The National Catholic Review
After the stories about the cures of gentiles and the feeding of gentiles, Mark has Jesus return to Israel and Galilee by boat. Jesus’ sudden remark, that his disciples must guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod, is totally misunderstood by Jesus’ companions. They think he is subtly concerned with bread, and they have provided only one loaf for the crossing; they fail to see that ’leaven’ does not here pertain to bread, but to the pretenses of Pharisees and Herod Antipas to be dedicated to God, each in his own way, but in reality "unclean within", as Luke would say. Herod is hypocritical when, apparently supportive of Judaism, flaunted his divorce and new marriage to Herodias which, as John the Baptist pointed out, defied the will of the God of Israel. The Pharisees, who speak for God, are hypocritical in their denial to gentiles what they think God should make possible only for Israel. Jesus clearly thinks his disciple should understand his references to Pharisees and Herod; they do not. We are at a strategic point in Mark’s Gospel. The disciples have witnessed almost 8 chapters of Jesus’ life; one would think they would have learned what is at stake in these events which are wonderful in themselves, but severely challenged by much of Jewish leadership, and they should have understood in particular that ’leaven’ does not refer to normal bread, something that Jesus so recently had shown that he can provide in abundance. When will they ever understand!?! With seven Jesus questions Jesus criticizes the inability of his disciples to understand himself and his works. The story closes with the final question, "Do you still not understand?" This focus on understanding Jesus should seem a past concern for a Christian of some 40 years after the life of Christ; the Christian already understands much about the Jesus in whose name he has been baptized. Yet, there is something which Mark thinks his reader does not understand well, and so is like in a way these disciples who in their turn failed to understand Jesus. Indeed it is to make clear what the reader does not understand fully that leads Mark to write his Gospel. These first 8 chapters have had, as a major purpose, the grounding for understanding Mark wants the reader to have. It is ’spiritual blindness or understanding’ that is at stake in the telling of the cure of the blind man of Bethsaida. Certainly, the manifestation of power cannot be underplayed, but the double effort of Jesus to cure suggests the effort, not of curing physical blindness, but of bringing disciples to understand Jesus and the plan of God for Jesus. Now, Mark feels, is the right moment to have Jesus ask, "Who do people say I am?" Certainly, the basis of the people’s judgment is known only through the first 8 chapters of the Gospel, and so Mark is really asking what do my first 8 chapters of Jesus public life say he is? Thus, the reader is in a position to appreciate the correctness and incorrectness of the people’s responses. Their answers boil down to ’prophet’. John and Elijah certainly spoke on behalf of God, as did all prophets; Elijah was involved in miraculous cures as well (though by comparison of stories, he is not the equal of Jesus). Is it enough to say ’prophet’? Is Jesus more than ’prophet’? The Christian believer knows it is not enough. Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do you say I am?" And this is the question Mark puts to his reader, "Who do you say I am?" The answer: Messiah. Yes, Messiah, but what does that title really mean? What history says it means, or what Jesus understands it to mean? What will the disciple say? What precisely does Messiah mean? John Kilgallen, S.J.