The Rev. Dr. McCord Adams: “Torn Priorities”
Mark’s Gospel ushers in the Reign of God with startling staccato: John Baptist appears Elijah-like, and immediately Jesus rises from baptism, born again as God’s Beloved Son, and immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness to be tempted by demons, and immediately Jesus strides into ministry, and immediately the fisher brothers leave everything to follow, and immediately Messiah invades the synagogue to cast out unclean spirits, and immediately enters Simon’s house and heals his mother-in-law. And immediately… and immediately… and immediately. Mark’s Gospel pulls out all the rhetorical stops to stir our excitement, only—almost immediately, in today’s story—to confront us with the more confusing fact that Jesus’ ministry begins and remains torn in the tension between competing priorities, between body-politics regime-change and urgent individual needs.
Mark’s Gospel is clear: Jesus is first and foremost God’s Messiah, the Son of Man whose descent into the waters of baptism marks the end of the old world order. Jesus’ primary mission is to herald Kingdom-coming in all the towns and villages. The reason is simple. “Changing the system” is the real cure for what ails us. Human beings are politically challenged. We have a poor grasp of system-dynamics. We are relentless over-simplifiers. We feel threatened and afraid that there won’t be enough to go around. The result is that every society of merely human devising has many unforeseen and unintended side-effects: structures of cruelty that privilege some while degrading others. Abolitionists eventually taught us to recognize slavery as evil. Twentieth century movements raised consciousness about racism, sexism, and homophobia. Torah and prophets are more focussed on economic inequalities—rich people sleeping on ivory beds in mc-mansions, selling the needy for a pair of shoes. God alone is smart enough and good enough to organize utopia. Until Kingdom comes, God lays on us all an obligation to be vigilant, alert to recognize systemic evils and energetic to uproot them, only to spot new ones and repeat the process, again and again.
God alone is smart enough and good enough to organize utopia. Jesus’ primary mission is to spread the Good News: “the time has come. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Not bandaids and small-scale adjustments—like streamlining the post office or merging two cabinet departments—but root and branch social reorganization—at least as revolutionary as a transition from tribalism to nation-statehood, or the shift from private provision to a national health service would demand.
Spreading the word is urgent, because God wants us to be in a position to welcome Kingdom-coming. This is a problem, because we have been brought up to fit in with the old world order. From our youth up, we have been trained how to behave in ways that befit our stations. We have acquired the skills needed to excel in a variety of roles. To a large extent, we understand who we are, measure what we’re worth, estimate what we mean in terms of our relationships and performance in society. Such deeply entrenched patterns give us a vested interest in things remaining much as they are.
The arrival of God’s Kingdom will be like forced immigration. If we refuse to adapt or learn its culture, we will be confused and frustrated. We will definitely not fit in. Root and branch reorganization on the outside demands root and branch personal restructuring on the inside. Re-educating ourselves to become persons who will feel at home in God’s Kingdom is bound to be a strenuous process, more demanding than most mid-life crises. We need to hurry up and get started. This is the second half of Jesus’ message: “Repent, turn again, and believe the Good News!”
Mark’s Jesus is no mere word-smith. Mark does not spare space for Sermon-on-the-Mount summaries of Jesus’ teachings. No! Standing in the tradition of biblical prophecy, Jesus “acts out” his message with exorcisms and healings wherever he goes. In Mark’s mythic cosmology, God’s Kingdom is coming to reclaim turf taken over by enemy forces. Demons are the esprit de corps of merely human social institutions. Demon-possession and harrassment are the causes of mental illness, physical dysfunctions, and disease. Wherever Jesus goes, demons protest Kingdom-coming, grab for control by first-naming him. Jesus’ commanding word or healing touch sends them packing. Exorcisms and healings expose, challenge, and overturn the status quo. Exorcisms and healings are not only signs, they are “moments in the Kingdom,” sites where the Reign of God is already being restored. As such, they are attention-getting media of Jesus’ regime-change message.
Yet, this way of putting it is grossly insensitive, because it abstracts from the people who were possessed and harrassed by those demons. Crowds did not flock to Jesus seeking relief from the common cold or even of the stomach flu! They brought people who were trapped in misery then beyond merely human remedy—paralysis, blindness, deaf-muteness, epilepsy, leprosy. They were physically and mentally disabled in ways that kept them from being contributing members of their communities. Their individual needs were desperate and immediate. Their minds were not on politics and power, or even repentance and reform. Their conditions were too wretched for that.
Almost immediately, as soon as Jesus began to exorcize and heal, his appearances threatened to be mobbed by people begging for cures. In one case, they went so far as “breaking and entering,” taking the roof off his house to let down the paralytic on a stretcher in front of Jesus’ nose! Even out on backroads, in foreign villages, Jesus would be recognized and beleagured with people wanting him to speak the word, find his way blocked by a forest of outstretched arms grabbing at the hem of his garment.
The trouble is that Jesus Christ, in his human nature, is a finite person. Like us, he had to work with twenty-four hour days. He couldn’t be everywhere and do everything at once. Mark’s Gospel shows Jesus teeter-tottering between twin temptations: should he let the imperative of clear and present individual need take over his ministry, or should he turn away from it the better to forward the Good News of regime-change?
Mark’s Jesus found no single way to resolve this dilemma. In today’s episode, Jesus sneaks out of Capernaum to move on to the next town. But this does not bring an end to his exorcism and healing activities. It merely relocates them in other Galilean villages. Jesus tries to travel incognito, but is found out. Jesus sternly warns the individuals he helps not to tell anyone. But they can’t contain Good News, and word spreads like wildfire.
Mark’s Jesus occasionally responds to high level requests, but has a special soft spot for faith with chutzpah: the Syrophonecian woman’s insistence that Jesus heal her daughter, the woman with the issue of blood who tries to steal a cure under cover of the market-place crowd, blind Bartimaeus who just won’t shut up: “Kyrie eleison!” “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” “Give me my sight back!” At bottom, what keeps Jesus exorcizing and healing is his own compassion. Jesus cannot bear to keep people waiting for the full manifestation of Kingdom-coming. Jesus knows that if he does, it will be too late for many of them.
Mark’s Jesus calls disciples to be torn in the same tension. Baptism renounces our allegiance to the old world order. Faithfulness is incompatible with complacency about the status quo. God alone is smart enough and good enough to organize utopia. But human misery tugged on Jesus’ heart strings: proof positive why God’s Kingdom needs to come! There were not enough hours in the day for Jesus to exorcize and heal everyone. But when it came to reversing the effects of the old world order, that is where Jesus had to begin.
For us, too, the way through our vocational dilemma is to tear off the scabs, to keep our minds clear by keeping our compassion raw. Compassion forces us to face wretchedness that can’t afford to wait for mercy to trickle down, desperate needs that demand our immediate attention, whether or not we have power to change the system. And compassion is our best diagnostic tool for social reform, because it rivets attention on where present arrangements are most failing to deliver. Compassion also keeps us mindful of the standards by which the bible’s God judges human societies: whether they institutionalize a bias for the rich and well-off, or whether their first move is to provide for the powerless and the poor.
So, Mark’s Gospel warns: when Kingdom comes, comes the revolution! No time to waste! Mark’s Jesus shows us how best to prepare. “Tear off the scabs! Keep your minds clear by keeping your compassion raw!”