Monday, July 22, 2019

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Mark 2 23-28 & Mark 3 1-6

My father told me that his Wesleyan Auntie Janie used to distinguish between Sunday games and week-day games. Snakes and Ladders and Happy Families were unacceptable on the Sabbath because they involved dice and cards. Drafts and Chess, on the other hand, were permissible. I myself am old enough to remember the last days of Christian England, when newsagents were allowed to sell newspapers on a Sunday but had to rope off that part of the shop which sold chocolate and magazines. I guess that is what most of us think of when we think about The Sabbath. Scottish Sabbatarianism and the Lord's Day Observance society; joyless fanaticism or arbitrary hair-splitting.

If we are not very careful, we are going to read this very English attitude into these stories. Jesus represents the relaxed liberals who don't mind a cup of tea and a dance and some scones and perhaps even a couple of pints of beer. The Pharisees represent the uptight old matrons who close down the taverns and won't let kids play football on Sunday, even if that means forgoing their Olympic gold medal. Jesus represents sensible English people and the Pharisees represent Johnny Foreigner with his rules and his rosaries and his prayer mats. Jesus represents us and the Pharisees represents them. Roses are reddish, violets are blueish, if not for Jesus, we'd all be Jewish.

There was once a schoolboy who was suppose to write about this passage for his R.E homework. His essay began "The Pharisees were very wicked men, and thank God that we are not like them!" Somewhere along the line a point seemed to have been missed.

As a matter of historical fact, the Pharisees were a sect within Judaism: they believed that the tablets of the Law were supplemented by an oral teaching which God told Moses about, but which Moses never wrote down. (This oral Torah eventually became the Talmud, so today's orthodox Jews are indirect descendants of the Pharisees.) I was brought up to think of the Pharisees as obsessive literalists; but in fact, it was the Sadducees, who will hear from in a few chapters, who believed in following the exact text of the Torah. If anything, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for being too free and easy in their interpretation.

That kind of split is not at all unusual in religions. Some Muslims follow only the literal text of the Koran; others think it has to be interpreted in the light of the Prophet's life and the teachings of his immediate successors. Some Christians believe in Scripture Alone; others call on a great body of infallible tradition. Some Star Wars fans believe only in the eleven canonical movies; others pay attention to the comic books and computer games as well. 

The more texts there are; the more commentaries on the texts; and the more opinions on those commentaries; the more possible it is for two people to sincerely disagree about what the holy book actually says. This allows for some flexibility: you can usually find a loophole or some wiggle room which allows you to apply the letter of the law to a modern situation in a pragmatic way. But there is always a danger that this approach will turn religion into a game for experts. Only people who have mastered all the books and all the commentaries can know the proper religious thing to do under a particular set of circumstances. Which gives a great deal of power to the people who have spent their lives studying the texts, and puts individual conscience on the back burner.

The Scribes and the Pharisees don't represent Jews in general or even prissy Methodist Aunties with a hang-up about card-games. What they represent is theoreticians: people who think that religion is a subject.

That is the joke which this second section of Mark's Gospel seems to turn on. A crack has opened up in the sky. God is walking around the Galilean countryside disguised as a carpenter. Devils are running away from him. Crowds are being drawn to him. Sick people are getting better just by being near him. Tax collectors are giving up collecting taxes, and, perhaps more remarkably, fishermen are giving up fishing.

So: what kind of people would be least happy to find God wandering around on earth? Who would be most cross if God turned up in church or temple or synagogue?

The answer, perfectly obviously, is "religious people".

and it came to pass, 
that he went through the corn fields on the Sabbath day;
and his disciples began as they went, to pluck the ears of corn.
and the Pharisees said unto him,
"behold, why do they on the Sabbath day that which is not lawful?"
and he said unto them,

"have ye never read what David did,
when he had need,
and was an hungered,
he, and they that were with him?
how he went into the house of God
in the days of Abiathar the high priest
and did eat the shewbread,
which is not lawful to eat but for the priests
and gave also to them which were with him?"

and he said unto them, 

"The Sabbath was made for man, 
and not man for the Sabbath: 
therefore the Son of Man is Lord also of the Sabbath."

I have sometimes been told by my Jewish friends that there is ludic element to following the Torah: that it is a holy game, and that getting the correct interpretation of a particular law is less important than knowing the scriptures well enough that you can argue for interpretation A over interpretation B. I don't think we are supposed to imagine that the Pharisees are shocked and horrified that Jesus's disciples have violated the holy day by nibbling bits of wheat on their way to morning service. I think we have to imagine someone plucking a bit of grass and chewing it, and one of the Pharisees saying "Aha! Gotcha! Picking grass could be seen as work, so we have caught you breaking the Sabbath on a technicality".

To which Jesus replies, "Aha, gotcha yourself! Two can play at that game..."

Jesus appeals, not to the law itself, but to a book of history (the second book of Samuel, since you ask). And he appeals to what appears to be an unrelated case. King David once allowed his men to eat consecrated bread from the temple, simply because they were hungry. (He asked permission first; and he assured the Priest that his men abstained from sexual intercourse on while they were on active service. But he did let them eat holy bread.) So it follows...

Well, what follows? Is Jesus attacking the whole idea of holiness and sanctity? "David was prepared to use sacred bread for a mundane purpose. So either David was a sinner, or it is sometimes okay to use sacred things for mundane purposes. David was not a sinner, so it follows that it must sometimes be okay to desecrate the sacred"?

Is he trying to place history above the law, individual cases above general principles. "Let's stop looking at rules and regulations, and instead look at the way admirable people actually behave and use that as our yardstick"?

Or is he somehow critiquing the validity of the Pharisee's additional teachings? "You Pharisees interpret the law in the light of your oral traditions: I say we should interpret the law in the light of the historical texts."

Or is he saying something as simple as "Pish tosh and fiddle faddle, you know jolly well that everyone fudges the law a bit when they are peckish."

I am not sure we can draw any kind of moral or religious principal out of the exchange. The question "can we nibble little bits of grass on our way to church" is not one of the pressing moral questions of our age. If we look at the story as a story, it clear enough what is being said. "The Pharisees were religious hair-splitters. But when they tried it on Jesus, he turned around and beat them at their own game."

If you want a message, perhaps that is it. Don't try to quote chapter-and-verse at God. He's better at it than you.

Just when we are resigned to Jesus and the Pharisees having a back-and-forth religious argument on a technical point, he makes a much more dramatic and sweeping claim. He again refers to himself by that strange title, Son of Man, the son of the human. And he suddenly seems to say that as the Son of the Human, he gets to decide who can do what on which day of the week.

You know who gets to decide whether or not we can work on the Sabbath? This guy. God made the Sabbath for men. So The Man is in charge of the Sabbath.

You can see why the Pharisees would be unimpressed by this. But that doesn't quite prepare us for what follows.

and he entered again into the synagogue;
and there was a man there which had a withered hand.
and they watched him,
whether he would heal him on the Sabbath day;
that they might accuse him.

and he saith unto the man which had the withered hand, 
"stand forth."

and he saith unto them, 
"is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath day, or to do evil?
to save life, or to kill?"
but they held their peace.

and when he had looked round about on them with anger,
being grieved for the hardness of their hearts,
he saith unto the man, 
"stretch forth thine hand" 
and he stretched it out

and his hand was restored whole as the other.
and the Pharisees went forth,
and straight-way took counsel with the Herodians against him,
how they might destroy him.

Since Jesus returned to Capernaum, Mark has shown a rising conflict with the Scribes and the Pharisees. Up to now, Jesus has largely been prepared to answer them on their own terms. But today, on the specific question of the Sabbath, everything comes to a head.

There is a person who needs healing. It isn't a matter of life and death. No one is hungry. The man with the poorly hand could presumably have waited til after sun-down to get healed. The Pharisees are specifically there in the synagogue to see what Jesus is going to do. And what Jesus is going to do is heal the man's hand. No excuses. No clever arguments. It's a direct challenge to them.

Do you have the power to forgive sins?
Well, I can do miracles. Draw your own conclusions.

Why are you having dinner with sinners?
Because they are sick and I am a doctor.

Why aren't your followers fasting?
Because I'm here.

Why are your followers breaking the Sabbath?
Because I say so.

Are you going to heal this man, on the Sabbath?
Yes: yes I am. Look at me. Look at me breaking your Sabbath.

And the Pharisees reaction is immediate and, if we didn't already know the story, it would be quite surprising.

"Let's kill him."

Well. That escalated quickly.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Mark 2 18-22

and the disciples of John and of the Pharisees used to fast
and they come and say unto him,
"why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast,
but thy disciples fast not?"

and Jesus said unto them,
"can the children of the bride-chamber fast,
while the bridegroom is with them?
as long as they have the bride-groom with them,
they cannot fast.
but the days will come
when the bride-groom shall be taken away from them
and then shall they fast in those days." 

In the early 1970s a certain Rabbi was conducting a Passover ceremony in a certain synagogue in a well-heeled part of Beverley Hills. According to the tradition, the youngest member of the congregation asked "Why is this day different from all others?" Before the Rabbi could give the liturgical response, the unmistakable voice of Julius Marx — Groucho — growled "Because I'm here" from the back of the room.

Religions sometimes involve deliberately having a bad time because you think it is good for you, or because you think it will please God. Protestants give up luxuries in Lent. Muslims fast during Ramadan. Catholics put a small piece of barbed wire in their underpants to remind them of the crucifixion. [Check this - Ed.]

So "Why aren't your disciples fasting?" is a perfectly reasonable question for the religious theoreticians to ask Jesus. The people listening would have probably expected Jesus to give an answer along the lines of "Because it's not Yon Kipur". The disciples of the Pharisees were probably keeping a customary or traditional fast, over and above what was required by the Torah. The disciples of John the Baptist were probably on a strict "insect and honey" diet, because that's how they rolled. So all Jesus needed to say was "My disciples follow God's word; not a lot of secondary traditions and accretions."

But he doesn't. Instead, he turns up the volume by another notch. Last week it was "I will show you who has authority to send sins away..." This week it is "No one fasts during a feast. As long as I am here, everyone is deemed to be at a party." 

—Why aren't your disciples fasting?
—Because I'm here.

It is very tempting to infer a story line in which the question about fasting follows on directly from the question about socializing with sinners. This may be why the Authorized Version places the question in the imperfect tense ("the Pharisees used to fast") where almost every other version goes with the past continuous ("the Pharisees were fasting.") If the Pharisees were fasting, then it makes no sense for them to be at Levi's dinner party. But if Mark is simply reminding us that fasting is something which Pharisees did from time to time then they might perfectly well have raised the subject over dinner.

Of course it is tempting to read the text in that way. "Why are you eating with sinners? And come to that, why are you eating at all?" But I think we stay truer to Mark's style if we think of him saying "One time, the Pharisees challenged Jesus about mixing with sinners. Another time, when there was a fast on, they asked him why his students weren't observing it..."

no man also seweth a piece of new cloth on an old garment
else the new piece that filled it up taketh away from the old
and the rent is made worse.
and no man putteth new wine into old bottles
else the new wine doth burst the bottles
and the wine is spilled
and the bottles will be marred:
but new wine must be put into new bottles.

If it is a mistake to link all of Mark's little Jesus-stories into a single narrative thread, then it is also a mistake to think of Jesus's reported sayings and parables as forming a logically connected argument. Mark gives us Jesus's proverb about fasting at weddings; and then he gives us Jesus's mini-parable about patching clothes. If we are not careful we will imagine Jesus saying "No-one fasts while the couple are still at the wedding party; and from that it follows that you shouldn't patch an old suit with new material; so in conclusion, you shouldn't put new wine in old bottles." I think we are better off thinking of the different sayings as disconnected aphorisms; like a series of proverbs or I-Ching oracles. Mark is not saying "Let me summarize the main points of the Master's thesis; try and follow." He is saying "The Master said this. Another time, the Master said this. And here is a third thing the Master said. Listen to them carefully."

Sayings like "Only sick people go to the doctor" and "the wedding reception isn't over until the newlyweds leave" seem almost self-evident: more like popular proverbs than the voice of God. But once you start to think about them, they become more elusive. Is Jesus saying "Yes, indeed: tax collectors are sinners and need me to cure them. And yes, indeed the Pharisees truly are righteous and don't need my help." Or is he saying something more like "Well, okay... If you Pharisees are so morally healthy that you don't need  a doctor, I am sure you are right..."

But this third saying is rather baffling. I had to struggle to get my head round the basic imagery.

Wine ferments; as it ferments, it gives off gas. So if you put your wine down in a glass bottle, you seal it with  a cork to allow it to "breathe". A screwtop bottle could explode. If you are using wineskins made of leather, the leather stretches while the wine ferments. But leather can only expand so far. So if you reuse your wine skins—if you put unfermented grape juice in skins that have all ready been stretched—then as the wine gives off gas, the skin can't expand any further and "pop" the skins burst. Wasted wine, ruined wineskins. New wine goes in new bottles. Good. 

Similarly, cloth shrinks. So if you patch a well worn, shrunken coat with some new, unshrunken cloth, the patch gets smaller and the hole gets bigger. Wasted cloth, ruined coat, egg on face. Fine. 

But what follows from this? And does it in any way relate to the question about fraternizing with bad people on the one hand, or fasting on the other? 

A new thing is happening, or about to happen, and this new thing won't fit into the old containers. But what is this new thing? The idea that bad people need to repent? The idea that good and bad people can share a meal together? The idea that irksome religious duties are temporarily on hold? And what is the old container, which is about to get broken. Or torn. The synagogues? The interpretive traditions of the pharisees? Judaism itself? 

The House Church movement used to love this passage. Our new speaking in tongues and faith-healing won't fit into your old prayer book! We can't patch your dreary old organs with out exciting electric guitars! Come down to the mission hall and hear about how our new non-denominational denomination isn't going to have any buildings at all! Our new wine won't fit into your old bottles! We used to sing a worship song (as opposed to a hymn) which went "Come on in and taste the new wine/the wine of the kingdom/the wine of the kingdom of God..."

Is this the kind of thing Jesus is saying? My new faith is fluid and dynamic and your old faith is stretched to bursting point and full of holes?

There is certainly a lot of symbolism around wine in the Jewish faith, and there will be a lot of symbolism around wine in Christianity; but has Jesus actually said that the New Wine represents the Kingdom? And are we sure we know what the Kingdom is? And in any case, isn't old wine better than new wine? Isn't that kind of the point of wine? 

So: that's what I think we should take away from this passage, dramatically and narratively. 

Jesus's teaching was hard. Jesus's teaching was baffling. Sometimes Jesus spoke in proverbs that seem so obvious you feel you must be missing the point. Sometimes Jesus spoke in riddles that left everyone scratching their heads. 

If we go away from this passage thinking "What did he mean? What did he mean?" then we've probably understood it tolerably well.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Mark 2: 13 -17

and he went forth again by the sea side 
and all the multitude resorted unto him
and he taught them

and as he passed by he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus
sitting at the receipt of custom
and he said unto him
"Follow me"

and he arose and followed him

and it came to pass,
as Jesus sat at meat in his house,
many publicans and sinners sat also together with Jesus and his disciples
for there were many
and they followed him

when the Scribes and Pharisees saw him eat with publicans and sinners,
they said unto his disciples,
"how is it that he eateth and drinketh with publicans and sinners?"

when Jesus heard it, he saith unto them,
"They that are whole have no need of the physician
but they that are sick:
I came not to call the righteous,
but sinners to repentance."

Jesus goes and preaches on the beach again. Nothing special happens; nothing comes of it. 

Jesus passes a taxman's (1) office; he calls him; and he follows him. No conclusion is drawn. Nothing further comes of it. The tax collector is never mentioned again. 

Jesus eats a meal: the Scribes (again) and the Pharisees (for the first time) want to know why he is hanging out with bad people. Jesus replies with a statement of proverbial common sense. You don't go to the doctor when you are well. 

Three scenes; three vignettes; three moments in time. Jesus preaches; Jesus converts a bad guy; some religious guys ask Jesus a question. 

The first chapter of Mark's Gospel had a fairly definite narrative arc. Chapters two and three have no narrative continuity at all. Clearly, Levi had not set his tax booth up on the beach, near the fisherman and the lobster pots and the candyfloss vendor. "He walked by the sea" and "He passed Levi the tax collector" are two different events. Maybe the different events all happened on one day and in that order. It's possible. Jesus healed the handicapped man and then Jesus preached on the beach and then Jesus met Levi and then Jesus had dinner with some bad guys. But why that day in particular, rather than hundreds of others? And what difference would it make if those events had taken place in a quite different order or on different days?

The king died and then the queen died is a story: the king died and then the queen died of grief is a plot. Mark chapters 2 and 3 have no plot. 

At least two of Mark's original readers were unhappy with this fragmentary approach. They rewrote Mark's book; revised it and retold it. They stuck very closely to his sequence of events; they followed his text almost word for word. But they both, in quite different ways, tried to bring in a plot. Their names were Matthew and Luke.

I was about to type "I am afraid this next bit is very boring." But I only ever say that about things I find intensely interesting. What I really mean is "I've been thinking about this all week, and I am still not sure if I have explained it quite right. You may need to read it twice."

Here is Matthew, rewriting Mark. He has rehearsed the story of the cripple on the roof but skipped the bit about Jesus preaching on the beach: 

“And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.” 

Matthew has turned "Levi son of Alphaeus" into "a man named Matthew". This is a big improvement, because an otherwise wholly obscure man named Matthew appears on the role-call of the twelve apostles. The story of the calling of Levi made Matthew think of the story of the calling of Simon and Andrew and James and John a few pages earlier. So Matthew has given the story of Levi a point. It isn't a random example of how Jesus called some fellow named Levi: it's about the conversion of one of the big Twelve. And it establishes that one of the hated tax collectors was a member of Jesus's inner circle. 

If you have spent a lot of time listening to Christian preachers then you probably just took it for granted that the apostle Matthew sometimes went by the name of Levi. Franco Zefferilli made a nice little scene out of it in the Jesus of Nazareth film. The tax collector introduces himself as "Matthew or Levi — I am known by both names" and Peter snarls "Yes, and others..." But Matthew-also-known-as-Levi is a continuity hack to smooth over the fact that Matthew changed Mark's text. 

Here, on the other hand, is Luke. He also skips the "Jesus went to the beach" part, but he leaves Levi's name unchanged:  

"And after these things he went forth, and saw a publican, named Levi, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he said unto him, Follow me. And he left all, rose up, and followed him. And Levi made him a great feast in his own house: and there was a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them." 

Luke has found a different way of folding the story of Levi into the story arc. He draws a narrative connection between the calling of Levi and Jesus's argument with the Pharisees. Jesus, he says, is eating with the publicans and sinners because Levi invited him to dinner at his place. That is what has made the Scribes so cross. 

Mark wrote "while he was sitting at dinner at his house" ("reclining of him at the house of him"). If we treat Mark's vignette as a stand alone fragment we would probably assume that "his house" meant Jesus's house, and translate the passage along the lines of "There was this one time when he was having dinner at his house.." Once the story is placed alongside the calling of Levi, it is very tempting to take it to mean "while he, Jesus, was having dinner at his, Levi's, house" or, for that matter "while he, Levi, was having dinner at his, Jesus's house." English translators tend to redact Mark to make him more consistent with Luke (and therefore less consistent with Matthew). "While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house" says the New International Version. "Later on, Jesus was having a meal in Levi's house" say the Good News Bible.  

There is nothing wrong or heretical about the invention of Levi-surnamed-Matthew. There is nothing wrong or heretical about the idea of Jesus reclining at the house of Levi. Wikipedia tells me that there is at least one famous painting of Jesus-at-the-house-of-Levi. Many a good sermon has been preached about how Matthew the tax collector, a collaborator, and Simon the Zealot, a revolutionary, were both among Jesus twelve. But you could draw a good homily out of the disconnected Levi verse, as well. . 

"Jesus is preaching to huge crowds: but we don't know their names or what happened to them. But the Bible records the salvation of this one particular sinner by name. This shows that God cares about every one of us, individually. It reminds us that there is more rejoicing in heaven when one sinner repents than over ninety righteous people. There were thousands of stories in the city of Capernaum: this was just one of them." 

We are inclined to resist the idea of Jesus's house because we have the image of Jesus as a wandering hobo with nowhere to lay his head fixed firmly in our minds. I think that "his house" means "the house where he was staying"—- which is to say Simon's house. I am attracted to the comic potential of the idea. Simon must have already been pretty cross with Jesus for healing his mother-in-law; then the house is besieged by sick folk; then Jesus runs away in the middle of the night without saying goodbye. Jesus hasn't been back for five minutes before some stranger starts knocking holes in the roof; and then all the local ne're-do-wells come and gate crash dinner (leaving Simon to foot the bill). But of course, I am reading all that into the text. Mark is ambiguous: that is a fact about Mark's Gospel. Matthew and Luke are less ambiguous: that is a fact about Matthew and Luke.   

If you read the Waste Land and find it baffling then it is a pretty good working assumption that T.S Eliot wanted you to be baffled by it. The clever-clogs who comes along and explains that it's all about the death of Buddy Holly is treating it as a cross-word clue, not a poem. Clever critics can come up with clever theories about who Godot (2) was or why Hamlet (3) didn't stab the King right away; but when you are actually in the theater the only helpful answer is "nobody knows".  That has to be our starting point for talking about either Hamlet or Godot. The one fact we can all agree on is "They are plays which contain a question which has no answer." 

So. Try to accept the text of Mark for what it is. Three incidents. A walk on a beach; the calling of a publican; a religious argument over dinner. We are quite free to connect the dots if we want to. Very probably that is what Mark wanted us to do. The Church Fathers sanctified Matthew and Luke's adaptations. But we should pay much more attention to the dots which Mark actually drew and less to the lines which we have sketched in ourselves.

See also: "fan fiction". 

and he went forth again 
by the sea side
and all the multitude resorted unto him 
and he taught them" 

It's probably an accident of the King James Translators and our historical relationship to them; but I find that rather beautiful. Rather poetic. A kind of holy haiku. Don't you?

Next: Wine

(1) A publican was a civil servant; a civilian who was paid to do work for the Roman republic. But while our English versions says that Jesus was eating with publicans, Mark quite specifically says that Jesus was eating with telonai, tax collectors. When he called Levi, he was sitting at the telonion, the tax office. The telonai were Jews who collected taxes on behalf of the Romans — a distinctly shady business. All tax collectors were publicans, but not all publicans were tax collectors. In my Highly Inaccurate Paraphrase, "tax collectors" will be rendered as "racketeers."

(2) Death. Everything is filling time until he arrives. 

(3) Hamlet, Hamlet, acting barmy;
Hamlet, Hamlet, loves his mummy;
Hamlet, Hamlet, hesitating;
wonders if the ghost's a cheat and that is why he's waiting.

Monday, July 01, 2019

Mark 2 1-12

After my last set of essays, reader Aonghus Fallon commented that “Christ’s story isn’t really a very good story”. Mark’s gospel, considered as a whole, wouldn't score very highly according to the rules of Aristotelian poetics or a modern screen-writer's system of "beats". 

This may be true. 

But suppose that instead of one long and unsatisfactory story, you had a collection of small stories. Suppose that "stories about Jesus" are a genre, in the way that "stories about Robin Hood", "stories about Anansi" and, come to that, "stories about my friend Paddy who used to work on a building site….." are genres. 

There’s a crowd. There is this one person in the crowd who wants to get close to Jesus. They climb a tree or grab his clothes or shout out as he passes. But once that person does get close to Jesus, Jesus takes the wind out of their sails. He says something they weren’t expecting: a demand, a promise, even a reproach. Some religious theoreticians are in the background; complaining, moaning, plotting. Jesus undercuts them, perhaps indirectly. Then miracle actually happens. Jesus draws a conclusion. It's a very simple conclusion; almost a proverb. Until you start to think about it; and then suddenly it slips through your fingers. 

Let’s drop my idea of Mark the Elder, sitting in the catacombs, spinning a yarn to a group of enraptured children. Let’s imagine instead a Mark who comes up to us in the street, or in the tavern, or the synagogue... 

Hey. Want to hear a Jesus story? I've got a new one. It's one of the best…. 

and again he entered into Capernaum after some days
and it was noised that he was in the house
and straight-way many were gathered together,
insomuch that there was no room to receive them,
no, not as much as about the door,
and he preached the word unto them

A few pages ago, Jesus slipped out of Simon’s house, early on a Sunday morning, and went on a tour of the neighboring towns. Now he’s come home. He seems to slip into town fairly quietly, but once news gets out that he's back the crowd assembles again. 

This time, Jesus is not said to be "proclaiming" or "announcing" the good news; nor is he said to be "teaching" a new and authoritative doctrine. This time he is simply said to be “speaking the word”. "Word" has been loaded up with theological baggage over the years: but I wonder if at this point it needs to mean any more than "he was saying some words to them"? 

I think we have to imagine Jesus giving a seminar to a fairly small group who have managed to squeeze into an inside room, while hundreds of people are waiting outside. (Fishing is a steady job, but presumably Simon and his family were living in quite a modest property.) Jesus is sitting down; his students are sitting around him. There’s no room for anyone else to come inside. 

Jesus is becoming more and more famous. Last time he was here, all the sick people in town gathered at the door. This time there are so many people that most of them can’t even get as far as the door. 

and they come unto him
bringing one sick of the palsy which was borne of four
and when they could not come nigh unto him for the press
they uncovered the roof where he was
and when they had broken it up
they let down the bed wherein the sick of the palsy lay

"And the Lord said 'If I had to spent my whole life on a stretcher, I'd be pretty sick of the palsy too.' And they were filled with joy and cried out: 'Lord, thy one-liners are as good as thy tricks!'" 

Oh don’t be so pi. That's what you were thinking of it as well.

"Palsy" is a perfectly good seventeenth century word; we still use “cerebral palsy” to describe someone who is physically impaired as a result of a neurological condition. But the Greek word paralytikon maps perfectly well onto our word “paralysis”. 

"The press" is a very good seventeenth century word for a huge group of people. It conveys the sense of everyone being squished together and stepping on each others toes. The King James Version generally prefers "crowd" or "multitude." I always thought that modern English referred to reporters and photographers as "the press" because newspapers are printed on printing presses. But I suppose they are really "the press" in this older sense—the crowd that is perpetually pressing in on famous people. If I were writing a painfully right-on young-people's version of the Bible I would be tempted to say "They couldn't get near Jesus because of the paparazzi." 

Jesus left Capernaum because all anyone was interested in was his magical healing powers. Now he’s come back and he's sitting in a small venue doing an intimate gig for people who actually want to hear what he has to say. So, naturally, a person in genuine need gatecrashes the seminar. Through the roof. 

Yes, of course, roofs were much less durable in first century Capernaum than in modern Clifton. Yes, of course, it was a thatched roof, or maybe just some reeds to keep the rain out. Yes, of course, houses were often dug into the ground like on Tatooine, not built up with bricks like in Cockfosters. But don't spoil the moment. It's grotesque and it's funny and it's building up towards a great punch line. Even in the year zero, people wanting to attend a study group didn't generally enter via the ceiling.

when Jesus saw their faith 
he said unto the sick of the palsy
“Son, thy sins be forgiven thee”

Having lowered him in through the roof, the disabled man’s carers have no way of getting him out again. The only way he is leaving is through the front door. This is presumably what Mark means when he says that Jesus saw their faith. They were completely confident that Jesus was going to cure their paralyzed friend.

So Jesus pretends to have completely missed the point. Or, at any rate, he answers a completely different question to the one he is being asked. He does that a lot. 

If you were reading this story for the first time, I think you would expect it to be all about the paralyzed man's reaction. Was he disappointed? Did he beg Jesus for healing? Or did he understand that it is much better to be forgiven but handicapped than unforgiven and able-bodied? (Faith healers are normally good at that kind of thing. They put up posters saying that if blind people, deaf people and wheelchair users come to the mission tent tonight, God will miraculously heal them; and when no-one shows any signs of being miraculously healed they say “Oh, how shallow of you to assume I meant only physical healing.”) 

—Are you the guy who exorcises demons and cures people of leprosy….
—I am.
—Well have you seen my, like, legs….
—I have, and I have also seen how strongly you believe in me.
—So could you possibly see your way to…. 
—Yes; I could: your sins are forgiven.
—Oh. Great. Thanks a bundle.

But in fact, the story turns on a double twist. We don’t see the reaction of the paralyzed man or his carers: we turn instead to some of the students in Jesus's class. 

but there were certain of the Scribes sitting there
and reasoning in their hearts
“Why doth this man thus speak blasphemies?
Who can forgive sins but God only." 
and immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit 
that they so reasoned with themselves, 
he said unto them 
"Why reason ye these things in your hearts? 
whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy 'thy sins be forgiven thee' 
or to say 'arise and take up thy bed and walk?' 
but that they may know that the son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins" 
he saith unto the sick of the palsy 
"I say unto thee arise, and take up thy bed and go thy way into thy house" 
and immediately he arose 
took up the bed 
and went forth before them all 
insomuch as they were all amazed
and glorified God saying 
“We never saw it on this fashion” 

We have already heard about these Scribes. Remember the reaction of the people who first heard Jesus preach in the synagogue? They said "Well, he's better at this than the Scribes."

Our English translation is a little unhelpful here. What the Scribes literally say is "who apart from God has the power—the dynamai—to forgive sins. Jesus replies that he has the exousian, the authority, to do so. And that was what those who heard him preach on that first morning said. Jesus seemed to have authority. The Scribes did not. The Scribes have in fact understand the situation perfectly well. This is no longer about the paralyzed man. Jesus has just made, almost in passing, an incredibly hubristic claim about himself. 

—Your sins have gone away. They have been sent packing, says Jesus 
—Hold on a moment, say the Scribes. Does he actually have any right to say that? 

Remember C.S Lewis's knock-down, infallible, works every time proof of truth of Christianity? Jesus claimed to be the Son of God; and so it logically follows, unless he was mad or evil, that he actually was God. And he wasn't mad or evil. I don't propose to go through the strengths and weaknesses of that argument all over again. (My own position hasn't changed in the last thirty-five years: it is a very good argument to deploy against semi-Christians who think that Jesus was a great guy but not the Son of God; but completely unhelpful if you are debating with someone who is skeptical about the whole thing.) I only mention it because in this passage, Jesus does not claim to be the Son of God. Not exactly; not in so many words.

Jesus could have said: no, as a matter of fact, you are mistaken. Any good person has the power to make sins go away. God has delegated that power to everyone. To me, for example.

Or he could have said, yes, you bet your ecclesiastic boots that only God has the power to forgive sins. And look at me, here I am, forgiving sins. So what does that tell you about me?

Instead, he gives a rather coy, rather evasive answer, and then, almost casually, performs a miracle. 

—Does anyone but God have the power to forgive sin?
—Let me show you: I have the authority to forgive it. 

He doesn't even say "I". He says "ho huios tou antrhopoi": the son of the human. (In Aramaic that would have been ben adam, son of Adam. I expect C.S Lewis knew that.) 

"I need you to know that the son of the human has the authority on the earth to make sins go away." 

What does he mean? Perhaps he means human beings or people in general. That would be a reasonable way to understand “the son of the human”. Let me show you that the sons of Adam do indeed have the authority to forgive each other's sins. 

Or perhaps he was using a circumlocution; talking about himself in the third person. That makes some sense as well. Oh? So only God has the power to forgive sins? Well let me show you who else has the authority—this guy!

But in this context, it does seem that "the son of the human"—Son of Man—is being used as a title; almost a royal designation. 

—But….but….but….Only God can forgive sins. 
—No. The Man has that authority. 

"So", said Mark, "That’s my new Jesus story." 

"But what does it mean? Is he saying that he is God, or that God has leant him his powers for a bit? What does it mean to send someone’s sins away? What happened to the crippled man afterwards? Who fixed Simon's roof?"

"Yes", said Mark. "I expect those are the sorts of questions he intended you to be asking."

Next: Tax Collectors vs Lawyers 

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