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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through Mark's Gospel

The goal of this section is to trace major themes and characteristics of each segment of Mark's Gospel. What is said here complements the more detailed commentary found in the introduction and in the notes to the biblical text.

Overture (Mk 1, 1–13 )

Like an overture to a musical piece, these verses sound major themes that will echo throughout Mark's Gospel. The setting for these opening scenes is the Judean desert, that haunting place so full of symbolism in the Bible. It was in the desert that Israel was first forged into a people, as God led them from slavery to freedom and sealed a covenant with them at Sinai. The desert was a place of new beginnings, and Jesus, like John, comes here to start his mission. But the desert is also a place of testing, the parched arena where the children of Israel rebelled against God and where the forbidding terrain revealed the true character of those who dared its stretches. Here, too, Jesus would be tested by Satan before the beginning of his mission in Galilee.

Mark signals several major themes in these brief opening scenes:

  • • John comes dressed like Elijah (see note to 1, 6, p. 1318 ), the great prophet who was expected to return at the end of the world. By presenting John in this fashion, Mark indicates that the old age is coming to an end and a new age is beginning. That is the reason for the urgent message of repentance John preaches. This sense of a new age dawning with Jesus moves throughout the Gospel.

  • • Mark also clearly identifies Jesus as the Son of God. The divine voice from heaven leaves no doubt about Jesus' awesome identity ( 1, 11 ). The Spirit of God descends on Jesus and imbues him with the power to carry out his mission as the Messiah, God's anointed one who would liberate the world from death ( 1, 10 ). As we noted in the introduction, Christology is a major concern of the Gospel.

  • • The desert test ( 1, 12f ) where Jesus wrestles with the demon is also a preview of the ministry of Jesus. In his mission of healing, Jesus casts out demons and liberates the sick and disabled from the shackles of pain. To carry out his mission, Jesus must often struggle with opponents; from the opening scene of the Gospel, Mark tells us that the process of saving human life can be filled with conflict. Experience bears this out: very often true liberation from sin and false values comes only through great struggle.

The Galilean Ministry of Jesus ( 1, 14–8, 21 )

This major section spans almost one half of the Gospel, and covers Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing in the northern region of Galilee. We can divide it into five segments, each with distinctive tones.

The Keynote of Jesus' Mission ( 1, 14f )

These two verses condense much of the Gospel message. As he enters into his home region of Galilee, Jesus sounds the major theme of his ministry: “the kingdom of God is at hand” ( 1, 15 ). Each phrase evokes a major Markan theme:

“This is the time of fulfillment” ( 1, 15 ). The new and final age of salvation—longed for by Israel over centuries—now dawns with the advent of Jesus. That new age will call for new responses by those graced to experience it (see Jesus' teaching on catching the mood of the times and the need to pour new wine into new wineskins, 2, 18–22 ).

“The kingdom of God is at hand” ( 1, 15 ). This biblical symbol expresses Israel's hope for salvation, for the time when God would come once and for all to rule Israel with justice and peace, not in the manner of the Jewish kings who so many times had failed the people and been themselves agents of oppression. The Gospel portrays Jesus not only as the messenger of that coming Kingdom but as actually inaugurating God's rule through his healing touch, his commitment to justice, and the liberating act of giving his life for others.

“Repent, and believe in the gospel” ( 1, 1f ). God's offer of salvation through Jesus calls for a response. Those who hear the good news should “repent.” The literal meaning of the Greek word metanoiein means to change one's mind or perspective. Throughout his Gospel Mark uses images of perception—hearing, seeing, understanding—to describe faith. The disciples of Jesus are asked to see reality—God's reality—with the new eyes of faith and to transform their lives accordingly.

The Call of the Disciples and Jesus' First Day of Ministry ( 1, 16–45 )

The remaining verses of chapter 1 present the first day of Jesus' dynamic mission. This section is most characteristic of Mark's portrayal of Jesus: After choosing his first disciples, Jesus plunges into the sickness and pain of his world, healing and casting out demons. The action takes place around Capernaum, the small fishing village on the northwest corner of the Sea of Galilee, the arena for most of Jesus' ministry in Mark's account.

The Call of the Disciples ( 1, 16–20 ). The meaning of discipleship is a major theme of the Gospel. Right at the beginning of his mission, therefore, Jesus calls disciples to follow him and to share in his own ministry of fishing for people. This rapid‐fire story condenses the early church's theology of discipleship: (a) discipleship is a gift; all of the initiative comes from Jesus, not from the disciples themselves; (b) the essence of discipleship is following Jesus, an allegiance that takes precedence over every other value; (c) the disciple is privileged to share in the mission of Jesus, here expressed in terms of “fishing” for people. In the Bible (see, for example, Jer 16, 16 ; Hb 1, 14f ), that image of fishing is used to describe the gathering of people for the final day of judgment. Jesus' own ministry has similar strong tones.

Exorcism and Healing ( 1, 20–45 ). This whole section is filled with reports of exorcisms and healings. The first action of Jesus is typical of his entire ministry. He enters the synagogue at Capernaum on a Sabbath and liberates a man whose life was tormented by an “unclean spirit” ( 1, 23 ). Exorcism, or the expulsion of evil spirits who hold human beings in their tormenting grip, is frequently mentioned in Mark's Gospel. Here the demons recognize that they are struggling with “the Holy One of God” and know that Jesus has come to destroy them. The people who witness the liberation of the man respond: “A new teaching with authority!” For Mark, such liberating acts are precisely the “new teaching” of Jesus, and that is why the evangelist highlights the exorcisms. They present in dramatic form the ultimate meaning of Jesus' ministry: he has come to destroy the power of death in all its forms and to free humanity from its grip.

The ancient world attributed many psychic and physical ailments to the power of evil spirits, a recognition that their lives were ruled by powers they could not control. While our own modern world view may be less inclined to attribute illness to evil powers, the message of the Gospel is still relevant. We can still learn from Jesus' fierce commitment to alleviating pain and to freeing people from situations and powers that oppress them. And there are many situations where human beings are caught in the grip of overpowering evil, whether it be economic oppression, systemic violence, obsessive or addictive behaviors, or racism—situations often beyond the control of any individual. The Gospel tells us that God's will and the goal of all authentic Christian mission is to liberate humans from such tyrannies of evil.

Conflict ( 2, 1–3, 6 )

The reader will notice a significant change of tone in this section of the Gospel. As Jesus continues his ministry of healing, he meets with strong oppression from the Jewish leaders. The five conflict stories in this section reach their climax in 3, 6 where the leaders begin to plot Jesus' death. Right from the beginning of his story Mark draws our attention to the Passion. Like some distant tolling of a bell, warnings had already been given in 1, 14 where Mark, almost offhandedly, mentions that Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee “after John had been arrested.” And the fierce struggle with the demon in the synagogue of Capernaum ( 1, 21–28 ) was a preview of more deadly conflicts to come.

An important point to notice in these stories is that the conflicts revolve around the central values of Jesus' ministry. The scribes object because Jesus claims the power to forgive sins and to heal ( 2, 1–12 ). Pharisees take offense at his association with sinners and outcasts ( 2, 16f ) and at his compassionate interpretation of the law ( 2, 23–28 ). His healing of a man's withered arm on a Sabbath is the final affront ( 3, 1–6 ). Thus Mark implies that fidelity to the good news of mercy and compassion can, paradoxically, lead to conflict with those who have other values and other priorities.

The discussion about fasting that stands in the middle of this section ( 2, 18–22 ) gives the reader another clue about Mark's message. A series of sayings emphasize that, with Jesus, a new age has dawned. It is the time of the “bridegroom”; a time for replacing the whole cloth, not just a patch; a time for new wine and new wineskins. Each of these images stresses that the new age of salvation is present in Jesus and, therefore, new things are possible. The Pharisees and scribes miss this reality and blindly oppose Jesus. As we mentioned above, Mark employs perception metaphors—seeing, hearing, understanding—to describe the experience of faith (see comments, RG 389 ).

Finally, in this section, we should not overlook Mark's continuing concern about discipleship. Another call story similar to that in 1, 16–20 takes place when Jesus encounters the toll collector Levi, sitting at his customs or toll post (Capernaum was a border town between the territories ruled by the vassal kings Herod Agrippa and Phillip). Once again, the call story emphasizes that faith and discipleship are a gift to which we must respond. This story also reminds us that the community is open to everyone: the just and the sinner. The opponents of Jesus are blind to this fact, too, and take offense at his sharing a meal with “tax collectors and sinners” ( 2, 16 ). But Jesus responds that being a “physician” to the sinners was precisely his mission ( 2, 17 ).

This entire section has strong lessons for Christian life. It reminds us that true fidelity to the gospel has a price and that we should not be surprised to encounter opposition and conflict, even deadly hostility, from those whose values are challenged by the justice and compassion of the gospel. Jesus' compassion and his strong commitment to include the disabled, the sick, and other social outcasts in the community can also instruct us on the nature of the church and its mission.

The Mystery of the Kingdom ( 3, 7–4, 34 )

By means of a summary, Mark continues his reporting of Jesus' dynamic ministry of healing and exorcisms ( 3, 7–12 ). The disciples' stake in all this is made clear in 3, 13–19 : Jesus climbs to the top of a mountain (a typical place of revelation in the Bible) and solemnly commissions the Twelve “to be with him,” “to preach,” and “to have authority to drive out demons.” The disciples share fully in the ministry of Jesus.

But the note of conflict and misunderstanding sounded in the previous section continues to dominate here. All of the people close to Jesus seem to be out of sympathy with him. His own relatives want to take him back home because they think “he is out of his mind” ( 3, 21 ). Mark follows through with this incident in a later scene where Jesus' “mother and his brothers” arrive to take him back home ( 3, 31–35 ). But Jesus puts distance between himself and his uncomprehending family when he looks at the circle of disciples who are inside the house with him and says: “Here are my mother and my brothers … whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother” ( 3, 35 ).

The parable discourse ( 4, 1–34 ) attempts to give a reason for all this misunderstanding. The parables, like Jesus himself, are a mysterious revelation of the Kingdom of God. Those not in sympathy with Jesus cannot understand his words. But those called to be disciples are “granted the mystery of the Kingdom of God” (see note to 4, 11–12, p. 1323 ). While honoring human freedom, Mark wants to affirm that God's providence guides all of human life, even in the darkest moments such as the rejection of Jesus.

Mark's reflection on the parables also reaffirms that faith in Jesus is a gift; it is not something we control or achieve solely through our own efforts. The disciples are “given” the mystery of the Kingdom of God.

Other important themes of Mark's Gospel are communicated in the parables. The stories of the sower casting small, vulnerable seeds on rough ground ( 4, 3–9 ), the tiny mustard seed ( 4, 30–32 ), and that of the seed growing without the farmer's knowledge ( 4, 26–29 ) affirm, on the one hand, that the reality of God's Kingdom seeps into our lives in a hidden and often unnoticed fashion. Such is often the case in Mark's Gospel when people fail to recognize who Jesus is because they are looking for another type of Messiah. On the other hand the parables proclaim that God's kingdom will be wonderfully triumphant despite opposition: the harvest of new life and peace will be abundant, “thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold” ( 4, 8 ).

Throughout this section Mark's portrayal of the disciples remains constant. Even though they are privileged to be chosen as followers of Jesus, they still have a hard time understanding his message ( 4, 13 ).

The Universal Mission of Jesus ( 4, 35–8, 21 )

This concluding section of Jesus' Galilean ministry embraces a large amount of material that can be loosely gathered under the theme of the universal scope of Jesus' mission. The Sea of Galilee begins to be an important factor, not simply as a geographical phenomenon in the center of Galilee, but as an important symbolic boundary between Jew and Gentile (consult the map of Galilee, map #13; the region to the west of the Sea was mainly Jewish in population, while on the eastern shore the population was mainly Gentile).

Jesus and his disciples cross the sea several times in this section, occasionally having to endure its turbulent storms. The first time is in 4, 35 when they cross through the storm and arrive in the Gentile territory of the Gerasenes ( 5, 1 ). There Jesus will liberate a Gentile man from a terrible demon. Another missionary journey begins in 7, 24, after Jesus' dispute with the Pharisees. This begins to the northwest where Jesus encounters the Syrophoenician woman ( 7, 24–30 ) and extends around once more to the Decapolis on the eastern side of the lake ( 7, 31 ). The entire section ends with Jesus and his disciples again in the boat together heading for the Gentile shore ( 8, 13 ).

Other important blocks of material give a mission flavor to this section, such as the commissioning of the Twelve and sending them out ( 6, 7–13, 30f ). The flashback to the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod is a reminder about the true cost of discipleship ( 6, 14–29 ). So, too, are Jesus' continuing disputes with his opponents (see, for example, 7, 1–23 and 8, 11–13 ). Two of Jesus' greatest signs also tell us something about the nature of Jesus' mission; once on the Jewish side and once on the Gentile side of the lake, Jesus miraculously feeds massive crowds of hungry people ( 6, 34–44; 8, 1–10 ).

The following are some of the major themes of this section:

The Universality of the Gospel. Even though Jesus' ministry was confined mainly to Israel, Mark's Gospel shows the universal character of Jesus' words and actions. God's saving love was not meant exclusively for one group or one region. The stories of Jesus' healing Gentiles such as the Gerasene man ( 5, 1–20 ), the Greek woman's daughter ( 7, 24–30 ), and the deaf‐mute from the Decapolis ( 7, 31–37 ) illustrate this. So, too, does the fact that Jesus feeds Gentiles as well as Jews.

But crossing religious and cultural boundaries, and being open to people who are different from us, does not come easily for the human spirit, as history has repeatedly demonstrated. The early church, too, struggled with the need to reach out beyond its own boundaries (see, for example, the story of Cornelius's conversion in Acts 10–11). Mark hints at this in his Gospel, too. To cross to the Gentile side of the lake, Jesus and the disciples must brave the terror of the storm ( 4, 35–41 ). Jesus himself seems hesitant before the request of the Syrophoenician woman ( 7, 27 ), and the disciples want the crowds to be sent home rather than take the responsibility to feed them ( 8, 4 ).

The universal character of the church has become more apparent to Christianity in modern times as the church has become less dominated by its European and Western traditions, but we still struggle to be a truly global church and thus open to people of different races, nationalities, and economic status. There are deep tensions between peoples of different religious traditions, and racism is still strong. This section of Mark's Gospel reminds us that the message of Jesus was inclusive from the beginning.

Nourishing God's People. The two feeding stories are eloquent statements of Jesus' mission. As God did during the Exodus from Egypt with manna, so Jesus, too, feeds God's hungry people. These feeding stories illustrate the justice dimension of the Gospel; the hungry are not to be sent away on their own thin resources (as the disciples suggest to Jesus!). Jesus came to feed them—a clear instruction for the mission of the church. At the same time, the feeding stories also evoke the Eucharist (Jesus' gestures of blessing and distributing the bread are identical to the Last Supper, 14, 22); Jesus' mission was to reach across boundaries and to gather God's people into one body.

The Struggle of the Disciples. As the Galilean ministry of Jesus comes to a close, the disciples' difficulty in understanding Jesus seems only to increase. They are completely baffled at his mysterious power in calming the storm ( 4, 38–41 ), and walking on the sea ( 6, 45–51 )—two haunting stories that reveal the divine power of Jesus. They are out of sympathy with Jesus' compassion for the crowds ( 6, 35f; 8, 4 ). And the section ends with their complete confusion about the meaning of Jesus' words and deeds ( 8, 14–21 ). Jesus had come to break one loaf for the many, but there was still a long journey ahead before the disciples would grasp the meaning of that mission.

The Journey from Galilee to Jerusalem ( 8, 22–10, 52 )

Mark's story now comes to a major turning point. Jesus and his disciples travel to the northern boundary of Israel, to the town of Caesarea Philippi. Along the way, Jesus poses the key question of the Gospel: “Who do you say that I am?” ( 8, 29 ).

The Gospel has been answering that question for the reader all throughout the preceding chapters as it revealed—through Jesus' eloquent words and powerful ministry of healing and exorcism—his identity as God's Messiah and savior. But Jesus' opponents proved blind to that revelation, and even the disciples have been unable to grasp it. In this section Jesus provides more urgent instruction on his mission and the demands of discipleship. For the first time in the Gospel he begins to speak openly of his death and resurrection. Three Passion predictions punctuate these chapters ( 8, 31; 9, 31; 10, 33–34 ). The cross, as a sign of Jesus' total commitment to his Father's will and his compassionate and selfless love for others, becomes the touchstone for understanding who Jesus is and what discipleship means.

Geography and the symbol of a journey also give a special character to these key chapters of the Gospel. Jesus and his disciples will travel from Caesarea Philippi in the north to Judea and its capital city of Jerusalem in the south (see map 13). But this is no routine journey in Mark's perspective. This purposeful journey toward Jerusalem is also Jesus' journey toward the cross where he will experience death and victory. The disciples must follow this same path if they are to be faithful to Jesus and his message. Thus this journey evokes other biblical journeys, especially the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land; that, too, was a journey from death to life. As we will see in the next section of the Gospel ( 11, 1–13, 37 ), Jerusalem, with its great Temple and the priests who attend it, becomes a negative symbol in Mark's theology. There Jesus will suffer his final rejection. Because of that, the Jerusalem Temple will give way to a new temple, Jesus himself.

The disciples are also an important focal point in this section. While disputes with opponents and other incidents take place, most of the action revolves around Jesus and his followers. After each of the Passion predictions, the disciples display their extraordinary lack of understanding of Jesus and his message. Peter attempts to silence Jesus ( 8, 32 ); all of the disciples argue about which of them is the greatest ( 9, 33f ); the sons of Zebedee ask for special places of influence and power with Jesus, triggering the jealousy of the rest of the disciples ( 10, 35–37.41 ). The disciples also try to discourage the children from coming to Jesus ( 10, 13 ); they are unable to perform an exorcism on a sick boy ( 9, 18 ) despite being given the power to do so (see 6, 7 ), and they continue to be baffled by Jesus' teaching (see, for example, 10, 24–26 ).

In response to their lack of understanding Jesus gives even more intense instruction on the meaning of discipleship after each of the Passion predictions. The disciples must be willing to “take up the cross” and follow Jesus; to “lose” their lives for the sake of Jesus and the gospel ( 8, 34–38 ). Instead of being absorbed with self‐aggrandizement, the disciples should imitate the child and seek to be the “servant of all” ( 10, 35f ). To follow Jesus means putting aside whatever holds us back from being free to serve others, such as excessive possessions ( 10, 17–31 ). True greatness is not defined by “lording it over” others but by giving our lives for them ( 10, 42–45 ).

In all of these instructions, the image of the cross is key. Jesus, the Son of Man (see the note to 8, 31 for this important title in Mark), came not to be served but to serve, “to give his life as a ransom for many” ( 10, 45 ). The death of Jesus on the cross is seen not as a tragic failure but as the ultimate expression of Jesus' entire mission. His death—like his life—was an act of love for others. Therefore the disciple, too, must “take up the cross” and make giving of life for others the animating principle of every action.

Because the disciples were absorbed in their own interests and fears, they understood Jesus' message dimly at best. Mark frames this entire section of the Gospel with two stories about Jesus' healing blind men. In 8, 22–26 it is a case of deep‐seated blindness. Jesus must lay hands on the man's eyes twice before he can see clearly. In the beautiful story of Bartimaeus ( 10, 46–52 ), the focus shifts to the blind person's own determination to reach Jesus. Even though the bystanders attempt to stifle his cries for mercy, Bartimaeus's pleas reach Jesus' ears. Jesus poses a profound question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus replies: “Master, I want to see.” That humble trust and honest expression of need save Bartimaeus. He receives his sight and begins to follow Jesus on the journey of discipleship ( 10, 52 ). Mark has clearly interpreted this healing story as a discipleship story.

These two stories are penetrating commentary on the plight of the disciples. The disciples are blind in a sense far more disabling than that of physical blindness; they have a deep‐seated block to understanding Jesus and his message. Bartimaeus, by contrast, reaches out to Jesus in his need and asks for the light of faith; that is the solution the disciples have yet to discover.

Death and Resurrection in Jerusalem ( 11, 1–16, 8 )

Beginning with chapter 11 , Mark's story enters its final phase. Jesus and his disciples have completed their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. As the triumphant Messiah, Jesus enters the city of David where he will face determined opposition, death itself, and then final victory.

The material in these chapters can be subdivided into four major sections: the first two focusing on the Temple; the latter two comprising the Passion narrative and the discovery of the empty tomb.

Jesus and the Temple ( 11, 1–12, 44 )

Jesus enters Jerusalem in seeming triumph; there are admiring crowds and acclamations of hosanna. For this brief moment, at least, the true identity of Jesus—so prone to be misunderstood by the characters in the Gospel—shines out clearly. But the mood of this section soon turns somber. Mark surrounds the story of Jesus' cleansing of the Temple ( 11, 15–19 ) with the curious incident about the fig tree ( 11, 12–14, 20f ). The fig tree is cursed and withers because its fruits are not ready at the proper time for Jesus to harvest them. The fruitless tree becomes a sign of the Temple's own failure. Jesus' stern prophetic actions in the Temple area take on added meaning in Mark's text—the Temple is not only cleansed of abuses, it is declared no longer valid. Mark's Gospel foresees a new temple and a new worshipping community emerging in Jesus and his future community of disciples. This will be reaffirmed in the Passion story when Jesus is accused of predicting a temple “not made by hands” ( 14, 58 ) and when the Temple veil is torn asunder at the moment of Jesus' death ( 15, 38 ). This same motif is alluded to at the end of the parable of the tenants: the rejected Son who is killed by the tenants will become the “cornerstone” of a new edifice.

Thus Mark takes a dim view of the Jerusalem Temple because he sees it as symbolic of religious practice that has become hollow. This also emerges in the conflict stories that abound in this section. Like a great champion, Jesus seems to wrestle with each faction of the leaders: the chief priests, the elders, the scribes, the Herodians, the Pharisees, the Sadducees. They challenge the authority of Jesus but are reduced to silence by his penetrating answers.

These scenes underscore the power and majesty of Jesus, even as death approaches. He is indeed one greater than David (see 12, 35–37 ), one who is Lord of the Temple. But the encounters with the Jewish leaders also help reaffirm important facets of Jesus' teaching. A scribe (who, in fact, seems in sympathy with Jesus and is representative of all those who seek God with a sincere heart) is led to an insight that goes to the heart of Jesus' message: “to love God with all your heart, with all your understanding, with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifice” ( 12, 33 ).

The entire section ends with sharply contrasting images that also ram home the message Mark emphasizes in this section of the Gospel: Jesus excoriates the leaders who love the trappings of religion while “devouring the houses of widows,” but he blesses the poor widow who gives everything she has to God ( 12, 38–44 ).

Toward the End‐Time ( 13, 1–37 )

This final discourse of Jesus to his disciples is one of the most enigmatic yet important passages in Mark's Gospel. It provides us with a powerful reflection on the ultimate meaning of history. The setting for the discourse is Jesus' prediction that the majestic Temple of Herod would one day be destroyed (as it was in ad 70), thus continuing the negative view of the Temple from the previous section.

The real focus of the chapter is on the future of the Christian community as it will carry out its mission in history, after the death and resurrection of Jesus. This discourse is not a transcript of a single speech by Jesus. The evangelist weaves together in this chapter sayings of Jesus with numerous quotations from the Old Testament, especially the apocalyptic literature that dwells on crisis. The chapter's main themes represent a profound reflection on the community's future:

Warnings about Persecutions and Divisions as the Community Carries Out Its Mission. Mark clearly asserts that before the end of the world can come, the church must complete its mission of proclaiming the gospel to all the world ( 13, 10 ). In the course of that mission, however, will come persecution from both Jews and Gentiles ( 13, 9–11 ) and internal divisions ( 13, 12f ). Mark's story has already illustrated how Jesus himself experienced opposition from his opponents and misunderstanding by his family and disciples.

The Christian Is to “Stay Awake.” As the community moves out into history, it must be alert and sober, ready to catch glimpses of God's presence breaking into history ( 13, 33–37 ). Mark makes it clear that this does not mean that the community is to be anxiously scanning the calendar and speculating about the end of the world. In fact, such doomsday predictions are branded as the words of “false Christs” and “false prophets” ( 13, 5f.21f ). Rather, the Christian is to be committed to proclaiming the gospel and to living with the realization of God's imminent presence in history.

God's Triumph in History. The most important message of the chapter is to affirm that the final moment of human history will not be chaos or the defeat of goodness but the triumph of grace. Jesus, the Son of Man, will return to gather his disciples from the four corners of the earth and lead them to God ( 13, 24–27 ). While acknowledging the reality of human suffering and the crises that the Christian community will have to face, Mark's view of history is ultimately full of hope.

The Passion ( 14, 1–15, 47 )

These two chapters form the longest single narrative in the whole Gospel, reaffirming the importance the Passion holds for Mark's perspective. Jesus' death for others sums up his entire mission and is the ultimate revelation of his identity as the Son of God.

The Passion story moves rapidly to its climax at the cross. The opening scenes ( 14, 1–11 ) set the mood as the leaders and Judas plot Jesus' death, while a faithful woman anoints his body for death. The Last Supper with the disciples dominates the next section ( 14, 12–31 ); the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup are living signs of Jesus' impending death for others. The mood darkens when Jesus and his disciples go to Gethsemane ( 14, 32–52 ). While Jesus earnestly prays for the strength to follow God's will, the disciples sleep. Then Judas leads an armed band into the garden to arrest Jesus. In the face of that threat, the disciples all flee in panic. The trials before the Sanhedrin ( 14, 53–72 ) and before Pilate ( 15, 1–20 ) dominate the rest of the Passion narrative. The crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus bring the great drama to its conclusion ( 15, 21–47 ).

Two major motifs move throughout the Passion story:

The Crisis of Discipleship. The disciples' inability to understand Jesus, so apparent throughout the Gospel, leads ultimately to their failure in the crisis of the Passion. Despite their bravado at the Last Supper ( 14, 31 ), all of the disciples abandon Jesus at the moment of his arrest ( 14, 50–52 ), and Peter publicly denies he even knows Jesus ( 14, 66–72 ). Mark gives his reader a sober lesson: suffering and persecution can prompt heroism, but it can also expose weak faith and superficial commitment (see 4, 17 ).

The disciples' failure is in sharp contrast to the courageous loyalty and faith of other characters in the drama, such as the anonymous woman who anoints Jesus (over the protests of some of his followers, 14, 3–9), the Roman centurion who acclaims Jesus at the moment of his death ( 15, 39 ), the faithful women who stand by the cross ( 15, 40f ), and Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin, who takes courage and asks to bury the crucified Jesus ( 15, 42–47 ). These “unexpected” people—women, a Gentile soldier, a member of the opposition—illustrate the true meaning of faithful discipleship, an obvious lesson for the church.

The Revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. The Passion story provides the final answer to the question that underlies all of Mark's Gospel: Who is Jesus? As Jesus courageously proclaims to the Sanhedrin: he is the Christ, the Son of God ( 14, 61ff ). But coming in the midst of the Passion narrative, with Jesus standing as a prisoner about to be condemned and executed, the use of these titles takes on new meaning. Jesus is the Christ or Messiah, God's royal son who comes to liberate Israel; but he is not a liberator or monarch in the usual triumphant mode one might expect. Jesus liberates not through dominating power but by giving his life for others (see the key text of 10, 45, p. 1337 ). Jesus truly is the Son of God, but the God he reveals is not an exalted potentate but a God revealed in the apparent “weakness” of a life totally committed to others.

In the perspective of Mark's Gospel, the Passion provides the right context for understanding who Jesus is. (See a similar conviction in Paul's 1 Cor 1, 18–31 .)

The Empty Tomb ( 16, 1–8 )

Although brief, this concluding scene of the Gospel proclaims a substantial message. An author later than Mark added a longer ending, but this story of the empty tomb was probably the original conclusion to Mark's story (see the discussion in the notes to 16, 1–8 ).

Jesus' Victory over Death. The fundamental message of the passage is that the crucified Jesus is triumphant over death. That is the powerful symbolism of an empty tomb and the explicit message of the mysterious “young man” the women discover there: “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here” ( 16, 6 ). Without this assurance Mark's story would not be “gospel”—good news.

Reconciliation with the Disciples. This scene also picks up the story of the absent disciples. The women are instructed: “But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you’ ”(( 16, 7 ). Even though the disciples had deserted and denied Jesus, the Risen Christ does not abandon them. He had promised that at the Last Supper: “after I am raised up I shall go before you to Galilee” ( 14, 28 ). Now, that promised reconciliation is about to take place. In a very true sense, the disciples had “died” during the Passion; they, too, would experience resurrection to a new life of discipleship.

Back to Galilee: The Mission Begins. The disciples will “see” Jesus in Galilee, the place where Jesus had carried out his universal mission of healing and teaching, and the place where he had first called his followers to be with him and to share in his ministry. What precise meeting with Jesus does Mark have in mind—resurrection appearances? Or the final meeting with the Risen Christ at the end of the world? Or does he mean that the Risen Jesus would be with his disciples as they take up their mission? Mark leaves the question unanswered and perhaps has all of these encounters in mind.

The Gospel ends on a note of awe; the women leave the tomb, trembling and bewildered, struck silent by the awesome message entrusted to them ( 16, 8 ). Some interpreters understand their silence as another instance of discipleship failure; the message given them is never delivered because of paralyzing fear. But it is unlikely Mark wants to suggest that the women never told the disciples about the empty tomb. The notes of awe and silence and fear are Mark's way of expressing profound reverence for the events he narrates. In Jesus' victory over death, God's power has transformed the world forever.

D.S.

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