Mark’s Gospel describes growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, but growing numbers also find him hard to understand, the gospel says.
Scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.
Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves too. They may be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but ordinary people of Galilee find him too much for them.
Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.
Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, Mark’s early stories announce the story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.
Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome facing a surprising brutal persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually singled out Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Rome’s Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds his followers they must follow him without always understanding.
Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.
The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.
After the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus we read at Mass from the first 8 chapters of the Gospel of Mark until Ash Wednesday.
Mark’s Gospel makes no mention of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem but begins with the story of his baptism in the Jordan River. Then he describes his miracles and teaching in the towns around the Sea of Galilee– the Jewish towns first, then in the gentile region. Then he goes up to Jerusalem and his death and resurrection.
Until recently, Mark’s Gospel received little attention compared to the gospels of Matthew, John or Luke. It was hardly read in the liturgy. Early commentators thought Mark was simply a synopsis of Matthew’s Gospel. Commentators today, however, recognize Mark’s Gospel as the first to be written and appreciate the powerful way it tells the story of Jesus. It’s not just a simple portrayal of historical facts or a synopsis of Matthew. It’s rich in symbolism.
Mark’s Gospel, for example, begins in the waters of the Jordan River, where Jesus is called God’s beloved Son on whom the Spirit rests. Water is a recurring image in Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ ministry.
John Donahue SJ, a recent commentator on the Gospel of Mark (Liturgical Press, 2002) , points out the symbolic nature of the various events in Jesus’ ministry around the Sea of Galilee. As the Spirit rested on the waters of the Jordan, so does the Spirit stir these waters, drawing more and more to Jesus, God’s Son. Crossing from its western to its eastern side – from a side largely Jewish to a side largely gentile – Jesus and his disciples bring the gospel to gentiles as well as Jews.
The storms Jesus and his disciples face on the sea are more than historic storms; they symbolize the fearful challenge and rejection to be faced in bringing the gospel to others. (Mark 6:45-52)
“As he passed by the Sea of Galilee,” Jesus calls some fishermen, Simon, his brother Andrew, James and his brother John. He makes them “ fishers of men.” (Mark 1, 16-19) Along the sea, Jesus teaches the crowds in parables.
The journeys of Jesus and his disciples to Tyre and Sidon, seaports on the Mediterranean Sea, are more than historical markers. The Syrophoenician woman and the deaf man, both gentiles healed there, are signs that the gospel must be brought over the seas to the gentiles at ends of the earth. ( Mark 7:24-37)
Jesus multiplies bread on both sides of the Sea of Galilee in Mark’s Gospel. The gentiles are to be fed and blessed as well as Jews. (Mark 6:31-44; Mark 8:1-10)
The Spirit moves in the waters of the Jordan, the Sea of Galilee and the waters beyond yet, as Mark’s Gospel indicates repeatedly, the Jewish leaders, the pharisees, scribes, Herodians, members of his own family, his disciples, do not understand. Neither do we.
Still, the Spirit works through the waters, softening, cleansing, strengthening, giving new life.
In this Wednesday’s Gospel (Mk 8: 22-26), Jesus heals a blind man at the town of Bethsaida. This healing does not happen right away:
” 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.”
This passage has been interpreted as an example of how the healing that comes from God happens gradually, in steps. We must be trusting and patient.
In line with this, I see in this Gospel the invitation of Love toward my conversion. I was blind to the marvelous reality of a loving God in my life. By example and prayer, good people ( like my son Frank) brought me to Him. He took me by the hand and led me outside of my sphere (my village) to the intimate place where only He and I interact. He touched me. He questioned me (“Do you believe?”). He enabled me to see, at least a little bit, as if in a “mirror dimly” ( 1 Cor 13:6). He touches me again and again so that I can see Him and ” see everything distinctly”. In a sense I am no longer blind. I can begin to, in the words of Walter Burghardt, take “a long loving look at the real”.
And so this passage also reminds me of His wonderful gift of prayer. He takes me by the hand to the isolated place “the private room” , and many times I cannot see Him in this darkness. Then He works His miracle and opens the eyes of my soul to His presence.
Like Mary Magdalene, I cry within the dark, stony, tomb of my distress, my guilt, my doubt, loneliness and despair. Suddenly He calls to me: ” Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?”. I look out into the blinding light. I can barely see the hazy human silhouette standing there outside. I cannot recognize Him. Then He calls me by name. I realize this is the Friend who has by now healed me, accompanied me, taught and loved me for so long. In some strange, deep, indescribable way I can see Him! He is my Lord and my God!
We’re reading at Mass today the story of the Syrophoenician woman who asks Jesus to cure her daughter. Mark 7, 24-30
My mother (God rest her) used to sneak food under the table regularly to her beloved cocker spaniel, Buffy. Once when I visited home after becoming a priest I said–in a losing attempt to keep Buffy’s weight down– “Mom, you shouldn’t feed that dog scraps from the table.”
She replied, “You don’t live her. He does. Besides, I’m not feeding him scraps from the table. He’s eating the same food we eat.”
I could never understand all the logic of her answer, but I gave us trying to stop her. I remember her every time this gospel is read. She put me in my place.
Maybe that’s what the Syrophoenician woman did to Jesus when she met him on his excursion north into gentile territory near Tyre.
Father John Donohue, SJ, offers an intriguing commentary on Jesus and this woman in Mark’s gospel. (The Gospel of Mark, John Donohue, SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Sacra Pagina), Collegeville, Minnesota 2002. ) Their meeting takes place following the feeding of the 5,000 in Jewish territory (Mark 6, 30-44) and Jesus’ announcement to the Pharisees and the scribes from Jerusalem that “all food is clean.” As a sign that the gentiles too would receive the Bread of Life from his hands, Jesus journeys into gentile territory to feed another 4,000. (Mark 8,1-10)
Now, you would expect him to welcome any gentile he met near Tyre, but the woman who meets Jesus alone in a house is harshly rejected when she asks him to heal her daughter. “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”
The woman doesn’t take no for an answer. “Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps, Lord.”
Matthew’s gospel, written after Mark, says the woman’s daughter was healed because of her faith. Not so, Father Donohue says. According to Mark, it was because she got the best of her argument with Jesus, the only one who does that in the gospels. “It’s not right to ignore us,” the woman says to him. Jesus heard the truth from her and accepted it.
Jesus begins to set out for Jerusalem in today’s reading at Mass from the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. Matthew offers a similar account in the 19th and 20th chapters of his gospel.
Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem alone, he invites others to go with him. It’s a journey to resurrection and life and more than a couple of days, but as they hear Jesus describe the way to Jerusalem, people react like people do,
You can’t miss human weakness in the journey stories of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospel, beginning with the Pharisees. I suppose they represent human doubt and questioning that’s always there. The disciples rebuked the women bringing their children forJesus’ blessing, and Jesus rebukes them. Be like children to make the journey, Jesus tells them.
The rich young man wants to hold on to what he has, so he goes away sad. Peter says proudly he’ s given up everything to follow Jesus, but we know how inconstant he is. The story of the brothers, James and John, is obviously a story of human ambition.
Matthew offers Mark’s stories in chapter 19 and 20 of his gospel. The artist Rembrandt drew a remarkable picture of the 19th and 20th chapter of Matthew called the Hundred Guilder Print.
Jesus stands at the center of Rembrandt’s work, bathed in light, his hands outstretched to the crowds before him.
Peter stands at Jesus right, close by. Other disciples, probably James and John, are next to him. Women and their children, whom the disciples told to go away, are next to them. The rich young man is also there in the crowd. Is he reconsidering?
Some of the enemies of Jesus who plotted against him and argued with him are also there, talking among themselves, but they’re still in the picture. Rembrandt even pictures the camel, back by the city gates.
Jesus sheds his light on them all. His arms are open to them all. Rembrandt has it right. Grace is more powerful than human weakness. It’s everywhere.
Jesus’ initial ministry in Galilee, starting with his miracles in Capernaum, brought excited crowds to him looking for healing for themselves or those with them. Wherever he went, whether in Jewish or Gentile territory, crowds came to him.
In today’s gospel, the deaf man brought to him isn’t identified as either Jew or gentile. He’s just deaf and can’t speak. He has no name. What’s significant about this miracle is the way Jesus heals him. “He took him off by himself away from the crowd.” (Mark 7,33)
Jesus takes the man aside privately, he meets him personally, face to face– and is deeply touched– “groans”–at the deaf man’s plight. He touches the man, putting his finger in his ears and his spittle on his tongue. When the deaf man speaks, Jesus says to him and his friends not to tell anyone. One reason may be that Jesus doesn’t want to be typed simply as a healer. But they went and proclaimed it anyway.
Still, why did he take him off “by himself away from the crowd?” A reminder that God does not look on us as a crowd, but knows each of us? We’re not statistics, part of a list. God meets each of us face to face.
And that’s a reminder to treat others that way too. Each has a face of their own and a story that’s unique. That’s hard to do. It’s easier to deal with people as statistics, numbers, people next in line.
For Jesus people were not statistics, one of a crowd, next in line. That’s not God’s way.
In Wednesday’s Gospel reading (Mk 7: 14-23), our Lord states: ” Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.”
Later on, He tells His disciples: ” Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine (thus He declared all foods clean). But what comes out of the man, is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Our Lord is once again talking about the pettiness and superficiality of so many of the rules and regulations that the scribes and Pharisees were always harping on. He asks us to focus rather on that “beam” in our eyes, the sinful, destructive tendencies that exist within us, and that we try to cover up.
But this passage leads me to ask so many questions. In many of the Psychology courses that I took, the issue of ” nature vs. nurture” would come up, and makes me think of this Gospel. So many disturbing, horrible things can ” enter from the outside ” and damage or ” defile ” a child so that he or she grows up and displays many of these sinful behaviors listed by the Lord. Do we learn these evils, or did they already come within us at birth? How extensive is the power of our “original sin?” Why do some people turn out ” nicer” than others?
No matter what the answers to these questions, our Lord certainly wants people to be cleansed of ” all their evils” . Can we do it by following a set of rules and prescribed behaviors that our Church so lovingly provides? ….. Follow the Commandments, participate in the Eucharist, celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, fast, avoid the sinful influence of the media for us and our children, control our “dirty language” and “dirty pictures” in our minds, practice tolerance and forgiveness, and so on?
Many, many people, like me, who received Catholic upbringing and instruction when young, failed to follow these rules. Others, by the Grace of God, gave these rules a good try and are still trying. Why? Was it God’s arbitrary choice?
I really cannot answer these questions either. All I know is that after 43 years in the wilderness, after hurting God, myself, and others so many times, my Lord Jesus Christ came my way and struck me with his Love and Mercy. The gift of His Light helped me to see His Light in me, along with the many dark, dirty spots that would cloud my vision of Him.
So I no longer try to analyze what harmful events in my life led me to so much sin, nor how my “inside” got filled with so much darkness (although I try to spot those bad influences when they threaten my grandchildren, and carefully talk about it with their parents!). All I know is that God loves me so much, that I can’t help but try to be”better”, because I love Him. There is this beautiful sentence that I read in the magazine THE WORD AMONG US: ” It’s the relationship, not the formula that matters.”
In his book, FALLING UPWARD, Fr Richard Rohr, talks about the importance of “shadow work” in the spiritual journey. It is a matter of careful ” seeing through ” our self-deception, as well as through all of those inner things that “defile” us: ” You come to expect various forms of halfheartedness, deceit, vanity, or illusions from yourself. But now you see through them, which destroys most of their game and power.” What are you looking at as you see through them? Rohr believes that you are looking into your innermost self at the One who loves you.
” This self cannot die and always lives, and is your True Self.”
To listen to this week’s homily, select the audio file below:
It’s good to pay attention to the places Jesus goes to in Mark’s Gospel, because places throw light on what Jesus says and does. In today’s reading from Mark’s Gospel, (Mark 8, 27-38) Jesus and his disciples leave the region around the Sea of Galilee– where most of his ministry took place – and travel to the villages of Caesarea Philippi about 25 miles to the north. They’re on their way to Jerusalem.
Caesarea Philippi and its surroundings were at the foot of Mount Hermon where the water sources for the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee were located. Water was a key resource in Palestine then as now. Controlling the water meant controlling everything. At that time the Romans were in control. Names tell us that: Caesarea-Caesar, the Roman Emperor. Philippi-Philip, son of Herod the Great, who was Caesar’s ally in that part of Palestine.
This was Roman territory; rich shrines to Roman and Greek gods were everywhere reminding everybody.
As he does often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus uses what’s at hand to teach. Here in this place of Roman power he asks, “Who do people say that I am?”
John the Baptist, who stood up to King Herod: Elijah, the fearless prophet who stood up to King Ahab and his notorius wife, Jezebel, the disciples say
Peter, speaking for them all says: ““You are the Christ.” You are more powerful than the prophets, more powerful than those honored here at Caesarea Philippi. You are the Messiah come to lead Israel to its high place above the nations.
But then Jesus tells Peter he is a Messiah who will suffer, who will be rejected by the leaders of his own people, who will suffer death and rise again. He’s a Messiah who seems, not powerful, but powerless.
Peter doesn’t like that. “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “ Turning around, and looking at his disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan, you are someone who thinks like human beings and not like God.
Thinking like human beings, not like God. What does that mean? Jesus goes on to say says it’s thinking we’re powerful and we’re not, aiming for power that we can never hold on to. It means denying the cross in one’s life. It’s not only Peter Jesus accuses of thinking like human beings and not like God, it’s his disciples and all of us.
“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me,” Jesus says.
The cross, so difficult to understand and accept! Each of us has to take up our cross, if we wish to follow Jesus. Each of us has a cross to take up. We may not like it, but it’s the cross that’s personally mine. It could be sickness, disappointment, rejection, maybe it’s simply day after day getting nowhere. It could be the cross that comes from the times and circumstances we live in. We may not like that either. We would like to go back to another time, or go forward to a better time. But the cross is where we are.
When we take up our cross and follow Jesus, it becomes his cross too. He promises that. He helps us carry it. He bears the burden of it. With him at our side, we don’t die; he raises us up.
The journey that Jesus took with his disciples to Caesarea Philippi in Mark’s Gospel was a journey to prepare them for what awaited them further, in Jerusalem. Peter and the others didn’t understand him; neither do we. The journey we make with Jesus ends, not with a hold on human power, but holding on to the power of God, which is given to us through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
When you’re reading the gospels it’s good to notice where Jesus travels, because it usually offers an insight into what he does. Mark’s Gospel today (Mark 7,31-37) says Jesus leaves the district of Tyre “and went by way of Sidon to the Sea of Galilee into the district of the Decapolis.” The cities of the Decapolis, east of the Sea of Galilee, were not Jewish areas; they were where pagans lived. That means that the deaf man Jesus cures is most likely a pagan, not a Jew. In a simple way, through these place names, Mark’s Gospel indicates that Jesus brings life to others, besides the Jews; he comes for all people.
Our story also sees an interesting connection between hearing and speech. The deaf man not only can’t hear, he can’t speak either. His deafness affects his understanding; it impedes his connection with the world and reality around him; he can’t say what he has to say.
The miracles of Jesus are about more than physical cures, of course. The deaf man who can’t hear or speak points to the spiritual deafness that can affect the way we hear God and consequently impedes our ability to speak God’s truth.
Pope Francis will be visiting us in a few weeks. He’ll be visiting three different places. In Washington he will be addressing our government, in Philadelphia he will be speaking about family life, in New York he will be speaking to the whole human family at the United Nations. He has important things to say and we should listen to him.
I think we already know some of the things he’s going to say. His recent encyclical “Laudato Si” was about the care of creation. It wont be a surprise if he speaks about that in all those places. But if recent surveys are right, it seems that American Catholics aren’t hearing the message of that encyclical very well. We don’t seem to hear what’s being said, it’s not entering into our ordinary discourse. Certainly we don’t hear too much about it in our present political discourse.
There’s an ecological crisis, the pope said in his letter. It’s a major issue endangering the whole world, all of its creatures, our human family. It’s especially affecting the poor. We have to do something about it.
Some may deny the crisis exists; some may claim it’s exaggerated; some may just throw up their hands thinking it’s too big to deal with. Some may think it can taken care of gradually by the play of “market forces.”
The pope and many others see the ecological crisis as real, it’s endangering the world and it has to be dealt with now. Recently, Francis asked Catholics and people everywhere to come together on September 1st for a day of prayer about the care of creation. We need an “ecological conversion,” he said. An “ecological conversion.” I must confess I don’t understand all he means by that, but my instincts say he’s right. I need to “hear” what that means– an “ecological conversion.”
I don’t think ecological conversion means that we have to immerse ourselves completely in science, although the pope obviously respects scientific conclusions. We should too. I don’t think ecological conversion means that a few quick moves will fix the crisis, like changing a couple of light bulbs in the house–although again, suggestions like that are important. The pope says that as Catholics we need to “rediscover in our own rich spiritual patrimony the deepest motivations for our concern for the care of creation.”
Pope Francis does that in his encyclical. He sees what the scriptures say about creation, from the Book of Genesis to the writings of the New Testament. He sees the respect we have for creation in our sacraments. The water we use in baptism, the bread and wine we take in our Eucharist, the oil we use for anointing the sick. Our spiritual patrimony has a reverence for creation. In the pope’s words, our spiritual tradition reminds us that we’re called “to be protectors of God’s handiwork.” That call “is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience” (Laudato Si, 217). We must love God and our neighbor and creation itself.
Caring for creation and an “ecological conversion” are not going to be easy. It means great changes in the way we look at life and live life. We can’t understand all it means. We have trouble hearing and speaking about it, like the deaf man in the gospel. That’s why we need the grace of God. We need to pray for it. And while we’re at it, let’s pray for the pope.
To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:
In this Sunday’s gospel, the evangelist Mark runs two stories together. A synagogue official, Jairus is his name, goes to Jesus pleading that he come and cure his little daughter who’ s dying. Jairus is obviously an important figure in that area; people know him and immediately a crowd gathers to follow the synagogue official and Jesus to the house.
That story is interrupted by the story of a woman– we don’t know her name– who has had hemorrhages for twelve years and spent all her money on doctors. Obviously she’s poor, broke and stressed out. She pushes through the crowd on the way to Jairus’ house and touches Jesus cloak and is cured. Jesus recognizes her and calls her. “In fear and trembling” she approaches him. “Daughter,” Jesus says to her, “ your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.” To Jesus the woman is his “daughter,” like the daughter of Jairus, someone who is dear to him.
Then the gospel returns to the first story. Jesus reaches Jairus’ house, the little girl is dead. They’re all mourning loudly. He raises the little girl up to life and tells them to give her something to eat.
It’s easy to say which of those two stories would make the 6 o’clock news tonight or the Daily News headlines tomorrow. Daughter of Synagogue Official Saved from Death.
You wonder why Mark’s Gospel runs those stories together the way it does? The unknown woman’s story seems to interrupt the far more dramatic story about the synagogue official’s little girl who dies and is brought back to life. Yet, Mark’s gospel puts the two stories together, seemingly to indicate that both them must be told and are somehow interconnected.
I’m thinking of these stories in the light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical, Laudato Si, on the environment, which was published last week. That encyclical has a lot of interconnected stories too. You can concentrate on one of its dramatic highlights, like it’s urgent call to do something about climate change and either agree or disagree with the pope and pass over all the rest. But the pope’s encyclical is many sided. There’s a great deal in it. It’s about more than climate change or carbon credits or the impact it may have on our American political scene.
The pope is asking us to examine the way we look at things, the way we look at life, the way we look at nature, our common home. He wants us to examine ourselves in the light of our faith, but also in the view of the realities of life today. The encyclical is addressed primarily to Catholics, but he’s asking all people to look at what it means to live together on this planet now.
Encyclicals are long letters, densely constructed, and this one is too, 184 pages. But if you take your time and go through it slowly, and that’s hard because so many of us like our news in sound bites, you will find it’s stimulating and challenging. I’m sure we are going to be exposed to the “stories” in this encyclical in the months and years to come. I don’t think it’s going to go away.
The encyclical is on the internet. You can get it on the Vatican website, and I’m sure you’ll find it in print very shortly.
The pope’s language is strong, but remember the pope’s a preacher, and they say a preacher is supposed to “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
It’s not just governments, or corporations and communities and systems he’s challenging. It’s all of us. We “have grown up in a milieu of extreme consumerism that makes it difficult to see the world as it is, particularly the world of the poor.” He’s asking us to see the world as it’s interconnected.
For the pope, the environment is not just nature, but nature and human society together. He’s calling, not just for awareness, but an awareness that translates into new habits. (209) He’s asking for an “ecological conversion. It’s not enough to think about these things; we need to change our ways.
And changing our ways and our lives is always hard. We get used to the way we live, the ways we think and the way we are.
On final thing to remember about this encyclical: the pope wants us to look at things with an eye on the poor, the poor that are close by and the global poor who live in places we never see or hear about. In his letter, the pope sometimes refers to poor as the “excluded,” they don’t enter into our world or our planning or our thinking. But they should.
And maybe that’s why this Sunday’s gospel is so pertinent. The two stories in it are about two worlds. Jairus the synagogue official is someone people know. He has a name, and Jesus goes to his house and raises his daughter to life. The poor woman who comes up to Jesus in the crowd has no name. She lives in fear and trembling. But Jesus calls her “daughter,” she’s his daughter too, and she will not be turned away.