Beck on the Time of Rising Action in Mark’s Gospel

Excerpt from Robert R. Beck’s Nonviolent Story: Narrative Conflict Resolution in the Gospel of Mark, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996, pages 56-57.

Recapitulation: The Time of Rising Action in Mark’s Gospel

Once we realize that Mark’s plot is shaped to describe a time of rising action followed by a time of falling action, we can better appreciate how the Gospel presents Jesus as entering into conflict in a deliberate, purposeful way. If Jesus is nonviolent, he is not passively so. His nonviolence is one of active resistance. The opening “week” of activity sets an intense level of confrontation, as it moves from the initial healing actions by Jesus to the antagonistic responses of his opponents, disputing his actions. In the episode of the cure of the withered hand at 3:1-6 the narrative arrives at its first crisis, as Jesus’ opponents conspire to “destroy” him. With this conspiracy and Jesus’ response to it, the rising action is off and running. When Jesus and his party finally reach the temple, the violent language of destruction recurs (11:18), and the promise engendered by the first crisis finds fulfillment in the main crisis and climax of the plot.

As the occasion for the initial crisis in the rising action, the story of the man with the paralyzed hand gives us an entry point into the meaning of conflict in Mark’s Gospel. The story introduces language for the final crisis in Jerusalem. By situating the episode on the Sabbath and in the synagogue, God’s time and place, the narrative has Jesus asking what it is that God would want. What kind of activity would God desire to occur on this privileged time, in this dedicated place? What kind of activity in fact best characterizes God? What worship?

Jesus’ opponents prefer a species of worship uncluttered by concerns for suffering humans. They experience no contradiction between their passion for pure worship and their indifference to human pain. Presumably God, in their view, shares the same outlook. The God who is not troubled by the suffering of others conceivably might even require it. The enemies of Jesus, here called Herodians and Pharisees, may have room in their theology for a God who would require someone to suffer and die. But this is not Jesus’ God. Events confirm this later in Jerusalem, during the debate about the Great Commandment following upon the temple incident, including the scribe’s comment on worship (12:33).

Nor is this harsh God the God of Mark. At his baptism, despite what we tend to suspect, Jesus is not given a divine mandate to march to his death. In this narrative God does not demand the death of Jesus. That demand is the determined policy of his opponents, who do not share his faith in the God of possibility but in fact are characterized as in league with the demonic. (1) The story of the withered hand, which expressly poses the questions of life and death (3:4), shows us clearly that the God for whom Jesus is advocate favors life. Jesus’ God in this Gospel is assertively and polemically against death in all its guises and is for life in its fullness — for restoring the disabled man to full ability. Jesus and his opponents vote by their actions: life and death. Jesus renews the man; his opponents decide to destroy Jesus (3:6). Here in the first crisis of the unfolding narrative, the lines are drawn. From this way station the road leads to Jerusalem, as each side acts out the terms of its faith convictions.

Why then does Jesus go to Jerusalem? Not to step out a divinely pre-scripted ritual unto death. True, he goes in response to a mandate from God. But this mandate is not that Jesus die but instead that he struggle to overcome those who promote death, who cultivate its structures, whose allegiance to it is seen in their willingness to kill when to their advantage. Jesus is liquidated by the lieutenants of death, but they do not, this narrative asserts, prevail. And so, when we imagine that the baptismal mandate of Jesus demands his death and requires him to march as if in procession upon Jerusalem in order to die there, we must understand we work against the grain of the Gospel.

1. See 1:24 as the text parallel to 3:6; also see 3:22-30.

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