Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Duck and the Secret Word
(Groucho Marx, the Gospel of Mark, and the Cross)

Full disclosure: I don’t come by the following example honestly - or at least not directly. My fascination with Groucho Marx stems largely from my prior love for Alan Alda, whom I first knew as the endlessly witty Benjamin Franklin “Hawkeye” Pierce, while watching reruns of M*A*S*H on TV late at night with my Granny on her living room sofa while drinking Dr. Pepper and eating Moon Pies.

Alan Alda’s Hawkeye Pierce was a surgeon in the Korean War; his quick wit and penchant for zaniness both 1) helped him hold on to his sanity in the context of the war and 2) strongly resembled Groucho Marx’s own quick wit and zaniness. Sometimes Hawkeye would even wear exaggerated eyebrows and a mustache, with glasses and, of course, a cigar, in unspoken homage to his hero.

Anyway, long before M*A*S*H, Groucho had this game-show called “You Bet Your Life,” which began as a radio show in the 1940s before landing on television in 1950 and running for another decade.

I can’t tell you the rules of the game because 1) I wasn’t around much in the 50s and 2) in the reruns I’ve seen, the game largely takes a backseat to Groucho’s ad libbed interviews with contestants. But according to one who would know:

Some show tension revolved around whether a contestant would say the "secret word", a common word revealed to the audience at the show's outset. If a contestant said the word, a toy duck resembling Groucho with mustache and eyeglasses, and with a cigar in its bill, descended from the ceiling to bring a $100 (prize).

The duck and the secret word; because remembering Groucho Marx has me wondering if Mark’s gospel didn’t also wish it had a toy duck to drop down from the ceiling.

Mark’s gospel has a similar set-up. At the outset of the narrative, before the show starts, the audience gets the secret word; Mark 1:1: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

No one else knows this, the identity of Jesus, but we in Mark’s audience know from the beginning. As soon as we hear them, we begin waiting for someone else to come along and say the secret words: “Son of God.”

Cue the contestants, set the story in motion, and the suspense is not so much how the narrative will end, but will any of the characters say the secret word before the story’s over?

Immediately, a demon says something like it in chapter one, but presumably, being a demon, he cheated. In chapter two the scribes ask, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” And the answer to their question is the secret word, but the scribes themselves don’t say it.

More questions come, and they seem to dance tantalizingly around the secret word. In their own way, the questions of the scribes of the Pharisees throughout Mark’s gospel point to the secret.

For example, when the scribes of the Pharisees ask why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus says that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus’s answer is less about their being sick than announcing that he is the Great Physician, the Son of God.

Later, when the scribes ask, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”, Jesus again takes a question ostensibly about his disciples’ moral behavior (or lack thereof) and interprets it for what it really is: a question about who Jesus is (or thinks that he is). Thus Jesus’s answer, “The wedding guests cannot fast while the bridegroom is with them, can they?” Again, we know what they do not know: that Jesus is the bridegroom, the Son of God.

Meanwhile, the demons shout the answer again, but again, it doesn’t count. It’s like the kid who has heard the riddle before shouting from behind you while you’re trying to tell the joke, “I know, I know!” Jesus sternly orders them not to make him known.

No one else comes close to naming the secret word. Jesus has twelve disciples by now, whom he frustrates with his insistence on confusing parables. When they ask why he does this, he tell them that “the secret of the kingdom of God” has been given to them, but he will continue to speak in parables publicly in order that the others “may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn and be forgiven.”

While the disciples may be flattered by the knowledge that Jesus has given them this secret, it is by no means clear that they themselves know what the secret is. Exasperated, they cry out in the storm, “Teacher, do you not care than we are perishing?” And while in the moment they are asking Jesus to save them from the winds and the waves, they may also be asking Jesus not to take their knowledge of the secret for granted. Despite their privileged relation to their Savior, they do not know who he is. After the storm subsides, they ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

Some time later, a healing. Only it doesn’t work at first: a blind man asks Jesus to heal him. Jesus puts saliva on his eyes and lays his hands on him and asks, “Can you see anything?” And the man looks up and says, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus lays his hands on his eyes again; and he looks intently and his sight is restored, and he sees everything clearly.

It is only after all of this, and at this point, that tonight’s gospel takes place: “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks. And Peter comes as close as anyone has so far to saying the secret word: “You are the Messiah,” he says.

Jesus then describes the suffering, rejection, and death that this will mean. Peter’s subsequent rebuke of Jesus reveals that the secret word has not been spoken yet. Like the man who asked Jesus to heal his blindness and at first saw people walking like trees, Peter cannot see the Messiah whose death will mean salvation. And we still wonder what it means to see the Messiah whose death means our salvation.

Fast-forward seven chapters later, then, and although we know the story, we are nevertheless not prepared to read that

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachtani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” And some ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

Did you hear it?

The duck drops. When all of the others have packed up and gone home, the duck finally drops. Here, on the cross, is where God is revealed.

And in every moment before this moment; in every moment it didn’t drop - every minute we, like Peter, thought it would - we are left with the things we thought we knew about this God, but were wrong: we had thought, for example, that the true God would look like us, with our aspirations for power, prestige and position, that he would come with our relentless efforts to beat down violence with yet more violence and our cruel propensity to wield our words against each other (as James suggests), that he would understand our instinct to overwhelm the enemy and take him by force - or, alternately, to abandon him - but all of these  exposed by the centurion’s announcing the secret; exposed as our confession of the God we wish we had gotten instead. And this is just the beginning, really. If this, on the cross, is how we learn who God is - the cross shattering all we thought we knew about the living God - what else that we thought we knew stands to be reordered, re-examined, broken open, in the light of this secret? Things like what love is, how truth is known; things like justice, peace, and ourselves?

Here, on the cross, is our God. This is the secret. Our secret is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, heavenly Father, you gave your only Son up to death on the cross that the world might know the love of God for the world. We confess that you are not the God we would have chosen but we marvel at the Good News that you have chosen us. While we rightfully wonder what praying to be united to a crucified Savior will entail, we ask to be so united, because seeing this secret, we can ask nothing else. We love you. We pray this in Jesus’s Name.


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