People wanting to preach from Mark need to be aware of the kind of writing which Mark is. One of the best ways of identifying this is to examine its opening verses. In particular 1:1-15 offer important clues. This paper looks at this opening which functions like an overture, before turning to particular themes which emerge.
The Beginning 1:1-15
When the writer commences with the words, 'The beginning of the good news', it is obvious that he is writing about something which is more than interesting. It is news that he thinks will benefit people and from which he has benefited. 'Good news' can be translated 'gospel' and this has given rise to an understanding of verse one according to which the author is talking about the beginning of his book. But 'gospel' as a description of a book or writing comes first to expression in the second century. Mark is speaking about 'good news' and tells us how it all began.
The obvious content is given: 'of Jesus Christ, the Son of God'. The news is not that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. We see this when we compare 1:14. Here we find the word, 'good news', appears again. It is in the phrase, 'the good news of God.' Again it is not that there is a God, but that God is doing something, about to do something. 1:15 explains: 'The reign of God is at hand.' That is the good news. These two references to good news explain each other. It was common in a culture where what people wrote would be read aloud, that the beginning and ends of sections or the beginning of one and the beginning of another, were signalled to the hearer by the repeating of key words and ideas. What we see as paragraph markers, indentation or a blank line, they heard as a repeated theme, a closing of the circle and a beginning again.
1:1 clearly identifies the good news with Jesus and it is connected with his identity as Christ and Son of God. In 1:1 we are not told more than that. We have to wait. But there is much more. The word, good news was loaded. It was a word associated in Old Testament passages, likely to be known to hearers, with the hopes of Israel. It carries echoes of the famous prophecy of Isaiah 52:7, 'How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news, who declares to Israel: your God reigns!' It also echoes Isaiah 61:1: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.' In other words, this is not just good news. It is good news which people have been expecting and they have been expecting it in the light of God's actions in the past, recorded in the Scriptures. 'Good news' is a theologically loaded term. It is the 'good news of God', of what God is doing and will do and it is clearly connected to Jesus who is Christ and Son of God.
Thus already the first verse indicates that this writing is addressing what it sees as human longing for God's action and assumes that this is to be expected. It is about hope and fulfilment of hope. It invites us to read and hear it in the light of human yearning and hope and to expound it with that in mind.
The sense of promise and fulfilment comes strongly to the fore in what follows. For in 1:2-3 we have a direct reference to Scripture, an allusion to Isaiah. The introduction generalises what is a combination of Old Testament texts into one citation. They include in 1:3 a citation of Isa 40:3, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight"' and in 1:2 one which could derive from either Exodus 23:20 or Malachi 3:1 or, as is probably the case, both, 'Behold I send my messenger before your face, who shall prepare your way.' Mark uses them to underline the point that the good news is the expected and promised good news. He applies these texts to a particular person associated with Jesus, John, the baptiser, as 1:4 indicates. In doing so he uses the texts to show that John's role is preparatory of Jesus. Why mention John at all? Because in Mark, John will make important declarations about Jesus and his role.
The citations in 1:2-3 are a tapestry of allusions. The first appears addressed directly to Jesus. In other words Mark is thereby incorporating Jesus into God's plan as expressed in Scripture. Originally Exodus 23:20 reports God's promise to Moses that an angel would go before the people if Israel as they travelled through the wilderness. Now it is applied to Jesus; John is a messenger, not an angel, and prepares for Jesus. Despite this disparity, the imagery of Israel in the wilderness is not to be missed, because John appears in the wilderness and Jesus, too, will venture into the wilderness. The wilderness is the place of divine happenings. It was also the place of expectation. In the wilderness you were on your way to a goal. Many in the first century appreciated the symbolism of the wilderness and set up their armies there or went there expecting some decisive act by God. The community believed to have settled on the shores of the Dead Sea also believed it was preparing the way of God in the wilderness and used Isa 40:3 of itself, the passage which Mark cites in 1:3.
The allusion to Malachi 3:1, which may also be present forges a link between John and Elijah whom people expected to return at the climax of history (Mal 4:5-6). We are at the climax of history and hope. That is Mark's message. That is his good news. When in 1:3 Mark comes to the actual quotation from Isaiah, we have a text of hope expressed at the time of exile. Wilderness, exile - these are the symbols of need and expectation. They reinforce the claim that the good news meets such hopes and expectations. In the quotation Mark will have understood the phrase, 'Prepare the way of the Lord', as a reference to the Lord God in Jesus, or more probably, to Jesus, the Lord. It effectively puts Jesus in the place of God, not as a second God nor supplanting God, but as God's representative, just as in Phil 2:10 we read that God's name, Lord, the name above every name, was given to Jesus at his exaltation on high. Mark does not enter into the precise nature of Jesus' relationship with God, but clearly assumes they are together at this point.
But what is this good news? So far we have had underlined for us that it meets expectation, that it is about God and about God in Jesus, but what is it? We have to wait for a specific answer, because first Mark wants to speak about John. 1:4 tells us, 'John came in the wilderness baptising (or John the baptiser came in the wilderness) and proclaiming repentance for forgiveness of sins.' We note the wilderness symbolism. The fulfilment enhances the sense that in him already a promise or prophecy has been met, assuring us that the rest will also be fulfilled. The call to repentance must be understood in the light of the quotations which come in 1:2-3. In other words, people should repent in preparation for the coming of the Lord. Forgiveness also belongs here. The good news is not that with Jesus forgiveness is possible, because according to Mark, it was already quite freely available through baptism by John. That is an important point, easily overlooked if we read Mark too much in the light of how other New Testament writers may have seen things. For Mark the good news is about more than forgiveness.
I will pass over John's attire, eating habits, briefly. They reinforce the prophetic image of John or at least his simplicity. John is calling for people to change in the light of the new. 1:7-8 give us John's words about the coming one, leaving us in no doubt that John has no intention of being his rival or even his partner. The effect is to give Jesus absolute status. John is preparing the way of 'the Lord'. But why is his coming good news? In 1:8 we have our first important clue: 'He will baptise with the Holy Spirit'. The assumption is that this is good news, as was John's baptising with water. So we now know what constitutes the good news. It is that Jesus will baptise with the Holy Spirit. Our problem is that, knowing Luke's version, we immediately jump ahead to the day of Pentecost, which Luke saw fulfilling this prediction. But this is another case of missing Mark's point by reading in material from other writers. The much more obvious meaning in Mark is that 'baptising with the Holy Spirit' is what Jesus is just about to do and that this activity constitutes the good news. This is what makes sense of what follows: Jesus receives the Spirit so that he can now go ahead and start baptising with the Spirit. Clearly Mark sees Jesus' ministry as the action of Jesus' baptising with the Spirit. But we are still a long way from deciphering what that means, despite that major clue.
1:9-11 recounts Jesus' baptism. It is important to see that for Mark it is a real human being, Jesus, who comes from Nazareth, who receives this baptism. Mark's use of Christ, Son of God, and Lord, never implied Jesus was other than human. Jesus comes like everyone else. Mark makes no apology. Later he is quite happy to have Jesus declare, 'Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone' (10:18). Mark does not want to portray Jesus as a sinner, but nor has he any interest in sinlessness. Mark tells us what Jesus experienced when he was baptised. He does so in a way that makes it privy to the hearers. It gives them a message, even though in the story it is Jesus' private experience. Within the overture of the gospel it features an important melody: Jesus as Son of God and Jesus as bearer of the Spirit.
First Jesus sees the heavens torn open. This is quite dramatic. Whereas thus far we have been dealing with time: past promises and hopes meet their fulfilment; now we are dealing with spatial categories which assume God's heavenly world is above. The barrier is ripped open and a direct connection made, or, more specifically, the spirit, like a dove, comes down and alights on Jesus. The image may recall the hovering of God's spirit at creation. Here the spatial message is clear. The divine has broken through into our space in Jesus. We may want to turn it upside down and speak of God coming to surface in Jesus. Whatever way we put it, the message, mostly put in categories of time, is now put in categories of space.
The words of the first verse find their echo in the words from heaven: 'You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.' This, too, is a small tapestry of biblical allusions. The prophet of Isaiah 42:1 reported God's call in the words, 'You are my servant in whom I am well pleased.' The psalmist spoke for the king who reported God's word at his coronation: 'You are my Son. Today I have made you my child.' (Ps 2:8). The imagery of 'beloved son' echoes Abraham's affection for Isaac and will find an echo in the parable of the vineyard where a landlord sends his 'beloved son' who is murdered by tenants (12:1-12). Possibly all of these images play a role in the passage. The primary focus in Mark's narrative is the special relationship between Jesus and God. This is why he endows him with the Spirit for his task. The language of family stands beside the language of time and space: here in Jesus we are close to God, here God's reality breaks through, here the hope for God finds fulfilment. If we ask: doing what? So far our answer is: baptising with the Holy Spirit. We have just been told of his status and his equipment for that task. His fulfilling it is the good news. That, Mark is about to tell.
1:12-13 makes us wait, but in a way which gives us further important information. The Spirit leads Jesus. That is what we might have expected: the Spirit is the driving force and basis for what Jesus is to do. But first a spell in the wilderness - of biblical proportions. The place, the wilderness, the figure forty, the fasting, all underline preparation and heighten expectation. Again we can too easily read Matthew and Luke's version into the story and reflect about Israel in the wilderness, but that is only a hint in Mark. The primal character of the wilderness, the wild animals, suggests, if not a return to the reality of creation, at least exposure to ultimate danger. That comes to expression primarily in the temptation or testing encounter with Satan. Here is the power of darkness. Here are also angels supporting Jesus. The scene foreshadows what is to come: Jesus with the Spirit facing the powers of evil. The good news must, therefore, entail the positive aspect of this struggle. The baptising with the Holy Spirit must indicate a successful countering of the powers of evil.
We are now ready to begin. It may well be that Mark sees 1:14-15 as a new beginning. In any case it echoes the beginning of the gospel as we have seen. Now we are ready to have the good news presented. We know it is about God's action. We know it reaches fulfilment and finds presence in Jesus. We know it is about his role as baptiser with the Spirit and that it belongs in the context of struggle against the powers of evil. Now we have Jesus' first words, but before that, in a subordinate clause, there is a foreshadowing of rejection as Mark tells of John's arrest. Just when we were getting ready for the triumphant good news, we have this earthing reminder, which helps us recall what will also be Jesus' fate. Mark will return to John's arrest and execution when he turns again to the sending out of the disciples in 6:7-29. John's fate, Jesus' fate and theirs are closely connected.
Mark now presents Jesus' first initiatives: he comes out of the wilderness, for now is the time of fulfilment. He declares this time. He proclaims 'the good news of God'. He announces that the kingdom of God is at hand. This is the language of power, and this is what we might have expected from listening closely to Mark. The good news is, as it was for Isaiah, that God reigns, and that now means: he is about to establish his rule through Jesus' activity. This is what John was preparing people for and so John's exhortations still apply: people should change. They should believe and trust in the kingdom, in God's action in Jesus. They should believe and support Jesus and live accordingly.
The baptising in the Spirit has begun. God's rule has begun. Mark speaks of it in process. He is not declaring that whereas God did not rule, now from a particular moment God does rule. Rather the good news is the beginning of a reality in space and time and he locates it in Jesus. It has a future. It has a struggle. It has a victory. It is reality and hope. It is present and to come. This comes to expression strongly in the first action of Jesus in Mark. He engages four disciples to join him (1:16-20). In doing so he uses the imagery of fishing, a harvest image. It has less to do with throwing in a line and catching numbers of fish, a numbers game, and more to do with what the image of harvest represents: the fulfilment of hope, the victory of God over powers of evil. The gathering of men and women into the safety and responsibility of being God's people and then engaging them in the struggle to set others free. Mark has no sense of Jesus being a solo act. Jesus is always the stronger one, the unique one, but always also the one who gathers others around him who are to share his joy and his task.
In what follows I want to trace some aspects of the good news through Mark, in particular, to highlight that for Mark the good news is about transforming power which sets people free. I believe this is a consistent image in what follows in the gospel and gives a vital insight into what for Mark the good news really amounts to. It, therefore, challenges those who seek inspiration from Mark for themselves and their hearers to give this aspect its full weight. It plays such a role in the overture, you can expect it will be a significant melody in the main body of the work.
This is exactly what we find when we move into the body of the work. For after the first episode, the calling of the disciples (1:16-20), the first major act of Jesus is an exorcism in a synagogue (1:21-28). It is interesting that we find Jesus' identity reaffirmed in the context of exorcisms. Within the narrative this is because demons recognise him and his power. For the hearer of the gospel it reinforces the message of the opening. In 1:21-28 Jesus is hailed as the holy one of God. In 1:34 he is hailed as Son of God. Throughout 1:21-45 Jesus is primarily the exorcist and healer. The controversy episodes in 2:1 - 3:6 also include acts of healing, the conflict with the scribes, an important sub theme. In 3:7-12 we return to a summary of Jesus' activity, including exorcism and again the demons acclaim him as Son of God.
3:22-30 brings us the first confrontation of Jesus by the Jewish leaders about his ministry as a whole. What is the focus? His exorcisms and the accusation that he achieves these by the prince of evil, Beelzebul. Note that Jesus responds by identifying his ministry as a struggle against the powers of evil and associating his work with the Spirit. His exorcism and healing activity is a manifestation of the Spirit. It is his baptising people with the Spirit, setting them free. To reject the Spirit is to commit the unforgivable sin. One does this by misinterpreting the meaning of Jesus' ministry.
3:22-30 is surrounded on either side by a negative family response to Jesus' ministry. 4:1-34 focuses on various responses which people make, using the parables of harvest. Then we return to the theme of Jesus' power where as an exorcist he stills the storm (4:35-41). Mark is bringing his narrative of Jesus' ministry to a climax. He next tells of the massive miracle in Gerasa where confronted by an army of demons Jesus expels them victoriously to their destruction (5:1-20). Here, too, they recognise Jesus as Son of God. The same power and authority is evident in the following intertwined episodes of the healing of the woman condemned to social death because of her constant state of uncleanness and the raising of the twelve year old girl (5:21-43).
The predominant motif in Mark's portrait of Jesus' ministry is that of transformative power which makes people whole. It is clear that this is what Mark understands to be the good news and that he sees this as the ongoing task of the disciples. Mark also emphasises that Jesus is a teacher, but when we look for the content of the teaching, it is about how to understand responses to his ministry and, in controversy, defence against the charge that his activity is not of God.
Good news is then, for Mark, God's transformative power to liberate people from powers which oppress them. In Mark's terms it is what occurred in Jesus through the Spirit. It is the coming near of the kingdom of God. And it is something entrusted to the community of his followers.
If we go, therefore, to Mark for inspiration, we must take into account his primary values, but that includes taking seriously his frame of reference which will appear to many rather strange. Let me identify some of these features. In terms of space he assumes a universe in which the heavenly and God is above and the earth below. I have already mentioned that many might want to treat this symbolically and even invert the image and speak of the manifestation or surfacing of what is deep spiritual reality. In terms of time, Mark operated with the assumption that history was reaching its climax and that Jesus' coming was the beginning of that end. This had not proved to be the case. The interpreter may see here a symbol of human yearning expressed as hope and fulfilled less within a framework of time and more as expressing a goal and a partial realisation of that goal.
Another strange element for most people today is Mark's diagnosis of the human condition, especially the notion of demons. When the ancient world used the language of demonology it was describing reality within its frame of reference. The interpreter today may identify that same reality but within a frame of reference which is more likely to offer medical, psychological, social or political explanation, but oppression remains. Changes in perception of reality inevitably mean that our understanding of what constitutes human need is immeasurably more complex. Accordingly any application of the liberation, good news motif, needs to acknowledge that complexity. For a Christian some constants remain, though even they stand within a long tradition of critical reflection. These include: God, Jesus, the Spirit, the Church as community. Yet for all that Mark would tell us that a follower of Jesus in any age is someone involved with God's life in the world bringing healing and freedom. This is the vision of God's reign in the world.
There are some other important themes which accompany the good news. One is certainly part of it. It is the democratisation of spiritual value. Or, to put it in other terms, Mark portrays Jesus as radically inclusive. This is part of the message of the kingdom and of Jesus' activity. We find it in the first episode in the account of his ministry. He enlists fishermen to act with him. This is a radical inclusion aside from the categories of rank which existed at the time. We find the same in the following episode, the exorcism in the synagogue. His authority, charismatic and direct, is contrasted with that of the scribes who, by definition, derived their authority from interpreting authoritative Scripture. Jesus' responses to the sick, demoniacs, an outcast leper reflect the same radical inclusiveness. The same tendency is evident in 2:1-12 where Jesus, like John before him, claims the right to declare God's forgiveness and refuses to subordinate such authority to existing structures. The call of Levi, the toll collector (2:13-14), and the open sharing of a meal with criminals and the unholy (2:15-17) illustrate a similar acceptance of the value of all people.
In 3:20-35 Mark links the response of Jesus' own family with that of the Jewish leaders and argues inclusively that all, whoever they are, become his family if they share his commitment to God's will. This is a subversion of the normal hierarchy of values which put family loyalty (and therefore family power) above all else. In a similar way the parable of various soils is arguing that the true growth is where the soil is receptive. Women respond to his appeal and remain with him even at the end when the disciples have deserted him.
Mark has also composed the middle section of his gospel in a way that serves to foreshadow the situation of his own time when not only Jews but also Gentiles had been included in the community. Thus he has loaded the feeding the 5000 with strongly Jewish motifs. The people are as sheep without shepherd, a common image for Israel. Like Israel in the wilderness, they are made to sit in numbered groups on the grass. The 12 baskets is pointed symbolism to which Mark has Jesus return (8:16-21). By contrast Mark locates a feeding of 4000 in a Gentiles setting: Apart from the wilderness all images of Israel are absent in an otherwise almost identical narrative. The baskets of leftovers number 7, a pointed symbol of Gentiles. Mark has done this as a framework for teaching by Jesus in 7:1-23 which effectively overrides biblical legislation which upheld barriers between Jews and Gentiles and for Jesus' action of responding to the needs of the Syrophoenician woman, even if after initial refusal.
Altogether Mark is making a very strong point: the good news, the liberation, is for all. It is radically inclusive and even Scripture cannot stand in its way. Matthew and Luke will re edit Mark's composition somewhat drastically to tone down its radical character and argue for a more compromising attitude towards Scripture. Mark's approach reflects a certain way of handling religious tradition, including the Bible, which will always be controversial, but which inspires much of contemporary hermeneutical reflection on use of the Bible today.
Jesus and the Religious Systems
A related sub theme in Mark is the way he portrays Jesus' approach to the religious system of his day. We have already noted the contrast which Mark introduces right from the beginning between Jesus and 'the scribes'. Both Jesus and John the Baptist were unorthodox channels of spiritual authority. People like that outside any established system are likely to be bothersome. We find the issue raising its head at the conclusion of Jesus' ministry where the scribes ask on what authority Jesus does what he does. Jesus replies by linking his own authority with John. They were both mavericks. Yet neither acted illegally because scriptural law did not assign a monopoly to temple authorities and priests in matters spiritual.
Mark preserves what must have been pithy responses to controversy which were spoken by the historical Jesus on various occasions. Confronted over declaring God's forgiveness to a paralysed man Jesus cleverly replies: What is easier to tell him his sins are forgiven or to tell him to pick up his bed and walk (2:9). At one level the latter is much harder; at another, the former. It was designed to confound and ultimately to ridicule the distinction which his opponents sought to preserve. Jesus is often defending his democratisation of spiritual blessing. He does this when he quips that the sick need a doctor not the well (2:17) or when he asks whether it is right to do good on the sabbath or harm (3:4). These responses are almost mischievous, because they deliberately shift the ground of the argument. Their intention is well reflected in the saying, 'The sabbath is made for people, not people for the sabbath' (2:27). Other such quips have become so familiar they have lost their sting and might be best reformulated: 'What comes out of a person is unclean not what enters them!' (7:15) or 'If God went to the effort of joining something together, you shouldn't pull it apart.' (10:9). In both there is an earthy humour. Both are playful confrontations not statements of law. In the same general category is also the famous: 'Render to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's' (12:17).
In all of this Jesus was not showing disrespect for the Law (for Scripture), but rather promoting and defending a way of interpreting it. Other episodes preserved in Mark show how Jesus could at times be quite conservative with regard to the Law. The most notable example is in his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman where he refused at first to help her, because it would mean taking the children's bread and throwing it to the dogs (7:24-30). The same basic conservatism may be reflected also in Jesus' response to the approach of the leper who transgressed established boundaries (1:40-45) and in his initial response to the woman who was unclean who broke established taboos and touched him (5:25-34), although it now reads differently in Mark's version of the story. The point, however, in all of these, and the reason why they have been preserved, is that Jesus did nevertheless go on to respond, allowing the Law's principle of compassion to override other provisions. Again we see an interpretation of Scripture which upholds its laws, but sets some principles above others.
In Mark we find Jesus enunciating these higher principles on three significant occasions. When approached by a rich man (10:17-22) asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus gives a direct answer: keep the commandments. For Mark this was a genuine answer, as doubtless it was for Jesus himself. But what does it mean? The man was clear; it meant doing the commandments and he had done so since he was a young man. Jesus admires the effort, but then asks a question which has the effect of exposing the poverty of the man's obedience. 'Go sell what you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven and come, follow me.' This challenge exposes that the man had kept the commandments but was out of touch with their spirit. Jesus is not adding another command, but exposing the inadequacy of the man's obedience. Even to follow Jesus is not so much a new command and certainly not a command to abandon the Law and follow Jesus. Rather it means: follow me as I expound Scripture and its meaning. The same focus on the attitude and orientation of the Scriptures, on love and compassion, underlies Jesus' response here as it did in his controversial quips and his decisions to put response to human need ahead of other provisions of the Law.
The same appears where a scribe asks Jesus about the greatest commandment (12:28-34). They agree: loving God and loving one's neighbour. These are more important than cult and sacrifice. Of course, for many this would be a nonsensical contrast. For to love God surely means doing what he tells us and he tells us in Scripture what we should do. So you cannot set priorities. If God said it, you do it. Anything else is not love for God. Clearly Jesus, both the historical Jesus and the Jesus of Mark's understanding, does not share this approach. This inevitably led Jesus into conflict and has, and will, lead anyone who follows it into conflict with those who see the authority of Scripture differently. Jesus' focus on underlying attitudes frees the interpreter to weigh the significance of commandments. His focus on attitudes comes to expression also in the traditions which Matthew preserves, where Jesus presses beyond the commandment not to commit murder to insist that we should not write people off even in our attitudes, and beyond the commandment not to commit adultery to insist that we should never have an exploitative attitude towards women (5:21-30). From these examples and the example of the rich man we see that Jesus' approach did not necessarily amount to a softening of the Law's demand. Rather it led to a more radical approach which went included both behaviour and attitude and derived from a total commitment to love and respect other human beings.
If this set Jesus at odds with scribes and others who took an alternative view, his free wheeling charismatic authority also set him at odds with institutional religion of the time, if only because he, like John, did not neatly fit any of the established patterns. All the more aggravating, because neither took a stance which was unlawful. Jesus appears to have respected the temple, 'God's house' (11:17), but attacked the pretensions and hypocrisy of its servants. In the same way Jesus challenged the power system of the family and of wealth. His simple itinerant lifestyle was in itself a protest against prevailing values of family, home town, and property, which others would have seen as the blessings of the covenant. In each case these things were not disparaged in themselves, but exposed as exercising the wrong kind of influence on people.
For Mark three decades have passed since the events his story tells. In that time Jesus' radical approach to interpreting Scripture, which operated with a hierarchy of values in interpreting it, has extended to become an approach which evaluates tradition and Scripture itself in the light of the needs of new situations. At the same time, he portrays Jesus as not only the one who mounts a counter model of interpretation, but who himself speaks with his own authority. To 'The sabbath was man for people, not people for the sabbath' he adds: 'For the Son of Man is lord also of the sabbath' (2:27-28). To 'The sick need a doctor not the well', he adds: 'I have come not to call the righteous but sinners' (2:17). Yet it has not reached the stage where Jesus is the absolute authority independent of Scripture, a stance we find in John's gospel. Jesus' authority is still authority to interpret Scripture.
Yet, for Mark, interpreting Scripture now includes a critical element. It means knowing what to uphold and what to ignore or declare obsolete or even never valid. In the latter category come the purity and food laws according to Mark. Not only does Mark indicate that Jesus was 'declaring all food clean' (7:19), but he also shows Jesus' argument why this was so. Such outward matters can never affect what really matters. Arguments which Jesus used to set priorities, Mark now has Jesus use to go beyond that. Not only is inner purity more important than outer purity. Outer purity does not and cannot matter. That effectively annuls significant parts of the Law, the Scripture, for which cultic and ceremonial purity is a fundamental presupposition. Mark may be influenced by the rationalist spirit of his day. But the chief influence appears to derive from Jesus himself. The principle of inclusion and compassion entails, according to Mark, even the setting aside of what Scripture reports as God's commands if they stand in its way. In this Mark is at one with Paul, who reaches the point of annulling the command to circumcise Gentiles. Mark's extension of Jesus' approach is one which Matthew and Luke will be reluctant to make. Luke will let circumcision go, but it is the exception which proves the rule that not one command is to fall and it occurs only because of special divine intervention.
In the same spirit Mark sets aside the temple itself, having it replaced by the community of faith, built on Jesus the foundation stone, a temple not built with hands. False witnesses at the trial declared that Jesus predicted he himself would destroy it (14:58). They were wrong. Jesus declared that God would do so in judgement on what it had become. The claims and counterclaims come to a climax in the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus' death, a portent of coming judgement. Mark's approach to the temple and to cultic and ceremonial purity reflect the relativising we find in Jesus, but go beyond it. Here, too, Matthew and Luke are more reluctant, preferring to restrict Jesus' concerns to reform of abuses and threats of judgements not fundamental challenges of the basis of spirituality. Mark was not anti-ceremonial or anti-sacramental, as is clear by his positive reports of John the Baptiser and of the Last Supper's symbolism. He was however prepared to challenge what institutions had become. In doing so he helped preserve Christianity from captivity to particular cultural expressions of faith. He would probably feel equally uncomfortable with what Christianity has become in many parts of the world. He would also be at odds with many interpreters of Scripture, not least those who might stand in the way of a critical approach such as he espoused, when declaring that the logic of Jesus' position must imply freedom to set aside whatever causes people to be marginalised. But then he would have to join the debate with Matthew and Luke in the process.
Jesus and the Church
If dealing with religious authority is a sub plot, the main one being the "good news" itself of the transformative power that has come to set people free, then another is Jesus' dealing with his disciples. They are particularly interesting, because they inevitably represent the church of Mark's day, at least in the sense that it would natural for Mark's believing community to identify with them. They are called to join Jesus in the harvest, as fishers of people. They are entrusted with the same task of liberation, healing, making people whole. Mark ensures we notice that disciples are called to follow (1:16-20), set aside for the task (3:13-19), twelve in a special role, and then commissioned to do what he himself has done (6:7-13). And, as we have seen, he makes a point of indicating that they are also liable to face the same hostility which John and Jesus faced. The selection of twelve probably has less to do with a particular command structure and more to do with symbolism. They are symbolic of Israel with its twelve tribes. This was all part of saying: Israel's hopes are coming to fulfilment.
It is all the more striking that Mark soon shows the disciples on the one hand, continuing to follow Jesus, but on the other failing to grasp what he was about. They fail to recognise his power and what it can do, when they panic in the storm (4:35-41). Peter, their spokesperson, gets it right when he acclaims Jesus the Christ, but fails to comprehend that Jesus is a Messiah who is to face suffering and death (8:27-31). It becomes comical from there on, where associated with each prediction of suffering on the part of Jesus there is a claim by disciples which heads in the opposite direction, beginning with Peter's response. On the second occasion the contrast is with a conversation in which the disciples argue who it to be the greatest (9:30-37). The third occasion comes immediately before James and John seek senior places of power in Jesus' kingdom (10:33-40). Mark embroiders the symbolism strikingly by using three accounts healing, one of a deaf and dumb man (7:31-37) and two of a blind man (8:22-26; 10:46-52), to underline the deafness and blindness of the disciples (cf. 8:16-21).
This is fairly rigorous preaching on Mark's part, designed to unsettle his hearers. With the passion, things become steadily worse. They all desert Jesus. Peter denies him and Judas betrays him. Only the women remain faithful throughout, but even their representatives fail (16:8). Yet Mark still allows us to see that all is not lost. Even Peter and the disciples will be rehabilitated. They will not be abandoned. The risen Jesus will appear to them, whether they are forewarned or not (16:7). There must then be hope for Mark's hearers, as well. On the same level, Mark indicates that true insight and true hearing will only be possible when the whole story can be told and that is after both the crucifixion and the resurrection (9:9-10). Mark would doubtless have seen himself as offering a valid version of that new insight.
We may 'second guess' what Mark was addressing in his community. Were there some in his day failing to appreciate that discipleship meant suffering? Were some needing reassurance because of so much suffering? Some have even suggested Mark invented much of the suffering to rationalise the failure of his community to make any headway in the world, although this calls for too much invention, to my mind. Others have thought that the problem was doctrinal: people had the wrong idea of Jesus, primarily as the miracle worker. The problem here is that Mark makes much of the miracles, especially the exorcisms as we have see. The first suggestion is probably the best. Some go beyond it to identify targets within or outside the community whom Mark is attacking, but Mark's disciples still remain one with his community and there still is hope. Certainly Mark is making a strong point that being a follower of Jesus means understanding clearly both what disciples were called to be and what Jesus was. The chief characteristic here is compassion and lowliness, including vulnerability to suffering, in the belief that this is God's way, including God's way of bearing the good news.
We need to see that underlying Mark's approach is a major assumption about power, its use and abuse. We find this in the climax of Jesus' teaching his disciples, where in response to the desire for power on the part of James and John, Jesus speaks about greatness (10:41-45; see also 9:33-37). He identifies the prevailing values which call rulers and dominant people great. He then subverts this value system, placing a child before them and speaking of humility and lowliness. It is however more than an attitude of humility. He goes on to identify greatness in terms of love and compassion for others, service. This is an alternative scale of values which challenges people to a new way of thinking about themselves, others, and ultimately, about God. Where love is made this central, that being a loving person defines the goal of human achievement, values are turned on their head. Mark's story of Jesus is a story of such subversion. It is not bereft of power and authority. It is not the kind of humility that avoids responsibility. It is powerful self giving, as Jesus himself says, an alternative way of finding life: giving it, losing oneself.
This, then, brings us full circle. We began with the prologue and noted that the good news was about what was to happen in Jesus. He would baptise with the Spirit. The kingdom of God was to draw near. This was couched in a framework of time and place and diagnosis of human need which render it strange for people today, yet elements that are central remain, sufficient still to be able to speak of good news. Radical involvement in God's action expresses itself in acts of liberation. But underlying all of this is a value system according what makes a person great, what constitutes true human being, is self giving love and compassion. Giving life is the clue to finding life. The story of Jesus in Mark is the story of such self giving. If we miss the whole story and just focus on the victories, we miss the point. The good news is therefore about the transformative power of love which also makes us vulnerable. Of course, for Mark it is not about love in abstract. It is about the Spirit, about God. For this is how Mark thinks about God and about Jesus. This is the good news he tells.
To understand Mark's approach as fundamentally theological is important. To see God primarily in terms of what is greatness, self giving compassion, is as hard to sustain in a world of opposite values as it is to see real human greatness in these terms. The system was and is so strong which promotes, upholds, and demands the opposite. Christianity itself, including its thought and its Scripture, was inevitably to become a mixture of both systems. The images of king and father which embody the prevailing system inevitably dominated language about God. Their ironic use in Mark who has Jesus crowned with thorns in brokenness on a cross so easily gives way to literal use in which the chief thing becomes power and the right to power in contrast to giving and will to love. Imitators of God, of both models, abound. The domination model dominates. It has allowed systems to develop which have justified violence and oppression in the name of right, including at the highest level, in the projected images of eternal hell. The system reinforces itself so that human behaviour sanctions a theology which, in turn, sanctions human behaviour. It is almost impossible to extricate ourselves from its influence. Yet, even if sometimes, just as a whisper, the alternative voice makes itself heard within the Scriptures and the Christian tradition and outside it, enough to avoid despair.
In his own way Mark was saying that the deep human yearning for meaning finds an answer in the story he tells. The demons are addressed, the expectations at the heart of the religion he knew are fulfilled, the access to height or depth made evident, human life before God lived out. That is what Mark saw as 'good news', the 'good news of Jesus Christ'. The interpreter who says yes to Mark must find a way of expressing the same in a new space and time, unpopulated by Mark's demons but beset with the same realities. These realities will include for us social, political, economic systems as well as spiritual, psychological and personal forces. Even more it will mean espousing an alternative to the system which still wins and risking the vulnerability such a cause entails. But then Mark leaves us the challenge with hope, even if we do no better than his disciples. Beyond even silence is the possibility of new beginning.