This article is part of the series A Journey Through Mark
The ambiguity of miracles
Read Mark 3:20-35
As Mark portrays so graphically in his opening chapters, Jesus’ ministry created quite an impact! In particular, his ability to perform miraculous healings proved to be a real ‘crowd-puller’ and led to speculation about the source of this rare talent and, by implication, Jesus’ identity. This observation is significant because it discloses how assessments of Jesus (i.e. christology) were reached in the early years, namely, that the question of who Jesus was arose from what he did and said and was able to communicate of God. Put simply, his ministry set people thinking and invited a response.
In this section, two different groups reach a similar conclusion about the source of Jesus’ miraculous powers. His family wish to restrain him because he ‘has gone out of his mind’ (v. 21), whilst the scribes claim that, ‘He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.’ (v. 22) Both parties maintain that Jesus is not in charge of his faculties: the scribes openly accuse him of being demon-possessed and, although his mother, brothers and sisters don’t go so far, madness was generally thought to be a manifestation of evil spirits (cf. 5:1-20).
What are we to make of such claims? Much depends on whether we believe in the possibility of miracles and of spiritual realities capable of influencing human life. One thing is evident, however, Jesus’ conduct is ambiguous and open to multiple interpretations. Further, judging from passages where he openly refuses to perform miracles on demand (e.g. 8:11-12; 15:29-32), Jesus appears to have recognised this. Certainly, his answer in verses 23-27 focuses on source and motivation rather than on physics. That is to say, Jesus is little interested in whether his actions go with or against the grain of the natural order, but he is adamant that they should be interpreted as expressions of God’s sovereign presence and saving will.
The logic of his response to the scribes, ‘How can Satan cast out Satan?’ (v. 23), seems sound in that evil is not repulsed by evil, but by its opposite. And his pronouncement on the unforgivable sin (vv. 28-29) reinforces his conviction that the key issue is one of discernment. For to interpret Jesus’ acts of deliverance as demonstrations of evil is to purposefully exclude oneself from participating in God’s salvation.
Pondering the parables
Read Mark 4:1-20
The Parable of the Sower is the first substantial piece of teaching Mark records (cf. 3:23-27). Three sections can be distinguished: the original parable (vv. 3-9), an allegorical interpretation which was probably added later (vv. 14-20) and what appears to be the evangelist’s own assessment of the purpose of parables (vv. 10-12).
Before we consider the meaning of this particular case, let us pause to reflect on why Jesus relied so heavily on parables. Why did he choose to communicate convictions about God and insights into faith in a way that invited different interpretations and perspectives? One reason seems to be that Jesus encouraged his hearers to think for themselves – to engage actively and creatively in the learning process. In this respect, parables are invitations to participate in an alternative, narrative world: to identify with the characters, to engage with the plot, to anticipate developments, to fill in what is omitted or left implicit and, finally, to emerge with a new understanding of God, self, the world and others.
In this way, Jesus’ use of parables discloses much about his vocation and vision of God’s kingdom. Clearly, if he believed knowledge of God was something that could be communicated in a definitive and systematic manner, he wouldn’t have relied so heavily on parables; but that he did, suggests a theological understanding that is rooted in human experience and is apprehended through gaining a fresh perspective on life.
What then of the Parable of the Sower? Scholars continue to debate why Jesus told it, but many see in the sower’s conduct something of God’s saving initiative in the world – an approach which resonates with the interpretation provided in verses 14-20: the seed speaks of the gift of life and of creative potential; the act of spreading, of God’s prevenient grace; and the indiscriminate coverage of terrain, of the all-embracing compass of God’s grace and care. But as verse 9 makes explicit, the parable also challenges us to confront how we have received God’s offer of abundant life and invites us to respond wholeheartedly.
The interpretation of why Jesus told parables presented in verses 10-12 is problematic in that it suggests a desire to exclude and condemn, rather than to include and save. Whether it reflects a view of election and predestination, with some privileged and others left outside, is unclear. Certainly, the import of these verses can’t easily be reconciled with what we know of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere; but, what is equally strange is that the Twelve, who are here ‘on the inside’ are often portrayed by Mark as lacking understanding (e.g. 8:14-21, 27-33; 9:33-37).
Discerning God’s kingdom
Read Mark 4:21-34
These verses include 4 sayings (vv. 21-25), 2 parables (vv. 26-32) and a summary by Mark (vv. 33-34). The overall section has the feel of a later composition in which Mark (or someone before him) has brought together material relating to a common theme, namely, the kingdom of God.
You will remember that back in 1:15, Mark records how Jesus intimately linked his ministry with the kingdom of God without clarifying what this means or implies. In the first century, as today, the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ was ambiguous. Does it refer to a place where God reigns? This interpretation fits well with Jewish history and expectation. We know that the covenant between God and the Israelite people included the gift of the ‘promised land’. And although that land had often been overrun and conquered by foreign nations, Jews still hoped that God would re-establish his theocracy and reign once more from Jerusalem through the agency of his anointed one or Messiah.
However, as we shall see, this understanding is not characteristic of Jesus; rather, he envisaged the kingdom of God in more dynamic terms of relationships and processes of growth or discovery through which God is encountered with transforming effect. As the sayings about the lamp and the inevitability of disclosure make clear (vv. 22-22), the sovereign presence of God will emerge in spite of Roman hegemony. But equally, with those encouraging an open and expectant attitude (vv. 24-25), that presence is subtle or hidden and can only be apprehended by those genuinely searching for God and willing to make the requisite personal investment.
The parables of growth develop this vision of the kingdom. At one level, God’s presence is as implicit, mysterious and innate as the natural processes of germination and maturation (vv. 26-29). As God alone can create life and enable it to flourish, so the kingdom is God’s gift and prerogative; yet seeds can only grow when planted and crops enjoyed when harvested, so God’s saving presence depends on human co-operation to find expression and fulfilment. Jesus also draws on the mustard seed, which was celebrated for its smallness in size and massive creative potential, to underline both the hiddeness and transformative potential of the kingdom.
The sea of faith
Read Mark 4:35-41
Taken literally, Mark’s first nature miracle leaves us with many problems. For one thing, it seems implausible that Jesus would be able to sleep undisturbed in an open-topped boat through a raging storm which had thrown experienced fishermen into a panic. But, at a deeper level, Jesus’ subduing of the elements by a command speaks of one who, on occasion, works against the grain of God’s created order to fulfil the divine purpose. Clearly, this has far-reaching implications for how we understand God’s saving presence in the world.
A more fruitful approach to this passage starts to emerge when we allow our focus to shift from the historicity of the event itself to explore the richly symbolic texture of the narrative. Some have wondered whether the image of a storm-tossed boat with a dormant Jesus in the stern reflects the church under persecution, making fervent petitions for help which temporarily go unattended (v. 38). Within such a scenario, disciples are called to remain steadfast in faith (v. 40) confident that the peace of Jesus will overwhelm the trials of the present (v. 39).
Within Mark’s presentation, however, the passage principally serves an epiphanic or disclosing function, affording his readers further insight into Jesus’ true significance. We have already commented on how Jesus invites his followers through the pages of the second Gospel to undertake a journey of discipleship on which his true identity and significance for faith become apparent. At certain points, Mark gives us clues to what can only be confirmed at the conclusion. The divine voice at baptism and transfiguration (1:11; 9:7), the testimonies of evil spirits (e.g. 1:2; 5:7) and the secret interpretation of parables (cf. 4:33-34) are all examples of this.
Here, we are invited to join the disciples as they withdraw from the crowds and, in the midst of the turmoil and confusion concomitant with the journey of faith, encounter the glory of Jesus. Something of Jesus’ unique relationship with God is communicated through his portrayal as sharing in the divine prerogative of being Lord of nature (cf. Genesis 1-3; Job 38-41; Jonah). And in the light of this rare glimpse into the depths of Jesus’ being we find ourselves pondering the words of his first followers, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ (v. 41).
Spiritual conflict and Jesus’ authority
Read Mark 5:1-20
By any standards this is a bizarre episode. A man possessed by evil spirits who lives among the tombs – a ‘no-go’ area rendering any observant Jew ritually unclean and, according to superstition, a place frequented by demons! His superhuman strength and demented behaviour confirm the presence of a greater, malevolent force going by the name of Legion. And although this evil presence is hell-bent on destroying life, it still has access to Jesus’ true identity and addresses him in almost confessional terms, ‘Son of the Most High God’ (v. 7; cf. 1:1; 15:39). The ensuing confrontation between Jesus and Legion is suggestive of a ‘negotiated settlement’ with the latter eventually conceding to depart one host on the understanding that another would be found. Jesus will have considered a herd of swine, forbidden food for Jews, a most suitable alternative and, once Legion was given permission to depart, both possessor and possessed meet a very public end through drowning. Not surprisingly, the local onlookers and inhabitants view Jesus with suspicion and probably a good deal of anger (the herd of swine was their livelihood!) even though he returns one of their number in sound mind. The newly liberated man is clearly obliged to Jesus and wishes to depart with him; Jesus, however, has other plans and commissions him to bear witness to what God has done for him in his predominantly Gentile homeland.
What is the modern reader to make of all this? Many would question whether we can reconstruct the historical core of this episode. And in any case, the significance of the narratives resides elsewhere with Jesus’ authority. In first century, belief in a spirit world was widespread and, from what we can discover, this was thought to be inhabited by a hierarchy of spiritual beings. One of the acknowledged techniques for gaining control over a spirit was to ascertain its name and exorcise it in the name of a higher spiritual authority. With this in mind, the Legion incident underlines Jesus’ power and spiritual status by the way in which the evil spirits not only recognise Jesus but also ‘know their place’ and volunteer to depart without opposition. Further, by recording a Gentile location for this happening, Mark emphasizes that Jesus’ authority and ministry transcend the boundaries of Jewish religion and embrace a greater mission.
A trusting, saving faith
Read Mark 5:21-43
Mark has a particular liking for the ‘sandwich’ technique in which one story is seeded within another. In this case, the plight of Jairus’ daughter provides ‘the bread’ (vv. 21-24a & 35-43) whilst ‘the filling’ comes in the form of Jesus’ encounter with the woman suffering from a haemorrhage (vv. 24b-34). Both of these incidents have much to teach us about faith and responding to God through Jesus; indeed, it was probably for this reason that they were preserved.
Let us, then, consider what they have to say. The first thing that strikes us is how faith emerges from human need and a sense of desperation: a daughter is about to die, a woman who later Christian tradition names Veronica has exhausted her resources on ineffective medical treatment. It is also significant how, in contrast to later sophisticated statements of belief (e.g. Nicene Creed), the faith of Jairus and the woman is simple. They appear to know little of Jesus beyond his reputation as a healer and their need-filled response is characterised more by hope, openness and trust than by theological understanding. Again, this fits in well with the overarching plan of Mark’s Gospel, namely, that faith is a journey of discovery. From this perspective, it is interesting to note how their faith not only finds expression through adversity, but also grows through overcoming barriers or embracing greater challenges. For Jairus, this entails trusting Jesus to give life to the dead (v. 35-36; cf. v. 23) and, in a rather different way, a similar level of trust is required to the haemorrhaging woman as well.
From what we can gather, her condition was not life-threatening in a physical sense, although it must have felt like a ‘living death’. According to Jewish law, she was perpetually in a state of ritual uncleanness (cf. Leviticus 15:25-30) and, as a consequence, a social outcast. And yet such was her longing to find wholeness and conviction Jesus could help, that she risks rendering all those Jews inadvertently touched by her in reaching Jesus unclean (v. 27), to say nothing of their wrath and indignation! Then, having been restored to health (v. 29), she is challenged to make herself known as her anonymous lunge of faith is transformed into something more profound through encountering Jesus face to face (v. 33). The word translated ‘made you well’ in verse 34 is the standard New Testament word for salvation (cf. Luke 7:50). By using it here, Mark not only suggests that a deeper work of healing has followed from meeting Jesus, but also presents the story as a ‘parable of salvation’ for the community of faith.
Pause for thought
There is a temptation when trying to follow Jesus in the journey of faith to think that it must have been so much easier for his first disciples and for all those who met him in person. And yet, as we reflect on the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel we are forced to recognise this wasn’t always the case. There appears to be a measure of ambiguity and mystery surrounding Jesus – how he behaves, what he says, and who he is in relation to God and the rest of us. And although this may initially seem unsatisfactory and perhaps a little disconcerting, it tells us something of great significance. Namely, that the truthfulness of faith cannot readily be communicated in objective and detached ways independently of personal investment and involvement – it isn’t that kind of reality! Rather, the truthfulness of faith is only assessable through active engagement and commitment, for it concerns a way of seeing ourselves and relating to God, Jesus and others. And within such a process, our own needs, aspirations, intuitions and interpretations – however provisional and incomplete – must play their part; otherwise, faith cannot form within us or come to shape and transform our lives.
That is why nothing is easily tied down. Is Jesus possessed by Beelzebul or the Spirit of God? What do the parables communicate about God? Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him? What is this response that emerges from human need and is prepared to risk all to find release, wholeness and peace? These open questions are the invitations of faith. For like any venture of discovery or new relationship, faith is motivated by the passion within us, the mystery that is beyond us and the conviction that these two realities belong together.
This article continues in: A Journey Through Mark – Part III