What Jesus Learned (part 2 of 2)
In my last installment I suggested that Mark depicts Jesus as an unusual sort of hero. That is, he learns – actually, he is called out into ministry that brings him across social boundaries. We looked in particular at the story of the leper in Mark 1:40-45. Now we’ll apply a more brief treatment to three other examples.
The healing of the paralytic in Mark 2:1-11 is fairly straightforward. Jesus is, Mark says, “at home,” but there is no rest for him. Perhaps because the paralytic disobeyed Jesus by spreading the news of his cleansing, crowds so press in on Jesus that there’s no room in the house. This is not Jesus’ choice. Moreover, the paralytic’s friends force the issue with a dramatic initiative: they dig through the roof of the house to lower their friend in before Jesus. Jesus responds to their faith.
Jesus often receives credit for healing – and touching – a woman with a flow of blood in Mark 5:24b-34. As the argument goes, this woman is ritually unclean because of a chronic menstrual flow. However, Mark does not describe the nature of the woman’s hemorrhage. Nor do any factors in the story suggest that people are surprised that Jesus contacts the woman. How, after all, would anyone know the nature of her ailment? Thus, it’s doubtful at best that Jesus crosses a purity boundary here.
Even more important, it’s not Jesus who does the touching! The woman reaches out and touches the fringe of Jesus’ garment. Pressed by the crowd (a recurring theme in Mark), Jesus does not know who touches him, so he asks. Once again, Jesus does not merit credit in this case; rather, he is drawn out by the woman’s aggressive faith. His heroism consists in his response to the woman’s faith.
Finally, there’s the well known example of the Syrophoenician woman (7:24-30). She is a Gentile, the first who wins Jesus’ blessing. Like the leper, the woman kneels before Jesus, commanding his attention. As with the leper, Jesus issues a stern rebuke. Some people rationalize Jesus’ misbehavior by saying he was “testing her faith.” Mark does not even hint in this direction. Instead, with a snappy retort the woman wins the argument with Jesus – the only character to do so in the Gospel. A boundary does separate Jew from Gentile, but Jesus does not cross that boundary on his own. The woman brings him across.
All four of these characters – the leper, the paralytic (through his friends), the bleeding woman, and the Syrophoenician – command Jesus’ attention by placing their bodies in his way. The leper and the Syrophoenician bow before Jesus’ feet, the paralytic’s friends lower him through the roof, and the bleeding woman reaches out to touch Jesus. The Syrophoenician even wins a debate with Jesus. In none of these cases does Jesus reach out to cross religious or social boundaries; if any boundaries are being crossed, it’s the people Jesus blesses who cross them.
According to Mark, Jesus learns from people who confront him with their need and their faith. These people draw Jesus into new fields of ministry. They are heroes. If Jesus is a hero in these stories, it’s because he recognizes their faith and responds to their initiative.
Theologically, the churches would benefit by following this example of Jesus. Rather than assuming the church is the sole source of truth and that the church knows what people need (or even deserve), perhaps the church should allow itself to encounter its neighbors, to experience their need, and to respond in humility. Like Jesus in Mark, the church has a lot to learn.