Tuesday, January 18, 2011

One Life as a Ransom for Many

Some scholars and theologians have described the Gospel of Mark as a “passion narrative with a long introduction.” Most of the Gospel consists of what seems to be a series of episodes taken from the ministry of Jesus, interwoven with judgment and condemnation from the Pharisees, and reports that they and the Herodians are plotting to kill Him. Jesus' public ministry abruptly ends in the passion narrative, as a seeming realization of that plot.

Lorenzo Ghiberti, "The Baptism of Christ" c. 1427
At the same time, some historical-critical scholars are also of the opinion that Mark's passion narrative was written separately from or was derived from a different oral tradition than the rest of the Gospel as we know it. Yet it is only when we view Mark's Gospel account as one continuous narrative that we understand Jesus’ words, works, identity, and mission as first foreshadowing and then finally culminating in and revealing their fullness of meaning in His passion, death, and ultimate resurrection. This approach to Mark’s Gospel does justice not only to the structure of the entire text as written, but also to its underlying purpose and theology: that is, with the Gospel as the work of the Holy Spirit, to explain to the world the seeming contradiction of Jesus as the crucified Messiah.

From the beginning until its end, Mark’s Gospel proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. God Himself declares it in the baptism of Jesus by John, as a voice from heaven that names Him as “my beloved Son” (Mk 1:11).

Immediately thereafter, from the temptation of Jesus by Satan onward, the reader understands Jesus to be one with power and authority over and above all men, as well as over all of creation: firstly, over Satan and all unclean spirits (Mk 1:12-13, 21-28; 3:11, 23-30; 5:1-20; 9:14-29, 38-39); and over all forms of uncleanness and disease of the body (Mk 1:29-34, 40-45; 2:1-12; 3:1-5; 5:21-34; 6:53-56; 7:24-37; 8:22-26; 10:46-53) —even over death itself (Mk 5:35-43).

Further, Jesus is presented as having sole authority to define what is unclean and what defiles, and as Lord of the Sabbath (Mk 2:18-28; 7:1-23; 11:15-17): that is to say, He is nothing less than both the giver of and the interpreter of the Law. Jesus’ power over creation is demonstrated beyond doubt in His miraculous feeding of the multitudes (Mk 6:34-44; 8:1-10), in His calming of the sea storm (Mk 4:35-41), and in His ability to walk on water (Mk 6:45-52). Prefiguring His resurrection, Jesus’ true glorified identity as the Son of God is revealed in Mark’s Gospel only to Peter, James and John, while being made known plainly to every reader in the account of Jesus’ transfiguration (Mk 9:2-8).

But after all this, how could Jesus, the one who Peter first declared to be “the Messiah,” (Mk 8:29) later be declared by that same disciple to be one that he does not even know? (Mk 14:66-72) How could the Son of God, the one with absolute power and authority, possibly have been arrested, subject to trial, mockery and beatings, be scourged, and finally crucified? Mark’s answer appears to lie in what functions as a transitional verse in the text; a bridge between the Gospel’s “introduction” and the passion narrative proper; a summary of all that Jesus has done thus far, and a preparation for what is to come:

“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

In this single statement of Jesus about His own identity, Mark in effect gives meaning to all that Jesus has accomplished in word and deed for the people thus far as told in the Gospel, and at the same time foreshadows the meaning of all that Jesus will then go on to accomplish for them in his suffering, death, and rising. Paralleling the structure of the text, Mark reveals in this statement that the singular mission of Jesus as Messiah is also twofold.

It is only at this point that one fully realizes where the ministry of Jesus has been leading, and that it had a destination from the beginning--which Jesus, in His same power and authority over all, had foretold and had willingly undertaken in loving obedience to the will of His Father: He goes to Jerusalem, where he would be proclaimed Messiah King (Mk 11:7-11)—but His coronation would be His crucifixion. Herein lies the paradox, but herein also lies the Messiah’s true mission.

Albrecht Dürer, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, 1511

In His being proclaimed Messiah King by the people, Jesus is thus empowered to reign over them. But what the people did not understand, yet which Mark makes clear for us, is that as Jesus’ reign in His life of service was over all that is unclean and over bodily death, His reign in His passion, as the ransom for many, is over sin and eternal death, which are the true oppressors and archenemies of His people.

Jesus does not die because of the plotting of His opponents, but freely gives His life, because it is His Father’s will and His divine right as Messiah King. He came to serve as no one else could have; and only such a King could pay such a ransom.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Mysteries of Jesus' Public Life 

565 From the beginning of his public life, at his baptism, Jesus is the "Servant," wholly consecrated to the redemptive work that he will accomplish by the "baptism" of his Passion.

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