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Love Your Neighbor. Really
A Series of Controversies (Mark 2:1-3:6)

  • Mark now includes a series of controversy stories. They share a common form and are connected by a developing theme rather than by clear chronological links. The attacks against Jesus increase in volume and in their proximity to him. In the first story (2:1012), the authorities are enraged, but they say nothing (they are only “thinking to themselves” their objections, vv. 6-7). In the second (2:13-17), they raise objections but do not confront Jesus directly; instead, they question the disciples (v. 16). In the third (2:18-22) and the fourth (1:23-28), they question Jesus, but only about the behavior of the disciples (vv. 18, 24). In the fifth and final story (3:1-6) we find them watching Jesus closely, looking for some way to accuse him directly (3:2). The series reaches a shuddering apex in 3:7, where Jesus’s opponents reach a decision to destroy him.
  • The series has another kind of coherence. Note how both the opening story (2:1-12) and the closing one (3:1-6) use miracles to validate Jesus’s position in the controversy. Thus, the entire unit forms an inclusion as these two parallel one another in rhetorical strategy and theme. The closing comment in 3:6 forms a heavy ballast line, heavy enough to close the section, and the narrative immediately cuts to a summary section describing the now nearly fanatical public enthusiasm that accompanied Jesus’s mission (3:7-12).

The Form of Pronouncement Stories

  • Just as with miracle stories, controversy stories tend to fall into a definite form, a subcategory of a larger group of stories that scholars call pronouncement stories. The general structure of pronouncement stories is simple: Everything in the story leads to a short, pithy saying (or aphorism) at the end, which “controls” the author’s decisions about what to include and what to leave out—much the way a punch line controls a humorist’s decisions about what to include and what to leave out of a joke. Once the story gets to the aphorism, it quits.
  • There are several types of pronouncement stories. Biographical pronouncement stories simply introduce the aphorism with some narrative context, and the aphorism is given in response to something in the context, rather than to some event. Sometimes the aphorism comes in response to a question. If the question is placed by a disciple or follower of Jesus, the story is called a scholastic dialogue; if the question is hostile, it is a controversy dialogue.
  • In order to understand Mark’s controversy dialogues correctly, we must bear in mind three further considerations.
  • (1) Controversy stories were undoubtedly useful for the church as a way of answering challenges brought from outside. They are short, direct, and often clever; indeed, the aphorism is usually preserved because of its shrewdness or subtlety. As a result, careful attention to the finer details of their language may provide clues to the challenges that confronted the church.
  • (2) The biblical accounts leave out an important element of the stories—the effect of the dialogue on the audience. This sort of exchange is a kind of verbal duel fought before a gallery of onlookers. For a society in which one was publicly honored or shamed by one’s performance in such a duel, the gallery is not only an audience of observers; by their very presence they participate in the duel. If Jesus wins at these duels, he humiliates his opponents in the all-important arena of public opinion.
  • (3) As with all literary forms, the author’s intention can be signaled by the way in which a story deviates from the norm. For example, the two stories that form the opening and closing of the series (2:1-12; 3:1-6) mix controversy and miracle forms; the resulting stories are especially powerful reminders that when Jesus acts, he does so with special authority.

The Healing of the Paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)
A few days later, when Jesus again entered Capernaum, the people heard that he had come home. They gathered in such large numbers that there was no room left, not even outside the door, and he preached the word to them. Some men came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. Since they could not get him to Jesus because of the crowd, they made an opening in the roof above Jesus by digging through it and then lowered the mat the man was lying on. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? 10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” So he said to the man, 11 “I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home.” 12 He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

  • Mark emphasizes the connection with what precedes by repeating several of the key words that drew the story of the leper to a close (1:40-45), though this is masked somewhat in translation. The opening of the scene in 2:1-12 echoes and develops the public enthusiasm of 1:45, clouded over by a lingering sense of danger.
  • Verse 3 signals that a miracle is coming. It is important to remember that Mark’s reader is not consulting an outline or a commentary to tell him that this story opens a series of controversy stories. Chapter 1 has been packed with miracles, and this is what the reader expects here. Indeed, according to standard literary conventions, the story of the paralytic begins and ends with a perfectly formed miracle story, Nothing in the opening of the story itself even hints that there is trouble brewing. Mark takes pains to highlight the press of the crowds, a standard feature of miracle stories, presumably to provide eyewitnesses to the miracle itself. This fact provides occasion for the colorful detail that the paralytic was hauled to the roof by his friends (vv. 3-4)—an aspect that adds drama to the story. The miracle takes place, just as the reader expects, and the whole narrative closes on a note of acclamation in verse 12: “This [miracle] amazed everyone and they praised God, saying ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”
  • Into the middle of the miracle, Mark has included a controversy with some teachers of the law. On the surface of it, the miracle and the controversy are joined together only awkwardly. Mark does not tell us where these scribes came from or what they are doing in the house. The rhetorical impact of the story lies, however, not in the controversy or in the miracle, but in the powerful shifts of imagery as the reader jostles the two images together.
  • The controversy aspect of this story, therefore, intrudes an alien element into the middle of the miracle story. Teachers of the law (appearing for the first time in v. 6) are set over against the unnamed friends who lower the paralytic through the roof (v. 4a). Their objections to Jesus’s actions (vv. 8-9), unspoken though they are, stand in contrast with the actions of those friends, whose rash gesture of desperation is interpreted as an act of faith (v. 5). The religious scruples of these Jewish teachers look all the more paltry when compared to the faith of the paralytic’s friends. Why would anyone challenge someone who can perform miracles?
  • There are other significant interactions between the two parts of the story. Its impact turns on the relationship between the forgiveness of sins in verse 5 and the act of healing in verse 11. The point of connection makes Mark’s general strategy clear: Jesus’s ability to heal the man, which can be empirically demonstrated, confirms his right to forgive sins, which cannot. Thus the miracle validated Jesus’s position in the controversy.
  • The question Jesus poses (“Which is easier…”) is a trick question, with a number of implications. He does not ask what is easier to do, but only what is easier to say. The teachers of the law have supposed that Jesus’s act of pronouncing forgiveness is blasphemy since it usurps the authority of God (v. 7). From their perspective, Jesus is not only speaking empty words, easy to utter and impossible to perform, but offensive words, words that should never be uttered. His words usurp the authority of God. But as the miracle shows, Jesus’s word does have authority, which brings the matter back to verse 2: “He preached the word to them.” The miracle, in other words, confirms the power and authenticity of Jesus’s words.
  • The fact that through the miracle the teachers of the law are silenced is also significant. It establishes a sharp contrast between Jesus and his antagonists, a contrast that deepens as the controversy stories progress. But this silencing has ominous consequences. They are momentarily removed from the plot, but they will not be gone long; when they return, they will return with a vengeance.

  • What obstacles are keeping you from bringing your neighbors to Jesus, and what would it take to overcome them?
  • Who do you need to bring boldly before Christ to help lead him or her to forgiveness and reconciliation?
  • How can you witness to how Christ has transformed your life?
  • When have you loved a neighbor in a way that would be pleasing to Christ?

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