They Watched Him

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March 15, 2015

They Watched Him

Passage: Mark 3:1–6, 20–21, 31–35

The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.   —Mark 3:5


If you’ve been paying attention the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed that the prevailing religious establishment in first-century Galilee doesn’t like Jesus very much, and, of course the feeling is mutual. This story of Jesus in the synagogue is fairly early in Mark’s brief Jesus biography, and this is already the fifth time that Jesus has tangled with the Pharisees. This story is the fifth of five consecutive narratives which have become known collectively as “Controversies with the Pharisees.”

One Saturday, presumably like every other Sabbath in his short existence, Jesus goes to synagogue, presumably as a member of the congregation rather than as the presiding rabbi for the day, and Mark tells us that in the synagogue that day with Jesus is a man with a “withered hand.”

That’s all Mark tells us. Perhaps his limb was crushed in an agricultural accident, or perhaps he’d suffered a stroke which left him half-paralyzed, with his right arm hanging limp and loose and lame at his side.

Mark also tells us that “They watched him.” The antecedent referent of the plural pronoun ‘They’ is actually a ways back in the narrative, but there’s no mystery who ‘They’ are: ‘They’ are the Pharisees, the respected religious authorities of the day—the vestry, the session, the trustees, the deacons, the seminary professors. “They watched him to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.”

And Jesus knows they’re watching him. So look what happens next. Jesus deliberately provokes this confrontation. He calls the man with the paralyzed hand front and center and turns to his antagonists and says, provocatively, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to heal or to kill?” This shuts them up—for a moment at least; they have nothing to say. And Mark tells us that Jesus is angry. This is one of only two places in the Gospel where Mark tells us that Jesus is seething.

So Jesus tells the man to stretch out his withered hand, and instantly it is whole and well. Jesus heals this man’s lame and lifeless limb not out of kindness or compassion but out of anger. And Mark tells us that the Pharisees immediately went out and conspired to destroy him. This all happens in the third chapter of Mark’s terse Jesus Biography, in the first few days of his short public ministry. Jesus’ grisly end is already lurking in his first beginnings like a sleeping but emergent malignancy. It’s a great story for us to think about on the fourth Sunday of Lent: two weeks from Good Friday.

This miracle is less a kindness than an agenda. Jesus brings the whole mess upon himself, with clear and deliberate intent, and he does it because he knows why he has come, he knows why he is here; he has come to prove a point, and the point is that the religion he was born to and raised in and loves more than life itself has become twisted by upended priorities into an ugly caricature of its own lovely origins, and sometimes the only way to make a point so clear nobody can miss it is to sacrifice yourself on the sinister altar of towering error.

It happens so quickly we don’t have a chance to stop it, or so gradually it’s invisible to the casual eye: religion—and human institutions of all kinds, like Penn State, or Syracuse University—become their own raison d’etre. Institutions forget why they exist and metastasize instead into dire pathologies. Institutions begin to value their own survival over the individuals they were created to serve. Institutions put rules, regulations, and rituals above health, haleness, and wholeness.

This synagogue in Mark’s story is a good example: they have let religious regulation trump human well-being. Religious regulation is a good thing: it’s good to keep the Sabbath Day holy, but not if it gets in the way of human health. The Sabbath was made for people and not people for the Sabbath, as Jesus himself famously put it on another occasion. These scribes and Pharisees are as tone deaf to the music of human community and as blind to their own common humanity as Beauton Gilpow and those sophomoric frat boys from the University of Oklahoma.

Universities and Churches are as guilty as the synagogue in Mark’s little story. A few years ago in Brazil, a young woman, 15 weeks pregnant, went to an abortion clinic to see if she would qualify to receive the procedure. In Brazil, abortion is legal only after rape, or if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. After much back and forth wrangling, the doctors finally decided that she qualified on both counts, and she received an abortion.

Did I say she was a young woman? I misled you. She was nine years old, not yet four feet tall, and weighed 79 pounds. She’d been raped by her stepfather, and she was carrying twins.

When Archbishop José Cardoso Sobrinho heard about the abortion, he instantly excommunicated the doctors who performed the abortion and the nine-year-old’s mother for allowing it. The stepfather, who’d been having sex with his stepdaughter for many months, is still a member in good standing in the Roman Catholic Church.

When the doctors told the Archbishop that the girl’s hips were too immature to deliver a baby, much less twins, the Archbishop said, “She could have had a cesarean section.”

“Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God,” someone once said, “Jesus came announcing the kingdom of God, but what appeared was the Church.”[1] Yes? The Church.   That’s not quite what we were hoping for. We need the Church; we need our institutions, our bureaucracies, our rules, regulations, and rituals, our traditions, our organized communities; they’re the only way we can do any meaningful earthly good.

But without vigilance, religion ossifies and becomes arthritic, sclerotic, and bureaucratic. Religion gets moribund, mean, and mediocre and loses sight of the least, the last, the lost, the loser, the lame, and the leper, whom Jesus thought were worth our complete attention.

I got a pleasant phone call at the office this week. My friend Keith called me and said, “Let’s go to a show at Ravinia this summer.” I said, “Sure. What do you want to see?” He said, “You choose. The Ravinia schedule just went up online. What’s your first choice? Anything you want.”

Well, now, that’s an offer you can’t refuse, and I consulted the schedule and there’s one of my favorites of all time: George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is coming to town this summer. A couple of years ago Porgy and Bess came to Broadway; my wife gave me two tickets for my birthday, maybe the best birthday present she ever gave me. Audra McDonald was playing Bess. Do you know who Audra McDonald is? She might be the most beautiful and talented woman on the American stage just now; she’s won six Tony Awards, more than anyone in history, including one for playing Bess.

Those of you who know this Gershwin opera will remember the song “Oh, Doctor Jesus.” The pious Serena sings this song for Bess, who is broken and feverish and near death after her encounter with the brutal man named Crown, her former lover. It was almost like an exegesis of the story I read a few moments ago:

Oh, doctor Jesus,
who done trouble the water in the Sea of Galilee.
And likewise who done cast the devils
out of the afflicted time and time again.
Oh, doctor Jesus,
what make you ain`t lay your hand
on this poor sister head?
And chase the devil out of her down a steep place
into the sea like you used to do time and time again.
Lift this poor cripple up out of the dusk.

Lift this poor cripple up out of the dusk. Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, but, sometimes, what appears is…the Kingdom of God. Porgy and Bess premiered in Boston and then on Broadway in September of 1935. Howard University Professor Todd Duncan debuted as Porgy, and Ann Brown played the role of Bess. Ann Brown was the first black voice student at Juilliard. The Metropolitan Opera would not have a black soprano for another 20 years: Marian Anderson, 1955.

Did you know that the original name of Porgy and Bess was just Porgy? Bess had been a fairly minor role in the opera until George Gershwin heard Anne Brown sing. When George Gershwin heard Anne Brown sing, he significantly expanded the part of Bess, and Porgy became Porgy and Bess.

George wrote a lot of the score with Anne sitting with him at the piano singing the songs. George Gershwin, by the way, died of a brain tumor in 1937, a year after Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway. He was 38 years old. Anne Brown was the only Bess he ever heard.

In the spring of 1936, Porgy and Bess toured in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Pittsburgh, fairly black cities even then, and then went on to the National Theater in Washington, D. C. When Todd Duncan (Porgy) learned that black patrons were excluded from productions at the National Theater, he refused to perform.

The National Theater offered a compromise: black patrons could attend the Wednesday and Saturday matinees. This did not satisfy Porgy, so he continued his strike. The Theater came back with another offer: black patrons would be offered seating at all performances—in the second balcony. Porgy still refused to shuffle his crippled way across the stage.

So the Theater finally caved, and the National Theater in the National Capital was integrated for the first time. Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, and, sometimes, what appears is…the Kingdom of God. Because of these black pioneers with their stunning voices and their inimitable dialects. Because of George and Ira Gershwin, these Jews, these Russian Jews from the Lower East Side, pounding out their uniquely American tunes on cheap pianos in Tin Pan Alley.

Ira Gershwin was born in 1896; the name on his birth certificate was Israel. George Gershwin was born two years later; his name was originally Jacob; they changed their names to cloak their Jewishness. George visited Folly Island off the coast of Charleston to research the Gullah sub-culture for his proposed musical, and when for the first time he arrived at this strange place where all the Porgy’s and Bess’s and Crown’s and Sportin’ Life’s lived, George said it was like coming home for the first time. Here’s some homework: go see Porgy and Bess at Ravinia this summer.

Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God, and sometimes what appears is…the Kingdom of God.

Moribund, mean, and mediocre much of the time, religion is an easy target. We’ll always have the Pharisees to pick on. But what about Mother Mary? Mercifully, Mark lets the Pharisees off the hook—a little bit—by going next to another story of utter and absolute cluelessness.   Jesus’ life is so odd and so hard and so incomprehensible, and so extra-terrestrial, even, that not even his family gets him.

Jesus keeps talking about unclean spirits and demons and devils and the underworld. He not only talks about them; he talks to them, and they talk back. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” a demon shouts at Jesus in Mark’s first miracle story. “Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, Holy One of God.” And Jesus shouts right back, “Shut up and be gone,” he bluntly commands. Jesus has this intimate concourse with the dark spirits of the underworld; it is antagonistic, to be sure, but it is also intimate.

And so people begin to whisper under their breath, “he has gone out of his mind,” and then among the common folk of Galilee the whispers become louder and more confident, and so Mother Mary holds a confab with Jesus’ brothers, and she says, “This just will not do. We’ve got to do something about your eccentric brother.”

Her purpose, I suspect, was a mix of genuine, motherly concern for his mental health and professional future, but also of a somewhat smaller anxiety over the family’s reputation.

And so you know what they do—Mother Mary and Jesus’ brothers? They organize one of these “interventions.” Have you ever been part of one of these familial ambushes of an addicted or alcoholic relative? Everybody gathers surreptitiously at an arranged location and the unsuspecting victim wanders in without knowing why everybody is there and they all say, “You’re drinking too much and you’re going to die or hurt someone so we’ve booked you a flight to Minnesota and a room for 30 days at Hazelden Rehab Center.”

That’s what Mother Mary and her family do for Jesus. “Jesus, you’re acting irrationally; we’re here to help.” Jesus, of course, foils their intervention and goes on with his unconventional business.

When the whole world misunderstands you, you can always count on your family, right? It ain’t necessarily so. George Burns once said, “Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family…in another city.” Yes? Anybody here relate to that? Don’t answer that.

You know, we’re so used to planning our families, and we can come close to choosing our families. The other day four-year-old Bobby, a student in our Nursery School, comes up to Jill Witt, our Nursery School Director, all excited, and he says, “Mrs. Witt, guess what?” “What Bobby?” says Mrs. Witt. Bobbie says “Last night? I snuck out of bed? And I was listening to Mom and Dad talking? And you know what, Mrs. Witt? We’re going to have a new baby!” “Oh, Bobby,” says Mrs. Witt, “that’s so wonderful. Are you excited about the new baby?” “Yes, I am,” says Bobby. “If it’s a girl, we’re going to call her Christina. And if it’s another boy, we’re going to call it Quits.”[2]

But in the Holy Family, there was no such thing as pre-planning. Mother Mary and Son Jesus didn’t have that luxury. They were thrust upon each other by the inscrutable will of God. Predictably, you might ask: how could St. Mary possibly misunderstand her unusual son so thoroughly? And that would be an excellent question.   But that’s just the thing: in this Gospel, in Mark’s Gospel, there is no such thing as St. Mary. In this Gospel, there is no Virgin Birth. Mother Mary is not a virgin in this Gospel; she’s just a normal Palestinian peasant girl who has her baby in the usual, earthy, carnal way, like the rest of us.

There is no visit from the Angel Gabriel telling Mary that the child within her is of the Holy Ghost. There are no adoring shepherds kneeling at the manger. There isn’t even a manger.

There are no worshipful Wise Men bringing royal gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Baby King. Jesus in this Gospel is just an ordinary carpenter’s son who grows up in the usual way, with no forewarning of his extraordinary origin or destiny.

In the other three Gospels, Mary truly is a saint. She is a virgin, she is the first disciple, and she is always there when he needs her. But in this Gospel, he is her dearest but also most cryptic mystery. She has to figure him out just like everybody else.

But why would we think it would be easy? There had never been anyone like him in the history of the world, and there will never be another. He is not from here. He crossed vast spans of nothingness in the far reaches of intergalactic space to love us into loveliness and to grace us into gracefulness.   It is not easy, but it is imperative. So follow him. Follow him anyway.

And if you do, maybe it will happen for you the way it happened to the fine writer Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, who says,

I see him everywhere. For me, he has gotten into everything. I see him in the timely unaffected gestures of friendship and in the unruly passions of human love; I see him in the face of a doctor who unexpectedly entered my life at a time when I thought I had no more life left. I saw him once and will see him forever in a dead teacher of mine, who rescued my injured spirit. I see him in my daughter’s merry eyes and in the merry play of her mind; I see him in my son’s hands, the hands of a painter who loves the given world. I try to see him in the poor. I make no claim to living a good life. I only know that I would live a worse life without him. And I would always be lonely.[3]


            [1]Wilhelm Dilthey, quoted by Richard John Neuhaus in The Naked Public Square (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 19184), p. 168

            [2]You probably guessed that this story never happened. It is from George Vander Weit, “Punch Lines,” The Banner, August 12, 2012.

            [3]Slightly adapted from Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “Alone in a Lofty Place,” The New York Times Magazine, December 7, 1997, p. 73.