Saturday, January 31, 2015

"The Upstart, Jesus," as Told by the Dramatist, Mark

Borrowed from "Getting to Know the Evangelists"
on the St. James Cathedral, Seattle website

I really like the Gospel of Mark.

Which means that I'm in luck, since this week's lectionary for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Feb 1) is the second week in a row that we have a reading from Mark.

I should come clean and admit that Mark could very well be my favorite of the four Gospels (and I think John's account would come in a very close second). I think I've always had an affinity for it, ever since a particular time in college when I read the account of Jesus calling his disciples (which, coincidentally, was the first reading we had from Mark's gospel in the season after Epiphany). I like Mark because it's a very lean book. It doesn't get hindered by a lot of the cultural justifications like Matthew and Luke, although I will grant that, by the same token, Mark lacks the poetry of John. However, I think Mark's account of Jesus' life and ministry is a drama first and a philosophy second.

There was a graphic novel adaptation of Mark's gospel that I read a couple years ago and I still treasure it. It is called Marked and it is written by a man named Steve Ross. I think that Mr. Ross was able to see the drama of the story and translate it over as a graphic novel, I would anticipate, with some ease (not that you should take that to mean that he did any kind of a slap dash piece of work... take a look at the Amazon page and get the "Look Inside" view; you will see that that artwork is very moving in a haunting sort of way). Mr. Ross' work probably cemented the esteem that I have for Mark's gospel.

At any rate, the gospel reading for Sunday is ripe for some Ignatian reading, which is kind of a scholastic way of saying that I have imagined myself as a character in the drama and I find that I become even more captivated by this story that Mark shares about Jesus' life and work.

The story in this week's Gospel involves Jesus arriving in Capernaum and then going to synagogue on the sabbath (because Jesus was a good Jewish boy and knew when and where people went to worship). Suddenly, a "man with an unclean spirit" shows up in the synagogue and tries to blow Jesus' cover. He says "what have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus tells him to become silent, and then commands the unclean spirit to come out of the man. And it obeys.

In Steve Ross' adaptation of this event, the man with the unclean spirit tries to physically attack Jesus and wrestle with him, but as Jesus commands him to be quiet, he also reaches down the man's throat and bodily pulls a demon out of him. Admittedly, that rendition of the event seems a little fantastic, but who is to say it didn't happen that way? The text of Mark's Gospel is a little dry and may have lost some of the excitement as it was told across two millennia. But then here's me, just trying to put myself in the scene and really witness the story, as Ignatius of Loyola instructs me to do.

I imagine myself as one of the onlookers in the synagogue. It's the sabbath, so of course I've gone to worship and learn, since this is what people do. And then comes this Jesus fellow; an upstart from Nazareth ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"). Why is he here in Capernaum? Why is he trying to mess with the system? I mean, here I am, I know that the way we do things, worshipping God and learning from our leaders in the way that God told us, it may not be perfect, but we try to do as best we can with what we understand God has instructed us to do. We're good people, right? But this Jesus guy, it seems like he's threatening to tear down the whole system! And if that happens, where will be left? It's not like he can speak for God and give us new instructions, right? I mean, the instructions we have came from Moses! If Jesus says he knows God better than Moses, then he's got another thing coming, amiright?

As an onlooker in the story, as soon as Jesus commands the unclean spirit and it obeys, I am taken aback. This was not in any of the synagogue lessons! But nonetheless, Jesus has still done it. This man, who has been an outcast for so long, he has been made clean. He can come back into the community. But who is this Jesus, who seems to be able to forgive people and just change their uncleanliness? Only God can do that!

The Gospel reading ends kind of suddenly. All it says is that after this event, "his [Jesus'] fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee." And why wouldn't it? When somebody changes the game as drastically as this, yeah, it's going to get some attention.

But for me, the next thing I start to wonder, as a modern church-goer, is "so what?" Jesus got famous and where am I in that? But in order to really understand that, I need to take a step back. This whole time, I have been envisioning myself as a witness to work of Jesus. And after the story is done, I have still witnessed what Jesus did. I don't understand it. Heck, I'm frightened by it. But nonetheless, I talk about it. And in talking about it, I realize that yes, this Jesus has the authority to command whatever it is that is taking people hostage, keeping them captive in their own lives. And here is Jesus, breaking in, totally changing the game.

Of course I'm going to talk about that.

~ ~ ~

Does this story from Mark's gospel resonate with you? Are you intrigued by it when you put yourself in it? Please share your reflections in the comments below. Otherwise, you can join with me in conversation on Twitter or Facebook! Additionally, you can subscribe to my blog by email with the subscription bar in the navigation menu on the right-hand side of this page, and/or send me a friend request/follow me to make that social connection and participate in a deeper dialogue that way. Thanks!