Thursday, December 8, 2011

Mark, A Meal, A Leper & The Kingdom of God (part 2 of 3)

To go along with the interesting theological Temple dynamic that has been inserted into the narrative here in chapters twelve and fourteen of Mark’s Gospel, the place of the meal in which Jesus is engaged and at which He is anointed, as He says, “for burial” (14:8), is the house of “Simon the leper” (14:3).  Yes, Jesus is dining at the home of a leper, and therefore dining at the home of one whose entire existence is one of impurity in relation to Jewish law and custom.  As a leper, Simon would stand almost completely outside the social order, as he would translate ritual impurity to those who came into contact with him.  In the eyes of those that were in a position to observe this meal, Jesus Himself would have fallen into ritual impurity, and amazingly, within Mark’s narrative, we see Jesus doing this immediately before Passover.  Though He is looked upon as a respected rabbi within Israel at this point in time, Jesus apparently finds Himself unconcerned with the perceptions. 

As Mark is written within the confines of the early church that found itself immersed within much knowledge of the historical Jesus, along with resounding and powerful traditions about Him that would clearly have weighed heavily upon them in the area of practice, we rightly call attention to the marked contrast between what we are seeing here in Mark and what we find presented in a situation in the Gospel of John (which is also written during a time and within a community steeped in first-hand knowledge of Jesus).  In John, after Jesus’ arrest and initial questioning by Annas and Caiaphas, “they brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the Roman governor’s residence” (18:28a).  The author then informs us that “They did not go into the governor’s residence” (18:28c).  Why did they not go in?  It was “so they would not be ceremonially defiled, but could eat the Passover meal” (18:28d).  A stark contrast indeed.  In Mark, Jesus dines with a leper, sitting on his furniture and sharing a table with him in complete disregard of established custom, clearly communicating truths about the kingdom of God and His own rule of that kingdom through what He was knowingly and consciously doing. 

When these two accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry include such stories, both are making points that are not easily dismissed.  One account represents separation and exclusion, whereas the other highlights inclusion, pointing to a highly necessary aspect of ecclesiology.  John’s account of a concern to not become ritually impure before the commencement of Passover is useful because it points up the high level of seriousness with which such things were taken at the time.  For the sake of rabbinic credibility, and especially a rabbi that carried and stoked messianic expectations, issues of impurity would have been a concern.  With no real record of time, and no textual sense of time between His contracting of ceremonial impurity while at this house and the celebration of Passover with His disciples, it would appear to His fellow members of the house of Israel that Jesus has, in fact, presided over a Passover (His last supper) celebration while he found Himself in a state of impurity.  With what we must presume is a well-founded grasp of this information, Mark demonstrates a complete lack of concern in this area, and instead, presents this picture of Jesus that is stocked with a great deal of implications for those, both inside and outside of ethnic and national Israel, who call or will come to call Him Lord. 

There are other quite significant points to be made.  One of those points has to do with the fact that Jesus has chosen to dine in this particular house.  Calling upon the Gospel of John for assistance, we are reminded that Bethany is the place of Lazarus’ residence.  In chapter twelve of John, it appears that we are presented with a story (unless there was another story about Jesus being anointed with costly oil, the action being criticized as wasteful, and Jesus criticizing the criticizers and commending the “waste”) that is based upon the same meal about which we read in the fourteenth chapter of Mark. This account of Jesus dining at the house of Simon the leper provides us with a bit more detail.  Here, the reader is informed that “six days before Passover,” (thus answering the question as to whether or not Jesus had adequate time to complete purification rituals before celebrating Passover---so Jesus (the Messiah) went to the cross in a state of ritual impurity, and the early church was unconcerned with this aspect of the story, though it would have certainly attributed to the scandalous, stumbling-block nature of the message of Jesus) “Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom He has raised from the dead.  So they prepared a dinner for Jesus there.  Martha was serving, and Lazarus was among those present at the table with Him” (12:1-2). 

If we did not have the stories of Matthew and Mark, when we read this story in John we could get the sense that Jesus is dining in the house of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary.  If He was doing so, that would be quite understandable.  Lazarus had, quite naturally, become famous.  Many people, as John tells us a few verses later, came to this house to see both Jesus and Lazarus (12:9).  Not only that, there are indications that the family may have had some wealth, and therefore been an honorable family within the community, with that indication being the fact that Mary had the costly perfume with which to anoint Jesus, and the fact that the gathered guests make mention of “the poor,” with the words themselves ringing out and serving as an indication of the dichotomy that existed between the poor and those that were joining Jesus at this meal.  However, this meal is not taking place at the house of the now-famous-and-potentially-wealthy Lazarus, but rather, at the house of Simon the leper.       

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