Breaking the Fourth Wall

When you read scripture, do any of the characters ever look directly into the camera? I was discussing this phenomenon with a friend once, and he told me the theater term for this is “breaking the fourth wall.”

New Oxford American Dictionary
New Oxford American Dictionary

Mark 14:41 is a perfect example. Here, Jesus and the disciples are in the garden. He has come for the third time and found them sleeping. Jesus is standing over three of his friends as they sleep, and no one else is in the scene.

This time, instead of encouraging them to watch and pray, Jesus says, “Sleep on, and rest. It’s fine.” I imagine him looking down at the disciples because though they are sleeping he is clearly speaking to them. In the next sentence, however, he starts to look up, directly into the camera.

The transition happens as he says, “The hour has come,” and by the next word he is staring directly into your eyes. “Look,” he says, “the son of man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.” Who else would he be talking to but the reader?

Sure, he could still be looking at the sleeping disciples, but do you really say “look” to sleeping people? It is your attention, no one else’s in the scene, that ἰδού is intended to grab. (That is the word I’m translating “look,” traditionally rendered behold.) If that word is intended by the author to grab your attention, then why wouldn’t you imagine the character who is saying it to be looking at you, the reader?

In the next sentence, Jesus turns back to the disciples and says, “Get up. Let’s go. The one betraying me is here.” For one brief moment in the garden, however, Jesus breaks the fourth wall. With heavy eyes and a heavy heart, no doubt, he invites you the reader to look and watch.

Jesus and Sadness

When you think of Jesus, just how human is he? I’ve been posting on this theme lately because I’ve been thinking about it for years, and for whatever reason, during this spring break, these little snippets are just overflowing. This morning it’s Mark 14:17–25 that I think poses a nice challenge.

As Jesus sits with his closest friends, having already told them multiple times he is about to suffer and be killed, he breaks the news that one of them is going to hand him over. What’s the tone of the conversation? Yes, of course, you see all the disciples scrambling in bewilderment, each of them asking, “Me? Is it me?”

But look up at Jesus’ face. What do you see? We’ve been in this literary world how many times in our life? Have you looked at his face?

I think we often see him looking down, eating, sitting up straight, sort of stone faced, chin up. If we were to caption this perception of him, it might say, “I know what one of you is about to do. I know.” Stern voice, resignation, laying down the truth.

That can’t be all of it. Surely he is sad. Surely he struggles to say these words. Do you think Gethsemane is the only time he felt grief and sadness and loneliness? Stoic, truth-telling philosopher all his adult life then goes straight to grieving like a madman in the garden — that can’t be it, can it?

He was despised and rejected by people — a man of suffering, familiar with sickness. (Is 53:3)

He repeats himself in various ways as he breaks the news. As his friends are in disbelief and probably again thinking what he is saying can’t be right — they always think he is off base — he says, “One of the twelve.” That had to sting. One of the twelve that he called out and lived with for so long. Then speaking more directly to the moment, “One who is eating with me.”

How could he say those words with dry eyes or without a stutter or mumble or sigh? He sees the faces of those he knows will miss him more than any others. He knows the pain they are about to experience. Don’t you fear the pain that others will experience when you are gone? Didn’t he feel that?

Then there is verse 22. Imagine: He knows what’s coming. He picks up the bread, with his friend who will betray him in the room, and he breaks it. He breaks the bread. Doesn’t he know that symbolizes his body? Isn’t he the one that told us that? He broke it. Don’t you think his emotions were stirred?

He had to be made like them, fully human in every way. (Heb 3:17, NIV)

Do the gospel authors have to tell us every time he feels sadness for us to go there? Isn’t it enough that they told us he was born to Mary? Isn’t it enough that Hebrews says he was like us, fully human in every way? Isn’t that warrant for imagining his eyes and voice showed the same emotions you experience?

After he broke it he gave thanks. Have you worshipped genuinely in the midst of grief and sadness? I imagine that little table blessing was marked by pain. He picked up the cup that he knew was a symbol of his blood. Don’t you think he feared the lashes and the nails and the suffering? He will struggle to breathe.

How can “one of you will betray me” not be marked by grief and sadness and loneliness? How you imagine his face and his voice matters a whole lot. We are in a season where we need to know that he is familiar with sickness and sadness, loneliness and pain.

Fire in His Eyes

If you were to look into Jesus’ eyes in Mark 12, I imagine you would describe them like John did in Revelation 1 — as a flame of fire. Has a more subversive, weighty little story ever been told than what you hear at the beginning of Mark 12? It’s certainly on the level of Nathan’s “you are the man.” This is the story of the vineyard entrusted to farmers, who in the end killed all the owner’s servants and even killed his son in hopes of gaining the inheritance for themselves.

Here in chapter twelve, it’s like the undercurrent of furor that was boiling in Mark 3 spills over. There, early in the book, Jesus was brimming with anger because his opponents were more interested in playing legal games than showing compassion to those suffering. Here, however, he doesn’t hold his tongue. As chapter eleven comes to a close and prefaces Jesus’ story, I imagine him stepping up to the mic like Apollo:

Down from the peaks of Olympos he hastened, enraged at heart, carrying on his shoulders his bow and lidded quiver, arrows rattling loud on his shoulders as in his rage he strode on his way: he came as nightfall comes. (Iliad translated by Peter Green, 2015, p. 26)

Jesus is calm and composed as he tells the story. That composure mixed with the ferocity of the words is why I think in this moment Jesus’ eyes looked just as deep and fiery and filled with life and power as what John saw.

As he draws the story to a close and explicitly says that the lord (ὁ κύριος) will destroy the abusive farmers, he makes his own literary reference.

Haven’t you read this scripture? The stone the builders rejected, this one became the cornerstone. This was from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes.

There’s the twinkle. The last clause. Can’t you see it? As he utters the syllables ἔστιν θαυμαστὴ ἐν ὀφθαλμοῖς ἡμῶν, don’t you know his face lit up with a smile? One of those I got you smiles that is resigned to whatever hostile reaction it might ignite. Despite all the misunderstanding up to this point, they got it this time: “They knew he told the parable about them.” The arrows sliced through their targets.

He said it was marvelous. Maybe the mention of wonder and marvel, as Jesus leans into his coming suffering, is related to the wonder and fear his followers felt on the road as they headed to Jerusalem (Mark 10:32). Things are changing, it’s from the Lord, but it’s scary and confusing and amazing. Hardly anyone knows what to think except the one who walked ahead.

Imagining the Dead Passages

Sometimes it’s the dead passages that draw you in and pique your curiosity — passages where there is no seemingly significant action. I’ll try to describe what I mean with two examples that I couldn’t help but visualize and imagine how the scene might look and feel.

Mark 10:32

What in the world is happening in this verse? Jesus has just finished some particularly hard teaching, but reading this verse still felt like a jolt.

Ἦσαν δὲ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ ἀναβαίνοντες εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα, καὶ ἦν προάγων αὐτοὺς ὁ Ἰησοῦς, καὶ ἐθαμβοῦντο· οἱ δὲ ἀκολουθοῦντες ἐφοβοῦντο.Now, they were on the road going up to Jerusalem. Jesus was walking ahead of them, and they were amazed. And those who were following were afraid.

I don’t see a direct connection to what happens before this verse and the state of consternation and fear in those who watch Jesus walking along ahead of them. I guess they are watching him. I visualize the passage through the eyes of those following behind, looking at Jesus and feeling fear and wonder. I don’t see a particularly strong connection to what follows either.

To me, 10:32 seems like a somewhat random verse. In another sense, however, it captures what I sense as a strange mood of confusion and disorientation present in the middle of Mark. I mentioned this mood on Twitter and towards the end of the previous post.

What does he look like as he walks up ahead? Is he frustrated or sad? What are those around you whispering as they articulate their fear and amazement?

Mark 11:11–12

This seems like a classic calm before the bar fight movie scene. He enters the place where the confrontation will happen. He looks around, and you think it might happen. But he leaves, and we wait for tomorrow.

Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα εἰς τὸ ἱερόν, καὶ περιβλεψάμενος πάντα, ὀψίας ἤδη οὔσης τῆς ὥρας, ἐξῆλθεν εἰς Βηθανίαν μετὰ τῶν δώδεκα. Καὶ τῇ ἐπαύριον …And he went into Jerusalem, into the temple, and having looked around at everything, because the hour was late, he went out into Bethany with the twelve. And on the next day …

What did he do that evening? After he checked out the place, what was his demeanor like, and what were the conversation like with his friend around the fire? How early did he go to bed? Did he stare up at the sky that night? Was he rehearsing exactly what he would say and do in the temple the next day?

The next day he went into the temple and turned the place upside down. There is a really interesting point in that scene where he wouldn’t let anyone carry anything through the temple, but that is another story for another post. It’s not exactly a dead passage.

Jesus and Disappointment

“He was wanting to, but …” This refrain stands out to me as I read through Mark. I want to walk you through a few passages and make a simple point alluded to in the title. You see it clearly in Mark 6:48 and 7:24.

Mark 6:48 and 7:24

περὶ τετάρτην φυλακὴν τῆς νυκτὸς ἔρχεται πρὸς αὐτοὺς περιπατῶν ἐπὶ τῆς θαλάσσης καὶ ἤθελεν παρελθεῖν αὐτούς. Οἱ δὲ ἰδόντες αὐτὸν …About the fourth watch of the night, he came to them walking on the sea. He was wanting to pass by them, but when they saw him …
Ἐκεῖθεν δὲ ἀναστὰς ἀπῆλθεν εἰς τὰ ὅρια Τύρου καὶ Σιδῶνος. καὶ εἰσελθὼν εἰς οἰκίαν οὐδένα ἤθελεν γνῶναι καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνήθη λαθεῖν.Getting up from there he went away into the regions of Tyre and Sidon. And when he entered a house, he was not wanting anyone to know where he was. He wasn’t able to be hidden.

These verses don’t say that Jesus was very upset by wanting one thing and experiencing another. They don’t say he wasn’t either. Maybe they stand out to me because earlier in Mark I was thinking 3:12 had a similar vibe.

Mark 3:12

καὶ πολλὰ ἐπετίμα αὐτοῖς ἵνα μὴ αὐτὸν φανερὸν ποιήσωσιν.And he would often fuss at them to not make him known.
OR
And he was fussing and fussing at them to not make him known.

At first, I read πολλὰ ἐπετίμα as “he would often fuss at them.” This caused me to reflect on on how Jesus knew what it was like to have to say something over and over and not be listened to. 5:10, however, makes me think πολλά ἐπετίμα might rather be intended to communicate something like “with a lot of words” or “fuss and fuss.” In 5:10, the demon begs Jesus πολλά.

καὶ παρεκάλει αὐτὸν πολλὰ ἵνα μὴ αὐτοὺς ἀποστείλῃ ἔξω τῆς χώρας.And it was begging and begging him not to send them out of the region.

Here, πολλά can’t mean often; it is a description of the demon’s speech in that moment. Mark seems to use πολλά frequently to describe someone speaking at length. Swete was helpful in pointing out other uses in Mark.

Πολλὰ ἐπετίμα, Vg. vehementer comminabatur: πολλά as an adverb is characteristic of Mc., cf. 5:10, 5:23, 5:43, 9:26. Mt. has the less vivid ἐπετίμησεν αὐτοῖς: Lc. omits the circumstance. (Henry Barclay Swete, The Gospel According to Mark. Classic Commentaries on Greek New Testament, [Macmillain & Co., 1913]. Archive.org; Logos)

So, 3:12 could mean Jesus “would fuss often” and be describing Jesus’ many encounters with demons and how he had to over and over command them not to reveal his Identity. Or, more likely, it describes how Jesus, on that occasion, fussed at length for that demon to keep its mouth shut.

Either way you read 3:12, it fits with the idea I’m pointing out in 6:48 and 7:24. Jesus could have shut the demons’ mouths with a word, like he calmed the sea, but he didn’t. Or perhaps we should say he wasn’t permitted to. In the words of Hebrews, and to tip my hand to the conclusion, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

One more passage.

Mark 7:18

This portion of Mark is so interesting and mysterious. Jesus and the disciples are overworked and too busy, and it’s like Jesus is in a sort of twilight zone. Similar situations repeat like a biblical Groundhog Day, and he is surrounded by people that do not understand him. Those with whom he is closest come to him and show that they don’t get it either. His response is striking:

καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀσύνετοι ἐστέ;And he said to them, “Do even y’all not get it?!”

I understand that in this passage Jesus is pushing his disciples to deeper understanding. I know the force of the statement is a rebuke. What I’m interested in, however, is the tone of the words. It can be both a rebuke and an expression of disappointment and frustration. In these words, I hear a clear tone of sadness, loneliness, and frustration. He is working hard physically and mentally, he is emotionally taxed, and he is misunderstood despite repeated explanations. How can he be fully human and those experiences not lead him to frustration and disappointment?

Conclusion

These passages shows that Jesus knows what it is like to want one thing and experience the frustration and disappointment of getting another. It is a simple observation, but it’s one that means a lot to me.

When Jesus Gets Mad

The first part of Mark 3 is one of my favorite passages in the Gospels.

Mark 3:1–6

Καὶ εἰσῆλθεν πάλιν εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν. καὶ ἦν ἐκεῖ ἄνθρωπος ἐξηραμμένην ἔχων τὴν χεῖρα. καὶ παρετήρουν αὐτὸν εἰ τοῖς σάββασιν θεραπεύσει αὐτόν, ἵνα κατηγορήσωσιν αὐτοῦ.He entered again into the synagogue, and there was a man with a crippled hand there. They were watching Jesus to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath so that they might bring charges against him.
καὶ λέγει τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ τῷ τὴν ξηρὰν χεῖρα ἔχοντι· ἔγειρε εἰς τὸ μέσον. καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς· ἔξεστιν τοῖς σάββασιν ἀγαθὸν ποιῆσαι ἢ κακοποιῆσαι, ψυχὴν σῶσαι ἢ ἀποκτεῖναι; οἱ δὲ ἐσιώπων.Jesus said to the man who had the crippled hand, “Stand in the middle of us.” And he said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save a life or to take one?” And they were silent.
καὶ περιβλεψάμενος αὐτοὺς μετ᾿ ὀργῆς, συλλυπούμενος ἐπὶ τῇ πωρώσει τῆς καρδίας αὐτῶν λέγει τῷ ἀνθρώπῳ· ἔκτεινον τὴν χεῖρα. καὶ ἐξέτεινεν καὶ ἀπεκατεστάθη ἡ χεὶρ αὐτοῦ.When he had looked around at them with anger and was frustrated at the hardness of their hearts, he said to the man, “Hold out your hand.” And he was holding out his hand, and it was like new!
Καὶ ἐξελθόντες οἱ Φαρισαῖοι εὐθὺς μετὰ τῶν Ἡρῳδιανῶν συμβούλιον ἐδίδουν κατ᾿ αὐτοῦ ὅπως αὐτὸν ἀπολέσωσιν.When the Pharisees left, they immediately, with the Herodians, put together a plan against Jesus in order that they might eliminate him.

Two Subordinate Clauses

The religious leaders think they have him. What’s he going to do? Jesus leans in and speaks directly to the issue, but they won’t say a word. The tension is thick. There are versions of the same story in Matt 12:9–14 and Luke 6:6–11, but Mark adds a detail that arrests my attention.

As Jesus turns from their silence to the crippled man, Mark prefaces Jesus’ words with two subordinate clauses. In the bold words above, you see Jesus look around the room, from one person to the next, with anger. What might his face look like in this moment? Why is he so mad? What kind of people would be in a room where Jesus looks around with anger?

With Whom?

These aren’t people who know they are weak and want help. When Jesus gets angry, it’s with people who think showing compassion is a threat. Throughout the Gospels Jesus calls out sexual immorality and speaks very clearly about all sorts of moral issues. When the Gospel writers say he is mad, however, it is because people withhold love and grace from those who are broken and know they need help.

The best thing here is that Mark’s little addition (μετ᾿ ὀργῆς) highlights something about Jesus. If Jesus himself isn’t compassionate, his reaction doesn’t make sense, does it?

Two Ways in Matt 5:13–16

If Matthew 5:13 says that disciples are salt and this means that because they have encountered Jesus and been fundamentally changed they are worthless to the world, what does Matthew 5:14–16 mean?

In Matthew 5:14–16, disciples are called light, and they are called to let that light shine so that people will glorify God. Verses 14–16 seem to imply that some people will in fact receive the disciples well and glorify God because of them.

You could then read Matthew 5:13–16 as a sort of two-ways text. The four verses would serve as an explanation and final consolation following on the heels of the beatitudes.

The beatitudes end with a difficult to receive promise of suffering for disciples. Verses 13–16, then, explain that it isn’t all bad. Jesus’ disciples will, quite naturally, be trampled by some people (ὑπὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων, v.13). Disciples should, nevertheless, let their light shine before people (ἔμπροσθεν τῶν ἀνθρώπων, v. 16) because some will receive them well and glorify God. The verses are tied together by the fact that they both concern how people (ἄνθρωποι) receive Jesus’ disciples.

There are two ways: One leads to death (5:13). Many walk this path, and their footsteps echo the sounds of the martyrs crying out, “How long?!” The other way leads to life (5:14–16). Few walk this path, but if you get close enough to it you hear the songs of the saints singing the praises of the Father, Son, and Spirit.

Saltiness as Worldliness – Matt 5:13 again

A few years ago, I wrote a post about reading Matthew 5:13 a little differently. Well, today I’m reading it the same way, and I just wanted to note that again.

Perhaps the whole preservation quality of salt has distracted us from the point of this verse. Perhaps Jesus employs a salt metaphor not because salt preserves, which of course it does, but because it provides a clear example of something that can lose its natural qualities (worldliness) and then serve a less honorable purpose (trampling).

So, perhaps Jesus is saying disciples are salt because they have lost their worldliness and are now objects of trampling only. To me, this makes the transition from 11–12 to 13 make more sense. In the next post, I want to try to explain how this flows into the next three verses.

Among Anxious Friends Who Fail

A translation and comment on Mark 8:14–21:

They forgot to bring bread. Except for one loaf, they didn’t have any bread with them in the boat.

Jesus began to warn them, “Be careful. Watch out for the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.”

They began to talk with one another about how they didn’t have any bread.

When Jesus realized this, he said to them, “Why are you talking about how you don’t have any bread? Do you not yet understand? Don’t you get it? Do your hearts not work? You have eyes, but do they not see? You have ears, but do they not hear? Don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves into five thousand, how many baskets full of left-overs did you pick up?

“Twelve.”

“When the seven loaves became four thousand, how many baskets full of left-overs did you pick up?”

“Seven.”

“Do you not yet get it?”

They could not hear what Jesus was saying because their minds were swirling with anxiety. They failed to bring bread. Jesus was speaking to them, but they had messed up in an everyday sort of way. The problems of the day caused them to hear Jesus’ words in a way that ratcheted up their anxiety instead of turning it down. Quite a normal, human experience.

Jesus realized what was happening and addressed them with a series of questions. The way you hear this series of questions depends on how you personally relate to Jesus. Is he understanding and sympathetic? Or does he point out your faults and walk away? When verse 17 says Jesus became aware of their mistakes, at that moment in the story you assume something about Jesus. His awareness is accompanied by either sympathy or disgust. In the previous paragraph, Jesus was said to inwardly groan at the Pharisees’ unbelief. Is that the way he relates to his friends?

All Jesus’ questions are intended to communicate that when you are with him, you will be taken care of. You are safe. He will provide even when you mess up. I don’t think he could communicate this if his tone were filled with scorn.

Jesus wanted to talk about the kingdom, his mission and their hearts. They were blinded by the problems of daily life, in this case food. They didn’t need to be told that they are stupid. They needed to be told they are taken care of, and that’s exactly what Jesus said. We are free to pursue the “impractical” because we are worth much more than sparrows.

Jesus is Determined or He’s Sympathetic

That’s the choices in my mind. Granted, he’s both in the big picture of who Jesus is, but when it comes to how you read the Greek of Matthew 26:50, which character trait is more prominent? Here’s the text of verses 49–50; the key phrase is in bold:

καὶ εὐθέως προσελθὼν τῷ Ἰησοῦ εἶπεν· χαῖρε, ῥαββί, καὶ κατεφίλησεν αὐτόν. 50 ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς εἶπεν αὐτῷ· ἑταῖρε, ἐφ᾿ ὃ πάρει. τότε προσελθόντες ἐπέβαλον τὰς χεῖρας ἐπὶ τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ ἐκράτησαν αὐτόν.

Judas approaches Jesus, he greets him, kisses him, and he says either (1) “Friend, do that for which you are here,” or (2) “Friend, why are you here?”

If you think of Jesus in this moment as resolute and determined to drink his cup of suffering, you might read it as “Do that for which you are here.” I, however, because of my default way of thinking of Jesus like to read it, “Friend, why are you here?” The language could go either way, and that is why the translations almost always offer both options. They print the “determined-Jesus” reading in the text and usually offer the “sympathetic-Jesus” reading in the footnotes.

I imagine Jesus in this moment broken at the sight of his close friend being caught up in the destructive pattern he is living out. I imagine the scene with the camera zoomed in on Jesus’s face. His eyes are heavy and tired and perhaps tearing up. Face to face, he looks into Judas’s eyes and with one last attempt to disciple him he speaks to Judas’s confusion, “Friend, why are you here?”

I’ve always read it this way. I’ve never done any extensive study of the phrase in contemporary literature. I just think the sympathetic reading makes the most sense. I think the Gospels portray Jesus as one who bears with and is a friend of sinners, one who meets them in their moments of weakness, and because of that my primary reading is the translations’ alternate reading. I read this line as one of the most emotion filled, tense, dramatic moments in Matthew. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking.