Creighton University’s Online Ministries teaches us a good way to prepare for mass (or prayer) using the Readings in Ordinary Time: “it is helpful to read the Gospel reading first so that we can appreciate why the First Reading was chosen. Then, when we read the Gospel a second time, the connection helps us.” In this reflection, we shall follow this guide.
The Context of the Gospel of Mark. Imagine John Mark (Acts 12:12; 15:37) in Rome listening to Peter’s preaching (1 Peter 5:13) about Jesus, and thoroughly convinced, he wanted to spread the Good News too. So John Mark, to whom the Gospel of Mark is ascribed to in an ancient Christian tradition, decided to have one angle to present Jesus to his audience. He decided to summarize St. Peter’s preaching, and introduce “Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God (Mark 1:1,11; 5,6; 9;7; 14:61-62; 15, 39) whose ministry was characterized by a succession of mighty works which, to those who had eyes to see, were signs of the presence of God’s power and kingdom” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, Revised Standard Version, pp. 1213).
Mark 2: 1-12. With this framework, we place this Gospel reading in the second chapter of Mark. We hear about Jesus who returned to Capernaum after being away for several days. He was already famous for his preaching for “many gathered together as that there was no longer room for them, not even around the door, and He preached the word to them.” He was very charismatic. People naturally followed Him anywhere to listen to every word that comes out of His mouth.
However, he was not just a preacher. He was a miracle worker. In today’s reading, we hear of the paralytic carried by four of his friends. We know that in Jesus’ time, illness was linked to one’s sinfulness. And therefore, the cure to the paralytic’s illness was forgiveness. And forgiveness it is: “Your sins have been forgiven.”
However, only God forgives sins. The scribes in fact remarked, “He is blaspheming. Who but God alone can forgive sins?” Jesus, in turn, rebuked them and asserted that He has indeed “authority to forgive sins.” So to show this authority, He healed the paralytic.
What He said and did affirmed His identity as the Son of God! And when the paralytic was healed, the people who had “eyes to see” experienced God’s presence and power. The people remarked, “We have never seen anything like this.”
The First Reading. Compare that to the First Reading from the Book of Samuel (1 Samuel 8:6-7, 10-22a). Through Samuel, the Israelites demanded from God a king of their own choosing. They needed a human king to lead them to battle following a series of defeat. And Samuel told the people, “You will complain against the king whom you have chosen, but on that day, the Lord will not answer you.”
Eventually, the Lord would grant their request and Saul would become Israel’s first king. With this, a change of relationship occurred. In the past, the Lord was their king, who directly and palpably involved Himself in the affairs of His people.
Now, the human king pushes God further away. The election of a human king is a new structure that makes direct contact with God’s people difficult. The new structure institutionalized God’s rejection.
“Samuel was displeased when they asked for a king to judge them. He prayed to the LORD, however, who said in answer: ‘Grant the people’s every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king” (1 Sam 8: 6-7).
And we know in history that Israel never had a perfect king. Even David and Solomon were not perfect. There was always something to complain about in kings the Israelites had chosen to lead them.
The readings from Mark and Samuel. Now, the Lord in Christ the King is back! Jesus immediately interacts with His people, just like the olden days! As the Son of God, He is able to perform miracles. He is indeed intimate and present because the Lord answers every plea, as the paralytic and the people in Capernaum experience God firsthand!
In our lives today, we are not devoid of kings and queens who have some form of power and control in our lives. They are incarnations of the Israelite kings who brought Israel to division and destruction, and caused permanent damage. Until today, you don’t find a unified Israel; the full unity of the Northern Kingdom (Israel or Ephraim in Scripture) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah) remains a distant dream. This prophecy holds true until today, “So Israel has been in rebellion against the house of David (Judah) to this day” (1 Kings 12:19).
You can have a president whose style seems to be a leadership by cuteness, a scheming and vengeful new boss, a toothless and directionless supervisor, and a pervading culture espousing the idea of unity as rooted in whose loyalty you subscribe to. Sometimes, we become paralyzed — there is no way but to follow against your will or else your work that feeds your family and your personal life is threatened. You just have to live with it.
The First Reading and the Gospel challenges us to look beyond these incarnations of earthly kings and human-made structures that blur our vision to see God Himself and to create a deeper and personalized relationship with Him. Transcendence allows us to marvel at God’s immense love for us in the midst of darkness.
In darkness, we just have to give to “Caesar what is Ceasar’s; and give to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17). In other words, we can just do whatever job is given us and offer our sufferings to God. But when the bell rings to mark the end of our day’s work, we nurture in the Light the life outside of our work places. We work to live the life we want for ourselves and for those who really matter to us.
We deeply realize in prayer that we can always choose to be determined by the only true King, not by any pseudo-leader who has no understanding about this “spirituality thingy.” Thus, we can choose to be free from all else.
In his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” the great philosopher, Viktor Frankl, writes about his struggle for meaning in the Auschwitz concentration camp where one can be depersonalized, morally deformed and raised bitter in life. He said that he was able to find meaning in how he lived every moment of his life there. He said that the conditions in our life, in whatever form it is, do not necessarily curtail our freedom of choice, even in severe suffering. The inner hold a prisoner has on his spiritual self relies on having a hope in the future, and once a prisoner loses that hope, unfortunately, he is doomed. Jesus heals our inner paralysis!
I used to joke about my diabetes: “At least I know I will die sweet and not bitter.” Perhaps, this is the very moment to take this joke seriously. Anyways, no human leader stays forever. Power is fleeting.
My mom was right when she gave me this tenet in 1983, “Remember Whom you serve.”
While the One whom I actually serve is alive until the end of time, the person who figured in the context of that tenet is now dead.