Mark’s Urgency in the Gospel: A Look at Year B
COMMENTARY: The very roughness and breathless nature of the Gospel of St. Peter’s ‘interpreter’ makes his stories vivid and arresting.
Be warned! Year B has begun! Year B is, of course, the second of the three-year cycle for the Lectionary at Mass. In Year A, we read from Matthew for the Gospels of Ordinary Time; in Year B, Mark; in Year C, Luke. John is read so heavily in Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and on feast days that it doesn’t get its own year.
So let’s quickly give an overview of Mark! If I sound like I’m in a hurry, its Mark’s influence on me. His is the breathless Gospel — his most typical word of his Gospel is euthus (41 times), translated “immediately” or “straightway.”
Mark portrays Jesus as a man of action: he “immediately” moves from one healing to another, from one encounter to another. Mark skips the Lord’s birth, begins with the Baptism, and rushes through his ministry until the Resurrection. Thus, Mark’s is the shortest Gospel, with the roughest grammar, like someone speaking on the street. But the very roughness makes his stories vivid and arresting. Scholar Mary Healy gives this literal example, without the usual “smoothing” of modern translations:
A leper comes to him and, kneeling down, begs him and says, ‘If you wish, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand and touched him, and he says to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.” The leprosy left him immediately, and he was made clean. Then, warning him sternly, he dismissed him at once. Then he says to him, ‘See that you tell no one anything’ (Mark 1:40-45; Sixth Sunday OT B, 2/14/21; translated by Mary Healy).
Who was Mark? His full name was John Mark (Acts 12:12), and he first appears in the Bible in Mark 14:51-52, where he is almost certainly the young man wearing a single linen garment who flees naked from Gethsemane. Wearing a single linen garment was characteristic of the Essene movement — a very devout, ascetical, separatist group within Judaism that left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.
In Acts 12:12, we find out his mother was named Mary (many Jewish women were named Mary at this time in history, after Herod the Great’s most popular queen) and owned the house of the Upper Room, where the Last Supper was celebrated. That’s why he was tagging along behind the apostles on the night of Our Lord’s arrest.
In time, Mark joined Paul and Barnabas on missionary journeys (Acts 12:25), but he apparently burned out and left for home, leading to a falling out with St. Paul (Acts 15:37-38). His cousin Barnabas, however, still believed in him (Acts 15:29), and eventually he became St. Peter’s assistant (1 Peter 5:13). It was from Peter that he got the information for his Gospel.
Eventually, Mark reconciled even with Paul, (Colossians 4:10; Philemon 24), such that by the end of his life, Paul and Mark had grown quite close again (2 Timothy 4:11). Thus, Mark’s life is a beautiful story of early high ideals followed by disgraceful failure, then repentance, rehabilitation, perseverance and final reconciliation within the community of the Church.
Our earliest report about Mark’s Gospel comes from the very early Church Father Papias, a disciple of John the Apostle, who mentions: “When Mark became Peter’s interpreter, he wrote down accurately, though by no means in order, as much as he remembered of the words and deeds of the Lord; for he had neither heard the Lord nor been in his company, but subsequently joined Peter.” Other early Fathers affirm this, and give the place of composition as Italy.
Modern scholars usually hold that Mark was the first to write a Gospel, and his was subsequently used by Matthew and Luke. Ninety percent of Mark’s content is replicated in Matthew, and 50% of it in Luke. (Trivia: Only Mark 7:33-36; 8:22-26; and 14:51-52 find no parallels in Matthew or Luke.) The Church Fathers, however, are insistent that Matthew wrote first. Perhaps Matthew was the first to write a simple Gospel, and later combined his work with that of Mark, which carried the prestige of his source, Peter — giving us the longer Gospel of Matthew we are familiar with.
Mark’s Gospel has a simple organization. The Baptism of Jesus forms the introduction to his biography (1:1-13). Then, there are two major sections: Jesus’ northern ministry in and around Galilee (1:14-8:30), then his southern ministry in Judea and Jerusalem, ending in his Passion (8:31-16:20). Arguably, the turning point of the Gospel is Peter’s confession of Jesus Identity: “But who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ!” (8:29).
The major theme of Mark is the identity of Jesus, and declarations of who he is mark high points and transitions in the Gospel. So the voice of God the Father at the Baptism ends Mark’s prologue: “You are my beloved Son” (1:9). The declaration of a demon marks the start of Jesus’ Galilean ministry: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” (1:24). Jesus’ ministry expands to include the Twelve at about the time the evil spirits are acclaiming him “You are the Son of God!” (3:11).
We already noted Peter’s confession as the turning point, and we reach a certain climax at Jesus’ trial, as the High Priest challenges: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed!” and Jesus exclaims: “I AM! And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven!” (14:61; see Daniel 7:13-14). Other high points include Pilate: “Are you the King of the Jews?” “You have said so.” (“You said it!” 15:2), and finally the centurion: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” This last statement, from the mouth of a Roman officer, is particularly important for one of Mark’s major purposes, which was the evangelization of Roman culture. Jesus’ message and identity have been embraced by a respected member of Roman society.
At least three titles for Jesus are critical in Mark. The first is “Son of God.” This is actually a royal title in Israelite culture, associated with the son (heir) of David the king: see Psalm 2:7-8: “I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son, today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession” (See also Pslam 89:20-26; 2 Samuel 7:14). It time it dawned on Jesus’ followers that “son of God” was true of Jesus in a much more robust sense then for his royal forefathers.
The second is “Son of Man.” Many think this title indicates Jesus’ humanity, his mortality, his humility, or something of the sort, but that is almost completely wrong. The title “Son of Man” occurs in key Scriptures as the title of a cosmic king (Psalm 8:3-6), especially Daniel 7:13-14:
Behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a Son of Man, to him was given dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion.
In Mark 13:26 and 14:61, Jesus makes it clear that Daniel 7 is the background for his self-given title, “Son of Man.”
The third is the title “Christ” itself. “Christ” is the Greek word (christos) that translates the Hebrew meshiach (“Messiah”), meaning “one smeared with oil; the smeared one.” Three Israelite dignitaries were typically smeared with oil when placed in office: first and foremost the king (Psalm 89:20), but also the priest (Numbers 3:3) and certain prophets (1 Kings 19:16). David was a prophet, priest and king (2 Samuel 5:3 and 6:14; Psalm 110:4; Acts 2:30): he is one of the most important types or images of Jesus in the Old Testament.
Over the centuries, the people of Israel, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, came to hope in a coming leader who would, like David, embody all three sacred roles and lead the people into a golden age. This hope in a messiah is very evident in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between 150 B.C. and A.D. 70, such as this example:
A ruler shall not depart from the tribe of Judah while Israel has dominion. And the one who sits on the throne of David shall never be cut off, because the “ruler’s staff” is the covenant of the kingdom … until the Righteous Messiah, the Branch of David, has come. For to him and to his seed the covenant of the kingdom of His people has been given for generations to come … (Document 4Q252, column 5, lines 1-4).
This hope was based on the prophets themselves (Isaiah 9:1-7; 11:1-15; Jeremiah 23:5; 30:9).
The second theme of Mark is our response to who Jesus is, which should be a life of discipleship. Mark portrays the disciples as making an immediate decision and abandoning everything to follow Jesus:
And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me!’ … And immediately they left their nets and followed him (Mark 1:17-18).
There is no time to lose. A moment without Jesus is a moment wasted. What are the priorities of a disciple? Mark lets us know: “He appointed 12 … so that they might (1) be with him and (2) he might send them out to preach and (3) have authority to cast out demons.”
The first priority of the disciple is just to be with Jesus, which we live out today through a life of prayer, especially mental prayer, that quiet conversation with the Lord in our hearts. The second priority is preaching, that is, giving witness to Jesus by our words and deeds; and finally, to cast out demons, in other words, unleash the supernatural power of Christ, today exercised primarily through the sacraments.
Celebration and participation in the sacraments is our primary way of casting out Satan in ourselves and others today. Prayer, witness, the sacraments: these are pillars of Christian discipleship.
As we begin Year B, let’s pray this year will be a time of conversion for us, that the breathless pace of Mark’s Gospel will press upon us the urgencyof repenting and turning to Jesus today.
There is no time to lose, as the old poem says: “This earthly life is quickly past; only what’s done for Christ will last.”