Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Through the Roof: A Better Way (Reflections on Mark 2:1-12)

"What good is a man who won't take a stand? What good is a cynic, with no better plan? 'Cause I believe there's a better way. Reality is sharp. It cuts me like a knife. Everyone I know is in the fight of their life. 'Cause I believe there's a better way." (Ben Harper, "Better Way")

I, too, believe there’s a better way. There has to be a better way. Every day our consciences are confronted as we encounter, via newspapers, websites, local and global news stations, and our own travels up and down the streets of Philly, a world that is both beautiful and in distress. We are heartbroken when we learn of the on-going drug wars that wreak havoc on the beautiful country of Honduras. We cringe upon discovery that children continue to be kidnapped in Uganda to serve as brainwashed soldiers, robbed of their innocence and forced to carry out unimaginable orders and assignments by their still “free” oppressor. Then we enter our own borders and our own cities. Unemployment. Homelessness. Addictions. Poverty. Lack of healthcare. Racism. Sexism. Classism. Homophobism. I have not even mentioned the bullying and exclusion pervasive throughout middle and high school hallways and cafeterias. The list is infinite of the disastrous events, heinous ideals, and oppressive systems that leave so many victimized and on the margins. These realities are sharp and they cut through our hearts and minds like a knife.

In the wake of these tragedies, it is easy to be a cynic. It is easy to be a critic. Yet the challenge of our generation is not solely to intensify our criticisms, rather to explore and engage our imaginations with audacity. That is, as cynics we must refuse to surrender to the obstacles created by events, systems, and institutions that create, permit, and condone human distress, and instead look for new opportunities to rise above the chaos and confusion and discover fresh openings for human liberation. ‘Cause I believe there’s a better way.

This is where we encounter this riviting gospel text from the book of Mark. The writer illustrates this Jesus as on the move, traveling from place to place with great hurry and immediacy. The life and mission of Jesus is mysterious, subversive, and received with a mixture of responses, none short of confusion and wonder. Jesus, most likely born a poor, Jewish peasant within the first-century Mediterranean world, moves quickly through lower-class villages with a message that confronts the systems, challenges the institutions, and sparks the imaginations to look beyond supposed realities and towards better ways, even God’s way of deliverance and new life.

In Mark 2: 1, Jesus has returned from a preaching and healing tour throughout Galilee and finally arrived “home” in Capernaum. [1] It could be said that Jesus has planted a house-church in the beginning of this gospel, which has raised more than a few eyebrows. [2] The news has traveled quickly about this mysterious rabbinic peasant and the crowds rush to Jesus’ dwelling, so much so that they begin to burst the seams of the home. Unless you arrived early that day, you were left outside only to hear faint whispers, if that, of the happenings inside Jesus’ quarters. In other words, you now were in the outer courts, unable to enter the coveted inner courts.

The scene is much like what happens here in Philadelphia when the Phillies clinch the pennant and fanatics rush the stadium ticket windows for a chance to gain entrance into the inner courts of the baseball temple to participate in the (latey, disappointing) festivities. Unless you arrived early, had the right connections, or were willing to spend significant amounts of money, you would be left outside.

Or consider the lines in front of evening shelters in Center City. The homeless line up in front of the less-than-adequate city housing in hopes of a warm place to stay and to get rest. Many wait in line in vain as beds run out and occupancy limits are reached and exceeded. Therefore, the streets become their bed and the grates become their opportunity for warmth.

Then there is the all-to-familiar feeling when a student walks into a high school cafeteria, scans the scene, and notices that there are no empty seats, or at least nobody willing to slide over and make room.

Still more, we could say the scene is similar to what it would have been like for the Jewish people, i.e. those in this first-century narrative, who rushed to the temple in Jerusalem, their “home,” [3] for particular festivals and rituals. Eager to enter, many would only encounter large crowds, or worse, magnifications of their own condition and social status that made it next to impossible to gain entrance and participate in the life of the community, even the religious community. In other words, Mark is intentional in this illustration, moving his brush carefully with each stroke that is colored with subversive mystery and suspense. What is going to happen next? Will Jesus’ home not be big enough for the gathered crowds and those on the outskirts of this story?

If the crowds that gathered are not enough to frustrate the reader, now there is a paralytic, carried by his friends, who is eager to meet Jesus, known for his previous healings throughout Galilee, and to hear a fresh word of hope.

But the crowds

As cynics, we would expect for this paralytic, carried by his friends, to be frustrated by the setting and to condemn the situation. Many may recommend that he turn around in disappointment, maybe even telling others rushing to the scene that it is not worth the journey. What they had heard about Jesus is all a myth and only for the privileged. You will not be able to get anywhere close.

Jesus is just like the temple.

But the story does not end with cynics with no greater plan. They believe in a better way, push through the crowds, scale the walls of the house, dig through the roof, and lower their paralytic friend and his mat into the inner courts of Jesus’ home. The paralytic has box seats. He has made it to the front of the line. The last has become first (Mk. 10:31).

It is important to note that this paralytic was probably accustomed to exclusion and marginalization. Crowds were his enemy and welcome was not typical to his condition. But the story in Mark unveils a new experience for this paralytic. Instead of being excluded, he is included. Instead of waiting outside the walls of the house, maybe even the temple, he is lowered into the center and becomes the guest of honor.

Yes, Jesus is like the temple. But this temple is quite different. It may even be a better way.

It is interesting to notice Jesus’ response to the paralytic in this passage, “When Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, “‘Son, your sins are forgiven’” (Mk. 2:5). This man has been unconventionally lowered by his friends to the feet of Jesus and all Jesus offers is forgiveness? It can be difficult to read this story in light of our contemporary notions of sin and forgiveness, especially when we discover that Jesus’ words to the paralytic hinge on such realities. Yet, Jesus’ statement pierced the hearts and minds of those gathered in ways we may no longer be able to recognize at first glance. The paralytic is not forgiven in the sense that his condition is the result of his poor behavior, possibly a form of bad karma or rightful consequence. Furthermore, Jesus is not necessarily offering a simple pardon for drinking too much at a frat party or cheating on a midterm exam. Instead, his offer of forgiveness for his sins is the reconciliation of his socio-economic and religious condition that has made it impossible for him to participate in the life of his community. In other words, Jesus is now declaring that what was once unclean, i.e. the man because of paralysis, is now clean. He is to be received as an equal participant and a significant member within the Jewish community, i.e. he can go to the Temple. It is to this that Jesus responds to the concerned critics by not only “forgiving” the paralytic, but also saying, “‘rise, take your pallet and go home’” (Mk. 2:11, RSV). Jesus has delivered, or resurrected, this man from his oppressive condition and reconciled him to the community as a valued participant and contributor. He and his friends knew there was a better way than paralysis, exclusion, isolation, and frustration. Jesus was that better way, and the crowds outside Jesus’ home, no doubt frustrated by their own location, affirm through Mark’s concluding statement after they witness the paralytic walk out of Jesus’ home, “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this” (Mk. 2:12)!

The world around us can be a very dark and dreary picture. We look around and there are paralytics everywhere. We witness them in in developing nations and around the streets of Philadelphia. We may even see them in school hallways or cafeterias, looking for inclusion by someone and somehow. It can be difficult to witness and it can harden our hearts so much that we become cynics without a plan other than complaint and retreat. In essence, we become paralyzed ourselves. We may even witness the crowded social, political, and religious institutions and wonder if it is even worth the effort.

Is there a better way?

Our challenge is to allow our imaginations to be confronted by the faith of the paralytic’s friends and look beyond what at first appears to be impossible obstacles and carve out fresh openings for human liberation and deliverance. We must embrace an alternative consciousness that subverts conventional wisdom. In the words of faithful scholar, Marcus Borg:

“Jesus was not primarily a teacher of either correct beliefs or right morals. Rather, he was a teacher of a way or path, specifically a way of transformation” (Borg Jesus: A New Vision, 97).

In so much as we begin to follow this way we see that it is better and able to resurrect even the most paralyzing of human experiences and conditions. May we be ones who follow Jesus and lead others through the crowded systems and situations of injustice and towards resurrected hope and a revolutionary life of welcome.

Still more, we may also find ourselves like the paralytic: isolated and excluded from communities, even those of faith, for reasons undeserved. We travel looking for a place to call home and everywhere we go is crowded. We have no other option but to sit outside the walls and hear faint talk about life as it should and could be. Is there a better way? Again, Marcus Borg is advantageous:

“Jesus frees people from being bent over by bondage so they can stand up straight again, from paralysis so they can walk again” (Borg, Jesus: A New Vision, 203).

My prayer and hope is that this passage lifts you over those crowds, digs you through the ceilings of despair, lowers you into the midst of the one called the Messiah, raises you from your paralysis, and calls you home. Even more, this God has invited you to participate in the resurrection as a valued member of the people of God and the Way of Jesus.

The gospel of Mark is a beautiful narrative that reminds all of us that the world as we know it has been “torn open by God” (Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, 88) and raising up new life around us. There is a better way. This is the Christian hope. This is a Christian prayer. This is the Way of Jesus.

Notes:

[1] N.T. Wright is advantageous on this point, “The focal point of Jerusalem was the temple, the house of God, often referred to simply as ‘the house’” (The Original Jesus, 53).

[2] Ched Myers writes, "The story is an enacted parable of reconstructive worship in an inclusive community. A great crowd gathers in the home (housechurch!) where Jesus 'preaches the Word' (2:2)" ("Say to This Mountain" 19).

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