We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

First Challenge - Mark 2:1-12 (xxiii)

Lion of St. Mark, Piazza San Marco, Venice
This posting is the 23rd in a series (originally written in 1998) looking at the Gospel of Mark from the perspective of a historian. The first posting in this series is (here).

This passage, Mark 2:1-12, contains the delightful story of the four friends who carried a paralytic to Jesus to be healed and had to break into the house through the roof. We should note here something modern day preachers never mention, namely that in Mark it was Jesus' own home they broke into. That puts an interesting twist on things. The story, more largely, highlights Jesus' deep compassion for human suffering. The commentaries point out that his compassion was focused primarily on spiritual rather than physical suffering, hence Jesus at first forgives the man's sins and only secondarily heals him physically.

One of the central themes of the Gospels concerning Jesus is the fact that he came into deep, eventually fatal tension with the over class. According to Mark, Jesus went out of his way to provoke that tension, as we can see in this story of Jesus' first confrontation with members of that class. In full view of these powerful individuals, Jesus makes statements that they couldn't possibly have judged other than blasphemous. Even so, they keep quiet, maybe because they were guests in Jesus' own home or maybe they feared speaking up in front of the crowd. So, Jesus doesn't leave well enough alone but brings the confrontation out into the open and criticizes the teachers of the Law in public and to their faces. Not only that, but he almost seems to heal the paralytic physically out of spite. It's as if he felt he had to do it or lose face. One could even accuse him of showing off.

Why would Jesus do this? Mark's Jesus is clearly a perceptive individual. He must have known the consequences of challenging the over class in this way. Was he betting he could ride this particular tiger? Did he think he had the crowd on his side and so could challenge power with impunity? That's hardly likely. Historians point out that there were plenty of messiahs running around in those years and that violent death was their common lot. Jesus was nobody's fool and only a fool would have thought he could get away with what Jesus was doing. Maybe Jesus was so overcome with compassion for the paralytic that he spoke without thinking. But, why would he then compound the mistake with an open critic of the teachers of the Law? On the face of it, Jesus knew exactly what he was doing and calculated that the possible advantages of challenging authority outweighed the risks involved.