Binding the Strong Man (Part Two): Samplings from Mark’s Gospel
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22, 1 John 4:7-21, Mark 1:40-2:12
Sunday, April 29, 2018 – The 5th Sunday of Easter
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
This morning we continue a thread begun last week that we’ll come back to over the course of the spring, summer and into the fall, occasionally diverting for special Sundays — exploring the particular way that the Jesus story is picked up in the Gospel of Mark—the shortest oldest of the Gospels, the four books that begin what we know as the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
At Knox-Metropolitan United Church, we, like many mainline Protestant Denominations (Lutheran, Presbyterian, Anglican) follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary, a set of readings from the Bible appointed for each Sunday in a 3-year cycle, the theory being that over the course of this cycle a congregation has followed the major narrative threads within the whole of the Bible.
Each of these 3 years (which begin incidentally, on the first Sunday in Advent) focuses on one of the 3 first Gospels known as synoptics, with sprinklings if you will, of the Gospel of John (which is much more poetic and mystical—focusing on sometimes esoteric teachings rather than narrative). This year, we are reading Mark.
I’ve titled these reflections Binding the Strong Man referring to a confrontation early in the narrative between Jesus and with the “religious” elite who accuse him of working in collusion with demonic powers, to which he replies that one cannot enter the house of a strong man to rob him without first “binding the strong man”. I think (as have others) that this phrase in micro a main thrust in the plot of the Gospel—that Mark’s Jesus has a ministry focused primarily on exposing, challenging, and ultimately revealing as impotent the powers in his context that keep the people from liberation.
As I mentioned last week, I am indebted in this, to the work of Ched Myers with whom I have been privileged to study the Gospels over the past two years at St. Andrew’s College. Ched’s Commentary (a verse by verse study aid on the Gospel) is incidentally called Binding the Strong Man and a copy of this as well as his thematic study of the Gospel Say to this Mountain can be found on the book table downstairs.
As a reminder, it is believed that Mark’s Gospel is written around 66-68 CE during the first few years of the Jewish-Roman war. This is of course about 30-40 years after the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Palestine has been under Roman rule for almost 130 years by this time and after a few generations or so of reasonable calm the violence of the first conquest has returned, and this will eventually culminate with the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, the centre of the Israelite/Judean spiritual imagination.
Mark’s version of the story of Jesus pre-dates the others we still see today by several years which is key because the others are written after the Temple is destroyed, and while not a perfect analogy, we are speaking about the sort of consciousness defining event as either of the World Wars or the attacks in New York City on September 11, events after which the people who have lived through them, simply cannot imagine their world in the same way.
I say all of this not just because I find it interesting, but to remind us that when we read these stories of Jesus, we are reading words that come from a people whose world has come apart at the seams (or in the case of Mark, things are in the process of coming apart) and they are trying to figure out what to do with the pieces they find laying around themselves.
I think sometimes, without even realizing we’re doing it, we approach Biblical texts as if they are a direct missive or message from the religious people of one age, to the religious people of today, assuming that the religious questions we ask will be answered therein. I think that by re-placing the text back into it’s own context and seeking to understand as best we can, the questions and concerns of the people from which it emerged, we find something different, which may, if we allow it, cause our faith to ask of us and our world, different sorts of questions, and we may be surprised at how often abstract theological concepts become less central, while social engagement comes to the front —spiritually fuelled, but driving us deeper into the world, with its beauty and brokenness, not separating or insulating us from it.
One more note on placing the Gospel of Mark is that it is generally considered to have emerged from Galilee which is in the North of Romanized Palestine—an area particularly devastated around the turn of the century with new towns sprinting up with Romanized names either as Administrative centres or in tribute to Rome by the dynasty of King Herod (Caesarea Phillipi/Tiberius).
So this is an area particularly disenfranchised, far from the powerful centre of Jerusalem, and where the division between the ruling class colluding with the Roman Empire is particularly evident and important.
By the time Mark is written down it also is worth recalling that the centre of the fledgling movement that will eventually be called Christianity itself is located in Jerusalem where the early leaders Peter and James are based.
It is therefore significant to notice then that the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is particularly portrayed as in conflict and confrontation with the structures of power that dominate his social landscape. Last week, in the story of Legion and the pigs in the graveyard we see how Mark’s Jesus is vividly portrayed as in conflict with the military might of Rome, and this week’s sampling sees Jesus pitted against the local elites who administer Roman rule.
This week, we hear two narratives of healing miracles, Jesus healing a leper and then paralytic, and through this sample I want to invite us to consider the role that such healing stories play in the narrative that threads through the Gospel of Mark.
I would suggest that these moments help us to see how the healing narratives are not about establishing Jesus as divine, or miraculously powerful, but as confronting two of the most essential factors in the social construction of his day—the purity and debt codes which divide and control the common people of this society and consolidates social power in the hands of the elite.
First it’s worth noting that in Ancient societies such as that from which we read today, healing arts are practiced, but serious/chronic illness are viewed less physiologically but as symbolic of social condition that threatens the integrity of the community and therefore such bodies need to be managed, rather than treated.
Of course, a chronic condition does and did in that time involve bodily pain and healing does have the element of personal liberation that is vital and core to Jesus’ ministry—this emphasis lead Jesus’ early followers to create houses of healing within a hardening Roman society, which began, particularly in the pre-technological context by breaking down the barrier between the well and the afflicted, and even where cures could not be found, at least ending the devastating experience of suffering alone.
Healing then is about restoring an afflicted person into community and it is the purview of the Temple and its rituals under the control of the priestly establishment who have the power to diagnose (that is to interpret when a body is presenting as an anomaly that threatens the community), the power to treat (the power to declare, or not to declare a body fit to re-enter) and to determine what a treatment will cost.
Now, we as modern readers, are often tempted to associate such activity with religion, since it involves sacred space (the temple) sacred acts (rituals and sacrifices) and sacred people (the priests)—but we need to watch this, because while we have a separation in our society of the social and the religious, no such division exists at this time. First century Palestine dwells in a religious/spiritual understanding of their world.
This misunderstanding has also lead such stories as these, in which Jesus confronts the elite of his day, as setting up a conflict between Judaism and Christianity as the main plot of the Gospels, when in fact, I would suggest that the conflict is between those who wield power, and those upon whom power is wielded. In fact, throughout Mark, and I will touch on this more in future weeks, Jesus is actually calling communities back to their fundamental calling as people of the Torah (which we call the Old Testament) and being a follower of Jesus is considered one of many perfectly valid ways of being a Jew in the centuries following the destruction of the Temple.
A leper comes to Jesus begging to be “made clean”.
Leprosy is the archetypical example of of a body in the Ancient world that is considered impure and that the community needs to be protected from. It is of course physically painful for the individual afflicted, but treatment is more concerned with the community than the individual—incidentally, isolation and expulsion remained the way leprosy is dealt with until the 1800s.
The Old Testament book of Leviticus outlines extensive instructions for how a leper should be treated and what must happen for them to be declared clean and allowed to enter community.
So when this leper approaches Jesus begging to be “made clean” (which incidentally, the verb would be more accurately rendered declare clean) he is not so much asking for relief to his bodily symptoms as he is requesting to be allowed back into the community, for then at least he need not suffer alone, no longer suffer the additional torment of stigmatization along with his bodily pain. No longer hear the whispers as he passes by or more likely, the overt shouts of condemnation, hatred and fear.
The protocols for dealing with leprosy are built on two main assumptions — that the condition is communicable and that cleansing must be presided over by a priest, which means that Jesus’ response is doubly controversial by reaching out and making physical contact.
First of all, Jesus is obviously not a priest and secondly, rather than attending to his own purity, he essentially becomes himself impure by making this physical contact, and the narrative suggests that instead, of Jesus contracting leprosy, that this action of physical and social contact and solidarity in fact makes the man well.
The next item is sometimes misunderstood, for Jesus tells him to go, show himself to the priests and to offer to them what is commanded in the law of Moses. This is one of the moments where we who read through theological and religious lenses don’t see just how subversive Jesus is being (just like how we tend to interpret turn the other cheek as passivity).
In going to the Temple and presenting himself to the priests and offering that which is commanded by the law, the leper would not be hiding what Jesus has done, but in fact amplifying it, showing that his wholeness will not be mediated by a system designed to maintain purity of community at the expense of the individual body.
It would be like critiquing the injustice of a patient-pays health care system by offering payment for a treatment no longer needed, or Rosa Parks sitting in the whites only section of the bus, refusing to let her body be managed the a pernicious purity code of segregation.
Or like when Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout, celebrated local athlete, engineering student, member of his local Lutheran Church testified in the Iowa Legislature when it was considering to ban same-sex marriage citing, among other arguments, that children needed to be raised by one man and one woman to properly flourish. Zach, an impressive youth by the standards of anyone in the room, presented himself before the house, listed his accomplishments and then credited his two mothers with helping him be the well-rounded human being he was.
The text suggests that the man does not follow Jesus’ instructions but instead goes and tells everyone which results in people flocking to him.
Now this seems to have also attracted the attention of the ruling elite because when proceeding episode occurs, there are scribes present watching what is happening, which likely only happens if they are dispatched from rulers in the capital, who having heard the disturbing reports of the Rabbi from Galilee who subverts and questions the purity code, will now see the second pillar of their power, the debt code toppled as well.
In Ancient Judaism, debt is synonymous with sin, and it is in the power of the scribal class to adjudicate, according to rules set out in the law of Moses how one should make recompense for personal, familial, or social failing.
So when the roof has been torn off, the paralyzed man lowered down, and Jesus declares his sins to be forgiven, when in response to this, the Scribes question Who can forgive sins but God alone this is not a prooftext for Jesus’ own divinity, they are protecting their power. Only God can forgive sin, but it is the scribes who manage the process.
Just like the priests preside over the declaration of bodies to be clean or unclean, so the scribes preside over who is indebted to the community, or more simply put, who deserves their own misfortune, their own stigmatization, their own exclusion.
So when Jesus confronts this logic as he does with the purity code, he is not calling into question the validity of the religious system itself, but subverting the ability of an elite to divide the community into welcome and unwelcome, included and outcast, to expose the falsehood that certain types of bodies will pollute the whole, and that certain bodies deserve their exclusion because of past actions—suggesting that this power they wield in the community is being misused, not to bring wholeness to bodies, and inclusion within the body politic, but to divide and control.
And, we’ll touch on this in greater detail another week, but this isn’t Jesus setting up a new religious system in opposition to a fundamentally flawed one (as Christianity has considered itself in relation to Judaism in many of its forms throughout history—and still today), but Jesus is actually calling the Israelite community back to it’s fundamental calling—to be an embodiment of God’s Shalom, Sabbath, and Jubilee, peace, abundance, and liberation.
So what if then we read these stories are not to see Jesus as powerful one, or to set him up as superior to the Jewish religious which is supposedly in conflict with? What if in fact, these healing narratives are exposing the unspoken dynamics of power operating within a human community—how some are welcomed while others intentionally excluded? I believe this calls us to ask of our societies and communities, do codes of purity and debt still operate today? How do we treat bodily conditions that make us uncomfortable, that show us things about our own fragility that we’d rather not see? And of what social conditions do we say well, if only they worked harder or budgeted better – if only they ate healthier food or bought better groceries – then they wouldn’t be poor, then they wouldn’t be obese, then they wouldn’t be unwell…
Our societal stigmas may no longer be presided over by priests and temples (although we within communities of faith must own the way religion has fuelled and undergirded many systematic stigmatizations of peoples), but these stigmas are there and while devastatingly obvious to those affected by them, all to easily ignored by those who do not wish to see—hidden, internalized, normalized.
Mark’s Jesus, I believe, calls us to look for them. Calls us to confront them and name them. Calls us to rob their myths of their power, and calls us into solidarity, into relationships with bodies and circumstances that challenge our narratives of normalcy, yet as they do in this story bring liberation and deeper community.
And in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us, we are not alone.
Thanks be to God.