Theme(s): Mission / Ministry / True power / Weakness/ Weaknesses / Thorn in the flesh
Sentence: I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me (2 Corinthians 12:10)
Christ of the new covenant
give us happiness to share,
with full measure, pressed down,
shaken together and running over,
all that you give us. Amen.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
We care partly read this passage as a clarion call to all preachers (including those sent out to preach in today's gospel reading) to faithfully preach the gospel 'whether they hear or refuse to hear' (5).
We can also read this passage as setting out background to Jesus' commission in the gospel reading to the disciples: they are to preach for repentance. Why? Because Israel remains generally in a state of rebellion against God.
In its specific context, this call is God's call to Ezekiel to be his priestly prophet to the exiles in Babylon after Judah had been exiled there.
This psalm is one of the fifteen 'songs of ascent', likely sung while pilgrims ascended towards the Temple on Mt Zion.
The psalmist looks up to God for help, for 'mercy' (2c, 3a).
We cannot guess at what troubles (3b-4) engendered this psalm, though a general trouble could be that Israel is viewed contemptuously by surrounding nations.
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Paul is under the cosh from his opponents ('super-apostles', 11:5) in respect of what the Corinthians are thinking about Paul (e.g. 1 Corinthians 10:10-13). So through chapters 10-13, Paul sets out his stall: he is not whom the others say he is, he is not guilty of the charges they make about him (e.g. he was not a burden to the Corinthians, 11:7-9), and he is committed in love to their well-being.
In our passage today (for which 12:1 is important as an introduction) we see Paul in a form of 'boasting' which we should understand as a response to goading by the super-apostles (11:5). Presumably they were boasting themselves of their experiences which they alleged were superior to those of Paul. Presumably they laid claim to their 'super' status because of ecstatic, mystical experiences of heavenly journeys.
So, says, Paul, in our verses, if that's the 'game' bring it on. To their claims I will counter with this testimony.
Yet Paul as he sets out his testimony of ecstatic, mystical experience is modest. He speaks elliptically about himself, 'I know a person in Christ' (2) and proceeds to recount an experience which could only have been his own (3-4,7a).
'third heaven' (2) in ancient Jewish understanding equals 'Paradise' (4).
Paul is reticent to boast about this experience (5-6) and he explains the reason in verses 7b-9: subsequent to it, he received 'a thorn ... in the flesh' (7). In other words, Paul's heavenly experience was not one that led him to make grandiose claims for his spiritual power and privilege. Far from it! Whatever the nature of the thorn (a physical malady? persecution?) it was distressing and kept Paul humble. It weakened Paul rather than strengthened him. It led him to a point where he relied on God's grace to see him through (7-9).
In fact, Paul claims, the weaker I am, the better for the work of Christ in me, for if I am weak, then anything powerful happening through me is 'the power of Christ' (9b).
In other words - and here we might look ahead to verses 11-12 - Paul is carefully and cunningly saying something like this: "If it is a straight boasting competition between me and the super-apostles, then I win; in fact that is not the competition which counts, that competition is for the person who is weakest so Christ is strongest, it is a competition for the genuine work of Christ, and that competition I also win." Boom!
Jesus returns to his hometown, his disciples following (1). Mark sets everything in his gospel in terms of christology and discipleship: he answers the questions, Who is Jesus? What do disciples of Jesus do?
The 'Who is Jesus?' in this passage concerns Jesus as a teaching prophet (2,4) who organises a movement (7) (which, incidentally, hits the political antennae of King Herod, 14).
The 'What do disciples do?' in this passage receives the answer 'What Jesus himself did' (7-13).
The questions asked in the synagogue (2-3) have a subtle effect within the narrative of the gospel: by stating them as having occurred early in the ministry of Jesus, Mark is saying to later readers of his gospel, 'Jesus was a man of astounding wisdom and power, yet came from an ordinary family.'
Verse 3 is one of the most detailed NT expressions of Jesus' 'career' and 'family': he was a 'carpenter' (though some see the underlying Greek word as meaning a man technically proficient with his hands beyond proficiency with wood), he was known at this stage as the 'son of Mary' (had Joseph died?), and he had four brothers and an unknown number of sisters. (As an aside, note that here the siblings of Jesus could be siblings Mary produced (i.e. Mary was not a perpetual virgin) or siblings Joseph had produced via a wife before he married Mary (who remained a perpetual virgin).)
In verses 4 -6 we find the specific point of Mark telling this particular incident: 'he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them' (5). In his own hometown, among his own people, including his own family, Jesus faced a barrage of cynical questioning. This questioning expressed the 'unbelief' (6) of the crowd. His ministry was limited. Even with all God's power at his disposal, belief on the part of those he came to minister to was vital to its success.
Naturally such a disappointing response in Nazareth led to moving the mission on (6b).
But verse 7 signals a different kind of expansion from the geographical expansion in verse 6. Jesus calls 'the twelve' and sends them out in six pairs with 'authority over the unclean spirits.' Theirs will be a focused mission, so no extra gear is required (8-9), with specific instructions about receiving hospitality along the way (10-11), and a simple message of repentance (12). For disciples living after these events, perhaps settled into a city such as Alexandria or Rome, what is the message embedded here? Presumably it is that the power of the gospel does not rest in the resources we provide but in the action of God: the call and commission to preach the gospel in word and in deed is vital to the power of the gospel to change lives (13).
What is the result of this mission? Jumping ahead we find the disciples reporting back to Jesus in 6:30. But here in verse 13 we find that demons are cast out and the sick are cured.