The Beginnings of Things (from the Gospel of Mark)
What follows is a naïve reading of another
book in the Jesusian Cycle, the Gospel of Mark, seen as supplementing
the narrative already outlined. I treat the Gospels first and foremost
as literature because that is what they are: literature is anything written
down. As literature, the style of the Gospels is episodic. Scenes follow
one another without transition or obvious connection. Indeed, the style
conspires to make you forget the scene just past, so that reading them
can be a very "ADD" experience. Does that make them bad literature?
The textual critic tribe says they are composites of composites; but that
begs the question, for there is still a final hand, and cannot a composite
also be a composition, an artistic whole? Whatever the textual prehistory,
we still have to come back to the final product as a work of literature.
So if we want get beyond the "ADD" experience, we must try holding
in our mind sequences of seemingly disparate scenes and see if we can
discover the connections and supply the transitions. In this task scholarship,
which views the text from the outside, can be a help, but only a help.
The primary effort comes from a different place, from the will that enters
the story with empathy, making the story want to give itself.
After being baptized and proclaimed by the desert-saint,
King Jesus declines to lead an uprising. Instead he withdraws to the desert
by himself for about six weeks. Ever after this, wild, lonely places will
have an attraction to him. And in the throes of a painfully public career,
they are the places he will always seek out for solace and renewal.
After the king's First Mission to Judea, where
he heals and baptizes, after the imprisonment of John for treason, and
after a sojourn in Samaria, Jesus embarks on his First Mission to the
Lake Country. His message to people struggling under oppression of Mammon:
"The Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins." Here
is both hope and a job. With five or six retainers, he travels by rowboat
and on foot all around the Lake Country, speaking in the churches1
and healing madness and other illnesses - but especially madness, which
seems to have been at epidemic proportions at the time. I cannot help
but think of C. H. Douglas's graph showing a relation between bankruptcies
and the suicide rate in England during the Depression. In Palestine as
in England, the cruel times they lived in drove many people over the edge.
A campaign against this epidemic, combined with the proclamation of a
new Kingdom was an implicit criticism of the powers that be.2
On one occasion, four men bring their paralyzed
friend to where Jesus is speaking. However, the crowd prevents them, being
so thick they can't get through and unwilling to part to make way. Jesus
is the man who is saying, "Turn away from your sins!" To people
who are happy the way they are and don't want to change, that would be
off-putting. If the men were half-hearted in their wish to get to Jesus,
the crowd would have given them a good excuse. But they really want to
get to him, for the sake of their sick member, and they are not afraid.
So determined are they, in fact, that they overcome the obstacle with
some engineering: they lower the sick man down through the roof. Jesus
acknowledges this act as faith and blesses it. In fact, he says to the
man, "My son, your sins are forgiven."
The churchmen are outraged; but the king says,
"Is it easier to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or 'Pick up your mat
and walk'? . . . Pick up your mat and go home!" And the man does
it, the crowd, note, now parting to make way. "Your sins are forgiven"
is easier to SAY because sins are invisible, so there's no obvious and
immediate reality check; whereas if you say, "Pick up your mat and
walk" and can't deliver, you are immediately found out. So Jesus
uses the lower healing to give credibility to the higher. The faith belongs
to all five, but Jesus addresses only the one. As the four came not for
themselves but for their needy comrade, so Jesus takes them by their actions
and rewards them by giving them their friend back whole.
I observed in reference to the Gospel of John
that Jesus "always sees the deeper pain beneath the surface, the
hurt heart, the personal tragedy, the desperate subterfuges, and the shame."
This is the region of sin, and "Your sins are forgiven" points
to a healing in that region. The Greek word translated "forgiven"
can mean "let go, yielded, released, divorced from." If "Your
sins are forgiven" meant, "I hereby cancel punishment for your
past misdeeds," not only would it be vulgar in itself but it would
not parallel, "Pick up your mat and walk." Both the dignity
and the parallelism are maintained if it means, "The sinfulness in
your heart is sent away," "Your sins in their very beginnings
are cut adrift from you." That of course does not mean the process
is finished but that it is begun. The beginnings of things are a continual
theme of Jesus, witness his fascination with organic processes -- fermentation,
leavening, sprouting seed, ripening corn, fruiting tree -- as likewise
with phenomena such as how light passes from a lamp to the eye and how
taste passes from salt to the tongue.
The process begun in the paralyzed man seems to
me to be the same as that begun in the Samaritan woman at the well, whom
Jesus told to ask for the living water, and she did. I suggested there
that perhaps he or his men baptized her. This scene seems to me also a
kind of baptism, although not with water. I also observe that the man's
faith, like hers, is of the simplest, most direct kind. It is not faith
in any thing but faith in the man. It is not faith in the Cross, for there
is no Cross; but it is faith that says, "I am aware that there is
sinfulness in my heart, but I am not afraid to come to you, because I
trust you." If Jesus asked the paralyzed man, "Do you believe
I would lay down my life for you?," I think the man would say yes.
But this question doesn't come up explicitly, and it doesn't have to come
up. Jesus' love includes it, and the man trusts in his love.
The radical conservative John is in prison, and
his followers are still in communication with him. Not unnaturally, they
look to King Jesus, whom he proclaimed, to break him out. But Jesus won't
do it, and he just isn't the strict, austere, pure, conservative, Cromwellian
champion they are looking for. In fact, he is downright sloppy when it
comes to fasting, ritual washing and eating, sacrifice, and Sabbath-keeping.
How can Mammon be dethroned -- how can the Kingdom be restored -- like
this? This is war, and a war, they feel, needs discipline and a sterling
example in the leader.
Challenged on his laxity in regard to fasting,
Jesus offers a metaphor totally opposite to this expectation: "Do
you expect the guests at a wedding party to go without food?" A wedding
party?! Is he mad? He goes on to compare the old, dead forms to old fabric
or old wineskins. Just as new fabric sewn to old will tear it and new
wine put in old skins will burst them, so the new-born soul that Jesus
described to Nicodemus is incompatible with the old, brittle forms. In
order to reach its full potential, it needs new forms, just as a man and
woman live by new forms when they get married. Jesus doesn't conduct himself
like one purifying himself before a battle, he conducts himself like one
who just got married.
He also disregards the blue laws about Sunday.
One Sunday he and his men harvest some wheat to eat as "fast food";
then, in church, Jesus doctors a man's hand. John's Gospel describes a
similar incident of healing on a Sunday in Jesus' Second Mission to Judea
about this time. This flaunting of the law by the pseudo king enrages
the churchmen, who immediately begin conspiring with the government to
Jesus responds to this plot with a move that his
enemies must have thought threatening. If we conceive him now returning
from his Second Mission to Judea, that would make this his Second Mission
to the Lake Country. He names Twelve men for special commissions to proclaim
the Kingdom and to cure the insane. The latter are all too numerous in
a world where people's lives, valued at naught, are ground under the heel
alternately of church and state. A campaign against this epidemic combined
with a proclamation of a new Kingdom is understood by the powers that
be a line drawn in the sand. They retaliate with a media blitz saying,
"It is the chief of demons who gives him the power to drive them
out," to which Jesus replies that they blaspheme against the Holy
Spirit - indicating thereby that it is by the power of the Spirit that
the Twelve will do cures. As Jesus said to Nicodemus, those born of the
Spirit can do such things.
Jesus' family attempts an intervention, hoping
probably to talk some sense into him and save his life; but he rebuffs
them: "Whoever does what God wants him to do is my brother, my sister,
my mother." Again the call to walk the walk, as in, "My food
is to do the will of him who sent me." This is itself the Kingdom
of God in its beginnings. Then from a boat, so that all can hear and see
him without jostling him, the poet-king gives illustration. The Kingdom
of God in its beginnings is like a mustard seed: seemingly insignificant,
it grows into a magnificent tree. Your job is to be like good soil and
let that seed bear abundant fruit. Being good soil is not hard work: you
just have to let the Living Water seep through you. You don't have to
understand God's part, only your part. Similarly, the Kingdom is like
a lamp: the flame is small, but if you set the lamp on a table, its light
spreads to fill an entire room.
That evening Jesus takes his Twelve raw recruits
across the lake to Decapolis, a heathen country. Jesus must know a storm
is coming on and naps to see what they will do. A storm does come on,
and the rowboat is going down, and they rouse him, bewailing their fate.
So much for the Kingdom of God! But Jesus simply commands the wind, "Be
quiet!" and the waves, "Be still!," and all becomes calm.
If they were frightened before, they are even more so now, as if he were
a monster. Maybe it IS the chief of demons who gives him power! "Why
are you frightened?" he cries. "Are you still without faith?"
Landing, they encounter a violent madman. Jesus
asks him his name, and he says "Mob - there are so many of us!"
Jesus sends the spirits into a herd of pigs, which immediately go berserk
and charge off a cliff into the lake. Although the Jews considered the
pig unclean, I cannot believe that the man who said, "Not that which
goes into the mouth" and made no concessions to eating rules would
take gratification in the destruction of a herd of pigs. I can't make
sense of the "crime" aspect; but apart from that I think the
purpose was an object demonstration, for the benefit of the Twelve, of
the pathology of madness. The creature said his name was Mob, but now
the Twelve can actually see the mob. The people of Decapolis, like the
Twelve on the lake, are afraid of Jesus and in fact ask him to leave,
which he does.
They return across the lake and are met by a churchman,
who throws himself down at Jesus' feet and begs him to come save his dying
daughter. En route, people are crowding around Jesus and touching him.
So when Jesus suddenly asks, "Who touched my clothes?," the
Twelve think it a strange question, but a terrified woman confesses. She
knows it is she he means because she was, the moment she touched him,
healed of the chronic bleeding from which she suffered. He says, "My
daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace." The gospeler
tells us that Jesus felt power go out of him when she touched him. Elsewhere,
we read such things as, "The power of the Lord was present for Jesus
to heal the sick" and "All who touched [the edge of his cloak]
were made well" and "He was not able to perform any miracles
there." That this woman is so unmistakably healed through Jesus but
not by him reminds us and the Twelve what Jesus is constantly saying:
it is the Father alone who heals.
The company finally arrive at the churchman's
house, but his little girl is already dead. Taking only the parents and
three disciples, Jesus enters the room. He calls her, and she gets up.
It is done without any fanfare. In fact, he enjoins secrecy on those present.
Most of his sympathizers among the churchmen are secret sympathizers,
and he will not force publicity on the father. The father had already
showed courage in appealing to Jesus; for it is his own colleagues who
were already conspiring against the life of the blasphemer, Sabbath-breaker,
It is immediately after this, in Jesus' hometown,
that the Twelve on the eve of their missions receive a humbling reminder
from God; for Jesus himself is "not able to perform any miracles"
except a few. Whether because the people did not come to him or came with
the wrong attitude and so failed to be healed, the gospeler tells us Jesus
was "greatly surprised." It is the Father alone who heals. After
this, Jesus sends out his men on their own, on the "buddy" system,
to preach "Turn away from your sins" and to cure madness and
other illnesses. He allows them sandals and a walking stick -- the bare
minimum for one traveling on foot -- but nothing else. For food and shelter,
they are simply to rely on God's providence.
Mark mentions the murder of John in prison as
a thing past at this point. Matthew adds that Jesus now "heard the
news." John has Jesus speak of John in the past tense in his Second
Mission to Judea, just before naming the Twelve. What these accounts have
in common is that the murder of John is juxtaposed with the commission
of the Twelve. John's murder would have made a martyr of him and strengthened
Jesus' ranks. The movement is catching like fire, so Jesus blows on it
by sending out the Twelve. Herod is not really wrong when he says John
lives on in Jesus.
Mark adds some interesting details to the story
of feeding the multitude and walking on water. The Twelve are back with
Jesus, having returned from their commissions. Such is the constant hubbub
around him that they have not had time to eat. So they take food and go
off by rowboat to get away from the crowd, but the crowd catches up with
them. That is when the multiplication of the food takes place, and I suggested
they were ready to crown him and rise up. He sends his men away by boat
and then slips off after dark over the water, a way his pursuers could
not have anticipated. As on the trip to Decapolis, there is a storm, and
the rowboat is in trouble; as before, his action calms the storm; and
as before, the Twelve are afraid of him.
In this highly charged atmosphere, Jesus and the
Twelve leave the Lake Country and seek anonymity. John has them go to
Jerusalem (the Third Mission to Judea), where it was possible to travel
incognito. Mark has them go north to heathen Phoenicia. (We'll assume
it was both.) Even in Phoenicia, he is recognized by a woman, who begs
him to cure her mad daughter. He sets her an obstacle: "It isn't
right to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," that
is, the heathen. But she takes no offense and gives back the beautiful
answer, "Even the dogs under the table eat the children's leftovers."
He acknowledges her faith, and her daughter is cured.
They return for their Third Mission to the Lake
Country. Jesus once again feeds a hungry crowd, multiplying food in his
hands. The churchmen then have the gall to demand a miracle! When people
come to Jesus in faith, expressing a need either for themselves or for
a loved one, miracles are granted them freely. The churchmen, however,
are satisfied with themselves. They feel no need, they don't want to change
their lives. Their plan is to get Jesus to show off and then condemn him
for it. Even if he could do a miracle for the sake of doing a miracle,
on command, he would not. He embarks at once by boat, warning the Twelve
against the churchmen's (and the government's) "yeast."
As good yeast has the power to give life to the
whole, so bad yeast has the power to spoil the whole. To go to the "yeast"
is to go to the beginnings of things, the beginnings of sin or, contrarily,
the beginnings of goodness. Yes, Jesus feeds the hungry and doctors the
sick, but behind it he sees sick hearts, and that is the real sickness.
None will go hungry in the new Kingdom, to be sure; but that is not where
the Kingdom begins or what is it really about. The Kingdom begins where
people one by one turn from sin and, heeding the still, small voice, walk
the walk. And as far as walking the walk goes, the churchmen's yeast is
poison! The Twelve are slow to understand this.
They go up north to the vicinity of Caesarea.
There the king begins to talk to the Twelve about his death and resurrection
and theirs. He says, "If anyone wants to come with me, he must forget
himself, carry his cross, and follow me." If I were a peasant in
Merry England and a charismatic outlaw said, "Carry your gallows
and follow me," I would understand that to mean that if I followed
him, I was likely sooner or later to run afoul of the authorities. Jesus
then takes three of his men up a high mountain, where the poor man is
transformed before their eyes to a figure of dazzling white, a king indeed!
They are terrified. He speaks again of his death and resurrection; but
this is too much for them, so they say, "What does this 'rising from
death' mean?" even though they have just seen its promise with their
While this was taking place, the other nine have
been trying unsuccessfully to cure a boy of madness. As Jesus returns
from the mountain, the churchmen are making the most of it. He deplores
the people's lack of faith -- the cause of the failure. The boy's father
says, "Help us, if you possibly can!" but Jesus turns it right
around, saying, "If you can! Everything is possible for the person
who has faith." That is, he sets him an obstacle. The man might at
this point slink away with his tail between his legs, but he doesn't.
He overcomes the obstacle by turning it round on Jesus again: "Help
me have more!" That is faith indeed, and the boy is cured.
They return from their travels for their Fourth
(and last) Mission to the Lake Country. The Twelve are growing impatient
for the new Kingdom. When is Jesus going to make his move? And his talk
about being killed is not helping. They worry about the organization,
but he says there is no organization: "Whoever in my name welcomes
one of these" and "Anyone who gives you a drink of water."
The Father even does miracles through some of these people of faith. These
"little ones" are not to be discouraged. They have the Kingdom
in them; indeed, "everyone will be salted with fire." I think
fire here means "life." Just as to the Samaritan woman he contrasted
regular water with living water -- a living spring inside such that she
would never thirst again -- so here he is contrasting regular salt that
can become bland to a living salt inside that will never lose its savor.
To be "salted with fire" is to have Life in you, permeating
you and communicating its own "taste" through every pore.
According to John, there is a Fourth Mission to
Judea, in which Jesus barely escapes with his life, fleeing across the
Jordan, then a Fifth (and last) Mission to Judea in spite of the fact
that his enemies lie in wait for him, prompted by a desire to be at the
bedside of his sick friend, Lazarus. He loves to have children around
him and offers them as models of simple faith. Children are by nature
poor in things but rich in soul. In contrast, material riches and class
expectations are apt to get in the way.
Jesus now goes up to Jerusalem for the national
holiday. The Twelve are "filled with alarm." They are still
worried about the organization and the chain of command, and he again
tells them it's not about organization, it's about putting love into action.
A barren fig tree provides an illustration: their one job is to put love
into action, just as a fig tree's one job is to produce figs. If they
won't do the one job assigned to them, what help is there for them?
The churchmen's plot is ripe. They send men to
arrest Jesus, but the crowds around him make it impossible. They need
to get him alone somehow. Meanwhile, they still need more evidence against
him, because he still declines to start an uprising. They try to get him
to incite people to refuse taxes, but he doesn't take the bait. They finally
succeed in suborning one of the Twelve, Judas, to get Jesus alone where
they can arrest him.
At his final supper with them -- the same supper
at which he washes their feet like a happy slave -- he speaks of the bread
as his body, the wine as his blood. Since he began his mission, he has
lived on the edge, made many enemies. He has braved the city at a time
when it was mortal danger for him, but "My food is to obey the will
of him who sent me." He simply does what he has to do, looking neither
to the right nor the left and leaving the result in God's hands. This
time, he knows, it's going to be his death. His men are supposed to be
keeping watch, but they fall asleep. They are surprised by Judas and the
arresting party and quickly scatter.
1. I take the license of calling synagogues "churches"
and the Pharisees "churchmen" to bring out a parallel with churchmen
of today. Similarly, heathen for Decapolis and Phoenicia, Sunday for Sabbath,
and Anti-Christ for Jesus as perceived by his enemies.
2. The same may be said, in fact, of physical illness,
which may well be laid to the door of poverty, oppression, and war.