It is amazing what a good commentary can do.
Some time back I attempted to read the Gospel according to Luke, and I found myself stumbling constantly. This was nothing more than a form of unfamiliarity – despite my upbringing and hearing passages from the New Testament (at least) once a week for as long as I can remember, I don’t get first century Galilee.
Fine, but aren’t the episodes and teachings timeless? If you’ll labor with the text, won’t it come alive in some way very near to your own life? Sure it will, but that can seem an awful lot like cherry-picking. And that’s probably not quite fair, because one does not usually want to cherry-pick, but to understand the gospel as a complete work, as though one had walked with Jesus and experienced Him.
Anyway, we’re veering off the course. Stay focused, you.
If the text must be understood – at least to some extent – from the perspective of a 1st century reader, Barclay has translated the social and historical (con)text into 20th century language.
Isn’t this the 21st century? The man died in 1978, dude. What do you want?
Once he has done this – once it is like reading a biography of a near contemporary – then the timeless teachings and stories are all the more brilliant.
For example, Mark introduces us to John the Baptist in the early verses of chapter 1, and paints quite a vivid and brief picture of him: He is out in the wilderness, baptizing, eating locusts and honey.
Now, my initial reading of this (and lingering impression) is, “Locusts? Come on.”
Letting that sit with you how it may, Barclay expounds: Locusts may have been a kind of nut or bean, which was the food of the poorest of the poor. Honey could have been wild honey, or sap from a certain kind of tree.
I don’t know why, but that is comforting to me. The man might have been eating beans and honey, and I find it easier to imagine myself doing the same. Why should that matter?
Because I know, going into this, that John was called by Jesus “the greatest man ever born of a woman.” And yet he would be the least in Heaven. Was he great because he ate simple (possibly disgusting) food?
Barclay again: “Between the centre (sic) of Judaea and the Dead Sea lies one of the most terrible deserts in the world. It is a limestone desert; it looks warped and twisted; it shimmers in the haze of the heat; the rock is hot and blistering and sounds hollow to the feet as if there was some vast furnace underneath…In the Old Testament it is sometimes called Jeshimmon, which means The Devestation. John was no city-dweller. He was a man from the desert and from its solitudes and desolations. He was a man who had given himself a chance to hear the voice of God.”
This is pretty bleak. I shudder at the notion of a place called The Devestation.
And still, I am comforted – there is something profound about the desert (someone has pointed out that the three major theistic religions came out of the desert) which I admire and respect. It puts to shame the notion that salvation might be found by no greater a feat than eating bugs on Fear Factor.
Yet I can’t live like John, at least not right now.
“Can’t” is the wrong word. I don’t believe God is asking me to do that, which is nice for me and my family.
The transition to Jesus is brief and abrupt, and this is the almost ludicrous pace of Mark.
Jesus is baptized, “and immediately the Spirit thrust him into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, and all the time he was being tested by Satan. The wild beasts were his companions, and the angels were helping him.”
I’ll tell you what sticks for me: What must it be like to have an angel helping you?
Widening the scope, think how much could be written about this. We could have a feature length movie on those 40 days, or put together an encyclopedia which would categorize the temptations and offer strategies for overcoming them.
Mark is done in two verses. Barclay comments for four pages.
The material of these first verses, until verse 16, is pretty heady, no matter who is guiding you through the context. Beginning in that 16th verse, Mark, through Barclay, begins to answer that original question – What, exactly, does God want of me?