Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.
Way back in 1972 (and yes, I remember it) Carly Simon released a song called “You’re So Vain.” Here are the words of the refrain:
You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you
You’re so vain, I’ll bet you think this song is about you
Don’t you? Don’t you?
It was a huge hit. Since the song came out, plenty of people have tried to figure out who the subject is—Warren Beatty? Someone else? Several people? All of us?
It should have been playing when the Pharisees came asking Jesus about the legality of divorce. And it should be playing while we read the story in the Gospel of Mark.
We tend to think that the story is about divorce. We may even think it is about us, especially if we have been divorced (or if we’re contemplating it.)
Divorce is the subject matter, that’s true. There is even a followup by way of a private conversation between Jesus and some of his disciples. So you could argue that the passage really is about divorce.
Fair enough. It is just not what I’m hearing in the story.
Still, if you’d like to read more about divorce and about making sense of the various views of divorce in the Bible, you should read Craig S Keener’s book And Marries Another: Divorce and Remarriage in the Teaching of the New Testament. (The link will take you to the Amazon page where you can find it.) Keener’s approach is clear, interesting, and best of all helpful (unless you are looking for ways to beat people over the head with rules—then you’d be happier reading something else.)
In Mark, context matters. The way parts of stories are matched up or put together matters.
Here, we begin with a journey in verse 1 and end with another journey in verse 17. Let’s take those journeys as our bookends and look at what Mark has bound together.
In the beginning we have Pharisees and laws about marriage and divorce. Afterward, we have Jesus being indignant, perhaps even angry, that his disciples were shooing the small children away, keeping them from approaching him. This isn’t about rules or law. This is about relationship and acceptance.
Take Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. He points back to the creation stories, which are overwhelmingly relational: the relationships of God to creation and of human to human are the most foundational theological expressions of the creation stories.
God has joined us all together. It is not just about one marriage, or one relationship, or a handful of people. It is about grasping the relational aspect of God, the relational aspect of the Gospel.
We are all in this thing together. Like that garden in the story of Eden. Like a married couple. Like children running to someone they love.
That’s the point.
Maybe we were right. Maybe these verses really are about us.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing out demons in your name, someone who does not follow us, and we forbade him because he does not follow us.”
Mark gives us such odd things. Why have John say this to Jesus? Why John? Why not just ascribe it to the disciples in general—”and they came and said to Jesus…”?
Perhaps, if early church tradition is correct and Mark was Peter’s disciple, it is simply because Peter remembered it that way, and Mark recorded what Peter had told him. Perhaps we are meant to see that John, later famous for preaching love, was once not so keen on love himself. Perhaps we’ve got it wrong, and John was not complaining about the rogue exorcist; maybe John came tattle-tale to Jesus and threw the other disciples under the bus for rebuking the fellow.
We see that the unnamed exorcist is managing what the disciples have just failed at doing. Perhaps they did not rebuke him for being an outsider, but for succeeding where they themselves had failed.
You have to love the disciples. They are so much like us, so prone to selfishness and to failure.
Jesus throws them some encouragement, telling them that just giving someone a cup of water to drink can be an act of faith. They may not have cast out demons, but surely they could manage a cup of water or a crust of bread.
Then Jesus goes off in a different direction. In Mark’s Gospel, he is always the Jesus they know and the one they do not.
It is better to tie a great stone around your neck and be thrown into the sea, he says, than to lead a child astray. It’s better to cut off your foot or your hand, he says, or to tear out your own eye, if they cause you to go astray—better your body be maimed than your spirit. It’s hyperbole, we hope, throwing out images that are over the mark, clear exaggerations, such astounding word-pictures that we cannot forget them.
In hell the worm never dies, he tells them. In hell the fire is never quenched. It is not at all clear that the hell Jesus describes is a future thing, a one day place. In the gospels, he invites people to join him—presently—in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God is at hand, why should hell have to wait? We may walk, maimed or whole, in either.
Looking at a person’s face, can we see the landscape of his soul? Sometimes we might. Sometimes joy or pain is so etched in faces we see that we know where the souls behind them are walking. Hell is where our doubts gnaw at us. Hell is where our regrets burn us. We cannot say what is within another person, and who knows how many souls are trying to walk a narrow valley between water and fire?
We are lost ourselves. How can we help but lead others astray?
Have salt within you, Jesus says. Be seasoned. Be preserved. Be kept whole.
There is so much symbolism in salt. Purity. Preservation. Consecration. Friendship. But do not forget the great salt sea, deep, and ever moving, and as treacherous as the people lost beneath its waves, held there by the weight of regrets they’ve carried like millstones tied to their souls.
We might start cutting things off and pulling things out, just not our hands or our eyes. Maybe we could pull out the notion that we are smarter than we are, or better than our neighbors, or more deserving than the strangers at our doors. We might throw away eyes that only see faults. We might throw away feet that step on hope.
We might let go of the stones we throw. In the end, they only weigh us down.
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
Children only lie about what they know. It’s one of the things that makes a child different than a grown-up.
Ask children how a vase or a window came to be broken, and like as not the answer is “I don’t know” when they know very well or “He did it” when “he” of all people did not. Ask them something that they do not know at all, such as why rainbows are curved or how an elephant might knit socks, and you will either get a wildly fanciful tale or a simple “I don’t know”.
Adults are still children, but children who have learned to lie about what we do not know. At the very least we lie in order to cover up our ignorance.
The disciples were adults. When Jesus began walking toward his home in Capernaum, he continued a dialogue he had begun with them earlier in this Gospel narrative, explaining to his disciples that people in Jerusalem were planning to kill him.
By the time Jesus got to his house and his followers had gathered around him, these same disciples were far from accepting what Jesus was telling them about his impending execution. They were arguing among themselves over who was greatest disciple. They still believed that Jesus would rise to power, and they ignored what Jesus was telling them: they were squabbling over their rewards, their perks, in the new kingdom.
Maybe they didn’t grasp the truth that Jesus was going to be killed, or maybe on some level they did grasp the truth, but didn’t want to deal with it — we often lie to ourselves about hard things. Either way, they were unwilling to admit to Jesus that they didn’t understand or that they couldn’t handle it. When he asked them why they were arguing, they were grown up enough to lie about it.
Ok, the story says they were silent, but silence is sometimes just another way to tell a lie.
Jesus dealt with them by holding a child in his arms. We hear this story, and we think that the point is humility, or simplicity, or purity, and those things may also be true. It is possible that the point is honesty — to know what we do not know, and to be open to the truth, even when it’s hard.
We might lie to other people about a hard truth, but we are more likely to lie to ourselves by refusing to see it. We may wrap ourselves in so many lies that we can’t unravel them.
The desert, the great, dry, uninhabited desert, is a recurring image in holy texts. It’s where the prophets go to seek God. It is also where demons are sent to dwell. Perhaps it’s the same thing, in the end.
In the silence of the desert, the lies we tell ourselves begin to grow quiet. Demons are the whispers of our own delusions trying to find a new hold. With no one left to listen to them, the lies in which we disguise ourselves fall away, shedding like skin to blow away across the sand. When we are left alone in our desert, our self deception gone, our ambitions silenced, that is when we discover that we are like children once again. That is when we discover that we are, and always were, in the presence of God.
The child you welcome is you, and the child I welcome is me, no longer lying to cover our ignorance of God.
Mark 8:22-38 | Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost | Get Behind Me: A Different Kind of Roller Coaster
Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.
“Who do you say that I am?” asks Jesus, and that’s when things go sideways for Peter.
“You are the Messiah,” Peter says. It’s the right answer, but in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus rewards Peter with a stern warning not to tell anyone. (Over in Matthew’s telling of the same event, Peter gets a blessing—Matthew 16:17-19—an interesting addition to Mark’s account.)
Then Jesus begins explaining about getting himself killed, and Peter tries to talk some sense to him. It doesn’t go well. Jesus rejects him and calls him Satan for his trouble.
This is when the disciples realize they are on a different sort of ride.
Stunned by seeing Peter rebuked, now they hear Jesus describe the inverted value system of the Kingdom of God—denying oneself as gain, pursuit of wealth as spiritual poverty. To be human is to resist the divine. Then Jesus calls a crowd to him and starts talking about carrying one’s own cross. These are people who have first hand experience with Romans and crucifixion. The speech is less than inspiring.
Maybe his words ring true for them. Jesus isn’t giving them the happily ever after version. He’s telling them the hard truths: we sometimes live difficult lives and carry heavy burdens. The Gospel he is preaching is no easy path, no promise of prosperity. He doesn’t even ask them whether there is a cross lying within reach. He assumes they each have one and know where to find it. Take up your cross, he tells them, and none of them ask where it is.
Mark, ever mindful of the order of his story, puts this passage just after one of the oddest miracles in all of the Gospels, the miracle of the second touch. A blind man is brought to be healed, and Jesus touches his eyes and asks what he sees. People, says the man, but they are misshapen, like trees. It sounds as though Jesus does not get it right the first time and has to touch the man again, adjust the miracle, tweak it a bit. If we think the story is about Jesus performing miracles, it can make us uneasy.
It is a story about taking a second look, about trying to see clearly or at least about having the sense to know when we do not. Taken that way, it is the perfect introduction to what happens next.
Peter and the other disciples had a pretty good picture of how this messiah thing was supposed to work. So did most of the religious folk around them. It was just that their systematic theologies didn’t match up with God’s idea of messiah.
They had to stop and take a second look.
Religious people can be some of the most stubborn, closed-minded, arrogant, opinionated people on earth. Being one myself, I know something about them.
We have developed minutely differentiated beliefs, refining them to the point that we label and condemn one another by our theological and ideological differences. (“Your thoughts about God are not as pure, or right, as my thoughts about God. In fact, you may be a heretic…”)
We do not see clearly. Some of our theology no doubt looks as odd to God as a tree walking.
We would all do better to take a second look, or a third. God may still have some very different ideas about this messiah business.
On the Sunday matching this lectionary reading in 2015, I was invited to speak at First Baptist Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina. Instead of the usual weekly reflection on the Gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary, I have posted a transcript of what I shared with them.
Tell No One: Being Made Again in the Gospel of Mark
I’m going to do something a little different. I’m going to go ahead and tell you the point that I hope to make right up front. That way, if you fall asleep or your mind wanders off to more interesting things, or if I fail at getting back around to the point, well, you’ll already have it. No harm done. And if anyone asks you what I talked about, you won’t have to make up anything.
The point is that Context Matters. Where and when and how we read, hear, see, say, or do something changes the meaning and the value. Context Matters.
Here’s another way of saying it. We have become experts at the Little Picture. Not the Big Picture, but the Little Picture. We are masters of finding saplings in the forest of spirituality.
That’s it, the whole shebang. See how great that is? We’ve got our point out there in the open, I’m free to ramble on for the rest of the time we’ve have, and you only need to listen if you think I might sneak in something else.
Meanwhile, we could take Sharpies, those permanent marker thingies, and write the idea on the backs of our hands or our arms, maybe on our children, so that we can see it this week and think about it.
Ok, I realize that writing on ourselves with Sharpies may not be a suitable activity in the context of church. Of course, there are plenty of things in that category.
Have you ever participated in a swim meet? Even better, ever been a parent at a swim meet? They encourage the kids to take permanent markers and to write on themselves. If you’ve been to one of those things, you’d remember—think summer heat, mobs of irritated parents, partially engaged kids, half eaten snacks, unintelligible announcements on the PA system, damp towels, damp chairs, damp clothes, a hundred children disguised in similar swimsuits and scalp covers and swim goggles, and you’re there. You can’t even recognize your own child. You keep looking at the exit gates, wondering whether someone has already kidnapped her and taken her away while a lookalike in goggles is dripping pool water onto your chair and eating watermelon from your cooler.
So they insist that you write your child’s number on her arm in permanent marker. That way the volunteered parents standing at the end of pool lanes, holding clipboards and a timing device and trying to remember what they were told about insuring fairness and recording swim times for each wave of identical children swimming toward them, can try to make out which kid is which.
It’s a nightmare.
Oh, I know, some people enjoy that sort of thing. You can tell I’m not one of them.
In that context, though, it is perfectly fine to write all over your child with permanent marker. It is encouraged. It is mandatory.
And somewhere in your mind you know that taking the cap off that Sharpie is like taking the lid off Pandora’s box. A few marks scribbled on your child’s arm, and the next thing is tattoos, drugs, motorcycles and a hippie commune somewhere in Oregon. I know, I worry too much. There are worse things than tattoos—some of those are beautiful statements of who a person is, and they are on the outside where you can see them, not hidden on the inside where you can’t. And there are worse things than a hippie commune somewhere in Oregon. It could be a commune in Alabama, but that is almost unimaginable.
Context changes things. It changes things.
Yet here in the Church, when it comes to reading scripture, we often ignore it. We as a community of faith agree that within the pages of Scripture we find stories and laments and prayers and prophecy that tell us about God, and yet we don’t often take the time to examine the context.
You might be wondering what I mean by that. It’s not hard to explain. Most of us could go home and look at our refrigerators, or think of the refrigerators that we grew up around, and we’d know what I’m talking about.
We take our favorite verses, or maybe even part of a verse, and we put it on a refrigerator magnet. Down here in what’s left of the Bible belt, we put verses on bumper stickers. Sometimes we get enthusiastic and we use billboards and T-shirts. One little verse, taken out of scripture, taken out of context, and we think we know what it means.
We do a little better with Sunday School and with sermons. There we at least take a few verses at a time—a longer passage—but we still seldom pay attention to the context. We pull a passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans, but we don’t stop to think about what was going on with the church in Rome and Paul’s relationship with it (they didn’t really know him at that point) in order to get something of the meaning.
If someone were to write an actual letter to us, using the antique method of ink on paper, it would never occur to us to say, Here, let’s turn to the third paragraph on the second page and read just that part. Yet we do that with scripture, which we contend contains nothing less than a revelation of spiritual truth about ourselves and about God. It is unthinkable, isn’t it, when we put it that way?
Take the Gospels. This passage was chosen as the Gospel reading for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary, and it is an interesting passage. Left to our own devices, though, we’d likely read one of these miracles or the other, not both of them together as we actually find them, and we’d almost certainly not look around before or after these two miracle stories to see what was going on—to see why Mark put these two stories together, to see why Mark put them together immediately after the story of some hypocrites who thought more of their rules than they did of people, and to see whatever else may be going on in this Gospel besides those things. Pulling verses out of their context, we cannot help but miss part of the meaning.
We should pay attention to the context of the scripture that we claim to cherish. Yet often we can’t be bothered to read more that a verse or two. We can do better than that. We can look around, try to get an understanding of what is going on with the passage that we are reading.
A verse on a T-shirt is fine. A magnet on the refrigerator is fine. Bumper stickers are generally tacky, but if you like that sort of thing and its your bumper, go for it.
At the same time, we need to pay attention to where we get the words. Context matters.
This first miracle, now—this lady is not a Jew like Jesus and his immediate followers. She is a gentile, a Greek speaking foreigner, not well looked upon by the Jews.
And Jesus calls her a dog. Some people will try to soften it and tell you that Jesus was calling her a puppy, a sort of pet name, but it isn’t true. He called her a dog, and she was used to it, because that is how many of the Jewish people living near these gentiles thought of them. Unclean. Outside the door of the chosen people. Dogs.
She knew all of that, and she came to Jesus anyway.
The Jesus she finds is not the kind Jesus, the one suffering the little children to come unto him. This is nearer to the Jesus who went on a tirade in the temple and threw out the money changers and animal salesmen.
But this lady had some spunk. She would have held her own at a swim match. She certainly knew how to speak up for her daughter, who was not well. The Gospel says that the girl had a demon inside her.
Now we can get hung up on the idea of demon possession. I will tell you this much—within the context of this culture that we are reading about, in the first century, many diseases were regarded as having supernatural causes. Jesus does not appear in any of these stories to be particularly interested in improving anyone’s scientific understanding of the universe. That is not why he was there.
He was surrounded by these people, in this time, in this place, for the sole purpose of expanding their understanding of God. His work was in the area of practical theology. Applied spirituality.
For that matter, that is why we are here this morning—practical theology, applied spirituality. There are lots of people in the science community today who completely reject anything having to do with faith, or the spirit. And there are far too many people in the faith community who seem to subscribe to the same notion that it is either one or the other, science or faith.
Science tells us how things work. Faith tells us why, and why we should care. Both areas address the same subjects—the origin of the universe, our place in it—but for very different purposes. Two points of view. It is like identical twins. In the beginning, they started from the same place, but now they’ve made their way into the world and each sees things from a different perspective. Neither is intrinsically wrong, each is paying attention to different aspects of their world, and I suspect that in the end they may come to walk much more closely together than either of them believes possible.
So, in this context, Jesus does not quibble with the way the woman has characterized her daughter’s illness.
Whatever was wrong with the girl, and whatever caused it, Jesus cured her with a word. He sent the mother back to her daughter without ever needing to see the child or touch the child.
That is powerful medicine. Science may one day posit an explanation for such a thing. This story is not a science lesson. It is a people and God thing. It is a lesson in applied theology.
In the second miracle story, it is as though we are reading about a different Jesus. The crowd bring him a man who was deaf and who had a speech impediment. The crowd wait to see what happens next, but Jesus does an odd thing. He takes the man aside, to a private spot, puts his fingers in the man’s ears (literally it says he threw his fingers into the man’s ears, but than sounds a little too disturbing in English), spits and touches some of the saliva to the man’s tongue.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. I get that. I’ve got half a dozen bottles of hand sanitizer stashed in the car. I might even have some in my pocket. It is possible that I could be diagnosed OCD based on hand washing alone. So yes, I get the whole “oooo” factor with the saliva.
Here’s the thing. Context. This is the first century. Saliva is considered to have medicinal properties.
We’re not so far from that, you know. Suppose you cut your finger. What is the first thing most of us would do? Suppose you hit your thumb with a hammer? What is the second thing most of us would do?
I’m not going to ask you what the first thing is, because that kind of language is not acceptable in the context of church. If you are out there building a ramp for someone who is disabled, and you hit yourself with the hammer, nobody is going to mind if you mutter a choice word or two. Here in the middle of church though? Let me bang my knee on the corner of this pulpit, and I’d better be careful what comes out of my mouth.
This man whom Jesus takes aside, he understands what Jesus is doing. He may even have expected it—to be touched, to be healed in this way—this is what he had been hoping for, and this is an experience that is meaningful to him.
It is odd, though. With the woman, Jesus never touched anyone. He just told the woman that her daughter was well, and that was that. With this man, he takes him aside, touches his ears, touches his tongue, for heaven’s sake. He even tries to keep the man from becoming a one man freak show by forbidding anybody to go telling the story of what happened. Tell no one, he said, not that it worked, not that they listened.
So why? Why the different approach in the two miracle stories.
I think it is because this woman is a firecracker, but the man isn’t. We know she could take care of herself—we see her boldness and we hear her quick wit. This man is a different creature. Other people bring him. And we can imagine or perhaps we know the difficulties of integrating with other people when you can’t hear and you can’t speak plainly. It makes human interaction difficult, and it makes the people carrying those burdens less likely to step forward with the self assurance that this first woman has.
Jesus reacted to each of these people, the foreign mom and the deaf man, as each of them needed him to react to them, as each of them could handle him reacting to them. A gentle, friendly Jew would have thrown this woman off her stride, would not have met her expectations. Likewise, the sharp tongued Jesus who bantered with the woman would have thoroughly discouraged this deaf man.
Why did he only speak a word to the woman, and yet he touched this man’s ears and his tongue? Was any of it necessary for God? No. It was necessary for them. In the place where Jesus found them. In that time in their lives. In that place in their understanding.
The woman understood the power in his words. The man was deaf and words meant nothing to him, but he understood the power of touch.
Jesus met them where they were. God meets us where we are. No matter where we are.
God finds us, and we find God, in different places. It may be in our homes, or at our jobs. It may be in America, or Thailand, on a park bench or on Park Avenue.
It may be washed up on the shore of Turkey.
Jesus dealt with people as he found them. In their own context. And that is what we need to learn to do.
There is a saying. “Be kind, for everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden.” We don’t know who first said it. Some say Plato, some say a Scottish minister named John Watson (writing as Ian Maclaren.) Whoever said it first, it is true enough.
We have to start with people where they are. If Christianity has anything right at all, Jesus was God revealing God to humanity, and Jesus started with people where he found them. Not even God can start anywhere else.
We keep trying, though. We keep expecting people to be where we are, to think like we think, to feel like we feel, and we take them out of context.
The trouble is that I don’t always know the context of the people I meet. I don’t know what burden they are carrying. I might assume that they are like me, but appearances are deceiving. Or I might look up and see someone with skin of a different color, speaking a different language, and I might assume that they are not like me, but appearances are deceiving.
When I run into people—the sharp tongued self-assured ones and the ones who cannot speak for themselves—it is up to me to try to discern who they are, what burden they may be carrying. And it is up to me to react to them in their context.
Jesus didn’t give these people a bumper sticker. He didn’t approach them with T-shirt Christianity. He paid attention to who they were. He paid attention to what they needed. And he started with that.
He never asked the woman to explain her religious beliefs. By her answer, he knew that she had some, and that was enough for the moment. He did not ask the man whether he might become a good Jew and start attending synagogue. He didn’t ask the man whether he knew how to recite the Shema, the central confession of faith of the Jewish people:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה’ אֶחָד
Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.
It would fit on a magnet, but Jesus didn’t even ask for that. Jesus never missed the forest for the trees.
Does it mean something that a story about hypocrites—these people who cared more about following the rules than about the well being of the people themselves—is placed just before the two miracle stories?
I think it does. Mark is telling us that Jesus was more interested in the people he met than he was in the rules of their religion. He was more interested in what was going on inside than in how they posed themselves.
Jesus even commanded that they Tell No One about what he had done for the deaf man. Tell no one. Was that best for the spread of the Gospel? No. Was that the way to get the word out, to reach more people? No.
Perhaps it was what was best for this man. In this place. In this moment.
Mark is known to have enjoyed sandwiches. Not that kind of sandwich. In this Gospel Jesus has just announced to some rule followers that nothing going into a man can make him spiritually unclean, so I think Mark might have been thinking about a nice barbeque sandwich. Hot sauce and slaw. Messy but good. Something surprising stuck in between something that looks simple.
Mark did that in writing this Gospel. Oh, I don’t mean he ate barbeque sandwiches. He may have. I don’t know. But he did write that way, wrapping one story inside another one. You may remember the story of the Jairus and his daughter, where Mark interrupts their story to tell about a sick woman in the crowd. One story wraps around the other, and one tells us something about the other.
Mark has done something interesting here.
If we widen our view, we see that before this string of stories about healing and about touching and about rules and about inward and outward things, there is the story of the feeding of the five thousand and of Jesus walking on the sea. And guess what? If we look at the end of this string of stories about healing and about touching and about rules and about inward and outward things, there is the story of the miraculous feeding of another four thousand people.
Did you know that was in there at all? Did you realize that while every Gospel tells the story of the feeding of a multitude, Mark—the oldest Gospel, the first Gospel ever written on the earth—tells it twice? Matthew does as well, but it doesn’t count the same way—Matthew tells it twice because Mark told it twice. Luke and John edit the thing down to one multitude and one miracle.
But here we have Mark, famous for putting bookends around his little stories, and we find great big miraculous bookends around this passage.
So what do we make of it? A miracle to feed a multitude, then a miracle of walking on the sea witnessed by the inner circle. Hypocritical rule followers. Crowds come to be healed, a woman finds him to get her daughter healed, a man is taken to a private spot to be healed. And in the end, another miracle to feed a multitude.
It may be a stretch,, and I may be missing something far more meaningful, but it seems to me that all of these things, every single part of this narrative, has to do with what people had or needed within them. On the inside. Many were simply hungry. Others, like his disciples who saw him walking on the sea, needed more faith. Some needed to replace their outward rituals with inward reality. Spirituality instead of rules. A spoken word to heal an inward sickness. An outward touch to heal an inward malady.
And though Jesus commanded them to tell no one, they could not keep the story a secret. They were changed, they were healed, they were amazed.
We do not know why Jesus told them to tell no one. It remains one of the mysteries of the Gospel of Mark—why Jesus throughout this Gospel tells both his followers and those he has healed to tell no one of what they have seen or learned. We do not know the reason.
One thought is that Jesus was waiting for the right time to reveal his identity to the world. Another is simply that he sought to be able to move around without becoming a rock star.
Perhaps Jesus wanted to meet people where they were, without struggling through the crowds, without struggling through their expectations.
Then he wanted to change them.
We say that Jesus healed people—the woman’s daughter, the deaf man. I don’t think so. At least I don’t think that is the best way to understand what he was doing.
He didn’t just heal them. He made them different. He didn’t just make them whole. He made them new.
Think of walking through life with demons inside you, destroying you from within. Some of us don’t have to imagine it. Now think of what it is like when those demons are gone, banished, never to return. That is not simply healing. That is being made new.
Think of going through life without being able to hear or to speak to other people. Again, some of us don’t have to imagine it. Now think of being able to hear everything. Think of being able to speak as plainly as I am speaking now. That is not being healed. That is being made into somebody new.
There is an ancient word for that experience. It is palingenesis. Palin—again or over. Genesis—being made. Being made again. Being made anew.
The phrase “to be born again” became lame and rejected by much of society decades ago. It has turned into church-speak, one of those phrases only used by people who have already drunk the Kool-Aid. It has become a phrase that conjures images of tent revival Christianity. Well, there are worse things.
In his wonderful work The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell points to this same concept—palingenesis—as the work of the hero in human stories from ancient times to the present day. It is what the hero does—make things new, help things to be reborn, remade.
Campbell summed up the story line this way:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won. The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
A perfect summary of the Gospel, without a word of church-speak.
That is what Jesus, the hero of Mark’s Gospel, was doing. He didn’t just feed the hungry and heal the sick. That could be done with charity or medicine. He did much more—he made people new.
When he touched their lives, they were reborn. Re-creation. Palingenesis.
This was no longer a girl with a demon—she was finally herself. This woman was no longer the mother of a sick and disturbed child. She was the mother of a new girl, someone full of life and joy and hope. This was not simply a man who could speak well. This was a man beginning a new life.
In this Gospel story, that is what it means to encounter Jesus. That is what happens when we encounter God. We are not patched up. We are made new. We are made into something and someone different than we were.
God is always waiting to meet us exactly where we are. Whatever the context.