About one-third of St Mark’s Gospel is taken up with the events of the last week of Jesus’ life, the story of Jesus’ betrayal, suffering and death, his‘Passion’. It’s a very striking proportion, which has led some scholars to describe St Mark as a Passion narrative with a long introduction (by way of comparison, only about one-seventh of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are taken up with the narrative of Jesus’ last days before the crucifixion). And in Mark it’s made very clear that, as we move into this section, we’re moving into a slightly different atmosphere. A narrative which up to this point has felt quite rushed and packed, even a bit scattergun in its effect, noticeably slows down. There are far more quotations from the Old Testament ;and, intriguingly, far more references to specific places in and around Jerusalem. There is careful reference to the time of day when things happened.
What makes this interesting is that many readers have observed how slapdash Mark’s geography can appear in the rest of the Gospel. He seems, for example, to be confused as to whether Tyre is north or south of Sidon –though, as one recent commentator remarked, if we were asked unprepared whether Manchester was north or south of Liverpool, a lot of us might have similar problems… But in contrast to this general aspect of his narrative, there’s no doubt at all that when Mark turns to this final period, he has a very specific set of locations in mind. If you read the last couple of chapters carefully, you’ll notice that they divide clearly into episodes at particular places: the upstairs room where the Last Supper takes place; the garden on the Mount of Olives; the High Priest’s house; the Roman governor’s residence; the path to Golgotha, ‘the place of the skull’, where the executions are performed; and the tomb. And this has suggested to some readers a theory which has a good deal of persuasive force, to the effect that the kernel of this narrative began as a kind of liturgy in Jerusalem – something a little like the Stations of the Cross in the later Church. That’s to say, these are texts distilled from the experience of early Christians walking reflectively in the footsteps of Jesus in his own city. A teach geographical point in the city, each ‘station’, at specific times of day, there would be a narrative with some Old Testament quotations to show that these events had been foreseen in the divine plan, and then perhaps some prayers, concluding at the tomb with the announcement that ‘He is not here, he is risen.’
This makes very good sense of the way in which the story is told; and it gives a very firm basis to the idea that Mark, along with Matthew and Luke, and John too for that matter, is here depending not just on the narratives passed down from the earliest community, but on a practice of prayer and devotion as well, involving readings and stories constructed for these particular stages of a pilgrimage in the city of Jerusalem.Those of you who know the Old City of Jerusalem today will know that these sites are quite close together; you can indeed walk around them prayerfully inside of a morning. So it may be that when we read the final chapters of Mark’s Gospel, we are sharing a little of the worship of the very first communities in the Holy City. This means that the story will already certainly have been structured with care, possibly compressing events in to a tighter time frame than was actually the case historically; but it reflects a genuine and early form of prayerful commemoration, the three-hourly intervals between major episodes between nightfall on one day and the next reflecting the Jewish hours of prayer.‘Is it a coincidence’, asks one scholar, ‘that the least edited of the canonical Passion narratives, Mark14—16, should provide the most complete form of that strange schedule?’
One of the governing themes of the way Mark tells the story of these last days is that he constructs a pattern in which Jesus is left more and more visibly alone, repudiated by more and more persons and groups. The disciples run away from him, Peter denies that he knows him, the High Priestly council condemns him, the Roman governor and the soldiers reject and abuse him, and he ends on the cross crying out that God too has abandoned him. The last recorded words of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark are, ‘My God, why have you abandoned me?’ The intensity of that progression in the last pages of Mark is of great significance in understanding the direction and logic of the entire Gospel. Our attention is focused mercilessly on this one figure: as he is progressively set apart from group after group, authority after authority, friend after friend, it becomes clearer and clearer that he alone has to carry the whole meaning, the whole theological and spiritual weight of what is going on. Nobody provides him with a frame work for this, no one has written a script for him to perform. He is alone; when he prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, there is no reply from heaven – so that it is not even that he has a ‘set of instructions’ from God the Father to shape his response. God is no longer separate from him.
He must, through what he does and suffers, establish what the voice of God and the presence of God might mean in this world. We spoke about a God who works outward from the heart of reality: God is now in this part of Mark’s story working outwards from the heart of the human Jesus. There is no intervention from a distant heaven. It is a point that some of the other biblical narratives bring out rather more explicitly. So, for example, in Matthew’s version (26.53) Jesus says, ‘Don’t you think God could send twelve legions of angels to help if he wanted to?’ But this is not at all how Mark works. His is a more chilling and strange text – chilling and strange because you see it in brief, brightly lit episodes with not very much rationale for what exactly happens at each stage. The legal processes are fantastically arbitrary: the midnight trial before the High Priest and his advisers represents something that Jewish law would have condemned outright. It is a nightmare in which people make senseless accusations that go unsubstantiated; and yet Jesus is condemned. Likewise in the exchanges with the Roman governor, the bizarre incident of Pilate offering to release Jesus or the criminal Barabbas and the crowd’s choice of Barabbas: we cannot know what lies behind this, but for a Roman governor to release prisoners in this way is unparalleled.
It may help to think that what this narrative does is to help us see events strictly from the perspective of the victim. When the victims of totalitarian violence and tyranny in our own age tell their stories, as many have, they sound very much like this. Victims typically don’t really know what’s happening; no one explains, no one justifies what is going on, and they only know that everything is stacked against them and that they have no hope of getting out of this nightmare alive. It’s the world captured so memorably in the fiction of Franz Kafka as well as the records of those who have been caught up in the arbitrary terror of political oppression. Perhaps we understand Mark a little bit better if we recognize the echoes of Kafka’s account of what it is like to be locked into the workings of a meaningless, nonsensical, but completely irresistible system of power, devoted to your destruction. And this seeing the story from the victim’s point of view is deeply significant for the whole of Mark’s theology.
Contrast all this with the way St John tells the story of the Passion. Here we have intense debate, Jesus responding either with eloquence or with silence to the diverse challenges flung at him. We have the unforgettable account of Jesus’ argument with Pilate, with its great climax in Pilate’s question, ‘What is truth?’ – surely one of the most moving and powerful passages in the whole of Scripture. We are given a sense of the inner dividedness of Pilate, and of how his weakness is contrasted with the implacable silence of his victim who is the one truly in command of events. It is as valid and real a perspective on Jesus’ trial and death as Mark’s, but the two voices work in radically diverse ways. Mark has none of the sustained drama of John, none of the subtly developed irony that is maintained throughout the whole story; he wants us to see here only the isolation and the sense of arbitrary power closing in. But it is in the middle of all this that Jesus makes his one utterly unambiguous claim. When theHigh Priest asks (14.61), ‘Are you the Anointed One, the Son of the Blessed?’ Jesus replies, ‘I am.’ The placing of this claim, this breaking of the silence, is all-important. It is when Jesus is stripped of all hope, of all power, when he stands alone in the middle of this meaningless nightmare, with no hope of life, it is then and only then that he declares who he is. And he does so in words that evoke the Divine Name itself. God calls himself I AM when he speaks to Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures (Exodus3.13). Again, there are parallels and contrasts with the way St John tells his story: John has Jesus say, ‘I am,’ at various crucial stages of the narrative (as in 18.5, when the soldiers come to arrest him), and Mark is no less careful in placing the words. But where John scatters the ‘I am’ sayings throughout his Gospel, Mark – as always, much more stark and economical – narrows it down to the one moment when you can be under no illusion about what faces Jesus. Then and then only does God declare himself.
‘I am,’ says Jesus, ‘and you will see the Son of Man seated on the righthand of the Power, advancing on the clouds of heaven.’ That little phrase, ‘Son of Man’, has caused endless scholarly discussion, and its full meaning is still obscure; but at the very least, here as in several other places inMark, it seems to mean ‘this mortal being’, ‘this person here’. ‘I am,’ says Jesus; and you will see this mortal person, the one who at this moment is alone and facing condemnation to death, seated on God’s throne, ready to pass judgement on the world. Think back to our discussion of the secrecy theme in Mark: there can be no words yet for this new revelation of God, a God whose authority appears only when all worldly and human accompaniments of power and success are stripped away, so it is bound to be a secret, a secret that can only be spoken when Jesus himself breaks his silence. The whole Gospel is moving inexorably to this point at his trial before the High Priest.
Mark has set aside the idea that we should listen to Jesus because he does wonderful things, even that we should listen to Jesus because he says wonderful things. If we are to listen to what Jesus is saying in his very existence, his mortal flesh, his death, it is something that can happen only when every possibility of hope, of love, of absolution, has apparently been swept away and all that is left is this bare claim. This mortal person (says Jesus) stands here in the place of God; and the place of God is the place of a rejected and condemned human being. BeforeJesus is arrested and condemned, you might still nurture the illusion as you read that it will somehow turn out well. Perhaps there is a future in which Jesus will find support, belief, perhaps after all we shall be able to find words for him in our usual language and vocabulary. But Mark makes quite sure that we cannot sustain any such illusion by this point. This is the ‘gospel’ moment, the moment of regime change, the event that is to be announced. This is where the world, with all the language we use in and about it, is turned on its head. But – and this is where the news is unimaginably good as well as unimaginably dark and shocking – the new world which is brought into being in this way, the new world which the euangelion announces, must be one in which God cannot be dethroned by any degree of pain, disaster or failure. If the helpless, isolated Jesus declares, ‘This mortal man is now where God is,’ then God’s presence and resource, his love and mercy, cannot be extinguished by loneliness or injustice, by the terrible, apparently meaningless, suffering in which human beings live. God has chosen to be, and to be manifest, at that lowest, weakest point of human experience. And so the poor and the helpless, the condemned and the isolated, reading this story told from the victim’s point of view, can know that God is with them, and that the God who is with them cannot be defeated or deposed from his Godhead.
‘A lifelong passion’– because, connecting this with the theme of the last chapter, it is possible to see how everything we’ve read so far in Mark’s Gospel does indeed serve as an introduction to this world-changing insight: God is not where you thought he was; God is in and with this mortal man, who is helpless and about to suffer a terrible death. This is where God chooses to be and to declare himself; and the Gospel is the echo of that divine self-declaration.
If we turn back a few chapters from the trial story, we shall find a hint of this, in the celebrated passage in chapter 10 (35–45) about how the disciples argue about who will be the greatest in the kingdom. Immediately after Jesus has predicted his death, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come to him asking for a special favour: they want to sit on Jesus’ right and left in his kingdom. They are silenced by Jesus, and the other disciples are angry that James and John have been seeking unfair advantages – and Jesus rounds on them as well, as if to say, ‘If you’d had enough courage, you’d probably have asked me for the same favour!’ But, he goes on, the whole framework of seeking advantage is exactly what I am here to overturn.
Those who are highly regarded among the nations lord it over them, officials flex the muscles of their authority, but that is not how it shall be with you. Any one among you who wants to be great must be your slave. If you want to be the first of all, you must be the slave of all. For this mortal person did not come to have slaves attending on him: he came to be a slave. He came to give his life as the price that bought back multitudes.
That key passage (42–45) has been the foundation of generations of speculation about how the redemption of the world is achieved – about the meaning of the ‘atonement’, the reconciliation between God and humanity that is brought about in the death of Jesus. But the context is not essentially about theories of how the death of Jesus works.Jesus is saying simply that his execution is the price that is paid to free us once and for all from the fantasy that God’s power is just like ours, only in a hugely inflated version – as we noted earlier, a matter of what we would do if we were lucky enough to be running the universe. The death of Jesus is the price paid to abolish and uproot that fantasy.It does not only destroy the fantasy that God’s power is like ours; it also uproots the corresponding notion that whatever power we attain must be valued and clung to at all costs because it is power endorsed by God. In these lethal errors lie the roots of all ours in and self-inflicted misery, the roots of death. From these errors and their consequences the death of Christ delivers us, dismantling the myth of power that holds us prisoner.In this sense, his life is ‘paid over’ so that we may be set free, like a ransom paid to a kidnapper.
It is not a carefully phrased theory but a powerful metaphor to conclude an intense argument about the character of God’s act and power, Mark’s favourite theme. But as soon as people began to look through a microscope at this text the difficulties began to arise. Who is the ransom paid to? Does God have to negotiate with someone else in order to get the human race back? Does the devil have rights over us that God has to observe when he redeems us? And centuries of theological complexity and – to be frank –theological muddle flow from this. Neither Mark nor Mark’s Jesus is interested at this point in the story in theories of the atonement. We are being told simply that Jesus uses the language of paying his life over to set us free precisely in the context of saying that what we have to be delivered from is a cruel and imprisoning fantasy about God’s power and ours. Let go of all of that and then there is freedom. And what allows us to let go is what is laid bare in the trial and death of Jesus; that is the difference made by the crucified God, by the God who declares himself in a moment of isolation and helplessness, whose forsakenness speaks – as Jürgen Moltmann discovered so dramatically in his prison camp – to all who have found themselves without anchor or orientation in a world of betrayal and terror.
As we saw when we discussed the miracles, this is anything but an easy message to digest. We have noted already how even the very ending of the Gospel does not give us a simple message, but something more like a problem to solve practically, to solve in action and response: go back and start reading again, because there is no ending to the process of discovering what it is to be turned around and renewed through trust in the risen Jesus. Hardly have you put the Gospel down – Mark implies – than you find some of those fantasies about power beginning to creep back in again. So go back and start again. The story is not finished, the book does not end, so long as we need to be converted afresh.
The event of Jesus’ death has indeed, once and for all, exploded the myths; and yet, mysteriously, we behave as if we could still reinstate the terrible error that God’s power and ours are the same kind of thing. We reinvent this day after day; so our conversion must happen day after day. The very first witnesses to the resurrection are terrified and they can’t find words in which to communicate what they’ve seen, because what they have seen is God setting his seal on the crucified Jesus, declaring himself in the dead, failed and abandoned Jesus. In the mysterious event of the empty tomb, God says, ‘That was not the end; I am alive in Jesus.’ And to hear that for the first time, says St Mark, was not a bland bit of religious uplift, but something frightening. So, he says to his readers, don’t be at all dismayed if at first or fifth or thirty-fifth reading you find it terrible and frightening too.
But – as again we have already noted – there is, hidden in this, an extra teasing paradox. The women clearly did say something because this Gospel has been written. It did turn out to be possible to find words for what they thought they would never be able to talk about. So if you, the reader, are baffled, dismayed and silenced by the mystery of the cross and the resurrection, don’t despair. Words were found, lives have been lived in faith: that’s why this book is here, St Mark says, because somebody found it possible to talk about this. And so might you, reader. But the ‘somebody’ who found it possible to talk about it also reminds us relentlessly just how difficult it is.
The mysterious – do we say miraculous? – ending of Mark throws the ball firmly into our court. And, yet again, we’re drawn back to the centrality of the theme of relationship in Mark. The resurrection isn’t just something you can point to, as if we could say, ‘There is Jesus, walking out of his tomb and showing the High Priest and Pilate and everyone else how wrong they were.’ It’s the re-creating of a relationship of trust and love on the far side of the most extreme human realities, suffering, abandonment, death. That is what the resurrection story points us to. And so the conclusion of the Gospel is to say to us that faith in the crucified and risen Jesus ispossible, and that we must go on reading and listening until we find it, reading and listening until we grasp what it is that Jesus has dismantled and done away with. Some have lived their way into this and found words to carry the reality of that relationship – and here in the Gospel text is the proof that such relationship can happen and that there are such words to be found if you will be patient and brave enough to wait for them.
There are those who have thought that the end of the Gospel is either an accident or – rather like the Messianic Secret – a kind of stratagem. Some have argued that the stories of the risen Jesus must have been created in the generations following the first Easter – and that this increasingly generated a problem as to why there was no early witness to the empty tomb. Mark proposes that no one spoke about the empty tomb because they were told not to. But this is to isolate the empty tomb narrative from the rest of the Gospel and to fail to see how closely it fits with themes that are there from the start. It is to ignore that central and dramatic irony of how the one order to speak of a miracle is initially disregarded– because this miracle, the vindication of the crucifiedJesus as bearer of divine authority, is so difficult and revolutionary.
What is to my mind most persuasive about the empty tomb story is the oddity, the unexpectedness of it. And here, as in all the other Gospels, it is worth remembering that, while the rest of the Gospel, especially the Passion story, uses allusions and prophecies from Jewish Scripture to make sense of what’s going on, the stories of the resurrection are told with no such allusions. Luke’s story of the encounter on the road to Emmaus does indeed refer to the death and rising of Jesus as being foreshadowed in the Scriptures, but doesn’t give any specific details. There is a sort of confidence that this will one day make sense in the light of the whole pattern of Hebrew prophecy – but it is not quite there yet. The Easter event was new enough, strange enough and worrying enough not to have any ready-made structure for it. In spite of the prophecies that Jesus himself is said to have uttered about it (8.31, 9.31, 10.34), it still comes to his followers as a surprise, as though the sheer brute fact of his humiliating death had obliterated any memory of any hope expressed by Jesus.
And then there are those who maintain that it’s just an accident that the Gospel ends where and as it does: the last page was lost and never rediscovered (as if there was only one copy in circulation?) or, as the great New Testament interpreter and scholar Austin Farrer mischievously put it, that a heavy hand descended on Mark’s shoulder as he wrote 16.8, and a centurion’s voice said, ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to come along with me to the Praetorium.’ With Farrer, I am inclined to think that the accident theory does far less than justice to a writer of real subtlety. A surprising ending is perhaps in tune with a text that has all the way through been preparing us to be surprised. If the ending were more conventional, like the endings added by later hands, it would not have carried the force it does in the light of all that has gone before.
The text as it stands tells us that speaking about faith will never be easy, because, when the first announcement of the truth was made, the witnesses couldn’t cope. Just as with the stupidity of the apostles throughout theGospel, the reader’s own bewilderment and incomprehension is signalled in advance.Don’t be surprised if you can’t manage to get your head around this: it always was this way. Mark is a book that tells you how hard it is to read and so tells you to give it the time it needs. It may be short, and it maybe short on detail, but it takes as long as it takes to read, because you will never have finished it. You will have to go over and over again to rediscover the possibilities of trust and faith in the helpless, powerless God. And in that process, you will find that what Jesus speaks of in chapter10 – the absolute centrality of service, of self-gift, not of secure control over others – is what begins to come alive in your reading and your responding.
I mentioned briefly a moment ago the way that Mark uses allusions to the Old Testament. He quotes Isaiah a great deal and a certain amount from the Psalms quite a bit, with scattered references to the Law of Moses and one or two of the other prophets. Here, as in the other Gospels– though rather less so than in St Matthew, for example – the point is that when you have grasped the revolutionary strangeness of what’s going on in Jesus, there is also a moment of realizing ‘…but of course, if we had only known how to read the whole history of God’s work in Creation and in his relation with Israel, we’d have seen this was natural’. This of course is the theme which St Luke spells out for us in the story of the risen Jesus meeting two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Jesus says (Luke 24.25–26)to the disciples, ‘You are so stupid and sluggish in your hearts! Wasn’t it clearly necessary for the Anointed to suffer?’ Mark is already preparing us for that kind of realization. We can now look back on the whole range and record of God’s work and see that, after all, yes, this was to be expected had we only been able to read the clues. When we grasp that the God who is present in and as Jesus is after all the same God who has been at work throughout, we can begin to piece together the full picture. It’s a kind of ‘double vision’ very typical of the New Testament. Nothing could have prepared us for what was going on in the death of Jesus and everything should have prepared us for it.
Looking at the overall patterns of Mark’s text, we can see that it is a book about how Jesus – the reality of Jesus in his own history and the continuing reality of Jesus in his community – takes you constantly in and out of silence, in and out of language. Here for a moment you see, you grasp; and you then have to let go and begin again. You think that you might have mastered it; and suddenly find you haven’t, and you must be quiet and listen. This Gospel is a book about faith, and more specifically about that fundamental aspect of faith which is the trustful letting go into a love that is completely surprising and works completely by its own rules, not yours. That perhaps is why it’s appropriate to think of Mark – whether he was the first of the Evangelists or not – as in a strong sense the ‘beginning’ of the gospel and the ‘first principle’ of the gospel (the Greek word arche has both meanings): the place where the distinctive colour of the Christian faith is defined.
Of course Mark doesn’t say everything.The most closely related Gospels, Matthew and Luke, have essential things to say about Jesus and about us. Both have the stories of Jesus’ birth and childhood. Matthew has the Sermon on the Mount and works with a powerful stress on continuity: Jesus is truly the climax of all God’s working in the history of Israel. He 44spells out the story of Jesus as both the natural culmination of all God’s work and a drastically new phase, a new perspective. It is not at all a perspective alien to Mark, except that he does it through the words, through the teaching of Jesus, rather than simply in the stark emphasis on the lonely dereliction of Jesus. Matthew is more of an historian in a sense that his narrative has a beginning and an end and a touch of order within it; and the price paid is that his narrative is that little bit more domesticated and less disturbing. Luke too has the teaching discourses, but adds to them the great parables of Jesus – the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan and others. Luke has probably the most warming and appealing portrait of a Jesus whose embrace for the outcast and the forgotten is at the centre of his compelling authority; for most Christians, Luke is the most accessible and the best loved of the Gospels, its stories the most quoted.Luke spells out the same inversion of the world’s values that Mark alerts us to, but does so in terms of Jesus’ embrace of the stranger, the foreigner, the failure; and, like Matthew but even more so, he does it with a careful style and an elegant narrative structure.
Yet Mark is in some ways the bedrock of it all. Strangely, he is in many respects more like John than he is like Matthew or Luke. Like John, he begins with a declaration of something completely radical, grounded in the heavenly places; his text begins and ends in mystery. Like John, he has at the heart of his narrative Jesus’ self-identification by the words, ‘I am.’ Like John he ends with a teasing and inconclusive moment: John (21.25) by saying that it would be impossible to write all that Jesus did because the world would not be able to contain it. What Jesus did and does has no end, and certainly not in the pages of a book, because the work he does he is doing in every new reader, and there will always be new readers. That is not at all unlike Mark in relation to what we have seen to be implied in the way he ends: it’s for us to decide whether we become part of that process of spreading the word of the resurrection that the women at first are too frightened to. The work of Jesus in the reader is the ‘end’ of the Gospel.
So unless we grasp that dimension of Mark that leads into silence and bewilderment, there’s something we shall miss about the whole revolution in values and visions that he articulates for us. We shall miss the radical depth of the new world of the kingdom, the newness of the Good News. Mark is not the whole gospel, but it makes sense to read him as the beginning of the gospel and the ‘first principle’ of the gospel, pointing us to something foundational. If this reading is right, it is anything but a naïve work; it is not a simple affair of gathering community traditions and threading them together in a somewhat haphazard way. Nor is it an ‘edifying’ work, teaching us good behaviour through uplifting teaching and improving thoughts. It is a book which repeats on every page that summons to metanoia, to a change of mind, that Jesus demands of his hearers in the first words of the text.
There is one last thought, perhaps somewhat fanciful but not idle. We have looked at the ancient tradition that Peter stands behind the writing of the Gospel of Mark; and, as I have indicated, I believe there may be more to be said for this than some recent generations of scholars have allowed. But there is surely a deeper level at which Peter is indeed the key figure of the Gospel in relation to how we think about the hearers and followers of Jesus. The Peter of St Mark is not a prince of the apostles, sovereignly getting his answers right time after time. He is rather the typical hearer of Jesus, the typical witness; and the typical witness for Mark is the one who repeatedly misses the point of what is witnessed, the one who most unequivocally gets it wrong time after time, yet is still held by the questioning eyes of Jesus. Peter’s exemplary wrongness is nowhere more hideously in evidence than at the moment of his denial: at exactly the moment when God is declaring himself in Jesus’ ‘I am’ in reply to theHigh Priest’s question, Peter, answering someone else’s question a few yards away, is literally saying, ‘I am not.’ The fullness of truth in the helpless and rejected Jesus has its negative image in the emptiness ofPeter’s evasion.
Peter stands for all the human characters whom Jesus confronts – the apostles, the witnesses, the Church, ourselves. He is us; brought to nothing by his inability to hear and receive the transfiguring presence of God in the helpless and condemned Jesus, but called afresh out of his own chaos to the task of finding words for the mystery. Perhaps it really is after all the Gospel of Peter; and if it is the Gospel of Peter, we can be sure it is the gospel for all of us.