Sunday, January 24, 2010

Picture the Scene

When I try to imagine the scene of this past Saturday’s gospel selection for mass, I can’t help but raise my eyebrows and ask, “What the heck was going on?”

Jesus had just selected his twelve apostles and returned to his home. “The crowd came together again,” Mark tells us, “so that they could not even eat.” (Mk 3:20). I can picture the crowd pressing in upon him, seeking to be cured of their diseases. A few verses earlier, just before he picked his apostles, Mark related how Jesus “told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him.” (Mk 3:9) Perhaps the crowd was getting out of hand, maybe even on the verge of a violent riot.

The unruliness of the crowd did not go unnoticed. “And when his friends heard it, the went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” (Mk 3:21) The crowd was large enough and loud enough to attract the attention of the friends of Jesus. It’s not clear to me whether these “friends” were apostles, disciples, or friendly acquaintances. Later, Mark will specifically mention his mother and brethren (Mk 3:31), so these are probably not they.

Those attempting to intercede appear to be concerned not about the state of the crowd, but about the state of Our Lord. “He is beside himself.” This is where my eyebrows start going up. With the crowd pressing in, what was Jesus’ behavior, evoking the concern of his friends? When we say that someone is beside himself, we typically mean that the person is in a highly emotional state. This is a stark contrast to my usual image of Jesus as a man firmly in control of his emotions. I can picture his anger at the money changers in the temple or at the Pharisees, and I can picture his sorrow at the death of Lazarus or the impending doom of Jerusalem. Even in these moments of emotion, however, I never imagine Christ as “beside himself.” What was going on here?

The gospel passage read at mass stops here. For Mark, though, this is only the beginning of the paragraph. What happens in the next verse is directly related to the two preceding verses: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out demons.’” (Mk 3:22) My eyebrows are now fully raised.

What caused the scribes to reach this conclusion? Was it the behavior of the crowd? Was it the apparent mental state of Jesus? Was it the actions of his friends? Was it a combination of the three? I really don’t know how to picture the scene!

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