Upstream–In a Swift Current

Migrating salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Katmai National Park, Southeast Alaska
Migrating salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Katmai National Park, Southeast Alaska

Sitting out on my deck in the morning is not as serene an experience as it once was. There is a massive construction project underway across the street, so at the crack of dawn the morning’s quiet is fractured by the growl and clang of heavy equipment and the insistent beeping of machines rolling in reverse. I understand 3,000 people will be employed here, and I’m sure it will be a very attractive space. (It will also increase the value of our property, which I view as a good thing!) Progress has its price, and the noise is  only temporary.

The noise was not loud enough to keep me from noticing something in the Gospel of Mark this morning, however.

In Chapters 1 to 3, Mark arranges the material in such a way that it’s fairly easy to notice this upstream quality.

In 1.4-45, Jesus cleanses a leper. He could have simply said something that would have cured this man; instead, he stretches out His hand and touches him–an unthinkable act contrary to every convention, given the nature of this dreadful disease and the stigma attached to it.

The next healing Mark records (2.1-12) is that of a paralytic. Jesus prefaces the healing of this man, who was brought to him by four devoted friends, by telling the man that his sins are forgiven. Immediately, the Scribes view this as blasphemous, since only God can forgive sins. Jesus demonstrates His power to do so by asking, “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk?'” To display His deity in an unmistakable way, Jesus then tells the paralyzed man to do just that.

Calling Levi, a reviled sinner in the eyes of the Jews because he collected taxes for the Romans and gouged his own people in the process, Jesus stops at his house for dinner and eats with a collection of ne’er-do-wells the likes of which could only be expected to gather in the home of a man like Levi. Again, the Scribes and Pharisees complain to Jesus’ disciples about his unsavoury companions. Jesus reminds them that He came to heal the sick, not the righteous. (2.13-16)

Jesus’ disciples do not fast when John’s disciples fast. (2.18-23) Again, the Pharisees and others question why they do not observe this Jewish tradition. Jesus uses several practical analogies to explain that this is unique time and He a unique Person. “Can the wedding guests fast,” He asks, “when the bridegroom is still with them?” The time for fasting will come later, He assures them, when the Bridegroom is taken away.

At the end of Chapter 2, Jesus’ disciples pick some grain to snack on during the Sabbath. This is viewed by the Pharisees as a blatant violation of the Law. After citing David’s receiving shewbread from the priest at the time of Abiathar (1 SAM 21.1-9), Jesus replies to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” (2.23-28)

The Pharisees are incensed. But, as Chapter 3 opens, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, again on the Sabbath. Since healing was viewed as the work of a physician–and therefore forbidden on the Sabbath–the Pharisees go ballistic and consult with the Herodians for a way to eliminate Him.

Jesus is certainly swimming against the current. He ignores the medical and social rules related to leprosy and, moved with compassion, touches a leper to heal him. He demonstrates His deity by not only healing a paralytic, but also telling him his sins are forgiven. He enjoys a meal in the home of a wealthy shyster in the company of all the man’s disreputable friends. He allows His disciples to forgo fasting, and then to pick grain on the Sabbath–something that is verboten in the Jewish religious tradition and even prohibited by the Law. To settle the question of His lordship over the Sabbath, the Law, and the Jews themselves, He then heals a man on the Sabbath, right in the synagogue.

In Chapter 3, Mark twice uses the phrase, “…for they were saying…” In vv. 20-21, Jesus’ own family members are saying, “He is out of His mind.” Certainly, to publicly do and say the things He has seems like the work of a madman, someone with a death wish. It is unfathomable, and embarrassing to the family. Recognizing that Jesus’ power is unearthly and refusing to acknowledge His lordship, the religious leaders attribute His miracles to the devil, saying, ,”He has an unclean spirit.” (3.22-30)

Mark demonstrates that Jesus was willing to defy convention and show compassion; to expose religious hypocrisy and exhibit divine authority.

Any follower of His should be willing to do the same.


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