A Thought for Reading: The actions of our savior are so rich in meaning that every soul that ponders them finds in them its own share of spiritual food to nourish it and bring it to salvation. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
The Gospel According to Mark
As previously noted, Mark is probably the earliest of the gospels composed. Both Matthew and Luke rely on material found in Mark’s gospel. However, when moving from Matthew to Mark, we find a distinct change in style. Musician Nick Cave in Revelations shares these thoughts about Mark. Scholars generally agree that Mark’s was the first of the four Gospels to be written. Mark took from the mouths of teachers and prophets the jumble of events that comprised Christ’s life and fixed these events into some kind of biographical form. He did this with such breathless insistence, such compulsive narrative intensity, that one is reminded of a child recounting some amazing tale, piling fact upon fact, as if the whole world depended upon it, which of course, to Mark, it did (243). Mark is action-packed. It contains fewer long teaching moments than Matthew. The disciples are portrayed in a much less flattering light than in Matthew. Jesus, though identified as “the son of God” from the first, keeps this identity close to his vest. Mark, leanest of the Gospels, composed around 70 A.D., when the Jewish War saw the destruction of the temple by the army of Titus, was written in a climate of misery and apocalypse. Mark invented the form of the gospel, which means ‘good news.’ Yet much of his work countenances despair, doubt, treachery, and death. (novelist Barry Hannah in Revelations, 247). From The New Interpreters Study Bible: How could such a story of fear, betrayal, suffering and death also be “the good news of Jesus Christ”?... The Gospel of Mark is above all else an apocalyptic story, promising those presently in suffering and degradation that the much desired end is coming when all of God’s enemies, human and demonic, will be defeated and the present cruel world of suffering for God’s chosen will be no more. In the meantime, Mark portrays Jesus’ own example of how to live faithfully through these harrowing final moments and the disciple’s counterexample of how not to do so. The story that the Gospel of Mark tells is clearly suited to the needs of Christians under persecution, either in actuality or in potential. Partly because of this association, both the early Church tradition and most modern biblical scholars have tended to date the composition of the Gospel to the decade of 65 CE – 75 CE, when Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome was soon followed by the first disastrous Jewish-Roman War (66 CE – 74 CE) in which Jerusalem and the Temple itself were destroyed by the Romans. Given all of this, Rome has often been considered the place where the Gospel was composed, though some argue for a place nearer Palestine, such as Syria. The intended audience was probably Gentile Christians and perhaps others who were interested in knowing more about this faith. “The Gospel of Mark, like the other canonical Gospels, probably originally circulated anonymously among Christian groups” (New Interpreters Study Bible). “The Gospel was not written as a ‘book’ to be circulated and sold in bookstores. It was written to be read aloud in the worship service of early Christian communities” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 105). Two final thoughts as we begin reading this new gospel together. “The essential humanness of Mark’s Christ provides us with a blueprint for our lives, so that we have something that we can aspire to, rather than revere, that can lift us free of the mundanity of our existences, rather than affirming the notion that we are lowly and unworthy” (Nick Cave, Revelations, 246). In this fast-paced narrative the apostle Mark reveals what it cost Jesus to do this work…. Mark also outlines the cost of following Jesus…. We are also called to be like him as servants, reconciling those around us to God. Just as Jesus spoke the truth to the confused and the corrupt, so must we. Just as he addressed the physical needs of the crowds who followed him, so must we. Just as he sought to heal the broken places of people’s hearts, so must we. As you read this account, let the forward momentum of Mark’s narrative instill within you a sense of urgency. The time to follow Jesus is now. As you read about Jesus’ words and works, ask what God is calling you to be and do. What do you need to know about the power of Jesus and the servant heart of Jesus in order to be conformed to his image for the sake of others? (The Spiritual Formation Bible).
Mark 1:1: Yikes, only one verse – how long is this commentary going to be. Not long, I hope. You have already been patient enough. The narrator, Mark, has good news he wants to share about one Jesus Christ (Greek for “Messiah”) – “the Son of God.” The last title was, as we have said, used for the emperor. It was a typical Greek/Roman title for a person of special divine power and role. As we read along we may wonder, as the first readers/hearers probably did how the narrator might make such a claim, especially as things turn really ugly late in the story.
Mark 1:2-8: The story begins before Jesus, though, in the hopes and dreams of God’s people as recorded in their Scriptures. The quote here is not from Isaiah, or only partially so. It is one piece of evidence that the author of the Gospel may have been Gentile. John the baptizer is quickly brought on stage. He is baptizing and teaching, proclaiming that forgiveness of sins is possible with repentance outside the temple rituals. “Repentance” means reorienting life toward God, returning to God. It can also mean “to go beyond the mind that you have” (Borg, Jesus, 219). John asks for change. So will Jesus. We continue to ask ourselves where we may need to change. That people came to hear John and be baptized by him indicates a hunger for reconnecting with God, a hunger that perhaps was not being met by some of the more traditional religious practices. John, in addition to proclaiming repentance, forgiveness and baptism, also spoke of one more powerful to come.
Mark 1:9-11: “In those days”… Mark is the master of the quick transition. John’s story is told briefly, and a new character comes into the scene, except that this is Jesus, the main character of the story as we have already been told in verse 1. Jesus is baptized by John. Mark has no theological problem with this, as do other gospel writers. As he comes out of the water, the heavens are torn open, the Spirit descends and a voice tells Jesus that he is a beloved Son. The tearing open of the heavens and coming of the Spirit were signs within Judaism of the coming of God’s kingdom, God’s reign, God’s dream for the world. Within Greco-Roman thought, the appearance of certain birds could connote a special standing or fate.
Mark 1:12-13: “Immediately” – another quick transition. Jesus is driven into the wilderness which he experiences as a place of temptation, testing, and also of blessing – he is with the wild beasts but not harmed by them; he is waited on by angels. Jesus has two powerful experiences of the divine in quick succession.
Mark 1:14-15: John, the one who baptized Jesus is arrested. Jesus comes to Galilee to begin his work. He proclaims: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” In the New Testament, the verb “believe” has less the meaning of “give intellectual assent to” and more the meaning of “trust.” To believe, to have faith, is to trust, and the object of our trust is God. In this instance we trust that God’s kingdom, and thus God in God’s self, has come near, inviting us to live in a new way.
Mark 1:16-20: Just as people responded to John by coming out to be baptized, so Jesus invites disciples to follow him and share his work. Jesus continues to call, to invite to new life, to the “Jesus life.”
Mark 1:21-28: Jesus makes Capernaum his home base in Mark’s gospel. Capernaum, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, was a village where fishing, agricultural products and trade drove the economy. The town was located on a major trade route leading to Syria. All that means is that it would have been a place where Jews and non-Jews interacted, and where the presence of the Roman empire was probably felt. Synagogues were popular in first century Judaism and were a place to study the Scriptures. Jesus goes to teach, and people are astounded by his teaching (though Mark provides little content just now). He heals a man with an unclean spirit (a spirit that recognizes Jesus as “the Holy One of God”). Words and actions combine to make Jesus teaching about the nearness of the kingdom powerful and authoritative. Here are a few words about exorcisms from Marcus Borg’s book Jesus. Even more than extraordinary cures, possession and exorcism are alien to the modern world…. Within the framework of the modern worldview, we are inclined to see possession as a prescientific diagnosis of a condition that must have another explanation, perhaps as a psychopathological state that includes among its symptoms the delusion of believing oneself to be possessed…. Whatever the modern explanation might be, and however much psychological or social factors might be involved, we need to recognize that Jesus and his contemporaries (and people in premodern cultures generally) thought that people could be possessed by a spirit or spirits from another plane. Their worldview took for granted the actual existence of such spirits. Perhaps the shared convictions were in part responsible for the phenomenon. In any case, the participants – possessed, exorcist, on-lookers – did not simply think of these as cases of possession and exorcism, but experienced them that way. Jesus’ healings and exorcisms attracted crowds…. Indeed, it was his reputation as a healer and exorcist that generated an audience for him as a teacher. (150) In the time frame in which Mark was written, Jesus would have had to have been one who healed and exorcised for him to be seen as a credible sign of the coming near of God’s kingdom. In our day, the power of Jesus needs to be seen as one that makes a positive difference in people’s lives for the good news about him to be credible.
Mark 1:29-34: Here a healing of the mother-in-law of one of the disciples leads to groups of people being brought to him for healing and exorcism. Jesus forbids the demons to speak, because they know who he is. This “secrecy” about Jesus is an important feature of Mark’s gospel.
Mark 1:35-39: Mark’s is an action-packed and fast-moving gospel, but it is also one in which Jesus seeks out time alone to pray. Just as he experienced God in the wilderness, so he seeks out quiet time in the early darkness of the morning. The disciples search for him and when they find him he tells them they need to take their work on the road. There is almost the sense that this direction emerges out of the praying. In our own lives, a sense of direction can emerge out of prayer.
Mark 1:40-45: A leper comes to Jesus looking for healing, and “moved with pity” Jesus heals him. As mentioned before, lepers not only suffered physically, but were ostracized. Their healing involves reincorporation into the community. Jesus encourages this by asking him to show himself to the priest. Jesus also warns him to keep quiet, which the man does not do. Jesus fame spreads so that he hast to avoid town. It is interesting to note that this story probably helped encourage Mark’s Jesus community to “proclaim freely” the good news about Jesus in a time when doing so could get one in serious trouble with the authorities. Nevertheless, they shared the good news. How hesitant we are to do the same, that is, to share our own experience of how Jesus touches our lives with love, care, compassion and healing?
Mark 2:1-12: Jesus returns to Capernaum (home) after a few days. Crowds gather, so large they no longer fit into the doorway to the house. Jesus was teaching, but some sought to have him help a paralyzed friend. Not finding a way to Jesus, they made one – though the roof. They lowered their friend, and when Jesus saw their faith, he offered a healing word to the paralytic. The word is about forgiveness. Mark has inserted a story over the controversy to forgive in the middle of a healing story. Jesus as “the Son of Man” – a different title from the one Mark has used previously (son of God) has the authority to forgive and to heal. The kingdom of God has come near! The end results are amazement and wonder and glory given to God.
Mark 2:13-17: Again, two stories are linked here, a call story and a story about a controversy regarding “sinners.” Jesus calls Levi from his tax booth. Levi follows, and invited Jesus to dinner. The dinner guests include many tax collectors and sinners, as well as disciples, and this offends the scribes of the Pharisees – some of the religious leaders. Jesus is eating with people who are religiously suspect, religiously marginal. But Jesus will have none of their criticism. Who should he be teaching and eating with if not those who seem outside the scope of God’s community, to bring them into its heart? Jesus was opposed to much he saw in the imperial way of life, yet he was willing to associate with the tax collectors.
Mark 2:18-22: One set of questions leads to another. People see the disciples of John and the Pharisees fasting and wonder why the disciples of Jesus do not. On the Pharisees: Pharisees were an important reform group within Judaism who were attempting to revive religious observance by making some of the purity rules usually reserved only for the Temple to be part of the daily home life of the people, especially in regard to meals. Many of their beliefs were quite similar to those of Jesus and the early Christians, probably making them one of the chief competitors of the early Christians. (New Interpreters Study Bible). So two “competing groups” fast, but the disciples of Jesus do not. John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast to help the kingdom come. Jesus is saying that it is already here. It is a time to celebrate. He also indicates that there will be time for fasting – a practice that has been a part of Christian spiritual disciplines for centuries and one we may want to examine again in our day and time. The other illustrations are additional ways Jesus affirms that God is up to something new in his ministry.
Mark 2:18-24: This story is very similar to the one in Matthew 12, as is the one which will begin the next chapter. Remember, in the Judaism of Jesus’ day keeping the Sabbath was one central element of faithful Jewish practice. It was also generally agreed at that time that human good took precedence over strict interpretation of Sabbath practices. However, there was debate about the exact application of this notion. Jesus weighs in on the debate by making a strong case that concern for persons trumps strict observance. At the heart of Sabbath practice is mercy and justice. If mercy and justice are at the heart of Sabbath, shouldn’t Sabbath practice reflect this, allowing for feeding the hungry? The story not only takes a position on debates about the meaning of Sabbath, but asserts the authority of Jesus to make such interpretation. This was a threat to other religious authorities, as will be seen shortly. Another note in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible helps us understand this passage. “For Jesus in Mark, even a ritual as important as the Sabbath is subordinated to the needs of people, for it was created for their benefit, and Jesus is also the master (lord) of the Sabbath.”