Bible Study (Week 2) “The end, the beginning” Part 2

Week 2: READ: Mark 11:1-11

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It is time to flash forward in Mark to the reading for Palm Sunday.  The last story in chapter 10 of Mark finds Jesus and his disciples on the way to Jerusalem, passing through the village of Jericho some 25 miles east of their destination. From there they journey to Bethphage, which ironically means house of unripe figs referring to a type of late-ripening figs that never appear to be ripe. Then it is on to neighboring Bethany, a small village 1 5/8 miles east of Jerusalem on the Eastern slope of the Mount of Olives (see Appendix 2).

The writer of Mark has the prophecies of Zechariah in mind as he begins to retell the story of Jesus entrance into Jerusalem.  Mark captures the image of the end of the world when God will stand on the Mount of Olives on the outskirts of Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:4ff).  There is also the oracle which announces that the Messiah will ride into Jerusalem triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zechariah 9:9).  These words were fulfilled in the triumphant entry of Jesus and his disciples into Jerusalem through the famed Golden Gate.

It is the Jewish festival of Passover.  Jews have been streaming into the holy city of Jerusalem to celebrate the freedom won from the hand of Pharaoh.  Psalm 118:25-26 was a Psalm sung during Passover: Save us (Hosanna) we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the LORD…Bind the festal procession with branches (118:27c).  This Psalm was shouted as Jesus and others drew near to Jerusalem (Mark 11:9).

Eduard Schweizer, in The Good News According to Mark (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977, p. 228) notes that at Passover time in Jerusalem there are no leafy branches.  Secondly, Palm trees are not native to Jerusalem either.  Some scholars suggest that Jesus entry into Jerusalem occurred in the fall of the year during the Feast of Tabernacles when booths are constructed with leafy branches for the people to temporarily live in during the celebration of this holiday.  This would have answered the question about the leaves on the fig tree in the next story (11:13).  Perhaps a couple of stories about Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem have been sown together as the rest of the Passover story is in alignment with the spring of the year.

Despite these questions about the accuracy of leafy branches at Passover, the waving of palm branches on “Palm Sunday” is an ancient tradition in the church.  It is festive in a way that throwing your coats on the ground does not quite live up to the fun of palms (see 2 Kings 9:13).  Palm branches or not does not make or break the importance of this story.  What is significant is that while the religious leaders were looking for a way to end Jesus life, the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching 11:18. The ordinary person was captivated by what they heard and saw in Jesus.  At the same time, many of the religious leaders had a deaf ear and a blind eye to Jesus.

Soul Sower

It often takes a fresh voice or an outsider to capture our attention.  An outsider could be someone new to your family, neighborhood or community.  Or they could be a person from a different race, background, or tradition.  Jesus was a Jewish rabbi or teacher but not part of the religious inner circle of Judaism like the Sadducees or Pharisees (see Appendix 3) with whom he often conflicted.  The Good News that Jesus was sent to proclaim was fresh, challenging and transformative.  This message disarmed the powerful and radically changed the lives of the often ignored, forgotten and the “sinner.”  The truth of Jesus’ message fed the hungry soul of the crowd.

My theological training for ministry at first threatened, then challenged and finally opened the door of my mind to Scripture.  I was well prepared to lead worship, write sermons, offer pastoral care and preside at the sacraments.  The first parish to offer me a call to ministry was in South Dakota.  I was young and eager to move with Jody and my year-and-a-half old and new born daughters, Katie and Kelly.

While my mind was ready and excited to teach what I had been learning in my studies, my life of prayer was faint.  With a prideful soul, this was not something I was willing to admit even to Jody.  She saw it and mildly confronted me.  I flatly denied it. “Of course I pray,” I said firmly.

It all begins with God.  God knew what I needed and used my interests to introduce me to Father Martin, a Russian Orthodox priest at that time who was also an American Indian teaching at Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  One of my advisors in seminary had perked my interest in church history to study the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Within the first couple of months in my first call, I looked for and found an Orthodox Church in Sioux Fall led by Father Martin.  While my interest was history, Father Martin took it upon himself to give me a copy of the Philokalia, a collection of spiritual writings which introduced me to the prayer of the heart and other Christian disciplines.

There was something about Father Martin that intrigued me.  He was gentle and soft spoken. He slyly turned the table on me when I asked questions from my knowledge about the Eastern Church to questions about my readings from the Philokalia, the Jesus Prayer.  He gave me a cloth prayer rope (rosary in the West) and showed me how to quiet my soul and with my breath silently pray the Jesus’ prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Pray through the rope once a day (100 knots on the rope) for a month and then come back and we’ll talk, he flatly told me.  We did not talk about doctrine or history like I had planned.  As a busy professor and priest, we met briefly, he asked what I had learned or observed in my prayers and sent me on my way to practice even more.

It was throughout our brief time together during my four years in South Dakota that God worked through Father Martin to reintroduce a life of prayer and to deepen my passion and relationship with God.  This priest possessed a quiet but powerful Spirit that I hungered to have.  His humility in the midst of a deep and profound faith was a real witness to me.  At times he asked me spiritual questions about my life for which he seemed to already know the answer even before I spoke.  He put me at ease in his presence and never was shocked by failures or sins.  Father Martin helped me to fall in love with Jesus and forever marked my life of prayer.  While our time together was only for a season, it has had a lasting impact.  For that I am grateful.

Discussion Questions

  1. If you have a memory of Palm Sunday, what made this day special to you?
  2. Jesus came to Jerusalem for that fateful week as part of the purpose for which God sent him to live and teach among us.  Jesus sent his disciples to do God’s work in the same way Jesus send us out into our neighborhood in his name.  Where have you seen God at work this week?
  3. What do you notice as you read a few of the “go” commands in Mark: 1:38; 5:19; 10:21; 10:52; 14:13; 16:15?  Discuss your observations.
  4. Hosanna means Lord save us.  What does this mean to you?

See Appendix 4 with reading for Monday – Good Friday of Holy Week