Session 2: Telling Secrets
Session 2: Telling Secrets
This session explores the theme of secrecy and the significance of Jesus' miracles and parables.

Bible Passages


We have begun to think in general terms about what kind of book St Mark’s Gospel is, and we have tried to identify the double demand that it makes of its readers: the demand to entertain the relationship into which the writer seeks to draw us, and so to enter into the effects of the great public event of ‘regime change’ in the world, which is announced solemnly and formally in the very word euangelion – gospel.

But we must come to terms with one of the most puzzling and most frequently discussed aspects of the Gospel, a theme which, paradoxically, seems to pull us away from the initial drama of a great public announcement. This is a book all about proclamation, dedicated to announcing something; yet, again and again, the Jesus of St Mark underlines the need for secrecy. When he exorcises evil spirits,‘he did not allow the demons to speak because they knew him’ (1.34); when he heals a leper, he says, ‘Take care to say nothing to anyone’ (1.44). And so it goes on throughout the Gospel. In one famous (or notorious) passage, he goes still further: after telling the parable of the sower scattering his seed on bad ground and good, he finishes with the defiant ‘Anyone who has ears to hear, let them hear’ (4.9), and then goes on to spell out for his disciples the paradox of a public teaching that remains secret:

When he was on his own, the twelve and some others with them asked him about the parables [or possibly: questioned the way he used parables]. And he said, ‘To you the secret of the kingdom of God has been given. But for those outside, everything gets treated in parables, so that they may see and see but never understand: so that they may hear and hear but never take it in, in case they change their minds and get forgiven.’

Mark 4:10-12

It is a baffling remark that continues to puzzle many readers of the Gospel; and if we are going to make any sense of it, we have to think about the broad context and content of the Gospel story. So let us stay for a moment with those repeated instructions to tell no one about what has happened. Several times Jesus performs a miracle and instantly says, ‘Don’t tell anyone about it’ (1.44, 3.12, 7.36, 8.26, for example). Of course, in virtually every case he is disobeyed. But why this emphasis on secrecy? It comes up in a different way in two or three other passages that don’t have to do with miracles in quite the same way. When Peter confesses his faith in Jesus as the anointed of God (8.29), Jesus instantly tells him and the other disciples that they are on no account to say a word about it. In the chapter that follows, when Peter, James and John are coming down the mountain after seeing Jesus transfigured in blinding light, the same instructions are given: ‘Don’t say a word to anyone’ (9.9), at least not until ‘the Son of Man’ has been raised from death. You can see something of the same in an episode much further on in the Gospel, in chapter 11, where the authorities in Jerusalem ask Jesus by what authority he does what he does; and Jesus gives a very teasing and indirect answer. Jesus doesn’t want, it seems, to be known as a miracle worker, or to base his authority on working miracles.

Yet he does perform miracles, almost as if he cannot stop himself performing miracles when his compassion is engaged. And this already complex picture is made even more complex by the fact that on two occasions he does seem to be expecting people to witness a miracle and draw conclusions. In chapter 2, we have the vivid story (2.1–12) of a paralysed man let down by his friends through the roof of the house in which Jesus is teaching. Jesus says to him, ‘Your sins are forgiven.’ Some of the more religiously self-important bystanders say, ‘Who could possibly claim to forgive sins?’ And Jesus rounds on them and says, in effect, ‘Do you think it’s easier to forgive sins than to do miracles? Look, here’s a miracle – stand on your feet, you’re cured. That’s easy. The difficult thing is forgiving sins.’ So the miracle there becomes, in a strange way, not exactly an afterthought but something quite subsidiary to the main point. Jesus is saying, ‘I am here to declare to you liberation from sin; and if you think that this is a matter of empty words easily said, think again.’As the Gospel unfolds, we see precisely why it is not easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ than to say, ‘Get up and walk.’

On another occasion (5.1–20) when Jesus has healed a demon-possessed man from Gerasa, he specifically tells the healed man to go and share the news of what God has done (19). Here, Jesus is working among people who are not Jews; and it seems as though things can be said in this context that cannot in the context of his own people– as though the possibilities of misunderstanding are less. The only moment when Jesus speaks unambiguously about who he is in the context of his own people and culture is at his trial before the High Priest, when he is asked directly, ‘Are you the anointed?Are you the Son of God?’ Jesus replies, ‘I am. The secret is unveiled; the silence is ended.

Why miracles?

One of the most important themes in modern scholarly discussion of Mark is the idea of the ‘Messianic Secret’. As we have seen, Mark’s Jesus never announces himself to be the Messiah, the anointed, until the dramatic moment at his trial. Many scholars have offered what in retrospect seems a rather over-simple account of this, arguing that the ‘real’, historical Jesus never claimed anything for himself, that an early Church which believed that he was the Messiah had to project backwards into Jesus’ life the idea that he deliberately concealed his knowledge of his own vocation from all but a few intimates. The instructions to say nothing are the product of an embarrassment felt by the early believers about the relative lack of any evidence that Jesus declared who he was. But it is hard not to feel that such a reading rather misses the important point. Mark is not trying to overcome an embarrassment about the fact that Jesus didn’t have enough to say about himself theologically; he is very clear that Jesus is indeed saying something theologically very revolutionary and very challenging about himself. And that is precisely why he preserves these traditions of Jesus instructing people to keep silence. What Jesus has to say is so open to misinterpretation that it could not have been spoken.

So what exactly is the undertow here in this language about secrets? The first miracle performed by Jesus – the cure of the leper – in chapter 1 of the Gospel contains a very odd phrase for which there are two versions in the ancient manuscripts. The leper comes and says, ‘If you want to, you can make me clean.’ Jesus, ‘stirred with deep compassion’, says, ‘Of course I want to. You can be clean.’ But, according to many early manuscripts, Jesus was ‘stirred with deep anger’ when he spoke these words. Now whichever of those readings you go for (and there’s a good case for either of them), the point is that Jesus is doing a miracle because he is stirred. Whether it is compassion for the suffering of the individual or anger at the grip that disease and prejudice have on the leprous outcast, he is emphatically not performing a miracle to prove a point. And the theme that runs through the Gospel could be summed up in just those terms: Jesus will not do miracles to prove points or win arguments. The story of the healing of the paralysed man does indeed show Jesus in a sense performing a miracle to prove a point; but the point is that the miracle is not the point. The miracle is done so as to divert attention from the healing to the promise of forgiveness, to reinforce the idea that if a miracle is astonishing and difficult, the forgiveness of sins is yet more so.

So when miracles do happen, they arise from that immediacy of compassion or indeed of anger, anger at the way in which sickness imprisons people but also anger at the way in which religious zealotry cannot cope with the promise of release. In the story in chapter 3 about the healing of a man with a withered hand, we are told that Jesus’ enemies are watching closely to see if he will perform an act of healing on the Sabbath, and that Jesus feels distress and anger at the distorted vision of human needs and priorities that this shows – anger that the possibility of condemning a controversial teacher is more important than the restoring of someone’s ability to earn a living. And Mark also records (6.5) that when Jesus returns to his home town, he is not able to do any significant miracles. He is mocked and rejected by his fellow-townspeople; but he does not respond by winning the argument through miracles. There are, we are told, a few unobtrusive healings, but that is all; no spectacle.

So once again, miracle is being put into perspective. It’s being taken for granted that Jesus is indeed a healer and an exorcist and that the miracles he performs are real. But what Jesus himself refuses to do is to base his authority on ‘signs and wonders’. The story about the paralysed man is very telling in this respect. It is almost as if Jesus is saying that there are plenty of miracle workers, healers and exorcists; and indeed in the world in which Jesus lived, lots of people there were. Charismatic healers wandered around the ancient Near East in substantial numbers, it seems, and in that sense Jesus was a familiar figure in the Mediterranean scene of his day. It seems that Jesus is discouraging his audience from treating him in this familiar and simple category – another charismatic healer – and challenging them to recognize what is unique in his mission.

And that is something a good deal deeper than miracle.Jesus will perform miracles out of compassion– out of an awareness of human solidarity, we could say; but the other side of this is that he will require trust or belief from those with whom he works (as in 9.21–24). Trust heals people (10.52); or, to connect this with our first chapter, we could say that Jesus’ healings are always bound into a relation between him and the person to be healed. In the story about his visit to his home town, the reason he can’t do mighty works there is, it’s implied, that people don’t trust him. They remember him as a local labourer, they know his family: the relation is one of casual familiarity and a bit of contempt or snobbery; they cannot trust him to be different, to be himself. But as we have seen, it’s made very clear in several of the healing stories that miracles of healing require a relationship, require someone to put his or her trust in Jesus. He will ask, ‘Do you believe I can do this?’ He will ask, ‘What do you really want me to do?’ And out of that meeting of trust and compassion comes the miracle.

Mark is a Gospel about relationship. It makes no sense outside the relationship that the writer and the potential reader may have to its central figure. And of course you cannot have a relationship with sheer arbitrary power. A saviour who walks through Galilee and Judaea healing and doing wonders ‘at random’ would not be somebody who invited relationship. Such a saviour might invite wonder, awe, admiration or bafflement– but not necessarily trust. Mark is treading a delicate line here, with much subtlety: he wants us to start from the two basic insights that it is not miracle that is the unique or special thing about Jesus, and that miracle itself, when it occurs, involves trust and relationship. It is never a kind of magic, a display of power and control.

When Jesus is pressed to perform miracles precisely to prove a point, here acts very sharply and negatively. We might look again at that story in chapter 9, quite a challenging one. Jesus and the disciples have come down from the mountain where he has been transfigured; and at the foot of the mountain they see a large crowd around the other disciples. There is a fierce argument going on, with the ‘teachers of the law’ disputing with the disciples.

At once the whole crowd was struck with astonishment when they saw him. They ran to him to greet him, and he asked them, ‘What are you arguing with them about?’ And a man from the crowd answered, ‘Teacher,I brought my son to you – he has a spirit in him that stops him speaking. . . I asked your disciples to throw out the spirit, but they were not able to.’ Jesus said in reply, ‘Oh, this is a suspicious lot of people! How long do I have to stay with you? How long do I have to put up with you? Now: bring the boy to me.’

Mark 9:14-19

It sounds quite harsh, as if Jesus is saying, ‘Must I really perform a miracle?Won’t you leave me alone?’ But it transpires, as the conversation goes on, that what Jesus wants to know is whether the boy’s father trusts him, and whether he and the others around are simply looking for a miracle to clinch an argument; we are told, notice, that the disciples and the teachers and the crowd had been arguing. So that Jesus’ first reaction is, ‘Do you – disciples, crowd, even father – want me to do a miracle to win an argument for you?’ The boy falls down in convulsions (not hard to imagine; the scene must have been frightening, noisy and disturbing); and in an astonishingly intimate moment with the boy’s father – both Jesus and the father, we can imagine, on their knees beside the boy on the ground – Jesus probes gently about the history of the condition: ‘How long has this been going on?’ The father says, ‘Since he was small,’ and goes on to describe the life-threatening nature of what happens. Then he appeals directly, ‘If you can do something, do it.’ And Jesus replies,‘If you can do something. . . ? Well, anything is possible if you trust.’ The boy’s father responds at once, ‘I trust you! Just help me cope where trust falls short.’ Or, in the more familiar King James translation, ‘Lord, I believe. Help thou mine unbelief.’ We need to read the story as one about Jesus ‘quarrying’ both for a sense of the real seriousness of the suffering being talked about and for a relationship of trust; he goes behind the arguments, asking directly, ‘What is this about?’ and ‘Do you trust?’ and the answer is given. The apparent harshness cannot be denied, but what it opens up is the focal and central theme we have been tracing in the Gospel: a miracle is not an argument-stopper; for healings and exorcisms to be more than superficial occasions for wonder, a relationship is needed. And you can’t have a relationship with magical powers operating in a vacuum.

So perhaps we are beginning to get a little sense of what the real secret is in this Gospel. The secret is that the event which will change everything, which will bring in the regime of God, which will forgive sins and release people from guilt and fear, is not an event brought about by naked power. The God who is going to change everything, change for ever the conditions in which human beings live, is a God who is ‘beyond’ power as we would like to understand it; a God who does not coerce belief or clinch arguments, but who repeatedly demands relation and trust. This is the secret that Mark’s Jesus wants to disclose– and it is, in the nature of the case, formidably difficult to disclose. Jesus is indeed a healer, and therefore he heals people; there are circumstances where, in the force of his compassion and indignation at suffering, he cannot stop himself healing people. He may not do miracles to prove a point; but he won’t refuse his compassion to an individual to prove a point, either. When he’s kneeling on the ground beside the father of the epileptic child, he doesn’t say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t do anything, because if I heal your child it could be misunderstood’ and walk away. He is constantly risking misunderstanding. And this repeated insistence on secrecy– ‘Don’t go talking about this’ – is, it seems, Jesus’ way of saying, ‘I know I do miracles, and it doesn’t matter. How often do I have to tell you? It doesn’t matter.’

There is a story told about a deeply saintly priest some seventy years ago who was confess or to an Anglican convent for many years. One of the sisters had been to him for spiritual direction, and they were kneeling together in the chapel afterwards. The sister looked up and thought she saw an angel standing beside the altar; she dug the priest in the ribs and said, ‘Look, Father, there’s an angel!’ The priest very properly said, ‘Nonsense, Sister. Get on with your prayers.’ The sister closed her eyes and obeyed. Some time later, when she saw the priest again, she rather timidly said, ‘I’m sorry, Father, but there really was an angel there, you know’;and he said, ‘Of course there was. Saw it myself. So what?’A robustly Marcan attitude to miracles, the same approach that you’ll find eloquently set out at great length in Book II of the treatise by St John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, called The Ascent of Mount Carmel, where he devotes several chapters to discussing strange and apparently miraculous events which may occur in the course of prayer, only to say, in effect, that miracles just happen, for reasons only fully known to God. Don’t make much of them; don’t expect them; don’t refuse them; they just happen.

Why parables?

What, then, are we to make of the passage with which we began this chapter, that strange passage where the disciples ask why Jesus has to talk in parables, and Jesus virtually says, ‘I talk in parables so that people won’t understand.’ Is that Jesus saying, ‘I’m deliberately making it difficult so that not everybody can get the point’? Hardly. We need to look harder at what the parables themselves are saying to understand this a little better. Jesus has been delivering a whole sequence of parables in this chapter, and they remind us of what exactly the word ‘parable’ means in Greek. Originally, parabole is simply a comparison; and in fact if you look at the parables in chapter 4, that’s what you’ll see – comparisons. The kingdom is like this, like that. And here Jesus speaks of the work of God in terms of natural processes– the growth of a seed, the radiating of a lamp or candle when it’s lit; as if he’s saying that to understand how God works there are any number of clues in the world around you. How does God characteristically work? Not with thunder claps; not with immensely dramatic and instantaneous interventions– the sky opening and voices being heard (this may happen at Jesus’ baptism, but it isn’t a clue as to how God characteristically acts in the world). How does God work? Subtly, slowly, from the very depth of being. Or steadily, irresistibly, like the light reaching the corners of the room. He works outwards from the heart of being into the life of every day – not inwards from some distant heaven. This is how God works, and you ought to be able to see it around you in the world God has created and rules.

Comparisons, parables, are Jesus’ way of saying to the people listening: you know more than you realize about God; but the trouble is that you look and look, and you don’t see, you listen and listen and you don’t understand. But there it is, could you but grasp it. There is an interesting echo of this in the so-called Gospel of Thomas (a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, probably compiled in the second Christian century, though some scholars would like to place it earlier). This text contains a lot of very puzzling and eccentric material, but several sayings either reproduce the words or come close to the spirit of Mark 4 – one in particular. ‘Jesus said … “The Kingdom of the Father is spread upon the earth, and men do not see it.”’

So I suspect that those words in chapter 4 of Mark are an instance – not the only one – of Jesus speaking ironically.‘ Why do I use comparisons?Because it seems that however hard people look at the world, they don’t get inside the meaning of it. Why do I use parables? So that they won’t understand! Why do you think?’ It is an irony which reinforces the idea that the biggest problem human beings have when confronted with the truth is that they don’t know that they don’t know. In St John’s Gospel, we find the same theme even more starkly expressed: those who think they can see are in fact the ones who actually have their eyes screwed shut (John9.39–41). So too in Mark: the people who are really in trouble are those who don’t know that their eyes are closed. As in the case of what Jesus says and does about miracles and their meaning, the same point is being made: how exactly does God work to change the world? We all have fantasies of how God ought to work to change the world. The voice from heaven, the mighty demonstration of power, the argument-clincher, the word or act that finally settles everything and takes away any doubt so that nothing more needs to be said… Yet God appears oblivious to this.

The literary critic Terry Eagleton, whose recent books on religion have brought a breath of fresh air to some of the public debates between believers and unbelievers, has observed that there are some people (inside and outside the Christian faith) who imagine that if one day a large banner unfurled from heaven with the words ‘I’m up here, you idiots!’ written on it, that would finally resolve the question of God’s existence. But of course, that’s not how God works – and it has little to do with what he seems to want. He does not worry about demonstrating his existence to us; our problem is not that we do not know, but that we cannot love. He habitually works – so to speak – ‘outwards’ from the heart of being, steadily expanding the scope of his action through the actions of the beings he has created. So that Jesus is beginning to suggest to his disciples the daring idea that the way God changes things will be from the heart of the human world, not by intervention from the sky. God is transforming the world, healing its wounds and forgiving and overcoming our failures, by being with and in the processes of the world – above all, in that unique process that is a human life: the life first of Jesus, but then the lives of those who have been called and commissioned by Jesus to be – like him and because of him – places where the work of God can start to blossom and expand in the world.

Why misunderstandings?

There are one or two other things to be said about this theme of secrecy and misunderstanding in the Gospels, and one very important theme has to do with the role of the disciples in the story. It’s many times been remarked that the disciples in St Mark are conspicuously stupid. They repeatedly miss the point; they repeatedly have to have things explained in words of one syllable; and there have been some scholars who have suggested that St Mark is deliberately trying to undermine the authority of those who consider themselves successors of the twelve apostles. But I think that this misses the point: because it is absolutely vital to Mark’s story that what Jesus says is hard to digest and to understand even by those closest to him. Even those who have most reason for understanding what he’s saying are going to get it wrong: and that, of course, is a reassurance to the reader. Mark is saying, ‘If you’re finding this difficult or shocking, don’t be surprised; those who were closest to Jesus found it difficult and shocking too. If you feel stupid and at a loss when confronted with the words and work of Jesus, don’t be surprised. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last.’ So the dimness of the apostles is not a point of polemic, an axe being ground: it’s basic to the scheme. Jesus in Mark’s Gospel appears as someone wrestling with the difficulty of communicating to the disciples things that there are no proper words for – communicating that they have to think again about how God works, and to prepare themselves for greater and greater shocks in understanding this.

I’m tempted to think that perhaps one reason why Mark’s Gospel has in it very little teaching of the sort we find in Matthew or Luke is that Mark not only wants to draw our attention away from miracles, he even wants to draw our attention away from conventional teaching. He wants to tell a story and present situations that bring us up short. He doesn’t want us to go away discussing the interesting ideas that Jesus has or the poignant stories he tells. He wants you to focus on the person of Jesus and on the relation you might have with him, knowing that only so does the radical change come about. You could almost say that Mark prefers to show us a Jesus who is struggling for words, rather than a Jesus who is a fluent teacher and brilliant storyteller, as in the other Gospels.More than once in the Gospel, we hear Jesus saying something like, ‘How do I make this clear to you? What can I say to you? Don’t you understand yet?’ This is a Jesus who is searching for ways to communicate truths for which there are no clear and simple words.

So it makes some sense that this is a Gospel full of secrets, silences and even misunderstandings, a Gospel which on every page carries a very strongly worded health warning to the reader: don’t think you’ve got it yet! That is what Mark wants his readers to understand. It’s just a little bit like the way Buddhists talk about the use of the koan in meditation: you are given a saying or a little story which you’re supposed to meditate on until you realize you can’t understand it in your ordinary categories, at which point enlightenment breaks in. Mark is a long koan. It’s meant to bring us to the edge, to tell us that our understanding will not manage this in clear tidy ways. It’s a truth that can’t easily be spoken – or rather, as soon as it’s spoken it provokes more questioning. We can absorb such a truth only by letting go of what we thought about God and ourselves.

Commentators on Mark have quite often said that you must imagine the Gospel aimed at a Church that is perhaps a bit too much in love with wonder working and success, a Church that puts too much store by tangible signs of God’s favour and God’s assistance; and I think there’s a great deal in that. But this has to be filled out further by what some other commentators have suggested– that Mark is writing for a Church baffled and fearful because the signs and the miracles aren’t coming thick and fast. What is coming thick and fast is persecution and a sense of threat and failure. Mark is writing into the life of communities experiencing fear and disorientation.

It’s worth imagining yourself for a moment in that kind of situation – and there is no shortage of parallel situations today in our world. A Christian readingMark in Afghanistan or northern Nigeria, or parts of rural India or Indonesia, a Christian reading Mark in the old Soviet Union, will read with a depth of understanding that is hard for some of the rest of us, because he or she is living in a setting where God is not stepping down from heaven to solve problems, where suffering and insecurity and even the risk of death are daily facts. These are the sorts of people for whom Mark was writing: writing to reinforce a faith in the God who does not step down from heaven to solve problems but who is already in the heart of the world, holding the suffering and the pain in himself and transforming it by the sheer indestructible energy of his mercy.

Inexorably, we are led towards the story of the Passion, the arrest and trial and execution of Jesus. All these themes about how God does and doesn’t work, the emphasis on pushing back against expectations of a God who works miracles to win arguments, all of this is directing us towards the final episode of the Gospel, which we shall be thinking about in the last chapter of this book. But before we turn to that, I want to leap forward to the end of Mark’s Gospel, which gives a final twist to some of the themes we have been exploring in this chapter. How does Mark’s Gospel finish? The oldest manuscripts finish abruptly at verse 8 of chapter16. Some of the women who have remained loyal to Jesus make their way to the tomb in the hope of anointing his body for proper burial (because, presumably, his burial on the day of his execution has been hurried and a bit makeshift); they hear a young man in radiant clothes at the tomb telling them that Jesus is not there but has been raised from death and they are instructed to go and share this news with the rest of Jesus’ friends. Off they go ‘and they said nothing to anybody. They were afraid, you see . . .’ And that is where the oldest texts finish; as abruptly as that. I translate it as ‘They were afraid, you see . . .’ to convey something of the sense the reader should have of the story breaking off in mid-narrative. The Greek (ephoboounto gar) has that effect: no other work of literature in Greek ends with that little word gar which I’ve translated ‘you see’. It’s unexpected and abrupt and leaves us in mid-air. What you will see in your Bibles is in fact the attempt of later writers to tidy this up, adding a quick summary of some of the stories from the other Gospels about the rising of Jesus from the dead. And while I’ve no doubt that those additions are inspired Scripture just as much as Mark’s Gospel is, they’re not quite what Mark meant us to read. It sounds as if he wanted us to finish in mid-air.

But here is the supremely ironic point. All through the Gospel Jesus has been telling people not to say things and they do. At the very end people are told to say something, and they don’t. Look at the wording in the Greek and you’ll find some very close echoes, the same vocabulary. Jesus says to the leper in chapter 1, ‘Don’t say anything to anyone’;and at the very end, the women ‘didn’t say anything to anyone’. We are surely meant to pick up the paradox here. At last, the message is clear: here, in the crucified Jesus, is the event in which God has changed the world, the event that is the essential subject matter of the euangelion, the official announcement; and nobody wants to talk about it. It’s too much of a shock, it’s too difficult. The women go back to Jerusalem, unable to find the words to share this mystery with the apostles.Once it was a matter of how easy it would have been to tell the story of Jesus the great healer and wonder worker; all the words were there, ready-made – which is why Jesus tells the witnesses not to use them. Now something has been made clear that has no ready-made words: God has acted in the pain and failure of Jesus and in his torture and execution. Just how are we to talk about that?

Now of course we can say that the women at the tomb must have found the words sooner or later, or there wouldn’t be a story at all; the other Gospels offer an assortment of versions. But what Mark wants us to remember is that at the particular moment when it seems that the revelation has finally arrived, when the secret has finally been broken open, people don’t know what to do with it. The great event officially announced at the beginning of the Gospel, the regime change the euangelion loudly proclaimed, is not a conventional triumph, an episode in the glorious career of a monarch, but a public execution. That is the secret, the mystery. Jesus has spoken (4.11) about ‘the secret of the kingdom of God’ and warned that it will not be straight forward to talk about and perhaps can only be approached through enigmatic stories and images that demand that we make a response of imagination and trust. We shouldn’t then be surprised by the way the Gospel ends. No wonder if it’s difficult to find the words: the whole thrust of the story so far has been ‘don’t think too quickly that you’ve got the measure of this’.

At the end of his Gospel, Mark is telling us to go back and start again: read the whole story again to see how it has been preparing you for the shock of these last episodes, for the moment of stupefied terror and unimagined renewal at the empty tomb. Don’t draw conclusions from Jesus’ miracles or teaching; wait to see the great event taking shape as a whole, the event whose centre is the cross. And if you think that sharing this mystery is going to be simple, think again: wait for the last trauma, the miracle of miracles, the resurrection which silences even its most immediate witnesses.

A Gospel of silences, of misunderstandings, of indirect and teasing communication: but this is not for the sake of making things difficult in an arbitrary or unkind way. It is to remind us that if it’s the true God who is speaking and being spoken about in this book, this God is not a hugely inflated version of how we would run the universe if we had the chance. He is the God at the ground of everything, who works outwards from the heart of being – not that the change is any less radical or real because of that. Mark’s deep scepticism about relying too much on miracles, his careful coolness about including too much teaching that might distract us into having interesting discussions about Jesus’ interesting ideas, shows us a Jesus who not only brings about ‘regime change’ in the world in which we live, but a Jesus who changes for ever what we can say about God.

Questions for Group Discussion

Questions for Group Discussion