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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