Friday, May 8, 2009

Some Further Reflections on the Gospel of Mark

Last fall, I wrote a series on this blog entitled The Gospel of Mark Challenge in which I challenged parishioners to read a half chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel each day, completing the Gospel in about a month. Along the way I commented on various passages of interest. Having since preached extensively on the Gospel of Mark (as we are currently in Year B in our three-year cycle of Scripture readings, the year in which St. Mark is read) I felt some summative comments might now be in order.

On Easter Day I preached on the Resurrection appearance in Mark 16:1-8, or more correctly, the “non-appearance,” for The Gospel of Mark is the only gospel without an appearance of the Risen Christ. Instead, it is characterized by an empty tomb and the flight of the frightened female disciples.

In my sermon, I argued that Mark intended this abrupt ending in order that we might write ourselves, and our own faithful witness to the Resurrection of Jesus, into the story. The abruptness of the ending, the apparent absence of the Risen Christ, and the fear of the women leaves us, who knew the story, to call into its pages “Christ is Risen, fear not!” We are left to complete the tale, to tell the story and its ending (or rather, its beginning) to others and to the world. In other words, we are called to be the witnesses that the story lacks. We are to write ourselves into the story. What is explicit in the texts of Matthew, Luke, and John, is for Mark, to be made explicit in our lives and witness.

I also argued that this literary ploy of Mark obviously worked because at least three other individuals or communities set to work at penning the “missing ending”. Check the footnotes of your Bible and you will see at least three attempts follow after verse 8 at completing the “unfinished” story (these are known as the “shorter ending”, “the longer ending” and the Freer Logion). These other individuals were moved in faith to tell the story of the Risen Christ, to witness his presence to the world.

It is sometimes argued that the Gospel ends so abruptly because the original ending was lost. I suggest to you, however, that it is only lost when we fail to tell the story of our faith.

As I have reflected further on the Gospel of Mark, I am convinced that this interpretation of Mark’s literary motive is the correct one, for it coheres with several other literary themes in the Gospel. Thus, I suggest that the overall Markan literary strategy is that we the readers/hearers are actually participants in the narrative.

Consider the ignorance (some would say stupidity) of the disciples who constantly do not understand either who Jesus is or what he is doing, how they ask for a high place in his kingdom, how they mistake him for another prophet. As readers/hearers we scratch our heads because we understand right from the outset of the story who Jesus is.

Consider the greater problem of what scholars call the Messianic Secret. Jesus is constantly telling people not to reveal him to the world or the authorities. The disciples still do not understand and his demons and adversaries often recognize him even when the disciples are continuously missing the point. We are gripped by the narrative irony.
Why? Because we know exactly who he is and are drawn into the tension out of our desire to proclaim his identity!

Consider the story of the Transfiguration. The disciples once again misunderstand this revelation and seek to make booths for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. They get it wrong once again, but we are crying out with the right answer. Why? Because he has already been transfigured before our eyes and in our hearts!

Consider the derision and mocking of Jesus on the Cross. Consider Peter’s denial and abandonment of his Lord. At each step of the passion narrative we hang our heads in shame. Why? Because we know precisely who is being crucified whereas the players of the story do not.

Throughout Mark’s story of Jesus we shout across the pages what we believe and what we understand where other fail to believe and where others fail to understand. This all coalesces in the words of the centurion at the foot of the cross, who in his profession of faith “Surely this man was the Son of God” gives voice to our profession of faith. It is a word that echoes the opening sentence of the Gospel “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The words “Son of God” are considered by many to be a later addition because they not widely attested in the early manuscripts. Yet, I suggest that they are likely authentic because they are congruous with the Mark’s narrative strategy, namely, that from the outset the reader/hearer knows who Jesus is, in contrast to the participants in the story. It is the proclamation we long to make at every step.

Thus, I suggest that Gospel was written not for an unbelieving community but rather to strengthen the witness of a believing community, that they might write themselves into the story in every place where the characters in the story fail in their proclamation of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Therefore, this is a Gospel for the Church today as much as any other time, for it is a Gospel into which we write ourselves so that at every frustrating turn, at every failure of the disciples, at every ironic misunderstanding, at every failed proclamation, at every denial, at every fleeing in terror, we can shout with joy, certainty and conviction, “he is Risen indeed! Alleluia!”

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

For previous installments of the Gospel of Mark Challenge:

Part I: Follow Me
Part II: Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?
Part III: Lord I Believe, Help My Unbelief
Part IV: You Are Not Far From the Kingdom of God
Part V: Cursing the Fig Tree, Cleansing the Temple
Part VI: The Little Apocalypse

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