An Essay on Mark's Gospel
The claim has been made that Mark's Gospel should be seen as an initiation book written to introduce those soon to be baptised into the fellowship of Jesus. The whole Gospel - so the argument goes - was written to be read straight through in one sitting during the Easter vigil, and then to be followed at dawn by the baptism of the catechumens. Whether this theory is true or not, the Gospel's main concern is certainly those who want to follow the Lord.
The vocation accounts in this Gospel have a pragmatic character. They have to be seen in the light of the Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaimed as having arrived with him. The disciples were called to become fishers of people in the company of Jesus. The intention of Jesus was not to make them his servants but to call them co-workers and co-servants in God's plan of salvation for his chosen people then, now, and in the future for all human beings. The disciples were called to share in the mission of Jesus that aimed at universal salvation, and to be part of an apostolic community.
The handbook of Mark is composed of two parts which are almost equal in length. What concludes the first and opens the second is a question concerning the person of Jesus: Who do you say I am? (Mk 8.29) and Peter's answer: You are the Christ! (29) From here onwards the second part of the disciples' training begins. We could call the first part the journey through Galilee (Mk 1:16-8:21) and the second part the way to Jerusalem (8:27-10:45) having its end in Jerusalem itself (11:1-15.39).
The First Part: The Journey Through Galilee
The first part of being a disciple in Mark's handbook could also be called the springtime of the disciples' vocation, the time with the master in Galilee. It is exciting, fulfilling and rewarding to be with him. The disciples become important, they bathe in the success of the master, they re honoured and considered lucky. There is great coming and going; they don't even have time to eat; their expectations are lofty. But they still have a long way to go before they really become his disciples.
This way in Galilee comes to an end with two healings of blind people. Both stories are found only in Mark. The first takes place at Bethsaida before Peter's confession (Mk 8:22-26) and the second is that of the blind beggar Bartimaeus at Jericho (Mk 10:46-52) when Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem to face his final destiny, the cross.
Mark describes true discipleship in the passage 8:27-10:45 and introduces this section with the healing of a man who is blind (8:22-26). Somewhat surprisingly, the healing has to be done in two stages. The first attempt is seemingly not enough to restore the sight of the man. At the end of this whole section on discipleship, Mark again presents a healing of a blind man called Bartimaeus (10:46-52). Here the healing is an instant success. Bartimaeus' sight is completely restored and, after throwing off his possessions, he follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem.
It is obvious that Mark purposely uses the 'progressive' healing of the blind man as an introduction to Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah. Peter, however, by proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, has only perceived half of the story and is not yet able to see clearly all its implications. He realises in his confession that Jesus is the only way to salvation, but he is not yet ready to go with him on the way to Jerusalem. Therefore, he only understands half of the story; his sight is only half restored. The full vision of who Jesus is will be revealed only in the cross and resurrection.
"Recognition of Jesus' messiah-ship is not sufficient if one does not also accept the scandal of the cross (8:31-32). The two elements should not be separated from each other; their union constitutes the pivot of Mark's gospel"
J. Dupont, "Blind Bartimaeus", p.224
These two healings are beautiful illustrations of what has to happen to the disciples of Jesus before they can really recognise who Jesus is. The first cure not only demonstrates the blindness of the disciples but also points to what Jesus will do on the way: he will grant sight to them. The second, the cure of the blind Bartimaeus, makes it very clear that the disciples, even though they are following Jesus on the way, still lack sight.
Mark sees Bartimaeus as representing any disciple who reaches full perception. As long as Bartimaeus cannot see they way, he cannot walk along it. All he can do is to sit at the wayside (120:46). The contrast before and after the healing is obvious. At the beginning, Baritmaeus is blind - seated - on the side of the road (10:46), at then end he is sighted - follows - on the way (10:52). Only after his cure through Jesus' touch can he follow Jesus on the way.
It is an obvious truth that no one can walk a way without sight but it is especially true of Jesus' way; whoever does not see Jesus cannot follow him, and whoever does not follow him cannot see him. Mark seems to say that of all the followers of Jesus only the beggar from Jericho is no longer blind but sees. From this point on we must also understand the risen Lord's instruction to the disciples, given to them by the angel: 'He is going - tracing the way - before you to Galilee, there you will see him' (Mk 16:7).
The Second part: The Way to Jerusalem
After the confession of Peter, the time had come for the disciples to enter into a new phase of being followers of Jesus. In this second phase they were to follow the master down to Jerusalem with the prospect of being crucified with him. In Galilee, the place of his public life, Jesus was in total control. He was the active one: he called disciples, he healed the people and they responded to him; he cast out demons and battled with his opponents. In Jerusalem, the place of his passion, Jesus played the passive part: he is handed over. The Gospels use the phrase: "he was handed over" twenty-two times. The basic meaning of this phrase is that in the life of Jesus there came a moment when he was no longer the active subject, fully in control of all his actions, but had become the object on which others acted. Jesus moved from being active to being passive, from the role of subject to that of object and from working in freedom to waiting for what others decided and accepting what others did. To introduce his disciples to this way of being disciples, Jesus posed a crucial question: Who do people say I am? The disciples, like a bunch of kids, were eager to give an answer: John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets. The real question, however, was: "Who do you, my disciples, say I am?
Peter, being the spokesman of them all, gave the answer. You are the Christ! Jesus, taken by surprise, realised that they had got it right. Admittedly, Peter gave an answer he could not have produced by his own insight. (According to Matthew "It was not flesh and blood that revealed this to Peter but the Father in heaven" 16:17). Now the time had come for Jesus to lead them into the mystery of his suffering and to prepare them for what was to come. They would have to make a decision whether or not they wanted to remain or, better, become his true disciples.
The way of the master would not go up and up and up. There was a bend in the road that led down to the cross, to Jerusalem. Would they be willing to go with the master on that stretch of the way as well? Peter, as their leader, gave the initial answer: NO!
"Peter took Jesus aside and started to remonstrate with him" (to put him straight, to tell him to drop this nonsense)
Peter who gives the right answer to the question of who Jesus is, now took the initiative to tell Jesus what, according to this opinion, being the Messiah meant. Anything but - for God's sake - suffering and violent death. He steps in front of the Lord and tells him so: I have been following you up to now, I walked behind you faithfully, but no I ask you to follow me, and let me indicate the way.
Jesus' answer is very harsh and uncompromising: Devil get out of my way! If you want to be a follower of mine you'd better "Get behind me". Do not tell me which way to go! Get your feet into my footprints, Peter! From now on Jesus talks constantly about his cross and his death:
"He was telling them, "The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men; they will put him to death; and three days after he has been put to death, he will rise again." But they did not understand what he said and were afraid to ask him"
It is not only Peter who cannot accept the thought of a suffering and rejected Messiah. Here, after the second announcement of his suffering and death, the only thing the disciples can do is to get into an argument about whom of them should be regarded the greatest among them (9:34)
"Once more, taking the Twelve aside he began to tell them what was going to happen to him. Now we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man is about to be handed over tot he chief priests and the scribes. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the pagans, who will mock him and spit at him and scourge him and put him to death; and after three days he will rise again"
Again the reaction of the disciples is strange. They seem not to comprehend at all what Jesus is talking about. They are still preoccupied with future places of honour and importance. John and James ask Jesus for the first places in the glorious Kingdom to come. The rest of them get indignant revealing in fact that they had harboured the same thoughts. (Mk 10:33-41).
"For the Son of Man himself did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Jesus' definition of discipleship according to Mark includes the willingness to go with the master up to Jerusalem, to suffer and be rejected.
"If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me"
As we saw, Mark frames his catechesis on discipleship with two healing miracles in which Jesus heals a blind man. The first time the healing does not succeed immediately, while the second healing, that of the blind Bartimaeus, is an instant success. Here the essential elements of the discipleship become obvious:
Bartimaeus throws off his mantle meaning, he leaves all security behind. The mantle was the only possession the poor people normally had and the beggar's mantle entitled him to receive alms. This reminds the reader of the call of the first disciples. (1:18;20) who abandoned everything and followed Jesus. After Bartimaeus has committed himself totally to the Lord he goes after him on the road to Jerusalem. Now it becomes clear what being a disciple means for Mark: to go after the Master - to deny oneself - to take up one's cross.
Jesus' disciples failed miserably in their first attempt to be disciples of the master and to follow him on the way to Jerusalem. They all deserted him and ran away! A young man who followed him had nothing on but a linen cloth. They got hold of him, but he left the cloth in their hands and ran away naked" (Mk 14:50-52).
Knowing that "being naked" in Scripture means having lost one's dignity, Mark tells us here that the disciples, like our first parents, lost everything on the night they abandoned their master. They had stopped being his "followers".
Handbook written for the Roman community
It is still generally accepted that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome around 65 AD during or shortly after the persecution that had struck this community unexpectedly. (Some, however, hold that the Gospel was written in Roman-occupied Syria).
This community in Rome was well established and consisted of people as socially prominent as members of the imperial court. Among its founders they could list Peter as the most renowned. They had been living as 'disciples of Jesus' for some time. But now something unforeseen had happened: persecution had come unexpectedly. Many had been killed, driven out and had lost all they had. The question was: does being a disciple of Jesus mean to be subjected to all this and even to lose one's life?
Mark addresses this crisis situation and writes his handbook of discipleship, his Gospel for this specific group. His handbook is designed to answer the crucial question about the relationship between suffering and discipleship. The central place in his handbook is given to the apostle Peter, one of the group's most prominent founders. Mark presents Peter as an example of how he and all the other disciples had to undergo a very painful conversion before they were ready to follow the mast, if necessary, down to Jerusalem. Taking Peter as an example, Mark shows the Roman community that accepting the cross is vital to discipleship, and could mean readiness to lay down one's life.
Peter and all the other disciples had failed, but this was not the end. They, the Romans, could go back just as the disciples were taken back by the Lord after Easter. Mark is saying: "Look at your founder, Peter! How difficult it was for him to come to grips with the master's sense of obligation to go to Jerusalem and be crucified. Take Peter as your example and lean from him what being a disciple means." Peter's attempt to avoid the cross will always be a temptation for everyone when faced with a similar situation. But there is no way around it.
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me"8:34
It was important that Jesus said: THEIR cross and not MY cross. The cross or the "cup" that the Father has allotted to each one of us according to his will and our own capacity will always differ from that of other persons. But whenever we want to follow the lord we have to reckon seriously with the possibility of encountering the cross. It means that being disciples of Jesus might become an obstacle for our daily life, or might go against our inclinations and wishes. In these moments the "cross" will appear and we are asked to carry THIS, OUR CROSS as Jesus carried his.
The following illustration might show what this daily cross could consist of. We know from history that the one to be crucified had only to carry the horizontal crossbar. The vertical pole was already firmly in place and remained there to be used again and again. The condemned person was nailed to the crossbar, then lifted up and fixed to the vertical pole. Figuratively speaking, we could say the crossbar that we have to carry day in and day out is made up of our own character and habits, our temperament and inconsistencies, our ailments and suffering. The 'vertical pole' could be described as the millieu we find ourselves in, the circumstances of our lives that we cannot change or the difficult people we have to face or live with. These are all things that are firmly fixed on my road and which I can neither change nor remove. Where these two parts of the cross meet and "cross" each other is the place where my daily "crucifixion" will take place, where I am to "drink the cup the Father has assigned to me." In the handbook of Mark the disciple receives only assurance: that he will not be left alone. I will go ahead of you. Do not be afraid (Mk.16:7). There shall be nothing the disciple will have to experience that the master has not experienced before him. The Lord is always going ahead of us.
Whenever the disciples find themselves in difficulties and the cross weighs heavily, they are encouraged to recall the springtime of their vocation, the time of their Galilee with the Lord when they had seen and experienced the power of God's Kingdom already present. It is on such occasions that the master will tell them: "Go back to your Galilee, there you will see me!"
Copyright Fr John Fuellenbach ©