Sunday, April 11, 2010

What's Elijah doing in Mark's Gospel?

HIS LAST WORDS ARE MISUNDERSTOOD. Mark tells us that the crowds who hear Jesus famous cry of desolation (Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani) mistake him to be invoking of Elijah to save him. Mark knows this wont happen and advances to immediately report Jesus' final cry and his death. In account that's so condensed as Mark is, it's always seemed a bit strange to me that this detail included - why not cut it out? We've had plenty of misunderstandings before and this could just be another one of those...

I'm pondering this because I'm repreparing Mark 15:33-40 to preach in May. I can't see myself giving much time to the cry or Elijah - I'll probably just focus on the cloud (darkness) and the curtain... but for now Elijah is standing in the middle and he's got my attention.

The cry is important because it shows again the relationship of the Father and Son (having twice seen how the Father is pleased with his beloved son - in Mark 1 & 9). The cry is also curious because it's another Aramaic phrase translated - like Talitha cumi in 5:41. But instead of being understood, the cry is misheard...

And so to Elijah... this is the fourth time we've heard about him in Mark.
  • In Mark 6:14-15, with Herod, when some think Jesus is John the Baptist resurrected others think he is Elijah.
  • In Mark 8:28 when Peter is asked who Jesus is he again reports, some say he is Elijah, though Peter considers him the Christ. Still today Jesus is mistaken for being a prophet (a generic prophet given our Biblical illiteracy).though he is evidently The Son and The Christ.
  • Then in Mark 9 at the transfiguration we get definitive proof that Jesus isn't Elijah because we see him talking with Moses and Elijah. The disciples ask why people say Elijah must come first and Jesus says that it's because he restores all things. And that he has come (i.e. John the Baptist was a type of Elijah). And that the Son of Man must suffer - and "Elijah" came and they did to him whatever was pleased 'as it is written' - i.e. they killed him. Elijah couldn't save himself, Elijah can't save Jesus from death, Jesus can't save himself - he must die.
In a short book like Mark that's quite a bit of screen time for the prophet Elijah. Why is that?
I'm still pondering, your comments are welcome.