Holy Spirit

ACTA COMMENTARY

on

THE SUNDAY LECTIONARY

TENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

YEAR B: YEAR OF MARK     Download >>> Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

There is endless discussion on who the writers of our four Gospels were, when they wrote, to whom did they write, and, most intriguingly, why did they put quill to scroll.

  I learned a prayer when I was knee high to a grasshopper:

Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,

God bless the bed that I lie on.

And if I die before I wake,

I give my soul to God to take.

So I knew the names of the four gospel-makers.  But that was all I knew. Strange to say, that is still all I know with any degree of certainty about who these four evangelists.  Names were attached to the four Gospels near the end of the second century (say about 180 A.D.). Yet we can be more or less sure that the four Gospels were written about a hundred years before that date.  Names of people known to early Christians and at one time prominent in some early communities were attached to writings that had already become precious in Christian circles. But we do not know who these people were apart from their names.  What we have is a bundle of speculation, popular but hazy traditions, and a large dollop of make-believe.

However, the effort to answer the who, the where, the when, and the why questions may be worth the candle.  If we try to identify Mark we may not reach many certainties. But the exercise is not a futile one for we will learn much that will help us to understand the first Gospel to be written and that will be a blessing.

Who was Mark?

  A portrait of Mark may be sketched from within the New Testament itself.  There is no record of where he was born, where he was brought up, what kind of education, if any, he may have received. The name Mark, the most common of Roman male names, occurs eight times in the New Testament.  Look up the Acts of the Apostles 12:12, 25; 15:37, 39; Colossians 4:10; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24; 1 Peter 5:13. Put all the information you have gleaned and you will have learned that Mark’s first name was John (a Jewish name) and his second name Mark (a Roman name).  You will have met his mother, a woman called Mary, a prominent member of the earliest community of churches in Jerusalem and that her house was a house-church and a hive of Christian activity. You will have met St Peter on his way out of prison to seek refuge in Mary’s house.  Then you will meet Mark again as a companion of St Paul and St Barnabas (a first cousin of Mark), and you will have discovered that St Peter held him in such affection and esteem that he called him “my son Mark”.

  The trouble is that Mark was the most common name in the Roman world and it is far from certain that every time we meet the name Mark in the New Testament it refers to the same man.  Which Smith is Smith? There are serious geographical errors in Mark’s Gospel and it is difficult to believe he ever lived in Jerusalem or even in Palestine. Of course he wrote his Gospel in Greek for that was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire.  Even in Rome the main language was Greek, not Latin. All the documents in the New Testament were written in Greek, including St Paul’s letter to Roman house-churches.  Mark, too, wrote in Greek but not very elegant Greek. He translated some Aramaic words into Greek and since Aramaic was the language spoken in most of Palestine, that might be a bit of a clue as to where he came from originally.  But that is too little to hang your hat on. Aramaic was spoken throughout Lebanon, Syria, and what we call Iraq. Clutching at straws.

  Yet we might conclude that Mark was a Jew who knew his Bible pretty well. He quotes the Greek versions of Scripture available to him, as do the other 26 pieces of writing that make up the New Testament).  Whoever he was, he was brought up in the Jewish faith, perhaps outside the Jewish homeland of Palestine. He became a Christian, and eventually wrote the first Gospel to be written. Is there any more to be said?



Where did he write from?

Where did he write to?

When did he write?

  These questions are bewildering.  We can’t give certain answers. The evidence is not conclusive. However I am convinced that these questions can be answered in one name: Rome.  On this issue I will keep my powder dry until I have attempted to answer the most difficult question of all: why did Mark write such an explosive text to house-churches scattered around the great capital city of Rome?

Why did Mark write?

  In July, 64 A.D. a tremendous fire, lasting for more than six days, reduced more than half the city of Rome, the Eternal City, to ashes.  The Emperor, Nero (ruled from 54 - 68 A.D.) issued plans for the rebuilding of his imperial capital. Because the plans were made public so quickly a rumour began to spread that the fire had been an act of high authority; indeed, people were beginning to believe that Nero instigated the fire.  To root out this suspicion, Nero blamed Christians for the disaster. It may well have been that Christians were a suspicious lot. Their secret ways and their refusal to take part in the religious/civic rituals of the city certainly marked them out. Nero needed a scapegoat and Christians were declared “enemies of the human race” and rounded up.  A Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (55 - 120 A.D.), records the matter:

[Concerning the fire], the precautions taken were suggested by human prudence: now means were sought   for appeasing deity, and application was made to the Sibylline books; at the injunction of which public prayers were offered to Vulcan, Ceres, and Proserpine, while Juno was propitiated by the matrons, first in the Capitol, then at the nearest point of the sea-shore, where water was drawn for sprinkling the temple and image of the goddess.   Ritual banquets and all-night vigils were celebrated by women in the married state. But neither human help, nor imperial munificence, nor all the modes of placating Heaven, could stifle the scandal or dispel the belief that the fire had taken place by order.

Therefore, to suppress this rumour, Nero fabricated scapegoats and punished with every refinement the notoriously depraved Christians (as they were popularly called).  Their originator, Christus, had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the procurator (sic) of Judaea, Pontius Pilatus [Auctor nominus eius Christus Tiberio imperitante per procuratorem Pontium Pilatum supplicio adfectus erat].  But in spite of this temporary setback, the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judæa (where the chief mischief had started) but even in the City.  All degraded and shameful practices collect and flourish in the capital. Therefore, first self-confessed [Christians] were arrested. Then, on their information [deinde indicio eorum], vast numbers were convicted, not so much for the crime of arson, but for their hatred of the human race [odio humani generis].  Their deaths were covered in derision: they were cloaked in the skins of wild animals and torn to death by dogs; or they were fastened on crosses, and, when daylight declined, they were burned to serve as lamps by night. Nero provided his Gardens for the spectacle and exhibited displays in his Circus, at which he mingled with the crowds, or stood in a chariot, dressed as a charioteer.  Despite their guilt as Christians, and the ruthless punishment it deserved, the victims were pitied. For it was felt that they were being sacrificed, not for the welfare of the state, but for the fierce cruelty of one man.

TACITUS, The Annals of Rome, Book XV, §44.

I believe that Mark wrote his Gospel to rehabilitate the Christian communities who survived the terrors of Nero but had to face  the tragic fact that members of their intimate house-churches had betrayed their brothers and sisters and handed them over to be burned and eaten by wild dogs.  I believe that Mark wrote his Gospel hoping to rehabilitate little house-churches scattered around the city of Rome. I think that Mark belonged to one of these little churches and that he passed his little pamphlet around hoping that he might create a future for broken people.

  It is only when we reach the end of this amazing little pamphlet that we can come more securely to answers to our questions.  He did not write for us. Nor did he write to us. But his words have tumbled down the ages and can still lift our hearts to God.




<>                    <> <>                    <>



READINGS

A reading from the Book of Genesis                               3:9-15

Responsorial Psalm                                             Psalm 129.R/. v.7

A reading from the second letter of St Paul

To the Corinthians                                                            4:13-51

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark   3:20-35




<>                    <> <>                    <>




A reading from the Book of Genesis                                3:9-15



And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”

The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,

cursed are you above all livestock

and above all beasts of the field;

on your belly you shall go,

and dust you shall eat

all the days of your life.

I will put enmity between you and the woman,

and between your offspring and her offspring;

he shall bruise your head,

                         and you shall bruise his heel.”       Genesis 3:9-15

The people who drew up the readings in our Lectionary intended that the first of the three readings on Sundays should be in some way a preparation of the Gospel reading.  It is not always easy to spot the connection between first and third reading but usually worth the effort.

  Today the connection seems to be an attempt to distort and manipulate God’s design. The serpent causes Adam and Eve to stray from God’s commandment, just as Beelzebul, the prince of devils, also named Satan, enters into the human heart and leads people away from God.

  Of course, we must first try to grasp what the reading from the first book of the Bible means in its own setting before we can begin to apply to a completely new context.

  The Adam and Eve story in the Book of Genesis did not happen.  Adam and Eve are mythological figures who lived entirely in the imagination of the writer(s) of this magnificent tale.  It is not a story of what happened once upon a time. It is a story about what happens every day of the week. It is a fiction that becomes a fact in every one who walks this planet.  Its power is not that it ever happened. Its power is that it always happens. Its name is sin.

  Adam is persuaded by his wife Eve to eat of the tree of forbidden fruit.  Eve succumbs to visions of grandeur. The serpent (more crafty that any other beast of the field) offered her a tempting future:

God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.                        Genesis 3:4

There are two outcomes to Adam and Eve’s refusal to live by God’s words.  First, the serpent gets its comeuppance and is cursed. God will not tolerate leading human beings astray.  Secondly, human beings are not cursed. But they are warned that the human life is a struggle. Children are a joy but come into the world in the pain of their bearing.  Men learn that it is by the sweat of their brows that food is put on the table.

  The outcomes of straying beyond God’s protective advice are  self-inflicted wounds. Read a little further into the story the Bible unfolds and you will learn that it is not our sins that have the last word.  It is God’s steadfast love that is poured upon us in mercy and forgiveness. We will learn this in today’s Gospel.



Responsorial Psalm                                                Psalm 129.R/. v.7

R/. For with the LORD there is steadfast love,

and with him is plentiful redemption.



Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!

O LORD, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my pleas for mercy!  R/.

If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

O LORD, who could stand?

But with you there is forgiveness,

that you may be feared.    R/.

I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,

and in his word I hope;

my soul waits for the Lord

more than watchmen for the morning.   R/.

For with the LORD there is steadfast love,

and with him is plentiful redemption.   

And he will redeem Israel

from all his iniquities.

R/. For with the LORD there is steadfast love,

and with him is plentiful redemption.



Those of us of a certain age who remember the old Latin Mass will remember that the opening prayer began,

De profundis clamo ad te, Domine,

Domine, audi vocem meam.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD!

O LORD, hear my voice

The verses of this psalm used in this responsorial is a personal plea for God’s mercy.  The plea for mercy is made from “out of the depths”. This is a poetic exaggeration. The sinner is so far from God’s loving forgiveness that he imagines he is in Sh’eol, the abode of the dead.  God’s ear must be attentive, God’s mercy is so extensive, that even a cry from death will be heard. If God holds sin against us, then who can survive, who can stand before the LORD, that is, who can pray so that a plea for mercy will be heard?

  But it is not our prayer that prevails.  Though our desire for forgiveness is as keen as that of those who keep watch throughout the darkest night, in the end, it is God’s steadfast love that gives mercy and forgiveness.  It is God who redeems. It is God who rescues all of us from the grip of sin.



 A reading from the second letter of St Paul

                                         to the Corinthians 4:13 - 5:1



Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, “I believed, and so I spoke,” we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing

         for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

4:13 - 5:1



The second letter of Saint Paul to his beloved but exasperating Christians in and around the city of Corinth and in the whole region of Achaia is, in many ways, a defence of his work among them.  By way of encouragement and admonishment Paul provides a profile of his own faith and of his own vocation as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Above all he stresses that the gospel he preached “to the church of God that is in Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia” is the very light of God.  It is “the glory of Christ who is the image of God” (4:4). Indeed, though this letter is somewhat disjointed, it may be perfectly summarised in a glorious sentence from last Sunday’s second reading:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 4:6

Today’s reading builds on his conviction that we are fragile pottery and that the treasure his Corinthian “saints” have received through Paul’s teaching is strong and powerful because it comes from God.  In a beautiful paragraph Paul places human frailty alongside God’s strength to emphasise that we are safe in God’s hands:

But we have this treasure in vessels of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.

4:7-11

The future, says Paul, is in the resurrection of Jesus.  Just as God raised Jesus from death, so our destiny is to be raised and to come into the Presence of God. God’s glory is revealed in bringing people safely home.  “So we do not lose heart”, says Paul. We may not see the glory of God but it is the true reality. Our future is a reality “a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heaven”.

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark         3:20-35

Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind.”

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, “He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.

“Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” — for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.”

And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother

Mark 3:20-35



Mark calls Jesus “Teacher” and refers to his teaching activity more times that any of the much longer Gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John.  Yet Mark provides less teaching than the other gospels. The tragedy that inspired Mark to write his little pamphlet may explain this apparent anomaly.    

Mark wants his readers/hearers to learn from the very person of Jesus.  To be sure there is teaching aplenty coming from Jesus but the most effective teaching is the man himself.  Mark begins his story with an identity disclosure:

       A beginning of the gospel of Jesus, Messiah, Son of God.

Mark 1:1

Matthew and Luke begin with elaborate stories of the conception and birth of Jesus.  Mark begins with an adult Jesus with an adult identity and an adult commission. He is the Messiah; he is Son of God, and everything about him is gospel, good news.   He is not merely a character in a good story. He is the gospel, the good story.  He is, we learn in the second half of Mark’s first sentence, entirely a work of God.  Quoting the most distinguished prophet Isaiah, Mark emphasises that Jesus is Lord, so important that God calls John the Baptist to herald his coming. The way of this Messiah must be prepared, his paths made straight.  This man Jesus comes into our world trailing clouds of glory as he comes.

Yet this man, mightier than John himself, is baptised by John.  But baptised with a difference, for his is no baptism of forgiveness.  This is how heaven baptised this Son of God into our world:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven,

      “You are my beloved Son;

                                   with you I am well pleased”.



The voice from heaven is heard by Jesus alone.  But Mark’s readers/hearers also are admitted to the secret. From the beginning we know who he is.  And we must read all that Mark has written in the sure and certain knowledge that the voice from heaven has revealed.  Whatever happens to this man, he is and ever shall be, the Messiah, the Son of God.

I will return to the beginning of the story each week until we catch up to where we are in our Sunday readings.  For now we turn to today’s Gospel reading.

-0-                    -0- -0-

Today’s Gospel finds Jesus returning from a mission of healing to his own home in the village of Nazareth.  The crowd is so big that it is not possible to have a meal, such is the crush.  The first incident of the three episodes that occur on his return is that his family arrive on the scene intending to seize him because they are convinced that he is mad.    Strangely no more is made of this matter (but see Mark 6:1-6).  Nothing happens except that the second incident offers an alleged explanation of his madness.

The learned scribes pitch up.  Notice that it is “the scribes”, not a scribe, not a few scribes, not some scribes.  It is the scribes who have come down from Jerusalem.   The impression given is that the whole batch of scribes come all the way from Jerusalem (about 70 miles).  Mark indicates that they were constantly putting about two nasty allegations:

He is possessed by Beelzebul!  

                      By the Prince of demons he casts out the demons!

The accusations are more than serious because they challenge the very being of Jesus.  The irony is that we, the readers/hearers, know the truth of the matter: from the mouth of the demons themselves:

… whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.” And he strictly ordered them not to make him known.                          3:11-12



But Jesus stands up to the slander of the scribes and points out the obvious.  If demons can’t protect their own territory and I am invading their space and entering into the territory of these supposedly powerful devils and plundering their goods, who is winning?

Jesus is mad.  Jesus is possessed by demons.  No. His power is that of God’s Spirit of Holiness (1:9 and 1:12), the very Spirit of God that directs and empowers his every act.  To declare that the Holy Spirit is possessed by evil spirits (and that is what is meant here) is beyond saving. Of all sins only this blasphemy is beyond forgiveness.

Those of us who remember older translations of the Bible will recall that Jesus often introduced important matters with the phrase translated as Amen, I say to you … .  This solemn introduction occurs in all four Gospels.  Here in today’s Gospel is the first time it is heard on the lips of Jesus.  Indeed, this is the very first time in Jewish writings or in Sacred Scripture that these weighty words are uttered. It is Jesus’ special phrase when he wishes to underline a matter of particular importance. The context here demands gravity, for Jesus is pronouncing his utter condemnation of this particular blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.  The sin is to declare that the Holy Spirit is really the devil in disguise. And since the Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism by John (1:9-11), to say that the Holy Spirit is an evil spirit is to say that Jesus is full of the same evil spirit. This of course means that God is an evil spirit for Jesus is God’s Son. The first Amen, I say to you was not used lightly.

His mother and his brothers and sisters arrive, wanting to see him.   Mark pays little respect to the family of Jesus.  For Jesus regards those who sit around him as his true family.  Remember those sitting around him sit as disciples listening to his every word.  Of such is the kingdom of God.



-0-                    -0- -0-

Joseph O’Hanlon








Please Login to post comments