Sunday Gospel Mk 10: 2-16 USCCB site
The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked,
"Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?"
They were testing him.
He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?"
"Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce
and dismiss her."
But Jesus told them,
"Because of the hardness of your hearts
he wrote you this commandment.
But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
So they are no longer two but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together,
no human being must separate."
In the house the disciples again questioned Jesus about this.
He said to them,
"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery against her;
and if she divorces her husband and marries another,
she commits adultery."
And people were bringing children to him that he might touch them,
but the disciples rebuked them.
When Jesus saw this he became indignant and said to them,
"Let the children come to me;
do not prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to
such as these.
Amen, I say to you,
whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it."
Then he embraced them and blessed them,
placing his hands on them.
+ + + + + + +
Sunday's Gospel reading from the Lectionary is probably very familiar to most Catholics, and it is repeated across the three Synoptic Gospels, though with subtle shades of difference that have influenced theological thought and pastoral practice. I am thinking particularly of Matthew's exception clause in Matthew 19: 9 in which, after prohibiting divorce, Jesus states that "lewd conduct is a separate case." We will be hearing a lot about the Catholic sacramental status of divorced and remarried persons as the Synod on the Family unfolds, but for our purposes here the teaching of Jesus on the reality of marriage is quite clear and rightfully serves as the basis for all pastoral discussions to follow.
That said, the text from Mark on marriage has a unique setting and timing all its own. The Lectionary has paired this reading or "pericope" with Jesus' teaching on the kingdom and the need to accept it as a child. The logical connector between the two passages would seem to be "kingdom." This is in fact the Markan sequence from the New Testament, and interestingly Matthew pairs the two pericopes together in his Gospel, too. (Luke has roughly the same texts but divided into different contexts.) Mark's treatment of marriage is located near the climax of his Gospel, as he is heading toward Jerusalem for what he knows will be his final showdown in the battle of the Kingdom of God and the recalcitrant powers of evil. As was the case in last Sunday's liturgy, Jesus is urging his disciples to jettison all of the dangerous and inconsequential matters of their lives to stand in total readiness, like the wise virgins whose lamps are oiled, awake and alert for the coming of the bridegroom.
It is in this context that Jesus gives his famous teaching on marriage. Taking the long view, one could see this episode as an outlier for the ultimate battle with the Jewish authorities that will lead to Jesus' crucifixion. From the context of Mark, the issue of marriage was brought to Jesus by the Pharisees. There is no indication from the text itself that Jesus planned to expound on the matter here. As noted, he is too busy preaching the preparation for the coming of the kingdom to involve himself in a current rabbinical dispute between the schools of Shammai and Hillel, essentially a disagreement of "strict" versus "lenient" grounds for divorce, though both schools accepted divorce as a religious/societal reality. The Pharisees are pressing him, and their phrasing indicates that they have indeed been following Jesus for some time and have some grasp of how radical his talk really is. Given that divorce was a reality of Jewish life, and given that as Jesus himself observed, Moses himself had addressed the subject, why would the Pharisees ask Jesus about the permissibility of divorce unless they were teasing out Jesus' teaching to include an overthrow of Mosaic Law? Mark observes that the questioners were in fact "testing" him.
I am indebted to Father Francis Moloney's excellent commentary for insight into Jesus' responses and subsequent teaching. This intense questioning serves as the perfect "now that you mention it" moment for Jesus. He concedes that Moses did allow for certificates of divorce by which the woman would be legally driven from her home. We forget how truly awful was the plight of an abandoned and shamed woman in early Hebrew society, and perhaps with this in mind Jesus forcefully states that Moses allowed divorce because of the hardness of the heart of Israel. This is a remarkably damning indictment. It is reminiscent of Hebrew Scriptural passages where Israel had hardened its heart against God himself. The marriage/divorce question, thus presented to Jesus, gives him the opportunity to illustrate how far the Israelite religious tradition had drifted from the very roots of its origins, the primordial paradise itself as described in Genesis.
With great effect (Mark 10:6) Jesus quotes from the first Creation account (Genesis 1, not the "Adam and Eve" account of different authorship.) Genesis 1 opens with the powerful phrase "In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth..." Scholars of many religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic family, have understood this majestic, orderly six-day litany of creation as God's true vision of the world and the human species. Catholic theology actually has a technical term for the created human condition untainted by sin and evil, prelapsarian, or "before the fall." Jesus thus returns to the very heart of God's creative intent in defining marriage as two becoming one. He sets the marriage union in that metaphor of natural created unity, where as Isaiah would write, the lion and the lamb would lie down together and the child would play by the cobra's lair. In this instance Isaiah is both historian and prophet. It is no accident that earlier in his Gospel Mark describes Jesus' forty day post-baptism period in the wasteland in these words: "He was with the wild beasts, and angels waited on him." (Mark 1: 13) The consummate prelapsarian state.
A new aspect of the Kingdom of God is revealed here: it will bring a restoration of God's original creative plan: this kingdom will bring to fulfillment the prophesies of Isaiah and return the right ordering of man in the cosmos. Mark has woven the nature of marriage and family into the creative vision of God. The Genesis 1 creation account ends with the establishment of coupling and child bearing; after couples have received their own commission to create, God rested on the seventh day.
In absorbing all of this myself, I could not help but think that it all sounds very utopian, unreal, illogical. Certainly the disciples were having considerable difficulties with all this. Maybe Mark was just as baffled by the tradition he received. If that was the case, his editorial decision to follow up with the episode on the children makes eminent sense. There is a double metaphor in this story. "Children" in Mark function as newcomers, outsiders, novices to the ways of discipleship. They should not be stopped by "insiders" (read: Temple authorities?) But Jesus has another message in mind: the kingdom of God is attainable only to those who approach it as "children." We can interpret "children" as the little ones whose nimble imaginative minds are still open to the possible reality of all that Jesus promises, stupefying as it is, or as the convert full of energy and zeal, hungry for the promises of the Kingdom.
It is a remarkable Sunday Gospel.
Gospel of Sunday, September 27: Mark 9: 38-43, 45, 47-48
At that time, John said to Jesus,
"Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us."
Jesus replied, "Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us.
Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where 'their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'"
The material of the Gospels did not come down to us in a unified whole, but as segments or strands, each referred to in the commentaries as a pericope, which simply means “a section from a book” according to Merriam-Webster. In Sunday’s Gospel Mark has strung together at least three distinct chains of thought based upon the words of Jesus. Whether these were all delivered at one time or one event by Jesus is impossible to say, nor do we know if Mark received these oral accounts at one time or in a unified collection. My personal guess is that with the end of Jesus’ ministry fast approaching, and the drama of the final Jerusalem showdown and the Crucifixion rapidly approaching (Chapter 13ff) Mark is moving rapidly to final considerations of who will enter the Kingdom of God and what the overturn of the earth will look like.
As I say, there are three distinct pericopes or thought patterns this weekend, certainly a preacher’s nightmare if he is attempting to tie the bow neatly together. The same may be true for the Christian reader who faithfully prepares for Sunday by looking for an overarching theme upon which to reflect upon. There are many Sundays when there is no one “overarching theme” but rather a sequence of individual teachings, and September 27 falls into that category, three separate thought lines held together primarily around the theme of what to do (and certainly what not to do!) in preparation for the Kingdom.
The first segment involves a wonderworker who has annoyed the Apostle John by expelling demons in Jesus’ name. While we are inclined to think of John’s disposition from the fourth Gospel (John), the fact is that the Synoptic Gospels describe John and his brother James by the nickname boanerges or “sons of thunder.” It is John who demands in another Gospel that Jesus call down fire and brimstone upon unbelieving towns, and it is his mother who demands of Jesus that her boys sit at his right and left sides in the new kingdom. I guess the apples don’t fall far from the trees. The Jerome Biblical Commentary (616) comments that the inclusion of this text in Mark’s Gospel was Mark’s way of addressing “exclusivism and cliquishness” in the early Church. However, the actual origin of the saying is obscure. Personally I think the most obvious meaning is found in the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Jesus is preparing for the final apocalyptic showdown with Satan and his minions; this unknown miracle worker who expels demons and expresses an allegiance to Jesus might be a very valuable addition to “the good guys.”
In establishing the Sunday Lectionary, the Church has selected for this Sunday’s first reading the text of Numbers 11:25-29, where it is Joshua playing the “son of thunder” role. When the spirit of God settles upon seventy men conferring prophetic power, two individuals named Eldad and Medad, had not left their tent for some unspecified reason, but it soon became obvious that these two men had also received the spirit and were indeed prophesying along with the rest. Joshua was outraged and demanded that Moses make them stop. Moses correctly identifies Joshua’s jealousy, and then states what should have been an obvious truth, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!”
In the second passage or pericope of the Gospel, Jesus cleverly turns John’s discomfiture on its head, by suggesting a scenario where he (John) is the recipient of an unsolicited act of kindness, the single cup of cold water, “because you belong to Christ.” I have heard many preachers focus on this passage as an example that no kind work is too small to pass without its reward. There is certainly truth in this, but the better interpretation is the importance of belonging to the Christ in these, the final days. This will become clearer in the next paragraph. In addition, other Gospel writers develop the “small works” theme with greater elaboration, such as the story of the poor woman’s gift to the temple treasury in the midst of rich Pharisees and the great cost and worth of her gift compared to the other.
The final paragraph is an excellent example of the dangers of interpreting the bible too literally. Jesus makes his famous statement about scandal: for someone who leads astray a simple believer, it would be better to be dragged to the bottom of the sea attached to a giant millstone. The JBC (617) holds that “the little ones” are (new?) members of the Christian community; it goes on to cite a Greco-Roman use of the human body as a symbol of an organization or community. The thought here is that dangerous and scandalous members of the Christian assembly must be excised or removed. While this may sound strong to present day ears, in the context of Mark’s Gospel there is a rapidly approaching judgment in which a bad witness may cause the damnation of weak and vulnerable souls.
Jesus uses the term “Gehenna” to describe what we understand as hell, but his language is much more vivid. The term had a long evolution, from a place of child sacrifice in 2 Kings 23:10, to a place of unquenchable fire from Isaiah 66:24. By Jesus’ day Gehenna summed up everything to be feared about death, particularly for the unjust. Many manuscripts include the phrase “where the worm never dies.” I will always remember this final phrase. After my sophomore year in college I made my year of novitiate with the Franciscan Order, and I lived in the novitiate—wearing the religious habit for the first time—for the canonical 366 days required. We had several elderly German friars living there with us, to impart the wisdom of age, I guess. One day several of us novices were taking recreation with the eldest of the old friars, probably close to 90; like his confreres, he had fled Germany way back before the turn of the century and his English was still an adventure. One of my classmates said something to him along the lines that celibacy must get easier in advanced years. The old brother shook his head, pointed his finger in my buddy’s chest, and said in a thickly German English: “No, brother, remember this—the worm never dies.”
If you have been following our Monday/Saturday blogs on Vatican II, you have already been exposed to one of the most prolonged and bitter debates of the entire Council, on the schema called “the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” or Dei Verbum (DV in the following text). The chronology alone gives us some clues of how laborious this composition proved to be. DV was one of the first schema introduced for discussion in general assembly beginning November 14, 1962. It was finally completed and promulgated on November 18, 1965, among the last schemas to be completed. The 1962 first draft had been prepared by the Roman Curia which essentially presented Revelation as a two-source inspiration from the Bible and the Church, or “Scripture and Tradition” as I learned in school many years ago. For the majority of voting bishops, this definition seemed to equate Church authority with the Revealed Word, or even at times to override it. Pope John XXIII stepped in after several weeks and arranged to have the document rewritten from scratch by a new commission of his choosing.
To understand the stakes in this debate, it is essential to know that Vatican II was the first true post-Enlightenment Council. Vatican I, by contrast (1869-1870) operated from the worldview of Pope Pius IX, whose famous Syllabus of Errors (1864) had condemned a wide range of intellectual, political, economic, academic and scientific revolutions dating to the post-Reformation and Enlightenment eras. But the idea of returning to a medieval world view was an impossible dream, and future popes, notably Leo XIII and Pius XII, were somewhat more cautious in their thinking regarding a rapprochement of modern thought with centuries of Catholic belief and practice. Cold War popes, notably John XXIII, understood that nuclear annihilation was a finality for thinkers of all stripes, and that the Roman Catholic communion, given its world-wide expanse and influence, was in a position to discuss the state of the modern world with a new apologetics or better intellectual tools with people of good will universally.
[For a splendid history of the relationship between Christian doctrine and modern thought, see Jaroslav Pelikan's Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture Since 1700]
By the time of Vatican II in 1962, there were actually two basic philosophical questions regarding Sacred Revelation. The first dealt with Biblical texts: were they historical and accurate, were they meant to be treated literally, analogously, thematically, theologically? The second question involved the relationship between the visible Church and the place of Scripture within the Church. Was the Church the sole custodian of the Bible, free to draw textual support for its creeds and doctrines; or was it the Scripture that defined the very nature of the Church, by which all Church practice and conduct would be judged?
As to the first question, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment had begun to address the Sacred Scriptures, God’s Revelation, with a studied textual eye. The Catholic scholar Erasmus (1466-1536) undertook a rewriting of the official Catholic bible of the time, the Vulgate edition translated by St. Jerome around 400 A.D. A master of classical languages, Erasmus noted mistakes in Jerome’s rendering. By 1800 Protestant biblical scholars were developing what we call today the theological science of “Biblical Criticism,” the word “criticism” meaning unbiased analysis as I try to do on Thursdays with the Catechism. By World War II Protestant scholars, using modern interdisciplinary methods, had determined many of the “literary forms” of the Bible, such as laws, hymns, chronicles, mythic texts, etc. Scholars identified four separate distinguishable sources for the Pentateuch, long believed to have been written by Moses. In the 1950’s scholars developed the theory of “redaction criticism” or contrasting the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) to establish the unique theology or understanding of Christ of each evangelist.
Catholic intellectuals and academicians were hardly unaware of this. In truth, many were already applying new biblical principles of criticism in their work, albeit quietly. Finally, in 1943, Pius XII, in his encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu allowed Catholic scholars to utilize the now well-established methodologies of other Scripture scholars around the world in the work of better understanding the full meaning of the Sacred Scripture. Vatican II with DV, however, was the first dogmatic inclusion of modern Scripture study into Church teaching, and this was violently objected to by the Curia and others for multiple reasons, ranging from cooperation with heretics (i.e., Protestants) to fears that certain Bible texts which served as the basis of Church doctrine might come under question in terms of author’s intent. At heart was the premise that “truth never changes,” which is true enough, but it was the Church’s grasp of that truth that was under question, and obviously one that many Church authorities did not wish to parade through the New York Times.
The second hotly debated question flows from the relationship between the Scripture and the Church. In Vatican II the bishops argued in essence if they were one and the same, or if not the same, how are they different in terms of authority, and to which source do we turn for certitude. The general belief through the Church’s second millennium had been that Church and Bible were united but separate. History bears this out: it was the Church as a collective body that determined which books actually composed Sacred Scripture. On the other hand, the content of these very books—believed to be the true Revelation of God—describes and ordains the very body we call an authoritative Church.
It is not uncommon to hear the Church described as a “mystery,” and indeed it is. Vatican II required multiple schema to explain the nature of the Church’s identity and being. Again, if history is a teacher, it is fair to say that the teaching Church is, at the very least, necessary, whose mission is the explication of the revealed Bible. These explications are its “Tradition,” whether they be faith or morals. Vatican II’s major contribution is its teachings on the attitudes our Church must take in undertaking its mission. Conciliar terms for the Church such as “a pilgrim people” are the necessary counterbalance to Lord Acton’s maxim, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” We need look no further than Pope Francis: he has taught the body of Catholic belief without a single deviation, but how is he regarded? As the pilgrim leader who brings hope, mercy, and reconciliation without precondition. How good is that!
St. Mark continues his theological biography, and following last week’s healing of the blind and speech impaired man, the Roman Lectionary jumps ahead to Chapter 8: 27-35. During the interim Jesus performs his second multiplication of loaves and fishes; he is the only evangelist to describe two such events. Most scholars see Mark’s doublet here as symbolic of his mission to Israel and the Gentile world. In Mark’s first account, the disciples gather twelve baskets of leftovers (an allusion to the Twelve Tribes) while in Chapter 8 there are seven baskets collected. Francis Moloney explains that in the secular world (pardon the anachronism) the number “7” indicates completeness, and the Bible itself connects the integer “7” to a variety of circumstances, from Genesis 10 where it is reported that there are 70 nations in the world, to Acts 6 where 7 deacons are ordained to serve the Hellenized (non-Jewish) Christians.
But as in John’s Gospel a few weeks ago the breads miracle is the opening of a chapter long discussion; the parallels between the early writer Mark and the much later writer John are quite remarkable here. Jesus returned to his Jewish homeland shortly after the second breads miracle, and immediately is confronted by Pharisees demanding a sign. Jesus, depicted in 8:12 as weary and troubled in spirit, gets into a boat and heads for the other shore. The disciples in 8:14 realize that they had only one loaf in the boat. Jesus awakens, and warns them that they were drifting into the dangerous territory of “the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” Their faith was sorely lacking, and there was no better proof than the worry of the disciples fretting about the limitations of their one loaf after they had seen Jesus feed two groups of 9,000 in the Markan accounts.
The issue of faith is such a problem that Mark inserts the second half of what is problem another doublet, Mark 8: 22-26. This is a repeat of last Sunday’s reading, the healing of a blind man. Jesus again uses spit, rubbing it on his eyes and laying hands upon him. What happens next is one of the New Testament’s more memorable phrases. When Jesus asks him if he sees anything, the man replies, “I see people looking like trees and walking around.” Jesus then lays hands upon him again, and this time the man sees perfectly. All of my commentaries agree that the story is an analogy for the growth of faith, a direct response to the blindness of the disciples described in the previous paragraph. Strongly implied, of course, is the gradual coming to full faith as seen in the blind man’s restoration to full sight. Mark, too, is the only evangelist to dare state that Jesus could not perform miracles in the absence of faith. (Mark 6:5)
This brings us to Sunday’s Gospel. Francis Moloney reminds us that there are two audiences witnessing Jesus’ ministry: we the readers, who know that Jesus is “the Son of God” from the opening line of the Gospel (Mark 1:1), and Jesus’ disciples who are still evidently struggling with Jesus’ identity and meaning. Moloney goes on to explain that Mark 8: 27ff is the turning point of this Gospel, for we have Peter’s confession of faith that at one level at least has settled the identity question. What is still up in the air, of course, is whether the disciples understood the cost of discipleship, which Jesus elaborates as Sunday’s reading unfolds.
Moloney also notes that Mark 8:27, with Jesus heading to Caesarea Philippi, is the beginning of a showdown journey to Jerusalem. Luke has a similar journey motif in his Gospel. As Jesus and his disciples are proceeding, Jesus asks them what people think of his identity. Their answers are good and accurate. Mark himself had recorded earlier that King Herod believed Jesus to be John the Baptist returned from the dead. Then Jesus addresses the group in a very personal way with the same question, and Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.” This is quite a step from the earlier answers, for all of the individuals identified by the disciples had been precursors of the Messiah. Peter’s answer—whether he understood the implications of the theology of this title with precision or not—is a significant act of faith, which at its face means that Jesus is the One who has come to complete history, so to speak. It is worth noting, too, that all four Gospels—in various formats—have Peter make the corporate act of faith for the Twelve.
For all of its power, the statement of Peter does not include an understanding of precisely how the Messiah would accomplish his work. For in 8:31 Jesus outlines his own violent death. Peter reacts strongly, “rebuking” Jesus, in fact. Jesus issues an even stronger rebuke to Peter, to the point of calling him Satan. “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” We are reminded here that about fifteen years earlier St. Paul had described the cross as “scandal to Jews and folly to Greeks.” Peter’s error is understandable at one level, but given what he and the others had seen and heard, more was certainly expected.
The reading continues at 8:34 with Jesus now addressing the crowd with his disciples. His words here are best summarized as “the cost of discipleship.” For “whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” Jesus goes on to say that “whoever wishes to find his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” There is the great temptation to interpret Mark here as speaking metaphorically, but three factors must be considered. First, there was still a strong component of Mark’s original audience that considered the Second Coming as an imminent event; for them, time was short and an imminent death was a small price to pay for life in the New Kingdom. Secondly, Mark’s Gospel was probably written during a time of persecution of Christians, and Jesus’ words would have highly pertinent to the original audience. And finally, Mark’s recording of Jesus’ words were taken at face value by St. Luke writing some years later. Luke records Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ words, but he editorializes by adding the word “daily” (Luke 9:23) so that the disciple must daily take up his cross; Luke was the first evangelist who seems to have considered that Christianity might last for years and centuries, and he expands the spirituality of “taking up the cross” into daily living.
I am a bit puzzled by the editing of the Lectionary, which assigns next Sunday’s Gospel reading as Mark 7:31-37. The Lectionary passes over one of the most engaging and theologically rich encounters of Jesus’ healing mission, Mark 7:24-30, and this text deserves some comment. The absent episode describes the beginning of Jesus’ trip out of Jewish territory to the District of Tyre. All of my commentaries agree that one of the prime purposes of this excursion was peace and relaxation, probably a good thing after last Sunday’s stormy encounter about hand washing and the Spirit of the Law. However, it is also true that the next several episodes continue to occur in Gentile territory, and the reader can hardly miss the contrast between the popularity of Jesus in pagan regions and the animosity he was encountering among his own people.
Mark’s primary audience, of course, is not Jewish, and Chapter 7 also represents something of an explanation of how a Jewish Savior would be interested in the welfare of Gentiles. In the first leg of the trip, not proclaimed in the Sunday cycle, Jesus is attempting to rest, apparently, in a private home when he is “discovered,” and among his admirers is a woman with a daughter who is possessed by a demon. Mark reports that she is a Greek Syrophoenician, which certainly puts her outside the pale of the children of Abraham, religiously and geographically. She is about as pagan as one can be, and Mark trumpets this fact. Jesus is rather to the point, refusing the miracle on the grounds that the children should be fed first, and that it is wrong to take their food and throw it to the dogs. It is helpful here to remember that among Jews of the time the word “dog” was a pejorative term for pagans. So the phrase should read, essentially, that it is wrong to assist pagans before the Children of Israel have been tended to.
The Jerome Biblical Commentary (p. 612) does raise an interesting translation point. The word for “dog” used in Mark is best translated as “puppies.” I had never read that before, but in the overall story this “softening” makes sense, since Mark’s readers, after all, are Gentiles. (Francis Moloney, p. 147 n151, stoutly disagrees with this interpretation, however.) Whatever the terminology, this woman, whose faith equals that of her counterpart with the uterine hemorrhaging a few chapters back, delivers one of the great comeback lines in all of literature: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” The healing, undertaken at long distance, is actually something of an afterthought, as Mark may have very well intended.
Interestingly, there are several Gospel narratives where Gentiles make remarkable professions of faith. The Roman Centurion, for example, states to Jesus in Luke’s Gospel that he need “but say the word and my servant shall be healed,” a phrase which of course has passed into the very text of the Communion rite of the Mass. Equally striking is Mark’s crucifixion scene, where only a Roman soldier is moved to say that “this is indeed the Son of God.” The Gospel narrative that is proclaimed next Sunday continues in this vein in that another pagan seeks healing through surrogates, but here we have another baffling, one might say almost scandalous twist.
In Sunday’s reading Jesus has continued his sojourn through pagan territory into the district of the Decapolis or “ten cities.” A group of people bring to Jesus a deaf man with a speech impediment. Jesus then proceeds with what seems to the western eye as a very peculiar style of healing, involving a lot of touching and spitting and groaning. It may help to recall that this is not the only miracle healing involving spit; Mark has another in 8:23, and John in 9:6. Moloney cites Roman authors Pliny, Tacitus and Suetonius as mentioning the use of spittle among healers of the day. What is disconcerting to some readers today is the thought that Jesus would use a standard pagan healing ritual.
The fact is that Jesus performed many of his miracles in absentia or without much fanfare at all. Of the three episodes where Jesus uses a spitting “ritual,” one occurs in pagan territory. Commentators generally explain the use of spittle as a common component among healers, but it is clearly quite rare for Jesus. The better question is why here, in the region of the Ten Cities? There may be something of a “when in Rome…” element here, but our attention is better directed to the response of the witnesses. Jesus orders them to say nothing of this miracle to anyone, lest people look upon him as just another magician/healer. Instead, they proclaimed it all the more. Mark goes to the trouble of recording what they were proclaiming: “He has done all things well. He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak.” This is a direct quote from Isaiah 35: 5-6, an apocalyptic tract which looks forward to the coming of the Messiah. That a Gentile crowd should be saluting Jesus in the language of a Jewish prophet as the one who is to come is quite stunning, when you get down to it.
That this miracle was performed in part for the disciples cannot be doubted. The Apostles have a hard time of it in Mark, and commentators agree that Jesus was worried about them. That this miracle and the spontaneous messianic calls from the Decapolis citizenry had an impact is not in doubt. For in the very next chapter of Mark we have Peter’s famous confession of faith: “You are the Messiah.” (Mark 8:29) One wonders if the entire sojourn out of Israel had a twin motivation: to strengthen the resolve of the Twelve, and later in the retelling to assure the Gentiles that they indeed belong among the children of the promise. The “puppies” had indeed found a worthy home and a good master.