Starting another week with a look at the Gospel, we find a very short reading today. But, as ever, words have meaning, so no matter the length of a text, what is says is valuable. Let’s take a look:
“The Pharisees came up and started a discussion with him; they demanded of him a sign from heaven, to put him to the test. And with a profound sigh he said, ‘Why does this generation demand a sign? In truth I tell you, no sign shall be given to this generation.’ And, leaving them again, he re-embarked and went away to the other side.”
Mark 8: 11-13
Well, there is certainly much to recognise here. The demand of the Pharisees is something that many, if not most, of us have also made: “God, if you exist, give me a sign so I can believe in you!” And that demand is certainly understandable; God, after all, asks much of us, so why can we not ask something from Him to help us along?
But the problem is, though, that that sign has already been given. The problem is not so much that God refuses to give a sign, but that we refuse to accept it for what it is. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word of God that we find in Scripture, but also in the faith we see around us every day, in the effects that trust in the Lord has – not always the effects that we desire or expect, but effects nonetheless – we see that sign.
Does that mean we should just keep quiet and not ask anything? Certainly not. If we look again at the passage from the Gospel of Mark above, we see that the Pharisees are not just asking. Instead, they are demanding, that they are putting Jesus to the test. The way in which we ask our questions is just as important as what we ask and how we deal with the answer. By demanding, the Pharisees, and everyone else who does so, are closing themselves off from the answer: they are presenting themselves as in possession of the truth to which they expect Jesus to conform, not as curious onlookers who are genuinely interested in His answer. Jesus’ profound sigh is only understandable here.
His answer also deserves a closer look. Jesus does not say that the Pharisees or anyone else who will ever ask for a sign, will not be getting one. No, He speaks of “this generation”. We must never forget that the Incarnation is an historical event: Jesus lived among us at a specific time and place, and was part of a specific society and generation. Perhaps we can then see His answers, that “no sign shall be given to this generation” as an indication that the attitude of the demanding Pharisees is a social, or generational, ill. Maybe society reinforced the attitude expressed by the demands of the Pharisees.
Today, we also live in a society which is very self-centered. Our attitude, that we somehow ‘deserve’ an explanation that fits our own agenda, is reinforced by many of the expressed values of our society. The society we live in plays a part in how we relate to others and to God, and as such also, as far as our modern society is concerned, in closing us off from the signs of God. By recognising that, we take our first step in opening our hearts, to be receptive of God’s answers.
Art credit: “The Pharisees and the Saduccees Come to Tempt Jesus” by James Tissot