The gospels are not shy in their portrayal of the way the disciple’s struggle to understand Christ’s potentially life-changing lessons. Part of this difficulty is due to the offensive nature of Christ’s message. In most gospels, it’s not difficult to understand how Christ offends the teachers of the law. Less clear is the way Christ offends his disciples. In the Gospel of Mark, we find evidence of at least two disciples, Peter and Judas, offended by Christ’s teaching. The offence takes place in the moments leading up to and following Christ’s arrest.
In Mark’s account, the start of this rising action is found a story the NIV titles, “The Widow’s Offering”. In Mark 12 verses 38-40, Jesus tells his disciples to “watch out for the teachers of the law… They devour widows’ houses”. He then instructs his disciples to observe a poor widow as she tithes her last two small copper coins. Speaking of the widow, Jesus says “she, out of her poverty, put in everything–all she had to live on” (Mk.12:44b). Many accounts of this episode praise its illustration of true faith and adoration. Although the widow’s action is admirable, Jesus doesn’t praise what he sees happening. Rather, as Nik Ansell points out, Jesus draws the disciples attention to this event as a way of illustrating the injustice of the temple system.* Those living in already desolate conditions are being compelled to tithe their daily bread. In the tradition of the apocalyptic prophets who preceded him, Jesus then gives a long monologue in which he warns the teachers of the law of their coming destruction. This monologue is book-ended by two stories, the first being the story of the widow and the second being the story of the unnamed woman with an alabaster jar. The unnamed woman anoints Jesus with oil. Like the widow, she gives a token of immense value in honour of her beliefs. This event offends all the disciples who express disgust at the woman’s seemingly wasteful and provocative actions. In response, Christ says something about the anointing that he does not say about the widow’s two coins; he calls the anointing a beautiful thing. In these two stories, Mark shows how the life of Christ directly opposes the temple system. Christ himself replaces the temple as the new dwelling place of God.
Interestingly enough it is after this episode in each gospel, the interaction between Christ and the unnamed woman, that Judas decides to stop following Christ. We can only speculate what Judas was thinking in this moment, but it seems clear that the interaction between these two provoke him to act. One could argue the case that Judas genuinely desired to help the poor, after all, in the Gospel of Mark it wasn’t simply Jesus’ condemnation of the temple system that provoked him. I believe Judas saw something that Peter and the other disciples had yet fully understood. What he understandings isn’t altogether clear to me. But it seems to be the case that he realised that Christ was calling his disciples to not only free the oppressed but identify with them by finding freedom and beauty in weakness. The woman’s gift is perhaps wastefully, unwisely, and maybe even risqué, but she is not coerced. Her actions display a kind of faith denied by the temple system and somehow enabled by Christ’s life. Although not exactly clear, this teaching offends; it goes against Judas’ preconceived ideas of what is right, just, and admirable. This offence touches on the heart of Christ’s message as he states that the unnamed women will be remembered so long as he is remembered (as an aside, like the foreigner and eunuch of Isaiah 56, the unnamed woman receives a name that will last through the ages). The parallel between Judas and Peter in the next scene, makes it seem plausible that it is the dawning of this offensive teaching that leads all the disciples to desert Christ on the day of his arrest.
The last supper takes place immediately after Christ’s anointing. During this scene, Mark makes it very clear that Christ knew his disciples had not yet grasped the full nature of his message. It is for this reason that he gives two predictions or warnings. First, Jesus says that one of his disciples will betray him. In response, each disciple takes a turn wondering if it is he. One of the only ways I can explain the reason Jesus sits down to enjoy a meal with a friend who he knows wants him dead, is because he believes his betrayer can still change. And so, rather than shunning Judas, Christ continues to teach through his example, sharing a meal with his enemy, calling him a friend, and demonstrating the radical nature of hospitality. Such an act begs the question, is there a setting at our tables for deniers and betrayers?
The second warning or prediction comes after the meal, when Christ tells his disciples that they will all fall away (Mk. 12.27). Mark records Peter’s protest, “Even if all fall away, I will not,” he says and all the disciples agreed that they would follow Christ to the death. Like his first warning to Judas, this second warning falls on deaf ears, as Peter too ends up denying Christ.
The last scene occurs in the garden of Gethsemane. It is here that Judas betrays Christ. At his approach, a disciple cuts off someone’s ear and Christ immediately condemns the violent encounter saying, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mk. 14.48). In Matthew, it is Peter who wields the sword and, in this case, Christ condemns the violence by calling Peter Satan. Interestingly enough, in John and Luke, it is Satan who enters Judas the moment he decides to betray Christ. Christ’s proclamation of non-violence results in his total abandonment in the garden. Even Peter, with seemingly no one left to follow, denies Christ three times, breaks down, and weeps.**
These events in Mark’s Gospel make two points that beg further exploration than can be offered here. First, a philosophical point about faith in revealed in the way faith requires a particular kind of offence: unless a teaching offends, one cannot have faith in it. If a teaching is rational and unquestionably right and if it appeals to our common understanding of what is just and good, then following such a teaching doesn’t require a leap of faith, it just makes sense, so to speak. Rather than taking the leap of faith, Judas and Peter do what they believe makes “sense”. Second, Mark’s recounting points to the way Christ’s teaching offends the violence found in both politics and religion. Christ exchanges the coerciveness of violence for the power and beauty of weakness. At this first sending of the apostles, the moment when they are forced to make a go of it on their own, both Peter and Judas struggle to understand and live Christ’s example.
*Nik Ansell makes this observation in, “Commentary: Mark 12:38-13:2.” In Third Way 20/4 (May 1997): 20.