February 10, 2008
The Compassionate Servant
The Gospel of Mark (10:32-45)
There’s more than a little confusion in the air during this election year. People do not seem to have a clear understanding of the candidates, let alone know which one of them to vote for. Will Hillary Clinton simply be an extension of her husband, Bill? Have John McCain’s best days past him by? What do we make of Barak Obama’s seemingly limited political experience? And who really is Mike Huckabee, anyway? There is plenty of uncertainty floating around these days about the next president, isn’t there? You can almost feel it. Who are these people, where do they come from, and what type of president would each of them be?
If you can relate to what I am talking aboutthe somewhat mysterious uneasiness concerning the slate of presidential candidatesthen you can at least begin to sense the electricity in the air as Mark’s Gospel unfolds. The issue for Mark does not concern an anticipated president, of course, but a long-awaited Messiah. Who is he and what kind of Messiah will he be? Those are the pressing questions of Mark’s day, and those are precisely the questions that he seeks to address here.
The Gospel of Mark, most likely the earliest and certainly the shortest of the four gospels in the New Testament, consists of two major acts or scenes to which is attached a brief introduction. The first act, 1:14-8:30, takes place in Galilee and focuses on the question, “Who is this man, Jesus?” The second act, 8:31-16:20, is set primarily in Jerusalem and deals with the follow-up question, “What kind of Messiah is Jesus?” In answering these two fundamental questions, Mark does more than turn a few pre-conceived notions upside-down. If Matthew’s Jesus is the consummate teacher, Mark’s Jesus is the ultimate compassionate servant.
Mark begins his gospel with a brief introduction, opting not to include genealogies and lengthy birth narratives like both Matthew and Luke do. Instead, Mark simply introduces Jesus as the Christthe long-awaited Son of Godin 1:1, winds him up and lets him go. From that point to the close of Act I, Jesus moves throughout Galilee in what appears to be a film played at an accelerated rate of speed. In the New Revised Standard translation, for example, the word “immediately” appears 27 times in Mark, double that of any other book in the entire Bible. Of these 27 occurrences, 20 are found in chapters 1-8. Add to this such phrases as “just then,” “at once,” and “as soon as,” all of which appear in these same chapters, and you get the picture. Jesus goes here, a crowd immediately gathers around him, the demons quickly flee away, a dead girl immediately rises and walks, and leprosy vanishes instantly. And all the while that this is going on, people grow increasingly amazed and ask, “Who is this man?” “Who is Jesus?” But no one seems to know.
The nameless crowds don’t know after watching Jesus cast an unclean spirit out of a helpless victim. “What is this?” they ask. “He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (1:27). The scribes don’t know when they overhear Jesus forgiving the sins of a local paralytic. “Why does this fellow speak in this way?” they inquire. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7). The Pharisees don’t know as they observe Jesus’ followers violating many of their sacred traditions. “Why do your disciples not fast?” they ask (2:18), and “Why do they work on the Sabbath?” (2:24). His family doesn’t know as they try to restrain him before yet another frenzied crowd. “Some say he has gone out of his mind,” they reason to themselves (3:21). Even his discipleshis understudies and students who have been hanging around him a great deal latelydon’t know as they sit stupefied in the boat. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” The more Jesus says and the more he does, the more confused everyone seems to become.
Except the unclean spirits and demons. They know perfectly well who Jesus is, and they do not hesitate to say so. Already in Mark’s first account of Jesus actively ministering to someone, an unclean spirit cries out in the middle of the synagogue in Capernaum, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (1:24). Sometime later, as Jesus approaches a demon-possessed man on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, the demons panic and shout, “Jesus, Son of the Most High God,… Please don’t send us out of the country” (5:7, 10). So familiar with Jesus were these forces of evil that on one occasion Mark simply comments, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God!’” (3:11).
“Who is Jesus?” That’s the question on everyone’s mind in Mark 1-8. No one but the demons seems to know. Not the crowds. Not the learned religious authorities. Not his family. Not even the disciples. So persistent, in fact, is the disciples’ lack of perception that, as this first half of Mark winds down, a disappointed Jesus looks them straight in the eye and asks, “Do you not yet understand?” (8:22). Jesus, so great a teacher in Matthew’s mind, seems at this point to be completely incapable of helping anyone, much less his disciples, grasp his major point.
But hold on. To everyone’s surprise, this opening act of Mark’s gospel ends with a pivotal or climactic twist. With the entire human world confused as to the identity of Jesus and uncertain what to make of him, Mark takes us to the region of Caesarea Philippi, situated northeast of the Sea of Galilee near the foot of Mount Hermon. There, in relative seclusion, Jesus asks the disciples what people are saying about him. “Who do they say I am?” (8:27). Once again, the confusion as to his identity resurfaces“Some say you are John the Baptist, and others, Elijah, and still others, one of the prophets.” Then, suddenly, when asked who the disciples themselves think he is, Peter blurts out of nowhere, “You are the Messiah.” There is total silence. Jesus, no doubt, had to catch his breath himself.
I’m reminded of the scene in the movie, Good Will Hunting, where Professor Gerald Lambeau and one of his colleagues in the mathematics department at MIT notice a young janitor doodling on a blackboard in the basement of one of the classroom buildings. Professor Lambeau had earlier written on that same blackboard a daunting mathematical problem and dared his graduate students to solve itwithin a year’s time! Alarmingly, here was Will Hunting, the young janitor fresh off the streets of South Boston, solving the almost mythical problem. The good professor could hardly believe his eyes. In the same way here, Jesus can hardly believe his ears. “You are the Messiah,” Peter said. And with that, the first half of the book ends. Who is this man, Jesus? Mark had told us already way back in the introduction. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, sent into the world to preach the good news of the Kingdom. But Mark is the narrator, the writer, not one of the characters. Now, as the curtain closes on scene 1, someone in the play finally figures it out. “Jesus,” Peter realizes, “is indeed the Messiah.”
Another equally significant question remains, however, and it is to this question that Mark turns his attention in Act 2: “What kind of Messiah is Jesus?” I suppose that if some professor in 1st century C.E. Palestine had asked that question on a multiple choice exam, the overwhelming majority of students in the class would have selected the same answer. Imagine the question:
The long-awaited Messiah will be:
A separatist who withdraws from society and lives in an isolated commune.
A military commander who delivers his people from their Roman oppressors.
A religious leader who strictly enforces the Jewish laws.
None of the above.
A few students would no doubt opt for A and C, but most would select B. None, however, would choose D. Yet D, as Mark goes on to point out, is the correct answer. So, if Jesus is none of the above, then what kind of Messiah will he be? Mark’s answer is even more shocking than Peter’s declaration just a few moments ago.
Jesus, Mark suggests, is a compassionate-servant Messiah who will actually die a criminal’s death on a Roman cross. Jesus himself admits it immediately after Peter’s astounding statement. “I will suffer, be rejected and killed, and then rise again three days later.” “No,” the same Peter blurts out (8:33). “It can’t be.” A dying Messiah is an oxymoron. A dying Messiah is like a voiceless Josh Groban, a horseless John Wayne, a penniless Bill Gates, a batless Barry Bonds. It just can’t be. And yet it is. As Act 2 begins, Jesus states and restates and restates a third time this incomprehensible truth“I will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes. I will be mocked, spat upon, flogged and killed. Then, three days later, I will rise.” And throughout the entirety of Act 2, Mark paints a picture of a Messiah who shatters all of the power-hungry, war-mongering, self-serving conceptions that the now dumbfounded disciples and others had long embraced.
Look for just a moment at Mark’s Jesus in Act 2. When an obviously well-intentioned rich man asks Jesus what one must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus responds, “Sell what you own and give the money to the poor” (10:21). When the disciples argue among themselves as to which of them will have the privileged position in God’s kingdom, Jesus replies, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,… For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (9:35; 10:43-45). When Jesus finally enters Jerusalem to the chants of his apparent followers, he rides, not on an imposing horse, but on a lowly colt (11:7). When everyone else congregating at the temple watches excitedly as the rich people drop their large gifts into the plate, Jesus can’t stop looking at a poor widow releasing her only two small copper coins (12:41-44). When Jesus is tested by the Pharisees and scribes or interrogated by civil authorities, he refers to a kingdom not of this world that operates according to different standards and expectations (12:17, 25, 34; 14:25). And when Jesus stands in the Garden of Gethsemane as his enemies approach, he chooses, neither to flee to the desert and hide nor to call on a million angels to protect him, but to surrender (14:43-50). To remain silent. To endure the beatings. To die. So what kind of Messiah is Mark’s Jesus? A serving one. A suffering one. A dead one. What ever happened to the energized preacher running all over Galilee in Act 1?
But once again, don’t stop here. In the same way that Act 1 ends with an unexpected twist and earth-shattering declaration“He is the Messiah,” Peter blurted outso, too, does Act 2. While all of Jesus’ would-be followers and disciples are still wiping their weeping eyes, an unnamed man dressed in white declares, Peter-like, “Jesus, who was crucified, has been raised” (16:6). For the second time in Mark’s Gospel, a hush settles over everyone who hears the announcement. All of this serving and cheek-turning and self-sacrificial giving and dying, so foreign to the world’s way of thinking, didn’t go for naught. Jesus perhaps lost the battle, but he won the war. And this is precisely Mark’s point. Jesus was a compassionate servant, not simply because he occasionally volunteered at soup kitchens, taught English to recent immigrants, and gave a few dollars to his favorite charity. Jesus was in Mark’s mind the ultimate servant because he had the courage, even at the cost of his own life, to look a warring, violent, greedy, power-hungry, self-centered world square in the eyes and say, “There is another way. Dying precedes rising.”
So what does Mark’s Gospel ask of us? I suppose the same two questions that it asked of its original readers: “Who is this man, Jesus?” and “What kind of Messiah is he?” If I may speak for Jesus for just a moment, “Who do you say that I am?” A prophet? Teacher? Ordinary Galilean carpenter? Nothing at all? Or the Son of God and Lord of your life? And again, speaking for Jesus, “What kind of Messiah am I?” The kind who enlists us to overthrow evil structures and empires with worldly weapons and resources? Plenty of Christians have certainly tried to do that over the years. The kind who encourage us to withdraw into our own little world and watch the rest of our deteriorating world go by? We’ve done that, too. Or the kind of Messiah who calls us, individually and collectively, to bombard this evil and otherwise hopeless world with courageous acts of selfless, compassionate and loving service? Which of the three options would you choose? In Mark’s mind, not to mention Jesus’, only the third will do.