The Incomparable

Mark has now reached the point, in my reading, where the conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities is escalating. Every page, it seems, alludes to the fact that the authorities are plotting to kill Him, and would do it immediately, except that the people would revolt against such an action.

So, like theives, they will wait for the night.

In the meantime, they continue to confront Christ about His teaching and actions. He drives the money changers out of the Temple and they want to know by what authority He has done this; they try to trap Him on the subject of paying taxes, and the resurrection; ultimately, they are incensed and furious that He would liken Himself to God and declare that they, far from appearances, have denied the Lord in their hearts.

All of this from under the shadow of the cross, within days of a torturous death.

On a purely human level, I am amazed at the way He keeps His cool. How can He think of that response to the Pharisees and Herodians – “Pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” – knowing that they are bringing about His death? He may not make a single misstep in teaching or action, though they challenge him a thousand times in a hundred different ways.

How does He, with simplicity and elegance, craft a question for them – Was John’s baptism of God, or not? – or a parable – The parable of the vine-growers (Mark 12:1-12) – which so poignantly illuminates the tragedy of the high priests and the scribes, and their failure to be servants rather than to be those who are served?

I’m not as well-read as I’d like to be. In my humble reading, I’ve encountered the towering language of Dostoevsky and the subversive scalpel of Nietzsche’s thought. I’ve read Descarte thinking himself into existence and Plato building the incredible monument of philosophy one Socratic phrase at a time. Sun Tzu has shown me the secrets of war, and Simone Weil the tumbling depths of self-mortification. There are many others, brilliant lights, whose names I have not even heard of.

Even in the humble language of Mark, there is no one who compares with Jesus. Don’t think you’re hearing a cliche. I’ll spell out my reasons for saying so.

No one brings about such honesty which is completely devoid of self-pity. No one declares that his death is coming, by whom and what their method will be, who will betray him, and yet walks straight toward it without arming himself. No one – come on now – no one declares this, and immediately adds that he will rise again three days later.

No one demonstrates such cleverness – indeed, Jesus is shrewd as a serpent – in his defense of the lowly and his testimony to God. No one lives with such density of purpose that not only his words, but also his actions and context are declaring his mission at every moment. No one can be that deliberate, as though they built the stage and set the scene themselves, without the slightest hint of heavy-handedness.

No one operates within such a radius as that and fundamentally shapes the course of history. No one convinces people, centuries after his death, that it is good and worthy to give their lives in his name, whether by devotion or martyrdom.

Then there are the miracles to consider, and the complete self-forgetfulness in favor of serving others, even to death. That’s coming up next.

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