First Thoughts on Year B Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Epiphany 7

William Loader

Epiphany 7: 22 February Mark 2:1-12

Jesus was busy teaching; then he was interrupted. How frustrating! Interrupted by human need. This passage lends itself to drama. Perhaps that is what some of us and our congregations need: to be interrupted by human need to remind us what we are about. In the minds of the many ‘paralytics’ of need in our societies: what do we have to do to be heard? Unroof the churches!

Of course for Mark and for Mark’s Jesus the ‘interruption’ is entirely appropriate. Mark has been building up the sense of impact made by Jesus’ ministry (and by the recalcitrant leper of 1:40-45 who might be sent the repair bill for the roof!). 1:33 already has people crowding around the door. The radical message of the kingdom will warrant ripping open the roof; people matter most.

Dramatic in a different way is the confrontation which follows Jesus’ words, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ It is a commonplace these days to link guilt and paralysis. Our explanations for this will only in the roughest sense match those of the ancient world. Certainly the text should not be seen as asserting that sickness or even paralysis and sin are necessarily related. The scribes’ concern is Jesus’ right to make such pronouncements. At one level the issue is the same as the one they had with John the Baptist, who also offered forgiveness of sins through his novel rite of baptism. It was not contrary to any biblical law, but it was doing something normally done by priests. Doubtless the earlier form of the story was about this issue. It may remind us of the anxiety we feel when religious activities are being initiated by people not within the normal ‘orders’ authorised to do them.

The earlier form of the story has a typical two liner response from Jesus: "What is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say, 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk'?" We find similar two liners or two-part quips in 2:17a; 2:27; 3:4; 7:15; 12:17; 12:25. This one is a kind of riddle. On the level of physical achievement it is ridiculous to tell a lame person to get up and walk; on the level of religious authorisation it is highly controversial to think you can forgive sins. The effect of the saying is to put both on the same level. It is as though we need a third part: "Whatever it takes to care for people is permissible and required."

In its present form the controversy has elements which may stem directly from Mark. The charge of blasphemy, for who can forgive sins but God alone, has the scribes grossly misreading the meaning of "Your sins are forgiven", as though Jesus is wanting to forgive sins independently of God, as though he did not mean, "Your sins are forgiven by God." Such gross misreadings of Christian claims about Jesus were doubtless being made in Mark’s time. We find similar charges in John’s gospel (eg. 5:17-18; 10:31-39). In that sense the trial of Jesus before the high priest probably reflects more the trials which Christians later faced than Jesus’ actual trial. Sometimes the loose language of piety leads people out in the world to think we are saying what we are not. In Mark’s day the charge of blasphemy was serious and he may have wanted knowledgeable readers already to think of the charge laid at Jesus’ trial.

The charge is patently absurd, according to Mark, not because Jesus really is God – Mark never says that – but because Jesus has authority as Son of Man to declare God’s forgiveness (2:10), just as John had, to offer forgiveness through his baptism. That is why Mark later reports that Jesus, himself, linked his own authority so closely to John, when asked about the basis of his authority (11:27-33). Mark is big on authority. It was the main focus in the very first episode he reports of Jesus’ ministry (1:21-28). Here in 2:1-12, at the head of a group of five controversy incidents, it is again a main theme.

Notice what the authority is: it is authority to do God’s work, to give expression to God’s reign, to live out the life of the Spirit in ministry, the authority to care for people and to do whatever that caring requires as the highest priority. It is not authority to set oneself up as a god, to take God’s place in people’s affections and loyalties, to get one’s way just because of one’s status or order as if this stands on its own, independent of God. It is authority to care. In a world in which we often see abuse of power and in a church worldwide where we can sometimes see the same, there is a tendency to run away from power altogether and deny authority. Then the denied power we actually exercise has its best chance of playing up because it is not owned. The Jesus of Mark owns his authority and is very clear about what it means.

The passage is like a dream of symbols. When we own the authority to care, we will help release people from their paralysis, we will be unfazed by the ‘interruption of human need’, we will cut through restrictive ecclesiastical bureaucracy, because we have discovered that authority is really about authenticity in being open to the breaking through of God’s reign in our lives. Open the roof!

See also The Interruption - a reflection on Mark 2:1-12

Epistle: Epiphany 7: 22 February  2 Corinthians 1:18-22

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