A Poor Man Called Jesus. Reflections on the Gospel of Mark

Written by José Cárdenas Pallares Reviewed By Hans Kvalbein

This book is based on different Bible meditations, mainly given to Christian base communities in Mexico in 1978–80. They give the reflections of the author, a Roman Catholic parish priest and professor of biblical studies, on different texts from the Gospel of Mark. The headings of the seven chapters indicate the main concern of the author in applying the texts to the needs of Christians in the social and political situation in Latin America: 1. Jesus’ conflicts (Mk. 2:1–3:6). 2. Jesus’ power and strength (Miracles, Mk. 1:40–45; 3:20–30). 3. Jesus and the oppressed (Jesus and woman, Mk. 10:12; 12:41–44). 4. Confrontation with the powers (Jesus and wealth, Mk. 10:17–31; Jesus and power, Mk. 12:13–17). 5. The way of the cross (Mk. 14:26–15:20). 6. And they crucified him (Mk. 15:20–47). 7. The resurrection (Mk. 16:1–8).

The Bible expositions were given in a situation of strong tension between rich and poor, oppressors and oppressed. The picture of Jesus is painted in a corresponding way: Jesus is the great liberator, a poor man who identifies fully with the struggle of the oppressed against the established order. The book is an interesting example of the use of the Bible in liberation theology. Mark’s good news is summarized in the following way:

This poor one called Jesus, hungering for bread and justice, passionately devoted to the oppressed, opposed to every sort of domination, free of all partisan interests, rejected by the great ones of the earth and their retainers to the point of being reduced to offal and malediction, is the very one who reveals the God of liberation to us (p. 113).

The bibliography and many references to the scholarly debate on historical and exegetical issues give convincing proof of the author’s knowledge of biblical research. At the same time this book is a challenge to the tendency of biblical scholars in the West to study the Bible in their academic ivory towers without contact with the real problems of poor people in their struggle to survive and to retain human dignity. This challenge from liberation theology has to be taken seriously. The study of the Bible has not reached its ultimate goal until it has changed the life of the student and his neighbours. And the Bible is not neutral or irrelevant in situations where individuals or groups are exploited or deprived of their basic human rights.

But Pallares’ integration of exegesis and application to a Latin American situation seems to me to result in a biased and oversimplified picture of Jesus and his time. Many of his main theses are unclear or doubtful. In what sense is Jesus a poor person? He is never called poor in the gospels, and it is misleading to use this word to link him to a modern concept of class struggle. It is an oversimplification to say that the first Christians ‘fell under cruel attack from the imperial might’ (p. 2). That is a later development. Their first antagonists were the synagogue leaders, later on parts of the local populations, but until Mark’s time scarcely the imperial might. Pallares offers an exposition of the meaning of the cross which at best is imbalanced. In Mark the death of Jesus is not primarily an act of divine identification with the poor and suppressed. It is a ‘ransom for many’ (10:45), to relieve from sin rather than from oppression.

The over-simple painting of Jesus in the frame of a class struggle has also the effect of giving a very negative picture of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries. I’m not convinced that, e.g., the Pharisees were that kind of selfish opportunists in opposition to the suffering poor with whom Jesus identified.

But even if much of the material Pallares interprets has to be applied differently by an exegesis committed to the historical meaning of the texts, the Bible has a lot of texts representing a direct and serious challenge to our contemporary situation of world-wide inequality, injustice and indifference.

Hans Kvalbein