Mark begins the gospel with two quotes; which feels very modern, I think.
Quotes are everywhere these days. People put quotations on their social media profiles, on pinterest, on wall hangings, at the beginning of books.
I was at a pizza restaurant the other day and instead of a menu on the wall, there were dozens of quotes all about generosity, giving and daring. The quotes made me curious – what did the pizza guy want me to know? What did it tell me about him (or her) and the pizza business they were running? I got the distinct impression that this pizza place donated to charity, and that it was started by someone who felt they were taking a risk.
Quotes pack a double punch. The words of a quote tell you what’s important to me. But a quote also tells you where I am coming from. Whether I quote MLK, Tupac or Guy Fieri, I am associating myself with their tradition. It’s almost a kind of commitment; “Hold me to their standard.”
Let’s say I begin an essay with a quote from MLK; “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I am telling you that I am thoughtful and concerned about injustice. But I am also telling you that I am speaking from the tradition of MLK. I’m telling you where I am coming from.
Perhaps that’s why people often attribute quotes to famous people, even if it’s not true. Quotes are really powerful when they locate you in an ethical tradition.
This is even more true for the authors of the New Testament. They and most of their readers knew the Hebrew Scriptures really well. So when they quoted a Hebrew prophet or a psalm, it brought to mind the whole context.
So, what is the gospel of Mark doing with its two quotes? Why does Mark begin by pinning these two quotes on his wall?
Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way.
The voice of one calling in the wilderness ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’, make his paths straight’.
Both these quotes are from Hebrew prophets, one from Malachi and one from Isaiah. (Mark only says these quotes are from Isaiah, maybe because Isaiah as the tradition he is drawing most deeply from.)
The Malachi quote in full is from chapter 3:1-2
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap.
Malachi was focused on institutional and religious change. Malachi told people to watch out, because God might show up at the temple anytime. You might think that is a good thing, but when God comes to the temple, all the hypocrisy and religious posturing will be exposed. The day when God comes to the temple will be more like a fierce fire or hard scrubbing with soap. It won’t be nice.
Isaiah had his sights a little bit wider. He saw transformation at a social and political level. The image he used was mountains being torn down and valleys being lifted up, making the world a smooth highway for God’s arrival. His full quote is from Isaiah 40:3-5:
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
When Isaiah talked about geographical rearrangement he was saying that all the permanent features of our world – governments, empires, prejudices, structures and philosophies – all that is being turned upside down.
The tradition of both these prophets is a tradition of radical change. The coming of Jesus means radical change. If you feel ‘well-integrated in this world as it is’ then the gospel means you will be unsettled. If you don’t feel comfortable in this world, then the gospel is going to make
A famous person put it this way –
“I never intend to become adjusted to the tragic inequalities of the economic system which will take necessity from the masses to give luxury to the classes; I never intend to become adjusted to the insanity of militarism, the self-defeating method of physical violence. There are some things that I never intend to become adjusted to, and I call upon you to continue to be maladjusted.”
That’s Martin Luther King Jr. See what I did there?
That’s what Mark’s opening quotes from Malachi and Isaiah mean – change is coming. How this change will actually come about is another question. But Mark couldn’t make the point any clearer. Who we quote matters – and Mark chose to quote from some of the most radical authors he knew. We must read the gospel of Mark with those quotes in mind.