Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, May 13, 2013

BIBLE: The Gospel of Mark (The Apostles)

And he taught them many things by parables… Gospel of Mark 4:2

Here’s a Great Books question. Would Jesus have chosen Hamlet to be one of his original twelve followers? It’s risky to guess what Jesus might or might not have done. But if we had to guess, the answer would be no. It’s true that Hamlet was a man and all twelve Apostles were men. However, they were all Jewish men and Hamlet wasn’t Jewish. Furthermore, Hamlet was a prince and the first Apostles weren’t exactly drawn from the upper crust of society. These reasons alone would have disqualified Hamlet from consideration. But even if he had been born a poor Jewish fisherman (like Simon Peter), Hamlet still would not have made the cut. Why not? Because Jesus had one clear mission. To proclaim the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. It’s a simple message and he needed simple messengers to deliver it. Hamlet wasn’t simple; he was basically a philosopher. And Jesus wasn’t looking for philosophers. He needed folks who would believe the gospel and pass it on to others. Hamlet would probably have responded “to believe or not to believe, that is the question.” A questioning mind is a good quality for a philosopher. Not so much for an Apostle.

What Jesus needed was a small group of men willing to spend time with him learning about the kingdom of God. Then they themselves would go out and preach this message to others. They would also have power to heal the sick and (get ready for this) cast out devils. This is a tall order. How did Jesus go about teaching simple men to do these things? By the same method he apparently used to teach large crowds. He taught by parables. What’s a parable? A parable is basically a short story which teaches a lesson. It’s kind of like the stories we find in Aesop’s Fables; except fables use animals and parables use human characters. It’s interesting that Jesus used this method. He didn’t write a book or use a twelve-step plan or develop an eightfold path. He told stories. And maybe that’s the best way to teach people who aren’t so smart. But it also may turn out to be the best way to teach budding philosophers too. In the Great Books tradition Western philosophy begins with Plato. And Plato used the dialogue format, which is essentially a kind of short story. Then for more than two thousand years Western philosophy relied almost entirely on non-fiction methods. These were written as instruction manuals for the mind. They were intended to appeal to the rational sphere. Only in recent times have philosophers gone back to using stories again. Friedrich Nietzsche and Soren Kierkegaard are examples of using a story-method that appeals to the imagination. But one of the dangers of using parables is that people just won’t get it. In this week’s reading, for example, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer who went out to sew seed. Some of the ground is good and some of it isn’t. Even Jesus’ hand-picked followers don’t understand what he’s talking about. And if they can’t understand simple parables like this one, how are they possibly going to understand what the kingdom of God is like? And this brings us back to Hamlet.

Maybe Jesus chose these Apostles precisely because of their simplicity. They simply would not give up. Eleven of them followed Jesus to the end. When faced with Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” question, all except Judas Iscariot chose “to be” as the correct response. Everybody makes mistakes. But here’s the difference. When Peter messed up, he came back. He repented; Judas didn’t. Judas carried the same vision as Hamlet: the world’s a dark place and the kingdom of God seems far away. The Apostles vision is different: repent ye, and believe the gospel.


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