Reflecting on Mark for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 6:7-13

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In the Jewish tradition of hospitality (see Gen 18:18; 19:13; Job 31:32), it was common for travelers to be welcomed spontaneously into homes along their way, especially since not every village boasted an inn. Jesus instructs the Twelve to stay in whatever house they enter, not moving about from house to house.

The reason may be to avoid any rivalry or jockeying for prestige that could arise among villagers wishing to host them. Nor may the apostles upgrade their accommodations. Like Jesus, they were likely to be besieged by crowds once they began the ministry of healing and exorcism in a given town (see Acts 8:6), and staying in one place would limit unnecessary distractions.

The stakes involved in accepting or refusing the gospel are high. Jesus equates the response given to his apostles with a response to himself (see 9:37). To welcome them is to welcome him. And to refuse to listen is to forfeit his invitation to eternal life (see 8:38; 16:16; John 3:18).

To shake the dust off one’s feet was a symbolic gesture of repudiation (Acts 13:51), meant as a solemn warning to those who rejected the apostles’ message. For Jews, the soil of Israel was holy (see 2 Kings 5:17; Isa 52:2); upon reentering the land after a journey they would shake the pagan dust off their feet as a sign of separating themselves from Gentile ways. This gesture would serve as a testimony against such unreceptive villages on the day of judgment. It is also a reminder to the apostles not to be discouraged by the resistance they will sometimes encounter. Their job is to carry out their mission obediently; success is in the hands of God. No one can be compelled to accept their message.

Mark describes the apostles’ preaching in the simplest of terms: like John the Baptist (1:4), they preached repentance (metanoia), the call to turn away from sin and toward God in a complete change of heart. The fullness of the Christian gospel, the victory of the crucified and risen Lord, can be proclaimed only after the resurrection. But their message, like that of Jesus, carries authority (6:7); it is accompanied by works of power that serve as visible signs confirming its truth.

 

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 6:1-6

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According to his usual custom (Mark 1:21, 39; 3:1), on the Sabbath Jesus enters the synagogue to teach. At first the villagers seem to react in the same way as other audiences: they are astonished at his wisdom and authority (1:22; 11:18). But in this case it is an astonishment at what seems inappropriate and out of place to them. To their minds Jesus is just “one of the guys,” someone they have known all their lives. They had never seen anything extraordinary about him. All this itinerant preaching and miracle-working seems to them to be putting on airs.

Where did this man get all this? Their questions display not a sincere pursuit of truth but rather indignant skepticism. They are asking the right questions, which all the readers of the Gospel are meant to ask, but with the wrong attitude. They cannot accept that the answer might be “from God.” Wisdom and mighty deeds (dynameis) are attributes of God himself (Jer 10:12; 51:15; Dan 2:20), and Scripture often refers to the great deeds accomplished by God’s “hand” (Exod 32:11; Deut 4:34; 7:19). But the people cannot bring themselves to draw the logical conclusion of their reasoning.

The villagers deem that Jesus’ hands would be put to better use by returning to his former occupation: woodworking (the Greek word for carpenter, tektōn, can also mean builder or craftsman). Their reference to Jesus’ family members by name shows their close familiarity with his background. Only in Mark is Jesus referred to as the son of Mary, an unusual designation since Jews customarily referred to sons in relation to their fathers (Matt 16:17; Mark 10:35). It may have been a veiled slur, alluding to the fact that Mary was not yet married at the time of Jesus’ conception (see John 8:41), or perhaps simply an indication that Joseph was deceased.

Their questions suggest that they have pigeonholed Jesus: they are confident that they know all there is to know about him. So they took offense at him (skandalizomai, meaning to stumble over an obstacle). The idea that their hometown carpenter, Jesus, could be inaugurating the kingdom of God was scandalous; it did not conform to their preconceived ideas about how God would and could act. And their attachment to their preconceived ideas became an obstacle to faith.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 5:21-43

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Who touched me? The disciples think Jesus’ question is absurd, given the thronging crowds. As on other occasions where he is about to display his sovereign power, they completely miss the point. They even feel obliged to help their Lord gain some common sense and realism (as in 6:35–37; see John 11:12, 39). But their perplexed reaction only reveals how much they still have to learn.

What made the woman’s touch unlike that of all the others in the crowd was her faith. She had wanted to touch Jesus’ garment lightly, without attracting any attention to herself, whereas others were jostling roughly against him. Yet her touch was more efficacious than all the rest, because through faith it came into contact with the person of Jesus and his healing power.

Jesus looked around, desiring that she meet his gaze and enter into a relationship with him. As soon as the woman realizes Jesus is seeking her out, she is afraid. And no wonder, because by deliberately touching another person she has just breached the rules regarding ritual impurity. But as the leper discovered (1:41), it is impossible to make Jesus unclean; rather, his touch makes the unclean clean.

The woman’s fear and trembling expresses not merely timidity but human awe at the mighty deeds of God, as at the calming of the storm (4:41; see Exod 15:16; Ps 2:11; Jer 33:9). She already knows she has been healed (Mark 5:29) but perhaps at a deeper level now, she realizes what has happened to her: she has come into contact with the Lord. She falls down before Jesus (a gesture of homage, as in v. 22), and confesses her daring act.

Far from reprimanding her for her boldness, Jesus reassures her, addressing her affectionately as daughter. Like all those who “do the will of God” (3:35), she is welcomed into his family. Jesus will later commend Bartimaeus with the same words: Your faith has saved you (10:52). The Greek verb sōzō, used here in verses 23, 28, and 34, means both “save” and “heal.” The woman’s faith has opened her to receive not only physical healing but also the ultimate salvation of body and soul that it prefigures.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 4:35-41

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The Sea of Galilee is known for the violent storms that can arise without warning, as wind is funneled through the steep valleys among the hills surrounding the lake. In this instance the gale is so fierce that it terrifies even seasoned fishermen. Waves come crashing over the boat, swamping it and threatening to sink it. Yet in the midst of this fury, Jesus is in the stern, asleep. Anyone who has ever been in a violently storm-tossed boat has reason to think that this ability to sleep through the storm was the first miracle! Jesus exemplifies the perfect trust in God that is often signified in Scripture by a peaceful and untroubled sleep (see Job 11:18; Ps 4:9; Prov 3:24).

But his serenity is not shared by the disciples, who awaken Jesus with a stinging reproach: Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing? It is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus has been called “Teacher,” having just completed a day of teaching (Mark 4:1–34). This time there will be a powerful lesson of faith, learned by experience. The tone of the disciples’ question suggests that they have a vague idea that Jesus can do something about the storm, but they think he is indifferent to their desperate plight, as if he has no concern for their safety or survival. How often God’s people reproach him this way, from the Old Testament (see Exod 14:10–11; Num 14:3) to this day.

Jesus does not leave his disciples in their panic but immediately awakens and rebukes the raging elements. He does not pray that God would calm the storm, but commands it himself with sovereign authority: Quiet! Be still! (literally, “Be muzzled!”). Rebuked is the same word used to describe his casting out of unclean spirits (1:25; 3:12), suggesting that demonic powers somehow instigated the squall that threatens to deflect him and his disciples from their mission. In the Old Testament the sea is often viewed as a symbol of chaos and the habitation of evil powers (Job 26:12–13; Ps 74:13–14; Isa 27:1). Jesus exorcises these adverse forces of nature with the same authority with which he freed human beings from demonic oppression.

Instantly the howling wind subsides and the choppy waters become calm. The wording parallels Ps 107:28–29: “In their distress they cried to the Lord, who brought them out of their peril, Hushed the storm to a murmur; the waves of the sea were stilled.”

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 4:26-34

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It is as if Jesus is thinking aloud, searching for ways to help his listeners to grasp the mystery of the kingdom (see 4:11). Because the kingdom is a divine reality, it cannot be defined or contained in human categories. It can be understood only by using analogies, word pictures that force the listener to think and ponder at a deeper level.

Once again, the earthly reality most suitable as an analogy to the kingdom is, of all things, a tiny seed. In this third seed parable, the emphasis is on the seed’s smallness. For Jesus’ Jewish audience, the idea of the kingdom as a seed must have been quite a surprise. A more predictable comparison would be a mighty army (see Isa 13:4; Joel 2:11) or a cataclysmic earthquake (Isa 29:6). But no, the kingdom is like a mustard seed, which Jesus describes (using the device of hyperbole, or exaggeration, for effect) as the smallest of all the seeds on the earth. But once sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants (another hyperbole).

In mentioning large branches that shelter many birds, Jesus is evoking the Old Testament image of a lofty, shady tree, symbolizing an empire that grants protection to peoples of different races and tongues (Ezek 17:23; 31:6; Dan 4:9). The parable of the mustard seed thus points to the future worldwide reach of the kingdom of God. From its humble, inauspicious beginnings in Jesus’ itinerant preaching in Galilee with a small band of followers, the kingdom will mature to an immense tree in whom the Gentiles will find a home. This growth will not be due to human methods but to God’s hidden power. Jesus speaks with utter assurance of the future success of the kingdom, urging his disciples to persevere with hope and patience.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

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Mark’s whole account of the public ministry has illumined and prepared readers for what Jesus is about to do. The disciples had shared many meals with Jesus. They had learned that he overturns social and legal barriers, that he is the messianic Shepherd who feeds God’s people, and that he is able to provide more than enough to satisfy all. They had learned that he would “give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45) and be raised from the dead. Although they had not understood “about the loaves” (6:52; 8:17–21), and will still not fully understand until after the resurrection, now the mystery is being unveiled: Jesus himself is the bread, broken and given for many.

To understand Mark’s succinct account, it is important to read it in light of its setting as a Passover supper (see vv. 12–16). A Passover supper would include the traditional elements: a blessing by the head of the household, the ceremonial foods and wine, the retelling of the story of the exodus, and the singing of hymns. Jesus’ initial actions are typical of the host at a Jewish banquet, and are identical to what he had done in the two miracles of the loaves (6:41; 8:6): he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. The customary blessing was a prayer of thanksgiving to God for having provided for his people. The sharing of one loaf was a sign of the fellowship the banqueters were enjoying. Mark implies that even Judas is included in this fellowship, since he has said nothing about his departure.

According to custom the host at Passover interprets each of the ceremonial foods by relating them to the exodus. But Jesus’ interpretation goes far beyond the Passover and brings the meal to an entirely new level: Take it; this is my body. With these simple words, the Last Supper becomes a prophecy in gesture, anticipating and interpreting the passion that was to occur the next day. Jesus identifies the broken bread with his own body about to be broken on the cross. In Hebrew thought, “body” is not merely the flesh but the whole person as a physical being. Jesus is revealing that his death will be a gift of himself to them (see 10:45). By asking them to “take,” that is, to eat the bread that is his body, he is inviting them to receive this gift of himself into the depth of their being.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:2-10

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Jesus’ triumphal entry takes place among thousands of pilgrims arriving in the Holy City for the feast of Passover (14:1). There is a sense of excitement and elation, as the crowd around him shouts for joy and spontaneously shows him signs of honor. To spread cloaks on the road was a gesture of homage before a newly crowned king (see 2 Kings 9:13).

Mark’s description evokes an occasion some two centuries earlier, when Simon Maccabeus and his followers entered the city after their successful revolt “with shouts of jubilation, waving of palm branches . . . and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been destroyed” (1 Macc 13:51).

The crowd chants from Ps 118:25–26: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! This psalm, originally a royal song of thanksgiving for a military victory, was one of the great hymns sung by pilgrims processing into the temple for a festival. Jesus will later apply it specifically to his coming passion and resurrection (Mark 12:10–11).

Hosanna is a Hebrew word that originally meant “Save us!” but in liturgical usage had become a shout of praise or acclamation, much like “Hallelujah!” The blessing on “he who comes in the name of the Lord” was a customary greeting, but also has a deeper significance: Jesus comes in God’s name as his faithful representative, who will perfectly accomplish his will.

The cry, Blessed is the kingdom of our father David that is to come! Expresses messianic hope, but without directly acknowledging Jesus as Messiah. The people’s enthusiasm is genuine, but they do not seem to recognize that the time of fulfillment has already arrived (1:15), and that the kingdom has come in the person of Jesus himself, the “son of David” (10:47). Nor do they realize that his kingship will be exercised not in a political restoration of the Davidic monarchy, but on the cross.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Second Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:2-10

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The Transfiguration, like Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11), is a Trinitarian event, with the Holy Spirit’s presence now symbolized by the cloud rather than a dove. Just as at the baptism, the heavenly Father gives audible testimony to his beloved Son. At the baptism God had addressed Jesus himself; now he speaks to the disciples about Jesus, revealing a status that far exceeds that of Moses and Elijah.

This testimony to Jesus (here and at his baptism) is the only word the Father is recorded as saying in the Gospels, since Jesus is the fullness of all that he has to say to humanity.

The command to Listen to him recalls Moses’ promise that God would one day raise up “a prophet like me . . . from among your own kinsmen; to him you shall listen” (Deut 18:15). The disciples are to listen to everything Jesus has to say, but especially, in the context of the conversation that has just transpired (Mark 8:31–38), his prophecy about his messianic suffering and its implications for them. They have been shown a glimpse of the road far ahead: if they listen carefully and obey his commands all the way to the cross, their destiny will be joined to his, and they too will one day be transfigured with divine glory.

At the pinnacle of this experience the disciples suddenly find themselves with Jesus alone. Moses and Elijah have already accomplished their tasks, but Jesus must now complete the Father’s plan by going to the cross alone. His own life and mission will be the fulfillment that transcends all that took place in the Old Testament.

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the First Sunday of Lent

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:12-15

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As Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden (Gen 3:24), Jesus is driven out into the desert, the barren wilderness around the Dead Sea. There he remains for forty days, a number that signifies a time of testing, as Israel was tested during Moses’ forty days on Mount Sinai (Exod 24:18; 32:1), and during the forty years in the desert (Deut 8:2). Jesus relives the story of Israel, but as an obedient Son who is totally faithful in his own trial in the desert.

The desert is depicted in Scripture as the realm of evil powers, symbolized by the predatory beasts that lurk there (Lev 16:10; Isa 35:7–9; Ezek 34:25). Jesus goes there to be tempted (or “put to the test,” NJB) by Satan, that is, to be tested in his resolve to carry out his messianic mission in accord with the Father’s will. He faces the same decision as Adam and Eve in the garden (Gen 3:1–6) and Israel in the desert (Exod 15:25; 16:4)—but unlike them, he rebuffs temptation and stands fast in his determination to please the Father.

“Satan” means “adversary” and is synonymous with the devil, the prince of demons (Mark 3:23–26), who will oppose Jesus at every turn. Jesus enters into Satan’s territory deliberately, to begin his campaign against the powers of evil. He is looking for a fight! Yet he will confront Satan not with a blast of divine lightning, but in his frail human nature, empowered by the Spirit.

Mark’s mention that Jesus was among wild beasts, evidently without harm, recalls Isaiah’s prophecy that at the coming of the Messiah even wild beasts would be tamed (Isa 11:1–9; see Ezek 34:25–28), restoring God’s order to creation. The angels ministered to him, just as they had accompanied Israel in the desert (Exod 14:19) and provided food for Elijah (1 Kings 19:5–7).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Mark for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 1:40-45

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One of the most striking features of the Gospel of Mark is the theme of the “messianic secret.” Although Jesus does mighty works of healing and deliverance, he repeatedly insists that these works not be publicized (1:44; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26; 9:9) and forbids both people (8:30) and demons (1:25, 34; 3:12) to reveal his true identity. Why?

The key to the puzzle is found only after Peter’s confession of faith (8:27–30). Jesus’ messianic identity is a deeper mystery than any of his followers yet fathom, and it must be unveiled gradually.

The messiah of popular expectation was a political and military leader who would liberate Israel from Roman domination and usher in a new world of peace and prosperity. But Jesus had come to bring a much greater liberation—from the domination of sin, Satan, and death—and his mission was inseparably linked with the laying down of his life on the cross. Until that mystery was revealed, the risk was that sensational reports about his miracles would generate a false and distorted messianic enthusiasm.

Although it is easy for us in hindsight to disparage Jesus’ contemporaries for their worldly expectations, his twenty-first century followers are just as prone to misinterpret him on an earthly, superficial level—for instance, in some forms of liberation theology or in the “prosperity gospel.” The gradual disclosure of the messianic secret has to happen for every Christian, as we learn from Jesus the paradox of the cross.

As we are purified of our limited human ideas of what God’s kingdom should be, we are led into the reality that is far greater: what “eye has not seen, and ear has not heard . . . what God has prepared for those who love him” (see 1 Cor 2:9).

© 2008 Mary Healy and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.