Mark Week 2
By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament
Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 1:16-3:6
EnlargeThe Coming Kingdom of God
Last week, we noted that the introductory section of Mark’s gospel concludes with a summary of Jesus’ preaching. In Mark 1:15, Jesus proclaims that “the time has been fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has drawn near; turn around and put your trust in the good news [author’s translation].”
The first few chapters of Mark essentially illustrate what these statements mean. Instead of offering dictionary definitions or long explanations, Mark defines these statements in narrative, or story, form. In other words, Mark introduces us to Jesus not by giving us a list of character traits, but rather by showing us who Jesus’ followers and opponents are, what Jesus does, and what difference the coming of God’s kingdom makes in the world.
These first few chapters of Mark give us this information about Jesus and God’s kingdom in two ways.
- The first section, through Chapter 1, essentially describes “a day in Jesus’ life,” implying that we can extrapolate what Jesus’ ministry was like on a daily basis by hearing about one single day.
- The second section, beginning in Chapter 2, is organized topically. Each section has two topics, one in common with the previous section, and another in common with the following section, so that the sections are connected like links in a chain (see the headings below).
As we read this section of Mark’s gospel, we begin to understand that Jesus’ ministry is not just about his teaching in words. Instead, Jesus’ teaching is found in his action towards wholeness and healing, but against different forms of evil. The time has come for everyone to “turn around” and put their trust (“believe”) in the good news (1:15): the kingdom has come near in Jesus’ ministry and is making a difference now, in everyday life.
The Setting and the Calling: Fishing at the Sea of Galilee
After announcing the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (1:14–15), Mark next describes Jesus’ location near the Sea of Galilee [see Author’s Note 1]. In fact, all of the events that take place through Mark 3 are focused around this body of water and the surrounding towns and villages. It is significant, though, that Jesus’ first action in Mark is to call some companions to join him. Jesus’ ministry is not a solitary journey.
These first followers are two pairs of brothers. This simple fact points to Jesus’ later teaching: Jesus asks his followers to leave their current families behind in order to join a new family, the family of God (3:31–35). Jesus himself embodies this, as he has left his family and his home behind. What unites a family now is not blood, but rather a particular purpose: they are to take what they have learned in their vocation — fishing — and use it to seek people, rather than fish.
We will not hear about the details of this purpose until later in the gospel (see 3:13–19; 6:7–13), so for now, the disciples (Greek: “learners”) are simply to live up to their name: they are to learn from Jesus.
One striking point of this narrative is that Mark does not offer any reason for the disciples to leave their jobs and their family and follow Jesus [Author’s Note 2]. There is no carefully written job contract; there is no detailed job description. When Jesus calls, the disciples “immediately” leave what they are doing and follow Jesus.
A Day in the Life of Jesus: Teaching, Exorcism, Healing, Prayer
As noted above, Mark offers a summary of Jesus’ ministry in a unique fashion throughout the rest of Chapter 1, narrating the events of one day. This day includes teaching, exorcism, healing, and prayer. Jesus’ calling fishermen to be followers demonstrates his claim to authority, but the events of this day reveal his exercise of that authority. Through each of these occurrences, Jesus offers evidence that the kingdom of God is breaking in and changing the world.
Jesus’ first action on this typical day is teaching in the Capernaum synagogue. Mark often describes Jesus as a teacher, but Mark, unlike Matthew, rarely narrates the content of Jesus’ teaching (an exception will be 4:1–34 and, to an extent, 13:1–37).
Instead, Mark has already summarized Jesus’ teaching at the beginning of the gospel (1:15), but we are to learn more about what this teaching means, not by hearing more in words, but rather by seeing Jesus’ deeds. Mark’s record of Jesus’ teaching in Capernaum highlights his ability to control, and thereby exorcise, unclean spirits. Jesus’ claims to authority are manifest in his teaching, and he exercises this authority by casting out unclean spirits.
As the next episode indicates, however, the kingdom of God is concerned about even more than defeating evil in its blatant demonic forms. In other words, Jesus is seeking to transform all that is broken about this world so that he can heal it (2:17).
After the excitement in the Capernaum synagogue, Simon Peter brings Jesus to his home, offering his hospitality. When Jesus arrives, he hears of the illness of Simon’s mother-in-law and immediately “seizes her hand and raises her” (1:31). This second verb, “raise” (Greek: ἐγείρω) is the same word used to describe Jesus’ own resurrection, and we will also see it in later healing stories.
Upon being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law gets up and “serves” Jesus and his followers. While on one level, this verb “to serve” means exactly what we expect as she offers hospitality to their visitors, this same word also becomes extremely important for Jesus’ own mission.
Jesus describes the purpose of his life in terms of service: he has come, as the Son of Man, “not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45; see also 15:40–41). Simon’s mother-in-law not only shows how Jesus’ ministry brings physical healing, but also demonstrates the prominent place of service in Jesus’ life, and therefore the lives of Jesus’ disciples.
After a busy evening involving many healings and exorcisms (1:32–34), Jesus disappears from the community of disciples he has called, and retreats to pray in solitude. While Mark mentions prayer relatively rarely in his gospel, it is clear from this passage that he understands Jesus’ attitude in prayer to be foundational for his ministry and the miracles he performs. After praying, Jesus proclaims the good news elsewhere in Galilee, and he does so, as we have seen previously, by “preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons” (1:39; author’s translation).
The final episode in this rather long day in Jesus’ life narrates yet another healing. The focus of this healing is not simply the miraculous cure and Jesus’ authority to bring it about, but also Jesus’ relationship to the Mosaic law. A leper, a term describing what we now call “scale disease,” approaches Jesus for healing.
According to the Mosaic law, lepers are ceremonially unclean until they have been healed, and they can transfer this ritual uncleanliness through touch (Leviticus 13:45–46). When Jesus touches the leper, one would assume that he would violate the laws of purity and would therefore become ritually unclean himself. Instead, the opposite happens: Jesus heals the leper, making the leper clean.
However, Jesus demands that the leper seek ritual cleansing through the priest as well (1:41–44). In this way, Jesus demonstrates the tension between old and new in God’s kingdom: while Jesus can newly declare cleanliness — or even forgiveness — here he continues to subject his authority to the current religious authorities.
EnlargeHealing and Sin
At this point, we turn to the sections that are topically linked. We just saw Jesus perform a healing; now we see him healing and forgiving a paralyzed man based on the faith of the man’s friends (2:5). Like the leper, these friends did not see crowds — or laws, in the leper’s case — as a barrier to approaching Jesus and seeking healing.
Surely Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness must have caught them off guard: Why would he forgive the sins of someone who clearly needed physical healing? Would this not provoke the crowd to think that the man was paralyzed because he had committed some sin (see contrasting views in John 5:14; 9:2–3)? Connecting sin and illness was certainly common in the ancient world; however, that does not seem to be the crux of the passage.
The physical healing of the paralytic shows that Jesus does have the authority to forgive, since there is little visual proof that sins are forgiven. Furthermore, through demonstrating his authority (Mark 2:10) to forgive sins and to heal diseases, Jesus illustrates again that the coming kingdom of God does not just affect one dimension of life. Instead, Jesus’ arrival means that all of life can be redeemed and healed. In other words, it is not that the man’s sins are forgiven in order that he might be physically healed, but rather that they are forgiven and he is physically healed — because the kingdom of God offers redemption for the physical body as well as the soul.
At this point, Mark’s readers get a first glimpse of Jesus’ opponents, whom we will get to know much more thoroughly as the gospel proceeds. While the paralyzed man is about to use his healed legs, the scribes who are present seem to have paralyzed minds (see below, 3:5). Here, the scribes claim that only God can forgive sins. This perfectly logical Jewish objection raises the central question of much of Mark’s gospel: If only God can do certain things — in this case, forgive sins — and Jesus also does these things, then who is Jesus?
Sinners and Feasting
As the previous section (2:1–12) highlighted Jesus’ role in forgiving sins, the next section considers how Jesus calls sinners to be his disciples and even demonstrates social acceptance of these sinners by eating with them (2:13–15). In fact, given Mark’s summary, those who follow Jesus are both disciples and sinners (2:15): they are turning from their previous lives and putting their trust in the good news Jesus proclaims (1:15). In Mark, the primary difference between Jesus’ opponents and Jesus’ disciples is that Jesus’ disciples have recognized their “need” of a physician. Jesus’ opponents have yet to realize that their old categories of righteousness and sinfulness are too rigid to contain these new events that are taking place [Author’s Note 3].
Feasting and God’s Time
This distinction between old and new is the focus of the next section. Jesus describes the effect his ministry is having on the Pharisees and other religious and political authorities. He claims that they have “old wineskins,” that is, old ways they believe God has worked.
Actually, they have good evidence for God to work in particular ways: It makes sense that God would follow the laws that God gave to Israel, after all! However, these old wineskins, or old categories, are not flexible enough to contain or explain the ways in which God is working in Jesus. Just as God broke open the heavens and “came down” in Jesus’ baptism (1:10–11), so now God is breaking open old categories and expectations about this kingdom and about Jesus himself.
Once again, we see these sections linked together, this time with the common theme of eating. While the previous section highlighted Jesus’ role in eating with socially unacceptable people, this section focuses on the fact that Jesus and his disciples eat at all!
Apparently John the Baptist and his followers, as well as the Pharisees, make fasting a part of their spiritual practices, likely in anticipation of God’s coming kingdom. However, Jesus’ argument is that fasting now incorrectly interprets what time it is. Fasting is appropriate before the kingdom has come, but it is inappropriate now that the kingdom has already begun to arrive in Jesus’ ministry.
At the same time, to complicate things, Jesus’ teaching on this point looks forward to a time in which things will change again. When Jesus is “taken away,” then fasting may resume in anticipation of the final consummation of God’s kingdom. In this way, Mark reflects a classic tension in Christian theology: The kingdom of God has already arrived in Jesus, but it is not fully in power until Jesus comes again (see, for example, Mark 13:1–37).
God’s Time Redefined
The final two sections of this passage of Mark reiterate how Jesus’ authority should affect our understanding of what time it is. This may seem like an odd statement; Jesus is not asking his followers to make sure their clocks are set correctly. Instead, Jesus is concerned with God’s time, the importance of realizing that the kingdom is something new, but is intrinsically connected with everything old that has come before.
Furthermore, Jesus himself brings a new kind of authority (1:27) to the observance of what has always been “God’s time”: the Sabbath. Jesus declares that, as the Son of Man (see also 2:10), he is “Lord even of the Sabbath” (2:28).
This claim of authority, exercised again in another healing (3:1–4), shows how Jesus’ identity and actions come into conflict with his opponents, who do not share his understanding of God’s kingdom breaking into the world. Their hearts are hardened (3:5; or paralyzed, 2:7–8; also 4:12), and this dangerous spiritual condition provokes them to seek Jesus’ destruction, possibly believing that he is out to destroy them, too (1:24). Instead of seeing Jesus’ authority as something new God is doing, they see it as a threat to their old wineskins, as we too often do. So, with the deepest sense of irony, Mark shows these opponents seeking “to do harm,” not to save life, but “to kill,” on the Sabbath (3:4).
Questions for Further Reflection
- If Jesus’ ministry demonstrated that the kingdom of God had begun to break into the world through Jesus’ preaching and his deeds (exorcisms and healings, in particular), where do you see evidence of the kingdom of God breaking into the world in the present day?
- Mark’s gospel describes unclean spirits and demons in great detail. Do you think these entities still exist? In what form(s)?
- Why do you think Jesus first forgives the sins of the paralytic, and then heals him (2:1–12)?
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