Today we’ve heard a big chunk of gospel reading, most of chapter 2. A set of vignettes that we would normally read as individual stand-alone stories, each carrying a particular message. Our printed Bibles tend to encourage this sort of approach, by inserting sub-headings to tell us what each paragraph is all about.
But we’re taking advantage of reading larger blocks of text together, recognising that the author was doing more than just randomly chucking a bunch of stories together; he was deliberately telling his story in the way he felt best communicated “the good news of Jesus Christ”, as he names it in the opening verses of chapter 1.
In passing – if you haven’t already done so, let me encourage you sometime over the coming weeks to sit down and read the whole of Mark’s gospel – it isn’t really very long – to get a feel of this overall shape. I reckon you’ll find the individual stories make a lot more sense when you have that context.
But back to today’s reading – what we have is this set of vignettes – the healing of the paralytic, the calling of Levi and the controversy that followed, the discussion of fasting – all of which are connected by, and leading to, those last few verses about cloths and wineskins. Which tend to be the bits we leave out, because they seem a bit obscure and don’t have an interesting story connected to them.
Which is a shame, because in those couple of sentences Mark uses Jesus’ teaching to draw together the theme of the three stories that have gone before.
What Jesus has begun to do, and here continues, is teaching people about the Kingdom of God; teaching them by his words and by his actions, his priorities, his miracles (as we explored a couple of weeks ago).
And Mark illustrates the nature of the Kingdom, often, by contrast, by showing Jesus’s conflicts and arguments and differences with the religious leaders – and religious attitudes – of his day. So each of our three stories has an argument at its core: can sins be forgiven (the healed paralytic)? who is acceptable to God (eating with tax collectors and sinners)? how should we practice our faith (the question of fasting)?
There’s a saying, attributed, as so many pithy sayings are, despite the lack of evidence, to Einstein, that says “you can’t fix a problem with the same thinking that created it”. Whether Einstein said it or not, there’s a sense in which Jesus seems to be illustrating it: that the problem the people of God are facing in Roman occupied Palestine, their lack of freedom, lack of influence, lack of honour paid to their God, lack of impact on the world in the name of their God; is not going to be solved by continuing with the same thinking, the same worldview. For about six hundred years the people of God have been more or less continuously in exile – literally, in Babylon, or figuratively, back in Jerusalem but under the power of Persia, then Greece, then Rome.
And throughout that time they’ve been trying, over and again, to put things right following the logic of holiness:
if we can just be good enough for God, obey the law well enough, and exclude from ourselves unclean or non-conforming elements, then God will grant us military victory, and set us free.
The logic of holiness is that the people just need to be better, purer, holier, stricter in their unquestioning obedience to every letter of the law.
But for six hundred years, it hasn’t worked. It’s the Alcoholic anonymous definition of insanity – to keep trying the same thing and expecting different results.
Whereas the life of Jesus says that holiness, characterised by unquestioning obedience to the written law and withdrawal from that which might infect us with other ways, other ideas, other faiths, even, is not the solution.
It’s this holiness approach, this attitude to the world, which leads the scribes to accuse Jesus of blasphemy when he dares to declare the sins of the paralytic to be forgiven. In their worldview, their mindset, his suffering must be just punishment for his (or perhaps his parents’) sin – victim blaming, we call it now. It might seem obvious to us that healing someone is a good thing to do, but from their perspective – if suffering was God’s punishment for sin, then healing was to directly contradict the will of God. That’s where their demand for unquestioning obedience had led them – to a place where doing an obviously good thing, an obvious act of love, could be understood as blasphemy.
And the same comes through when Jesus goes to dine at the house of Levi. Jesus calls a man who is on the outside, a man who is unacceptable because he is a collaborator with Rome, a traitor to his people, and that man, Levi, follows him. It seems Levi’s first act of discipleship is to invite Jesus to dinner with many of his friends; fellow outcasts, the pro-Roman crowd, tax collectors and other sinners.
And maybe it’s not as clear cut as healing, but I reckon most of us would think that being willing to step outside the comfortable, to share a meal with those who are on the margins of society, with those who are the other, the enemy, is a good thing (at least in theory).
From my perspective as an outsider, one of the greatest things about the life of Nelson Mandela was his willingness, as president, to work with those who had been his captors, his enemies, seeing in the rebuilding of those relationships the best hope for the future.
Although maybe it’s easier to respect and approve from a distance. I wonder if we are quite as comfortable, quite as positive, about those people of faith who work in safe injecting rooms, or with sex offenders.
Do we respect that? Or do we accuse them of condoning behaviour which is destructive, of themselves, or worse, of others? Maybe Jesus dining with Levi isn’t such a simple story. Or maybe some part of us still resonates with the logic of holiness, with the desire to prove ourselves good by contrast with someone one else, some other.
Jesus pulls these things, these threads of idea together in the closing words of our reading, two images that make the same two points: with the declaration of the Kingdom of God, something new has arrived, and it’s not a patching up of the old; the old cannot contain it; you cannot keep this Kingdom of God contained within the mindset of second temple Judaism; you cannot use this new teaching to fix the problems of the nation.
The Kingdom of God is not the Kingdom of David restored; it is not another call to obedience, to holiness, not a promise that if the people can just live right then this time it will all be different.
It’s something new.
Something characterised not by withdrawal from the sinner, and careful avoidance of any semblance of sin, but by the hands of the one who touched the leper, forgave the sinner, dined with the collaborator, welcomed the outsider.
This is the picture of the Kingdom of God that Mark is starting to sketch for us. As we read on, we’re going to see more and more just what it looks like.