At church we’re working through Mark’s Gospel on Sunday mornings between Christmas and Easter, and I’ve decided to read it as my devotional reading each day as well during this time. Reading it again, I’ve been struck by many things, and I’m only a few chapters in! It paints a picture of Jesus far from the nice sandal wearing wimp that he is sometimes portrayed as. Here is a man who acts with determination and authority, not caring what others think of his deeds or teaching, but with a clear vision of what the world could be or should be, and living out that life and pushing for that life now.
One of the key themes that has hit me so far is his desire to overturn the inclination we have to exclude those who are different to us. In the first few chapters these are the people he goes out of his way to include, challenging the prejudices of the culture around him.
In chapter one he drives out an evil spirit from a man in a synagogue, heals Simon Peter’s mother-in-law from a fever and ‘cleanses’ a man with leprosy. In chapter two he heals a paralytic and dines with ‘many tax collectors and “sinners”. The list continues. Each of these is in some way excluded from society around them. When you dig a little deeper, often this exclusion has a religious aspect to it. In some cases this is clear – for example the demon possessed man, but in others to us less clear. Take the Sunday School favourite, the paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends. The root concern of this story is not his condition, but the religious belief that he was blighted with his disability because of serious sin in his family – it was a punishment from God. Jesus cuts straight through this by declaring his sins forgiven – and so restoring his place in the community (and heals him to boot!) Or the man with leprosy, he would have been excluded, considered as ritually unclean, and defiling of others who came into contact with him. Again Jesus heals him, cleansing him (the text pointedly stresses that ritualistic religious word, not ‘healing’) so he can be part of the community again. Just to make sure, Jesus sends him to the priest so that his cleansing can be ‘officially’ sanctioned, so that he could be ‘officially’ included once again. This was a risky act; coming into contact with someone with leprosy would have caused him to have been considered unclean too. As the man failed to follow this last instruction, perhaps this was a turning point in Jesus’ work – maybe he was now seen as tainted in some way. If he wasn’t then, he certainly was after his meal at Levi’s house with the tax collectors and sinners – those excluded from polite society because of their anti-Jewish collusion with the pagan Roman establishment, and those rejected because of their lifestyles were deemed to be unacceptable by the leaders of the faith.
Reading these passages has challenged me to take a long hard look at my attitude to others. In what ways do I unconsciously exclude others because of how society or indeed religious attitudes around me see them? In what ways do I not see people, or actively avoid them? Who does my church exclude? Who are the excluded in my community? Who in my life ought I be actively trying to bring back into the community – and do I have the guts to do it even if this means being ‘tainted’ as Christ was?