Tag Archives: gospel of Mark

The Numbers are Down:Mark 4:24-34

The Sower. Jame Tissot

Numbers seem to indicate power and popularity. We think that way; Jesus’ disciples must have thought that way too. In Mark’s gospel Jesus begins his ministry in Capernaum before an enthusiastic crowd. At the end of his first day, the whole town gathers at the door of Peter’s house and word reaches out to other towns and places that a prophet has come. The numbers go up. (Mark 1, 21-34)

But then enthusiasm dies down as Jesus’ authority is questioned. Religious leaders from Jerusalem and the followers of Herod Antipas cast doubts about him. His own hometown, Nazareth, takes a dim view of him.. Gradually, Capernaum and the other towns that welcomed Jesus enthusiastically turn against him. His numbers go down.

Why are the number going down, his disciples must have wondered? It didn’t make sense. Jesus’ answer comes in Mark’s gospel today. God’s kingdom is coming; God is at work in the world, but God‘s working in this world, but human beings are mostly unaware of it:


“This is how it is with the Kingdom of God;
it is as if a man were to scatter seed on the land
and would sleep and rise night and day
and the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.
Of its own accord the land yields fruit,
first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear.
And when the grain is ripe, he wields the sickle at once,
for the harvest has come.” (Mark 4, 28-34)

Great power is at work in the scattered seed, but we know little how it grows. The seed takes time, with its own law of growth; a great harvest will come, but still there’s mystery we don’t see. We sleep.

Meanwhile, we worry about numbers. Why are growing numbers giving up going to church or synagogue? Why are there so few vocations to our religious communities? So many of the good things in this world seem to be diminishing.

What can we do? Look into the signs of the time. Treasure the seed we have. Scatter it as we can. Be patient as we sleep. The Kingdom of God comes.

Believing for Others

The healing of the paralytic told in today’s gospel from Mark is a great story.(Mark 2: 1–12) Four friends bring him to the door of Peter’s house in Capernaum but the crowds are so dense that they can’t get in to see Jesus so they climb up on the roof, cut a hole in it and lower him down before Jesus. Was the paralyzed man conscious, or half conscious? We don’t know.

What ingenuity! What nerve! What determination on the part of his friends! Think of the logistics involved in it all. The pictures here show the ruins of Peter’s house now enclosed in a shrine and a picture from the shrine looking down into the house–possibly just where the man was lowered down.

We know Jesus forgave the man’s sins and then healed him completely, so he left the house carrying the mat that once bore him. The gospel wants us to recognize that Jesus the healer is Jesus who forgives sins. But some who heard his words of forgiveness that day were shocked by this action which they rightly judged was divine.

But I’m led back to the four friends who had a part in this miracle. Let’s not forget them. They believe and their belief makes them go to extraordinary lengths to  help another .  We believe for others as well as for ourselves. Faith reaches out; it doesn’t remain within.  Believing prompts us to do daring things.

Back to Peter’s house. Did Peter look up that day and say, “Who’s going to pay for that hole in the roof?” The story of the paralyzed man is a wonderful story. But it also has an ominous part to it. Scribes, sitting in judgment, call him a blasphemer for pronouncing sins are forgiven. Opposition to Jesus begins to build that leads to his death.

Magdala: “a place nearby”

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After a tumultuous first day of ministry in Capernaum, Jesus left the following day for other places, Mark’s Gospel says.

“Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed. Simon and those who were with him pursued him and on finding him said, ‘Everyone is looking for you.’ He told them, ‘Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.’ So he went into their synagogues, preaching and driving out demons throughout the whole of Galilee.” (Mark 1,36-39)

Was one of the nearby villages Magdala?

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Magdala, or Migdal, a prosperous Jewish port city in the first century. was just five miles south of Capernaum on the south-western part of the Sea of Galilee. Some of the city has been uncovered recently by archeologists and the discovery opens another window into the gospel story.

Magdala’s economy was built on fishing and, in fact, it was the center of a highly developed industry on the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ day. Written sources have it that salted fish from Magdala was sold in the surrounding areas and even as far as Rome, but  recent findings offer another look at Magdala’s economy and its sophisticated techniques for storing and preparing fish for market. As a flourishing Jewish center on the Sea of Galilee, it was an obvious place for Jesus to visit.

The Jewish historian Josephus may be exaggerating when he says there were 40,000 people in Magdala, but certainly it had a good-sized, prosperous population in the time of Jesus. Christians see it as the home of Mary Magdalen.

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New excavations in Magdala and also in Bethsaida on the northern tip of the Sea of Galilee help us understand the world of Jesus and what he did there. For example, there are two newly excavated synagogues at Magdala from his time.  Did he stand in a place like this and teach and cure? Probably.

The recent findings also invite us to look again at Jesus’ disciples. What kind of people were Peter, Andrew, James and John, and the other Galilean fishermen whom Jesus called to follow him? They’re often described as “poor” “ignorant” fishermen, tagging along, open-mouthed, before the wonders Jesus worked and the words he spoke.

But Galilean fishermen seem more resourceful and knowledgeable than that. They were knowledgeable guides to the world around the Sea of Galilee. That world  was more complex than we might think.  On its western shore were mostly Jewish communities; on its eastern shores were the gentile cities of the Decapolis.

Jesus  goes first to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but then he crosses over to gentile world. Who takes him to this different world but savvy fishermen who know the places and the peoples around the sea?

They were certainly not ignorant. At one point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells Peter that he’s thinking like a human being, trying to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem to face suffering and death. In fact, Peter and the rest were quite good at human thinking, quite confident in their own opinions and thoughts. In the gospel Jesus constantly challenges their “human thinking” with the thinking of God. .

Mary Magdalene

Where did he meet them? Mark’s gospel says it was along the Sea of Galilee. A mosaic of the call of the disciples in the new center at Magdala suggests it may have happened here. Another mosaic suggests that the raising of the daughter of Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue, may also have taken place here.

Speculation, maybe.  It’s a good guess that Jesus met  Mary Magdalene here and released her from the seven devils  that messed up her life. She became a disciple.

Mark’s gospel doesn’t limit the followers of Jesus to twelve. He only mentions the twelve once in his gospel. In Mark’s and Luke’s gospels, a wide range of people become followers of Jesus, from the fishermen of Galilee, tax-collectors like Matthew, to women like Mary Magdalene and Johanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Cusa. Women were with  the twelve, Luke’s gospel says:

“Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.” (Luke 8,1-3)

Herod Antipas’ capitol, Tiberias, was only a few miles from Magdala.

Like so many ancient cities, Magdala had its good days and days of decline. It was probably destroyed during the Jewish revolt in 68 AD. Only a few places in the city were left standing when the Crusaders arrived in the 12th century, then it disappeared in the earth.

The Legionaires of Christ bought the property along the Sea of Galilee in 2004 intending  to build a 300 room hotel on the site, but in preparing the building site they uncovered the ruins of ancient Magdala. Construction stopped and the archeologists stepped in.

“For the Rev. Juan M. Solana, it was the spiritual equivalent of striking oil,” a New York Times article from May 14, 2014 said. “When he set out to develop a resort for Christian pilgrims in Galilee, he unearthed a holy site: the presumed hometown of Mary Magdalene and an ancient synagogue where experts say Jesus may well have taught.”

Capernaum: A Remarkable Day

Peter's mother in law
Rembrandt; Jesus Heals Peter’s Mother-in-law

Jesus’ ministry in Galilee begins with a remarkable day, a “paradigmatic day,” a day you can see everything you need to know about Jesus. That’s the day described in Mark’s gospel today. (Mark 1:29-39)

Passing along the Sea of Galilee Jesus calls Simon and his brother Andrew, then James and his brother John. “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” They accompany him.

Then, they enter the synagogue in Capernaum on the Sabbath Day and Jesus begins to teach. The people are amazed; no one has taught like him before.

Then, as it happens through his life, evil appears. A man with an unclean spirit cries out, “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!”

Jesus rebuked him and said,“’Quiet! Come out of him!’

Leaving the synagogue, the people tell everybody they meet. News spreads quickly in Capernaum, a trading center, and the day is still not over.

From the synagogue Jesus enters Peter and Andrew’s house in Capernaum where Peter’s mother in law is ill. “He grasped her by the hand, and helped her up and the fever left her. Immediately she began to wait on them.” We shouldn’t miss those simple observations from Mark: “He grasped her by the hand and helped her up.” Wasn’t that a beautiful thing to do? Rembrandt noticed that too. “She began to wait on them.” What did she get them all, and what did they speak about?

“Again, the news spreads. “After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought all who were ill and those possessed by demons. Before long, the whole town was gathered outside the door. He cured many who were variously afflicted.”

Truth and life came to that town, and from that town Jesus goes to other towns as well: “ I must proclaim the good news to them too,” he says.

He confronts evil wherever he goes. It won’t be long before leaders come from Jerusalem question his authority to cure on the Sabbath, his own disciples and his own family do not understand him. The towns that welcomed him, reject him. Still, he announces the good news.

To appreciate Mark’s remarkable day in perspective, try reading the gospels of these three days all a once. You can see Mark at his best, describing God’s beloved Son announcing the good news to the towns of Galilee and to the world as well. (Mark 1:14-24)

The First Martyrs of Rome: June 30

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people wondered if he set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow  believers were among those who turned them in.

Some scholars say the Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy, was likely written to answer these questions. innocent and good, Jesus experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion.. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers, Peter prominent among them.

Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon. Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. I wonder if the “Quo Vadis?” story was a story prompted by questions like these ?

The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.

A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero.

The Feast of St. Mark

Mark
April 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. We can forget real people wrote the gospels, but the medieval portrait above shows the evangelist real enough as he adjusts his spectacles and pours over a book, surely his gospel. A lion looks up at him, the powerful voice of God.

He’s an old man, his eyes are going,  He has to be old if he’s a disciple of Peter, as tradition claims. Mark’s gospel appears shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. If he’s the author of the gospel, as it’s said,  he’s in his 70s at least.

He may have written his account in Rome, where he came with Peter, who calls Mark in his 1st Letter “my son.”  In 64 AD, the Christians of the city experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. For years afterwards, Christian survivors were still asking themselves, no doubt, why it happened.

They say Mark wrote his gospel in answer to that dreadful experience. He would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.

Yet Mark was not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights of his own. For a long time Mark’s gospel was neglected, but scholars today admire it for its simplicity and masterful story telling. It’s the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it.

I like the wonderful commentary: The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series from Liturgical Press, by John Donohue,SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, Min. 2002). A great guide to this gospel and its rich message.

Mark’s Gospel offers a unique wisdom. It does not flinch before the mystery of suffering and does not try to explain it away. There’s a darkness about this gospel that makes it applicable to times like ours. We’re disciples of Jesus who must follow him, no matter what.

Our gospel for the feast is the final commission Jesus gives to his disciples, according to Mark.
“Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved;
whoever does not believe will be condemned.
These signs will accompany those who believe:
in my name they will drive out demons,
they will speak new languages.
They will pick up serpents with their hands,
and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not harm them.
They will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

Like Jesus, his disciples will drive out demons and speak new languages. They’ll pick up serpents and drink poison, yet be unharmed. They will even believe, without understanding everything.

Father,
You gave St. Mark the privilege of proclaiming your gospel. May we profit by his wisdom and follow Christ more faithfully. Grant this, through Christ, your Son.

Speaking the Truth:Mark 10:1-12

Christ Questioned. James Tissot

Often Mark’s Gospel offers little clues to help us interpret one passage in the light of another. For example, Jesus is sharply questioned by the Pharisees whether it’s lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. The questioning takes place as Jesus “came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan,” on his way up to Jerusalem where he will meet his death.

Mark’s not altogether accurate in his geography but “Judea across the Jordan” was where John the Baptist was put to death for questioning the validity of Herod’s marriage to Herodias, who divorced Herod’s brother Philip to marry him. Mark tells that gruesome story a few chapters before in great detail. (Mark 6, 14-29) The site of John’s death, east of the Dead Sea in what is now the country of Jordan, was lost for more than a thousand years after it was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 71/72 A.D. It was definitively identified in 1968, when a German scholar discovered the remains of a Roman siege wall. Since then, the Hungarian architect and archaeologist Dr Győző Vörös has been excavating the site.

Perhaps the Pharisees thought that questioning Jesus here might have two outcomes. Either it might incite Herodias and Herod to do to Jesus what they did to John, or if Jesus didn’t answer the delicate question about divorce, the crowds gathered around him might see him less brave than the Baptist.

Jesus’ answer is brave, and it’s not an abstract one. Marriage is not to satisfy human ambition, like Herodias’ ambition. From the beginning God willed that man and woman be one flesh. The final lines of our gospel, spoken at this time and place, is also a strong judgment on the man and woman who engineered John’s death:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

A World of Talking Trees: Mark 8:22-26

“Do you still not understand?” Jesus said this to his disciples in Mark’s gospel right after he cured a blind man who only gradually gains his sight. He has to lay his hands on the man’s eyes a second time before he sees clearly. Is that the way we see and understand, gradually?

The cross Jesus says we all must bear takes many forms and I wonder if one form it takes in our time is the cross of confusion. We like clear sight for ourselves and everyone else, but in times of great change confusion is inevitable. Like the man in the gospel we’re living in a world of “talking trees” and that’s hard to take, reasonable, resourceful people that we are.  It’s humbling to live in confusing times like ours..

It makes us angry. There’s a lot of anger around us today, the anger that boils over and lashes out, or the anger that retreats into a fortress of resistence and isolation.

Pope Francis often speaks of patience. He said patience keeps the church going. It keeps the world going too. He spoke once of the music of patience, a patience that hears and waits, like the patient blind man who waits for the hand of Jesus to reach out again.

That’s one of the lasting teachings of the Gospel of Mark. We’re human, we think as humans do, and that means we learn gradually, by patience.

“When Jesus and his disciples arrived at Bethsaida,
people brought to him a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him.
He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village.
Putting spittle on his eyes he laid his hands on the man and asked,
“Do you see anything?”
Looking up the man replied, “I see people looking like trees and walking.”
Then he laid hands on the man’s eyes a second time and he saw clearly;
his sight was restored and he could see everything distinctly.
Then he sent him home and said, “Do not even go into the village.”
(Mark 8,22-26)

Calling Disciples

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James Tissot, Calling Disciples

Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee is succinct. John has been arrested and Herod, who rules in Galilee, is ready to behead him. Not a good time, in human thinking, to begin a ministry. Better wait, we say.

But this is God’s time, different from ours. The Good News is God’s message, not ours. God will act according to his plan, not ours. (Mark 1:14-20)

The call of the four fisherman, Peter, Andrew, James and John occurs by the Sea of Galilee. For the Jews the sea, like the wilderness, was a dangerous place; storms unsettled it; unpredictable winds made it fearful. Even an inland body of water twelve miles long and six miles wide was something to be wary of. They made a living on it, but still the sea was a dangerous place.

Jesus says simply, “Come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” Mark’s Gospel sees the four fishermen with a lot to learn to be fishers of men. They slowly understand his call. Later on, twelve would be called, (Mark 3,13-19), still later their ministry would be explained. (Mark 6,7-13)

They keep learning, not something you learn in a book, or by yourself. “I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus said. “Come away by yourselves and rest awhile,” he said to his disciples who returned to him with reports of all they had done. (Mark 6,30ff) Every disciple has to learn what the call means for him and for her, and a great deal of it we learn with others. And a great t deal of that learning comes from prayer

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Friday, 3rd Week of Lent

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Readings
Love God and love your neighbor, Jesus says in today’s gospel.(Mark 12, 28-34) We would expect to hear about love on a lenten Friday since every Friday of the year is associated with the Friday called Good. The lenten Fridays especially prepare us for that great day of love.

The gospels dwell on what took place that day in great detail. On their part, historians, scholars, artists approach the mystery of Jesus’ passion and death in different ways. What political or religious factors were behind it? Who were the people involved? What was crucifixion like? The day is a fascinating conclusion to a fascinating life. But, above all, it’s a day about love.

Why did Jesus suffer such a death, we ask? As God’s Son, no one could take his life from him. The only answer we can give is that Jesus gave himself up to death and accepted death on the Cross out of love for his Father and out of love for us. Love caused him to say in the Garden, “Your will be done.” Love called words of forgiveness from the cross: ”Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

The cross was not something Jesus endured; he embraced  it with his whole heart, his whole mind and all his strength. Before his cross, we stand before Love.

We should not avoid praying before the cross. All the saints recommend this prayer:

“When you experience dryness in your prayer, gently stir your spirit with loving acts then rest in God. Softly say to him, ‘How bruised your face, how swollen, how disfigured with spit. I see your bones laid bare. What suffering, what blows, what grief. Love is one great wound. Sweet are your wounds, sweet is your suffering. I want to keep you always close to my heart.” (Paul of the Cross:Letter 23)

Lord Jesus Christ,
the scribe in today’s gospel repeated the command to love
and you praised him for it.
May I keep before me the great commandment
to love God and my neighbor
and live it as you did.
Give me that grace. Amen.