Prayer Scandals

Prayer is an encounter with the living God.
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Mark reminds us in his first chapter that Jesus was a man of prayer: "In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed" (Mark 1:35). This characteristic of our Lord is noted in all the Gospels, especially Luke. Luke records not only this incident, but he also tells his readers that Jesus prayed before his baptism (Luke 3:21) and spent the night in prayer before selecting the Twelve (6:12-16). When Luke notes that Jesus "would withdraw to deserted places and pray" (Luke 5:16), he's indicating that this was a regular practice of our Lord.

It should not surprise us then that Jesus, a man of prayer even more so than the saints, will act oddly sometimes.

What Jesus does in this early scene in Mark (1:36-39) is odd indeed. Suffering people are coming to him, people who are ill, lonely, lost, crippled, anxious; some are no doubt dying. These sufferers—locals, thus many of whom he knows—are literally begging for his healing touch and life-giving words. So Simon and company search out Jesus to alert him.

Jesus just tells them to take a hike. Or more accurately, he takes a hike to go to neighboring towns, "so that" he tells them, "I may proclaim the message there also" (Mark 1:38).

In a culture in which family and community had the right to one's allegiance, this must have been something of a shock. This backwater area of the Roman Empire finally has a wonderworker in their midst, and he's not even going to help the hometown folks? What an ingrate.

It is a strange thing to do, especially after spending an entire evening in prayer. One would assume that prayer would have made Jesus even more compassionate. Instead, after prayer, he appears more insensitive than ever.

Since we know the end of the gospel story, we can safely assume that Jesus is anything but an ingrate. We can also assume he deeply loves his family, friends, and the people who are clamoring for his help—many of whom he has known growing up in the region. He surely looks upon these people with more warmth than on a city of strangers many miles away, when he later says, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem. … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings" (Matt. 23:37).

We can surmise, then, that it was not an easy thing for Jesus to say to his disciples, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns" (Mark 1:38). I dare say it may have torn him apart inside.

Greater love has no man than that he should give his life for his friends, Jesus once said (see John 15:13). True enough. But it appears also to be true that sometimes no greater love has a God-lover than that he should abandon his friends, not to mention his family.

The history of the church is filled with similar examples. Antony of Egypt was responsible for the care of his sister after the death of their parents. Yet after he sensed a call to a life of prayer in the desert, he had to leave her in the care of others. Francis of Assisi essentially repudiated his natural father to, as he put it, give his life to his Father in heaven. Family and friends have a way of making demands on us—sometimes demands based on very real needs—but the urging of God gives us the courage to make the painful choice of ignoring those needs for another call.

But don't we also know of too many instances when this divine call was used to evade genuine responsibilities? David Livingstone left his wife and family in England for years at a time so that he could sojourn in Africa. John Wesley and George Whitfield abandoned their wives for months at a time to preach in England and America. And how many children of pastors, filled with resentment, refuse to darken the door of a church today because to them "the call of God" was nothing but an excuse for their parents to ignore them and indulge in their religious enthusiasms?

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