Reflecting on Mark for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 13:24-32

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Finally, Jesus comes to the climactic event that will occur after the tribulation already mentioned but in those days, that is, in the same period of unparalleled distress that follows the desolating abomination (see vv. 17, 19–20). Using biblical imagery Jesus describes cosmic upheavals: the sun and moon will be darkened, stars will fall, and the heavenly powers will be shaken. In the prophets such heavenly disturbances symbolize the earth-shattering impact of God’s judgment upon a rebellious city or empire. But what do they signify here?

On one level, Jesus is giving a symbolic portrayal of the fall of Jerusalem and the temple. For the Jews the temple was a microcosm of the universe. Images of the stars and constellations were embroidered on the temple veils; the seven lights of the menorah represented the sun, the moon, and the five known planets. The temple was the center of the universe, the meeting point of heaven and earth. Thus its destruction would be a cataclysm of cosmic proportions. In this sense Jesus’ words were fulfilled in AD 70, when the Roman legions under Titus reduced the temple to charred rubble and permanently ended the old covenant sacrifices.

But Mark hints at other levels of meaning. Jesus’ words were also fulfilled in part at his crucifixion, when the sun was darkened at midday (15:33).18 Mark has already suggested that the temple prefigures the mystery of Jesus himself, the new and definitive dwelling place of God among his people (see on 9:7; 12:10–11). Jesus’ bodily death portends the destruction of the earthly temple, bringing the transition from the former age to the new and final age of salvation history.

Ultimately the imagery of heavenly chaos—a kind of undoing of God’s work of creation (see Gen 1:14–18)—points to the end of the world (see 2 Pet 3:10; Rev 21:1). For Mark these various levels of meaning are closely interconnected. The end time tribulations begin in Jesus’ own passion, which signals the end of the age of the old covenant and ultimately the end of the universe that will follow the final upheavals at the close of history.

 

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 10:46-52

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Jesus and his companions arrive at Jericho, an ancient city fifteen miles northeast of Jerusalem, the site of Israel’s first conquest in the holy land (Josh 6). After passing through the city, they are accompanied by a sizable crowd, probably including both Jesus’ followers and pilgrims heading toward Jerusalem for the feast of Passover (Mark 14:1). Every year all Jews in Palestine who were able would travel to the holy city to celebrate Passover (see Luke 2:41), commemorating the exodus from Egypt.

Bartimaeus (Aramaic for son of Timaeus), a blind beggar, is strategically located at the roadside where he can beg for alms from passing pilgrims. In contrast to the festive crowds walking along, he sits, emphasizing his social isolation as a disabled person.

Sensing something unusual, Bartimaeus inquires and is told that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He has evidently heard enough about this miracleworking rabbi to stir his faith. Bartimaeus is the only recipient of healing in Mark to address Jesus by name.

This is also the first time in the Gospel that the title son of David has been applied to Jesus. The title literally means a descendant of David (see Matt 1:20), but for the Jews it had much greater meaning as the heir of God’s promises, the Messiah-King who would restore the Davidic monarchy and rule over Israel forever (2 Sam 7:12–16; 1 Chron 17:11–15; Ps 89:21–38; Jer 23:5–6). Moreover, one of the promises associated with the coming of the messiah was the opening of the eyes of the blind (see Isa 29:18; 35:5; Luke 4:18).

Have pity on me is a plea often lifted to God in the Psalms (Ps 6:3; 25:16; 51:3; 86:16). Blind Bartimaeus already sees much more than those around him.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 10:17-30

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Jesus puts his finger on the source of the man’s dissatisfaction. Despite his fidelity to the law, he lacks the one thing necessary (see Luke 10:42). Why does Jesus tell him to sell all that he owns? Perhaps because the man was bound by his possessions and attached to the independence they made possible. They were the earthly treasure that was hindering him from freely receiving the heavenly treasure that was being offered to him.

Jesus wishes to set the man free to follow the true longing of his heart without reserve. And the relinquishment of his possessions is not to be an abstract, isolated act: he is to place himself in solidarity with the poor by giving the proceeds to them.

The Old Testament already recognized that to give alms to the needy is to store up treasure in the sight of God (Tob 4:7–11; Sir 29:8–12). Jesus is asking this man to become as dependent on God’s providence as children, to whom he has just said the kingdom belongs (10:14). He then offers the same invitation he gave his disciples earlier (Mark 1:17; 2:14): Come, follow me. Here is where the first tablet of the Decalogue comes in: it is in giving one’s life unconditionally to Jesus that the covenant obligation to love God is lived out. Jesus is in the place of God.

Tragically, the man cannot bring himself to pay such a high price, even for the “eternal life” that he so passionately seeks. The word for possessions can also be translated “properties” or “estates.” Evidently the man finds his security and comfort in earthly wealth and he is not willing to embrace the self-denial that leads to true wealth. It is a sobering conclusion to the story, the first time that Jesus’ invitation to discipleship has been directly refused.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 10:2-16

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Now Jesus comes to the heart of the matter, the real “commandment” he wishes to draw attention to, which is given not in the fifth book of Moses, Deuteronomy, but in the first, Genesis. He quotes two passages from the story of creation, referring to humanity prior to the sin of Adam and Eve. The first, Gen 1:27, recounts God’s creation of human beings in his image on the sixth day: God made them male and female. The second, Gen 2:24, describes the covenant bond of love between husband and wife, expressed in sexual union: a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.

In biblical thought flesh is not merely the physical body but the whole human being as present in the visible world. For a husband and wife to become “one flesh” is the bodily expression of a personal union at the deepest level of their being. Jesus links these two scriptures to indicate that the communion of love between a husband and wife is a sign pointing to God’s ultimate purpose in creating humanity in his image.

With these statements, Jesus brings the discussion—and the whole understanding of marriage itself—to a new level. By the very fact of referring to humanity before the fall, Jesus is implying that from now on, God’s original intention is the true standard for marriage and other human relationships. He is saying, in effect, that the concession in Deuteronomy no longer applies because humanity is no longer captive to sin, hardness of heart, and the resultant family breakdown. Now there is a new reality at hand—the kingdom of God—with a new power to live and experience what God intended from the beginning. As Jesus has already suggested (Mark 8:31–9:1), this new possibility will come about through his paschal mystery.

Jesus concludes with his own solemn injunction: what God has joined together, no human being must separate. He thereby confirms what Genesis already implied: the union of husband and wife is no mere human convention but a bond made by God himself (see Mal 2:14–16). No human being is authorized to dissolve that bond once it has been made.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 9:30-37

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Jesus sits, the customary posture for a teacher in the ancient world (see 4:1), and calls the Twelve around him for a further lesson on discipleship. For those appointed to leadership in the community Jesus is founding (3:13–15), there is all the more need to preclude a false idea of authority. If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.

To be first means to have priority over others, as for instance the “leading men of Galilee” (literally, the “firsts of Galilee” in 6:21) had more influence, prestige, and power than ordinary folk. Jesus does not condemn the innate desires for grandeur in the human heart. But he turns human thinking on its head: the only way to fulfill these desires, paradoxically, is to put oneself last in priority. And this is not merely a pious thought; it must be expressed in concrete actions, by becoming a servant (diakonos) of all.

This was a radically unconventional idea in the ancient world, where humility and meekness were viewed not as virtues but as signs of weakness. Those in authority should expect to be served and showered with honors. No one in their right mind would aspire to be a servant. The early Church’s embrace of this new ethic was part of what made Christianity so novel and attractive to many in the ancient world. The same principle is expressed by St. Paul to the believers at Philippi: “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves” (Phil 2:3–4; see 1 Pet 5:3).

In prophetic style, Jesus follows the pronouncement with a symbolic action: he puts his arms around a child. The connection with his previous statement (v. 35) would be natural to his listeners, since the word for child (both in Aramaic and in Greek) can also mean servant.

Jesus is continuing to overturn their worldview and system of values. In ancient society, children were viewed as nonpersons who had no legal rights or status of their own. Already in the Old Testament God had revealed his special love for the lowly, who are often overlooked or oppressed by the powerful (Deut 10:18; Ps 146:9; Isa 29:19). With his gesture Jesus shows human affection for this child (see Mark 10:13–16), and at the same time teaches his disciples to have a whole new esteem for and responsibility toward those who seem the most helpless or inconsequential.

 

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 8:27-35

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Jesus’ call to radical self-denial is not mere fatalism, a grim resignation to harsh fate. Nor is he saying that suffering and death should be accepted as good in themselves. Rather, the Christian paradox is that death is the way to the fullness of life. The Greek word for life, psychē, can also be translated “soul” or “self.”

On one level Jesus is warning of the temptation to deny him under threat of persecution (see 8:38), a very real temptation for the early Christians in Mark’s audience. But to wish to save one’s life means more than merely avoiding physical death. It means being so ruled by the human instinct for self-protection and self-promotion that all other values have lesser priority. Such attachment to self will lead only to corruption of the self, and ultimately to eternal death.

The positive side of the equation is that whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel will save it. The only way to preserve oneself—to attain the ultimate fulfillment for which we are created—is to be willing to give oneself away. With the phrase for my sake, the absoluteness of Jesus’ claim appears for the first time.

Jesus is asking more than any general ever asked of his soldiers or any religious leader ever asked of his adherents. He is not merely demanding a willingness to die for a great cause; he is calling for an unconditional, personal allegiance to himself. Whoever loses his life is to do so for the sake of Jesus and his good news. No greater motive is necessary or possible. But this is the very thing that Jesus will do for us: he will give his life (psychē) as a ransom for many (10:45).

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 7:31-37

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When Jesus arrives in the Decapolis he meets with a very different reception than on his first visit, when the people begged him to leave (5:17). Perhaps his way has been prepared by an unlikely evangelist: the liberated demoniac, who broadcast to the whole region what Jesus had done for him (5:20).

Now the inhabitants recognize Jesus as a worker of mighty deeds who has compassion on the afflicted. So they bring to him a deaf man, begging him to lay his hand on him (as in 5:23). The rare word for speech impediment (mogilalos) appears only once elsewhere in Scripture, in the Greek translation of a prophecy of Isaiah: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; Then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the dumb will sing” (Isa 35:5–6).

This exultant promise refers to the joyful return home of the Jews after their exile in Babylon, but Mark is hinting that the Gentiles too are now heirs to these blessings. Previously deaf to God and mute concerning his saving deeds, now, in response to his mighty works of healing, they are able to hear his voice and sing his praises.

Many of Jesus’ healings take place in full public view (see 3:3), but here, in contrast, he takes the man off by himself (see also 8:23). This detail suggests that Jesus intuitively understands the unique needs of each person. For some people it is important to have a private encounter, away from the stares of the crowd, so that Jesus can minister to their needs one-on-one. Jesus performs the healing in no less than seven steps, as if speaking in sign language so the deaf man can follow what he is doing.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

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The third section is the climax, in which the point of the whole discussion (7:1–23) comes to light. After his lengthy criticism of the “traditions of the elders” (vv. 6–13), Jesus now goes back to answer the question about his disciples eating with unwashed hands (v. 5).

As will become clear it is no mere matter of lax discipline. So significant is the following pronouncement that Jesus summons the crowd so that all might hear it. He prefaces it with a solemn injunction that highlights the enigmatic nature of what he is about to say and the need to ponder it carefully: Hear me, all of you, and understand. He had given similar admonitions in 4:3, 9, 23, 24, but now there is a more direct emphasis on his own authority: “Hear me.” “All of you” may be to emphasize that his next pronouncement is intended not only for his immediate audience, but for all Christians in all generations.

Jesus first states his point in parable form to the crowds, before giving an explanation privately to his disciples (see 4:34). Nothing that enters from outside can defile a person. This statement broadens the discussion far beyond ritual washings or even oral traditions; it alters the status of a large portion of the Torah itself, the written law that is the foundation of Judaism. The verb “defile” is a legal term in the Torah (related to “unclean” in v. 2), meaning to render something unclean, unfit for worship of God or any sacred use. Much of the law of Moses concerns the distinction between clean and unclean, how a person or object becomes unclean, and what to do about it (see especially Lev 11–15; Deut 14).

Jesus is radically recasting the whole meaning of clean and unclean: external things cannot defile a person; rather uncleanness comes from within, from the deep inner wellspring of a person’s words and actions. Already in the Old Testament the prophets had decried merely ceremonial, external practices of devotion (see Isa 1:11–17; Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21–27) and taught that the true defilement is evil conduct (Ezek 36:17). But Jesus is going far beyond this to set aside the whole system of ceremonial cleanness—because in him its purpose is now fulfilled.

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

Reflecting on Mark for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Mark, by Mary Healy, commenting on Mark 6:30-34

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The previous scene ended with Jesus and his disciples going off to a “deserted place” for some much-needed rest. The moment word gets out that Jesus is taking off by boat the people anticipate where he will go and run there on foot, arriving before them. By the time the boat lands the shore is no longer deserted but lined with a “vast crowd.”

The hoped-for retreat has been sabotaged. But instead of reacting with exasperation Jesus is moved with pity at the sight of the needy crowds. This is one of the few occasions where Mark gives us a glimpse into the emotions of Jesus, here using a verb that connotes a deeply felt, gut reaction (see 1:41; 8:2). Pity, or compassion, is one of the most distinctive attributes of God (Ps 86:15; Isa 54:7–8; Hosea 11:8).

Jesus recognizes that the people are like sheep without a shepherd, a phrase often used to describe the condition of God’s people in the absence of sound leadership. As shepherdless sheep are likely to scatter, get lost, and quickly become vulnerable to predatory beasts, so when leadership fails, God’s people are likely to stray away from fidelity to him and become prey to their enemies.

After Israel had experienced centuries of incompetent, self-seeking, and corrupt leadership (as exemplified by Herod Antipas), there was a growing recognition that ultimately only God himself can adequately guide his people and provide for their needs. The prophets had announced a great promise: “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. . . . I myself will pasture my sheep; I myself will give them rest” (Ezek 34:11, 15; see Isa 40:11; Jer 31:10). Mark hints that Jesus himself is the divine Shepherd (see John 10:1–18), the fulfillment of God’s promise to care for his people directly and no longer through an intermediary.

In Matthew’s version of this incident, Jesus responds to the people’s need by healing the sick (Matt 14:14). But for Mark, Jesus exercises his saving power first and foremost by teaching. Indeed his teaching is healing, since it liberates people from their captivity to evil (see Mark 1:27). At the same time, his teaching is feeding, since by proclaiming the good news of the kingdom Jesus is satisfying their spiritual hunger.

Often in Scripture receiving divine wisdom is symbolized by eating and drinking (Prov 9:1–5; Sir 15:3; 24:18–22; Amos 8:11). Even before Jesus multiplies the loaves, the people are already feasting on a banquet of wisdom—a point made explicitly in John, where the “bread” is Jesus’ teaching (John 6:35–50).

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

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.