For this Sunday, Catholic and Protestant lectionaries differ significantly. The former offers Mark 2:1-12, the healing of the paralytic, while the latter offers Mark 9:2-9, the Transfiguration. Here I offer reflections on each.
Mark 2:1-12: The Healing of the Paralytic
Interpreting stories in Gospels involves paying close attention to their precise narrative location. Today’s Gospel marks a major turning point in Mark’s narrative. Prior to this, Jesus had enjoyed the greatest popularity as a result of his ministry of healing, teaching, and exorcism: “…Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter” (Mark 1:45). But now a note of conflict sounds. After Jesus heals the paralytic, the scribes raise questions in their hearts: “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7).
Indeed, this story is the first of a sequence of five stories arranged in a chiasm in which the reader perceives rising conflict:
A: Mark 2:1-12: Issue is lawful healing, conflict is muted (the scribes are “questioning in their hearts,” not out loud, v. 6); the result of the healing is that “all are amazed and glorif[y] God”
B: Mark 2:13-17: Issue is lawful eating, “scribes of the Pharisees” question Jesus’ disciples about Jesus’ behavior
C: Mark 2:18-22: Crucifixion foreshadowed: “The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day” (v. 20, the center of the chiasm)
B2: Mark 2:23-28: Issue is lawful eating, Pharisees accuse Jesus directly about his disciples’ behavior : “Look, why are your disciples doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” (v. 24)
A2: Mark 3:1-6: Issue is lawful healing, conflict is hostile and open, as “they” seek to “accuse” Jesus (v. 2); the result of the healing is a murderous conspiracy (v. 6).
There is thus a rising tone of conflict in these five stories, arranged beautifully into a significant chiasm, with a hint of the crucifixion directly in the middle.
Here, then, is one broad homiletical approach: This Gospel text shifts us into Lent, in which we prepare for the Lord’s crucifixion. Christmas and Epiphany/Ordinary Time have been seasons of joy and celebration; now Christians are reminded that Christ’s coming will come to the station of the Cross. (The Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-9 functions similarly.)
What of the details of the story itself? We see several things worthy of note:
First, in dealing both with sin and sickness Jesus heals the whole person, body and soul, body and spirit, body and heart. Jesus’ healings are not one-off magic tricks but rather signs, tokens of the wholeness of the coming kingdom. When Jesus heals or exorcises demons, he is showing us a hint of what the eschatological wholeness God will achieve at the Last Day looks like.
Second, notice that Mark repeatedly calls Jesus a “teacher” without providing much in the way of the content of his teaching (unlike Matthew, which has five long discourses of Jesus’ teaching). Mark rather focuses on telling stories of healing and exorcism. Here we see that whatever we make of Jesus’ teaching, it is inseparable from his ministry of healing and exorcism. (Consider Mark 1:27: “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”) Jesus did not come simply to deliver an ethic, to teach us all to get along. That Jesus taught “the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man” is more or less an invention of those who would live in “the neighborhood of Boston” (as the joke goes). As important as such things are, Jesus was the tip of the spear of God’s invasion of his wayward cosmos. This is worth pointing out in our own day, when thanks to decades of Enlightenment thinking Jesus is often reduced a mere moralist, leaving us with a rather bloodless picture of Christ and Christian faith.
Third, If God invades the cosmos in Jesus, he invades it himself. In Christ God is present, and our text suggests this. Jesus declares the forgiveness of the paralytic’s sins, and the scribes — experts in the Jewish law — see Jesus usurping the prerogatives of God, and think that he is committing blasphemy. Here we have an indication that Jesus is identified as God, something made subtly clear in the boat scene of Mark 6:47-52, a theophany in which Jesus walks on water but is not perceived by the disciples just like in Job 9:8, 11 God walks on water but is not perceived by Job.
Fourth, faith is persistent and faith is communal. Here we see four friends bringing their infirm friend to Jesus, and so intent are they on presenting him to Jesus for healing that they cut a hole in the roof (it’s actually a rather comic scene). In Mark in general, faith is persistence in seeking Jesus in spite of impossible odds; the textbook example is the hemorrhaging woman in Mark 5 who fights her way through the crowd seeking Jesus’ healing. As regards the communal nature of faith, note in v. 5 that Jesus responds to “their” faith: “And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, ‘My son, your sins are forgiven.’” For this reasons, this passage has been a historic warrant for infant baptism, in which the parents and the community believe on behalf of the baby who receives forgiveness of since in baptism.
Bringing us back to my initial remarks regarding the position of this story in Mark and in the logic of the lectionary, I suppose the broader point of the story could be construed as follows: God comes into the world bringing salvation as forgiveness and healing, and the world rejects Him, ultimately crucifying him.
Mark 9:2-9: The Transfiguration
This story also shifts us into an anticipation of the cross, although it is subtle. At first glance, the Transfiguration looks like pure glory, as Jesus’ “garments became glistening, intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (v. 3) and as God’s voice issues forth from the shekinah cloud of divine glory covering them.
But the voice presents a death omen in the form of an allusion to Genesis 22. In Mark 9 the voice says, “This is my beloved Son.” There is another beloved son in Scripture: Isaac. Just as Abraham the father of Isaac was willing to sacrifice his son for covenant purposes, so too here is God the Father of Jesus willing to sacrifice his Son for redemptive purposes.
What we thus have in the passage is a dialectical contrast between a theologia gloriae, a theology of glory, with a theologiae crucis, a theology of the cross, a distinction emphasized by Luther and Lutheran theology in particular. Many Christians want glory — victorious Christian living, effortless joy, safety and security — but glory is ultimately eschatological, and the path to it runs right through the cross.
Peter’s problem is that he’s enamored with glory, but the voice reminds Peter that Jesus is a new Isaac, a new sacrifice, whose commission is to die for the life of the world at the behest of his Father. This is indeed why the voice tells Peter “listen to him,” that is, Jesus, for Jesus has just rebuked Peter for refusing to believe Jesus’ passion prediction in the prior pericope (Mark 8:27-9:1). In fact, the two scenes are a diptych: in each Jesus’ death is foretold, and in each Peter denies it.
This explains the uncomfortable verse of Mark 9:1, in which Jesus says that some standing there will not taste death until they see the kingdom come with power. In its literary context, this does not mean that Jesus thought the world would end within a generation. Rather, Jesus’ words are fulfilled in the Transfiguration, witnessed by Peter, James, and John. The Transfiguration is a foretaste of heavenly glory, but the voice reminds Peter (and us) that Christ’s mission is the cross and that Christian existence is cruciform.
How is this good news? It reminds us that the cross — difficulties, sorrows, tragedies — are to be expected in Christian life, and so we shouldn’t be surprised when bad things befall us, but also that our captain has gone before us and suffers with and for us, and ultimately will bring us to the resurrection life he now enjoys.
Dr. Leroy Huizenga is the Director of the Christian Leadership Center in Bismarck, North Dakota.