The Gospel of Mark was seldom heard by Catholics prior to the reform of the lectionary following Vatican II. Does that make a difference? I think so. We tend to think of all the Gospels as telling much the same story of Jesus; but it is important to recognize that each evangelist has his own perspective and objectives – usually focused on the problems and issues his community had to deal with. What features of the Jesus story, what sayings of Jesus, were particularly instructive or corrective for his audience? By including all four Gospels in the canon of the New Testament, the Church tells us that these varied problems and issues are sufficiently general to be ours as well. So in reflecting on today’s Gospel reading, it is helpful to see it specifically as a part of Mark’s overall thrust. His particular emphasis remains important for Christians of all times.
One feature that distinguishes Mark is that he relentlessly hammers home the universal failure of even those closest to Jesus – not just the establishment authorities who would, of course, be threatened by what Jesus was proclaiming, but by his own disciples, who repeatedly missed the point of what he was about, by Peter who denied Him, and finally, even on Easter morning, by the women who, out of fear, failed to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ victory over death.
In today’s Gospel, after two miraculous feedings, the disciples are fretting over the fact that they failed to bring along enough food. You can feel Jesus’ exasperation in the barrage of questions he fires at the disciples. Jesus says, in effect, “Don’t you get it?” He tells them to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod – not because he expects them to bake bread and wants them to be sure to get the right brand of yeast. No, both for bread and for leaven, He is talking about God’s intervention to establish God’s kingdom in our world. God will provide what is needed for that to happen: Indeed, only God can.
Leaven is one way to make things happen. It causes dough to rise and grape juice to become wine. We, activists that we are, want to do things – to make things happen. So did the disciples. But what methods should we use? The Pharisees stood for the religious elite of Israel and Herod stood for the civil establishment. “As far as God’s kingdom is concerned,” Jesus says “Don’t count on either”. That dour outlook is typical of Mark. But, if we think things have changed very much, all we have to do is look around us.
The kingdom will come through God’s power. We have to let it. We have to hope for it. And, as Jesus taught us in the Lord’s Prayer, we have to pray for it.
If the disciples failed to grasp what Jesus was about, can we be too sure that we have it all figured out? Lent will start soon. It’s the annual chance the Church gives us, not so much for pious practices, as to get perspective on our priorities and preconceptions – and to ask God to help us see things as God sees them.
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