Often, when directing parish missions, I will give a talk on “vision” or “seeing through God’s eyes”… it’s an invitation to stretch our imaginations. A major part of this conference might fall under the umbrella of hermeneutics, i.e., the proper interpretation of sacred scripture. As the believer becomes more familiar with God’s Word, one realizes that the Bible cannot be taken literally or fundamentally. (The Bible is not a science or history book.) Jesus doesn’t want you to pluck out your eye if it is a source of temptation; nor should you be severing your hand when the devil is prowling around like a roaring lion! Today’s Gospel on the Feast of Saint Mark offers yet another series of challenges: clearly Jesus is not suggesting that we brazenly handle serpents or drink poison, however.
But our Gospel begins with a subtler dilemma. The resurrected Christ concludes his ministry by instructing his disciples, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 15) remember when he told the Syro-Phoenician woman, a desperate Mom, “My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? It seems that Jesus has altered his targeted audience; initially he was limiting his attention to the Jews, now the poles of the tent have been stretched to include all people.
I reverence these conundrums, even the paradoxes in scripture. For example, the rich young man (Mark 10) departs from Jesus saddened because he was unable or unwilling to respond to Jesus mandate to sell everything, giving the money to the poor, and following Jesus. Zacchaeus (Luke 19), on the other hand, finds fulfillment in downsizing by only half his possessions!
How do we deal with these challenges from Jesus? I smile at the anecdote around the cleansing of the temple. Jesus curses a fig tree (Mark 11) because he wanted fruit and none was available; but Mark tells us it wasn’t even fig season! Either Jesus is having a very bad day, or we are invited deeper into the mystery of God’s Word.
As we ponder the gift of the evangelist Mark today, I ask for the grace to read between the lines, to not limit God’s Word to my puny imagination or narrow mind. And maybe I can commit to further Bible study. Hermeneutics.
Fr. Jack Conley, C.P. is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.