How Does Jesus Speak to Our Modern Religious and Social Context?
I am currently reading, rather slowly I confess, through the Gospel of Mark. It is a fast-paced narrative a rooted in oral tradition, something easily forgotten by modern readers. At the beginning of the second century CE this Gospel was affirmed in several texts as the work of Mark. It was also attributed to Peter, who was his companion. Because this writing was based on oral texts it was rooted in stories about Jesus passed around from community to community. But Mark wrote for a definite type of community: Christians of non-Jewish and pagan origin. He desire is to show them the mystery and glory of Jesus. His way of doing this is to relate the words and deeds by which Jesus revealed himself as the “Son of God” to humankind.
Mark’s Gospel does not include an infancy narrative nor does it relate Jesus to Jewish scripture or tradition the way Matthew does. It begins: “This is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Boom! Here it is: the good news of Jesus!
The writer then makes a reference to Isaiah 40:3 and speaks briefly of John the Baptist. Then, almost immediately, he introduces us to Jesus and his first disciples.
Today I read Mark 3 in my morning hours. Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in the story we read in the first six verses. The point, however, is not the healing of this man but the issue of the sabbath. Chapter 2 had just ended with this verse (28): “So the Son of Man is master even of the sabbath.” To prove this is true Mark relates this healing story. Mark says that Jesus asked the crowd if “good deeds” can be done on the sabbath? No one would answer. They knew the religious leaders were listening and watching very carefully. Mark then gets to his primary point: “Jesus was angry as he looked around at the people. Yet he felt sorry for them because they were so stubborn” (3:5). The story concludes with the Pharisees leaving in order to “start making plans with Herod’s followers to kill Jesus” (3:6). Mark thus tell us very early in his story that Jesus would likely be killed for his provocative actions and claims to be “Lord of the sabbath.”
The Pharisees considered it lawful to work on the sabbath if it was a question of saving someone in danger. Jesus is pushing this understanding beyond their comfortable norms and saying that for him to not do good is to do evil. To not cure this man is to not love and thus to be indifferent, uncaring, even evil. As I read this I thought of the modern social order of the West. Jesus did not denounce a particular social form or ideology, such as socialism or capitalism. (Frankly, neither one is addressed by Jesus in any obvious way!) What he did denounce was human prejudice, especially the kind of prejudice that prevents us from giving and doing good for those in need. I can expand this to say that he denounced the kind of choices that would prevent the world from becoming a better and more just order.
People often have the means and capacity to better their condition, if leaders will allow and promote it. The problem is that leaders often refuse to positively help others, or they passively hold back those who need help from outside sources. Thus leaders remain the prisoners of their principles (albeit religious ones) and politics, refusing to practically help others in great need. They debate “sacred” social and political ideals while they miss the multitudes left in great difficulty. They would rather win a political debate than make a human difference.
I personally believe in free markets and community-based expressions of compassion. For me they are both right. (I do not arrive at this position by proof-texting from the Bible though I think we can draw help on these matters from scripture.) I also believe genuine human freedom will allow people to develop their skills, sell what they make and by this transaction earn a fair profit. In turn, this will create jobs and can lift people. If you want proof of this claim go to China or India and see for yourself. But markets without compassion, and the freedom that seeks common solutions that go beyond strict human ideologies, will always be barren. We must learn from Jesus that rules and regulations, as well as our carefully developed ideologies, may actually keep us from serving those who are in the greatest need. This is why, for example, I do not want to see the United States adopt a health care program that denies Medicaid assistance to those who need it. We are talking about real lives and real people here. These people are quite often in real need, just like the man with the paralyzed hand in Mark 3. The “Lord of the sabbath” has freed us to do good, not evil. We are especially free from those religious principles, that are part of our human traditions, which keep us from “doing good to all mankind.”