This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
Jesus – the magician?
Read Mark 7:31-37
Of all the healings attributed to Jesus, this one most resembles the work of a magician or shaman – the privacy, and arcane gestures of inserting fingers into ears and placing spittle on the tongue, and then the incantation, ‘Ephphatha’. But we must be careful not to jump to premature conclusions for Jesus’ behaviour is remarkably consistent with other miracles narrated in the gospels.
We know that touch was central to Jesus healing ministry both as a means of establishing personal contact and as a conduit for communicating energy. Again, the therapeutically beneficial properties of spittle were recognised then as today, and the so-called ‘spell’ is another instance of Mark recording the Aramaic original of, in this case, one of Jesus’ characteristic healing commands (cf. 14:36; 15:34). As we are told, Ephphatha means, ‘Be opened’.
The issue, though, of whether Jesus was thought to be a magician is an important one. This may well be the substance of the Beelzebul controversy where he is accused of exorcising by the power of the evil one (cf. 3:20-30). We know that there were magicians operating in that part of the world in the first century (cf. Acts 8:4-25; 16:16; 19:11-20). Further, we know that the second century secular philosopher Celsus accused Jesus of being a magician – a view that continues to gain support (cf. Morton Smith’s book, Jesus the Magician).
But although magic is difficult to define, it seems unlikely to be an appropriate category for Jesus. The difference resides in the distinction between co-operation and manipulation. Whilst there is little doubt Jesus was thought to be empowered by the Holy Spirit, his ministry was characterised by co-operation with God. Through prayer and in many other ways, he endeavoured to align his will with God’s and to become a channel for God’s saving purposes. In contrast, the magician is concerned essentially with gaining control of spiritual power by the acquisition of secret knowledge and practices so that it can be used to serve the desired ends.
Jesus did not abuse spiritual or charismatic power in this way, but communicated it in the service of a higher goal, namely, to minister the liberating presence of God so that others could break free from oppressive and manipulative influences and discover their true humanity.
The blindness of the disciples
Read Mark 8:1-21
Although the material gathered together in this section initially appears rather disparate, there is a co-ordinating theme: the ‘blindness’ of the disciples and the religious leaders to Jesus’ identity. We shall return to the attitude of the latter in due course, but let us pause to consider the response of the former.
A comparison between Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ disciples with the other evangelists reveals a tendency to portray them in a negative light. On numerous occasions, they are admonished for their lack of faith and understanding (e.g. 4.13; 7.17-18; 9.19); and, although commissioned to help Jesus (3.13-19), they demonstrate a remarkable degree of incompetence (e.g. 9.14-29; 10.13-14). Nowhere is this clearer than in the feeding of the 4000.
Why Mark chose to include a second feeding miracle is unclear. He may have believed Jesus performed many miracles of this sort, as he did exorcisms and healings. Certainly, it’s inclusion emphasizes Jesus as the one who abundantly satisfies the hunger of God’s people. But what of the role of the disciples! Their lack of perception when facing an almost identical situation to one earlier is striking, but just about credible (8.1-4; cf. 6.35-37). However, when they are unable to trust Jesus to provide for their own material needs soon afterwards (8.14-21), it is difficult not to conclude that Mark is stressing their lack of belief beyond historical precedent.
But why? Some scholars have interpreted Mark’s portrayal of the disciples as a veiled criticism of the leadership of his day, who had gone off the rails. Comparisons have been made with the so-called wonder-working, ‘super-apostles’ that Paul encountered at Corinth (cf. 2 Corinthians 10-12). Another theory is that Mark uses the disciples’ incomprehension as a sort of literary device for presenting Jesus’ teaching – their misunderstanding is the cue for Jesus’ correct understanding. Both of these suggestions have some merit, but verse 17 affords another clue. We are informed that the disciples’ hearts were hardened; that is to say, they were prevented from understanding the true significance of Jesus (also 6:52). In this respect, their situation is similar to the Pharisees, who demand a miraculous sign from Jesus (8.11-12); and yet none is given, for they lack the faith to perceive. Indeed, for Mark all assessments of Jesus must remain provisional until the journey of discipleship is completed and faith embraces Golgotha.
The illumination of faith
Read Mark 8:22-26
It can be no coincidence that this ‘two-stage’ miracle, the only one of its kind recorded in the gospels, comes immediately before the disciples’ partial insight into the truth about Jesus (8:27-33). Mark uses it as a visual aid or a means of commentating on what is unfolding in the journey of discipleship. We noted in the previous section how the disciples, like everyone else, were incapable of discerning Jesus’ significance (cf. ‘Are your hearts hardened?’, v. 17). The implication here is that only through the eyes of faith – and then a faith tested and proved by following in the way of the cross – can one see Jesus in an authentic light.
Mark use the themes of blindness and sight with great effect throughout his gospel and, especially, in the portion introduced by this miracle and concluding with the healing of Blind Bartimaeus in 10:46-52. Those who look upon Jesus through normal vision are blinded to his true significance (e.g. the disciples; cf. 4:11-12), whilst those who’ve been denied physical sight perceive him through the eyes of faith (e.g. the sick and needy). It has even been suggested that 8:22-10:52 should be understood as a short course in discipleship, with Jesus repeatedly attempting to guide and instruct his followers despite their chronic short-sightedness and fumbling endeavours.
Mark, then, uses the healing of the blind man (vv. 22-26) to symbolise the gradual lifting of the veil of unbelief during the journey of discipleship. However, his masterful usage of the story does not make it a literary invention. On the contrary, many have interpreted the difficulty Jesus experienced in healing as evidence for its historicity.
The way of the cross
Read Mark 8:27-9:1
This is one of the key stages in the journey of faith as narrated by Mark. So far we have been encouraged, with the first disciples, to feel the impact of Jesus’ ministry. We have been exposed to his teaching and debates, his healings and exorcisms, his vision of God’s kingdom; and now we too are challenged to decide what all this adds up to in terms of Jesus’ function within God’s plan of salvation, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ (v. 29).
The episode raises many questions. What does it tell us about Jesus’ self- understanding? Did he think of himself as a Messiah or was he experiencing something of an ‘identity crisis’ and seeking help from his confidants? And, in any case, what would have been understood by the title ‘Messiah’ or, indeed, ‘Son of Man’ in the first century?
We have already noted how there were many interpretations of what it meant to be a faithful Jew at Jesus’ time. And these embraced different hopes for how God would save his people. Views varied enormously from simply wishing to bless the status quo to longing for an overthrow of the existing political regime and corrupt Temple priesthood so that God’s rule and will could be re-established. In some cases, it was believed that God would anoint a chosen one, a Messiah, to undertake such mighty acts on his behalf.
As we shall see, some of Jesus’ acts when in Jerusalem resonate with these different expectations, but the important thing to note here is that there was no single identikit picture of what constituted the Messiah in Jesus’ day – there were many! Further, it is interesting that Jesus responds to Peter’s confession by referring to himself as the ‘Son of Man’ (v. 31), which – if a title at all (cf. Daniel 7:13) – was largely free from such ideological baggage.
Peter’s response in verse 29 suggests the illumination of faith is beginning to dawn; and yet, in characteristically Markan style, his failure to understand how Jesus’ messiahship could include suffering and death (cf. his rebuke in v. 32) is forcefully rebutted by Jesus, who explains why the way of the discipleship must be the way of the cross. The glory of resurrection and communion with God is the goal of a journey that necessarily includes a ‘letting go’ of life – not only for Jesus (v. 31), but for all who claim to follow in his footsteps (8:34-9:1).
Read Mark 9:2-13
The transfiguration offers divine confirmation of Jesus’ ministry and vocation. As with his baptism and, to a lesser extent, through his confrontation with ‘knowing’ evil spirits, the veil of unbelief or partial sightedness is momentarily lifted and Jesus is seen in a true light. In particular, the transfiguration vindicates Jesus’ conviction, communicated at the end of the last chapter, that God had called him to embrace the way of costly service and to make the ultimate sacrifice of life itself. Although some have seen in this story a misplaced resurrection narrative or a literary creation by the early church, it could have originated in a shared vision which was subsequently interpreted in the light of Old Testament theophanies and key figures.
Traditionally, the transfiguration has been associated with Mount Tabor, but the key point to note is the link between mountains and God’s presence in the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Genesis 22; Exodus 3; 19). Indeed, the similarities between this tradition and those relating Moses’ encounters with God on Mount Sinai are striking. The mountain top meeting, the voice of God, the cloud, the reflected glory of God in transformed appearance (see Exodus 19 and 34) all suggest Mark is using this story, as he has done others, to present Jesus as God’s new anointed one.
This point is reinforced by the appearance of Elijah and Moses. Their presence here is both symbolic and clarificatory. Symbolic, because they are key figures in God’s drama of salvation, representing the Law and the Prophets; clarificatory, because it confirms that Jesus is one with them, but not one of them. Mark has already mentioned how some entertained the belief that Jesus was a reincarnated Elijah (6:15; 8:28), and the conviction that Elijah must return before the coming of the Messiah finds expression in verses 9-13 (cf. Malachi 4.5-6). By placing Jesus in the company of Elijah and Moses, he is associated with God’s anointed ones, but distinguished from them. In contrast, however, the implication of verses 9-13 is that the ministry of John the Baptist should be interpreted as the return of Elijah, the forerunner of the Messiah and the one who prefigures his fate – ‘But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased’ (v. 13).
Read Mark 9:14-29
Mark has already told us Jesus appointed disciples to assist in his ministry, including performing works of healing and exorcism (cf. 3:15; 6:13). Although the Acts of the Apostles (e.g. 3:1-10; 14:8-10) and other New Testament books indicate that these phenomena continued after the crucifixion (e.g. 1 Corinthians 12:9; James 5:13-16), this is the only miracle story in the gospels describing the disciples attempting to follow their teacher’s example in this respect – and with little success (vv. 17-18)!
Some have questioned whether Jesus actually expected his followers to undertake healings and deliverances, maintaining that such practices were characteristic of the spirit-inspired, post-Pentecost church and have been projected back into Jesus’ ministry to give them greater authority and status. This seems unlikely for a number of reasons. For one thing, Jesus understood healing and exorcism to be expressions of God’s liberating presence (cf. Isaiah 35:5-6; Jeremiah 30:17; 2 Baruch 73:1-2), and not as proofs of his special status. In this sense, they were as essential to communicating the gospel (cf. 1:15) as ministering God’s forgiveness, acceptance and hope. In consequence, if Jesus authorised others to share in his ministry, then healing and exorcism would have been part of the package. We should also note that Jesus’ miracles soon came to be understood in the early church as evidence of his messiahship and divinity (cf. John 20:30-31). It seems unlikely, therefore, that such ‘proofs’ would also have been attributed to his followers.
Let us, then, return to the healing of Mark 9. What is particularly striking is the insight it affords not only into how Jesus trained his followers, but also into how he was able to perform healings himself. With respect to the first issue, it appears that Jesus adopted a form of apprenticeship with his followers observing him and then attempting to emulate. In this case, they were unsuccessful, so an exasperated Jesus (surely v. 19 is directed as much at the disciples as anyone) has to take over. Verses 28 and 29 are particularly striking for they describe a sort of ‘post mortem’ with the disciples reflecting on their failure and Jesus offering wisdom and advice.
What, then, does this story say about Jesus’ ability to heal? The key verses are 21-24, which narrate a conversation between Jesus and the ailing boy’s father. Note the prominent position given to faith – a faith which the disciples lacked (v. 19), the father struggles to embrace (v. 24) and, by implication, Jesus possesses to healing effect (v. 23).
Pause for thought
There is no question that the pace of following Jesus has increased significantly during the past leg of the discipleship journey. What started at the outset of the Gospel with an invitation to accompany Jesus has developed into a demanding relationship with growing levels of challenge, expectation and responsibility. Many have seen the incident at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-9:1) as the turning point in Mark’s presentation, with Jesus communicating for the first time both what his ministry amounts to in terms of God’s salvation and where it is leading.
Each of us is tempted to part company with him at this point and for a number of understandable reasons. Like Peter, we may not be able to come to terms with the idea of a suffering saviour. Or perhaps we struggle to believe in a God who allows – let alone requires – his faithful servant and prophet to suffer on his behalf. Or maybe we cannot bear to accompany one whom we’ve grown to love and respect as he knowingly embraces persecution and death. Or, there again, we may have reached the limits of our willingness to follow as Jesus exposes our half-heartedness by calling us to share the way of the cross.
And yet one thing is clear. To continue to journey with Jesus requires us to share his faith – a passionate faith that enables us to risk losing all in pursuit of a greater truth, a fuller vision and a more authentic expression of human being. It is here that Jesus’ magnetism is at its strongest and most profound. For, like those whom he encountered in the flesh, we discern in him something that we long for – something that resonates with our souls and leaves us feeling restless and incomplete. A depth of humanity that is bound up with the mystery of God. And it is this longing that enables us to break free from all that is superficial and to explore where a life motivated by grace and finding expression through costly service and self-offering will lead.
This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part V