A Buddhist Reads the Bible: Gospel of Mark from the New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press.
One reason that the Gospel of Mark seems an authentic historical document is that unexpected things happen in it. One has the distinct impression that Jesus was not anticipating the huge crowds who followed him, so that he sometimes had to be whisked away—by sea, if necessary—to avoid being crushed. In the midst of the tumult he retreated to a mountain and appointed his twelve disciples, something he seemed to have planned all along. Then he went home, and—again, unexpectedly—the crowd was so large that he and the disciples could not even eat. His family “went out to restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind.’”
People apparently questioned his sanity because of the healing. The scribes, who had begun working against him, said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.” Jesus points out how ridiculous that is on the face of it. “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, it cannot stand.” On the contrary, to cast out Satan he has to disable him first. “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”
Then he states the verse that terrified me when I was younger. “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”
I think the Holy Spirit is the power by which Jesus is doing his work. It is the spirit of God in him, the manifestation of the transformation that took place when he was baptized, when he discovered the Kingdom of God both inside and outside himself. It is not the law and the rules of the scribes that should govern people, but this spirit. The sin against it is refusing the miraculous work that it does, retreating to the rule of law that the scribes advocate. If they willfully refuse this spirit, they don’t receive its benefits.
So the real distinction is between people who are open to this truth and those who aren’t. When a crowd sitting around him mention his family, “your mother and your brothers and sisters,” he minimizes the importance of blood ties, perhaps because his family had been afraid and tried to restrain him. “Whoever does the will of God”—whoever is open to this new spirit—“is my brother and sister and mother.”
It isn’t a straightforward teaching, like that of the scribes. It’s a new way of looking at things. That is why—in Chapter 4—he begins to teach in parables. It is not, as our narrator says, so that he will fulfill a prophecy, people will hear the teaching and not understand it. It’s that the teaching can’t be stated more directly. That having been said, the first parable he gives—that of the sower—is rather straightforward. It’s a far cry from some of the teachings we get in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, which can be real puzzlers. Nevertheless, Jesus—or our narrator—gives a literal explanation, and then states a truth about his teaching.
“There is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.” That actually echoes an early verse from the Gospel of Thomas. “Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.” It also echoes a famous Zen teaching from Eihei Dogen. When he first met the Zen cook who was to teach him so much, he asked him the truth of the dharma, and the man wouldn’t reply. But after Dogen had been studying with his teacher for a while, and asked them man again, he replied, “Nothing in the universe is hidden.”
The problem is that people are so full of fear that they don’t—as the Gospel of Thomas is saying—see what is right before their face. If they can relax their fear and rid themselves of their projections, they will see more. “Pay attention to what you hear,” Jesus says, “the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given to you.”
That’s the nature of this teaching. Once you open and see a little, you suddenly see a lot. That’s the meaning of his next two parables. “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground . . . and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.” Also, “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs.”
What he is trying to give them is faith, which is not belief in some specific doctrine but an understanding that, no matter what happens, they are part of the Kingdom of God. The disciples themselves are slow to grasp this message; when they go out to sea on a boat, and a storm arises, they are full of fear, while he’s taking a snooze. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” they say as they awaken him. He miraculously stills the sea, and asks them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” I don’t think he actually stilled the sea. He was calm in the face of the storm, and the disciples saw that it wasn’t as bad as they’d thought.
He then meets a man completely possessed by fear. “A man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him.” He had been restrained with shackles and chains, but had broken them, and spent his days howling and bruising himself with stones. He had completely turned against life. The demon inside the man spoke to Jesus, and when Jesus asked him name said, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” Jesus famously cast out the demons, and sent them into a herd of swine, who rushed to the water and drowned (an event that seems to be a part of folklore; it also takes place in Homer). But when people from the surrounding countryside come to see what happened, and found “the demoniac, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind,” they actually found that frightening, and begged Jesus to leave the neighborhood. They would rather let the man be crazy and violent than open to this new truth that Jesus is bringing them. The possibility of this whole new life is fearful to them.
In stark contrast is the next person he meets, a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years, but whose faith is so great she believes that if she can just touch his clothes she will be made well. Perhaps because of all she has been through, she is completely open, not fearful at all. Jesus feels his power go to her as she touches his garments.
People don’t believe they can have this spirit. They are afraid of the abundant life he offers. They want to ascribe it to someone far off in heaven, not someone on earth with them, someone they’ve known. When Jesus returns home, the people there can’t believe that a man who had grown up among them can have all that he has, and they take offense at his teaching. He is stunned at their lack of faith, and states the thing he is beginning to discover, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”
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