Deconstructing Mark, Setting the Stage
Mark’s Gospel opens with the announcement of Good News. What exactly is this Good News? Many Western Christian traditions teach that it is Jesus’ sacrifice in exchange for our eternal salvation, a Heavenly life after an earthly death. And all we must do to attain that salvation is to “believe” it.
However, our western, reformed lens distorts and dilutes the message. If we broaden our perspective, we might conclude that the Good News is even better.
And far more difficult to believe.
It is Good News that challenges what we think we know about God and ourselves. It demands hope in the world, or more specifically, in the divine image-bearers of this world.
The Western Church has it partly right. The Good News is about salvation, and faith is imperative for that salvation.
But Mark’s Gospel suggests that our understanding of salvation and faith is skewed. We think of salvation only in terms of life in Heaven and focus on our own salvation. We temper our self-centeredness by sharing this good news, which generally translates to telling others how to live righteously according to our “correct” interpretation.
This is a far less generous way of living than Jesus demonstrated for us. It is a paltry faith that overlooks the bulk of the Gospel story --- the way Jesus lived and the life he encouraged his followers to live too. Focusing on Jesus’ death and resurrection allows us to conveniently evade Jesus’ concern with people’s quality of life. We overlook that he taught his followers to be concerned with the basic life needs of others as well.
A close study of Mark has convinced me that my unease with the “just-believe-Jesus-died-for-you-and-you-shall-inherit-eternal-life” view is justified. The Greek word that is variously translated as “save” or “heal” in this Gospel is sozo, which connotes both physical healing and spiritual salvation.
Let that sink in for a moment. While we tend to think of salvation as a life after death experience, Mark understood salvation as a practical restoration in this life as well. We will also see that Jesus’ touch drew marginalized people — lepers, bleeding women, demon-possessed — back into the life of their community. Again and again, he tells stories of Jesus creating health and abundance for people who had neither. In this life.
Perhaps, if we are to “believe” in Jesus, we should believe that his concerns are our concerns --- we should want health and abundance for our neighbors as much as for ourselves. And do what we can to make it reality.
Jesus’ overwhelming focus on the healing/salvation of others, something which he taught his disciples to emulate, deepens our understanding of salvation. When we concern ourselves with the healing/salvation of others, we are working toward the healing/salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the way each of us finds “our own” individual healing/salvation — losing our self-interest for the sake of Jesus, what he taught, what he did, healing the here-and-now lives of our neighbors.
Together, we work out the salvation of each other, God-in-us recognizing God-in-others and thus building a true community, in which all live with peace, well-being and wholeness.
No wonder this kind of faith was hard for Jesus’ disciples. As it is still hard for us today. We can participate in the practical restoration of people now, but it requires teamwork. Believing in Jesus means uniting, even with people we don’t like, people we would prefer to walk away from, in order to find solutions that bring restoration to the hungry, the homeless, the sick and other outsiders. That is daunting! And tempting to give up before we ever start!
Which brings us to the question --- what is faith anyway?
I have been taught that it is an unwavering certainty. Anything less is the enemy of faith. In spite of the fears and doubts voiced in the Psalms, in spite of the man begging Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9.24).
Through my study of Mark, I have come to interpret the word faith as something closer to hope. I hope in “God’s Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” I hope that salvation is for all people and that we are as capable as Jesus believed – to be His disciples, to go out and make that prayer true. Though the idea of any responsibility partially resting on our shoulders is both terrifying and empowering.
And so, I try to live my life as if the Good News is true, even in the days or moments when I doubt.
For God’s Kingdom to come into being, we must have faith -- faith in the Divine or Holy Spirit in ourselves and in our neighbor, faith that we can overcome our disagreements and find the way -- The Way of Jesus.
So in the opening of Mark, the real questions for me are these…
Do I believe (or hope for) this mysterious Good News that is life-changing, world-changing?
Dare I hope for a better world?
Dare I believe in the goodness of neighbors I disagree with?
Dare I consider that I might be wrong in a political view? A theological view?
Dare I hope in a world full of divine image-bearers who can transform this world?
Do I believe that seemingly impossible things – like life from death -- can happen?
Try to read Mark through this lens. Be curious. See if it changes your reading of the whole gospel story and indeed challenges what you think you know. About God. About your neighbor. About yourself.