|Today the Gospels are very rarely read in their entirety, from beginning to end. Laypeople choose a short passage for their daily devotional reading, while pastors do the same for their sermons or instruction. All the Gospels, however, were not intended, in the first place, to be read in such a fashion. Each has its own ‘plot’ or ‘story line’ that invites reading from beginning to end. Students enrolled in the New Testament Foundations I (NT101) course are asked to read each Gospel at one sitting or two, and write a personal reflection on what God is saying to them and to the church today. It is my pleasure to share with our readers some of these, which are touching, encouraging, challenging and food for thought. (Dr Aquila Lee)
The Gospel of Mark and the Misunderstood Jesus
In my reading I reflected on the interaction between Jesus and others. Mark narrated many exchanges and debates between Jesus and three key groups of people: the religious establishment, the crowd and the disciples. One theme that surfaces in these interactions was how Jesus was profoundly misunderstood by practically all of these groups.
He was misunderstood, firstly, by the religious establishment, particularly the Pharisees and the scribes. From the beginning their positions seemed set on a collision course. Mark arranged a series of antithetical juxtapositions in the beginning chapters to highlight their opposite standpoints. This is ironic as the Pharisees were supposed to be most sympathetic to Jesus’ position.
Secondly, He was misunderstood by the masses He had spent His time ministering to. This included His family, who once went out to seize Him, thinking He was out of His mind (3:21). The people in His hometown, Nazareth, also took offense at Him and rejected Him (6:2-3). The mob even mocked Him at the cross (15:29-30).
Thirdly, even His disciples, who should be closest to Him and knew Him best, also misunderstood Him. Jesus’ frustration over their lack of understanding was plain and obvious (8:14-21). Even Peter, who correctly recognised Him as the Christ, failed to understand the real purpose of His mission (8:29; 32). All abandoned Him in the end.
It struck me that Mark did not depict Jesus’ life and ministry as a success story, with all these ‘misunderstandings’ surrounding Him. Mark seemed to emphasise just how profoundly alone Jesus was. To be misunderstood by my enemies is understandable; to be misunderstood by the very people I am called to serve is quite different altogether; to be misunderstood by my own co-workers and comrades who should have understood me is tragic. How could Jesus have bore this agony alone?
I believed that the one thing that held Him together through His lonely ministry was the assurance of the Father at His baptism, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). If the whole world misunderstood Jesus, His Father did not. Nothing else could have sustained Him through His misunderstood journey to His crucifixion. But what about His cry on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (15:34)? Theologically I can understand that this was not literally the case, but emotionally I could not help but sympathise with the Lord Jesus.
Thus I read the Gospel of Mark with a heavy heart: I often want to serve “under recognition”, and seek comfort in being understood by people; if not those I serve, then at least those I serve alongside with. But if being understood by the world was something that was denied Jesus (or that He denied), then why should I expect this for myself? Can I bear this loneliness by trusting that He knows it and He knows me, and that by knowing that He understood me is more than enough?
When I first read the Gospel of Mark after my conversion, I was overwhelmed by the verses: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (8:34-35). I pondered over it many times seeking to know what it meant for my whole being as I started out a new life in the Lord. I expressed my surrender to Him numerous times in prayers waiting upon His leading. Many years since, having travelled a striving and trying spiritual journey, the encounter with the verses now chastises my heart of its weariness and coldness that I have almost forgotten. I hear the call again but feel the weakness of the flesh. Lord, touch me with your mercy, I await your power to put breath in me, and I will come to life again (Ezek. 37:5-6).
The reading brought also my attention to the responses of the 12 disciples to Jesus and His mission on earth. Most of the time the disciples exhibited their ignorance and struggled to reckon who Jesus truly was while following Him. Having witnessed and experienced first-hand much of Jesus’ miraculous works, they were filled with awe and amazement, but were still not very much enlightened. Their enthusiasm for Him arose from private agenda or intrigued spirit but was yet of true devotion. “Who was the first” (9:33-35) among them seemed to be one of their main concerns and it constituted aspects of their relational dynamics. Puzzled, distracted, dull-minded, rather than illuminated were the state of their hearts though they immersed daily with Jesus and caught glimpses of Him as the Messiah, the promised One. Who could fault them on their state of mind and heart? We would respond and act the same manner the disciples did!
However we know that after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples’ lives were completely transformed. Sadly the problems in the church today often resemble the behaviours of the 12 disciples before Jesus’ resurrection. Though the church exists on the foundation of the risen Christ, many a times we live and serve very much like the way the disciples did before His death and resurrection. The struggles for power, recognition, self-glory; worse, building each own ‘kingdom’ in the name of God’s glory are very much alive in the undercurrent of church life or Christian ministry, usually the bigger in number, more institutionalised and sophisticated a church or ministry has become. Under the guise of serving God, we are unaware of our self-centred and evil motivations. This certainly calls for sanctification of our hearts, where the Kingdom of God resides. Perhaps it is because we have neglected or even lost the emphasis on the matters of the heart in our teachings, lives and service. “All a man’s ways seem right to him, but the Lord weighs the heart” (Prov. 21:2). Lord, have your ways in us!