In a previous post, I discussed how Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of Mark function to demonstrate God’s numinous presence, as people who witnessed his miracles act in awe, wonder, and fear. These reactions demonstrate Mark’s presentation of Jesus as the one sent by God to act for God. If we look further at Jesus’ miracles in Mark, we also see that they function to bring God’s compassion and comfort to those Jesus heals. In this way, Mark presents Jesus as taking on the role of God.
At various points in the narrative the Markan Jesus is said to have compassion on the plight of people in need, or is asked by those in need to have compassion (1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22). This compassion compels him to act to alleviate their situations. Yet we need not limit our recognition of this fact only to the use of the Greek word splagchnizomai translated as compassion. This is particularly true if we understand Mark’s narrative in light of Isaiah.
Mark 1:2-3 comprises a mixture of quotations from the Old Testament, which are attributed by the author to Isaiah, but come from Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. Why does Mark attribute all of these to Isaiah? Some Markan scholars have argued that Mark’s attribution of the conflation of Old Testament texts in 1:2-3 to Isaiah the prophet might show the author’s intention of narrating his story in light of the New Exodus motif of Isaiah.
By doing this, Mark sets his story within the framework of the New Exodus theme of Yahweh’s hope and victory found in Isaiah 40-55. Part of this hope and victory comes in the comforting of God’s people.
Indeed the first verse of Isaiah 40 reads, “Comfort (parakaleite), O comfort my people, says your God.” This is a command that God’s people be comforted. Moreover, Isaiah 40:1-11 seems to serve as somewhat of an opening for Isaiah 40-66, in which the theme of God’s consolation and comfort are found throughout. Isaiah 40:1-11 is an expression of the hope of God’s comfort and salvation.
Given this understanding of Isaiah 40, and its use in Mark to set the tone of his Gospel as narrating the eschatological victory of God in bringing salvation, I would propose that the miracles performed by Jesus in Mark’s narrative may be viewed within the framework of God’s promised comfort for God’s people. Jesus acts for God in answering God’s call to bring comfort. This point is strengthened when we consider two other significant factors.
First, since Jesus is presented in 1:14-15 as the one who proclaims the gospel of God, we might interpret his miracles as actions which visibly proclaim that gospel; the miracles function as acted parables. Again, we can hear the echo of Isaiah 40:9. There the herald of good tidings, the one who brings good news, is commanded to proclaim, “See your God.”
In the prologue to the Gospel, Mark portrays the in-breaking of God into the narrative through the tearing of the heavens and the coming of the Spirit (1:10), and through the way Jesus is presented as the one who proclaims that the dynamic rule of God is at hand, and he calls on all to believe in the gospel of God (1:14-15). Against the background of Isaiah 40, then, Jesus is the one who not only proclaims the coming of God, but also acts for God in the bringing of comfort to God’s people.
Further substantiating this idea is the recognition that in Isaiah 40:11 God speaks of coming to God’s people as a shepherd to feed them. This may shed light on Jesus’ feeding miracles in 6:34-44 and 8:1-10. In both scenes Jesus is said to have compassion (6:34; 8:2) on the crowd, and in 6:34 his compassion is because they are as sheep without a shepherd to feed them. Thus in the miracle of feeding the people, Jesus takes on the role of God as shepherd of the people, bringing comfort to God’s people.
Jesus’ miracles serve to demonstrate that God was fulfilling God’s promise of comfort for hurting people. Thus, Jesus’ acts of compassion are within the context of God’s promises to bring compassion.
How are we following Jesus by bringing God’s comfort and compassion to the hurting in our world?