The reflection below on Mark 16:15-20 was offered by Jonathan Gradess a few weeks ago.
A short time ago I was with friends worshipping on a Sunday morning and we were reading together Mark 16:15-20 which among other things states:
Then Jesus told them, “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation.
“The one who believes it and is baptized will be saved, the one who refuses to believe it will be condemned. Signs such as these will accompany those who have professed their faith: In my name they will expel demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will be able to handle poisonous snakes; if they drink anything deadly, it will not harm them, and the sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover.”
I had struggled with some of the words in the reading but shared the following thoughts that I had come to in resolving my concerns.
“In my name they will expel demons”
We are called as followers of Jesus to be kind and gentle with those who are troubled. Each of us faces demons whether the demon be fear, or brokenness, insecurity or drug abuse, selfishness or ego or whatever else. Our love toward others is the way these “demons” are “expelled” (removed) every day from those we encounter with love.
“They will speak in new tongues”
We have learned a new way of being and a new way to express ourselves. In the language of love we guard against harsh and unforgiving words. We speak with authority about the law of love and we use words which comfort and uplift, words which include and tolerate; words which Jesus would have used with a prostitute, or a Centurion, a tax collector, or, ultimately, an earthly accuser.
“They will be able to handle poisonous snakes”
Notwithstanding the Appalachian churches that take this injunction literally, I rather think we have all learned its meaning in our lives in a different way. There are public officials and other powerful people who attack and oppress others, who act as “poisonous snakes,” pouring forth acrimonious venom in public, and threatening, frightening, and condemning people. We have learned to confront them in the name of social justice and peace, to speak truth to their power, to defy and oppose them in ways consistent with our love for the way of Jesus.
“If they drink anything deadly, it will not harm them”
We have been taught from our mother’s knee to not speak words of hate, but rather to swallow them. We have bitten our tongue rather than send forth animosity into the world. Cruel and deadly hate-filled words have been swallowed rather than spoken and we have not been harmed from drinking them. Rather we have been closer to Christ in holding back what otherwise might have been a hateful expression or tirade.
“The sick upon whom they lay their hands will recover.”
There is all kind of sickness in the world. People are heartsick, homesick, lonely, and diseased. Kindness, love, accompaniment, presence, and compassion are the tools we bring when we “lay our hands” upon these who are sick. Recovery is not always the same as cure, but easing pain always aids in recovery.
For me it always helps to remember Jesus was Jewish. In Judaism, biblical text is aided by “midrash” a technique to fill in the gaps through homily or parable to make a particular text compatible with its underlying ethical principles and to tease out the latent meaning of words that might otherwise, given that ethical teaching, leave us unsettled.
Judith Plaskow writes, as if speaking directly to these verses,
[I]n the realm of Jewish religious expression, invention is permitted and even encouraged. Midrash is not a violation of historical canons but an enactment of commitment to the fruitfulness and relevance of biblical texts. It is partly through midrash that the inscription or document, potentially integrable into memory but still on the periphery, is transformed into narrative the religious ear can hear.
Searching for meaning that allows our religious ears to hear is an important part of our own growth in faith and love.
Jonathan E. Gradess
June 10, 2018