Commentary on Mark 2:1-22
Things move quickly in the opening chapters of Mark’s account of Jesus.
By the end of the first chapter, he’s gone from being just one of the crowd who had come out for John’s baptism, to being so sought-after — a Superstar, really — that he has to go into hiding (Mark 1:35); no wonder, though, since Mark records three distinct healings in the chapter (one an exorcism), and, in summary fashion, indicates there were countless more (1:32-34).
But if Mark’s Jesus generates healing and new life, he generates in equal measure conflict and opposition. In fact, Mark’s first chapter is pretty much the only one in the Gospel that doesn’t reflect some form of conflict or controversy arising from Jesus’ activity (though even here you have a reference to John the Baptist’s death, and the ominous comparison between Jesus’ authority and that of the scribes). What’s all the fuss about? What could be upsetting or dangerous about somebody healing people?
It’s Chapter 2 that really provides the first “inciting event” in the plot of Mark’s story; and it carefully foreshadows the way the main conflict in the story — between Jesus and the religious leaders — will play out. Here, in this first encounter, Jesus is accused of blasphemy for presuming God’s authority to forgive sins; it’s the same charge that will ultimately lead to his being handed over to the Romans for execution (Mark 14:64) — ironically, a death that is a “ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The centrality of conflict in Mark is also born out by the care with which Mark composes this section (unless he already received the stories in this form): the healing of the paralytic is the first in a series of so-called controversy stories, which go through 3:6. Three things hold this section together compositionally: It’s more or less a “ring composition,” or “chiasm,” in which the healing of the paralytic and its controversy (Mark 2:1-12) correspond to the healing of the man with the withered hand at the end of the series, which also generates controversy in much the same way (Mark 3:1-6); moving inward, two controversies about eating — dinner with Levi (Mark 2:13-17) and plucking grain on the Sabbath (23-28) — frame the central story about fasting, which issues in sayings about the bridegroom, the cloth, and new wineskins at the center of the composition. A skilled oral performer of the text would be able to bring this structure out in such a way that its main theme, made explicit in the centerpiece, is prominently emphasized: There’s a new kid in town with a new way of operating.
The second thing that holds the section together is the increasing level of hostility and opposition Jesus engenders from the scribes and Pharisees: first they question in their hearts (Mark 2:6); then they question his disciples (Mark 2:16); and finally, they confront Jesus himself (Mark 2:24). By the end they are so incensed that they immediately begin to plan to “destroy him” (Mark 3:6) — and this resolve hangs like a pall over the story from here on out.
Finally, the section is punctuated with pronouncements by Jesus which begin to make clear what he’s really on about: “The Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:10); “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17); “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak … And no one puts new wine into old wineskins” (21-22); and “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (27-28; this last pronouncement is underscored by Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath, 3:1-6).
These are, of course, controversies largely over Jewish law, and we have to be careful here. It’s easy to simply take Jesus’ side and dismiss the concerns of his fellow Jews — the Pharisees — for the way in which Jesus is playing fast and loose with the tradition. Such controversies over the law were — and are — the very fabric of Judaism. The Pharisees, especially the more conservative ones, believed that God had given the law as a means of carving out a sphere of holiness and righteousness on earth — the very presence of God on earth depended on it, they believed. The boundaries the law prescribed between sin and righteousness, clean and unclean, sacred time and space and profane, Jew and Gentile, and between physical imperfection and wholeness — these could not be breached without profound damage to the social and religious order. And, occupied as they were by the Romans at the time, maintaining order was paramount. These are not trivial concerns, and the trick is to highlight the contrast between the Pharisees’ vision of God’s will for humanity and that of Jesus in Mark without denigrating Judaism as a whole.
But there’s no denying that Jesus’ words and action pose a threat to the established order of things; he transgresses and subverts these boundaries at every turn — beginning already with the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-45 — fiercely proclaiming that the time has come for a new vision of things. The thread running through these controversies is that human need — for wholeness, for acceptance, for sustenance, for healing — is much more fundamental to God’s will for humanity than maintaining the present — soon to be old — order.
Indeed, what Jesus’ opponents lack — and, importantly, later in the Gospel this also comes to include his disciples! — is an understanding of what time it is: Jesus begins his ministry in Mark with the proclamation that “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near!” So what’s new about Jesus isn’t exactly what he’s saying and doing — his elevation of concern for human need over ritual observance of the law is a firm part of Israel’s tradition: “I hate, I despise your festivals,” said the prophet Amos, for example, “…but let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5; see also Hosea 6:6 — “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”). So Jesus subverts ritual boundaries not so much by introducing something completely new, but by drawing on parts of the tradition he thinks are much more in line with what God wants for and from humanity, and by implicitly — and later explicitly — accusing his opponents of maintaining the established boundaries at the expense of human need.
This lack of recognition on the part of Jesus’ opponents will have ominous consequences (foreshadowed in his saying about the bridegroom being “taken away,” Mark 2:20); the world’s present order is built not around serving human need, but about domination and drawing clear boundaries between insiders and outsiders to preserve power and status. Thus living in the way Jesus does — and that he calls his followers to do — will inevitably lead to conflict with those powers. But Mark plays a trick on us that shows this is not a conflict between the “good” church on one side and “bad” Judaism on the other: More than any other Gospel, he portrays the disciples as also lacking the insight and knowledge necessary to hear and follow Jesus, due to the same fear of such a radical new way of being in the world; they are also blind and deaf, and their own hearts are hardened (e.g., Mark 8:17-18). This is Mark’s way of turning the spotlight on his audience — on us. The fearful striving for self-preservation that prevents people from crossing boundaries for others is a human problem, and we see it today in both Jewish and Christian communities. As I write this, the Catholic Church is engaged in precisely this debate about boundaries in its Synod on the family; and we see it within Judaism in the increasing split between those who want to carve out a zone of ritual purity within Israel, and those who are concerned with Palestinian suffering and injustice (a dicey topic, I know).
In this section, Mark makes it pretty clear where he thinks Jesus stands on these issues. Do we have the courage to stand with him?
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord of forgiveness, you healed a paralytic by forgiving his sins. Forgive us, heal us, and teach us to walk in your ways. Amen.
My song shall be alway, Gerald Near