Because half of Mark’s gospel focuses on the last week of Jesus’ life, some scholars have referred to Mark as an expanded passion narrative. This week’s readings (chapters 11-15) take us from Sunday through Friday of the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.
Chapter 11 begins “when they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethpage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives….” As you are reading this week, I think it would be helpful to have some sense of where the events are taking place and how close they were to each other.
This is Race Week in Richmond. If you live far enough away from RIR, you may not even notice. But this weekend if you need to rent a car or a room, or if you have to travel out Laburnum Avenue, you will realize that a lot of visitors have traveled here. And if you drive near the racetrack you will see fields filled with RVs, as people “camp” close to the track.
Passover week in Jerusalem was like that (except for the car rental part). The city was crammed with visitors from all over the world. Every available room was rented out. Instead of staying in the city, Jesus and his followers stayed in Bethany the early days of the week, and Mark tells of them walking back and forth. On Thursday they camped on the Mount of Olives.
Until I visited Jerusalem, the distance between the temple and Jesus’ campsite hadn’t registered for me. Bethany was the hometown of Jesus’ friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It was about two miles from Bethany to the Temple. The Mount of Olives was about half a mile from the Temple. Maybe some pictures from our 1997 trip to Jerusalem will help.
The site of the Temple is marked by the golden dome on the right. The Mount of Olives is in the right center—the small dots are olive trees. This is what it looks like from above the Mount of Olives. An Arab merchant is peddling keffiyehs to Aaron and me (I think we bought both of them. I’m sure I’ve never worn mine). To the right you can see the Mount of Olives and a half mile beyond is the Temple site (which is now a mosque; the gold dome is called the Dome of the Rock, the oldest Islamic building in the world. It was constructed in 691-692 over the rock where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice Isaac). Here’s a closer look at the olive trees on the side of the hill. What must it have been like to sleep on this hard ground? And here is the Garden of Gethsemane, down the hill between the Mount of Olives and the city.
A key to reading scripture is to put yourself in the story. It helps to be able to see the places in our minds and to imagine that we are climbing up and down the half mile of dusty hillside and standing under the tall trees of Gethsemane, like Mark, watching the soldiers come to arrest Jesus.