Mark 11:33

So their answer to Jesus was – “We do not know.”

“Then I,” replied Jesus, “refuse to tell you what authority I have to do these things.”

in the end empire falls
every so-called system
carries its own subterfuge
with each new after-the-fact rule
protecting each next privilege
we end not knowing
what we’ve always known

lost in a cloud of not knowing
we can’t unknow our certainty
without losing every control
of our ill-founded hope
grabbing the tighter
the little we yet have
walls go up moats go around

stuck inside a little circle
while larger longer arcs play
we hang our head
up our dose of Lexapro
just enough to not ask
if this is all it is about
and no Alfie left to ask

Bratcher362 notes:

In Tzeltal there is an interesting idiomatic way of disclaiming knowledge, namely, “What shall we say!”—an expression which fits this context perfectly, for it was not ignorance but unwillingness to answer which dictated the reply of the authorities.

It is this unwillingness to respond with what one knows to be true when they are most integrous that leads leaders of every time and place to what is meant by “moral injury”. All too often we elect good people to positions where they will need to make decisions that run contrary to their heart and what they know deep within it.

Little-by-little, one compromise after another leads to an internal wariness, weariness, and fear of getting caught out. Excuses about being able to do some good and keep the worst bad at bay cover this for awhile. Eventually, all decisions look like a trap and whatever inspiration initiated an intention to service ends up being challenged by the very folks intended to be helped.

Whatever religious or civic organizations you are connected with are likely being influenced by the same dynamic in which these religious leaders found themselves. It is only with life-sustaining partnership that we can support and challenge one another past the divides of authority. This is particularly real for those who have a G*D component to their authority. A G*D factor can enter inappropriate considerations of eternity and emphasize any judgmental quality that would allow cleansing the face of the earth of all opponents.

Mark 11:32

Yet can we say ‘human’?” They were afraid of the people, for everyone regarded John as undoubtedly a prophet.

stuck on earth
we fall prey
pulls and pushes
push and pull
our ideal deals

we the people
keep showing up
changing our accounting
modifying our purity
compromising even compromises

when it comes
to a choice
our crowd fear
trumps our theology
we fall down

When questioned about “John’s baptism” it is understood that the question was about the whole presence of John. The religious leaders couldn’t play the strict interpretation card and deal only with John’s technique of baptism which the Essenes and others also used. John’s baptism was integral to his whole eschatological act of prophecy.

Here Jesus is using John in much the same way some use the mantle of Detrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther King, Jr. There is identification with and protection through calling up a martyr.

Being wrapped in an esteemed one’s program allows extra minutes in which to advance their cause another small distance. The residual good-will allotted to the one who was killed gives a few extra moments to you before you join them in death. It will be interesting to see how Jesus uses his extra time.

In the meantime, the anonymous crowd is being used by Jesus as a direct player in the game. It is the crowd that removes an option for the religious leaders to come back with a determination that John’s baptism (meaning all the repentance and forgiveness so popular that it brought folks up in Jerusalem to come down to the Jordan just before it turns into the Dead Sea) was only ordinary for it had made a difference to too many people who were at the end of their vitality and staring into a Dead Life.

The powers and principalities love to divide to conquer. Large demonstrations are important as a sign that we won’t be divided any longer. Demonstrations make a difference, even if it is to only slow the momentum of further division. Though more is needed, join or start even a small witness—it makes a difference.

Mark 11:31

They began arguing together. “If we say ‘divine,’ he will say ‘Why then didn’t you believe him?’

stuck in heaven
we find it unable
to travel anywhere else

its authority unto itself
blinds it too narrowly
to tough evolving life

heavenly speculation
shakes loose of gravity
and authority to effect affects

halfway to heaven
is the locus of miracles
revealer of a next surprise

No more needs to be said than, “They argued.” No matter what the rationale for choosing either side of the question, when folks are caught in might makes right—my right will demand your loss. A result is a losing attempt to come up with the perfect response that will brook no comeback and reset the stasis of the system.

This argument is exactly the goal of direct action oriented civil disobedience. This is what guerilla theater aims to do—create a cognitive dissonance that is fertile soil for a next seed.

The sign of the effectiveness of reframing the question from the particular tactic used to the underlying assessment of the situation is an over-thinking and making-up imagined comebacks that keep a rigid system on high alert and edgily unsettled.

What started as an accusation about the specifics of a parade without a permit and a riotous moment of breaking store windows has become the quicksand of a very pointedly sharp dilemma.

The moral underpinnings of religious authorities that seemed so clear at the beginning have turned into quicksand. The more struggle, the more deeply mired. They were so quick to accuse and now can do no more than whine. This is the binary nature of authority so bold when it can get away with it and so weepy when caught out saying more than it can ever know. Noting a cycle of accuse and whine is one way to assess the presence of a fragilely built doctrinal system where, if one peg is pulled out, the whole attempt falls apart.

Once the question has been asked and accepted, the whole game is over.

It turns out that a parabolic, ironic, relational understanding of life is far more robust than one based on hierarchy, rules, and authority.

Mark 11:30

It is about John’s baptism. Was it of divine or human origin? Answer me that.”

getting any system
to play by its own rules
throws sand in its gears
revealing common hypocrisy

consistency of intent
can’t bear the weight
of real life dilemmas
assiduously approaching avoidance

stuck between its own
rock and a hard place
with only hot air between
rules shatter scatter

Riddle-me-this, What-say-you, How-do-you-read the import of John’s practice of baptism?

What is the dividing line between “human” and “heaven”? This has vexed folks since the cessation of walking together in the cool of the evening.

Another way of asking this is what are the connecting points between “human” and “heaven”?

Whichever way these questions are responded to we have to come to a great divide that they can or cannot be neatly separated. Partnership is not like that, but lives in the messy. Authority or power don’t do well with gray areas, no matter how many shades there are.

In an instant we are back with Jesus asking the disciples, “Who do people say I am? Who do you say I am?” With just a moment’s delay we know this question is still being asked of us, the Reader.

This question is one that might well come from a quick-witted person. More likely it is the result of intentional analysis or reflection in the wilderness about what lies behind the impasse of history that keeps repeating itself through the generations. This becomes a question of original misalignment.

Because of an implied partnership the issue will not come down to a single moment or act. It is not all about G*D saying, “Don’t eat”, and investing wisdom and immortality in a single instance. This is not life, only an uninvested and disembodied G*D grok. It is not about humans tasting and hiding. This is not life, only over-functioning and with only an emperor’s new fig leaf for protection.

Finally, the difficulty we face is forever falling into the trap of one side of a pendulum only to be flung to the other side. Only a relaxed gaze appreciating both options will do. Any answer to the question will reveal an underlying essential unity of a yin-yang response.

Mark 11:29

“I will put one question to you,” said Jesus. “Answer me that, and then I will tell you what authority I have to act as I do.

before authority
stand questions

before authority
powerfully judges

before authority
backs down

before authority
nothing weighs

before questions
authority shivers

Economic transactions in many cultures work on a personal bargaining process rather than turn that over to a system-wide process of wholesale and retail set prices. This carries over into styles of argumentation.

From a cycle of a price offered to a counter-offer to see if a sale can be achieved, we begin a cycle of questions offered to counter-questions to see if we can land on the same page or not.

Of course this could go on for some time:

“First respond to my question.”

“No, first respond to my question.”

“No, you answer first, then I will.”

“I asked first. You answer!”

And around it can go—any early example of a gunfight at an O.K. Corral. In these sorts of encounters there are always differing versions of the events and echoing encounters.

Since Mark is telling this tale, it is Jesus who gets to use a volitive “subjunctive … with the force of the imperative”—“You answer!” [Bratcher359]. Which is to say, the cycle is broken early with a run-on response that connects this verse with the next in one, unbroken stream that gives no opportunity to wriggle away because the question is included with the response. In essence, the formality of religious leaders—going step-by-step, tit-by-tat—was over-taken by a specific question not waiting its turn.

This presumption of being able to question first those who asked the first question is a second disruption, a second riding of a colt into the midst of a dressage performance of Lipizzaner stallions.

With the cycle broken, we will move on from a relatively simple request for a certificate duly signed and sealed indicating where one is placed on an approved list of rankings (external validations of I.Q., social status, prison record, bank account, experience base, and much more still used to automatically sort people) to a more complex demand for an example of critical thinking.

Mark 11:28

“What authority have you to do these things?” they said. “Who gave you the authority to do them?”

requiring authority
weakens arguments
mistaking power
for effect

it doesn’t matter
what the context
if you’re you
if you’re always wrong

not me
is all
it takes
bye bye

It would be easy to look at the examples of claimed authority to curse fig trees and disrupt temples as the source of these questions. Acts upon the world exterior to ourselves is often the source of what we think of as power. At such a point of temptation it is helpful to reflect upon the issue of prayer (a prayer beyond what is usually meant by the pious and distancing phrase of “thoughts and prayers”).

Upsetting the temple sacrificial system for a moment could pale in light of a revised vision of forgiveness which could be extended all the way to forgiveness of self and any distance from it that society would claim through illness or difference.

In typical fashion for a consummate parable-ist, the presenting issue is not the issue that needs dealing with. There is nothing within the framework of religious leaders that would allow for any other authority than that which they already have. In this way the questions are not real questions, but an opening shot across the bow that will reveal the irrelevancy of any economic challenge to their power.

The intervening teaching about prayer and forgiveness has been a hint as to how Jesus is going to shift from external actions such as disrupting temple procedures to internal acceptance of belovedness. This is a similar shift every movement of civil disobedience makes to finally address an unjust or unmerciful law.

Any particular direct action implemented is but a shadow of the underlying congruity and assurance of self and the worth of others.

The language of authority is familiar to parents whose expectation of their children is to reflect well on the parent and to care for them after whatever unintentional (or intentional) abuse came to the child through those illegitimate expectations. The scold in the questions comes through loud and clear and can only be dealt with through the depths of an internal integrity grounded in forgiveness and coming out of the closet of automatic guilt.

Mark 11:27

They came to Jerusalem again. While Jesus was walking about in the Temple Courts, the chief priests, the teachers of the Law, and the elders came up to him.

again and yet again
Jesus enters a city of peace
in which there is no peace
a heart of forgiveness
in which there is no forgiveness

again and yet again
our first impression
lives far past its usefulness
our first nightmare
breaks its reality boundary

again and yet again
we walk through old patterns
noticing beauty and weakness
thoroughly mixed together
with suspicion quickly surfacing

Wherever and whenever direct action or guerilla theater occurs the first response by those in power is to ask what authority is claimed for these “illicit” acts. So it is here. The publicly authorized authorities come to re-exert their power.

This is an extension of Peter’s noticing the withered fig tree and, following James and John, is seeing a usable power. Think about the development and use of the first atomic weapons. What Peter may have seen as a wonderful extension of an appeal to power as the most efficient way to “fish for people”, other religious leaders see as a threat. And we are at the point of once again basing life on the power of death and destruction. The MAD doctrine (Mutual Assured Destruction, not “What me worry?”) of a zero-sum game surfaces again.

The Common English Bible chooses to translate “Jesus walked around the temple”. Most others say, “in the temple.” Whether “in” or “around”, this scene is not disconnected from the previous one

This entry to Jerusalem is not accompanied by signs of authority, withering and disruption. This is a softer symbol not unlike linking hands around the Pentagon. The scene might be seen through the eyes of a first entry into a “promised land” (a problematic image, as every example of exceptionalism is) and walking seven times around Jericho before its walls came tumbling down. What we don’t know is whether this encounter takes place in a first time around or if it took the current authorities until the sixth circling before they were able to come up with their puffed-up approach that is still the first line of response by religious leaders facing a larger change than they can manage to their benefit. It doesn’t seem to matter whether the setting is temple large or synagogue small. Authority is a perennial question.

Mark 11:26

But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your offenses.

conditional forgiveness
a circular firing squad
sees all the world
limited to its own image

underlying assumptions
subvert any good
inherent in a best intention

literal words
removed from view
hover in the background
exerting inappropriate blame

Even though we’ve just been through a series of witherings and disruptions, these are not direct and literal outgrowths of an awareness of belovedness.

Here we follow Sabin’s emphasis upon reading Mark as a midrash and a larger frame of good news for fig trees (either Israeli or Roman) and Temple is an eventual restoration. This expectation of intentional and universal renewal places any actions to cut off offending limbs, pluck out eyes, wither trees, and disrupt temples within Edwin Markham’s wonderful little mantra:

He drew a circle that shut me out —
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

This larger setting doesn’t change a blocking wall through force. There is no compulsion here, even when a smaller circle goes awry in some way similar to what we know about cells that have gone off script and fall within our overly-large category of cancer.

This little verse, omitted in the best of the early documents, does connect with other stories being told about Jesus. It seems likely Matthew 6:15 was copied and pasted into Mark. In Matthew it is the first extension or interpretation of what we know as a tradition of “The Lord’s Prayer”. Because Mark does not have an equivalent prayer, it appears that a scribe or two inserted this reference into Mark. [See other insertions at 7:16, 9:44, 9:46, and 15.28.]

Still finding older texts to work from—the most recent versions of the Bible are based on the earliest documents—gives ever more opportunity to make more informed decisions about Mark’s writing. Since we are not likely to ever find a first edition of Mark, we can use the omitted verses to pause and reflect. Have we noticed any changed behavior since we slowed down to a verse at a time?

Mark 11:25

“And, whenever you stand up to pray, forgive any grievance that you have against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven also may forgive you your offenses.”

when asking for the world
the world asks for you

asks for you to not ask
ahead of time

disjunctured asking asks
far too little

small asks hurt someone
far too much

when that someone is you
pause your asking

pray like a generous mountain
asking big asks

big enough for a world
to rejoice you asked

Prayer is here described as a process of moving toward a new age, a new good news. It is a vehicle for everything withered to be whole again.

Sabin-184 remarks:

The emphasis on forgiveness forecloses the possibility that Mark meant us to conclude that Jesus desires or approves the withering of the tree; instead, he quotes Jesus saying words that urge forgiveness and imply restoration. And forgiveness and renewal, not judgment and damnation, seem to me to be the key motifs in Mark’s Gospel as a whole.

“Whenever” is a present indicative that represents repeated action. Every prayer is to have some aspect of forgiveness in it. This brings to mind a four-fold prayer form I have advocated in the past:

  1. Identify what one aspect of G*D you are calling upon for a need at hand;
  2. Say in one non-run-on sentence what the “ask” is. If it does not contain something about mercy or forgiveness, reshape it until it does or add a second sentence to so frame your ask.
  3. Express Thanks.
  4. Say “Amen” and claim the assurance found at the beginning of verse 23 which begins with the Greek ἀμήν (amēn, amen).

Once again, we are returning to Mark’s beginning with Baptizer John setting this Jesus story in motion with forgiveness and changed hearts. The mutuality between forgiveness and renewal is deep within Jesus’ tradition, as is the partnership between G*D and S*lf and Neighb*r that so relies upon continued support and correction.

Mark 11:24

And therefore I say to you ‘Have faith that whatever you ask for in prayer is already granted you, and you will find that it will be.’

it will be so
according to your vision
that sees tomorrow today
and past partials completed

it will be so
according to your vision
where all is joined at root
and released to soar

it will be so
according to your vision
so see your ophthalmologist
prophet on a regular basis

it will be so
according to your vision
if you don’t see outer shells
you’ll miss your inner pearl

it will be so
according to your vision
ask according to your vision
receive according to your vision

Prayer is too often like a talisman hung around your neck. Whatever you “pray and ask” for is already on the way. This continues the encouragement to keep on through thick and thin. In Mark’s time there was both thick and thin when there was too much wilderness and too little.

This construct has allowed too many, though, to blame the pray-er if the ask is not fulfilled in a New York minute. It also brings into play the false idea that one has to pray for approved items—another excuse when prayers appear to not come true.

The biggest difficulty is what is termed a Prayer Warrior. With enough intensity and numbers of prayers, we can get our way. There is no listening here, just demanding.

Of note is an assumption that we will attend to previous times prayer has occurred in Mark. Most often it is in the context of Jesus going apart to do some wilderness praying. After such came the expressions of power in stilling storms and bringing peace into their midst. A case can be made that every healing is a variation on a prayer form, an act of prayer.

One downside to this verse by verse approach comes when there are parallelisms in adjoining verses. For instance, it is very important to help us move away from seeing prayer as an oral exercise, an incantation, and move toward an intersectionality approach to life’s perplexities, that prayer be intimately connected with forgiveness, which is one of the modalities of healing.