There is a little book–really a booklet–that we all know of and most of us have probably read. My copy has only twenty pages. Thinking about it, Professor Reynolds Price at Duke University in North Carolina has said that “it has proven to be the most enduringly powerful narrative in the history of Western civilization, perhaps in the history of the world.” We commonly call this document the Gospel according to Mark.
Again this year, as a part of an important ecumenical tradition, churches throughout the world, Catholic and Protestant alike, are focusing attention on this primitive but astonishing document, the oldest surviving Gospel. An ecumenical consensus brings us together across many barriers. Together we are committed to reflecting on what an early Christian, not himself one of the twelve disciples, saw as a new decisive challenge to human history. He gives us the story of an Instigator of a controversy that would appear to end in disaster for the Challenger–but which nonetheless, somehow, would turn out to be really good news for everybody.
I realize that superficially, at least, this does not look likely. Take today’s reading, for example. For many of us it’s barely intelligible. The problem is not merely one of translation. It’s more difficult than that.
Mark could assume that his readers knew what most of us probably don’t know–understandings that are crucial for any insight into what’s going on here. He could assume his readers knew about home construction in ancient Galilee, about the understanding of the relationship between mental health and physical health in first century Judaism, about religious authority as represented by the Jerusalem establishment and its anxiety about the source of its financial support, even the meaning of that strange idiomatic title “Son of Man.” Most modern people know little or nothing about these matters. Thus for many, if not most modern people, Mark’s story of “good news” is, in this case at least, caught up in a cultural maze that obscures what should be clear. Of course, even confusion sometimes can be good news: It can alert us to our need to listen up and pay close attention when we discover something’s going on that we don’t really understand. Confusion can be the pit stop on the way to enlightenment.
But don’t worry. We’ll not take time to unpack all these obscurities that today’s reading presents. I’m quite sure I can’t do that adequately even if we had the time. But note, please, just a few items
1. Domestic construction in the ancient world did make it possible for one to punch a hole in the roof of a house if that proved necessary. (Kids, don’t try this at home.) Thus we get this odd, if not comic, scene: So many people want to bring their sick to be healed by Jesus that, in this case at least, people took off a part of the roof of a Capernaum house so their paralyzed buddy could get close to the man from Nazareth–he whose reputation as a healer had swept Galilee by storm.
Modern readers are apt to be put off by Mark’s claim that Jesus could draw on spiritual power to heal a paralytic. But there are at least two things we are apt to miss here. Both are rooted in classical Judaism. Jesus’ early reputation as a healer was significant but not really extraordinary. Prophets in Israel commonly were described to have power to overcome sickness and even death. Consider the wonder stories about the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings, for example. Was it not also claimed that Elijah and Moses had miraculous powers? Jesus is a faithful and typical son of the Jewish prophetic tradition here. The other issue is more profound. The Hebrew Bible everywhere sees a close connection between mind and body. Both are God’s good creation; both can be abused and destroyed by evil–the body by myriad forms of sickness; the moral life by the diversities of sin. Just how the body and the moral mind are interrelated is never made clear. But God does act characteristically to save humankind from both moral evil and physical disease. Both are God’s as well as humanity’s enemies. Elsewhere Jesus offended the pious by declaring that sin and sickness are not causally related. Thus he can be almost caviler as in today’s reading by asking: “Which is easier, to get a healthy, sound mind–or a healthy, sound body?” Clearly, the physical and the moral are inter-related at a level that we do not understand but for which we have strong evidence–so at least Israel and Jesus believed.
2. Modern readers of Mark are often baffled by his frequent use of the phrase “Son of Man.” This is an odd term, one that is very common in the Gospels but very rare elsewhere. Again, the Hebrew Bible holds the key. Actually the phrase is ambiguous. In the Psalms it’s a poetic way of speaking of humanity as a whole. In Daniel “the Son of Man” means the whole company of the faithful who will be agents with God in the final victory of justice and peace on earth. So, you ask, which of these meanings does Mark intend? Perhaps both. But Daniel’s sense of a future victory of God’s justice and peace on earth seems to have special importance for first century Judaism and Jesus too. More of this later.
Now you may or may not find these comments interesting, but none of them gets to the energy of the narrative. It is the astonishment and the outrage that Jesus evoked that are the clue to what is crucial to the participants. The learned scholars clearly heard Jesus speak a word of forgiveness and they were–well–shocked. And the ordinary onlookers, crammed into the now-damaged house were “all amazed.” Why this astonishment and hostility? It was not because of a miracle–as we have seen. That was commonly reported in antiquity. For the scribes who represented the powers that be, the offense was that Jesus was threatening the political/religious establishment of the time. This is how it worked: The traditional consensus held that the right to dispense divine forgiveness belonged to those authorized to deliver it. They were, of course, the priests attached to the Jerusalem Temple. Since it was believed by many, although not by Jesus, that the cause of sickness was the sinfulness of the person who was sick, getting well meant getting rid of guilt for having broken the divine law and only the Temple establishment was authorized to do that. You see the problem? If wandering rabbis up in Galilee begin to dispense forgiveness (never mind the healing), that would in effect put the Jerusalem Temple out of business. And that the scribes and lawyers were certainly not about to permit. Of course they were outraged. Jesus’ mode of operation, they correctly saw, had the potential of destroying their way of life. Now they would no longer have a monopoly on granting forgiveness and its potential for good health.
Here the situation gets worse–or better–depending on your point of view. Jesus nowhere says, “I’m the only one who has the power to forgive sins.” Whether “Son of Man” means humanity generally or the company of the faithful who are a part of the future victory of justice and peace on earth–the result is pretty much the same in that forgiveness is declared to be a power God places into human hands. It is not the monopoly of a sacred institution or a special class. It is a human possibility; it is the future destiny of all of God’s people. Human beings have been given the power to forgive and thus the power to transform themselves and human history. Hannah Arendt, the distinguished secular Jewish political philosopher of the twentieth century, argued that this discovery of the transformative role of forgiveness in the realm of human affairs was the work of Jesus of Nazareth. She claimed that “the fact that he made this discovery in a religious context and articulated it in religious language” was no reason to take it any less seriously in a strictly secular sense. “It is decisive,” she continues, “that Jesus maintains that it is not true that only God [and his official representatives] have the power to forgive but [rather, forgiveness] must be mobilized by [human beings] toward each other together before they can hope to be forgiven by God also” (An Ethic for Enemies, Donald Schriver, Oxford Univ. Press p. 35).
Surely Hannah Arendt has seen the point of this story in Mark, the point that many Christians have conventionally missed. The power to forgive is not a narrow religious doctrine but is a comprehensive social possibility. No temple anywhere, ancient or modern, holds the copyright. Forgiveness is a gift from the Maker of us all–enabling us all to overcome the social, personal, cultural sicknesses that are killing us. Human love of revenge may be understandable, but it is neither necessary nor inevitable. The pathological need to blame, to accuse, to retaliate is, in fact, a fatal malady in our common life. The hostilities that rage daily across the globe are obscene rejections of Jesus’ discovery: People really can learn to forgive for it is only in forgiving that we become morally clean; in forgiving we step forward together into a future open for the unrealized potential for creativity and fulfillment. But if we cannot or will not forgive, we condemn ourselves to endless scenarios of sorrow upon sorrow, suffering upon suffering. Look at Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Look at Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Look at Africa. Look at ourselves. What marshalling of empirical data will it take for us to wake up to face the reality of the moral failure of our common history? Try this for size. In Europe alone in the 1700s, war of nation against nation killed some 7 million civilians and soldiers. In the 1800s the cost of war, nation against nation, had gone up to over 19 million. In the century just past, the cost of war, nation against nation, had gone up to almost 108 million. From 7 million to 19 million to 108 million. What trajectory do you propose for our new century? What would it take to go from 108 million to–none? And now just where exactly, is that option of sanity supposed to come from? Where else but from the capacity for social forgiveness? Is forgiveness as a social reality all that is needed to bring peace on earth? No. But how can this monstrous suicidal slaughter, this addiction to death, that dominates modern history since the Enlightenment (please note) ever be halted if we do not take the risk of learning how to forgive?
The final point I wish to make about Jesus as the Discoverer of Social Forgiveness is much more personal. I was raised in a wonderful religious tradition in a beautiful little town up in the Rocky Mountains. I was told in Sunday school that if I ever felt I needed forgiveness for anything bad I had done, I should ask God to forgive me and God would forgive me and then I should show my gratitude by forgiving others who had done bad things to me. Sound familiar? Whether or not this works psychologically is open to question. But the real problem is deeper. Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus teaches something quite different from what I was taught. For example, in the Lord’s Prayer and elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus sets up a far more demanding perspective. Sure, it’s fine to ask God to forgive us. Just note, however, that Jesus uniquely holds that we can ask that we be forgiven only to the extent that we are agents of forgiveness to others. We now know we dare ask only to get forgiven by God to the extent we have already used the power God has given us to forgive others. And so we shall pray together, in a few minutes, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
I think all of us have to explore the meaning of forgiveness in terms of the realities of the lives we live with each other. Forgiveness is an adventure of prayer. It can also be an opening for mental and spiritual health. Ordinary people have been given the power to be forgivers. You can do it. You really can forgive those who have betrayed you. You really can forgive those who have hurt you. You can even learn how to forgive a social institution or a cultural tradition that threatens you. Yes, it’s much easier to refuse to forgive. It’s much easier to play the victim. But you really can learn to be brave. You can learn to forgive yourself even though you know it is easier to blame yourself. All these powers are yours according to Jesus. The only question, really, is whether we, together, can claim the courage to take the risk to move from being succored by sour resentments. Can we claim the imagination to share in that company of the Son of Man committed to the victory of peace and justice on earth?
Forgiveness is essentially a social act. Its most striking form, visually, in the Christian tradition, is that occasion when the faithful gather to participate in the sacramental banquet, when we come together around the altar of God as we shall do here in a few minutes to discover afresh that the offering of Christ does indeed make us one, that we have the power to be forgivers, that we together are accepted and welcomed by him.
So then, can you imagine a public role for forgiveness in our uncertain adventure into the century ahead? Can we find the wit, the wisdom, the humanity, the humility to develop a politics of forgiveness? Or are we prepared to let the genocidal escalation of self-inflicted death, that I’ve cited, continue mindlessly, pitilessly, remorselessly on its relentless way? Our shared memory of the century past–so full of achievement and failure, of brilliance and ignorance, suffering and death–dare not be permitted to be a prologue for our future. We need the humility to say, as did Dean Nathan Baxter last Sunday in this very place, “Lord, if you will, you can make us clean.” We need the imagination to treasure what is life-giving in our past and the courage to say no to what it is that’s killing us. It is forgiveness that gives us the power to overcome the failures of the past–however monstrous they be–and it is the power of forgiveness which gives our hope for the future a clean and energetic and solid basis.
Jesus, my friend, is here to say to us as he did to the paralytic: OK. Stand up. Take up your mat or whatever it is that supports you. Go home. And get to work.