Friday, May 08, 2020

Mark 9 11-33

and they asked him, saying,
"why say the scribes that Elias must first come?"
and he answered and told them,
"Elias verily cometh first,
and restoreth all things
and how it is written of the Son of man,
that he must suffer many things,
and be set at nought
but I say unto you
that Elias is indeed come
and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed
as it is written of him"

Elijah. We just can't get away from him.

Peter and James and John are coming down the mountain. They have just seen Elijah himself, come down to earth, talking to Jesus on equal terms. And then it occurs to one of them. Hang on. "I thought Elijah was meant to come first, and the Messiah afterwards. How can you be the Messiah if Elijah hasn't come yet?"

If Mark's Gospel was written to counter the prevailing notion that Jesus was Elijah the disciples might be expressing an objection that Mark himself was very familiar with. How can Jesus be the Messiah? What happened to the forerunner?

Jesus answer is, once again, rather cryptic. He seems to say three things: that Elijah will come and set everything straight; that the Son of Man is going to be rejected and hurt; and that Elijah has come already and been treated badly.

The most sense I can make of this is to say that Jesus responds to the disciples' question with a question of his own.

"Why do the Scribes say that it is necessary for Elijah to come?"

"Well, why do the Scriptures say that the Son of Man has to suffer?"

He then answers his own question, kind of:

"On the other hand, Elijah has come and suffered already."

But he prefaces his answer with a statement, almost an aside.

"Yes, Elijah does come..."

So it comes out a bit like this:

"Why do the experts say that it is necessary for Elijah to come first?"

"(Hmm...Elijah comes and puts everything back together!) Why do the scriptures say that the Son of Man will come and suffer in the future? Elijah, on the other hand, has come and suffered already!"

I think that some of the painfully free modern translations come near to the sense of the passage: the Message translation says "Elijah does come first and get everything ready for the coming of the Son of Man. They treated this Elijah like dirt, much like they will treat the Son of Man, who will, according to Scripture, suffer terribly and be kicked around contemptibly."

But again, let's admit that this is an obscure saying, and try to hang on to the general theme. There are two figures: Elijah and the Son of Man. They are both due to come any time now, or else they both are already here. They are both going to be treated badly. Move on.

and when he came to his disciples,
he saw a great multitude about them,
and the scribes questioning with them.
and straight way all the people,
when they beheld him
were greatly amazed,
and running to him saluted him.
and he asked the scribes,
"What question ye with them?"
and one of the multitude answered and said,
"Master, I have brought unto thee my son,
which hath a dumb spirit;
and wheresoever he taketh him,
he teareth him: and he foameth,
and gnasheth with his teeth,
and pineth away:
and I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out;
and they could not."
he answereth him, and saith,
"O faithless generation,
how long shall I be with you?
how long shall I suffer you?
bring him unto me."
and they brought him unto him:
and when he saw him
straight way the spirit tare him;
and he fell on the ground,
and wallowed foaming.
and he asked his father,
"how long is it ago since this came unto him?"
and he said,
"of a child.
and ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire,
and into the waters
to destroy him:
but if thou canst do any thing,
have compassion on us,
and help us."
Jesus said unto him,
"If thou canst believe,
all things are possible to him that believeth."
and straight way the father of the child cried out,
and said with tears,
"Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."
when Jesus saw that the people came running together,
he rebuked the foul spirit, saying unto him,
"thou dumb and deaf spirit,
I charge thee, come out of him,
and enter no more into him."
and the spirit cried,
and rent him sore,
and came out of him:
and he was as one dead; insomuch that many said,
" he is dead."
but Jesus took him by the hand,
and lifted him up;
and he arose.
and when he was come into the house,
his disciples asked him privately,
"why could not we cast him out?"
and he said unto them,
"this kind can come forth by nothing,
but by prayer and fasting."

Mark sure does like his exorcism stories. This one has a vividness and drama which is absent from some of the healings. It is full of detail and confusion. The demon-possessed boy foams and gnashes and shrivels. He wallows in front of Jesus. If there is any passage which you could believe goes back to an eye-witness, it is this one.

Although Jesus is far from home, in the time he has been up the mountain, word has evidently got round. So as usual, there is a mob; there are canon lawyers; and there is someone wanting healing. The disciples and the lawyers are having an argument: we never quite find out about what. When Jesus asks the lawyers what the trouble is, a man from the crowd calls out "Why can't your disciples heal my son?" For some reason, this makes Jesus very angry.

When Jesus comes down the mountain, the people are awestruck, even though he hasn't said or done anything yet. I wonder if he has literally been metamorphosed? I wonder if some actual change has come over him, which the people can perceive? Perhaps he is still wearing those super-white clothes?

Before setting out to Ceaserea Phillipi, Jesus healed a blind man. Up on the mountain, God told the disciples to hear Jesus. So: what is wrong with the man-in-the-crowds son? What does he need healing from? Of course, he is deaf and mute.

Jesus says that the present generation is apistos; without faith. He tells the man that his son can be healed if he is able to be pisteuonti; one who believes. The man famously replies "pisteuo, I believe"; but adds "help me with my apistos" my without-faith-ness. When translators attempt to provide a gloss they tend to lose the force of the text. "I do have faith, but not enough, help me to have more" turns a clear, pithy, poetic phrase into a forgettable mouthful. I believe: help my unbelief.

This brings us to one of those textual cruces we enjoy so much.

What Mark literally writes is that the man said something like:

"If anything you are able, help us, having compassion"

To which Jesus replies:

"If you are able all things are able to the believing one"

"You are able" is dyne, which is the same word as dunamis which as we keep seeing means "power". So the father of the demoniac really needs to say something like "if you have the power" and Jesus needs to reply "the believing one has the power to do anything". This is one of those times when I am rather pleased with what the Good News Bible does:

"Help us if you possibly can"

"If I possibly can? All things are possible for the person who has faith.'"

Jesus's response, "if you are able..." is a fragment of a sentence. The majority of translators think that Jesus is echoing the father's words back at him, repeating the question rhetorically.

"If you have power, help me!"

"If I have the power!"

Several translations supply additional words to make it clear that this is what Jesus meant. The Contemporary English Bible has "Why do you say 'if you can?'" and the Living Bible has "What do you mean 'if I can?'"

A few translators think that Jesus is turning the question round so it applies not to him, but to the father.

"If you have the power, help me"

"If YOU have the power."

King James pretty much stands by himself in filling in the ellipsis for Jesus. 

"If you have the power, help me!"

"If you have the have faith you have the power to do anything."

The first option makes the most sense. Jesus says that he can heal the child because he has faith in God: the man blurts out "I have faith too".

So: the exorcism happens; the boy is healed; secrecy is sworn. Jesus and the disciples go back into the house and the disciples ask the obvious question. Why couldn't we do that?

And Jesus says "Nothing except prayer has the power to drive this kind out". It's that word, dynas, again. You can only do that kind of mighty work through prayer.

Our translation says that the disciples "could not" heal the boy. It would be more accurate to say that they "did not have the strength -- the ischuo -- to do so." To which one is tempted to say: of course they jolly well didn't. Did they really think that they were going to defeat Satan using their strength? Haven't they been listening? Who is deaf, them or the demon-possessed boy?

That's why Jesus is cross. He's only been up the mountain for a few minutes, and when he gets back, nine of the disciples are trying to go up against Satan all by themselves.

Using your own strength rather than God's power could almost be seen as a form of idolatry. And of course, there is another story about a man who came down from a mountain, still glowing from an encounter with God, only to find a crowd trying to set up an idol....

and they departed thence,
and passed through Galilee;
and he would not that any man should know it
for he taught his disciples, and said unto them,
"the Son of man is delivered into the hands of men,
and they shall kill him;
and after that he is killed,
he shall rise the third day"
but they understood not that saying,
and were afraid to ask him.

Mark is still linking the stories together in a very clear narrative sequence: Jesus and the disciples set out to Mount Harmon, passing through Ceasarea Phillipi and having a crucial conversation on the way. Jesus takes the Big Three up the mountain; while the other nine try and fail to heal a deaf mute demon possessed epileptic. Then they come back to Galilee and Jesus continues briefing the disciples in private. Some commentators want the Transfiguration to have happened in Galilee; but "they left that place and went through Galilee" makes little sense if Galilee is where they already were .

What is the subject of this private tutorial? And why do the disciples find it so difficult to understand?

On two previous occasions, Jesus has said that he is going to be rejected, treated appallingly, and killed. This is not a secret teaching. He told it to the multitude, and Mark specifically says that he spoke it openly -- plainly and publicly. It wasn't couched in one of those parables that the disciples always miss the point of. But this time, when Jesus is talking very plainly indeed the disciples can't understand him.

In Ceasarea Phillipi, Jesus said "It is necessary that the Man should suffer..." 

Coming down the mountain, he said "It is written that the Man should suffer." 

But now, back in Galilee for the last time, he says "The Man is being handed over to men, and killed."

Jesus has told them before that he has to die. He has told them that he has to die because the scriptures say so. But this is the first time he has said that he will die as a result of being handed over.

The word Mark uses is paradidómi (beside-give) which could be translated as "delivered" or "handed over" or even "surrendered". But Mark has already used the word, very ominously, back in Capernaum, when Jesus first chose the Twelve. Peter and Andrew and James and John and Levi the Son of Alphaeus....and Judas Iscariot "hos kai paredoken auton". 

This is what the disciples can't understand. Jesus is going to be killed as a result of someone delivering him up. Handing him over. Surrendering him. Turning him in.

Jesus public ministry in Galilee is over. He is having a private talk with the disciples that he doesn't want anyone else to hear.

"The Man is betrayed into the hand of men" he says.

The disciples don't know what he means by betrayed. And they are scared to find out.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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AndrewSshi said...

Not a commentary on this particular text, but I'd love to see you turn your Mark read-through into a book.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I would like to do that as well. It would be pretty long, though.