Two Unusual Gospel Stories
It’s Sunday, so here’s a religious reflection.
I’m telling you, reading David Bentley Hart’s new translation of the New Testament is an exciting experience for me. I’m not quite sure why, but the immediacy of the Scripture’s stories really comes through in Hart’s telling.
This morning I was reading in Mark 5, the story in which Jesus heals a demoniac who had been possessed for years, and lived among the tombs, where he howled and gashed himself. Jesus casts the demons out, and restores the man to himself. You would think that this demonstration of God’s restorative power would have converted the people who saw it, but that didn’t happen. Mark tells us it frightened the people, and they begged Jesus to leave their territory.
That is one of my favorite stories from the New Testament, because it is so human. Over the years, I’ve talked to people who have had direct personal encounters with spiritual evil. Some of them observed priests or pastors confronting the evil and banishing it in the name of Jesus Christ. A surprising (to me, at first) number of them did not change their lives in any way because of what they saw — even if they could not explain it away to their satisfaction. Eventually I quit being surprised at this, as well as being surprised by people who believe that they have witnessed a miracle of healing, but who did not change their lives or in any way convert.
I quit being surprised because there it is in Scripture: most people prefer the misery they know to the possibility of healing and deliverance. The people who lived around that demoniac found it easier to live in a world in which he was a prisoner of evil spirits than to live in a world in which the settled order was overturned. The same principle is at work in the story of the Rich Young Ruler, the man who wanted to follow Jesus, but wasn’t willing to give everything up for His sake, and who therefore walked away from Him.
I was there myself, earlier in my life, in both places. I knew that I could be set free from the things that trapped me and tormented me, but I was afraid of the changes that would take place in my life if I accepted healing, and that would have to take place. So in effect, I told Jesus to leave my territory. For years I did this, until I could stand it no more. And you know, I still do this, in smaller ways. This is what Christians call sin. The Christian faith does not simply deliver one from the consequences of sin. As you grow and mature in it, it delivers one from the power of sin over oneself. This is why the Christian life requires constant repentance, and openness to healing, restorative grace.
The second Gospel story that moves me this morning is from the beginning of Mark 6. In it, Jesus returns to His own native country to preach. The people there don’t take Him seriously, because they think they know who He is. After all, He grew up there. This is the part of the Gospel where Jesus famously says, “A prophet is not dishonored except in his native country and among his own kin and in his household.”
The next lines are astonishing:
And he could not perform any feat of power there, except for healing a few sick persons by laying on of hands. And he was amazed at their lack of faith.
This is the incarnate God Himself, and yet his power is bounded by the unwillingness of the people to receive Him. Now, if Jesus was really God — as Christians believe He was — then He could have forcibly healed anybody, and done any feat of power. But that’s not how God works. God created the cosmos such that man has to cooperate with Him through faith for His power to be manifest. This self-binding of His own power for the sake of man’s freedom is one of the most stunning qualities of God’s character. This anecdote from Mark 6 shows the role that we have to play in our own healing and salvation. God so respects our autonomy that He will not force Himself upon us. He will let us remain sick if we prefer to be.
Think too about how astonishing this is as narrative. If Mark wanted to present Jesus as a wonderworker of unlimited power, he would have edited out this incident in which the power of the Master is revealed to be limited by the unwillingness of the people to receive him on faith. But he didn’t, even though to a certain reader, it makes Jesus look weak. The fact that Mark faithfully recounts this story (as does Matthew) adds to the Gospel’s credibility, or so it seems to me.
Funny, but in some ways, growing up with the Gospel’s stories so familiar inoculated me to their deep weirdness. Can’t say exactly why, but reading Hart’s version of the NT brings out the strangeness in the text, in a good way. The deeper you dig into the Bible, the more clear it becomes that it cannot be neatly interpreted in ways that serve the goals of 21st century American progressives or 21st century American conservatives. The text is far stranger than our attempts at domesticating it can possibly comprehend. I’m all for Keeping Christianity Weird.
OK, off to my mission church in a strip mall, to pray in a liturgy composed primarily in the fifth century. Again, I recommend D.B. Hart’s new translation of the New Testament. I like it so much that I’m thinking of ordering a Kindle copy so I can read it while traveling.