When you begin to read or listen to the Holy Scriptures, pray to God thus: "Lord Jesus Christ, open the ears and eyes of my heart so that I may hear Thy words and understand them, and may fulfill Thy will." Always pray to God like this, that He might illumine your mind and open to you the power of His words. Many, having trusted in their own reason, have turned away into deception. — Ephrem the Syrian
The Book of Mark is a remarkable piece of literature. The hero arrives and begins his quest just sort of out of nowhere. By the beginning of chapter 3 plots are being hatched to kill him. At that time, we are only 80 verses into the story. The table is set very clearly here: There was a war between the Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees — the polictico- religious experts and authorities — on the one hand, and God in Jesus on the other. The rest of the book is a recounting of who ended up winning.
My old colleague Steve Schou was working on his Masters Degree when we first met 26 years ago. It was his thesis that Mark wrote in and out of a community that was used to struggle hard and even heroically at life only to loose in the end. At the same time, that community somehow found dignity in both, the struggle and the outcome. This, the thesis was, very much reflected the experience of many communities through history, particularly the settlers of North Dakota and their descendants.
I am not sure where Steve went with this thesis as we lost touch some time ago. But the basics can be explained very quickly: Whatever the reality that we might enter might be, forces are afoot that oppose us and they are cunning, powerful, and well connected. They define reality for the rest of us and will not abide with any challenge to that definition. But their definition is flawed at the very root so that in the end they actually do not know what “reality” actually is.
For Steve, this resonated with the Dakota settlement. It had been run from Washington, D.C. by edict and it had been designed for the Iowa settlement. “Worked there, why not use it in the Dakotas, How different can they be?” Well, they were different. Very different. A section of land fed a family well in Iowa. In North Dakota, it yielded just enough to make you think that with a little more struggle you could make it. But the harshness of the weather and the poverty of the soil worked against you just as much as Uncle Sam — far away and as unaware of reality as he was unconcerned, since reality was “made” in D.C. anyway — who met your pleas that a single section was not enough to sustain a family with indifference. The forces eventually killed you by blizzard or starvation.
It is said that Mark was written for the poor and little in Mideastern life anno 70AD or so. The losers if you will. The ones most certainly were at the mercy of many forces, especially the weather that affected their harvests, and most certainly did not define reality. Where will they find dignity? In the reality and teachings of the Pharisees?
In that reality God wants them hungry on the Sabbath, the very day dedicated to the very God who shed out his providence in creation that ended on Sabbath. In that reality, creation gets to sit blemished because, after all, God said to rest and therefore no one should redeem or mend creation on the day of rest. There is something satanic about that. It says: “There is someone who could help you but we forbid him to do that.” The disciples will visit that place in 9:38-41 as they try to forbid an unknown exorcist from using the power of the name of Jesus. They are met with Jesus’ rebuke.
For us in 2018, the story has but an amusing ring to it. Those silly ancients and their silly little customs. We know better.
12 The wicked plot against the righteous
and gnash their teeth at them;
13 But my Lord laughs at them,
because he sees that their day is coming. (Ps 37:12-14)
Peter Kreeft once quipped: “If you think you have it all figured out, don’t forget the toilet paper.” (Yes, I have used that in the sermon before. No, it was not universally appreciated) But, it gets to the heart of all human endeavor: Where will any of us, Pharisee, Herodian, 1st century peasant, 16th century monk, 20th century schizoid man, or 21st century American ultimately find our dignity? In our own definitions or refusal to have or accept any definitions? No matter who we are and on whose side we are on, no matter how noble our Pharisees and Herodians might sound, the hungry are hungry and the withered hand remains useless.
Some moons ago we heard the words: “Remember, you are but dust and to dust you must return.” (Gn 3:15) It is a sentence that ought to be recalled all through the year. It is a realistic attitude, yet few embrace it. Reality is lived by all of us, but only God gets to define what it means, why it ends, how it ends, and what happens next and only in tracing the life of Jesus ourselves will that definition emerge for us (cm 1 Pt 2:21) Mark, we might observe, is a Gospel of action, not so much of teaching. The actions of Jesus suggest that love for our neighbors is the prime directive to follow and that in doing so, God’s definition of reality and therefore true human dignity are brought to light. We “are” when we serve without thought of reward or benefit, and often to the derision from those who think our service is misguided, misplaced, wrong, or just plain benighted. This, is how they treated the prophets, this is how they treated the Saints, this is how they treated the Son of Man, and they may treat us that way as well. We can only pray.