The Weakness of God (2)

The brief account of Jesus’ Resurrection that ends Mark’s Gospel has puzzled readers since the Gospel was written, judging by the two additions tacked on to it. Why would the inventor of the Gospel as a literary genre end the narrative with the women running from the tomb, frightened out of their wits? In a time when uncertain endings to literary works have been in vogue for over a century, we seem more able and willing to puzzle out the ending more sympathetically than earlier readers could. It also seems fitting that in another year when a pandemic has closed many churches from public worship and silenced the usual trumpets and choruses, we have a Gospel that discourages such celebrating.

In his provocative A Study in Mark, Austin Farrer suggests that the “young man” at the tomb telling the women to tell the disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee has a cyclical effect. Far from going in a circle, though, the return to Galilee and the beginning of Mark’s Gospel allows one to re-read everything in light of the Resurrection. With this insight, the ending isn’t quite the downer it seemed to be and maybe at least a muted trumpet can sound. It isn’t hard to see a foretaste of the Resurrection in the healing of the paralytic, one of Jesus’ earlier miracles. (Mk. 2: 1–12) The paralytic being lowered through the roof so that he can rise up on his feet, cured by Jesus, has the shape of Jesus’ descending to the grave and rising up. Many more foretastes of the Resurrection follow in subsequent healings and exorcisms with the raising of Jairus’s daughter being the climax. The two narratives of Jesus’ feeding a multitude suggest Jesus redeeming his own people and then redeeming the Gentiles, pointing to the mission that postdated the Resurrection.

This reading of the Resurrection into Mark works very well until we get roughly half way through the Gospel. This is where the power of Jesus turns into weakness, where Jesus fails to get his followers to understand him and, in the end, is nailed to the cross. Interestingly, Farrer didn’t try to read the Resurrection into the second half of the Gospel. One can see why. It’s hard to see the Resurrection in the misunderstandings and hostility that Jesus suffers. Before giving it up, though, let’s take a look to see if there are at least traces of the Resurrection in this less promising material. Since this is the point where Jesus had eschewed using authoritative power, perhaps this weakness has more to do with the Resurrection that we thought.

When Jesus predicted that he would be handed over and killed, he also said he would rise again. At the time, the disciples were too dismayed at the idea of Jesus being executed to think much about Jesus rising again. More seriously, the disciples react to Jesus’ predictions with fighting about who is the greatest. But when Jesus tells them that whoever would be first must be the servant of all (Mk. 9: 35) we have a glimpse of the resurrected life. Again, there isn’t any resurrection in the disciples’s trying to turn the children away, but we can see the resurrection when Jesus welcomes the children to come to him. We can begin to see the resurrected life as one of service in the midst of protracted misunderstandings and obtuse behavior.

What about the parable of the evil workers in the vineyard? This doesn’t look like Resurrection and it isn’t. But in the Parable, we have a distorted image of what the resurrected life should be like, where the owners and the workers all collaborate to yield a fruitful crop so that the multitudes of four and five thousand can be given food and drink. Surely there is no Resurrection when Jesus is nailed to the cross, but again, here is an inverted image of the risen life. Instead of a society uniting against a victim, as in the Passion narrative, the resurrected life is one where every individual is respected and nurtured as indispensable. And then, once again, a certain “young man” in an empty tomb sends us back to the beginning to try again.

These reflections suggest that weakness is fundamental to the resurrected life. Far from being about defeating others, it is about being defeated again and again. As we go through Mark’s story a third time, we see the acts of power and powerful admonitions to be the servant of all given out yet again to uncomprehending listeners. Perhaps we ourselves don’t understand very well and that is why we try yet again.

The Parable of the Sower (Mk. 4) is, among other things, a parable of the strengths and weaknesses of God. The Sower throws out the seed indiscriminately, not considering any place as unworthy of receiving it. For those who actually receive the seed, God can create a yield of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold. What God apparently can’t do is make soil that rejects the seed yield much of anything, just as those who drive the children away or who gain up on the vineyard owner’s son don’t produce anything either.

But each time we re-live Mark’s Gospel, we can do the humble work of tilling the soil for ourselves and for others. This is what the resurrected life is about. This is a far cry from trumpets and joyous Easter hymns, but for those faced with people who act like workers in the vineyard, this can be the basis of hope. God is not finished with us yet. The risen Christ is right with us as we dig into the hard soil in ourselves and in others so that the soil will soften enough for the resurrected life to give yields of thirty, sixty, or a hundredfold for everybody.

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