This is the second in our series taking an overview of the four gospels. Today I’m going to talk about the gospel of Mark. I didn’t just choose it because it’s the shortest one. I think Mark is a gospel which is particularly important for our times, as we’ll hear later.
I have a book that someone gave me called ’An Idiot’s Guide to the Bible’. It summarises many of the major themes in the books of the Bible. Looking at the section on the gospels, I found very few references from the gospel of Mark. Most of its examples were drawn from Matthew, Luke and John. That tends to be the way that the book of Mark is treated – as a less complex and therefore less valuable version of the gospel. But recently people are finding that Mark has hidden depths.
It’s widely accepted that Mark was the earliest gospel to be written and that the gospels of Matthew and Luke were elaborations on Mark’s version. A few scholars have thought that Matthew’s version came first, but I find it difficult to believe that the author of Mark would then pare down a more complex narrative or that Luke would have started with Matthew’s version, chucked out some stuff and inserted extra details into the description of events. It’s not an exact parallel, but it’s a bit like saying that ‘The Hobbit’ must have been written after ‘The Lord of the Rings’ because the Hobbit is shorter and contains some similar material!
Although the gospel never mentions who wrote it, writings from the early part of the second century name him as John Mark, who appears in Acts and some of the New Testament letters. He was the cousin of Barnabas and he went with Paul on his first missionary journey, but fell out with Paul by going home early. Later Barnabas took him under his wing and forged a reconciliation with Paul. Mark was a good friend and fellow-worker to both Paul and Peter in Rome. Peter’s first epistle describes Mark as Peter’s son. After their deaths it is said that he wrote down the substance of Peter’s preaching, so what we get coming through Mark is the dynamism and energy we can see in the descriptions of Peter in the New Testament. The content and order of Mark’s gospel follows that of Peter’s sermon in Jerusalem, recorded in Acts. So, if Mark wrote his gospel first then the order in Acts is copied from Mark and not the other way round.
We call it plagiarism today and I used to tell my Open University students that it is a deadly sin, but in those days it was perfectly reasonable to base your book on someone else’s. So Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels with the scroll of Mark open in front of them, adding another source the scholar’s call Q and bringing in other material from the oral tradition. Each of them tried to emphasise particular information that they wanted to convey to the particular readers they had in mind.
Mark does this too, of course, and it’s long been recognised that his version emphasises Jesus in action. It leaps straight in with ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ There are no stories about Jesus’ birth. Mark seeks to emphasise that what Jesus did reveals him to be the Christ. It gives us less detail about Jesus teaching, but in general is less triumphalist than the other gospels. It is more critical of the disciples, including Peter, and talks of Jesus’ power being limited on occasions – for instance by people’s lack of faith, in Nazareth.
The additional details of events in Jesus ministry which aren’t necessary for the story show that it could well be the record of a first person account. For instance Mark said that when Jesus called them the disciples James and John left their father in the boat with the hired men, which Matthew and Luke don’t include. One intriguing detail comes in the Mark’s description of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane. He writes ”A certain young man was following him wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.” Some people believe that this young man was the author himself – or why include him? Acts 12 tells us that the early church met in the house of John Mark’s mother in Jerusalem and it may be that this is where the upper room was in which the last supper was held. I can imagine that young John Mark, having gone to bed while the Passover supper of Jesus and his disciples continued, heard this interesting group leaving, still singing psalms maybe, and decided to follow them wrapped only in a bed-sheet.
Mark is believed to have written his gospel in Rome, though some would see it written in a Palestinian setting, despite the fact that he finds it necessary to explain Jewish customs and words to those of his readers who aren’t Jewish. Most scholars agree that he wrote it about AD 65-70. And this dating is crucial to understanding the atmosphere in which it was written. The Roman historian Tacitus describes the emperor Nero blaming on Christians the fire that swept Rome in AD 64 destroying most of the city. Thereafter he extensively persecuted the Christians.
Tacitus wrote “Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
Christian tradition holds that Peter, and probably Paul, were killed in Rome during this persecution. Meanwhile, news was coming back to Rome of what was going on in the Jewish homeland. In 66 AD the first seeds of dissent about Roman authority and taxes, starting as a religious dispute between Jews and Greeks, began to grow into a full-scale rebellion against Roman rule. By 67 AD Nero had sent forces under the future emperor Vespasian and the war culminated in the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of its Temple in AD 70. At that time many Christians were Jews or strongly associated with Judaism. So you can imagine the terror of the church in Rome, subject to persecution there and fearing the destruction of the land that was the bedrock of their faith. We can see that Mark’s gospel was probably written in haste in an effort to record what Peter recalled of Jesus before there was no-one left who had known him and, perhaps, because Mark feared that he himself would be next to be killed.
Given this background, the urgency you hear in Mark’s gospel is understandable. Jesus is always doing something ‘ immediately’ He is a powerful decision-maker who cuts through confusion and doubt. On the other hand Jesus, as portrayed by Mark, is no stranger to grief and uncertainty. From the second chapter Jesus hints that there is a time that he will not be with them and throughout the book it becomes increasingly clear that that he expects to suffer and die, though he would rise again. His agony in Gethsemane is not relieved by any support from his disciples nor a comforting angel. His mockery of a trial and torture by the soldiers, his betrayal by a crowd that preferred an outlaw, are all stark and bitter.
Mark’s portrayal of the crucifixion is bleak and not at all triumphant. There is no caring conversation with his mother and favourite disciple, no forgiveness of his torturers or of one of the bandits crucified with him. There is an overwhelming sense of desolation and abandonment by God. And his last great cry is of wordless pain rather than surrendering his spirit to his Father. There is nothing of comfort here. It is raw suffering. Throughout the gospel, Mark shows Jesus as a man like any other (as well as the Son of God) and especially here at his crucifixion, as the forces of evil, pain and death seem completely to overwhelm him.
And perhaps it is here that Jesus comes closest to the readers for whom Mark wrote – facing loss, persecution and huge uncertainty. The crucified and abandoned Christ is near to most of us at some time of our life or another. Perhaps Mark’s gospel is especially relevant to us at this time of economic collapse, growing unemployment and ecological uncertainty, when some people may be feeling that God has abandoned them.
The gospel concludes with Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike the other gospels, though, the oldest manuscripts do not have either the shorter or longer endings which appear to have been added in later manuscripts, drawing from the other Gospels. In fact the original Mark’s Gospel almost certainly ends where our earlier reading finished – with the women too afraid and awestruck to tell anyone what they had seen.
Why should it end there? Where are the resurrection appearances of Jesus which the other Gospels and Paul’s letters, which were written before Mark’s Gospel, describe? It is a mystery. Perhaps the ending of the original manuscript was lost. Maybe Mark had to flee before he had finished it. Whatever the reason, his readers are left with a mystery and empty tomb and a strange message – a cliffhanger like the end of the episode in a TV series. Except that Mark never came back to write the final chapter.
For we who live in a world that has become more uncertain, this mystery may also be a common experience. What is going to happen, am I being led somewhere? Why do I have to suffer the way I do? Where is God in all this? One metaphor for this may be the desert experience that we thought about earlier. We may feel confused, alone, abandoned and in fear and pain. These things happen to all of us to some degree. I’ve been feeling a bit like that myself this weekend.
Up until Friday I thought I was going on a cruise to Iceland and Greenland in 2 weeks time with my sister. Then we found a couple of days ago that all the shore excursions seem to be fully booked. So we’re trying to find out whether that is really the case, whether there’s anything else we can do or whether we have grounds for canceling the trip. It’s all in the air at the moment.
Perhaps Mark deliberately left the end of his gospel up in the air, because he had sent the previous 15 chapters setting out Jesus’ remedy for difficulty, suffering and uncertainty.
In recent decades there has been a realization that despite his less literary Greek and his more direct and abrupt message, Mark has some useful things to offer. Some of you may know of Anabaptist fellow-traveller, Ched Myers. We’ve been lucky enough to have him preach here on the feeding of the 5000. He was talking about God’s economy of abundance set against human management of scarcity. He covers it in his book ‘Binding the Strong Man’, the political reading of Mark’s gospel. He understands Jesus as described by Mark as being in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, standing up against the oppressive and godless political systems of his day, including the corruption of the official religious authorities, in defense of the poor and outcast. Despite his nonviolent resistance to these forces, in the end the powers conspire to destroy him. However, the call to radical discipleship lives on, symbolized by the empty tomb, where his followers today, as well as in the first century, are also challenged to become part of the story as Jesus goes before us to Galilee, the seat of his ministry. We are also called to radical repentance and a new lifestyle which looks towards the coming kingdom of God.
Another person who has written on Mark is the New Zealand theologian, Chris Marshall. He was a member of this church while studying in London and the PhD he then wrote was published as a study of the theme faith in the gospel of Mark.
He points out that faith is one of the key issues in this gospel. It starts with an uncompromising statement that Jesus is the Son of God – with which the reader must disagree or believe. The very first chapter sets out a summary of Jesus’ teaching in Galilee: ‘The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.’ This is a statement of one type of faith which Mark addresses. It is the faith that saves. It is the belief and acceptance of Jesus’ proclamation of the dawning Kingdom of God. The response is a move away from former sinful ways of living and a commitment of trust in Jesus as the bringer of the Kingdom. This is shown in a lifestyle change to that of discipleship. Mark shows what is expected of disciples by the dialogue between Jesus and his chosen Twelve. Often in Mark, Jesus is exasperated by their lack of understanding or faith and in his instruction to them shows us as disciples how we also should believe and live.
The other kind of faith, which can be seen as different but sometimes overlapping the faith of discipleship is the faith of the petitioner. This is illustrated by our reading from Mark 9, in which Jesus, fresh from the mount of transfiguration, where he was revealed to Peter, James and John as the true Son of God, finds that the remaining 9 disciples had been having trouble casting out a demon of epilepsy from a boy who had been brought along by his father. Jesus talks about the importance of faith (and later of prayer) in casting out such demons. Further on he talks about the way that faith as small as a mustard seed will enable the believer to move mountains.
But such faith is often difficult for us. This passage in Mark has a sentence not found in the other gospels. But how often have I found myself, and I’m sure most other followers of Jesus, echoing the words of the father of the epileptic boy: “I believe; help my unbelief.” We want to believe in the power of God and we think we should ask for what God wants in this world, but we’re often paralysed. What if God doesn’t want us to be cured, or to get the job or home or partner that we want? What if God has different plans for me? We want to be able to pray with Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not what I want, but what you want.” We know we should pray in line with God’s purposes, but how can we know what these are? Mark gives us some clues. The epileptic boy’s father shows us some of this. First of all, he is acting for another, out of compassion. He asks Jesus’ help for ‘us’ – identifying himself with the boy’s plight. He asks Jesus for help rather tentatively ‘ If you are able…’ Jesus throws this back at him with the comment that all things are possible to the one who believes.’ The father understands this as highlighting his own need for faith and responds with the cry that believers have echoed down the centuries: “I believe, help my unbelief”.
This phrase shows that in Mark, faith is not a once for all possession, but that in every believer there is a tension between faith and disbelief and that we only maintain our faith by God’s grace. Faith, for Mark, only proves itself when tested. And of course one of the places it is most tested is in that experience of the desert, in which we may feel that we are holding onto faith by the slightest thread, or that if Christ did not hold onto us we would fall away.
Secondly it is a situation of total human powerlessness. Despite all his care and love, the father has been unable to help the boy, and nor can Jesus’ disciples. Many of Jesus’ miracles recorded in Mark have a similar context. Not only do people such as the paralysed man brought by 4 friends and let down through the roof, the faithful leper, and the woman with a haemorrhage have great need, they also suffer from social disadvantage. Even Jairus the ruler is helpless in the face of his daughter’s death. There is nothing humanly possible, and those involved need to recognize and accept their powerlessness in the situation.
Beyond this, in Mark’s gospel, those who would follow Christ in faith are called to put themselves in a situation of powerlessness, by renouncing their claim to security, status or control. The rich young man has to give up his wealth; the twelve are to leave everything to follow Jesus, to go off preaching in abject poverty and when they seek to rely on themselves or are terrified by the things like the storm that they cannot control, Jesus says that they are faithless. In this desert place of helpless confusion, fear or suffering, we are not supposed to seek to control the situation through human influence, but to trust in the power of our loving God.
This gospel writer doesn’t give us the explanations that Matthew or Luke do. But he shows that Jesus knows about our failure and unbelief as well as our success. Mark writes for ordinary, fallible followers who are finding themselves in situations of loss and persecution and who need strengthening by the story of the suffering Son of Man, whose suffering is an essential part of the story, but who also calls us to follow his example. The gospel ends, not with Jesus’ abiding presence but with his absence. The tomb is empty, but there is a messenger telling his followers that the Risen Christ is going before them to Galilee. This disturbing ending challenges us also to complete the story, to echo the desperate father ‘I believe; help my unbelief’ and in that faith to follow Jesus wherever he leads, even through the desert.