Faith in the Public Square – Invitation or Threat?

In the public square, demeanour matters. Consider this text from Mark’s Gospel.

Mark 6:53    When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret and anchored there. 54 As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. 55 They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56 And wherever he went—into villages, towns or countryside—they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched it were healed.

Mark 7:1    The Pharisees and some of the teachers of the law who had come from Jerusalem gathered around Jesus 2 and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. 3 (The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the elders. 4 When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles. )

This section of Mark is about ritual purity and about how impurity is communicated. I want to open a selection of posts with a consideration of the public square.

At the end of chapter six we see Jesus going into the marketplace and by his presence he heals. In my mind I imagine watching the scene unfold from the flat roof of a home bordering this particular marketplace. For some reason, in my head, it’s happening at dusk, and this public square is jammed with people. The air is humid and filled with the moans of the sick the the pleading of their friends and family.

I imagine it might be hard to see Jesus in the press of bodies until you notice a trail of laughter left behind him as he moves. This joy is occasioned by those who have been healed. Jesus moves in a  random pattern, zigging and zagging through the crowd, many of whom try to drag him in the direction of their loved one. It’s an extraordinary scene. Everyone who touches him is healed.

And that’s significant. This is not Jesus’ healing touch. This is mere proximity to him, the mere brush of his cloak has healing power. They struggle to get near to him, they implore him to pass nearby. And when they touch his cloak they find healing and restoration. Jesus could be utterly unaware that he has been touched, and yet healing happens. The intent here is not on Jesus part, but on those who reach out.

And so, in my imagination, as the light leaves the day, the sound of pain is replaced by cries of elation. It’s an extraordinary scene viewed from the top of that building.

The opening of chapter seven is another picture altogether. It begins with the comment that the Pharisees come from the marketplace and fear that they have been contaminated by the presence of those who were there. I imagine it being the same marketplace, and I have enjoyed watching them trying to negotiate their way through somewhat smaller crowds.

I think the direction of travel is significant here. The Pharisees are coming from the square, whereas Jesus is going into it. That’s a clue that their actions in the marketplace are somewhat contrasting.

I’ve heard it said that some Pharisees used to carry sticks into public places to keep the unclean away. They would literally poke them out of their path. In my imagination they enter this square in defensive mode. I see them plotting a through route, avoiding as many people as possible, maybe standing back to back, using their sticks to make a cordon sanitaire around themselves. It means they’re easy to see from my roof. The cries I hear are the shouts of those who are struck, and the threats of the religious leaders warning them to get out of the way.

Nevertheless, when they get out of that square (and for them I imagine it can’t happen quickly enough), they still wash. Just as Jesus healing power is transferred by proximity down through his cloak, perhaps defilement travels in a similar way, up along their sticks. Or maybe mere proximity to the unclean can cause corruption. So best to get out of there quickly, maintain the barriers, and wash. Just. In. Case.

Thus in the break between these two chapters we are presented with two contrasting ways of being in the public square. Fascinating isn’t it?

One way of being is confident and assured that mere presence and proximity can bring healing. The other is defensive and fearful that proximity brings inevitable pollution. The one way of being enters the public square and anybody, even the sick and defiled, can avail of the healing power and presence. The other views that public square as threatening, a negative space to be exited as quickly as possible in order to reach the company of those who are no ritual threat.

So these two ways of being in the public square come down to an invitation to come and be restored, or a threat to stay away so you don’t pollute me. In one the people are in need and Jesus says “Come”. In the other the people are contaminating and the religious leaders say “Stay Away!”

In the end it really does matter whether the people in the square are encouraged to reach out or are pushed away. The demeanour of those in the square, and their behaviour, really matters in determining whether they will or not. The Pharisees could speak generous words but the stick says something else, and the look of disgust on their faces which indicates more washing is required, says keep away. People may have to plead with Jesus, but he doesn’t deny them access to healing.

It matters because depending on who you encounter you’ll leave the marketplace bruised or else restored.

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