Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jesus Taken Out of Context

"The people of Capernaum bringing Jesus many to heal"
Now Jesus went home, and a crowd gathered so that they were not able to eat. When his family heard this they went out to restrain him, for they said, “He is out of his mind” (Mk 3:20-21).

In just these two verses, there is much information we can glean about the public ministry of Jesus and the wide-reaching and powerful effect He had upon everyone everywhere He went.  And as news traveled about Him, we see that He also powerfully affected even those communities He did not visit. It is with His newly-appointed Apostles accompanying Him that Jesus returns home, that is, to Capernaum.  We know that Jesus does not return alone, as we read that "they were not able to eat" because of the crowd of people that had gathered there.  We can also infer from the text that Jesus' family in Nazareth had received information from afar about the recent events in the life of Jesus-- those same events as told in Mark's Gospel thus far-- and that what they heard had apparently upset them to such an extent that they had decided to go to Capernaum to see for themselves what Jesus was doing.

On the other hand, as today's Gospel reading consists of these two verses alone, because they are considered in isolation from the texts which precede and follow, their full meaning is not easily understood. But with the understanding that the Church deliberately presents this reading as such for our reflection, perhaps it is no coincidence that the very consternation it elicits in us in this form reflects what is apparently in the hearts and minds of the people about whom this text was written. We thereby experience something of what the named persons experienced. Perhaps this is exactly what the Holy Spirit intended we experience today, towards our better understanding and appreciating Scripture as the Living Word, to be read "within the living tradition of the whole Church" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 113 2).

Adding to the lack of clarity in the meaning of this text is the great variation among the many translations and versions of the Bible regarding both the identities and the intentions of Jesus' relations. Some versions even replace "family" with "friends," but such a rendering does not seem consistent with the texts that follow, which specifically report that Jesus' "mother and brothers" had come and were outside, looking for Him (Mk. 3:32). Translations also differ on the reason for the appearance of Jesus' family in Capernaum, saying that they were coming to "restrain," "take charge of," "seize," or "take custody of" Jesus, because they had apparently heard from their community that Jesus was behaving as one who had lost His mind. The inference is therefore that Jesus, like one possessed (according to the Pharisees), was surely a threat to His family's reputation and honor, or even to Himself and to others.

But as with these two verses, this assessment of Jesus' sanity was a statement made out of context; that is to say, was removed from the facts and based upon rumor likely spread by those who wished Him harm. It certainly had not come from the mouths of any of the many people whom Jesus had healed or delivered from evil. Likewise, the reaction of panic to these rumors that Jesus was not in his right mind came from people who, while related to Him, had not witnessed any of the events for themselves. Unlike the Apostles, Jesus' family had not been "with Him" (Mk 13:14). And unlike the Apostles, it would seem that they-- however innocent, misinformed and well-meaning-- are intent upon seeking out Jesus to bring Him back home; not to share in His work, but to unwittingly prevent Him from accomplishing what the Father had appointed Him to do.

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. 
He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.
But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God,  
to those who believe in his name, who were born not by natural generation 
nor by human choice nor by a man's decision but of God.  
And the Word became flesh 
and made his dwelling among us, 
and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father's only Son, 
full of grace and truth (John 1:10-14).

Friday, January 21, 2011

He Appointed the Twelve

H. Anderson, "Jesus Calling the Fishermen"
Jesus went up the mountain and summoned those whom he wanted and they came to him. He appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles, that they might be with him and he might send them forth to preach and to have authority to drive out demons:

He appointed the Twelve: Simon, whom he named Peter; James, son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddeus, Simon the Cananean, and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him (Mk 3:13-19).

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven" (Eccl 3:1). As Creator of all things, the Lord has designated that all things have their purpose and season according to His plan. When Scripture speaks of something or someone as "appointed," the meaning conveyed is that certain elements or persons in His creation are chosen, named, or designated by Him for specific purposes.

As a survey of Sacred Scriptures shows, God also allows certain "appointed" people to have power and authority over their fellow human beings according to His purposes and plan. Those with earthly authority at times also appoint others to carry out certain duties and to represent the human authority in the carrying out of those duties. God's servants-- those whom God appoints-- almost always appoint others to share in the carrying out of God's will. But God alone as Creator has authority over time-- only He can "appoint" seasons, feasts, events, and the duration of one's life.

Remembering that all acts of appointment in Scripture have their purpose, we see that the Gospel specifically tells us why Jesus appointed these twelve men as Apostles. Their purpose was threefold:  

1.  That they might be with Him…
2.  That He might send them forth to preach…
3.  That they might have authority to drive out demons.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Apostles' Appointment:

551 From the beginning of his public life Jesus chose certain men, twelve in number, to be with him and to participate in his mission (Cf. Mk 3:13-19). He gives the Twelve a share in his authority and "sent them out to preach the kingdom of God and to heal" (Lk 9:2). They remain associated forever with Christ's kingdom, for through them he directs the Church:

"As my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:29-30).

Mark's Gospel tells us that Jesus "appointed the Twelve." The term, "the Twelve" tells us the sacred number of individuals chosen by the Lord, and even more importantly, of their unity under His authority. They did not nominate themselves as Apostles, and then go out to preach in their own names and to drive out demons under their own power. Becoming Apostles wasn't their idea at all, and in fact, Mark portrays them throughout the Gospel as men with little faith and understanding. Each of them individually and all of them as "the Twelve" were able to participate in the saving work of Jesus only by the power of the Holy Spirit.

1.  That they might be with Him.

God did not create us to keep Him company throughout eternity. When the Lord called the Twelve, it was not because He required the company or the assistance of men; rather, it was for their benefit, so that they might first come to know Him and to believe in Him and to love Him and to imitate Him. What an immense privilege, but no more so than what we enjoy, as we, too, are disciples of the Lord; as we also know Him because He still remains with us by the power of the Holy Spirit:  in His continued work accomplished in and through His Church, and bodily in the Eucharist.

2.  That He might send them forth to preach…

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Apostles' Mission:

858 Jesus is the Father's Emissary. From the beginning of his ministry, he "called to him those whom he desired; . . . . And he appointed twelve, whom also he named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach" (Mk 3:13-14). From then on, they would also be his "emissaries" (Greek apostoloi). In them, Christ continues his own mission: "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you" (Jn 20:21; cf. 13:20; 17:18). The apostles' ministry is the continuation of his mission; Jesus said to the Twelve: "he who receives you receives me" (Mt 10:40; cf. Lk 10:16).

859 Jesus unites them to the mission he received from the Father. As "the Son can do nothing of his own accord," but receives everything from the Father who sent him, so those whom Jesus sends can do nothing apart from him (Jn 5:19, 30; cf. Jn 15:5), from whom they received both the mandate for their mission and the power to carry it out. Christ's apostles knew that they were called by God as "ministers of a new covenant," "servants of God," "ambassadors for Christ," "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God" (2 Cor 3:6; 6:4; 5:20; 1 Cor 4:1).

860 In the office of the apostles there is one aspect that cannot be transmitted: to be the chosen witnesses of the Lord's Resurrection and so the foundation stones of the Church. But their office also has a permanent aspect. Christ promised to remain with them always. The divine mission entrusted by Jesus to them "will continue to the end of time, since the Gospel they handed on is the lasting source of all life for the Church. Therefore, . . . the apostles took care to appoint successors" (Lumen Gentium 20; cf. Mt 28:20).

On the continuation of the mission and work of the Apostles in the Church:

1086 "Accordingly, just as Christ was sent by the Father so also he sent the apostles, filled with the Holy Spirit. This he did so that they might preach the Gospel to every creature and proclaim that the Son of God by his death and resurrection had freed us from the power of Satan and from death and brought us into the Kingdom of his Father. But he also willed that the work of salvation which they preached should be set in train through the sacrifice and sacraments, around which the entire liturgical life revolves" (Sacrosanctum Concilium 6).

1087 Thus the risen Christ, by giving the Holy Spirit to the apostles, entrusted to them his power of sanctifying (Cf. Jn 20:21-23): they became sacramental signs of Christ. By the power of the same Holy Spirit they entrusted this power to their successors. This "apostolic succession" structures the whole liturgical life of the Church and is itself sacramental, handed on by the sacrament of Holy Orders.

3.  That they might have authority to drive out demons.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Foundation of the Sacraments:

1506 Christ invites his disciples to follow him by taking up their cross in their turn (Cf. Mt 10:38). By following him they acquire a new outlook on illness and the sick. Jesus associates them with his own life of poverty and service. He makes them share in his ministry of compassion and healing: "So they went out and preached that men should repent. And they cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many that were sick and healed them" (Mk 6:12-13).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Signs of the Kingdom of God:

550 The coming of God's kingdom means the defeat of Satan's: "If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you" (Mt 12:26, 28). Jesus' exorcisms free some individuals from the domination of demons. They anticipate Jesus' great victory over "the ruler of this world" (Jn 12:31; cf. Lk 8:26-39). The kingdom of God will be definitively established through Christ's cross: "God reigned from the wood" (Liturgy of the Hours, Lent, Holy Week, Evening Prayer, Hymn Vexilla Regis: "Regnavit a ligno Deus).

Among the Twelve appointed by Jesus was "Judas Iscariot who betrayed Him." But the Lord did not appoint Judas as His betrayer.  According to the Gospel, Judas was given the same mission and authority as the other eleven.  Like the others, Judas had the power to "cast out demons." But through his own free will, Judas chose to reject his appointment as an Apostle, and thereby to allow Satan to "enter into him" (Cf Lk 22:3; Jn 13:27).

The Catechism opens up the Scriptures to us. Read Scripture and the Catechism together daily!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Stretch Out Your Hand

Jesus entered the synagogue. There was a man there who had a withered hand. They watched Jesus closely to see if he would cure him on the sabbath so that they might accuse him. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up here before us.”

Then he said to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” But they remained silent.

Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out and his hand was restored.

The Pharisees went out and immediately took counsel with the Herodians against him to put him to death (Mk. 3:1-6).

This scene is the fifth in a continuous series of confrontations with the Pharisees beginning even from the outset of Jesus' public ministry in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus is criticized for what He does and does not do, with the Pharisees holding themselves as the standard to be imitated (Mk 2:18). Jesus is not only criticized for His good works performed on the Sabbath (Mk 2:23-28, 3:1-2), but is also judged as a blasphemer, deserving of death for these deeds and for His outright claim of having the power to forgive sins (Mk 2:1-12).

According to the Mosaic Law, the two transgressions of which the Pharisees accused Jesus-- blasphemy and breaking the Sabbath-- were punishable by stoning to death. But as the Gospel texts seem to indicate, it was in fact the Pharisees' own sin of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit that led them to reject Jesus and to call for His death. They failed to see that Jesus' work was not a violation of the Sabbath, but was actually its highest fulfillment, performed by the One who is Himself the Fulfillment of the Law; and that the healing He ultimately offers is nothing less than the fulfillment of our deepest longing: to enter into God's rest.

The sin of the Pharisees was their refusal to accept God's mercy as offered to them in the person, in the gift of Jesus. Unlike the disabled man who came to the Synagogue to worship the Lord on the Sabbath, to ask the Lord for what he needed, as he knew that he could only be restored to health by the mercy of God, and who accepted Jesus' merciful offer of healing expressed in the words, "Stretch out your hand," it would seem that the Pharisees present in the same Synagogue had not come to worship the Lord. They had come to judge and to condemn, as though they themselves were God's judges of the people. They did not understand and could only reject Jesus because the God they worshiped was in their minds a God completely without mercy, as though He were like themselves, all too ready to condemn and punish anything they deemed to be a transgression of the Law they themselves professed to follow without fail.  This was the cause of Jesus' anger against them, and of His grief at their hardness of heart.

The term "withered" is commonly used in the Scriptures to describe crops that had failed or were blighted.  In a later episode in Mark's Gospel account, a fig tree that Jesus curses becomes "withered to the root" (Mk 4:6, 11:20-21). We see this term applied to the human body in the prophet Zechariah's curse upon a "worthless shepherd" over Israel, that his "right arm be wholly withered" and "his right eye utterly blinded" (Zech 11:17); that his ability to act as a shepherd be taken away from him. Here in Mark's Gospel, in healing the man's disabled hand, Jesus gives the man his life back, restoring to him the ability to earn a livelihood. In performing this work of mercy on the Sabbath, Jesus in effect has made it possible for this same man from then on to observe the Sabbath with great joy and gratitude, as he now has work from which he can rest. It is God who gives us our work and our ability to perform it.  In healing on the Sabbath, Jesus echoes God's greatest act of creation-- namely, the Sabbath-- which He points out was made for man (Mk 2:27), as a time when we come before God so that He might heal us and restore us to Himself.

We also note that Jesus does not say to the man with the withered hand, "Come up here before me," but rather, "before us." Jesus considers Himself a part of these people assembled in the Synagogue, even though they want to kill Him, as He is the same Lord who is forever mindful of His covenant, even when we are unfaithful; as He continues to accompany each of us on our faltering journeys, ever faithful to His promise to be with us "always, even unto the end of the age"  (Mt. 28:20).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church 
on the Sins of Blasphemy Against the Holy Spirit and Against Hope

1864 "Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven"(Mt 12:31; cf. Mk 3:29; Lk 12:10). There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit (Cf. John Paul II, DeV 46). Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.

2090 When God reveals Himself and calls him, man cannot fully respond to the divine love by his own powers. He must hope that God will give him the capacity to love Him in return and to act in conformity with the commandments of charity. Hope is the confident expectation of divine blessing and the beatific vision of God; it is also the fear of offending God's love and of incurring punishment.

2091 The first commandment is also concerned with sins against hope, namely, despair and presumption:
By despair, man ceases to hope for his personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for the forgiveness of his sins. Despair is contrary to God's goodness, to his justice - for the Lord is faithful to his promises - and to his mercy.

2092 There are two kinds of presumption. Either man presumes upon his own capacities, (hoping to be able to save himself without help from on high), or he presumes upon God's almighty power or his mercy (hoping to obtain his forgiveness without conversion and glory without merit).

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.