.S., we don’t have a religious state with a temple at its heart. Our society is a secular pluralist society with a large sector of citizens claiming the Christian religion. We do have folks who feel that to abandon the religion they were raised in, the religion of their oppressors, they must also abandon their faith in their God. I believe there’s much to learn from Jesus’s distinction between faith in God and faith in a religious institution.
Let me be frank. Faith traditions and institutions have used their sacred texts and religions to oppress women, to hold on to and practice racism, to legitimize classism, and to condone and even prescribe their own homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
Shame! Shame on those of us who use our religion as a tool of oppression and dehumanization rather than liberation.
And for those who find themselves on the receiving end of discrimination both in the world outside of a given religion and also within their religious tradition, possibly as well, actions like these within faith communities bring an extra struggle of having to parse their faith in a God whom they believe loves them and a religious tradition where they first encountered God but that rejects them.
I love how Jon Sobrino sums up Jesus’ message to those who find themselves in this place:
“It is these [the marginalized] whom Jesus tells to have hope, that God is not like their oppressors have made them think, that the end of their misfortunes is at hand, that the Kingdom of God is coming and is for them.” (Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator, p. 82)
Jesus stood in solidarity with people the religious, socio-economic, and political powers of his day pushed to the margins. He called them to envision a different world without the oppressing Temple State. And he was crucified by the Temple State for doing so.
There’s an interesting detail in the story, though. At the moment Jesus died, each of the synoptic gospels includes this note:
“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Matthew 27.51)
“The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” (Mark 15.38)
“For the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” (Luke 23.45)
This curtain separated the innermost Holy Place in the temple from the rest of the structure.
The Holy Place was the room where YHWH’s very presence was believed to dwell.
But in the story when the curtain is torn in two, what is revealed?
What do the people see beyond the veil?
The room is empty.
The God of the poor, the God of the Oppressed, the God of those pushed to the edges of society, the God of the marginalized is not there. The room is empty. The God who stands with society’s vulnerable is actually present in the one suspended between heaven and earth, between two rebels, the one who lived his life in solidarity with them and died as a result of it. That God is not at the heart of the system exploiting or marginalizing them.
God is with them, the crucified community.
The resurrection undoes, overturns, and overcomes all that was accomplished by Jesus’ execution in the story. But before the resurrection, the first post-execution event is the rending of the temple’s veil.
It can be very painful to sever or tear the association of your religious institution with your God. But I believe that disillusionment must come. Deconstruction must be embraced. And as painful as it is, we must lean into that deconstruction and come out on the other side to reconstruct a beautiful revolution. And this is where we come full circle back to this week’s saying about faith.
Angela Davis describes activism as a matter of faith. She states, “We always have to act as if revolution were possible. We have to act as if it were possible to change the world. And if we do that work, the world is gonna change. Even if it doesn’t change the way we need it to change right now, it will change.” (Spirit of Justice with Michelle Alexander & Angela Davis)
In the Jesus stories, faith always makes the difference:
“Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.” (Mark 5:34)
“‘Go,’ said Jesus, ‘your faith has healed you.’” (Mark 10:52)
“According to your faith let it be done to you.” (Matthew 9:29)
“Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (Luke 17:19)
“Overhearing what they said, Jesus told him, ‘Don’t be afraid; just believe.’” (Mark 5:36)
“When Jesus saw their faith . . .” (Mark 2:5)
“Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’” (Matthew 8:13)
“Then Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.’” (Matthew 15:28)
“He could not do any miracles there, except lay his hands on a few sick people and heal them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6:5-6)
“Jesus said, ‘Everything is possible for one who believes.” (Mark 9:23)
The text of Mark’s gospel suggests that it was written when people were struggling to continue believing—but believing in what?
It wasn’t the existence of God that they were struggling to believe. A person could opt out of the Jesus movement and still believe in the existence of God.
In Mark, faith is not defined in terms of accepting doctrinal truths of a religious organization or tradition.
It’s not even defined as would later be the case in Christianity of confessing Jesus as the Christ or as Divine.
Jesus did not preach himself in the synoptic stories. Let me repeat that. Jesus did not preach himself. So what did Jesus preach? What did Jesus call his listeners to believe?
“After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,’ he said. ‘The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” (Mark 1:14-15, emphasis added.)
Jesus called his listeners to believe the good news that the kingdom, the reign of God, or God’s vision for a human society centered in distributive justice, had come. The belief was tied to embracing the possibility of a distributively just society, to “imagining another way of being, another way of existing in the world” (Angela Davis, ibid). The good news of God calls us to imagine a new world and to believe it’s possible. This kind of faith is what made all the difference in the stories of the gospels: the belief that things could actually be different, that we can choose to create a different world. It was a message of hope. And even if it doesn’t come to full fruition in our lifetimes, the kind of world we want to create cannot receive its finishing touches by future generations if we haven’t either laid the groundwork for them or kept building today on the foundations of those that have come before us.
“It’s about how we show up in this world in the limited time we have.” — Michelle Alexander