Sunday, January 22, 2012

Throughout this liturgical year, I will be giving a commentary on the whole of the Gospel of Mark. Today is the first installment.

I think that the Gospel of Mark is a dramatic narrative, by which I mean not simply that the content is dramatic, which it is, but that Mark has constructed a Gospel which is in essence a play, a drama, albeit divine and cosmic in its implications. This does not mean that I think that Mark is ahistorical, only that each Gospel author had to make choices in how their Gospels were constructed and Mark functions as a natural dramatist in how he presents material and how he structures the events in Jesus’ life. As the first written Gospel, and with the oral tradition more apparent on the surface, Mark is sometimes seen as simplistic and even shapeless, but I will argue that the Gospel of Mark is formed with great care, shaped by a series of six Acts, with many scenes, naturally, comprising each Act. Each Act is at the service of Mark’s overall purpose, to explain and unfold not only the identity of the Messiah, but the destiny of the Messiah and his followers. Mark draws the reader into his narrative, so that the reader himself becomes one of the disciples following along the journey with Jesus, a point that will become more apparent as we move deeper into the Gospel.

I consider that the first 13 verses of chapter one function as a Prologue to the drama, to set the scene for what is about to take place, the story of the Messiah who once lived in the midst of the people, largely unrecognized and rejected, and why his story has implications for every reader. In these 13 verses, the whole notion of the coming Messiah is established, first in terms of language, identifying the story of the Messiah as “good news” and the Messiah as “son of God” and “Christ,” and second from the promise of the Scriptures that a Messenger would prepare the way of the coming Messiah, drawing from an amalgam of Malachi and Isaiah (1:1-3). Once the premise is established, Mark quickly presents the Messenger, John the Baptist, and the Messenger’s baptism of Jesus (1:4-10), who is identified by God as “my son, the beloved” (1:11). Following the short and direct Temptation narrative in Mark (1:12-13), the Gospel proper begins.

It is a vivid and intense opening, as in the Prologue the reality of the coming Messiah is established, but nothing is explained and nothing is clarified. Mark presents to us the Messiah, drawing from Scripture, from the baptismal experience, and from the Temptation, but we know nothing about him. If we want to know, we must read on. Why is Jesus the Messiah?  What makes him the Messiah? What does the Messiah do? What will be his fate?

The first Act, which I believe runs from Mark 1:14-3:6, will establish through deeds, and sometimes through words, the presence and authority of the Messiah, but again, we will know little more about him than his actions and words reveal. Rarely will Mark give us insight into Jesus' life prior to his ministry, whence he came, his family, his livelihood, or his friends. And so the story begins, abruptly, rapidly drawing us in:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (NRSV)
In the Gospel reading above, Scene 1 of Act 1, the reading for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus begins his ministry only after “John was arrested” (1:14), subtly announcing that this is now Jesus’ time, the time for which John at least partially has prepared him and the people who had been going to John for baptism. According to Mark, John's baptism was for "repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins" (1:4b-5). John's baptism and message were necessary to prepare the people and to prepare Jesus, but his time, too, is fulfilled. Mark then begins to create the dramatic tension, as Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15).

While many since the earliest 20th century, beginning with Alfred Loisy, have stated that Jesus pronounced the Kingdom, but what he received was the Church, this quip does not make proper sense of Jesus’ understanding of “kingdom” or the reality of Church. The whole notion of the basileia, the Greek word for Kingdom, is that of the “reign” of God. Most of Jesus’ counterintuitive proclamation, and Mark’s counterintuitive writing, is still to be unfolded in the Gospel, but if you expected a Kingdom with towers, parapets, moats and armies, a King lording it over his enemies, your expectations will soon crumble. Nevertheless, a “reign” of God needs one thing, as does a Kingdom, and that is people. The Church, ekklesia, a word which is not used in Mark at all, is simply the gathered people of God. Loisy and others have made the same mistake as many who propound a high ecclesiology and that is to think that the nature of the institutionalized Church as structured through buildings and hierachies is the necessary and essential structure of the Church. This is not an argument against the Church, or the authority of the Church, but a return to the bedrock nature of the Church: those who hear the call of Christ and follow him. Jesus is calling people to belong to the reign of God. What the reign of God is and what it means for those who follow, as well as those who do not, is yet to be unfolded, but for Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom is to expect that people will hear the call  and respond to the call and enter the Kingdom, however ill-defined it is to the initial hearers of the word.

This is Jesus’ first task, creating the Church, and so he calls four men, two pairs of brothers, from their livelihoods and families. Simon and Andrew, James and John, “immediately” follow Jesus. Here we have the oral style of Mark, the spartan, pared down narrative, in which actions speak louder than words, at least for those of us reading. Mark would certainly know that more was present in the call of Jesus to his first disciples, but what matters to Mark is that they hear the call, respond and follow. Mark’s use of euthus, “immediately,” gives the Gospel its narrative push all throughout the Gospel: it speaks of orality, the fast paced plot does not stop for needless description, but also builds dynamic tension: why do they follow? How could you leave your family business to follow this teacher? What draws them to this man “immediately”? Rarely does Mark draw us into the inner life of his characters, with the significant exception of Jesus, and so we must derive intent from their actions and the unfolding plot. What will happen next?

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. Ok I'm Going to study this a year late. Juel says v 10 heavens torn apart comes up again with the temple drapes when jesus died. At the beginning and at the end the same message: God turned loose. Like your idea with the word euthus, a fast narrative. Hold on to your hat. God is moving.

  2. The text does not say, but why do you think these guys left immediately?

  3. I saw a movie once (which is not authoritative I know, but it does offer an explanation)that had Jesus, as a rabbi, going up to Simon & Andrew, et al, and saying, "Come follow me." This is how rabbis called their students. They would drop everything and follow. I imagine, that the usual invitation would be to prospective "gifted" students. So a rabbi asking common fishermen would have evoked surprise and a certain brusqueness in accepting the invitation.

  4. Thanks Faith. This is an interesting point. I will check out some sources and see if this explanation can be supported with some ancient evidence.