REV. ROGER KARBAN
Above my bed hangs a 1950's Sports Illustrated print of Jimmy Murphy's Duesenburg winning the 1921 French Grand Prix, accompanied by a Sir Malcolm Campbell quote: "There is, as every racing man knows, a peculiar joy in taking a car through a curve at just the right pace, when a shade faster would make the tyres squeal in the start of a skid, or a little slower would not quite be racing speed. There is a balanced feeling about the machine in those moments - a sense of completion, as it were, and perfection."
All humans long for moments of perfection, and, as Campbell reminds us, we rejoice when we find them. But is it possible to expand such moments into a lifetime of perfection, to experience completion in more than just split-second chunks?
Though followers of Jesus believe He was perfect, some don't understand that He had to achieve His perfection. We logically reason that, because Jesus was God, He was automatically perfect.
Jesus the human
Fortunately, in Sunday's Gospel, Mark indicates where Jesus' perfection resides and shows us how He achieves it (Mk 1:29-39). There's only one problem: Both those elements revolve around Jesus' humanity, not His divinity.
Our passage starts in the middle of Jesus' first day of public ministry. Having already exorcised a demoniac in the Capernaum synagogue, Jesus now enters Simon's house, cures his wife's mother, and then after supper goes outside to cure and exorcise all the afflicted townsfolk. A terrific day! So terrific, we'd expect Him to spend the night preparing for the next day's news conference.
But instead of reveling in the glory He attained, Jesus rises early and goes off "to a deserted place" to pray. When His disciples finally track Him down and inform Him, "Everybody is looking for you!" Jesus tells them He has no intention of returning to receive the town's accolades. "Let us move on to the neighboring villages," He says, "so that I may proclaim the good news there also. That is what I have come to do."
Scholars refer to this episode as "Jesus' agony in the deserted place." Though written in a different style, it's vocabulary and theology parallel Jesus' better known Agony in the Garden. To interpret the passage correctly, we must remember that Mark's Jesus prays only when He's experiencing "messianic stress:" when He's trying to figure out what kind of a messiah He should be. In this case, is He to be a miracle-working, well-received messiah, or a kingdom- of-God-preaching, evil-eradicating, rejected messiah?
BY leaving the relative safety and security of Capernaum and going to other villages, Jesus risks opposition and even death. We, and He, know that one of the villages eventually will be Jerusalem. Yet, it is precisely in going beyond what people expect of Him - the things which bring Him acceptance - that Jesus achieves perfection.
Taking a change
Perhaps many of our lives more mirror Job's reflection on life than they do Jesus' living of His life (Job 7:1-4, 6-7). How often have we walked away from a peaceful, well-receiving existence in order to walk into a tension-filled, misunderstood existence because we felt God was calling us to do so? Our life might be "drudgery," our days "without hope" because we've never reached out beyond the security of other people's approval and acceptance. Jesus shows us that we only reach perfection by integrating risk into our lives.
In the second reading (I Cor 9:16-19, 22-23), Paul tells his Corinthian community that he's taken such a risk. Amazingly, the Apostle doesn't find perfection in "preaching the Gospel."
"I am under compulsion," he writes, "and have no choice. I am ruined if I do not preach it!" How then does he achieve perfection? "When I preach," he reminds his friends, "I offer the Gospel free of charge so as not to make full use of my right in the Gospel." In other words, "Though the Gospel permits me to make a living from preaching the Gospel, I refuse all payment for doing it." Accepting poverty for the sake of the good news is how Paul achieves "a share in its blessing."
Had I known Scripture better and understood Jesus more deeply as a teenager, I don't think Campbell's racing quote would be the words framed above my bed today. One doesn't have to drive a race car to find perfection.