I am drawn to Mark’s Gospel in good part because of its simplicity. It is the least adorned of the four canonical Gospels. It does not shy away from presenting Jesus in His real human nature. It does not introduce Jesus to the reader through angelic chorus or epiphanies associated with His birth. It does not reach back through time immemorial to pronounce Him abiding with God before creation. Mark, instead, introduces us to the abrupt news that Jesus is the “Son of God” (1:1) when and in similar fashion Jesus is introduced to the startling revelation of “‘You are my Son.’” (1:11)
This is not a tranquil, gradual realization for reader or for Jesus. Mark portrays the baptism as Jesus, and only Jesus, seeing the heavens “torn apart.” The Greek word is σχίζω (sxizo). It is the same verb used at the end of the Gospel to describe the violent tearing of the Temple curtain upon the death of Jesus. It is the root of the English word schism, which is the tearing away of one part of the church from another. It is a forceful even terrifying revelation in the sense that Jesus is confronted with a reality that is imposing and daunting.
There must have been persuasions before this dramatic moment, but they seem to have left Jesus wondering about who He is and what He is supposed to do. This is why Jesus travels from Nazareth to John the Baptist out in the Judean desert. Jesus is searching. Then, when God answers, it is as if the heavens were torn apart. This is not the clouds parting gently and a warm ray of sunshine alighting on Jesus’ face. This is a revelation that “drove” Jesus farther into the desert to face the temptation of what this all meant. The trial is depicted in the mythical terms of Satan, wild beasts and angels, but the heart of the matter is that Jesus struggled mightily with the meaning and purpose of His life ahead.
This struggle is repeated for the reader. Mark is the oldest written story of the life of Jesus. Behind the Gospel, there is an early Christian community that must have wondered about its own story and its own place. How is it that they had come to believe when so many others would not? The whole of the Gospel seems to whisper the amazement that the life and teaching of “the carpenter” (6:3) from Nazareth has survived, that even these 40 years later a community of faith has gathered and has persevered, and now desires to pass along to future generations its story of Christ.
Mark realizes that this mystery of faith must be repeated person after person, generation following generation. The choice to believe must be based on a personal encounter with the risen Christ, not unlike the experience of Proust’s Madeline cookie. This is why Mark’s Gospel closes so abruptly. There is not a single vision of the risen Lord. Rather, three women encounter “a young man, dressed in a white robe” (16:5) who informs them that Jesus “has been raised.” This so terrifies the women that “they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (16:8) And the Gospel closes. To witness the risen Saviour is not for others to speak to the fact, but for the reader to struggle with the faith and hopefully experience the risen Christ directly.
I appreciate this connection of struggle. It brings Jesus closer to me. I believe in His divinity, but I cherish His humanity. Jesus is an approachable, empathetic God. He does not only atone as if His most meaningful connection is with me as a sinner. Jesus stands at-one with me as a person in good times and bad, in the sacred and the mundane. He does not sit in heaven. Jesus stands with me where I need Him most. Jesus brings God close, even if that closeness sometimes strikes like an awareness of “the heavens torn apart.” I would rather be startled by Jesus than bored by God.
This unaccustomed Saviour is presented to the reader in the beautiful subtlety of a first and last miracle. I remember attending a reading at the Whatley Congregational Church. Mark’s Gospel was memorized by the presenter from start to finish. He shared the Gospel as a story-teller would in one sitting. It added a new vibrancy to the text. Often, we read the Gospel, if we read the Bible at all, in segments that are separated by a day or days. In such a situation, the connections intended by the author may be lost. I believe there is a long-distance connection between one of Jesus’ first miracles and His last.
Still in the first chapter, Mark tells of Jesus’ cleansing of a leper. The stricken man kneels before Jesus begging. He pleads, “If you choose …” (1:40) Is this only a pious humility or is there more to these desperate words? We need to remember that a leper was judged ritually unclean. The disease was an affront to God and the godly. It was not only a physical ailment; it was a spiritual one. The leper was daring to ask the miracle-worker, the acknowledged man of God, to intervene and “make me clean.” (1:40) He must have feared that Jesus’ reaction could be harsh, that how dare a sinner such as he approach and ask for a miracle from God when he was kept a distance by the law of God.
The traditional translation of Jesus’ response begins with the phrase: “Moved with pity (σπλαγχνισθείς).” (1:41) There is an alternate translation, however, that often appears as a footnote and it reads: “Moved with anger (όργισθείς).” Pity at first glance makes more sense and seems more in line with our expectations of Jesus, but I think there is merit and meaning to the alternative of anger. Jesus grew angry not at the man, the one suffering before Him with leprosy, the one who feared to approach Jesus and break the religious taboo of separation. Jesus was angered by a religious system that would teach and compel a child of God to be frightened of God in his or her most desperate moments. Jesus rejects this religious callousness of separation by dramatically touching the man, and in that touch God reaches out to him, as well. Jesus takes on Himself the ritual uncleanness of the leper. Jesus becomes at-one with him. I hear sincere compassion for the man and also a deep-felt sorrow because of the system when Jesus answers, “‘I do choose.’” (1:41)
There is much confusion surrounding Jesus that Mark does not shy away from in the body of the Gospel. As Jesus marches toward Jerusalem and the fate that awaits Him, three times He prophesies that He will suffer and die, and three times His closest followers fail to grasp what is said. Then, on the last leg of the journey, moving past the city of Jericho, probably wondering if anyone understood Him or His message, pondering the possibility that He may die in vain, Jesus hears a commotion beginning.
Blind Bartimaeus was sitting by the roadside begging for alms. As the pilgrims move past on their way to Jerusalem for Passover, Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is among them. Stories must have preceded the man. Bartimaeus begins to shout out toward Jesus. The crowd orders him silent. They are expecting Jesus to play their role of the Messiah, the conquering, mighty hero who will defeat the Romans and re-establish the glorious kingdom of David. Passover was a celebration of Yahweh’s remarkable intervention against a powerful foe. This expectation fueled the enthusiasm of the crowd marching beside Jesus toward Jerusalem. The confusion intensifies. They have no time for a blind beggar. Jesus has more important matters to undertake. Bartimaeus only yells out the louder: “‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (10:47) This is the commotion that Jesus hears, and He calls Bartimaeus over.
Opposite the reluctant leper, blind Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps up in excitement and rushes to Jesus. Jesus asks what he wants. There is no “If you choose.” Bartimaeus is clear in his answer: “‘Let me see again.’” All those of clear vision were blinded to Jesus. After an almost complete ministry, they still saw Jesus as they wanted to see the Saviour, not as Jesus had revealed Himself. They were spiritually blind. On the other hand, blind Bartimaeus could see long before the miracle. When others were looking for a Messiah to wield a sword of religious vengeance and who would relish the death and destruction wrought by an angry God, blind Bartimaeus saw a Messiah who would stop on His pilgrimage for a lone beggar beside the road. His Passover Messiah emphasized the divine care and concern for the hopeless.
Bartimaeus was healed and followed Jesus on the way joyously. This is a verse full of discipleship terminology. Bartimaeus appreciated Jesus as a compassionate Saviour. And in this, Bartimaeus brought some degree of consolation to Jesus.
The Gospel story of this early and last miracle conveys the spiritual progress that a person seeking to follow Jesus must traverse. We must move beyond the image of a fearful God and embrace and be embraced by a compassionate Saviour, by Jesus standing at-one with us. This can also be a “heavens torn apart” revelation. It may shock us with the challenge that Jesus stands at-one with us so that we may work at-one with Him in the sacred task of caring for each other and being stewards of creation. It is to move from being redeemed by Christ to then being re-born in Christ. The awareness of what we can be and what we can do as Christians may be as shocking and unexpected as was Jesus’ “‘You are my Son’” moment. And again, this is why the Gospel has no real ending … because we are still writing it every new day as we carry the compassion of Christ out into the world for people to experience.
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