In my previous reflection, I noted the transition from John (the Baptizer) to Jesus in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, a transition that pushes us into a fuller discussion of the nature of discipleship- the call to follow Jesus on the Way.
Recognizing the Way as a movement in (and into) life in the Kingdom of God (a Kingdom come near), Mark leaves his readers with two central questions that will continue to define the rest of his narrative looking forward- Who is Jesus, and what does it look like to follow Jesus on the way?
Bookmarked by two passages- the call to discipleship in 1:16, and the appointing of the twelve disciples in chapter 3:13; these two questions will launch us head first into the rather difficult and defining language of “The Parable of the Sower” that opens chapter 4. It is here where the discussion of life in the kingdom of God gets blown wide open in a rather challenging and unsettling fashion, setting earlier discussions of the right and the wrong Way (of the straight path) into the more surprising language of “insiders” and “outsiders”.
Before we arrive here, however, there is worth in giving pause to consider the ways in which Mark has been preparing us to approach the challenging nature of this parable with proper perspective and open ears, beginning with the rather provocative nature of his opening statement:
Jesus, The Son of God
“The Beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
The gospel of Jesus, the son of God!
By opening His Gospel with these words, Mark calls us to attention. The words we are about to read, the testimonies we are about to encounter all come down to one person- Jesus. Jesus is the one John calls us to turn towards. Jesus is the one we are called to follow.
Jesus, the son of God.
It is a provocative claim that indicates the Gospel we are about to hear, the “Gospel of God” that Jesus comes to proclaim in 1:14, has the power to change us in unexpected ways, both in the way we think and the way we view God’s involvement in the world and our lives. In the Kingdom of God come near, Mark recognizes the work of Jesus in reshaping our perspective on how the kingdom of God arrives at our point of view.
As the Scribes say, “who can forgive sins but God alone?” In the language of the son of God, we find this shocking declaration that the kingdom of God has been brought near in the person and work of Jesus, the one who enters the world on God’s terms, a God who has chosen to dwell alongside the created order, in the midst of the brokenness. He is the one who forgives, heals, eats with sinners and then calls us to follow Him on this Way in the forgiven and forgiving life.
The Pattern of Discipleship Continues
As we move from chapter 2 and into chapter 3, we find the same familiar pattern moving us from the still places of the synagogue (3:1) and the desolate place of the sea and the mountain (3:7; 13) into the business of the healing and the crowds… only now, as we continue to do so, we find “the Crowd increases”.
“Jesus could no longer openly enter a town, but was out in desolate places, and people were coming to him from every quarter.”
– Mark 1:45
In Mark 1:45 we find the space between the desolate places and the business of the crowd beginning to blur. And now in chapter 3, Jesus enters the synagogue and it says, “a man was there”. He withdraws to the sea and it says “the crowd follows”. Jesus goes up the mountain and He “brings those he desires”.
This apparent tension, the gradual disruption of this pattern we are being asked to imitate, is a call to keep our eyes open, to expect the unexpected. As Mark calls us to consider who Jesus is and what it looks like to follow Him on the Way, we find Him eating at the table with sinners and out in the world healing on the Sabbath. As we find Him in these places, the voices of the dissenters also increase. These are the voices intent on describing, instead, who Jesus certainly must not be.
So who is Jesus? In chapter 3 it is the “unclean spirits” and the “demons”, not the dissenters, that know the secret of the kingdom that the “Parable of the Sower” will eventually unleash in chapter 4, the secret of who Jesus actually is in this kingdom narrative. And if one thing is becoming clear at this point, it is that Jesus is most certainly not the person they suggest Him to be. His way is decidedly different than the one they expect to follow as He persists in the Way of the forgiven and forgiving life.
Forgiveness and the Kingdom Way
All sins towards the son of man will be forgiven but whoever Blasphemes against he Spirit will not be forgiven
– Mark 3:28-29
It is the resurfacing theme of the forgiven and forgiving life in this obscure passage about the “eternal sin” that finally prepares us to hear the challenging parable of the sower in proper perspective, and there are a few things of note we can pull from this passage that can help us as we head into chapter 4:
- Without the baptism of the Spirit (1:8) there is no forgiveness.
We can follow John’s call to turn (repent) towards Jesus (chapter 1), but without the arrival of the Spirit (the Spirit that declares Jesus to be the “son of God”) there is no forgiven and forgiving way of life for us to follow into.
- This passage has more to say about who Jesus is as “the son of God” than it does our own sinful nature.
The passage indicates that Jesus refers to “blasphemy of the Holy Spirit” because “they were saying He (Jesus) had an unclean Spirit”. In speaking of the eternal sin, Jesus is addressing His own nature, not ours. Either He can forgive sins or He cannot. For Mark, He is either the son of God or He is not. He cannot be both things at once.The Kingdom come near in Mark chapter 1 is a Kingdom undivided. It is a straight path in which we gain a perfect (undivided) picture of The Way, the Gospel of God that belongs to Jesus. As Jesus goes on to say, a Kingdom cannot stand divided against itself (3:24), and thus there remains only one way to truly see who Jesus is, and that is to recognize the Way of the forgiven and forgiving life that He calls us to participate in.
- The paradox of learning to live in the tension between the right and the wrong Way of the Gospel.
Chapter 4 is about to push us head first into a discussion of “insiders” and “outsiders”, but before we arrive at this place in Mark’s Gospel of Jesus, the son of God, we must wrestle through a passage about the “eternal sin”. Here we are reminded that if we see anything other than the forgiven and forgiving life we will miss the point of Jesus as the son of God. The Way of Jesus is not about our ability to enter the Kingdom by living the perfect (moral, lawful, holy) life. Rather it is about learning to see Jesus, the son of God, and all of the implication that this provocative statement brings with it. For Mark, seeing Jesus as the son of God changes everything. It is because of this statement that we can find hope in the brokenness of our world. It is because of this that we can find freedom in our own failure.And here in lies the paradox- If the Spirit is true, and if the Spirit came to reveal Jesus to us on God’s terms rather than ours, then the very fact that this tension exists (between a broken world and a promised restoration) testifies to the existence of the Spirit in our lives and in our world. This passage is not about having to fear whether we have committed an eternal sin or not (and the judgment we might feel this carries with it), it is about the freedom that Jesus, the son of God, offers in the forgiven and forgiving Way of life.
Making Further Sense of the paradox
The tension that Mark continues to grapple with as he approaches this notion of insiders and outsiders continues to build a case for the forgiven and forgiving Ways of Jesus, the son of God. This is the Gospel that Mark is unfolding. It is out of the brokenness and the failure that we come to an awareness of Jesus. It is about sharing space with the sick and the sinners, the unclean and the demons. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God comes near in the form of a promise to bring healing and restoration to the brokenness, and we do not enter the Way of this promised restoration by proving our worth on the grounds of our own holiness or perfection first, but rather on the grounds of embracing the (perfect) undivided picture of Jesus that the son of God represents – the son of God who, indeed, does have the power to forgive.
Mark is good at recognizing when passages like this will bring to light a certain angst. If we know there is an eternal sin, our first tendency might be to fear we have committed it or to wonder how can know if we, in-fact, did commit it. When we allow ourselves to get lost in these kinds of questions, it can cause us to feel a need to try and control the Way of God. It can lead us to respond like the dissenters, binding the Way of God to the letter of the (moral, holy) law and working to achieve a place in His Kingdom based on our own merit.
The provocative declaration of Jesus as the son of God challenges this sort of thinking, exposing the dangerous places it can lead us towards- when we work to erect boundaries, and when we become primarily concerned with proving our right to be counted as an insider in God’s kingdom based on our own sense of worth, it will inevitably lead us not only to a sense of failure in living up to our own expectations (living the letter of the law is an impossible notion for anyone), but it forces us to relegate others to the outside based on these same failed expectations.
This is how we arrive at the final section of Mark chapter 3, a passage that reminds us that when we see anything other than the forgiven and forgiving life we miss Jesus. Here Jesus rather shockingly (and unexpectedly) blows the parameters of the kingdom wide open by redefining for us who belongs in the family of God. By declaring “all those who sat around him” as his true brother and sisters, He reorients our picture of the family of God, one not defined by the walls we build but rather by the ways in which Jesus breaks down these barriers. This is made all the more shocking by the fact that that, His own flesh and blood relations are standing in His midst while He says this.
In God’s Kingdom, “all” are called to belong as a member of the family of God. It is a statement that places Jesus right back where we found him, at the table with the sick and sinners and out in the world calling all who have ears to hear this powerful message of grace, a message that even the demons hear. The real question for us as we read through The Gospel of Mark- is it a message that we are willing to hear for ourselves.