Divine inspiration, that bugaboo of religious thinking. How does it work? Does God speak directly into the ear of an unwitting scribe, who merely transcribes what the divine lips have pronounced? No. That would severely limit the scribe's autonomy and render him or her into a mere (and perhaps unwilling) instrument of divine power. Unthinkable, or so we should hope. Or, rather, is there a human-divine dialog involved, in which Human and God together seek ways to express holy mysteries?
This week's readings offered a glimpse of the way that Mark -- the first gospel writer, who penned his euangelion, or good news, around 68CE -- might have put his editorial skills at the disposal of God Almighty, in telling the story of Jesus Messiah.
Mark's chapter 10 starts with Jesus condemning divorce and blessing the little children. It ends with the healing of blind Bartimaeus. But leaving out the divorce teaching, watch how the chapter is structured:
- The disciples rebuke parents for bringing their children to Jesus. But he blesses the children, teaching that one must be like them to enter the Kingdom
- Jesus predicts his suffering and death for the third time
- Jesus swings and misses with the rich young man, who can't bear to part with his possessions to become a follower
- Jesus rebukes James and John for trying to get special seating in the kingdom, telling them that they must be servants, not masters
- The disciples rebuke the blind Bartimaeus who, ignoring propriety,makes a pest of himself to get Jesus's attention. Jesus heals him and Bartimaeus becomes a disciple.
It's unlikely that Mark inherited these stories in the order they appear here. More likely, they came to him separate and unrelated -- disconnected tales of Jesus among the many that were floating around in the years after his death. Jesus may well have anticipated that he would share the inglorious fate of many of the prophets. That was a story. He may well have taught that children were great models for egotistical adults. Another memory. He may well have been spurned by a wealthy young would-be disciple. Yet another tale. But it's Mark's genius to lay these stories together in a way that tells another story altogether -- the story of discipleship, its costs, and the inability of even his own followers to understand.
In Mark's meta-narrative -- the larger story that is made up of smaller ones -- Jesus gives us an example of perfect discipleship: a child who is a) powerless and weak and b) utterly dependent on his parents for safety, sustenance and growth. Imagine, if you will, not an awkward, cocky, 10-year old, but a tiny tot -- a 2-year old, barely able to stand, speak and feed itself. Jesus then goes on to show how far he is willing to go into powerlessness. He predicts that he will be man-handled and killed by the authorities. Likewise, the rich young man is unwilling to let go of his security and power, his wealth, and to fall into utter powerlessness and dependence on God. Likewise, John and James make it abundantly clear (by asking for thrones in the kingdom) that they are stuck on dreams of power and control, and can't see Jesus's path of powerlessness and pain. All are unable to see what Jesus means when he speaks plainly. That is, until Bartimaeus, a man who literally has never been able to see in the worldly sense, senses Jesus nearby. He cries out to the "Son of David," the Messiah, to free him from his earthly impediments. But it is clear that Bartimaeus "sees" Jesus in ways that the disciples don't. From the depths of his poverty and powerlessness, he recognizes Jesus is the one to deliver him. And when he is relieved of the disability that kept him from following, he quickly follows Jesus on the way. Note too how Mark cleverly bookends his narrative with stories of the disciples rebuking the very models of discipleship that Jesus embraces and blesses -- a child and a man with a disability.
From unrelated narrative fragments, Mark has stitched together a powerful tale that speaks of discipleship as embracing poverty and powerlessness, even to the point of relinquishing control of one's own body to one's enemies. He tells that Jesus's message was so hard to comprehend that it repelled some and baffled others, even those closest to him. But Mark's story also told that some, especially those already sunk in a lack of means to help themselves, paradoxically had the power to recognize divinity in their midst, call it out and follow it where it led.
Divine inspiration? I would argue that Mark--puzzling over how to assemble a mass of narrative fragments, sayings and miracle stories--was aided in his editing work by the spirit of One who has been spinning tales from the beginning of time. It's the spirit of the poet, the song writer and the bard, spinning stories of hope and deliverance -- especially in times of trial, sorrow and hardship. In his own life prior to his encounter with the stories of Jesus, Mark had honed his own abilities as a storyteller. But when he teamed up with the greatest Storyteller of them all, he produced a masterful work who depths we are still plumbing, and whose lessons we are still struggling to understand.
Much more interesting than a whisper in an unreadied ear.