Hear the Gospel

This passage from Mark is taken from the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV. You can hear a recording of this passage here.

Reading the Gospel aloud invites the audience to experience human encounters with the divine as recounted in the Bible.  We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in as lay readers is the human experience.

The kingdom of God is as if …

In this reading, as in many others, Jesus speaks in parables. Parables seem to step in where technical descriptions fail. It may be impossible to describe the kingdom of God in any way other than a parable. Just as if you could offer a technical description of your back yard in a real estate listing, it would be nearly impossible to convey in the same technical terms the emotions that are awakened by memories of watching your children play in that yard, the sleep outs, the parties and cook outs you have held there for family and friends over the years, the careful landscaping you have done, the sweat and toil you have devoted to mowing, raking and trimming maintenance, the vegetable gardens you have planted, the wildlife you have observed and everything that your back yard has meant to you. You can only really offer, “It’s as if…”

So, the parable is not an objective technical description. It asks the listener to momentarily suspend normal intellectual cognition and disbelief and imagine something quite different, “as if…”

A parable is also dynamic. An “as if…,” is intended to invoke narrative and EXPERIENCE.  Like poetry, or a song, a parable captures not simply the factual and intellectual – neuroscience — explanation of an experience, but the emotion, if not physical sensation, of an experience.

I think parables also incorporate narratives because they are easier to remember than definitions and specifications. A parable is much more apt to go viral than a technical description. The listener is engaged and transformed.

And I love the fact that Jesus leaves the “explanations” to his disciples, almost as a side bar. Again, it suggests that experience is more important than explanation.


Text Analysis

There is a sense of wonder in these parables: “The earth produces of itself,” and “He does not know how.”

There is the dynamic of time at work…”sleep and rise day and night.”

The parables invoke mystery.  These are extended miracles of micro-creation. The circle of life, of planting and harvesting is a mystery. We do not know how, but the harvest comes.

The tiny mustard seed is magical.  Shakespeare names one of the charmed fairy handmaidens from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mustardseed.

The dynamics of change and transformation are captured in the parables. In the parable, the tiny hand sown mustard seed becomes the greatest of all shrubs.

The solemnity of service is offered by the mustard seed. Shakespeare’s Mustardseed offers a hand to Bottom.  The mustard seed of the parable “ puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

Mystery, transformation, and service are all concepts that can animate your reading.


Reading this passage aloud

This passage should be read as poetry; not as a technical description. The passage is less objective reporting about how Jesus told a parable – and for the record this is the parable he told — and more of an attempt to capture the spirit and presence of the kingdom of God in multiple parables for a listening audience.

These parables are intended to capture the imagination of the audience with the imagery of harvest and bounty. They are meant for all, “As they were able to hear”: not just listen or understand, but HEAR.

There is rhythm in the language. There is care in the planting of images and  a growing excitement as seeds are sown, live takes root and yields are realized.

There is revelation and awe.

Each parable should begin in the spirit of, “imagine this!” and then enjoy and exult in the lushness of the imagery.

Emily M.D. Scott is a Lutheran pastor who published a thoughtful article in the NYTs: The Bible’s #MeToo Problem, June 16, 2018.

The article recounts her own encounter with the story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob from the book of Genesis, as well as other “almost unreadable” acts of aggression and violence against women described elsewhere in the Bible. The article points out the fact that “…rarely are these stories told in our churches.”

Reverend Scott makes the case for these stories being heard and discussed. She does so clearly, unflinchingly, and with considerable empathy. I won’t attempt to summarize or restate her points. Please read her article.

But I do have questions related to the fact that these stories are rarely if ever read aloud in church.


Two necessary caveats

First, full disclosure. I know it may seem inappropriate if not reckless of me to venture into any discussion related to the #MeToo movement. I’m male and can only imagine.

Second, it’s always my intent to avoid politics (to the extent that it’s at all possible.) I’m less concerned with interpretation, meaning and political agendas than I am with the discovery, illumination and realization of human experience as revealed in the Bible. This article is not about the politics. It’s about the importance of reading scripture ALOUD.

With that said, please take what you can use from what follows and disregard the rest.


Why we must read aloud

Reverend Scott admits that she would not “…wish to have these stories read from the lectern as a simple matter of course (and they certainly should not be held up as Gospel).” I don’t reflexively disagree. But I have to ask. Can that be right?

If you begin with the first principle: it is necessary and good to read the Bible aloud. Then you also have to ask, is it only necessary and good to read some passages from the Bible aloud but not others?

I understand there are issues of audience maturity, emotional triggers, and cultural complexity, etc. when we engage in any public reading. But if we are bearing witness to lives presented in the Bible, aren’t these stories at least gospel with a small “g.” Are we not called upon to present all the evidence, even if it is painful to hear?


What we miss

The human events recounted in the Bible are not all anodyne. I don’t think they are intended to be and I don’t think we are supposed to avoid or ignore those events that are especially painful.

As Reverend Scott notes, Dinah’s experience is still very much a part of today’s human experience. Doesn’t this reinforce the idea that the Bible is not just ancient and mythic history? The Bible is immediate and relevant. To say, “Well, you have to understand the time in which they lived…” or “that was the way things were back then…” is to avoid encountering the often-stark realities of scripture that has agency right here and right now.

Words are important. Saw her, he seized her and lay with her by force are words describing unequal power and extreme violence. These are words whose destructive power is only fully revealed when spoken aloud.

This story and these words may be uncomfortable and even shocking to read out loud. That may be by design. These are words that force us, the reader and the listener, to encounter and confront difficult truths about ourselves and the world in which we live.

To borrow from Hamlet, these are stories that “hold a mirror up to nature” and should “give us pause.”  When the description of what happened to Dinah is read aloud, we should literally pause.


Where and when?

Whether or not these stories should be read aloud during the church service is a question best left to the Reverend. But if not in the setting of the service, then where and when? And surely these are not just stories for victims of #MeToo experiences to read and discuss among themselves and sympathetic others. These are words for all to hear.

If we avoid specific events depicted in the Bible that paint any of us in a particularly unfavorable light, is all relevance at risk — along with the ability to engage the interest and attention of new generations — when the “hard” parts of the Bible are skipped or glossed over for fear of alienating members of the current congregation?

Shouldn’t we give voice to the experience of Dinah through the public reading of scripture?  No one in the Bible should be avoided, ignored or forgotten.  All voices, including the silent ones, need to be heard.

This passage from the Gospel of Mark is found in the revised common lectionary provided by the Vanderbilt Divinity Library. The text is from the NRSV.

You can hear a recording of the reading here.

 Church Interior

“And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables…”


When reading the Gospels aloud, we invite the audience to encounter the human experience of the divine as recounted in the Gospels. We can leave interpretation and meaning to members of the clergy and other scholars. What we are most interested in is this experience.


In this reading, I think it’s clear that Jesus experiences the world in way that’s different from the way everyone else experiences the world. He behaves differently.  He touches and heals the sick, embraces those who’ve been marginalized, and challenges earthly authority with difficult questions.) He speaks differently (in parables) and reacts differently to the hostility. He responds to threats with invitations.

Jesus is often imagined and portrayed as beatifically disengaged. Unearthly. But in this reading, he’s clearly engaged. He invites everyone to see and experience the world in a new way; to see and recognize the power of the holy spirit at work in the world. He asks the scribes to think about what it is they are really saying – and the jeopardy they are placing themselves in — when they attempt to dismiss this power as the unclean work of demons.


Text Analysis

As readers, we begin with text analysis. Read the text aloud to yourself. We’re not attempting an exegesis of the text. We’re allowing ourselves, and inviting the audience, to hear and see through and beyond the printed words on a page to the events and experiences suggested by those words.  Here are some things that stand out to me:

  • In this reading there’s an obvious tension between the private life of Jesus, his family and the apostles, and the public. Initially, Jesus’ intimate relationship with his family and his newly appointed disciples stands in sharp contrast to the crowd. The crowd gathering outside seems restive, anxious, mistrustful and even threatening. His family is worried for him and protective. Their meal has been interrupted. They try to “restrain” him and rescue him from the crowd.


  • The crowd seems to be divided between those who accuse Jesus attempt to incite the crowd against him, and those who are ready to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen. It’s the crowed that seems to be divided against itself. Jesus doesn’t flee and seek the refuge of the home. Rather, he welcomes the crowd and calls them to him. Jesus is leaving the security of his nuclear family and friends and engaging directly with his larger family of man.


  • The crowd accuses Jesus three times of blasphemy and in doing so unwittingly commits blasphemy itself against the Holy Spirit:
  1. Jesus has gone out of his mind
  2. Jesus “has Beelzebul”
  3. Jesus has an unclean spirit

But Jesus doesn’t argue or counter sue. He calls them to him and speaks to them in parables.  He reminds them that all blasphemy can be forgiven but that it’s hard to receive and accept forgiveness for blasphemy against the Hold Spirit.

  • Jesus doesn’t engage in logical argument. He speaks in parables. How can this be the work demons? And who is my mother and brother and sister? Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” There is an emotional appeal in his words that reaches far beyond simple reason.

A reader is not offering an interpretation of the text. What the reader is looking for is subtext. The reader wants to get at what’s happening above, below, around and throughout the text. The words on the page are simply clues. The reader is attempting to fully realize the human experiences that are presented in the text; to recreate those same conditions here and now for the audience to experience.


Reading this passage aloud

This is a dynamic and emotionally charged encounter between Jesus, his family, his disciples, scribes (authorities) and the crowd. The temptation is to read passages from scripture as ritual; a dispassionate sequence of meaningful events.  But this passage is really the painting of one continuous and swelling scene where all the characters are in motion and everyone around Jesus is in emotional turmoil.

There are public voices and private voices. Calling out of and to the crowd is in a public voice. Accusations are sharp and hurled like stones. Familial voices are private voices. They are patient and caring.

The “house divided” passage may be one of the best political speeches ever conceived and delivered. It’s being addressed to the crowd in full voice for all to hear. So, take a deep breath and make this a teaching moment for all. Speak to the crowd. The crowd is agitated to start, things are moving quickly and a bit chaotically, but by the end of these few verses we find members of the crowd sitting attentively around him. The scene shifts from loud and rapid and swirling to more settled, peaceful and considerate. It’s a remarkable transformation in a short period of time from the very public to the intimate.

That his mother and brothers and sisters are asking for him, is deeply personal and intimate. There’s warmth and perhaps a touch of humor in his voice as he looks at those around him and responds that his family is right here. And those at his feet are asking for him too. What’s he to do?

Here is a moment of perfection. It’s not a rejection of his nuclear family, it’s the recognition and acknowledgement that we’re all his family. This is a private voice. We’re all right here, right now. There’s a wonderful sense of fulfillment. My family is gathered here around me. It’s disruptive – this redefinition and experience of family — and yet perfectly harmonious at the same time.

What started out as a fractious and dangerous and very public situation has become at least momentarily domestic and peaceful. That’s the trajectory and energy of the reading.

And when you read aloud to a congregation, you have an actual crowd right in front of you. So, take a deep breath and give them an experience they are waiting for.

Let’s assume you’ve been asked to be the Lay Reader (or a Worship Assistant who also reads from scripture) in church next Sunday. You’re going to be reading scripture aloud. That’s great. You may have done it before. But do you really know what you’re doing?


Waiting for the Gospel to be read out loud


We all have a superficial understanding of what’s about to happen and what the reader needs to do. At the appointed time in the Order of Worship, the reader will rise and face the congregation, often from the pulpit or behind a lectern, with Bible at hand and bookmark at the ready. The reader may adjust a mic, clear their throat, offer a few words of welcome and context, and then read the passage aloud trying not to make any mistakes. The reader often closes their short passage with “The word of God for the people of God.”  Or, “This is the word of the Lord.” Something indicating that what was just read is important and everyone should have been paying attention.

The reader then takes their seat or moves on to the next item in the Order of Worship. There. That’s what we’re doing!

Experienced professional actors develop a similar and somewhat jaded (and humorous) perspective on what it takes to be an actor. In order of importance:  speak your lines loudly, remember your blocking and don’t bump into the furniture.

Even these most trivial accounts of what it takes to perform a role on stage or in a worship service can seem daunting to the inexperienced and often more than they think they can handle. It really can seem that simple: remember when and where you are supposed to go and then start reading. But we know that to be truly effective and successful, performance requires more than simply not bumping into the furniture.

If we ask ourselves what it is we are being called to do, you have to begin by answering the question: what it is I am really doing when I read aloud. The answer is simple. Doing it requires some skill and practice, but just understanding what it is you are doing can be enormously clarifying and confidence building for the reader. It also puts the trivial actions described above in perspective. They really are trivial and not things you need to worry deeply about.


So, what are we really doing?

You’re going to be “reading aloud.” Reading aloud has two obvious components:

  1. Reading
  2. Aloud

The aloud part is performance. The assumption is that the reader is reading aloud to others who have, or may have, an interest in listening to what’s being read. Reading aloud assumes we are reading to a willing audience. That involves aspects of performance. Not performing. Performance.  More on this in future articles.

The reading part of reading aloud is what we will concentrate on here. Reading also has two core components:

  1. Reading the text
  2. Reading for sense

Preparing to read a text begins with a kind of technical analysis. It invites an objective deconstruction of the text and mindfulness of the nature and characteristics of the particular text you are going to read. It means pay attention to the language.

Is the reading mostly dialogue or exposition? Whose voices are these? Which word types are used most: names, nouns, verbs, adverbs or adjectives? Word choice is important. Are the words descriptive, technical or poetic?

You don’t have to be a trained literary critic to do this. Just be observant as you read. What words jump out at you? How do the words being used make you feel? Can the word be visualized?

The language was not chosen arbitrarily or randomly. It’s purposeful. It’s the medium and the key to unlocking the dynamics, experience and effect the text can have on the audience. This is reading the way you might read music: to understand the key signature, the chord progression, the musical notation of the text; all a necessary precursor to the making of beautiful and powerful music.

I like to do this first when I encounter a reading because I can be completely objective in my observations. I can say a word, listen to it, and let it affect me.  Consider the words “dream”, “sacrifice”, “slaughter”, “love…”  What imagery do they conjure in your mind?  How does the word dream, sound like a dream?


Making sense of the reading

Then read for sense. Reading for sense is not reading for meaning.  Sense is understanding…what’s going on here? Does that idea, word, phrase or action make sense in the context of the events described in this passage. Does what people are doing and saying and why they are doing and saying what they are saying and doing make sense? Making sense of something requires understanding what is going on, understanding the objectives of the persons in the narrative, bringing clarity, and digging into subtext: filling out the bigger picture. Unless the purpose is nonsense, only sensible readings allow the words as presented to paint common, vivid and detailed images in the minds of listeners.

When reading for sense it helps to put things in your own words. How would you say this?  Then, read it again. How does the Bible say what you just said?  Is it a deeper and richer way of saying the same thing?

This is how we begin to create an encounter with scripture and facilitate an encounter that includes an audience. This is how we can be a more effective catalyst for this encounter. This is how we begin to breathe life into a text in performance.  It’s the simple preparation we can all do.  It’s an act of devotion and service that all readers can provide.

Read the text. Read for sense. Then practice.

When asked what it is you are doing this Sunday, you can begin to say, with conviction and confidence, “I will be reading aloud.”