Saturday, February 18, 2012

 Introduction to the Series:

I think that the Gospel of Mark is a dramatic narrative, by which I mean not simply that the content is dramatic, which it is, but that Mark has constructed a Gospel which is in essence a play, a drama, albeit divine and cosmic in its implications. This does not mean that I think that Mark is ahistorical, only that each Gospel author had to make choices in how their Gospels were constructed and Mark functions as a natural dramatist in how he presents material and how he structures the events in Jesus’ life. As the first written Gospel, and with the oral tradition more apparent on the surface, Mark is sometimes seen as simplistic and even shapeless, but I will argue that the Gospel of Mark is formed with great care, shaped by a series of six Acts, with many scenes, naturally, comprising each Act. Each Act is at the service of Mark’s overall purpose, to explain and unfold not only the identity of the Messiah, but the destiny of the Messiah and his followers. Mark draws the reader into his narrative, so that the reader himself becomes one of the disciples following along the journey with Jesus, a point that will become more apparent as we move deeper into the Gospel.  

This is my division of the Gospel:

Prologue,  1:1-13;
Act  1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).

This is the fifth installment, comprising Act 1. Scene 6, Mark 2:1-12, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I will blog on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the fourth installment here  which contains a link to the previous installment and from there you can link to all of them.



When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. 2 So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. 3 Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. 4 And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. 5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Son, your sins are forgiven." 6 Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, 7 "Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" 8 At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, "Stand up and take your mat and walk'? 10 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—he said to the paralytic— 11 "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." 12 And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!" (NRSV)
Jesus has returned home to Capernaum, which could be Peter’s house (1:29, 33), but it has not lessened the number of people clamoring for his attention and notice. If this was to be a respite, similar to his attempt to find quiet and aloneness in the desert (1:35), it will not work. There he was sought after by his followers; here the people are already waiting for him, “so many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door” (2:2).  What Jesus has, the people want and Mark, in a short phrase, alerts us that Jesus does not turn against them or push them away from him: "and he was speaking the word to them" (2:2).

This is Jesus’ task, as we have been told (1:38), but the crowds have gathered not only because of Jesus’ word, his proclamation and teaching, however powerful it is, but because of his deeds of exorcism and healing. People want the master’s touch; they want to be well physically. This leads to what I consider the boldest and most desperate of scenes in Act 1, the digging through the roof in 2:4. Four people have carried a “paralytic” to Jesus – this is often rendered as a “paralyzed man,” but as we shall see, it could equally be a child – but cannot get through to him. The four of them decide to take the ladder to the roof, for the homes had ladders to the flat roofs and the roof was used for drying food and many other activities. You must imagine the roof as a significant part of the house. The roof was made of wooden beams filled with clay and thatch; these could be a couple of feet thick. So, when Mark tells us that “they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it” (2:4), we must visualize their desperation, their determination, their hard work, and the stunned gazes of those at the house. Do we also imagine smiles crossing the faces of the first hearers of this story, as well as those who first witnessed it, at the foolishness of those men digging a hole in the roof? Do we imagine anger on the part of the homeowner that his house has a new skylight? Or are we shocked at their actions, the lengths they will go to have their friend, relative or child healed?

Imagine the stunned look on everyone’s faces as the person is lowered down on a mat before Jesus, appearing out of the sky, though someone must have noticed the hole in the roof developing, did they not? Or were they so caught up in the press of the crowd and the words of Jesus, that the person appears as if out of nowhere? Jesus reads the situation in an interesting way, which also might be seen as shocking at two levels as we linger on it: “when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (2:5).

Notice that Jesus first praises the four men who dig the hole in the roof, the ones who have brought the paralytic to Jesus, and he praises not their hard work and determination, but their “faith” (pistis). Their actions make concrete their belief that Jesus could heal their friend and they would do anything to get him to Jesus. This is the first shock: Jesus notices them first and then commends their faith. The second shock is that when Jesus heals the paralytic, he says “your sins are forgiven” (2:5). Jesus does not heal the “child,” for he is called teknon in Greek, physically, but spiritually. Is this why the men dug a hole through the roof? Is this why they have damaged a home not belonging to them? Is this why they pushed through the crowds, crowds so thick and unforgiving themselves that they would not let a paralytic on a mat get through to Jesus any other way? I think this is also a “child” by age and not simply a figurative “child” of God, that Jesus calls him teknon because he is a child. So many of the healings which Jesus performs involve children because of the desperation of ancient parents and relatives, as we will see in this Gospel, because medical care in the ancient world was erratic and unreliable. Children died so often after childbirth or in their youth that it was not unusual to have one child out of six or seven in a family make it to adulthood.  This would make sense of the desperation of the four people who bring this child to Jesus and their ability to carry the child up the ladder to a roof and lower him down. It also shocks again because, why would Jesus not bring him to physical wholeness? Is that not why they have struggled all day? Why forgive his sins, but leave his body crippled?

Mark lets this question and this lack of resolution hang in the air, by introducing some new antagonists, the Scribes. Before the four men can ask, “will you not heal the boy?,” the Scribes are introduced into the scene. Interestingly, they were introduced in their absence back in Act 1. Scene 2 when Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with their teaching:  the people “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1:22). Conflict was raised, hinted at, but now it is brought to fruition: “now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:6-7).

Though the viewer or listener cannot know it yet, Mark is just beginning to crank up the conflict and controversy throughout the rest of Act 1. This is the first of five conflict scenes which will bring us to the end of the Act 1 at 3:6. It is not only desperate crowds of people who have caught wind of Jesus, but authorities. Scribes are presented by Mark as religious authorities, interpreters and teachers of the Law of Moses, sometimes associated with the Pharisees and sometimes not. In this first controversy, the Scribes challenge Jesus’ authority to say “your sins are forgiven,” as forgiveness of sins is a responsibility that belongs to God.

The Scribes are correct, forgiveness belongs to God (e.g., Exodus 34: 6-7; Isaiah 43:25, 44:22) and blasphemy is to take on the prerogatives of God (Leviticus 24:16).  Mark wants this blunt challenge made, even if the Scribes as a whole must “ask” these questions silently, for it causes the reader or onlooker to ask: who is Jesus? Since we know Jesus can do wonderful things, such as heal people, teach with authority, cast out demons, what does this charge against him mean? What is the source of his authority if the authorities and representatives of the Law challenge him? Who is he?  Mark wants the question of Jesus’ identity and authority at the forefront, so he takes us away from the resolution of the paralytic child.

“At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, "Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?  Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, "Stand up and take your mat and walk'?” (2:8-9). Jesus turns on them – remember, as a reader or viewer of this drama we are given the narrator’s god-like overview of the action, since we know what Jesus knows – and asks for an explanation of their silent questions, for these questions have not been asked aloud. Jesus’ very response to unasked questions is another clue to his mysterious identity and authority. The Scribes are correct: who can forgive sins but God alone? Mark wants you to ask, “who here is in your midst?,” who hears your silent questions of the heart.  

His question, though, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, "Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, "Stand up and take your mat and walk'?” is an odd one. Which is easier or harder for the Messiah? Either? Neither? The New Jerome Biblical Commentary (602) suggests that because there is no empirical test for forgiveness of sins that it is easier to say "Your sins are forgiven” than you are healed physically, "Stand up and take your mat and walk.” But this misses the point. Neither is harder for the Messiah to say; if Jesus is the Messiah, both are performed at his word. The point is, “what do you need to see to believe in me? The people crowded around my home already believe, what will convince you of my identity and authority?”


This leads to the climax of the scene, bringing resolution to the paralytic whose sins are forgiven, but whose body remains paralyzed; and bringing an answer to the Scribes: “but so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—he said to the paralytic— "I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home." And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this!” (2:10-12). The paralytic is healed, as a sign of Jesus’ authority to forgive sins. It indicates that Jesus’ first task is spiritual healing not physical healing. Even though we have seen other examples of Jesus’ physical healing, Mark has subtly disentangled the two: one can gain spiritual wholeness, but remain physically broken. The two do not necessitate each other. The paralytic boy was forgiven his sins prior to his physical healing. Immediately, though, the healed paralytic gets up, showing proof of both spiritual and physical healings – his ability to walk on Jesus’ command is a sign that he had been given spiritual healing on Jesus’ command earlier. This excites the crowd – “We have never seen anything like this!” (see also 1:27) – but what of the Scribes? Are they excited to have been shown up publicly and to have their authority usurped? And what does Jesus mean when he calls himself "Son of Man"? Mark exits the scene with no resolution for the Scribes and Jesus.

John W. Martens

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