A Buddhist Reads the Bible: Gospel of Mark from the New Revised Standard Version. Oxford University Press.
There is still, as the Gospel enters Chapter 6, a feeling that there is an enormous need for healing in the world, as if that is still the primary purpose of Jesus’ ministry. He sends the disciples out two by two, and somehow gives them authority over unclean spirits. My feeling is that Jesus’ authority came from the experience he had with John the Baptist, and his subsequent time in the wilderness. I have no idea how he could pass that authority on, especially since many of the disciples don’t seem to have the kind of faith he wanted them to, and don’t understand what he’s doing. But somehow he can do that. It may be that anyone—if they approach the task in the right way—can be a healing presence.
The instructions are interesting: “He ordered them to take nothing on their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.” He seemed to hope in this way that they would develop faith, see that they could go off with almost nothing and that the world would take care of them. It’s the way the early Buddhist monks lived, with just a robe and a bowl. He also gave them an elaborate ritual to employ when households refused them, to “shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” He knew they would meet with rejection and didn’t want them to be discouraged. But their first time out seemed to be successful. They “cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.”
Jesus understands that this is taxing, emotionally difficult work, and that the need is enormous, so the temptation is to continue past the point of exhaustion. He himself often goes off to pray, and seems to be advising the disciples to do the same: “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” They got in a boat to find this deserted place, but by the time they got there followers had arrived ahead of them. There’s something almost comic about this repeating phenomenon—no matter what they do, where they go, the followers get there first—and it could have gotten annoying, like a parent whose children will not leave him alone, but “he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd,” so “he began to teach them many things.” Again, Mark doesn’t say what he taught. He wants to record the history.
He then tells the feeding of the five thousand. That seems to be another situation where Jesus is teaching the disciples to have faith. He told them to feed the huge crowd, and they scoffed at the very idea; they had nowhere near the money to buy food for that number. He asked what they had, and told them to pass that out, and it famously was sufficient. When they collected the scraps afterwards, there was much more than they’d given out.
The explanation I’ve always heard for that story is that the crowd had all brought their own food, but everybody was hoarding it. When the disciples were generous with what they had, everyone else contributed, and there was plenty for everyone. The point of the story as far as the disciples go—this even seems the point of sending them out on their healing ministry—is to show them that, if they will just trust, there will be enough. Enough food, healing energy, whatever they need. I’ve always thought that the most basic statement of fear—in any situation—is I don’t have enough! Jesus is trying to show them that they do.
That seems the point of the next story as well, when Jesus walks on the water. He first goes off by himself to pray, and one wonders if the disciples are picking up on that: the man regularly restores himself by prayer, even though he seems to be an amazing human being, even though he has astonishing powers. The chronology is mysterious; in the evening, he is still on land, and the boat is in the water, but it seems to be the next morning when he sees the disciples “straining the oars against an adverse wind,” and walks out on the water. The whole episode is mysterious, and not just because he walks on water; it says “He intended to pass them by,” as if he wasn’t trying to astonish them, just wanted to get somewhere. But they saw him, and were astonished and afraid, so he got in the boat with them, and caused the wind to cease. He said the thing that, essentially, he has been teaching them again and again. “Do not be afraid.” But the disciples “were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.” They were still closing down, rather than opening up, still operating out of apprehension and fear. (And in fact, the feeding of a huge crowd repeats in Chapter 8, as if he has to teach the whole thing again.)
In Chapter 7 he has another encounter with the Pharisees, who are once again picking at straws; they criticize the disciples for eating without washing their hands. It seems that many strictures in the Hebrew scriptures are really just about health, and healthful living; by investing those rules with spiritual significance, the Pharisees were living up to the letter of the law, but missing the spirit. Jesus criticizes another instance where they have done that, in an obscure dispute about honoring one’s father and mother, but in the whole area of dietary restrictions, he makes a blanket statement: “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.”
He’s not saying that the dietary restrictions aren’t wise; he’s saying they’re not spiritual: foods cannot defile. It is the things that come from the human heart that defile, and then he names some: “fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.” He’s got a rather inclusive list there. He includes us all.
Once again—this has happened repeatedly throughout the Gospel—he encounters the faith he is looking for in an unexpected place. He went to the region of Tyre and seemed once again to be wanting to escape; he wanted no one to know he was there. But a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit came and bowed to him—an attitude of utter submission—and begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. She is a Gentile, and he says a startling thing to her. “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” Unless I’m misunderstanding, he’s saying he wants to heal his own people first, and comparing the Gentiles to dogs. But her faith is huge. “Sir,” she says, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Because she said that, he says, her daughter is cured.
After that next incident of feeding in crowd, in Chapter 8, the Pharisees ask him for a sign. They apparently want some miracle that would be completely convincing, as if there haven’t been enough of those already. But it seems there are never enough. If you keep wanting to be sure there’s enough, you always want more. I’ve found that to be true in my own life.
Jesus is trying to teach people to trust that there is enough (as that Gentile woman just did), and after leaving the Pharisees and getting in a boat tells his disciples to “beware of the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.” He seems to be warning against the letter of the law and a wish to have worldly goods. The disciples, as usual, miss the point completely, think he’s talking about actual food, and he once again has to spell his meaning out. They sometimes seem to be a real bunch of knuckleheads. But his teaching is so new and radical that they haven’t found the spirit of it yet.
So at the end of Chapter 8 he teaches more directly what he has essentially been saying all along. He asks who people says he is, and gathers the various opinions. He tells them quite specifically what is going to happen to him, that he will be rejected by everyone and be killed and rise again after three days. I have mixed feelings about that statement, and am not sure I believe it. There are places—many places in this Gospel—where Jesus seems not to know what will happen, where things take him by surprise, he seems completely human. There are other places—walking on water comes to mind—where he doesn’t seem human at all. And the idea that he knows all along what will happen to him, knows he’s the Son of God and just has to act out this little play and then he’ll be sitting on the right hand of God forever, means that he himself would not need to have the faith he’s asking the disciples to have.
But I believe that Jesus was great, that he was the Son of God, just because he had that faith, he had it in a way that few people ever have, he could exist in the unknown and go forward because he knew that, no matter what happened, all would somehow would be well. It wouldn’t surprise me at this point if Jesus could see he was coming into conflict with the authorities and was about to be martyred. Others like Jesus could see the same thing (Martin Luther King Jr. for one). But I don’t believe he knew exactly what would happen. I think our narrator is writing with hindsight.
But at the end of the chapter Jesus makes the clearest statement of what it is to have faith. It isn’t a matter of knowing, as the Pharisees seem to feel, and having some assurance. It’s a matter of giving up on that altogether. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” I don’t think he’s talking here about being a martyr, about literally dying. I think he’s talking about giving up your life, dropping your wants and needs, what Buddhist teacher Eihei Dogen called “dropping body and mind.” He elaborated on that teaching in a piece called Shoji (Life and Death), and I believe it’s in the same spirit as this teaching of Jesus.
“Let go of and forget your body and mind; throw your life into the abode of the Buddha, living by being moved and led by the Buddha. When you do this without relying on your own physical or mental power, you become released from both life and death and become a Buddha. Do not immerse yourself in mental and emotional struggles. Refrain from committing evil. Neither be attached to life nor to death. Be compassionate toward all sentient beings. Revere that which is superior and do not withhold sympathy from that which is inferior. Do not harbor hatreds nor covet anything. Do not be overly concerned with trivial matters not grieve over difficulties in your life. This is the Buddha. Do not search for the Buddha anywhere else.”
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