Thursday, 22 November 2012
Faith in Mark
"An obvious question to ask in this Year of Faith is, ‘How is the word ‘faith’ used in the New Testament?’ The Greek word for ‘faith’ is pistis and it occurs in 24 of the 27 books that make up the New Testament. In this short article, we confine ourselves to the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke; surprisingly the word is never used in the gospel of John. With two exceptions, we will ignore occurrences of the related verb, ‘I believe’ (pisteuo) which by contrast is found 98 times in John’s gospel.
The Gospel of Mark: Believe in the Gospel
We begin with our first exception, because the first words spoken by Jesus in Mark include the word ‘believe’. He writes, ‘Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God and saying, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe (pisteuo) in the gospel”’ (Mark 1:14-15). Who, we ask, responded to this appeal by displaying the faith (pistis) that Jesus demanded? Those who know Mark’s gospel, call it the ‘gospel of paradox’. The paradox here is that it is not the disciples who Jesus called by the lake (1:16-20) or on the mountain (3:13-19) who give an example of faith, but people who appear only once in Mark’s gospel and are not heard of again. Their response can speak to us in this Year of Faith.
The word ‘faith’ (pistis) occurs five times in Mark. It is applied first to the four men who brought a paralysed man to Jesus by lowering him through the roof of the house where he was. Because of their faith, Jesus forgave the sins of this man (2:5). This first use of the word reminds us that faith shows itself in action. Paul made this point when he wrote to the Galatians of, ‘faith working itself out in love’ (Galatians 5:6). And we may note that where Jesus found faith, there he announced that sins were forgiven.
The second use of this word is addressed to the disciples of Jesus. In a boat on the lake of Galilee, they ran into a storm and panicked because they thought they were about to sink. Jesus calmed the storm and said to his disciples, ‘Have you still no faith?’ (4:40). Although previously they had witnessed the power of Jesus in healing and controversy, and heard his authority in teaching, in crisis they despaired. Here, as elsewhere in Mark’s gospel, the behaviour of the disciples of Jesus offers us a warning rather than an example. Solid faith, such as the disciples were yet to acquire, enables the believer to cope with the storms we meet with in our human experience.
The third occurrence of this word ‘faith’ in Mark is addressed by Jesus to a woman whom he has just cured. Her sickness had already lasted for twelve years. Her cure came in two stages. First she sought a cure by touching Jesus, but this led only to ‘fear and trembling’. It was only after falling down before Jesus and telling him ‘the whole truth’, that she found her cure complete and Jesus said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has saved you’(5:34). From her we learn how faith can grow; it implies a personal and confident relationship with the Lord.
The word ‘faith’ occurs a fourth time in Mark in his account of the cure of Bartimaeus. He was a blind beggar who heard that Jesus was passing by. Three times he pleaded with Jesus for mercy and for the restoration of his sight. His prayer was granted and Jesus said to him, as to the woman previously, ‘Go, your faith has saved you’ (10:52). Paradoxically, Bartimaeus ignored this instruction to go; instead he followed Jesus on the way that led to Jerusalem, the city where Jesus was to die. His faith had expressed itself in repeated and persevering prayer, despite discouragement from those standing by. His example teaches us to persevere in prayer to the person of Jesus. Faith encourages the habit of regular and persistent prayer. Greek Christian tradition in particular has valued this prayer of Bartimaeus, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me’ (10:47); monks of old repeated it, as they trudged off to their work in the fields.
Finally, Jesus spoke this word ‘faith’ to his disciples when they discovered that the fig tree that he had cursed the previous day had withered. He told them to ‘have faith in God’ (11:22), and then gave them a lesson on the power of prayer. Here is Jesus’s longest instruction of prayer in this gospel since there is no ‘Lord’s prayer’ in Mark. It consists of three sayings, two of which appeal more to prophetic exaggeration than to day-to-day reality. We do not really expect our prayer to move mountains or our every prayer to be answered, but prayer is to be from the heart, is to be confident and trusting, and is to include mutual forgiveness. As in the Bartimaeus story, we recognise the link between prayer and faith.
But perhaps the most memorable paradoxical saying about faith in Mark’s gospel is spoken by another of its minor characters. The word used here is not faith (pistis) but its opposite (apistia). The father of the epileptic boy, whom the disciples of Jesus were unable to cure, cried out to Jesus and said, ‘I believe. Help my unbelief’ (9:24). This prayer is included in one of the recommended prayers for this Year of Faith:
Let me see your face,
Know your heart
and experience your love in my life.
Strengthen in me
the precious gift of faith.
I believe Lord;
Help my unbelief.